…And We’re Publishing It Here.
It is with tremendous pleasure that we welcome back the incomparable Imogen Kelly to Burlesque Beat. Imogen started writing for us back in 2011, sending us titillating recaps and bold, thoughtful commentary on the burlesque scene in Oz. Crowned Queen of Burlesque at Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in 2012, Imogen continues on her thrilling journey as a stripper, writer, performer, director, and producer who has worked all over the globe—and continues to do so despite her fierce fight with the C word.
Over the next year, we will be releasing Imogen’s new book, A Bad Girls Guide to Revolution, one chapter at a time. Join us as Imogen takes us by the hand, tells us how she shifted laws and social attitudes in Oz, and leads us down the fascinating rabbit hole that is her life. —Ed.
A Bad Girl’s Guide to Revolution, by Imogen Kelly
Well I don’t know about y’all but for me 2015 was a complete abortion. I was medically grounded, my wings clipped, so to speak, as happens when one’s left tit falls off whilst getting on a plane to BHOF*.
After waking up that morning with mysterious bruising and my left arm being suddenly dead, I disrobed to find my new faux reconstructed bazoomba had slid down my chest wall and painfully, yet notable not without a heightened sense of dramatic timing, decided to gravitate towards my feet. She looked like a drunk Judy Garland that had fallen down a few flights of stairs.
In the immediate aftermath I found myself in ER in a daze. The doctors were very sympathetic. Apparently these things can just happen but nothing could be done. They were going to have to remove my tit. I refused. My other breast was holding up the fort—literally. That thing could have been made of cement for all the suggestion it made that it might actually be a human body part.
My right breast—sitting pretty as if freshly carved off an Indian stone temple goddess.
My right breast—nipple to the sky, immobilized—a Frankentit waiting for a lightening bolt.
My right breast—willfully positioned up around my neck somewhere because that is where male plastic surgeons think breasts grow.
My right breast—doing it’s best impersonation of Shirley Temple.
It’s the least to say they were an ill-matched pair; Judy and Shirley singing Somewhere Over the Good Ship Lollypop—off key and off beat. It was like looking at a bad duet in the annals of Hollywood—a film that flopped and should never be aired, a celebrity-studded gala moment where everyone quietly, painfully winces in their designer dresses, digging their expensive manicures into plush velvet covered chairs, praying/inwardly screaming, for it to end.
No doctors could help me, the repair bill was in the thousands and I was in a shit load of pain. Fuck it. Fuck shitty titty cancer. My body could not handle more surgery. I decided to just try to live with it.
So I didn’t make it to BHOF. I sent a letter in my stead. The letter got quite a response and many asked—when are you writing a book? Hmmm—how about now?
In my suburban imprisonment/motherhood I have taken pen to paper and started to write about this revival. Whilst not all chapters are burlesque-oriented, I’ve decided, with Burlesque Beat, to publish a chapter a month to help inspire on what this revolution is doing and why I call it that.
I do speak about the revival as a revolution… but I think few understand what is revolutionary about what we are collectively doing, as so few of us actually come from the world of strip. In fact, it is with shameless pretension that so many claim, they are not strippers, they are ‘burlesque.’ Statements such as this run the risk of coming across as classist, elitist, snobbish, fear-driven, middle-class ignorance. If you are taking your kit off for money to entertain a room full of strangers who clap at the end, you are stripping.
That’s not to say I don’t understand why some burlesque performers feel the need to place distance between themselves and strippers. It can be tedious to educate audiences that struggle (for whatever reason) to see the vast differences between contemporary striptease and burlesque.
The main reason performers make these kinds of statements is because many fear judgment. The judgment is real, and in calling yourself a stripper you have every right to consider how you navigate your way through a minefield of social stigma. I’ve spent my life contending with that judgment.
I’ve never really spoken too much about ‘the judgment’ as I’m never sure it’s an appropriate thing to do. Aren’t we queens supposed to be upholding the illusion that burlesque is a credible genre of performance with it’s own superstars who live like princesses sailing high on a barge manned by our doting fans—like Cleopatra sailing gracefully down the Nile? No one really gets too much dirt under their nails when discussing the fact that we all strip but don’t call ourselves strippers. Yet we turn up to BHOF, kiss the feet of our legends without actually taking on that they were all strippers—mainly because most of you have no idea what life as a stripper actually entails. We look at their glamorous pictures, study their moves, mimic, adulate and fawn over the idea of what we would like to imagine their world was like, but really it was probably a world fraught with difficulties such as I have seen and experienced—and it comes down to social stigma and judgment.
Coming from the world of violent, lawless clubs that I do, I will tell you straight that it is this same social judgment of women in general that makes it permissible for our society to deem some female lives more valid than others. Societies ‘judgment’ of strippers is based on condemnation of women who have a sense of sexual ownership of self. So… if we are going to be a movement worthy of our salt, then we best start learning to own what we are actually doing.
We are taking the condemned art of ‘the fallen woman’ and giving it social visibility. For most of you, burlesque is a plaything, but what you are really doing is aligning with the socially condemned. Yet strangely, amazingly, and for me quite unbelievably, burlesque hovers above that judgement. It is almost an act of magic and I find it wondrous that we can collectively manage this. In doing so we playfully, deliciously, and provocatively challenge social conditioning. Personally, I have always found this to be the most thrilling part of what I do. Walking out onstage and blowing people’s minds out with something as misunderstood as striptease is such a glamorous way to contest being repeatedly labeled a worthless slut.
We are comprised, from a different demographic of performers and voyeurs than our stripping counterparts, but we should never feel ashamed of our origins. In fact, we should be proud that with one easy statement such as “burlesque IS stripping’ we can challenge so much in so many minds. Why? Because messing with conservative misogynistic convention is always fun—and empowering for other women.
Once you own the statement ‘I’m a stripper,’ you can start owning the true power of burlesque. We claim that we are an empowerment movement, and that every time a burlesque performer steps on stage they are challenging misconceptions of either body, gender, race, age, motherhood, female sexuality and/or personal identity. Why stop there? If you are going to choose this art form, the primary idea that you are challenging in society is that women who are sexually independent, confident or explicit should be cast into a social black hole.
You might not think this argument is your bag, but we have all been negatively labeled by our sexual conduct at some point—even if it’s just while walking down the street and slurred words are screamed through passing car windows. Those words reflect attitudes—those attitudes reinforce a sense of entitlement—that sense of entitlement leads to predators and violators to convince themselves of society’s permission to do whatever they want to a female body. And if they pick their victims well, the perpetrators become the victim, and the law somehow ends up being on their side. A well-chosen victim should be from the ‘black hole’ side of the tracks, or even just wearing the wrong thing, are too drunk or too trusting. Regardless of what is on paper in terms of women’s rights, if you are a socially condemned, you are often also condemned by law. A different set of laws exists for society’s wanton women.
For women who live or have lived as socially ‘fallen,’ we with so little to fight back with because our society, through propagation of the ‘slut’ as a condemnable status, deems our lives are worth less than the lives of women who keep their obedient legs shut, wear long loose hessian sacks and behave in a domesticated fashion.
I hope to give you every reason to defiantly say—‘I am a stripper and that’s all there is to it.’ I have decided to give you, in my own words, a slice of attitude so you can safely and self-assuredly remark to the next idiot who doesn’t get what we are doing here—“fuck you and your fear of me owning my own body and sexual space—I’m a stripper. Deal.” In fact by the time I am finished with this book I am hoping that even female politicians, doctors and lawyers will replace the words ‘fuck off,’ with the words ‘I’m a stripper” To put it simply, burlesque is a vehicle for challenging so many misconceptions about women, but to challenge sexual judgment is THE MOST powerful thing that we are doing because regardless of background, colour, sexuality or body type, it is universally our common ground.
I defy, and will go on defying any society that propagates fear driven oppression of our gender. I defy, and will always defy, any society that responds to women who do not obey the rules of the patriarchy, and deems it socially acceptable for these women to be vanquished with violence.
In the words of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century:
Some people like to go out dancing
And other people, (like me) they gotta work
And there’s even some evil mothers
They’ll tell you life is just made out of dirt.
That women never really faint,
That villains always blink their eyes.
And that children are the only ones who blush.
And that life is just to die.
But, anyone who has a heart
Wouldn’t turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
He wouldn’t turn around and hate it
—Lou Reed, Sweet Jane
You are part of it, so don’t turn around and hate it.
*Burlesque Hall of Fame