Legendary Costumes: Camille 2000, Cosmic Queen of Burlesque
In late September of 2016, The New York School of Burlesque offered a class with burlesque legend Camille 2000, and I jumped at the opportunity to meet her and learn from her in an intimate class setting. I had seen Camille at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender as she hosted part of the legends show and made a badass exit on the back of a supped up motorcycle, cruising away with her middle finger extended to all. Since then, I have found some of her fantastic promo photos from the 1960’s and 70’s that display Camille’s original costumes, and I was very excited that she agreed to talk about them! The following are excerpts of our phone interview on October 20th, 2016.
RLR: Hi! How are you?
C2: Fine! Thank you!
RLR: Thank you for taking the time to chat about this.
C2: Oh, it’s my pleasure!
RLR: It was really great taking a class with you, it was so nice to have a smaller room of people, you know, a more intimate setting.
C2: Yes, it was fun, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed being in New York.
The New York festival was really great. That’s the first year I’d ever been to it.
RLR: Oh, I mean, they do it up, that’s a big one! It’s good!
C2: It is, it’s very nice!
RLR: So, I’m documenting burlesque costume history in many ways, and there’s an academic publisher very interested in a book on burlesque costume history. I’m trying to touch base will all of you legends who are still around and have great costume pieces, and can tell me about your experiences so that we can kind of put the pieces together and document it.
C2: That’s a nice project, that’s GREAT!
RLR: Yeah, I’m excited. It was like my dream, and someone’s letting me do it, so I’m excited about that!
C2: Just keep dreaming girl, cuz they do come true!
RLR: I will! Talking to you is kind of a dream come true. I love being able to talk to legends, and, you’re a badass, so I love that!
C2: Oh, thank you!
RLR: Ok! So, what is your career span, what years did you perform full time?
C2: I was in the business for 20 years. From 1968 to 1988.
RLR: Wow, ok. That’s a great span because a lot of people talk about burlesque kind of falling off the planet during that time period, but it didn’t!
C2: Yeah, it was goin’! I was on the tail end of burlesque. My first ten years in the business, I did classic dance and wore classic gowns and costumes and fans, but then my last ten years I started doing Aggressive Art, and Marquis de Sade, and numbers like that.
RLR: Ok, so, you started doing more classic stuff and then you moved into the Aggressive Art- what were the factors that made you move into the Aggressive Art performance, was it outside factors, or was it YOU?
C2: We were losing our audiences to something called LIVE NUDE dancing. So, that’s why I started doing numbers like that- performance art, Marquis de Sade, Black Widow, Nunchucks, and things like that, and boy, it’s kind of like Neo Burlesque today!
RLR: EXACTLY! It is on the forefront of what the edgier neo stuff is, that’s what I think is so great! So, with that change, how were you getting hired? When you started, were you getting hired one way, was it through an agent, and did that change through your career? Or, was it always through agents, or tours…or some other way?
C2: I always had an agent — Jess Mack. He was my agent when I was in New York and he eventually moved to Las Vegas and he was still my agent. Back in the day you had to have an agent, and they booked you. And, if you wanted to be a feature headliner, you had to have the best flippin’ wardrobe made usually by a professional like Simon Soar, or Hedy Jo Star, or Caroline; someone that had a famous burlesque name. Because the star of the show had to have wardrobe like “Oh, that’s Simon Soar’s” or “oh, that’s Hedy Jo Starr,” or “that’s Bobby Gerstein.” You had to have wardrobe if you wanted to be a headliner. You had to invest in wardrobe. And I believe that today, the wardrobe is very important.
RLR: Yes it is, especially, to actually get paid. You know how, a lot of the gigs now, it’s very low pay.
C2: Yes it’s different, it’s different now than from our day. I see that. People do it now more like a hobby, or something, whereas we got into it to make a living from it.
RLR: Exactly. So, when you were investing in your costumes, when you were working with a costume designer, was anybody helping cover the cost of that upfront, and then you were, paying it off? Or were you having to invest?
C2: I had to (pay). The costumer because they were so expensive, they would let you pay so much a week as they were fitting it. They would come and do fittings and fit it to you. Say if it was $500; that’s kind of like a gown that’s not like really elaborate, that was just you know, your basic gown that would have some stones and everything on it, but it would be by a famous designer. He would let you pay so much a week, or a month, and when it was finished, you would have it paid off and he would give it to you. But, he came and did fittings, and he sketched it. Simon Soar did — he sketched it, and made it to fit you, and it was beautiful. So, he let me pay so much, until, you know, I got it paid off. Of course, you would try to pay it off fast because that’s your wardrobe- it takes money to make money, you know?
RLR: Exactly! You’ve got to have the clothes to take off, to do the job.
RLR: Now did you tour as well, or did you stay, more stationary?
C2: No, I travelled on the road. That’s how you get your name, you travel.
C2: I worked the burlesque theaters, and, it took me about a year to become a feature. I moved to New York, and had photos done by Simon Soar, and Maurice Seymour, you had to have a famous name there for the photos. Then I started having wardrobe made by Simon Soar, and Carlos made some of my wardrobe, but Simon Soar was really famous, and Hedy Jo Starr was really famous.
RLR: And Carlos? Does he have a last name?
C2: No, I just remember Carlos.
RLR: That’s what people say about Caroline too.
C2: Yeah, I just remember Caroline was just Caroline. I had a lot of her beaded under pieces.
RLR: Exactly, I talked to one other legend, she said “everybody had at least one set from Caroline.”
C2: Oh yeah, those seed beads. You HAD to have that, and they could go with any gown, the under pieces you know?
RLR: Right, you could mix it up. So did you have costumes mostly from Simon? Did you have Hedy do something specific?
C2: I have a gown by Hedy Jo Star. Simon Soar did most of my wardrobe. A lot of it got stolen, but I still have that blue velvet gown. I didn’t have that at the club the night that I got robbed.
RLR: Oh my God!
C2: It was at home, because I wasn’t using it! And I still have that blue velvet gown- the one with the ass out? That’s a Simon Soar gown.
RLR: Yes that’s an amazing piece.
C2: I still have that gown and I still have a Hedy Jo Star gown.
C2: Yeah, I know! When I pass on, I’m going to donate them to The Burlesque Hall of Fame. I might do it before I kick off, I don’t know.
RLR: That’s fantastic! I was going to say that for this book project, I’m trying to get ahold of people so that I can come to you, and photograph your pieces. Just to make photographic records.
C2: Yeah I have some pieces that you could photograph- really nice ones.
RLR: That would be amazing. You know the gown with the ass cut out – you have the beautiful promo photo that goes with it, and so, to have records like that, that’s what we’re really looking for.
C2: I also have the photo of me in the Hedy Jo Star gown. I have a photo by Mendoza of Miami that’s like twenty years later. And, I still have that costume, so I do have photos for them.
RLR: Awesome! So, working with Hedy, do you want talk a little bit about how that was too?
C2: Hedy Jo Star?
C2: She came to Baltimore and made my gown. Her and, there was another woman that made gowns, Toni Midnight. I never had one by Toni Midnight but their work was very similar with the sequins (and embellishments), because Hedy had a sequin machine.
RLR: I do know that they do get grouped together a bit style wise.
C2: Yes, they come from the same era, their work looked alike. I think they probably had the same sequin machine or something.
RLR: Heavy embellishment is, for both of them, a signature…
C2: Yeah, it was just really popular back then, you know?
RLR: Yes well, it always looks so amazing under the lights, too.
C2: Mmmhmm. Bobby Gerstein was another famous designer, he made costumes for me. He was out of Las Vegas. He made a lot of Tiffany Carter’s and Kitten Natividad’s. I saw Kitten’s gowns and I said “oh man, I want a costume by him,” so he made an orange costume for me. I don’t have that one though, it got stolen.
RLR: That’s so sad! Did you ever sell any of your costumes to other performers?
RLR: How much got stolen?
C2: Thousands and thousands of dollars — everything. Everything except what I had at home that I wasn’t wearing. That was the blue velvet gown, and the Hedy Jo Starr gown.
RLR: Oh, God.
C2: I know, it crippled me. It really put me in a depression. I wanted to retire because that was the wardrobe. I wasn’t traveling back then because this was towards the end of my career, you know?
RLR: So that happened later…
C2: So, then I was doing those Aggressive Art numbers, and I didn’t really need the gown. I had to do something else, you know?
RLR: Yes — so did you start doing that, like, late 70’s or even later than that?
C2: The late 70’s. The first one was The Black Widow — late 70’s — when that music was popular with Alice Cooper and Lester Price.
RLR: Yes and then the Marquis de Sade act too. So, when you were doing those pieces, is any bit of that wardrobe from another person, or were you able to put it together (yourself)?
C2: No, I never bought used wardrobe. I always had my wardrobe made for me. My body harness I had made by a guy that made leather — that was a real body harness — and the mask, that was real.
RLR: Those little, really round cups that squeeze your boobs — that harness? That you just put a picture up of recently?
C2: Yes, that was a real body harness. That was the one I wore, in the day. That got stolen also, in Miami.
RLR: That’s terrible. I’m glad that you still have some of these amazing things.
C2: I am too. I’ve got a really sexy rhinestone piece that’s just all rhinestones.
RLR: Ooooh — and who did that one?
C2: Oh, gosh, it’s been so long! It wasn’t someone who was really famous — you know? I’ll think of her name later — it was like one name, but she wasn’t really known, she just did that kind of work.
RLR: That’s the kind of thing I like to know too. I want to know about the bigger names in burlesque costume, but, there are these other lesser-known people who made a lot of costumes for burlesque performers.
C2: Bobby Gerstein is another big name — you’ll want to look him up. He did a lot of Kitten Natividad’s. Most of all of her wardrobe is by him. In the later days he was really a big name.
RLR: Do you have a favorite costume ever?
C2: Yes. My favorite one got stolen. It was a Jesus Christ Superstar costume. It was all beads…and the same woman that did the rhinestone work — Gabriella knows her name, but I can’t think of the right name…I designed it, and she made it.
RLR: Did you say Gabriella Maze knows?
C2: Yes. She was in the Carolinas. When I think of her name I’ll message you.
RLR: Ok, you could do that, that’s cool.
C2: She just made things, she wasn’t really expensive. The more famous with wardrobe, the more expensive. If you could catch somebody that didn’t have a name so big you could get some similar stuff, but it wouldn’t be made by them, you know?
RLR: Right, you’re paying partially for the name and then for the labor.
C2: Yes — “this is a Simon Soar gown”.
RLR: Right. So you mentioned a couple of photographers, Maurice (Murray) Seymour, was that one you mentioned?
C2: Yes, he did my first photos.
RLR: He was in New York?
C2: Yes — New York. And then twenty years later I had Mendoza of Miami because I was in Miami at the time — I got him to do mine.
RLR: Was there anybody else that you worked with that you liked, or that I should, look into their work?
C2: No, those are the people that I’m familiar with.
RLR: Ok, that’s good.
C2: (Suddenly remembers the designer in the Carolinas name) SASSY! I think her name was Sassy.
C2: I think so.
RLR: Ok! That’s a good name…
C2: I might be wrong, but I think that was her name.
RLR: If something else comes up, let me know.
C2: Yeah…I’m smoking some good weed so you know how that goes…
C2: Yeah Baby!
RLR: Ha! Maybe talk to me a little more about when you started doing the Aggressive Art.
C2: I designed my costumes myself, and got a friend, a drag queen friend of mine to make them for me. Because then I didn’t have to spend all that money on gowns like I used to when I was first starting and wanted to make a name for myself. By then, I already had a name, you know?
RLR: Yes! And so you were headlining and doing these types of pieces.
C2: Yes. I designed the Black Widow, and Wendy the Snake Lady made it for me. It was just black chiffon, and the black fishnet bodysuit, and then we put red lame’ in the middle with rhinestones on it. And then we had a black headdress with chiffon hanging from it — I had it cut jagged. I still have the Black Widow costume — I’m thinking about recreating that for Vegas one year.
RLR: Awesome, that would be amazing.
C2: I’m thinking about recreating that…
RLR: You should do it, I encourage you, to do it!
C2: I’m thinking about it, because I’ve recreated a couple of my numbers and I think I should do that, because nobody’s doing that, you know?
RLR: Yes! It would be a good, different thing to see.
Ok, amazing. So even though you were still using an agent as your career progressed, what kind of places were you performing in?
C2: Burlesque theaters. I worked mostly burlesque theaters.
RLR: They still were calling themselves burlesque theaters even into the 70’s and 80’s?
C2: Yes there were a few — the Gaiety in Washington DC, the Gaiety in Miami Beach, The Town in Detroit. Yes it was a smaller burlesque circuit, but there was still a burlesque circuit. The LeRoy Griffith, The Mayfair in New York. They were burlesque theaters, and they used to have live bands when I first started, but that changed, you know.
RLR: You were using tracks toward the end?
C2: Yeah, we had live bands in the beginning though. And then they started the tracks.
RLR: Were the theaters showing films or, was there pole dancing in between…
C2: No. No pole dancing…
C2: They showed movies in burlesque theaters in between.
RLR: I’m trying to get a feel for what was going on then, because it’s not well documented.
C2: Yes, they were showing movies in the theater. I worked some clubs, but I worked mostly theaters, because I didn’t like to socialize. The only clubs I would work were clubs where you didn’t have to socialize with the audience.
RLR: Ah —
C2: I didn’t like mixing, and selling drinks, I didn’t like hustling drinks.
RLR: Right. You wanted to just do your headline gig and that’s your work, and you’re done.
C2: Yeah, I liked the theaters much better.
RLR: It’s good to know that there was still a circuit. People talk about it like it was gone, but there was a little bit still going on.
C2: Yes! There was a circuit when I first started — Toledo, New York, Cleveland, Canada…
RLR: I’m learning that Ohio really kept it going the longest. What were the theater names in Ohio, do you remember?
C2: The Todd Art was one, I think it was, Rose La Rose’s theater was one, and I worked The Roxy in Cleveland. The Roxy Theater.
RLR: Ok great, thank you for that. Will you talk about how you ended up at BHOF and involved with them?
C2: Well, they wanted me to come out for years and perform, and I wouldn’t perform. For a long time I would come out, but I just didn’t want to perform, I wanted to be remembered how I was…
RLR: I get that.
C2: Then after Eddie died I did a tribute to him to R. Kelley’s “I believe I can fly” – a fan dance, and that was my debut. So now I perform almost every year, although this year I MC’d.
RLR: I remember, I watched you! My husband was taking pictures, he got an amazing shot of you riding away and flipping everybody off!
C2: Cool, put it on Facebook!
RLR: I’m going to send it to you, and if it’s ok I’ll use it as your photo for this interview —
C2: Yeah! For real for real!
RLR: I think that’s enough for tonight! You gave me so much info Camille, thank you very much!
C2: Oh, it was my pleasure, thanks for calling, and you have a great evening!
RLR: Thanks, you too!
C2: Bye Bye Baby!
I’m so glad Camille decided to get up on the BHOF stage and start performing again. Her acts are in line with a lot of neo burlesque acts today, showing that she was ahead of her time. She truly was a trailblazer, headlining with her Aggressive Art. She will be remembered how she was, but she will also be remembered how she is- a strong, wild, burlesque queen who was part of the tail end of the burlesque movement in the 20th Century. Thank you so much Camille, for sharing your time and your stories for this interview!
We’re all about the legends of burlesque. Check out all our stories about these fabulous artists, including interviews, show reviews (hell yes, they’re still working!) plus complete transcripts of the legend panel from the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend.
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All photos in this piece are courtesy of Camille 2000 and used with express permission for Burlesque Beat. Please do not use photos without obtaining permission. When sharing this piece, please be sure to keep all photo credits in tact.