Chapter 4. EB
This morning I woke up in my hotel room, opened my blinds and blinked into the glare of the desert sun. I looked out over the empty expanse of baked concrete car parks, themselves a testament to potential fulfilment, over the buildings with grey skeletons of roller coaster tracks winding around them, the fake Eiffel Tower and miniature Statue of Liberty. I ponder this strange forest that is the concrete oasis Las Vegas- it’s mighty neon lights laid dead by the power of the sun.
I am reminded again of how wonderful and strange my life has become. It seems so distant to me now, that I once stood in that abysmal place, at the literal crossroads of Kings Cross/ my life, pondering my future. So now as I stand here in that life that I have carved for myself, it seems all the more appropriate that I write this chapter here at The Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend 2016.
I’m at The Orleans Casino, in my room, awaiting the commencement of the Legends night. I have overcome the depressing brown hotel décor by covering the surfaces with my sparkling gowns, feathered hats, parasols and hand painted costumes- a crown and sash at the end of my bed. Did I ever dream the choice I made that night to dive down that rabbit hole would ever lead me to the life of a globally celebrated burlesque queen? What would that young woman think if she met me now?
I did find out that every rabbit hole has within it hundreds of other rabbit holes and the future you end up in is all a result of the choices you make. So I think I would be amused by this outcome- it’s not quite fame, but John Waters styled notoriety. I feel like that girl who went to Hollywood to become a film star but ended up in B-Grade cult SCI FI flicks and survived by making porn on the side. Life is twisted fun provided you don’t fight the twisting… and never lose your sense of fun.
No one has seen me here since I last took to the stage to step down as queen in 2013. It was only two weeks after my first surgery. With only a third of my right breast I stood onstage and smiled straight into the blinding spotlight as if it itself were the surgery lights, or perhaps a glimpse of the light they all say awaits us at the end. My bilateral mastectomy is possibly the hardest rabbit hole I’ve tumbled down yet.
I have brought my Metamorph act with me this year – a goofy caterpillar metamorphoses into a powerful, striking butterfly. It’s pure pantomime in some ways, but also deeply symbolic. It is about forced transformation, being eclipsed by loss and emerging stronger.
Did you know that when a caterpillar goes into a cocoon it actually liquefies and then reforms as a butterfly? Is that what has happened to me? Did losing my breasts dissolve me?
I’m not the creature I was before. I’ve stopped apologising for my choices, and the Legends night at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend has a lot to do with it. Meeting Kitten Natividad, Haji and Camille 2000 has a lot to do with it. Most of my memories of Tallulah and EB have a lot to do with it. The first is Australia’s key revival pioneer, the other is our most well known legend.
Legends night is when the icons of the golden era of striptease, the Titans of Tease, are brought back onstage. I’ve seen women in their eighties get up and strut the boards on this night. There’s nothing quite so moving as seeing a woman, once so wild in her youth, transcend her aging body. In removing her clothes, she reveals the body that is taboo- the venerable erotic body. These titans also reveal the spirit that is denied, the fire that doesn’t go out- the priestess as challenger, the mythological crone in her place as goddess.
I would love to bring EB here, I’m not sure she’ll get onstage again. As EB always said, “you don’t give up the stage, the stage gives you up.” Besides, in a culture that is always looking for the next big thing, we are quick to dismiss the big things that have been. There is always an antagonism between what is now and what was then. The Titans of Tease reminds us that in time we will all be ‘then’.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame itself is an effort to hold back the tide, to slow the march of death and interrupt the oblivion of art. Photos, a few films and deteriorating costumes- it not much to leave behind from a life. You may as well just leave dust, or a spray of fine glitter in the air as you walk out into the beckoning glare of that last big spotlight. Will this next generation know who any of the legends and pioneers were? Although it is human nature to have a disaffinity with what has just been, I’ll never understand why we instinctively reject our immediate predecessors.
But I digress, where were we… oh yes Vegas. Why is it important to my tale? Vegas is where EB was made. “Who the fuck is EB?” I hear you ask… well. When I last left you I was just standing on the brink of making a life changing decision on Darlinhurts Rd, Kings Cross. I walked the stretch of “The Golden Mile” and looked at all of the strip clubs.
Some clubs were like open mouths of a whale shark sucking people off the streets, down into a dark, cool abyss.
Some were the edge of a waterfall waiting for human debris to slide over the precipice on their way down stream.
Some were like the mouths in a porn- open, ready for inspection; a tongue-like red-carpet rolled out across the pavement. Doormen like tonsils were exposed down the carmine oesophagus that led into the dark mirrored belly of the underworld. Here patrons were consumed, slowly digested by enzymes (sex workers and bar maids) only to be shat out the other end poorer, drunker and temporarily sated.
I marvelled at how much some strip clubs actually resembled the product they were selling with hot pink doorways flanked by labia of crimson velvet curtains that curled around the door. These were then pulled open wide by the doormen themselves- like the vaginas in nineties Penthouse magazines; that era when pin up girls decided to demystify their vaginas entirely. Pink open doorways, pink corridors and the pink beyond. Pink pink pink!!!
Perhaps this was the perfect cunt that these men dreamed of; never denying access, available 24 hours, non stop action, sub woofers causing the room to throb as the red lights pulse down the plush crimson corridor… and at the end… a dark, warm womb waiting.
I wondered if this meant that the punters were then becoming their own penis’- dicks on legs, with red knob-like, drunken heads looking for a warm hole to stick themselves in? I wondered further if they were like sperm- all driven to propel themselves down these flashing pink tunnels to reach the uteral room at the end. Here a sparkling little ovum would dance on the stage that men, like little gametes, would surround and hope that they would be the sperm the ovum would choose.
I continued on my walk.
Flashing neon signs shouted ‘Continuous live shows -24 hours a day”, with pink pigs fucking, pink love hearts beating, pink pussy cats with tails waving, The Pink Panther tipping his hat and pink neon ladies baring their pink neon outline of pink neon arse.
I walked up one side of Darlinghurst Rd past the Coke a Cola sign that rhythmically struck its pulse onto the circus below casting the whole intersection with long sanguine shadows.
I had looked into Playbirds, the newest club on the block. It was loud and ritzy. The doormen even wore ties in a faux show of posh. I walked past them up the 20 carpeted stairs to the top. The boss slithered past me- all gold chains and hair pomade in a polyester tailored suit. I studied the gallery of photos on the stair case walls. The girls looked glamorous and intimidating. I realised very quickly that I was not good enough for this club yet. I needed somewhere less illustrious to launch my less illustrious career. I walked back out onto the street.
I wandered past KFC with some hapless sex worker sweetly sleeping on the windowsill as people gorged themselves on fried dead chook around her.
Between shooting galleries, snooker dens and pinball parlors I walked past Porky’s and Love Machine, two gaping mouths on opposite sides of the street each facing each other. I cast my eyes down the interior shafts clad in warped, cheap mirrors- like a sideshow alley mirror maze. Adding to the carnival atmosphere were the dwarves, cripples, junkies and Black eyed Susans who peppered the entrance of each club- all a part of the show. The combination of aggressive doormen and bikers hovering around the entrances made me continue without faltering.
These weren’t the right clubs for me. I had tried performing in one strip club where the men masturbating aggressively in the front row, raping me in their minds, made me decide to seek work elsewhere. It was a harsh introduction to this art.
I didn’t know much but I had an idea about striptease. There must be some way I could make it outrageous and fun. I wanted to encapsulate the humour of drag queens, and create a form of glamorous parody I was looking for a place with a sense of humor, somewhere that wasn’t prestigious in any way; somewhere that would feature in a John Waters film. Thus far none of these dens showed they had any awareness of how ridiculous the whole act of stripping really was.
My mother had been a nudist. I had grown up feeling confident about my body. It’s not like I thought I was incredibly hot — my body is just a body. As EB says “your vagina is like your ear or your nose.” I didn’t think showing my body was rude.
So someone paying to see me naked seemed really daft. I thought it ridiculous that people even paid for such a thing. Fools and their money etc… However, if was going to do this I had to be able to make art with it somehow, these clubs seemed all hot business rather than cheesy sleaze and didn’t appeal to the B-grade fantasy that had formed in my mind.
I walked past the Pink Pussycat and The Pink Panther, smaller doorways that had the mark of age that sang to each other from opposite sides of the road. They were the Golden Mile’s most established clubs. But there was something creepy about them, both of these dens felt ominous and dark.
I doubled back and finally landed on a small doorway with the sign Stripperama. This door was not so much a gaping mouth, but more like a shiny dark slit in the wall. I starred down the long red passageway.
I liked the name Stripperama — it sounded kitsch. The name matched the old school set up of mahogany walls and gold framed mirrors. I liked the dancing girl on it’s neon sign that would take off her little green knickers as she twitched through her three stages of her staccato strip. I imagined if I did this thing called stripping, I would have to work somewhere where I could get away with calling myself a completely stupid name, wear fifties underwear, dance to cheesy lounge music and have a boss that didn’t mind my Mohawk.
This looked like my club. I wondered if this is where Tallulah worked, as she had started stripping a few months before me whilst I procrastinated as any recovering Catholic girl should.
I didn’t tell her that I was going to look for work in Kings Cross. I didn’t want to lean on her or ask for an introduction. I had to do this on my own.
I pulled myself to my full height, put on my most confident of airs and walked down the red steps, down that red hallway, right up to the box office and said to the muscle behind the till “ I’m looking for a job. I want to strip.”
Don looked up. He didn’t flinch at the sight of my Mohawk. He looked straight back down at the paper he was reading. He boomed out in his English doorman’s voice “Jason! I’ve got a girl here for you. Wants a job.” Enter a small weasley man with evasive cold blue eyes, a short-sleeved starchy shirt and trousers with hard ironed pleats. Meet Jason- the biggest cunt in the Cross. If you want a comparison think of the character Bricktop in Snatch. In fact Jason was such a freak that when punters would later yell out to me “show us your cunt” I’d retort by saying “He’s at the front desk.”
I could feel Jason look me up and down. Even though he worked hard to keep his eyes hidden in the shadows, I could tell he liked what he saw. He didn’t see what most people saw. He looked straight past the Mohawk, torn fishnets and steel capped boots. All Jason saw was a 5ft 7inch roll of cash. The dollar signs lit up in his darkened sockets.
“Alright” he said in a harsh Australian accent. “Have you ever stripped?”
I explained I had done two shows at The Pleasure Chest on Oxford Street, was living in a punk ghetto, and had very little money. I explained that I was studying at Art School and needed to buy supplies to continue.
At the mention of this his face changed slightly, although he was careful to keep the shadows over him. Now, it’s not as if he was any sort of saint, but for reasons I came to understand later, he wanted to help me… in his own vile way, he wanted to ensure I got my degree. I picked the right door that night. This protective fiend, as awful as he was at times, was happy to employ women of all kinds and ages, so long as he didn’t have to watch as it all destroyed them. Even then I knew he had seen so many destroyed, he’d played a key part in their destruction. But perhaps every now and then if he helped just one get out and on to a better life, he felt somewhat redeemed. As such his next words came tumbling out like the empty shells of machine gun bullets falling to the floor.
“Right, here’s the rules.
I don’t want you to hook. I can make you more money as a stripper than if you hook. If I do this for you and put you on my books, train you how to do shows and run your business, you work for me and me only. These other clubs will have you hooking in no time. You’re no hooker, you belong onstage.
No hooking, the first box was ticked.
Rule 2: Don’t use hard drugs. If I find out you’re using drugs I will no longer employ you. Junkies are fucking hard work. I don’t like girls that cause me problems. So if you work for me and I find out you are on smack, you’ll be out. I fucking hate junkies.
No hard drugs = Second box ticked.
All I ask is the same as any other fucking job. You turn up on time, and do your shows. I don’t have time for fucking divas, I pay a flat rate to all the girls which is $15 a show. The shows are three songs / 15 mins long and I’ll start by giving you the day shift. That’s four shows a day and you work the bar in between. If you’re good enough I’ll start booking you at night, then for parties and I’ll employ you on Friday and Saturday nights. That is where the money is.”
Instant cash = Third box ticked.
Now- go inside and watch. There are three girls going on:. The first is Brook- only been working three months. She’s a bitch so watch her. The second is Sally,. She’s also a bitch, but she’s a sex worker and takes the johns upstairs- so she’s not on my books. The third? woman is the best stripper in the Cross. She’s famous. You’ll know her when you see her. After that you’ll do an audition.”
Audition = final box ticked.
“ And put on a fucking wig.”
Oh well — you can’t get it all your own way now can you?
Job interview over.
I went in to the little womb room, dragging my broken school bag that contained my costume and sat at the back. It was a small room with 50 red buckets seats on raked seating looking down at a small black stage. The working girls worked the floor as I sat there watching a shitty porn involving a pool repair man and a woman with a purple vagina.
I found it all a bit confronting and was about to leave when finally
the movies abruptly stopped.
The screen went up with each whir and click of the retractable mechanics clanking through the awkward silence. Don’s voice boomed “ Gentlemen, please put your hands together for the very beautiful Brook.” Three lights started to flash and the disco ball started to squeak as it lethargically spun.
Brook burst out in a frenzy of floor-humping, gyrating, speed induced, pole sucking, teen fury. I remember little other than she made a point of shoving her pimply bum in my face before ripping her knickers off, laying on her back onstage and twirling her legs around… a lot. . Brook made it clear she didn’t like me, as did Sally who followed- who also spent a long time on her back waving her legs around. I didn’t really get what this move was, I’ve called it the Broken Mixmaster. I recall thinking- I can do that. Then again, maybe that’s all that $15 buys you- some bored blonde staring at the ceiling as she opens and closes her legs.
The next dancer was announced. The room was pitched into an excited silence. The atmosphere changed the minute her long legs appeared. Out slinked an older woman who effortlessly dripped herself onto the stage like warm honey. She moved with so much grace, with the awareness and refinement that older women seem to possess. She wasn’t afraid of her audience. She didn’t look down at them and didn’t permit them to look down on her. She wasn’t there for them, she was there because she wanted to be there. She certainly didn’t do The Broken Mixmaster. In fact she did something I rarely saw any of the strippers do — she smiled. This smile was so glamorous- so infectious. It seem she just oozed with the base knowledge that women really are the keystone of humanity, and our innate eroticism is part of our essence.
Watching her filled me with an un-named sense of pride. It was my first taste of what we now call empowerment. But then I knew I was taking part in a rare event. I was a woman, in a male environment, learning from another woman how to control a room of drunk men.
She wore a black gown and teased each man in the room allowing each one the chance to remove a piece of clothing. As she was wearing three pairs of gloves and at least five g-strings it took a long time for her to get naked. This was all a part of her game. The Tease seemed to be less about doing a series of dance moves and more about forming a rapport with each member of her audience- making each man feel special. With each little stop she made to her audience members, she laid a thread of invisible web until, when she got back on stage, all of the little insects were caught in it.
When she had finally removed everything, including her shoes, she contorted and rolled across the stage in an elegant, deeply erotic floor show, her waist-length honey blonde hair spilling over her spine as she whipped it around. She danced with a silk black scarf ensuring that if the audience ever got to see anything it was only just a glimpse.
This was it!!! This was what striptease is meant to be! I knew I was looking at something really special, something a little lost in time. Her moves were not the floor pumping, jazz inspired moves I thought men would be so into. Her moves were fluid, feminine, powerful and proud. Her interpretation of how she moved seemed unaffected by time. She wasn’t an instrument of male fantasy; she was a maestro at work, conducting an orchestra of horny minds to all play her tune.
Then finally, at the crescendo of Man’s Word by Rene Geyer she bent over and showed her vagina. And whilst they all sat staring at her pussy as if it was the Virgin Mary itself, it suddenly started to sing. And when a pussy sings- well… it sounds a lot like a fart. Yes that is right, this graceful goddess was finishing her act by queefing her cunt to the music- a physical act which involved the power of her whole abdomen. Stuff came out as that mighty cunt sang and just before the audience had time to recoil in absolute horror, she stood up and spun around and we were safe again in her smile- her beatifying healing smile.
I wasn’t sure what the fuck I had just witnessed but I felt a bell toll inside me. I knew then that this was strangely my calling and that these clubs/ this art was very misunderstood. This place isn’t where women are subservient to male fantasy. This is the place where women at their most naked, women stripped of everything the world gives us to hide behind, can remind the audience of who was really in control. For no matter how much our punters might project their desires onto us, fantasize around us, sexualize us and turn us into their objects of lust- we can reduce all of their fantasies to dust with one moment of denial. In this place women could so easily derail male desires and assumptions with one quick pussy pump to a song called A Man’s World.
She bowed as the music faded. The audience clapped and I sat stunned as Don’s voice boomed in closure, “Lady and gentlemen, the amazing Elizabeth Burton.” I had just seen a woman who was to become a lifelong friend and mentor — the incomparable EB.