An extension of cosplay, which is the act of dressing up as one’s favorite pop culture character, Nerdlesque has almost single-handedly kept burlesque shows afloat. Where most audiences may still be asking “what is burlesque? What will I see at a burlesque show?” a themed burlesque show that references familiar material is an easy sell as in “let’s see naked Princess Leia!” In the current restrictive economy, where so many just want to stay in and binge watch netflix, it has been a welcome form of income for shows and performers.
And cosplay was the gateway drug for quite a few of us performers into performing burlesque. If I could walk around a Con in my Blade Runner costume, then why not turn that into a Rachel act? Except, cosplay and burlesque are anti-thesis of each other. Cosplay is the act of faithfully recreating that the way it looked in the movie/comic book/video game. Burlesque, on the other hand, is about creating a parody, employing traits like glamour, exaggeration and hyper-sexuality. Granted, much of that is changing, and I wholly credit burlesque with the introduction of many cosplayers who blend new elements into their recreations. How many steampunk Harley Quinns did I see at Comic-Con this year? Quite a few! Or the mash-up Playboy Bunny/Star Trek cosplay?
This brings up a new and exciting dilemma to hit the sci-fi genre: we are women, hear us roar. When I started attending Comic-Con in the early 90s, females were as rare a commodity as female characters in genre media. For example, if you loved Star Wars, you could dress up as Princess Leia… or Princess Leia. And that left you mostly either Old-School Leia in white robe and oversized buns, or Slave Leia in modified belly dance costume, because it’s too damn hot to dress as Hoth Leia, and Christ almighty, that Bespin costume looks like a Golden Girls reject. But, what if you didn’t want to dress up as Leia? How many female characters did you have to choose from? Nurse Chapel or Uhura, Catwoman, Wonder Woman. The pickings were slim. Or you could go in drag as a male character*.
So here we are on a new threshold of taking someone’s existing character and being able to give it a new spin by adding a steampunk flavor, or glamorizing it, or re-gender-ing it. And it’s this growth that makes for both great cosplay and great nerdlesque, because what we are seeing is how said character matters to the person wearing them. It’s this personalization that makes the character, well, personal. And I think this elevates a nerdlesque act from just a broad in a mask and corset**. It allows the audience an insight as to why you, as the performer, wants to inhabit that person, even if it’s just subtext. I have an affection for Rachel from Blade Runner because I was brainwashed as a child—both she, and I, have memory implants. Although I do not reference this point in my act, I believe that it provides me a place explore what that means to have faulty memories, and hopefully comes through to the audience. It’s a visual shorthand for you to say to the audience “here is Character X—you already know if they are a good guy or bad guy, their motivations, their character arcs—now let’s take that one step further!”
It’s also similar when you are dancing to pop music. While we on the subject of nerds, let’s look at the trailer for the film Guardians of the Galaxy. In the trailer, they use Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. It’s incredibly dopey song, and it tells you that StarLord, our hero, might be equally as dopey. Your music is one of the first two things your audience will see/hear for your act (the other being your costume) Again, we can talk about an audio shorthand—if you’re playing “Fight For Right To Party” by the Beastie Boys, that brings up certain connotations for the audience: the 80s, early hip-hop, frat boy culture. It is impossible to use Bonnie Tyler’s “Totally Eclipse of the Heart” with a straight face—in fact you could argue this song in and of itself is a burlesque as it automatically invokes parody.
However, when you are using someone else’s character from a billion dollar blockbuster, or a pop song that sat on the Billboard 100s chart for weeks at a time, you can’t ever fully expect to own them. That’s the tricky part to being a nerdlesque performer: find that obscure character, or song, and you risk the audience not immediately getting your frame of reference. You will have to work a little harder to get the audience on your side and make them love your chosen character and song as much as you do. But for those three people in the audience who “get you”, they will pee their pants that you, dressed as Nurse Chapel, fan danced to “Beyond Antares” go-go stripped to “Surf Trek” and then spiked your wig into the audience to reveal Klingon pasties and a cranial ridge.***
Until next month, LLAP!
* This is why we see so many burlesque acts set to Firefly—it was a sci-fi that actually had more than one female character. And I was overwhelmed with joy to see so many Tina and Louise Belchers from Bob’s Burgers at Con this year, because not only are they women characters, but they are women characters little girls can dress up as that is age appropriate. I should also not that the Bob/Louise combination was the preferred costume of Father/Daughter sets.
**Nerds—and by nerds I mean the booky, the ostracized and sometimes bullied—get upset at the broad in a mask and a corset. See, for many of us, nerdom was an escape from a world where we didn’t fit in (junior high and high school, potentially an unhappy home) to a world that accepted us (other nerds). Nerdom is our secret culture; so when it’s co-opted by those who know nothing of it, make no effort to research it, and are only using as a theme to make a buck, we get understandably upset.
*** Yes, that’s my act!
As you may or may not know, I, and my show Victory Variety Hour, are going on hiatus. Most likely, until 2015. Yes, 2015. Next year. Now, I know for most performers, this would give them the panics to not have anything on the books, but as I’ve been saying, “there are like 18 million reasons why”. Some are professional, some are personal. Some are related to the economy as it exists now (versus the boom days of the double-aughts), some are related to doing burlesque in Los Angeles, the land where 30 year old actresses are considered “old” and size 8 is “fat”.
So, I decided to count the reasons one by one and in no particular order.
Count them with me!
1. Between work on random TV shows as a union set costumer, freelance costume commissions, making costumes for my etsy shoppe, rehearsing, learning new skills, making my own costumes, producing (sometimes 2 shows a month), all I was doing was working.
2. I miss spending time with my muggle friends and being able to see my burlesque friends outside of a dressing room.
3. I used to cook. I used to love cooking. Like the kind of cooking that involves dragging out the Kitchenaid and whipping egg whites kind of cooking.
4. Trying to make “weekends” for myself and my husband, who is a freelance indie filmmaker. We can never say no to work, so it’s important to make time when we can.
5. Saying “no” to a $300 a day set job because I have a $50 burlesque gig.
6. Having disposable cash that is not earmarked for fliers for a show or workshop; I really want a slipper chair for my living room.
7. Burlesque in LA has been going since ’95. I used to do theme shows, and now there are plenty of theme shows. I tried straight up variety format, and now there are plenty of those shows as well. What can I do that different? How do I keep moving as an artist?
8. My body is a wreck. Two years ago I suffered two car accidents within 6 weeks of each other. I have yet to fully recover from that. I would like to fix that and return to being fit.
9. On that note, now that I am 45, it takes twice as long to return to that same level of fit I could achieve in just a few weeks.
10. I haven’t had time to take a dance class for more than 3 weeks at a time. And I used to take classes three times a week.
11. I would like to learn ballet. I have taken Beginner twice. Every time I graduate to intermediate, I fall out of practice, and return back to the Beginner level.
12. I would like to learn samba. Those dancers have ah-maze-ing butts! No wonder they invented the thong!
13. I am a feature dancer—I would like to move up to headliner before I retire as a burlesque dancer.
14. I am planning to retire from stripping within the next 2-3 years and want to go out at the top of my game.
15. I no longer have a taste for working with bar owners/managers who have zero desire to promote their club/my show/make money. So what kinds of venues am I moving on to?
16. What terrible life choices did I make that I know no drag queens? Where did I go wrong?
17. I want to move my show, VVH, to the next level. Bigger, Stronger, Bionic. But I can not write/research while I’m still producing.
18. I would like to provide the LA burlesque scene with a show between the 100 capacity bar shows that most of us produce/perform in and the 1200 seat Lucha Va Voom. Because unless you’re thin, or a professional dancer or circus performer, you’re not getting into Lucha Va Voom.
19. I would like to slog through 9 years of tape/DVDs of VVH, capture/encode it and cut some highlight reels. We’ve had some neat-o acts over the last 9 years.
20. I would like to shoot my acts with appropriate backgrounds on multiple cameras, edit them into movies, and put them up on my website.
21. I am prepping a new costume how-to project. I need time to produce it.
22. I need to do a photoshoot of all my costume commissions for my website.
23. I need new pictures—but I also need to get back to my “fighting weight” and save enough money to book reputable photographers who know how to shoot curvy middle-aged strippers like myself.
24. I have yards and yards of nifty novelty print cottons to make dresses. Not costumes, dresses. Day dresses.
25. I am working on a new line of high end costume pieces that also display as art. I need time/money to make those items (as opposing to just sketching them in my journal).
26. I miss filmmaking. She, after all, my first love. (Graduate, Temple University Film Program, 1991.)
27. I’ve been needing to re-grout my kitchen, make some new curtains—who knows, maybe even help my husband organize and clean his stuff!
28. I need time to find performers who share my vision and who understand that getting to the next level means that if everyone takes on extra work, we all rise together. I need to build my own Justice League.
29. Would dancers still be my friends if I am no longer booking them? I don’t mind either way, I just need to know how much energy I should dole out to people who may not want/care to give it back.
30. I need to revamp ALL the websites, and ween my fans off their facebook dependency and get them on me email list.
31. I can make more money performing/teaching in other cities; I want to go on two week mini tours of the US. But that takes time to prep.
32. Many of my costumes were made at the beginning of my career—some are a decade old. I am such a better costumer now, but I don’t have the time to rebuild most of my closet as needed.
33. I would like to raise enough capital for a proper advertising campaign. If I have to drop another flier, I’m gonna hurl.
34. I bought some worbla and fosshape (thermaplastic) to play with for costumes. I have it for over 6 months and zero time to play with it.
35. I am working on a new act. I want to debut it when it’s good (versus booking it and crashing it into a show deadline and realizing I need to remake all of it—things I have done in the past—no more stopgap).
36. Said act has a costume that involves a lot of beaded embroidery. That takes time.
37. I have a new kitten! Who doesn’t want to spend hours cuddling her before she gets too old to cuddle?
38. Do they still have bands? And plays? And DJs that play 60s mod/70s funk? Because I would like to see those kinds of things again.
39. Sometimes, I just want to be in a show—not be responsible for every part of a show.
40. Producing stopped being fun. And if something in my life isn’t making me a living, it needs to be fun.
41. Being Penny Starr, Jr. takes money. New ballroom shoes, new costumes, dance classes, make-up, renting rehearsal space. I refuse to do it if I can’t do it right.
42. I am tired of doing things out of rote of doing the same things and panic about not doing the same things.
OK, not maybe 18 million.
But a lot.
Certainly enough that I couldn’t ignore them anymore.
And who knows what opportunities will spring up from not being constantly overbooked?
There’s only one way for me to find out.
I am going on hiatus.
If you haven’t been to a festival, what are you waiting for? Being in one should always be an honor, but even if you are not in one, you should attend them. It’s one stop shopping on the best of the local scene, national and international performers.* Why would you NOT want to go to the best burlesque show of the year in your own backyard? You can network, meet new performers, connect the person with their facebook avatar. I can’t tell you how many opportunities have come up from meeting people at festivals. Also, if you do not support your local fest, you risk the chance of the fest never returning. (Which of our shows can survive a lack of financial or public support?)
If you want to hit the circuit, there’s a few things you should know before you start shelling out application fees**:
1. Application fees are necessary. I think we can all agree that most burlesque video is shot by an unskilled camera operator with stage (not video) lighting on a stage that may not be an attractive background-I find watching burlesque performance on video virtually unbearable. Now, imagine watching 200 of them. Those application fees go to paying people to slog through submissions in their entirety, and those fees can often be seed money for a fest to book a bigger venue, fly in headliners, etc. If you are upset at the price of application fees, then you do not want to know how much a fest is going to cost you. (See #4)
2. Have a festival style act. So many performers are working little bar shows these days, throwing acts together at the last minute for whatever theme/nerd show is coming up. Find your biggest best act, add more to it, get some honest feedback on how to make it better, and submit that. Because every local scene is already filled with performers throwing acts together at the last minute for whatever theme/nerd show is coming up. Also note, this may be difficult in that fest stages are usually larger than local stages. How do you hone a festival act that may engulf your local stage-there is no easy answer for this.
3. Never submit an act you haven’t been doing for at least a year. This is live theater and we only get to the next level by honing our work in front of live audiences. What act can you think of that didn’t get better with age? And the beauty of festivals is there is always one next year. Rushing an act has less odds of making it into a fest than taking your time and perfecting one.
4. Festivals are not cheap. Travel to and from, accommodations, food, travel to and from the venue from your hotel, not to mention many fests do not provide tickets to shows or workshops just because you are performing in them. Do sign up for frequent flier miles, share a hotel room with others, order a mini fridge in your hotel room or pack a soft sided cooler for snacks. Some performers, like myself, will sell merch to offset the cost, but that has it’s own headaches in making merch no other vendor will have (I have yet to be at a fest with less than three different pastie vendors), juggling a merch booth and performing (who watches your booth while you are on stage?) and another suitcase to drag (between the merch, the displays, my costumes, I barely have room for clothes).
With all that being said, I’ve never regretted attending a fest. Its a weekend of drinking with your distant burlesque cousins, getting a chance to perform for some burlesque royalty, and a chance to get out of Dodge and see what others people are doing in their communities. The jolt of inspiration you get from it can lasts months.
But the one thing no one talks about is the slight depression that can seep in after a fest. You may have noticed those kinds of status updates after Burlesque Hall of Fame. Those “I love you all” “I miss my burly-Q family” “Muggle life sucks” This is the affliction known as Glitter Crash. It’s cause is a combination of stress prepping for the fest, sleep deprivation, lack of a healthy diet (so many performers exist on power bars and fast food during), the toll of traveling, not getting any privacy in a room of strippers—yeah, this is pretty much how you’d go about torturing someone, or at least brainwashing them. Glitter Crash in a way is a form of Stockholm syndrome. How can you live without the kidnapper/festival? All you’ve known is the kidnapper/festival. All hail the kidnapper/festival! Glitter Crash is not just related to fests, but any large scale event or show that requires a ramping up of your attention which becomes all consuming for a short period of time. This can be a bigger run of a local show, or Comic-Con.
So how do you combat the general malaise that comes with the territory? Because in most cases, you need to snap out of it. You can’t spend weeks being mooney about the fest when you have a day job to show up at or shows to rehearse. Well, I’m here to tell you there are a few steps you can take to battle it:
1. Take a breather. Generally when I return from a fest, I lie about when I get back into town. I buy myself at least a day before I dive head first right back into the hustle.
2. Work out. It’s a known fact that exercise raises the endorphins in your body. Jump back into your workout regime as soon as possible. Or dance around in your living room to start. Either way, get moving!
3. Sleep. Did you know that when you have a sleep deficit your body needs to make up the difference at some point? You need between 6-9 hours a night depending on your age. If you spend a long weekend only getting 4 hours each night, you owe your body 2-5 hours per night to catch up. This can take up to a week to work itself out. (Again, another reason I give myself an extra day before I tell anyone I’m back in LA—rampant napping!)
4. Eat as many veggies as possible. Because you just ate mostly none during the fest. And, no, French fries and iceberg lettuce do not count.
5. Find some non-burlesque happiness. Play with a pet, play with a spouse. Go to the movies. Go hear live music. Make some art. Remind yourself that you (legal name) existed before (stage name) and (legal name) has needs too!
And then, once you’ve settled back into you, answered all those new friend requests, reposted all those pictures on Instagram, then you can start planning for next year.
* One of the pitfalls of local performers at fests is they treat them as just another show, not a chance to perform for a larger audience that may not have attended just any show. Also, those national/headliners brought in to perform may be watching some of the show, so you might be performing for them. Would you really want a hastily thrown together act the thing Ray Gunn or Jo Wheldon sees as an example of your work?
**There are many blogs devoted to this topic that go I to great detail about this process. Do check out blogs by Sydni Deveraux, Jo Wheldon, Princess Farhana and Sparkly Devil to name a few.
Thursday, Feb 13th, 2014:
I produced* an illegal speakeasy that not only addressed all of the senses with performance, spoken word, art, music, food and liquor, but one that also addressed local vice laws, by, well, pissing on them, by having nudity and highly sexual content. We did not reveal the exact address of the event until a few days before and only to the ticket buyers, who had to adhere to a “no jeans/no t-shirt/no sneaker” dress code. We limited the amount of tickets sold to 50 to maintain a sense of intimacy.
This event was a huge financial risk for myself, as the ticket price included admission and refreshments. I worked closely with our caterer and mixologist to come up with amuse bouche like bon-bons and petit-fours, and signature cocktails for the bar. Our level of promotion included fliers, an advert in the LA Weekly, posters, press releases and numerous tweets, instagrams and FB posts. My day-of prep included shopping all the liquor and mixers (including making honey infused vodka) and loading the car with folding tables and barware.
But we used our artistic freedom to explore the idea of being naked, both physically and emotionally, and everyone remarked they had a grand time, that they felt like they were part of something truly special.
Friday, Feb 14th, 2014:
I was hired to produce a midnight burlesque show at a club that was once the permanent home of VVH. I was given a budget to book performers, had no requirement to promote the event (outside the sheer joy of saying “hey, this is my show and I’m super proud!”)—the club designed, printed and distributed the fliers. All we had to do was to show up, got an envelope, drink tickets, and perform the best show we could.
The audience was less than receptive. There was a couple in the front row who looked like American Gothic, far too embarrassing for their midwestern morals to be watching us heathen vamps. Someone in the back tried to heckle. We gave it 100% anyway. Because we are professionals and were paid to do so, and our performances are not based on whether an audience hoots and hollers. (We found out later that the audience had been seated for the 9pm flamenco show, ate, had unlimited champagne, so by the time we started at midnight, they were exhausted.)
And there it is—the Alpha—producing a show that was so intimate and personal that it almost seemed I had hired a room full of people to act out my own fetish. And the Omega—hired gun to entertain. The first show was art, the second show, a job.
And isn’t that what we’re all hoping for? To somehow make a living at burlesque—but are we willing to do what it takes to get there? It is the few, the proud, than handful of headliners who make most of their income from burlesque and burlesque related accessories (costume commissions, teaching classes, etc.). But do we understand what it means to maintain that privilege? It means doing shows or parties in front of audiences who may not care a whit that you are there trying to entertain them; to be booked as many nights as possible, and sometimes for not a lot of money, sometimes driving between two gigs on the other side of town; to make acts that may not be so personal, but can be easily marketed and consumed by a crowd of douchebag drunks; to spend a great deal of money on costumes and wigs and skin care and dance classes; to show a profit by not creating new acts every time; and oh, the endless promotion of yourself in all your endeavors. Literally putting the grind in the grind. And let’s not forget that by making burlesque your profession, we are talking about removing certain safety nets you might have become attached to in your muggle job, like health insurance and steady paychecks.
“Be careful what you wish for” has been the mantra from several performers I know who have gone pro. Performers who spend a great deal of time on the road, living out of suitcases, producing the weekly shows that prevent them from taking a vacation, being forced to work with bar owners whose lack of business sense precludes them from advertising. Under every seashell found on the beach is the slimey mollusk dying in the surf.
As with any passion, to love it enough to go pro you have to love it when it sucks. And it’s going to suck.
*with the help of Greta Grenade and Mercury Troy
This post comes from a discussion in a costume class I was teaching at the annual burlesque symposium BulryCon. Someone in class asked the best way to make a white snowsuit silver for a Barbarella costume. I said silver spray paint would not work, as it would crack and peel with each wearing, that for archival purposes, they would need to re-cover the entire suit in silver fabric. When they groaned at the thought of it, I said “well, it wasn’t my idea to make a Barbarella costume. Girl, if you want to get to awesome, it’s going to take some work!”
So, without further adieu, here is my mantra when we are looking down the barrel of a task that seems clearly impossible for our time and budgets, but the outcome is so delicious that our mouths water thinking about the way the audience is going to react when we step on stage in all our awesomeness.
Awesome takes work.
Awesome takes a lot of work.
Awesome requires a great amount of time.
Awesome will always be money from your own pocket.
Awesome may require you to learn new skills or hire someone with skills you don’t have.
Awesome is personal sacrifice; you may not be able to attend that party because you need to stay home and work on Awesome.
Awesome can be tedious.
Awesome can fail at first; Awesome can mean going down a path that must be abandoned and return to the start. Several times.
Awesome can often start as a collection of little victories, interspersed with giant disappointments.
But you will know Awesome if you give into her demands.
You will know when you’ve reached Awesome. You will stand in the dressing room after your performance, you will hear it in the applause from your audience; you will see it in the faces of your peers.
And you will know it was worth all of it.
Now, what do you need to do to get to Awesome?
…now, does your act entertain this group?
Because this could happen, maybe has happened. Maybe at a festival. Maybe a surprise visit because they are there to see someone else on the show.
Are you backstage looking though the curtain wishing you had hemmed that fraying panel skirt? Or that you rehearsed more? Or you had bothered to style your hair? Or spent more time workshopping the act to bring a unique performance to the world?
Or are you relaxed because you’re going to give the same 110% you always give?
And if you’d give 110% knowing they were going to be in the audience, then why wouldn’t you give 110% for those fans who come regularly to your show and support your art?
Oh, you don’t have to answer me.
You have to answer to yourself.
(Have a great summer everyone! I’ll see you in September!)
I can’t truly speak on this topic. Really, I can’t. I’m a white girl. In fact, I’m 1/4 Italian-American and 3/4 Pennsylvania Dutch*. So, white. Not to say insensitive to the idea of cultural appropriation, but not in a position to have a say to what it feels like to have my skin/culture put on by someone else as dress-up.
But I felt the need to write this. When I’m still hearing of the “but it’s pretty” defense. When I’m still hearing about black face “because it’s funny”. Or seeing straight boys mincing about the stage like Paul Lynde. Or when I’m still hearing about white gals wanting to play Pocahontas in the Disney-themed burlesque show when SERIOUSLY THERE ARE THREE FUCKING PRINCESSES YOU CAN’T BE AS A WHITE GAL, IN A FUCKING ENDLESS CANON OF WHITE, EURO PRINCESSES? REALLY?
Now, I grew up with appropriation in two major forms, that until recently, I hadn’t put any thought into because they were so pervasive even with my 80’s liberal art education, I didn’t recognize it. And it’s the appropriation of both the fashion industry and what I call the “Ricky Ricardo floor show” aesthetic. To study fashion is to study designers cherry picking cultural accessories and motifs. Do you remember Gauliter’s Hassidic influenced line of men’s wear? Vivienne Westwood co-opting the style of the poor, angry punks of 1970’s England? Go into any Forever 21 right now and look at Native American motifs on leggings and t-shirts. Where is the line between appropriation and influence? The “Ricky Ricardo floorshow” aesthetic is to present a dance/act as a travelogue to a foreign land, that even though you may not be referencing the original culture, the theatrics are so over-the-top with the jungle queen headdresses and tiki masks. Look at the Enchanted Tiki Room, with the birds all speaking in thick, cartoony accents by white voice over artists to get how what passed as diversity in the 1960s is now sorely racist. (My favorite example of this is any scene of the UN from any film in the 1960s with every ambassador in their traditional tribal garb, as if the third world natives don’t know what suits are.) So when a white gal does a Tiki act, she may be referencing Tiki as it exists in America in the 60’s, and not acknowledge that that in and of itself is referencing an indigenous culture.
I do find that the “I am <ethnic heritage here> so I can perform as <ethnicity here>” clause is problematic at best. Because as an audience member, I don’t know your ethnic heritage from the stage. LA based performer La Cholita is “the whitest Mexican you’ll meet”. My own dancer Panama Red is often mistaken for a Latina—a combination of her name and her café-au-lait skin. Does being 1/64th ________ allow you to perform as __________? Does it allow you to perform as all related cultures? If you are Puerto Rican, does that allow you to perform as a Mexican? And is that still appropriating a culture that is not your own? All questions that have no definable answer, but a question we need to ask ourselves before we go on with an act.
And how does ethnic dance fit into this conversation? We have all accepted belly dance as a dance technique. No one thinks twice about donning a coin belt and performing figure 8’s as both a form of study and performance. Or salsa, samba, flamenco, step dancing… but am I appropriating that culture if I perform in the traditional costume? If I came onstage to perform an Afro-Brazilian act, how would that be perceived?
And this is why I can no longer do my voodoo act. I can no longer pretend that even though I researched Baron Samedi, that it was in that tongue-in-cheek, “Ricky Ricado floor show” aesthetic, that I am not putting on a culture that is not mine. No one called me on it, but the more this conversation became present in my community, the more I felt I had spinach on my teeth, and no one was telling me. I’m going to revamp the act, because ultimately I am smarter than that, than to think my 3 minute number is more important than to fight racism in all it’s subtle, pervasive ways. The art world is filled with all kinds of villains who create beauty, but as artists we must never let art interfere with our own humanity, sympathy and empathy.
*For those of you who think that means Amish, I kindly say “fuck you, read a book”.
Yes, kiddies, this past weekend I celebrated 10 years of erotically taking my clothes off in front of strangers for money. Happy Birthday Penny Starr, Jr. Ten years ago, I drove out to that dusty goat farm in Helendale to make my debut, not just at Exotic World, but my debut debut. So subsequently, I get to have a pretty amazing birthday party every year at the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
I have seen many ups and downs with this organization, and every year, it becomes more solid and reliable. (Yes, there will always be room for improvement—one of the downsides of being an organization of volunteers from all over the country.) But every year, there is some former speed bump that is missing, some wrinkle that has been smoothed out, and to that I am grateful. To know where we have come from, go ahead, ask those Goat Farm Girls like Desiré d’Amour and Laura Herbert and Kitten de Ville and Selene Luna and Dirty Martini about what those days were like. That this organization can make such strides in 10 years shows growth where so many of our newbies only know what has been going on the last 3 years. Imagine making your debut in 128 degree heat, like I did. Or my first memory of Indigo Blue waiting in line to sign up, and her long blue velvet gown was already covered in a thin layer of dust. Or the sun-bleached plywood stage burning the knees of anyone foolish enough to try floor work. And let’s not talk about bringing white feather fans to that hostile (dirt, wind) environment. Yes, like burlesque itself, BHoF was rough around the edges when it started, and is growing to a polished event.
Now, don’t get me wrong, when classic is done right, you simply can’t go wrong. But so much classic, and n’ery a shimmy act, big gal or one pop culture character represented in competition when it’s all I see on the day-to-day stages, well, I have to wonder why those things have not been invited to the party.
So I want to make one suggestion to our community, one that is all inclusive: Let us agree to no longer circumcise our acts/style to fit an undetermined and subjective idea of what will win a crown.
I have seen so many great performers boil out what makes them great until there is only a glittery glaze of glamour left. Their edge, their joie-de-vivre, their complete filthiness evaporates until that thick stew of creativity is now a weak broth. And it belies why burlesque works as both an art and entertainment, and why so many of us come to it in the first place. Our greatest “gimmicks” are our own personal quirks, skills and experiences—to throw them out is to remove our soul from our performances.
There. I’ve said it. I’ve said what many of us were thinking.
Now, I will admit that so many high concept acts lack in the kind of craftsmanship, glamour and sex that seems to go hand in hand with classic burlesque. And I know with genre acts, there is a certain amount of OCD that comes with making the perfect Princess Leia, exactly as she looked in the film or that fetish slaves are not supposed to move until told to. But let us take that and explode it into the glamour and movement associated with burlesque competition. Yes, there will still be a level of comprise from hardcore genre act to competition quality, but it is a different audience, an audience that wont “penalize” your rhinestone-encrusted Slave Leia for wearing stiletto Spartacus boots, as many cosplayers will*; try to imagine a Freddy Krueger act treated with the same care as an Immodesty Blaze costume, a fetish act that brings some serious dance technique.
If we only submit acts that are who we are, maybe we can make that application committee acknowledge the nerds, the queers, the fetishists as worthy of being crowned a Queen** for our community.
*For those not in the cosplay/nerd community, telling the opposite sex their costume isn’t correct is how many nerds flirt. By bringing up your Harley Quinn is the wrong shade of red is their awkward way of saying “hello”.
** As Mercury Troy points out, the Boylesk category is not mired in the constraints of classic.