GRATITUDE! (Happy Thanksgiving)

Michelle L'Amour's Tribute to Sally Rand, photo by Melody Mudd

[During the summer, J.D. Oxblood participated in a magazine experiment in which entrants were asked to create a feature-length piece according to an assigned theme in 24 hours. Using his connections through Facebook—and not getting a lot of sleep—J.D. reached out to the burlesque community, asked questions, assembled quotes, and wrote an old-school long-form piece of journalism that, ultimately, was not chosen for inclusion into the magazine. On the occasion of Thanksgiving, sharing a treatise on the debts of gratitude owed to our forebears seems apt. Many thanks to everyone who contributed quotes to this piece. Those in the burlesque community should keep in mind that this was originally intended for a more general audience; those in the general audience should remember to support their local burlesque performers. HAPPY THANKSGIVING—ED.]

“I have had many influences for my success,” says Dirty Martini.  “The stand out being all of the ballet teachers that I had from the age of 9 to about 21.  I believed them when they told me that I could never be a dancer.  I suppose that the moment when I realized that these people did not have MY truth in their advice was the time when my real career started.  By the time I was performing burlesque weekly in New York nightclubs, I turned around and saw how wrong they really were.”

Dirty Martini is one of the most famous burlesque performers in the world; she tours constantly, and appeared in the film “Tournee” at Cannes last year.  She also famously modeled for Karl Lagerfeld in a shoot for V Magazine’s “Size Issue” last year, in a shoot that surprised a lot of fashion industry insiders.  Described by the Huffington Post as “plus-size,” Dirty Martini certainly doesn’t fit the size or shape of most fashion models.

But to say that Dirty’s early ballet teachers were wrong is putting it mildly.  As a performer, Dirty is extremely light on her feet—in fact, much lighter than the built-like-wire-hanger models seen schlepping up and down the runways at New York’s fashion week.  While her ballet training shines through every time she takes the stage, Dirty Martini certainly owes nothing in the category of encouragement to the teachers who never dreamed this reality:  one in which Dirty Martini makes a living as a dancer.

Performers, more than any other profession, are constantly being asked where their inspiration lies.  Who they owe for becoming performers, or how they became interested in the first place.  New Yorkers seldom ask stock brokers why they became interested in joining Wall Street—and these days, traders try not to admit what they do—and you’re not likely to ask your plumber, while he’s bent under your kitchen sink demonstrating his assets, to whom he owes the skills of his trade.

Burlesque performers toe the line daily between assignations of “artist” and “stripper.”  It’s easy to wonder how they decided to pursue a career in an art form that many don’t even consider an art form.  Theirs is a performing art that is seldom listed—and almost never covered—in the weekly papers and magazines that routinely promote live theatre, dance, and music.  As “adult” entertainment, burlesque exists in a gray zone, always struggling to find its own audience, its own venue, and even its own aesthetic, which can vary greatly from city to city.  What doesn’t change is the vivacity of the art, and the originality of its practitioners.

When asked to whom they are indebted for their talent or their drive, burlesque performers’ responses fall largely into two major camps: either their families, for being so supportive, or the opposite—people who, like Dirty Martini’s dance instructors, offered no support whatsoever.

“I fought against my hair (and my mother) from 1979 thru 1984, but no more:  I have decided to embrace the Accidental 70’s Shag.”  So says Nasty Canasta, an influential luminary on the New York burlesque scene.  A graduate of Brown University, Nasty’s theatre background is evident in her decidedly DIY performances, and she’s well-known for her bold and inventive costumes.  Thin, with darting doe-brown eyes and thick hair—most recently dyed a fire truck shade of red—one can easily imagine a younger, crankier Nasty fighting with her hair.  And maybe her mother.  Nasty shared some pictures to prove her point, including one her as a young girl, missing several front teeth, sporting a thick, dark-brown bowl cut.

“I also owe a lot to my grandmother,” Nasty added, “who for years maintained a ‘dress-up box’ for me.”  Later, when Nasty was in college, her grandmother started taking trips to Vegas, “so she’d send me postcards from the girlie shows and suggest I move there after school to build costumes for them.  AND she was in the audience when I performed at Miss Exotic World [in Las Vegas] in 2007.  So it’s pretty much all her fault.”  Nasty uses sarcasm in an almost knee-jerk fashion, and the blame she places on her grandmother is clearly more akin to credit.

When people talk about their families, they often talk about the influence or camaraderie with a slightly distant relative, such as cousins who are best friends or a familial trait that “skips a generation.”  It would be easy to dismiss the trend of grandmotherly influence on burlesque performers as being parallel with the burlesque resurgence, but it smells like something deeper.  The “burlesque resurgence” may be nothing more than the return of a term, since “strippers” never went anywhere, and the acquired taste of the good life—such as mixology and bespoke suits—never completely disappeared, either.  Regardless, talking to burlesque personalities, grandmothers like Nasty Canasta’s kept coming up.

“I have to thank my grandmother for my legs and my strong drive to be the best,” says Perle Noir, a performer from New Orleans and a runner-up at the Burlesque Hall of Fame who has gone on to perform all over the world.

Helen Pontani, one of the original Pontani Sisters, when asked whom she owes, replied, “My grandmother, who was an opera singer.  I never saw that woman in pants or flat shoes!  She wore beautiful dresses, garters and stockings, heels, and pin-curled her hair every day till the day she died.  She was all about the glamour!”  She’s clearly been a strong influence on Helen, who, known as the “tap-dancing tornado,” often sports top hats and tails, and always wears gloves and a glamorous smile.

Franny Fluffer, a performer and the producer of “David Lynch Burlesque,” which drew a dedicated crowd to New York’s Parkside Lounge this spring, claims that “it’s been said in my family that ‘those Fluffer women really have great legs.’  Even when my great-grandmother was well into her 90’s she was still sporting great gams.”

Jo "Boobs" Weldon's Tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee, photo by Ed Barnas

Burlesque producer Doc Wasabassco says, “I owe everything to my grandmother, the classiest broad I’ve ever known.  She taught me how to play clock solitaire with a deck of girlie playing cards and set the course for everything that followed.”  If that sounds like a joke, you don’t know Doc Wasabassco.  Doc has spent the last seven years producing burlesque events in New York and across the Northeast, and has several shows running concurrently.  He’s built his business slowly and respectfully, and is largely admired for his professionalism.  This is no small feat in a culture dominated by women—most of the performers are women, many of the producers are women, and at a typical burlesque show, at least half of the audience is made up of women.  Learning class at a young age has its benefits.

In defiance of the adage that people wouldn’t become performers if only their families had paid them any attention, and defeating the assumption that those who take off their clothes for a living keep their professions a secret, many burlesque performers speak highly of the debt they owe their immediate families.

Ophelia Flame is credited as one of the founders of the Twin Cities neo-burlesque scene.  She’s been performing for almost twenty years, and is the co-producer of Lili’s Burlesque Revue, a long-running cabaret show.  A vivacious woman, unfailingly charismatic, she spoke about her mother with characteristic verve.  “‘OOOOOOh absolutely NOT!’ was the response of my mother when faced with the horror of being told her only daughter had become a stripper.  As a 60’s feminist it was a tough pill to swallow, but after much discussion and even a formal tour of the club she concluded, ‘Fine.  If you’re gonna be a stripper, then you better be the best GODDAMN stripper there ever was.”  Her father may have been an easier sell.  “My father was recently inducted into the Minnesota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  He’s very supportive, and having played in touring bands he understands the wanderlust and visceral yearning to express your art.”  Ophelia Flame recently performed in Las Vegas with an act that revolved around an office worker photocopying her body parts.  I’m not sure if this is what her father had in mind by “visceral yearning,” but the audience certainly had zero complaints.

“I owe everything to my mother,” says Tigger, “not just because I am the baby of the family and a gay mama’s boy.”  Tigger is an influential New York performer who is widely credited as the godfather of “boylesque.” “Yes, we’d stay up and watch late movies while eating ice cream and spinning out fantasies of theatre and travel and glamour.”  They weren’t just fantasies.  Having become both a gay and burlesque icon, Tigger has traveled the world performing.  In the New York scene, he is as legendary as Dirty Martini.  Most recently, he was a featured performer at the Colorado Burlesque Festival, and also appeared in the pages of the Economist this summer, walking Pride parade in a codpiece with his husband, whom he is finally marrying legally.  But while his mother encouraged his then fantasies, it wasn’t all a picnic.  “She was clinically depressed,” he says.  “She would have days when she just couldn’t get out of bed or bear to answer the phone.  As ‘the sunshine of her life,’ it was my mission to entertain her and cheer her up.  She was my first and best audience.  She made me feel that performing wasn’t just vanity, that it could really help people in a desperate frame of mind, could possibly save lives… or at least make them livable.”

“I owe my parents, who are both wonderful people,” says Madame Rosebud.  “Totally flawed and wonderful.”  Rosebud is an unusual performer, even in a scene as varied and open to innovation as New York’s.  A trained dancer, she dons traditional wigs and cavorts in a “classic” burlesque style when performing in floor shows at “The Sophisticates,” an event she co-produces with her husband, Bastard Keith.  But at other shows, Rosebud dips darker, using fetish costume pieces and acts derived from the world of S&M.  “[I owe] my Mother, for my formative years,” she says.  “She always defended my eccentricity from both my father and other kids who made fun of me.  Even though she herself is not an artist, she intuitively understood what an artist needed.”  She continues, “Neither of my parents ever gave me a complex about sex, or nudity, and now both love what I do.”  While not having a complex about nudity may seem overtly obvious to the success of a burlesque performer, seeing it as an issue to be exploited may be even more so.  Americans are famous the world over for being prudes, no matter how many bikini-clad women we put in car commercials, and taking Puritanical attitudes by storm is certainly in line with Rosebud’s take on burlesque.  “And my mom introduced me to David Bowie and the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Rosebud adds, “which had a bigger impact on me than any painting or sculpture I ever saw.”

Her husband and producing partner, Bastard Keith, has a similar experience in the positive influence of family.  “Honestly, it’s down to my parents.  They believed in me as an artist and supported me, paid for my arts education and continue to be my most ardent fans.  My mother is REALLY hacked off that she can’t come down and watch burlesque every night.”  Bastard Keith pursues a concurrent career as a conventional actor, but he insists that hosting burlesque shows is his true love.  His turns as host combine elements of classic lounge singing, comedic rants, and faux-dramatic readings of prepared skits, and he’s also written and performed in original “plays” that connect burlesque performances along a central storyline.  “My Dad was an actor himself, a pretty terrible one by his own reckoning, and he always takes a fond, frustrated interest in my doings.”  So he was led into the stage life by example?  Well, not exactly.  “Mom took me to a lot of plays and musicals.  Like, a lot.  If she was trying to force me into homosexuality, she only succeeded about 25%.  So the joke’s on you, Mom.”

“As to actual attributes I’ve inherited from family?  A dry sense of the absurd from my Dad.  And from my brother, a sense that there isn’t really anything that can’t be worked through as long as you don’t freak the fuck out about it.”

Lola Frost is a Vancouver-based performer, a statuesque beauty with a brunette bob and a bright, cheery disposition.  “My mom is the most amazing woman,” she says.  “She had me and my sister WAY too young (17 with me).  When I told her at eight years old I wanted to be a stripper, she looked at me so honestly and said, ‘Honey, I will support whatever you do, as long as you love it and do it well.’”

This level of confidence and support, instilled at a young age, followed her into her adult life, perhaps more so as she wanted to pursue a career off the beaten path.  Lola Frost maintains that it is her mother’s belief in her that has allowed her to “have that same unfaltering belief in myself.”  Confidence, for a performer, can’t be overrated.  “Onstage,” Lola says, “when nothing and everything matters at the same time, there is that part that shines out without question.  It is a gift she gave to me, and I am forever in her debt.”

Franny Fluffer, the David Lynch-obsessed New York performer, agrees.  “My mother has always been supportive of me on a creative level,” she says.  “She always told me, ‘Do what you love, the money will follow.’”  Hearing such simple, almost ABC-after-school-special advice, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about the art of striptease.  “Despite her reservations about stripping,” Franny adds, “she has been very supportive because she knows how happy it makes me.”

The Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, formerly known as Exotic World, is an annual fundraiser that brings together the best and brightest from the international burlesque community.  One of the high points of this four-day extravaganza is the chance to meet and swap stories with the fabulous women known as “Legends,” the showgirls, burlesque performers and strippers who graced stages as far back as the ‘50s, and many of them still perform.  These women—mothers and grandmothers—are inspiring, matronly figures to the up-and-comers, who look to them as role models and trail blazers.  But even some of the Legends credit their parents for their successes.

Shannon Doah, a stunning brunette who performed as an exotic dancer and showgirl in the early 1970s, said that as a young girl, she “admired the goddesses and dancers from Hollywood’s Golden Years.”  She says, “I dreamed of becoming a showgirl, actress and dancer.  One day I was rummaging in the garage and I found old ‘Le Crazy Horse Saloon’ and ‘Lido de Paris’ brochures!  My parents had seen the Crazy Horse Saloon show in 1951, the first year the Paris cabaret opened!  Just a few years later, my fantasy became a reality when I became one of the stars in the first US redition of the original Crazy Horse Saloon show produced in Hollywood.”  Shannon Doah also says that she was influenced by her cousin, Jane Greer, an actress who was “famous for her femme fatale roles” in 1940’s and 50’s film noir.

In California, Shannon Doah also worked with Tiffany Carter, who won the Miss Nude Universe pageant in 1975.  Little has changed, as the two women remain friends and continue to travel and perform together.  Tiffany knocked them dead at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in June, while Shannon was performing down on Fremont Street.  “My parents had parties and would put me on the tables to dance and I taught everyone how to chacha, and other fun dances I was learning,” Tiffany says.  “I found out later that I was too short to be a showgirl, so I went for an audition to a tavern in Long Beach, California, and my mother went with me to cheer me on.

Perle Noire in Memory of Diane Naegel, photo by Melody Mudd

Hearing these stories from the Legends has an echoing effect, the feeling of gratitude and mutual admiration ringing up and down the canyons of time.  “Of course, Josephine Baker is my idol,” says Perle Noir.  “She was the greatest showgirl in the world and a noble person.”  Josephine Baker is one of the most famous African-American burlesque performers in history—to note the least of her achievements—and Perle Noir is one of the most famous African-American burlesque performers working today.  Emulating her idol in more ways than one, Perle has already become an inspiring figure for other women of color working in an industry that is still predominantly white.  Like many other performers, Perle expresses gratitude to her mother and other inspiring figures, like her cheerleading coach, who told her to follow her heart and “to leave everything on the stage.”  But Perle also expressed being indebted to the less-than-feel-good characters of her past.  “I also have to thank the mean kids at my high school,” she said.  “They told me I was ugly every day.  I have to thank them because the abuse from them taught me to love all the small things in life.”

It’s difficult to imagine anyone calling Perle Noir “ugly,” but it’s easy to appreciate negative stimulation.  In Zen Buddhism, a devotee losing focus or falling asleep in his meditation is offered “encouragement” by the master.  “Encouragement” usually comes in the form of a sharp whack across the shoulders with a wooden stick.  Certain personalities respond well to this kind of stimulation.

“In a way, I can also thank those who tried to bring me down over the years,” says Franny Fluffer.  “I am stubborn and obstacles only make me fight harder.  My 5th grade teacher should not have been allowed to influence children because she was constantly degrading them—me in particular.”

Bastard Keith doubled back on his view of his family, saying, “Their support and nurturing of the youngest child of three has led to innumerable complexes… basic Jew stuff.”  Speaking of his influences, he adds, “crediting one sole teacher seems insane to me.  So I’ll just mention the only one I don’t owe anything to: that bitch Mrs. Leonard in the 3rd grade.”

But no one had as much to say on the power of negative influences as Tigger, the Godfather of Boylesque.  “I also owe a shadow debt to my brother, though he was never a brother to me.  Eight years older, he abused alcohol, drugs and me—mostly psychological abuse but not all.  As far back as I could remember, he resented and tormented me.  He taught me hatred and fear.  And though he never acknowledged it as such, he gave me my first taste of homophobia.”  Tigger’s true character shows through in his response.  “I rejected all of his violent, negative, anti-intellectual machismo but refused to show him any hint or doubt or apology for being nothing like him.  My stubborn individualism was my only defense.  So I suppose he made me comparatively fearless.  Having survived him and high school, there is not much that any audience or show can do to frighten me.”  Tigger should have been tapped for the “it gets better” campaign.

Some performers have completely different responses to the idea of debt.  Roxi Dlite was the reigning Queen of Burlesque—the winner of the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend—for 2010-2011.  She hails from Windsor, Ontario, and makes no secret of the fact that she works in conventional strip clubs.  She’s not only gorgeous, but also a skilled aerialist, and often her acts incorporate this circus skill with classic burlesque elements.  When she talks about the other venues she performs in, it’s reminiscent of the Legends describing their beginnings—most of them got started to make money.  Roxi Dlite was trying to stay out of debt.  “I went to school for graphic design, started stripping to pay for my last year of college, graduated from that program, then realized I liked dancing so much more than sitting in an office staring at a computer screen with a boss breathing over my shoulders.”  That was just the beginning.  “I loved dancing so much more than graphic design that I even skipped my college graduation because I was featuring at a club.”  It’s probably safe to say that Roxi isn’t working off any student loans.

But in the world of wildcards, the Twin Cities’ Ophelia Flame chose to express gratitude to—of all people—the DEA.  “They tore apart my life a few years ago, giving me the opportunity to reinvent life into something even better then before,” she said.  I tried to get her to elaborate a little further, but she wouldn’t say anything more, except, “Thanks, fuckers.”

—J.D. Oxblood

All photos used here with permission for Burlesque Beat. Please respect copyrights and do not use images without obtaining explicit permission.

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