Burlesque Hall of Fame 2017: The 27th Annual Tournament of Tease, Miss Exotic World
Dear goddess, please guide my hand that I may write only true words, that they be void of malice or empty derision, and absent of the vicious, snarky takedowns that are just so much fun to write and get so much traction on social media. Please bless my eyes and my ears that I was so lucky to witness a night of such glorious nudity, and have mercy on me for liking some of it more than others.
With FIVE competitors in the Boylesque category this year—three of them skilled New Yorkers well-known to me—I expected to be blown away. And I… kind of wasn’t. TBTH, I don’t think the crowd was, either—we didn’t see the apeshit, chest-pounding, bodice-ripping reactions we’re used to at that point in the evening. The acts were all different, but didn’t… surprise or amaze. I wanted more from all of them. As for the crowd, has boylesque lost its novelty? Or has the once mostly Androsexual crowd become, well, not?
L.A.’s Tito Benito turned in a fun, campy Boy Scout routine to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (half standing O); New York’s Chris Harder gave us his fun, prop-heavy “Rhinestone Cowboy”-cum-“Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” act— and branded his codpiece with an H! Mercury Stardust, of Madison, Wisconsin, was more theatrical, dancing with a ghostlight, getting shocked, plugging the bulb into his jock. New York’s Topher Bousquet, with his Little Mermaid hula hoop act, which I adored at the New York Burlesque Festival, I’m afraid suffered from New Yorker syndrome: not quite translating as well to the giant stage. (There are no burlesque stages that big in New York. Only the High Line is even close. New Yorkers, be warned—figure it out before bringing an act to BHOF.)
And the winner of Boylesque was New Yorker (and Seattle-r and New Orleans-er) Lou Henry Hoover, who beat out silly, fun, theatrical, and bendy with pure dance. Set to “Weight in Gold” by Gallant, the act pivoted on the moment of rubbing his boots to gold, an effect of those color-changing sequins so loved in New Orleans, and a great crown-off, crazy gold-dust-in-hair move. And it’s true, he moves beautifully.
Starting off the competition for Queen, Redbone made an extremely strong entrance, to “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers in red gloves, and kept up the intensity; ripping off her skirt to whirl it like a cape. Her floorwork had real malevolence in it, and she ended with the final reveal of a triangle patch of a skeletal hand flipping the bird. Really was a trend this year—flipping off the audience.
Lady Josephine entered to “The Stripper” draped in various animal tails, before the change to the modern start/stop club pulse of “You and Me“ by Disclosure (feat. Eliza Doolittle), with very stylized moves, good handwork and, of course, such legs. The act seemed to drag a bit in the middle—YMMV—but kudos for the mirrored fan, which threw fun light flickering from the stage, and will clearly make for amazing photographs of her reflected profile. Vancouver’s Melody Mangler, in green panels and blue gloves, turned in a solid act to Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” with great facial expressions, a nice step-on-it glove peel, and a lost pasty at the end. Does that get dinged by the judges?
Miss Alyssa Kitt, from Sydney, gave us what she calls her “Swamp Bitch” act—big red hair, green dress and—damn it, “Bad to the Bone,” the same version as Redbone. I found this infuriating. The rules clearly stipulate that if two acts use the same music, “the Selection Team reserves the right to contact those applicants about performing a different act.” I was pulled out and couldn’t focus on Kitt’s act, and later found it harder to remember Redbone’s. I wonder if either was given the opportunity to change their music—at least switch to the blistering Molly Hatchet version.
My favorite of the Queen category was Sweetpea—a daunting dancer, and a well-known badass, she gave us a simple, tight act in leopard-print chaps and accoutrements, using one simple prop: a saw horse. Visually clever and essentially elegant, this was all Sweetpea. Ripping off a cape and hat to “Ride” by Ciara—which opens with the unmistakable Morricone theme from “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”—she was at turns smiling and utterly unpredictable in her moves, from an almost-krump to floorwork, to some crazy kneeling, of course riding the horse—and not how you thought she would ride it—to twerking on the horse, which sounds like a heroin overdose joke but was actually ridic hot. She closed with a headstand and a quick twirl in star pasties, and got half the audience to its feet.
Totally different, and yet a close second in my book, was Sydni Deveraux, in a completely character-driven act. To “Long Heels Red Bottoms” by Trina, in red boots and gloves and a big faux fur, she rocked big hoop earrings and—yes—chewing gum. A dramatic and hilarious character that she played to perfection. She opened her coat to reveal a slingshot bikini, did some slow grinds and an utterly believable smile, a backwards crawl on the floor that was absolutely sick, and walked. Downstage. Just walked. Downstage. Like that was all she needed to do. Captivating. And great music choice—a song about Louboutins that’s also a bass-heavy rap track at runway tempo.
Winning the big trophy and the crown for Miss Exotic World 2017 was Medianoche, who displayed her usual prowess of dance and gorgeous costumes—which she makes herself—to “I’ll Take Care of You” by Beth Hart. A gossamer draping over a silver corset, with an asymmetrical one-shoulder addition. She had a quick, clever, dramatic reveal which I blinked and missed, but I have it from multiple reports that her bra changed colors from metallic to red “with a sweep of the hand.” (Combing the photos, it looks like this brilliant costume construction is not a reveal at all, but an add—a second bra cup flips up to cover the original.) She stripped down to a red bra and panties and—I don’t know what to call it, but imagine a giant scarlet spider spun half a web across her midriff—she then revealed—from seemingly nowhere—another gossamer skirt, this time red. Solid sleight-of-hand. Again, watching the crowd, about half gave the act a standing O. What’s with all the half standing Os this year?
The undisputed, everyone-in-the-house-on-their-feet moment came with Poison Ivory’s step-down piece, an epic act that involved a chorus of guest players and spanned a slave’s escape and redemption, to modern police putting her back in chains. It was proof that an act can be political and moving, and beautiful AND entertaining. Great, inspired work from Poison Ivory and from her collaborators.
What the two big wins have in common this year is that both are hard-working performers who had earned their stripes and kept coming back for another shot, and now there’s a space for others to flourish. The great irony of winning the title—to paraphrase Dirty Martini—is that, apart from a step-down, you’ll never perform on that stage on Saturday night again. And you’ll have to lobby for a chance to perform on Sunday—out of an ever-widening group of candidates which currently allows superlatives. It’s almost bittersweet.
But to totally change the subject, there was one other BIG WIN of the night: the adaptation of the classic Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First,” re-written by Jonny Porkpie and performed—to perfection—by Porkpie and Blanche Debris, was knock-down drag-out brilliant. This throwback act, done without nostalgia, with Blanche as the hysterical moron and Jonny as the cool-as-cucumber-vodka straight man, was sheer comic genius. I love these two hosting together; they keep getting better every year, this year adding the gag of hosting on roller skates. But “Who’s On First?”—my only criticism is the audience: I felt half the folks weren’t getting it. How can such a low-brow act become suddenly high-brow? Wait 80 years, apparently. (The act was a hit for Abbott and Costello as early as 1937.)
The well-known baseball routine was revamped to refer to the show order of a burlesque—Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know—”Third act!”—the confusion increasingly frustrating Debris. Porkpie’s redux followed the structure of the classic act impeccably, and continued the burlesque into the other players, with Why as the sound man, Because on pickup, Tomorrow as the producer, and the Headliner—and ultimate punch line—I Don’t Give a Damn, which is practically a Turducken of a joke about burlesque. I’d like to see this again and I hope someone at some festival somewhere (I’m looking at you Jen Gapay) has the sense to book it—it’s the best comedic retro-vaudeville act we’ve seen in forevs.