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Which classic burlesque stars do you take inspiration from?
Most of my inspiration comes from 1930s and 40s musicals. I started performing burlesque in 1991, but back then it was nearly impossible to find authentic, vintage burlesque footage. Instead, I took inspiration from the big Technicolor musicals and movies that depicted burlesque, including Lady Of Burlesque, Gypsy, and Dance, Girl, Dance. I also read a lot about classic burlesque stars, and made up what I thought burlesque was like – which was good, because that helped me form my own style, rather than mimicking someone else’s.
Early in my career I also read Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography, and her business sense and ambition to succeed in the mainstream as a stripper in the 1930s and 40s inspired me to work hard and stay focused. And I love Lili St Cyr because she created some innovative and super-sensual acts that were completely different from anything else in the burlesque scene, and she also had a career in nightclubs even after the burlesque theatres in the United States closed.
If you could travel back in time and see one burlesque act, whose would it be?
I’d love to have seen Sally Rand’s Leda And The Swan act, and her whole Sally’s Nude Ranch revue in general.
You must have met many old-time burlesque icons – do they ever talk about the less glamorous side of burlesque?
I once went to a show with three of the most famous 1940s New Orleans burlesque stars, and watched them as they observed a neo-burlesque show and ripped the young performers apart, saying that burlesque was absolutely nothing like what they were seeing on stage!
But overall, I think Liz Goldwyn’s film Pretty Things (2005) showed all the different sides of how burlesque was back in the day. She managed to get interviews with the last of the classic burlesque stars – they were really elegant, classy ladies, but were the ones who were always trying to push the envelope and do racy things on stage. I think that’s what a lot of people don’t know about burlesque – back in the day it wasn’t all glamour and ‘classy’ striptease, and you had all kinds of girls and all kinds of acts.
When you come down to it, burlesque was invented for a male audience and for sexual titillation. However, it just so happened that you had some stars with their own elegant approach, and I think that’s the best part of burlesque – diversity among the dancers.
As a burlesque star, have you encountered the less glamorous side of the industry?
Well, I’ve certainly put in many years of non-glamorous burlesque-ing. I started dancing in strip clubs all over the US – some of them were down and dirty, hole-in-the wall joints, and at times I was dancing for a confused audience that was used to seeing porn-star strippers – what I was doing was alien to them.
Anyone who was dancing burlesque in the early days of the revival didn’t have the media explosion there is now to support what they were doing. In the beginning my fans were all fetishists, Bettie Page fans and the odd person who remembered burlesque because they were there the first time around!
During the early years of my career, burlesque wasn’t glamorous at all. I’ve driven across the States and loaded and unloaded my big Martini glass from vans myself, picked up dollar bills off the floor and stayed in plenty of scary motel rooms. I was no overnight success, and no one can say I didn’t pay my dues to get where I am now. Every time I pop a bottle of expensive champagne before a show, I take a second and think, “Damn, it was worth it!”
But even though I wouldn’t change a thing, I have some hysterical tales of my early days in burlesque, and some rip-roaring footage of my first tour, which was four weeks of hell, deep in Texas. I was like the notorious raven-haired wicked city woman in these small towns – a total freak to everyone.
I have a fabulous collection of Polaroids from every club I ever danced in. I took pictures of the house dancers and pictures of the club marquees all over the US – many of them with my name spelt wrong!
And there must be some less than savoury characters in that world, too...
These days I have a management team that deals with all the business stuff. And yes, as with any business, I’ve met people who tried to cross me – but I have the best lawyers working for me now and I always get what I’m owed. There are a lot of people making money off me, so they have a vested interest in making sure I’m treated right and paid properly!
I love the fact that all I have to worry about now is putting on a show, because I used to have to do all of the business stuff myself, and I hated that. I just want to create new shows and be on stage.
Touring and performing must be tough work. What’s the side of the burlesque world that the public doesn’t get to see?
They don’t get to see anything, except what happens on stage – as it should be! It’s supposed to be about fantasy and glamour, and it’s important to maintain that mystery. I suppose the thing the audience doesn’t see is how some things seem so simple, when in reality they’re anything but easy.
When I make a new show, there’s always something that ends up being really challenging – we invent some new trick and discover it hurts like hell or is impossible to do. I have all kinds of names for things. For instance, I had some interesting feather fans made, and there’s one new move that looks so great, and I named it The Circle Of Pain.
Every act has one thing that just sucks about performing it – nothing is ever as easy as it looks.
What’s been your most embarrassing moment while performing?
Well, it’s pretty embarrassing when I can’t get part of my costume off, or when one of my props malfunctions and I have to figure out how to work around it. I just hope no one notices!
What do you love most about doing your burlesque act?
I love the creative side; making a show and watching it slowly come together. Every new number has its own challenges, and I love that moment when it finally feels right and it becomes fun to perform.
Almost every new act makes me panic. I usually spend ,000 to ,000
in creating an act, and I often end up wondering what the hell I’ve got myself into.
When I made the MAC Viva Glam show with the bucking, spinning lipstick, there was that first moment when we flipped the switch and watched it go completely wild. I remember thinking, “Oh good Lord, what have I done? I’m going to get bucked off. This is impossible…”
And I did get bucked off, and it was a nightmare to make it work, but when it finally came together it was the most fun I’ve ever had, and people went crazy for it. So I love the process of creating something new, and the challenge of making something come to fruition.
What do you think about on stage? Sexy thoughts? Or “my leg goes here...” thoughts?
First of all, I’m laughing my ass off at how ridiculous it is. And I’m thinking about the music hits and the order the costume comes off. But the laughing part is the most important aspect of a good performance. I believe that thinking sexy thoughts is the wrong approach.
For me, the most interesting thing is when there’s a playful, humorous element to a burlesque show. The sexy part is already there with the striptease, and ‘sexy’ naturally happens when the dancer has confidence, so the carefree and fun part is what makes it memorable. A girl trying to be sexy looks like a girl trying to be sexy. That’s a burlesque failure.
Who would you consider to be rising stars in the world of burlesque?
I’m always impressed by unique acts. I love it when I see something that comes from someone’s imagination, rather than what they saw another dancer doing. It is possible to do something new. There’s a girl in NYC called Narcissister and her acts are genius. She hides her identity, and that’s so mysterious and chic! She performs at NYC’s The Box, and there’s also this guy there who’s the image of Vincent Gallo and does this incredible act with a golden mannequin leg – I want to be that leg!
I love acts that leave you stunned, slightly offended and turned on, and shows that redefine burlesque. I have zero tolerance for copycat acts and sanitised, pretentious pseudo-burlesque.
As far as classic burlesque goes, the last show I saw that really impressed me was this show by Ava Garter where she does a fabulous matador number with a big bull prop. She looked hot, and she was fiery and gorgeous!
She’s one of my oldest girlfriends, and I was so proud of her professionalism and loved seeing her hard work being paid off with a great successful act. The bar’s being constantly raised in modern burlesque.
What advice would you give to aspiring burlesque stars?
Do some research and don’t follow a formula. The things that make you different are the things that make you valuable. It just makes sense!