Enjoy this wonderful diary from Dirty Martini, describing her adventures on tour with Dita von Teese, Murray Hill, Perle Noire, Monsieur Romeo, Lada Nikolska, Catherine D’Lish and Selene Luna – the fabulous cast of Strip Strip Hooray!
Bling bling pretty boss lady! (May 9th)
As Murray Hill and I strolled into the LA House of Blues it was impossible not to gawk at the giant billboard of our very glamorous boss for the next three weeks. Hovering over the ‘shanty town’ front porch in west Hollywood is a larger than life becrystalled Dita Von Teese.
It is difficult to escape the charm of Hollywood, thinking you could pick up and move here when you feel the balmy breeze and warm sun on your skin. The notion of a dream tour with a cast of friendly and talented burlesque folk helps to weave that dream. However, I am a devout New Yorker and that is never more evident then when I walk into a corporate chain venue such as this. The House of Blues will be our home in most of the cities on our Live Nation sponsored tour. Every HOB in the US is nearly identical. We Americans are extremely adept at creating this kind of comfort experience. This brand of sameness usually sets me a bit on edge, itching to find the detail that exists only in this place alone.
House of Blues is meant to be a cosy reminder of a relaxed New Orleans Saturday night. A little turn of the century glamour mixed with a run down ‘outsider artist’ touch. Every room is filled with gold framed paintings of questionable taste and a healthy amount of red velvet. The house is spotless though; polished wood floors, black cocktail tables and bland metal railings that scream ‘safety first’. The highlighted feature of each club, the Gilligan’s Island style patchwork quilt main curtain was thankfully replaced in each venue by a royal blue and gold extravaganza owned and installed by Strip Strip Hooray! Maybe Dita couldn’t stand the sight of the honkytonk main rag that screams, ‘let’s put on a show!’ or it was a solution to some space and storage issues. Either way, it created the effect of grandeur everywhere we performed; a suitable backdrop to her props and costumes and our sparkling and varied talents. Above the proscenium were glowing icons of all religions, brought together in our case by the magic of good old fashioned striptease.
“Rehearsals have begun and I navigate my way through Dita’s giant props and Catherine D’Lish’s spider web like Alice in Stripperland.”
I’m delighted to find, upon my arrival at the velvety dressing room, a warm greeting by the cuter than cute ‘Vontourage’. Donna and Erica, Dita’s blonde back-up dancers lovingly dubbed the ‘DitaMint Twins’ by Murray, smile and hug me and the fun begins. The stunning and lithe Lada Nikolska peeks her head around the corner and the uber fabulous Selene Luna joins us while we all catch up on our exploits and travels since the last shows we shared a year before. This backstage moment is similar to a family reunion as we settle into our encampments for the next few days. Rehearsals have begun and I navigate my way through Dita’s giant props and Catherine D’Lish‘s spider web like Alice in Stripperland.
One by one the technicians appear and disappear through the sparkling drops as we exchange hurried hugs and greetings as they go about their work. Perle Noire sashays over with a kiss before getting down to the business of limbering up for her mind-bogglingly energetic routine. As I saunter over to the chest high stage, I’m amazed that I missed Dita herself looking perfectly doll-like in her black rehearsal togs nearly a foot away. ‘Hi Dirty’, she purrs, startling my distracted gaze. I’ve known her for years and she looks exactly the same as the day we met but even more glamorous than ever before. We start our work, finding unlikely spaces to stretch and prepare – she on a giant pink bucking bull and I buckling my highest heels ready for some West Coast adventure.
Friends and family. (May 11th)
Woke up today in my cosy tiger print sheets exhausted and sore and it is only day two. The debut show of the tour last night ran smoothly except for a few costume malfunctions that can often plague a striptease show. The cast order is solid, the enormous set changes are moving quicker and the audience was an excellent indication of the excited reception we will receive in the coming weeks. A highlight for me was continuing my warm-up ritual with Lada and Catherine D’Lish two hours before the show, easing into our regimen of core strengthening to Snoop Dog and ass firming exercises to the refrain, ‘…booty booty booty booty rockin’ ev’rywhere’. It felt familiar and I was hopeful that eventually the whole cast would join in our daily work out. A daily ballet barre and Yoga/Pilates/callisthenics mashup helps to keep chronic injuries at bay. Dancing in five inch stilettos is not for the weak and faint of heart!
That particular night they stabbed into my panel skirt, embarrassingly refusing to let go of the flowing material as I kicked and posed trying for it to break free. As a last ditch effort I removed my panel a few phrases early, relieved as the chiffon floated away freely. Immediately I forgot the whole gaff as I eased into my vigorous tassel tricks and finale. The next day I’m amazed to find that we will actually be travelling with a wardrobe master. What a luxury to have Eddie DeBarr with us, one of Dita’s best friends and an all around fun and hilarious person. Before I even remembered that I had put my foot through my costume he comes breezing in with the hole fixed and the panel steamed. As a person who is constantly on upkeep duty, I am impressed and relieved that someone else took on the responsibility. He cavalierly says it was a quick fix and he’ll make it pretty tomorrow. I respond, ‘ah, I’ll rhinestone over the hole someday. Anyway, if they are looking at that little mark on the bottom of my train I ain’t strippin’ right!’
The ‘business’. (May 12th)
Packing up after our first night of double shows in LA, Murray and I trudge down the many stairs, past the paparazzi who were waiting for Dita to emerge from the venue, and we head down the street to the Standard for a late night snack. The guys in the next booth are watching a video clip of Lady Bunny on their iPhone. We get very excited to see our old friend and ask them where they caught her act. I immediately recognise one of the gentleman as a regular judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. We all exchange cards and I suddenly feel that I have had THE Hollywood experience. Murray and I are definitely celebrities of an alien kind here.
I start to see that people definitely know who Dita Von Teese is but not necessarily what she does. On the airplane the steward described her after a long thoughtful pause as a pinup/actress, a label I had never heard before but made sense for someone grappling for reference. It wasn’t that long ago that any mention of the word burlesque would have garnered a blank stare and then a horrified realisation that the person in front of them dances in the nude. These days, there is no such reaction. Usually the shop keeper or baggage claim worker will say, ‘oh yeah, I have a cousin that’s into burlesque.’ We’ve come a long way!
Stay Classy San Diego! (May 14th)
We didn’t know exactly what to expect from the city of San Diego. Home to the US Navy and the kind of laid back people that perhaps don’t respond to the hustle bustle of LA, this city is both stunning and sparse. Perfect weather everyday; it’s like living in a soap opera set. This House of Blues theatre was thankfully on ground level. Our LA venue had an MC Escher-like set of staircases leading to the main stage from the dressing room, inspiring the fear of leaving a glove up there and having to navigate the stairs. Here there were no massive staircases to negotiate in heels, or anxiety about what costume piece you may have left four flights up. San Diego is a cool seventy, even and relaxed. Again, like a prolonged case of deja-vu, we wandered around the club wondering whether it was more like the one in Dallas or New Orleans.
The main difference for myself and a few other cast members that perform on the thrust runway during set changes was the phenomenon of looking straight up, neck outstretched, to see the audience in the balcony gazing positively straight down on us. Like spinning around while looking directly at the clouds in the sky, it can be dangerously dizzying. The crowd at our two shows was delightfully diverse. They were hungry for burlesque and showering us all with squeals and applause. One notable moment being a shy eighteen year old art kid, still in high school, dancing shyly and awkwardly to win the Murray challenge hands down to enthusiastic acceptance and applause.
My guest at the shows, the stunning blonde Mimi Le Meaux is someone I always have fun with. It’s nice to see her relaxed and on her home turf as opposed to the insanity of our French Cabaret New Burlesque tours. We caught up and talked about all of the fun things we will some day have time to do on my next trip to see her and we bid a hasty goodbye for a few weeks. I will see her and the rest of the Cabaret soon for our shows in Istres and Lyon France.
Dance party in the foundation room! (May 15th)
After the show we are told that we will have our first after party. We all are fresh and excited and dying to blow off some steam. We hastily pack up, put on sexy party clothes and gather with Dita as our leader. The Foundation Room is the party space in every HOB and we are used to the scene. Either there is a weekly party that the venue hosts with a VIP area set aside for us, or it’s some invited folks from the audience – reception style. This time we banded together behind Dita and our bouncer to be ushered into a completely empty room. Lights on, freezing cold and no bartender – somewhat like being in somebody’s parent’s basement.
Regardless, Dita plugs in her iPod and the dance party begins. Using a playlist she made from all of our favourite songs emailed to her weeks in advance, we let loose. Shortly after, our technicians join us and then a HOB employee with a 12-pack of Budweiser tall boys. This is a departure from the champagne stocked dressing room, but welcome none the less. This party spawns what is described on the tour schedule as our ‘dance party’ show warm-up. At Dita’s request we prepare for the show and I’m thrilled for the chance to laugh, bond and talk shop while we are all in stretch pants and leg warmers.
You know what luxury is? Stripping with a view of the Strip… And turn-down service. (May 17th)
Why is Las Vegas so crazy? Every time I come here the days go so fast and the nights are so long. When I’m in NY I can accomplish so much, but somehow when I plan a few activities here I’m running late and cancelling at the last minute. Leaving McCarran airport starts a whirlwind of activity, peppered with slot machine wins – and losses – and the overwhelming urge to get everyone around me to chant Strip Strip Hooray! I immediately go into burlesque-as-art promotional speech.
I suppose, because of the artifice of the Vegas strip and the almost constant flesh peddling going on here, I’m spurred to revolution against middle American values and popular culture. Contrasting the fanciful Vegas hotels and the glitz of our show are the cargo short and flip flop set. Omnipresent in their masses, they gawk at our flashy fashions and apparent physical freedom. House of Blues here doesn’t disappoint. It’s big and flashy and a touch less ‘shanty town’ than the rest.
The highlight here, aside from bumping Carlos Santana from his weekly gig, was the proximity of legends of burlesque such as Tempest Storm who, to Dita’s delight, was front and centre at the show. We all had the pleasure of seeing Marinka, Dusty Summers, Tiffany Carter and Grant Philipo in the house as we bumped and glided around the stage. The Vegas audience is always a little unsettling for me as I never know what reaction I’ll get. So many shows with lithe, topless gazelle-women, acrobats and narrow minded ideals; it’s like LA meets Miami for me. I steel myself for the show and I’m not disappointed by the reaction. They are with me and I try to curry more and more favour as I dance. I feel the usual mix of judgement meeting amazement and I can practically hear their thoughts: ‘This is not what I thought I was in for but I’m enjoying it!’
‘I am a transsexual goddess’ (May 23rd)
The legendary Fillmore. I couldn’t be more honoured to bump and grind my way across a stage that saw the likes of Hendrix, Zepplin and the Doors. I sit slack-jawed in front of my lighted mirror when a man sweeps in and places our special Fillmore show poster in the gold framed glass display, in this dressing room that had been filled with the greatest bands of all time. Long since the Fillmore East had closed its doors and been turned into a bank, the West had rocked on and filled its walls with posters specially designed for each show from its own printing press. Here was ours. Not a rock band, but just as raucous, we made history with the decibel level of our audience’s cheers. I could barely hear the driving beat of Louis Prima’s Peter Gunn over the roar. Listening carefully for all the hits and accents to ensure the proper placement of high kicks and pelvic thrusts, I bathed in the vibration of the crowd. Still stunned, I relaxed backstage and enjoyed the concert of classic burlesque music and roaring for the remainder of the show. I visualised the other performer’s moves and the reactions they garnered.
“…a gorgeous blonde clad in black exclaimed excitedly when asked what she does for a living, ‘I’m a transsexual goddess’, to the delight and long applause from the crowd.”
The freedom of San Francisco was a relief after the middle American alienation we felt in Vegas. The ‘Murray Hill Challenge’ reflected the wide range of our packed house as the contestants introduced themselves. The first, a man with a foot high purple Mohawk, was told by comparison he was the most normal. The second, a gorgeous blonde clad in black, exclaimed excitedly when asked what she does for a living, ‘I’m a transsexual goddess’, to the delight and long applause from the crowd. The third and winning contestant was a professor of activism and was dressed in Murray Hill style casual summer menswear. Winning by throwing Murray down to the floor and humping him to the beat, he was turned from a mild mannered teacher to a wild beast, spurred on by applause and a signed 8×10, ‘not of Dita but of Mr Hill himself ladies and gentlemen!’
Many of our burlesque buddies came to the show. Roky Roulette and Kitten on the Keys remind me of our next adventure with the Cabaret New Burlesque as I see their smiling familiar faces. Scotty the Blue Bunny helps us finish the rest of our liquor, as does Bunny Pistol. Baby Doe and Gorilla X are San Francisco family, the people that make me believe that there really is an underground tunnel from New York. It’s a treat to see these friends; after the show I didn’t want to leave the theatre as we blasted Led Zepplin and relaxed with the scent of weed wafting through the dressing room, imagining what it would have been like to watch Robert Plant live in action. I couldn’t help but wonder what those guys might have thought of our show.
A view of the Space Needle. (May 26th)
Seattle is a real burlesque town. The Neptune theatre which hosted our show had seen our kind before. Originally a silent movie house, it had all the trappings that show folk like us truly appreciate. Upon arrival I passed the solitary tiny ticket booth that you imagine to be manned either by a cute teen in a red and gold usher’s uniform or a stogie smoking old guy with a comb-over, reading a girlie magazine. In the lobby was a wooden popcorn stand shaped like a fishing boat with studded trident motif doors. Gold and and silver clam shell topped King Neptune heads stared down at us with glowing blue eyes as we sound checked. I start my warm-up on the stage as the cast filter in one by one. Perle Noire is stretching her 180 degree straddle while Lada lays down her mat to begin her Pilates routine.
I saunter over to the barre that Dita brings on tour with her and join in for some plies and tendues. Greg, Monsieur Romeo, is wearing an outfit one might wear to go to the cinema while he charmingly mock smokes, working his enviable abs. It’s time for makeup and I’m running a little late.
“I struggle and paint and look hard in the mirror at just small sections of my face, feeling a little like I’m applying clown makeup. Then it happens. I look in the mirror and a glamour girl appears.”
I run up the stairs to our cramped but lively dressing room to turn into a showgirl. There’s a moment in this routine where it happens like magic. I struggle and paint and look hard in the mirror at just small sections of my face, feeling a little like I’m applying clown makeup. Then it happens. I look in the mirror and a glamour girl appears.
Five minutes to showtime and we hear the audience for the first time. They are roaring. We are all so excited to get on the stage and feel their energy. Each time Murray’s punch line lands, we hear another roar. Dita‘s curtain is drawn and the crowd goes crazy. She strips her tuxedo with the help of her blonde pages and climbs into her signature martini glass. I can hear the audience as I wait in the wings and with each splash waves of screams follow. There is water everywhere. I love it when she gets bratty and splashes the crowd. Six stage hands in black prepare to mop up the mess with their white towels. As she synchs her last line and the curtain closes, the guys spring into action as she sprints back to the dressing room in her towel and bids me a hasty, ‘knock em dead’. It’s time.
I worry about how to top the image of Dita in her Swarovski glass and then quickly dismiss any thoughts I may have had. Murray starts my intro and I hold onto the centre curtain waiting for Jennie Lee’s famous tag line that I’ve adopted, ‘Miss 44 and Plenty More’, and I’m on. The front row is a mix of smiles, wonder and staring. As I strut in front of the blue curtain, I start to scan and work out what kind of audience I have. Are they burlesque fans, fashion people or curious onlookers? It’s a very mixed bunch. As I throw in a series of bumps, a clutch of ladies in pinup dresses scream their approval and I know the that this will not be difficult but more like being on a carnival ride. I spin back on to the stage as the curtain opens and I pray I don’t slip in any remaining water. All my wardrobe is on the floor and I encourage the crowd to applaud as my hand beaded bra swings above my head and it’s tassel time. The loudest roar by far sounds and in thirty more seconds I’m finished. On my knees I pose like a picture of my hero Jennie Lee. Murray helps me to get back to my feet and I’m exhausted. We do our shtick, I perform some feats of tassel technology and that’s that!
“As Murray pauses and states, ‘and now the queen of burlesque, Dita Von Teese’, the curtain opens on her, posed in her elaborate opium bed, and I scan the cast to remember their smiles. This is the image I hold as I remember the tour.”
I’m back in the dressing room panting and regaling Selene Luna, Monsieur Romeo, Lada and Perle with the story of the audience. They are alert, having a great time and, above all, deafening. They are young and excited. Now I wait. I run out to catch the Murray challenge as does the entire crew and it gives us lots of stories as Murray has pulled up the most unlikely of contestants. Two nerdy young students wearing backpacks have us howling as they let their guard down and dance unselfconsciously. They joyously grasp their Dita memorabilia as they leave the stage. I catch Selene and Perle’s acts as they wow Seattle and run to prepare for our curtain call. As Murray pauses and states, ‘and now the queen of burlesque, Dita Von Teese’, the curtain opens on her, posed in her elaborate opium bed, and I scan the cast to remember their smiles. This is the image I hold as I remember the tour.
Portlandia. (May 28th)
From under the sea, we emerge in Scheherazade. The Aladdin theatre was our stop in Portland. Another adorable marquee to announce our show full of light blue and pink neon. Seattle and Portland have all the advantages of a liveable city. Cute shops in walking distance of the hotel and laid back flannel and polar fleece-covered hipsters. We naturally found the perfect vintage shops, thrift stores and diners in both cities, even though most stores were closed for memorial day weekend. The best shop by far was Portland’s Avalon. Lovingly curated, I longed to take home a heavy brass dish in the shape of a fan dancer from the turn of the century. Visualising the frowns at baggage check, I let her go.
That night after the show, we settled into a cosy bar in the theatre to be greeted by the most enthusiastic of people buying me dirty martinis all night long. The neighbourhood bar was delighted to see us arrive and out of their minds with joy when Dita dropped by. Nervous and shy, they crept over to get their photos with her, not really wanting to disturb her evening. Really we were charmed.
Throwback barbershop quartet. (May 31st)
Murray Hill has tested every hair product known to man. Layrite is the only product he has found that keeps his hair glistening and perfect under the hot lights and stress of Showbiz. The inventors of this product, that he often promotes and uses enough to party with the east coast distributor, reside at Hawleywood Barbershop, Costa Mesa. Twenty minutes away from our hotel, it was irresistible. Adding to the allure was the rumour that women are not allowed.
I accompanied Murray on the adventure into the belly of the beast and we were quickly sized up and shuffled into the back bar, set up as a boys clubhouse and waiting room for the girlfriends of the freshly coiffed. The rule was not a rumour and we spoke at length to the guys about the reasons and reactions to it. What went down after we were generously greeted by Mike and Brandon is privileged information. Suffice to say, hours later, Murray emerged with the best high ‘n’ tight imaginable, enough product to last the rest of his career, and some new unlikely admirers which Murray won over with charm, wit, comp tickets and a love of basketball. Stranded miles from our hotel, we enjoyed dinner at a chain restaurant with many a curious onlooker before returning home. On with the show!
The OC. (May 30th)
Our final stop on tour is Orange County. Opening the shades in the morning reveals a blazing sun. It’s like LA was taken over by CEO’s on Casual Friday. To get to a Starbucks across the street it’s easier to get in a car and go from parking lot to parking lot. No such luck, we had to walk. The nearest convenience was the huge outdoor outlet centre mall. With two hours free a day, this was perfect before heading to the Yost theatre for the show. It’s our last show and the cast is thrilled. Dita, Eddie, Selene, and tour manager Jasmine all grew up here, so friends and families gathered to watch the show as well as the throngs of pinups and greasers that reside here. There’s a specialist mechanic for Packard cars next door that sets the scene for our retro mania, and Dita’s name was up in lights on the large marquee. The audience was immense and excited. Three sold out shows in two nights was no small feat after this three week tour. Even the singer-dancer-actor hotel clerk came to see the show. Dita is a home town hero here and they were on fire to see the show.
The shows ran smoothly, we all remain giggling friends and the tour was at capacity in every city. We wave goodbye to a raucous and successful moment together. The cast leaves exhausted and convinced that we made burlesque history. Tempest Storm, who came to see the show in Las Vegas, said that even in her day the productions weren’t quite as lavish as this. I’ll miss my family for these three weeks and all of our in-jokes and stories from the road.
“I know that a little magic is finished. For now it seems I will just have slightly faded memories of key cards from strange hotels, forgotten room numbers, pool side shenanigans and tight dressing rooms!”
Dita was generous to share her spotlight with us and we made for a very unlikely family full of laughs, sore muscles and circus style trouping. I hug Murray goodbye, get out of the taxi at the wrong airline – so confused from the many flights – and trudge to the correct one as I feel so suddenly alone and on my own. No longer does the tour manager tell me how to get from point a to b. I am a toddler without parents.
Alone, I fly back to Las Vegas for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend before heading back to New York. This annual occasion is usually so filled with joy and excitement, but when I board the plane without Murray to make an announcement on the PA that Strip Strip Hooray! is on board, or Selene cracking a joke, or Perle to say ‘dawling’, or Lada, Greg and Catherine breezing by elegantly, I know that a little magic is finished. For now it seems I will just have slightly faded memories of key cards from strange hotels, forgotten room numbers, pool side shenanigans and tight dressing rooms!