A Bad Girl’s Guide to Revolution: L’oiseau


L'oiseux And Sun, original artwork by Josh Weeks, for A Bad Girl's Guide To Revolution, an online book by Imogen Kelly.

 

 

Chapter 1.     L’oiseau

In the disorientated aftermath of an operation you get what is called “sleep disruption.” It’s like your body is trying to remember the difference between sleep and death. Either your soul keeps sneaking back to those Elysian Fields for one last peek, or it’s not quite sure it wants to be in its skin again. It goes wandering.

For me this meant having wild, vivid dreams. I have always partaken in lucid dreaming and whenever I find myself conscious in a dream, I turn myself into a bird. L’oiseau. I fly through all sorts of adventures; wherever my heart desires I can go—there are no boundaries when I am she.

1st August 2013, I was strapped to a crucifix shaped operating table and given my first general anesthetic. This operation was supposed to see to the removal of a single breast lump that had disturbingly abnormal pathology results.

However, when the doctor’s scalpel found its way to the monster, he found he had to remove more lumps—and then more lumps—and then more lumps again. He eventually stopped digging and closed the wound. I was riddled—just like grandma.

I lost a third of my right breast that day. As bits of me were sent off to laboratories for testing, the rest of me lay in a hospital ward contemplating my fate. I had long since decided I did not want chemotherapy or radiotherapy—these treatments do not work on my family. So this surgery was the first in a series of three medical butcherings that we hoped would prevent the cancer from developing further and spreading.

I had a shit bunch of choices before me but I was armed with a lifetime of watching other women contend with this disease, so was not ignorant of what those choices led to. I chose the least shit one and the one that, although not formally proven, seemed to be the best non-pharmaceutical way to not only survive, but to survive well. I became a human guinea pig for a new innovation in preventative surgery.

In my recovery my soul got busy dreaming. The world in my skin was painful, so where else was there to go but to the universe within? In one of my ‘disrupted’ adventures L’oiseau became a dazzling rainbow bird—like a stone temple carving. I challenged my strong, magnificent wings to take me as high as they could go. Up, up, up I soared until I found myself level with the sun.

The sun spoke to me. Her female voice rang through my soul. “It’s time for you to come back.”

A chill ran down my spine. Yes— I was thrilled that God had presented herself as a woman. On the negative, I realised the likelihood that the operations would not be successful; that I was too late and I was being called back. Perhaps my time was up and rather than scramble after life I needed to prepare for death. I was devastated.

I was confronted by the futility and uselessness of my existence. I mourned the time I had wasted adorning myself in sparkling costumes and dancing for shallow applause when I could have been, should have been, doing so many other things. Life as a showgirl had been one big, fabulous distraction.

I gasped, terrified, and replied, “I haven’t finished my work. I haven’t done what I came here to do.”

“If you stay you will suffer.” She replied.

Thinking only of my family I turned my back to the sun and flew to earth. I will face suffering for my daughter… she is one of the few things I have done with my life that I consider to be genuinely worthwhile. But she is not my work.

She is my legacy.

The work I refer to is rather massive really, but in the grand scale of things it’s like throwing a pebble at the wall of Jericho. It’s a job I left unfinished many years ago. It is the work of my soul.

I awoke drenched in sweat and lay on that uncomfortable hospital bed for five days watching tubes of bloody fluid oozing from my body as a bag of pethidine slowly percolated into my veins.

My past disturbed me. I vividly recalled the violent things I have seen that I will never unsee. I didn’t want to see them at that moment either. They are too dark, too overwhelming.

I pressed the big green button on the drug dispenser. It beeped and seeped its contents into me. It eased off the fear, and then the pain. As sleep reclaimed me I thought on why I left my work as a campaigner, my feelings of failure from all those years ago revisited me. I thought it was worthwhile at the time. So worthwhile in fact it nearly destroyed me. It had destroyed so many others. Do I speak of it? Perhaps it’s not that relevant anymore— I’ve been telling myself that for years.

Until the operations I always just thought I would go on performing and in my old age would scribble down a few colourful stories. But as I lay in that bed, knowing I was staring down the genetic barrel of a Russian roulette shotgun, I realized I would potentially never have time to do all of the things I had longed to do. And as for that thing I did, my work… it surely isn’t all that important now, was it? The memory of it just stings me from time to time.

The developing cancer, that morphing blob of rebellious, hateful tissue had been growing at an exponential rate. In two weeks it had grown from a pea to a quail’s egg in size. The doctors were rushing me from test to test, from specialist to specialist. It was a race against a formidable foe that had killed the women in my family.

I remembered all of the times in my youth I had been prodded, stabbed, poked, sampled, stitched, cut up, squashed, laser-seared and radiated over this disease. The doctors were arguing about how much of my tit they could save when I decided I was done with this shit— “just fucking cut them off”.

My doctors stopped arguing.

They agreed (off the record) that with my genetics a full bilateral mastectomy was my best course of action. I had prepared for a potential cancer battle since my mother’s death when I was a child. I had sought after this operation for a long time and understood the reconstructive process. This, I was ready for.

As my potentially malignant beasties were removed from me at the peak of my year as World Queen of Burlesque, so were both of my breasts.

There are many styles of reconstruction. I chose the least invasive one. The skin and nipples were preserved as a skin flap, my breast tissue was removed and implants replaced my breast tissue. The skin flap and pectoral muscles hold the implant in place. Some of the surgery techniques were untried in Australia. I was to be a live experiment for a minor procedure to try and maintain blood-flow to my nipples. My choice to allow experimentation was what suddenly thrust me into the public eye. This, I was not ready for.

As far as I saw it, I was just another human Petri dish of atypical cells drifting, floating in a silent sea of unacknowledged sufferers. My friends convinced me that I should be open about what was going on for me—I was World Queen of Burlesque after all.

So I did a little news interview about it to explain why I had cancelled my American tour and why I might not be getting onstage for a while. I saw nothing heroic about what I was doing; my actions were just a fact of survival.

Outside of doctors, no one had ever shown much of an interest in my family’s cancer history before. I personally didn’t think I was doing anything exceptional, I was just choosing a slightly unconventional form of treatment that has actually been available for some years now. It’s just that people didn’t really know about it. It doesn’t get presented as an option when you discuss your genetics with your GP for instance and when you bring it up you can often be treated as an hysteric.

As for losing my tits, isn’t it just what happens to breast cancer patients anyway? As far as I was concerned I was just cutting to the chase. I didn’t imagine any of what I was doing was newsworthy.

On request I did another interview. I’ll admit I was starting to get a bit uncomfortable with public interest. I had a frightened 3-year old and husband to soothe, on top of managing my own levels of stress.

Without warning there was a sudden spike of interest as the media lamprey latched onto my soft underside. I was taken aback, overwhelmed by the intensity of my situation. That same morning as my first operation, Angelina Jolie had announced she was also having her breasts removed as a preventative measure. I was swarmed. I stopped coping.

Then I surprised even myself. I didn’t step away. I stepped up. I realised I did have quite a lot to say about it all. My discussions into empowerment of self and ownership of the body were now taking me into the world of the medical.

In that moment, for the first time ever, I found my voice— and a chance to speak about the blight on my family—and for a change people were actually listening.

Suddenly I WAS my silent mother, my stoic grandmother, and my beautiful, doomed aunt. Suddenly I represented hope for millions of terrified BRCA1 & BRCA2 carriers around the world. I became an unintentional but committed advocate for preventative, non-pharmaceutical cancer treatments.

Breast cancer is normalised for me— dealing with it is just a part of life. It is not that way for most women. So I was, and still am, up for being a medicalized pin-up girl for preventative breast removal. I do this knowing that the more myself and other survivors talk, the more chance we have of normalising this surgery and of improvements being made.

As amazing as all of the attention was, a lot of people forgot their manners. I was getting insane offers of tens of thousands of dollars by dodgy documentary makers, I was splattered full page across the front of the newspapers, shitty tabloids were calling relentlessly, genetic researchers were stalking me for samples of tissue, news crews were wanting to come into the surgery, and friends—some ‘friends’ turned cold.

Notoriety it seems, no matter what the reason, can provoke all sorts of responses—not all reactions are great.

I lost friends over my decision to be public. Perhaps I should have just done the polite female thing of suffering in silence, but I am not a polite female.Cancer is a hidden world until you go through it. The more women are developing breast cancer, the more noise we need to make. Nothing can be achieved with silence. It is useless to us.

I did suffer then, and I recalled the words of my goddess sun. I saw a lot of human ugliness. I began to understand that some of my closest performer peers were potentially jealous—competitive to the point of being mentally ill. I had to step away from the performing world and walk on alone for a time.

After affects, deadbeat friends and previously mentioned boobslides aside, I now have a rather splendiferous reconstructed rack and since that first operation my pathology has been normal. If I stand still like a doll my boobs look fantastic! When I use my muscles my tits end up under my armpits—but hey, I’m alive. Let’s just say—improvements to this type of reconstruction can definitely be made.

I haven’t been onstage much since losing my tits. I have been shunning the world whilst I heal from my sense of loss, anger and grief—all a normal part of processing a lost body part. My brush with ‘fame’ certainly left me feeling singed. I’ve been on a barge through the underworld and am emerging very much transformed.

On top of this, the Australian burlesque community I love and have done my best to nurture, to guide and create opportunities for, seemed ready to exist without me. I was feeling that job was done too. I could step away from all of it now and begin a new life.

Just as I was preparing to thoroughly wedge my head into a deep isolated hole of academia, throw my performing career to the wind and rubbish everything I had worked so hard for, someone reached out. It was someone who has my heart in her hands— and it just came out of the blue from the most unexpected place. It reminded me that my job as Australia’s Queen of Burlesque was far from over.

One of the lost Australian legends opened a FB group. It is a closed group— consisting of the performers of the last three generations of stage strippers in Sydney. The Goddesses of The Golden Mile were reuniting. (Please respect our decision to remain a closed group—please do not come looking for us. This page is private.)

Although these performers who are by definition legends in age, era, status, and performing style, they are performers who were never once celebrated for their work as striptease artists. These performers got the opposite end of the stick—they were judged.

So, regardless of their glamorous disposition, their fabulous fabulousness, their indomitable attitudes, and their passionate lion-like hearts, they are unlike our American legends… no one in the revival even knows they existed.

For me, it was such a joy to have my little family back. Suddenly voices from the past were all calling out, laughing together, grieving for our lost friends and putting up photos of us in the clubs. It filled me with a sense of pride and belonging, and loss—there was that stinging feeling again. That unfinished work needs tending to.

Our glittering legends of Oz are such a huge part of my story, and those harsh, violent years galvanised, if not cauterized, me to be the creature I am today. Thanks to the Goddesses of The Golden Mile—my mentors, heroes and friends— I have been reminded that not all of it was awful. The best thing about it was them.

They taught me how to dance, how to design my first costumes, how to sew, and how to throw a good punch. They taught me that striptease could be beautiful and that I could create theatrical, sensual new worlds onstage. They taught me to hold my head up, regardless of what society thought of me. All of us who have been ostracised in some way know society condemns what it is afraid of and forms contempt for what it does not understand.

So part of my unfinished work as Australia’s Queen of Burlesque is to create an understanding of strip and the damage that judgement does. I am going to share my story about the start of the burlesque revival in this distant, heat-twisted land of Oz. I am telling it now before it is lost for all time.

I am telling it for everyone in the performing world, as there is so much wisdom to be gained from this little sliver of my youth. Treat it as a fable, a song line or a morality tale. There are always lessons to be learned from history; the most important one is not to let bad history repeat itself elsewhere.

My job as an historian involves tracing a history that has been denied, forced underground, slut-shamed, illegalized, systematically attacked by the press, suffered artistic appropriations, hated on by the Church, hated on by feminists, politicized by gender transitions, linked to the mafia, the performers classed as ‘prostitutes’ and its documentation destroyed because of societal judgment—it’s no easy job I have before me. But it’s a gob-smackingly awesome history and I can’t wait to share it with you. It’s a firecracker!

The first thing that must be made clear is that, probably like any culture that does not have a Burlesque Hall of Fame or a museum, our legends from the fifties onward do not identify as burlesque, they proudly identify as strippers. They do so to push a point—they will not be judged as being less than others because of their lifestyle choices. These women are no shrinking violets and have no patience for a world that expects them to kowtow to shame.

To date, our legends of Oz do not feel included in this revival. They haven’t been. They have been deliberately omitted—edited out of the Australian burlesque story. I think the worst damage occurred when the Australian revival started to involve performers from a non-strip background. Their catch cry—“I’m not a stripper, I do burlesque”.

It is understandable why that happened in a judgmental sexist culture such as ours, but it must be amended all the same. The legends took offence and rightfully so.

So I stand before this mighty wall that lies between my two communities, pebble poised, ready to throw. If my pebble were a sentence, it would be this: “I have much to say about the way women are treated on this planet, in particular the socially damned.”

If women in striptease are at the forefront of the battle to own our bodies, it’s a battle I wonder women will ever win if we cannot stop our own slut-shaming.

This job of mine is not to bring the stripper legends to burlesque, but to bring the burlesque community to love strip. There is so much to love.

I’m going to tell you of the first four years in my career. In respect to the women who shared those years, names and identities have been changed unless I have their written consent. In fact, if I may quote South Park’s disclaimer: “All characters and events in this book, even those based on real people, are entirely fictional.”

Let’s start at the beginning—as all powerful stories must have a good beginning. How did a nice Catholic schoolgirl end up being one of those bad, bad girls? In truth, I wonder if I was ever really a ‘nice’ girl. I think part of me was always wayward, I just needed a little push.

Bad Girls Credence

Bad girls don’t just happen, we aren’t necessarily born this way—we are what life makes us. Our choice to be defiant is a legitimate response to a misogynistic planet.

Bad girls are independent thinkers. We question everything from what is considered politically correct through too-often adopting what is socially incorrect. Don’t expect us to be politically correct about anything— we make up our own minds.

Bad girls have their own gravitational pull, and are drawn together by life. We form our own societies with our own rules.

Bad girls actively defend and align themselves with other minorities. We are often perceived as being aggressive, when really we just speak our minds.

Bad girls don’t fit in, ‘fit’ being the operative word. We have long since grown too big to squeeze back into safe, grey pigeonholes. In our wicked freedom we have sprouted enormous scintillating wings, are covered in glittering spines and spikes and have elegant but razor-sharp retractable claws. We don’t fit in—we spill out—everywhere.

Bad girls are often ones who showed huge spark as obstinate yet sensitive children. Many are those who have tried to squash us down using that patriarchal garbage compactor—shame. Noting that submission is a valid response to fear, and not bagging anyone who went that way—bad girls don’t submit, bad girls kick back. As such we are often called “shameless.”

Bad girls are lone wolves who form a motley pack. It is often a pack with integrity—we stick together. However, Bad Girls can quickly turn on each other or disperse in times of danger knowing the truth: that we are born alone, and we all die that way too.There may well be safety in numbers in a herd, but on some levels of society there is better survival in being remote. I have been alienated from my pack for some time—but they go with me in my heart everywhere I roam. I never did well in herds, but alone—alone I can conquer the world. And I did.

♣♣♣♣♣

Check out all chapter published to date of A Bad Girl’s Guide To Revolution, by Imogen Kelly.

Don’t miss the Beat. Subscribe.

* indicates required



Original artwork by Josh Weeks and used here with express permission for Burlesque Beat. This piece may not be republished in part or in whole without obtaining explicit permission from both the author and Burlesque Beat. To acquire permission please contact us here. If quoting this piece, please include author and publication credit and a link to this original piece.

Share this post