In 1984 Dick Clark of American Bandstand asked a very young, very ambitious Madonna what her dreams were, to which she paused for a beat before replying in total seriousness: “To rule the world.”
As anyone who knows international burlesque star Perle Noire can attest, the renowned multi-hyphenate artist (performer, mentor, and most recently, producer of high end dance company House of Noire) possesses that intangible spark of greatness – the ability to rise to the challenge of a performance in a singularly honest way, giving herself to the audience in a reciprocal moment of wild abandon.
She’s danced on stages from the Teatro Circo in Madrid to the Sydney Opera House, brought home Best Debut at the Burlesque Hall Of Fame in 2008, and toured with Dita Von Teese’s Strip Strip Hooray! in both iterations. And like all the ambitious ladies that came before her, Perle Noire thinks big. Very big.
Las Vegas big, in fact. Contemplating the future of her newly minted House of Noire, Perle purrs, “The House shall be legendary,” with a conviction that sounds more akin to an early warning than an aspiration. “The House of Noire will eventually become a Vegas style show. We will be featured in casinos around the world, and private events, and doing a House of Noire convention. Those are my big, big plans for the future.”
If the House’s sold out, wait-listed debut at New York City’s Duane Park is any indication, the road ahead will indeed be paved with myriad opportunities.
“I never intended to be a producer. The House of Noire, in my mind, was an opportunity for me to mentor some women or men, and also to book the House of Noire in festivals and different shows around the world,” she recalls. “But there was such interest in seeing what I was putting together from the New York fans and the New York burlesque community that I was sort of forced to put on the producer hat. And I’m glad I did! I mean, the show sold out in less than two weeks in New York City with a $75 ticket when most shows right now are free. People were so engaged at the shows that they weren’t even drinking. We got a full house standing ovation for the show. I still can’t believe it.”
It was an electrifying moment that the “gems” of the House of Noire – TuTu Toussaint, Lilin Lace, Pearls Daily, Poison Ivory, Bizzy LeBois, and Taradise – will remember as just the beginning.
“I call them gems because of how beautiful and unique they are; each gem has something unique. And like a rare gem, so gorgeous to look at but you can also see the flaw, and that should be celebrated. One of my affirmations I tell students to say in the mirror is ‘I am a beautiful imperfection’. And that’s how I see myself, and that is what I saw in the women.”
Of the 32 artists that auditioned for the House, Perle carefully considered their performances for weeks – poring over the audition footage daily and consulting a panel of judges she respected before selecting six talented individuals to go on the journey with her.
To Perle, the bond of mentorship that a house cultivates sets it apart from a traditional troupe. Inspired by the 1990 film Paris Is Burning (centered on the vogue houses of New York City’s drag scene in the 1980s), the completely self-taught Perle related to the inventive, tenacious glamour of the often destitute underground dancers.
“The kids were orphans in a way, or kids who were very talented but couldn’t get work with the mainstream companies like Paula Abdul or Janet or Madonna at the time. But they were kings and queens on the ballroom scene. I will always consider it a house because I am doing a bit more that a troupe leader would do. I’m really taking the time to mentor these girls, help with their booking, marketing, helping them to get work and a following. For me, what I’m trying to accomplish is something that hasn’t been done,” Perle explains.
In the early days of the vogue houses, homophobia and transphobia were so pervasive that holding one’s head high by getting into drag and proudly proclaiming ‘I am somebody’ was not only a means to elevate beauty and celebrate individuality, it was a survival skill. “I want us to think of ourselves as beautiful healing beings, and quite frankly elite – not elitist, but elite. That’s why I call them gems and I want them to think of themselves as that. So that it changes the way they walk. It changes the way they talk. It changes how they present themselves on stage and off.”
Teaching is a facet of Perle’s work she feels called to do, her classes routinely selling out and students taking away much more than improved movement and presentation.
“I felt called to teach and mentor about four years ago. My first class was simply a dance class, but I quickly discovered that I moved students in a special way. Once I started connecting deeply with my students, I realized that I had an obligation to offer a mentorship program to give back to the burlesque community and people who need to heal.”
On social media, what began as Perle’s frequent affirmations to herself became known as “Perles of Wisdom”, confidence-bolstering mantras adopted by her many friends and fans.
But Perle wasn’t always so self-assured and confident. Pint-sized Perle grew up poor and struggling in Dallas, where she overcame a traumatic childhood rife with bullying and isolation.
“I was precocious definitely. But awkward to everyone in my world. Family, kids at school. I didn’t make sense to anyone. I was very dramatic and I just stood out the wrong way. Growing up everyone was very mean to me, it was a very brutal childhood. Except for when I was dancing or if I was, you know, cheerleading at a pep rally. Performing was always the one place where people were quiet and clapped for me and celebrated me. It was the only place I didn’t feel like dying.”
Burlesque played a pivotal role in freeing herself from deep-rooted feelings of hurtful otherness and gradually taught her to love herself.
“Burlesque became this cathartic experience and safe haven for me. I was showing my flaws! I was showing my scars to the world and for the first time, I was celebrated for it. I also learned that I was in charge of my own happiness! My own salvation! My own story! This is a lesson that I try to teach my students and fans,” she says.
It has been a lifelong learning experience, one that she hopes will never stop. Along the way, Perle credits several notable women with taking the time to share their life experience and skills with her.
“Performing was always the one place where people were quiet and clapped for me and celebrated me. It was the only place I didn’t feel like dying.”
“Dollie Rivas was the choreographer for the second burlesque show I did, Bustout Burlesque. I was the only black performer in Rick Delaup’s show. She was a black showgirl in Las Vegas and abroad when black women were not showgirls. She helped me with my poise and my elegance and makeup. I was also very fortunate to have Wild Cherry help me when she was alive. She loved me because I was just as wild on stage as she was. There was such controversy around me headlining when I first started out, because I did a lot barefoot acts and one of the things I would say to people who would say stuff to me was, ‘I was trained by an actual burlesque legend. Were you?’ She didn’t believe in wearing shoes because all of her movements – she did a lot of Afro-Cuban and gymnastics on stage,” Perle recounts.
“Most recently Dita Von Teese has been kind enough to take my calls. Whenever I have a business question, she just answers it, she never charges me; she even gave me rhinestones from her closet for one of my costumes. Kitten de Ville has been wonderful, so has Dirty Martini. Kalani Kokonuts gave me a lot of advice when I was first starting out as well. I’m quite fortunate; I’ve had a lot of people helping me.”
Now through her healing and seduction workshops, Perle teaches other women and men a uniquely therapeutic approach to burlesque. It’s a catalyst for growth and self-love through the act of performing, and through it, audience connection and release.
Perle is the first to admit that burlesque, for all its personal validation, is also show business, and warns her students to be mindful of being selfish performers.
“I always ask someone when they take private lessons with me: why are you on stage and why should anyone care? Are you on stage for yourself, or are you on stage to give someone a gift?”
If you have yet to see her firsthand, this clip of Perle dancing at the Champagne Riot in 2014 crystallizes the power of her performance. Wrapped in emerald green and crowned with a peacock feather headdress, she is regal – preening and sashaying like the exotic bird itself. Like a woman possessed, Perle pins her eyes on the audience, channeling a reciprocal energy whether she’s gliding gracefully or in the very next moment, scissoring across the stage in wide-legged splits. Her fan work is fast and furious. She is elegant, sizzling, and appears to be almost completely unscripted.
“That’s just the way my body moves.” Perle explains, when asked about her extreme physicality. “I created that act to celebrate my strength and evolution! For the first time in my life I can say that I truly love myself! I’m not afraid to have people look at me, nor am I keen to dim my light anymore. That’s what that number is about.” And true to her own aesthetic, Perle encourages her students to use their bodies as their most vital prop.
It’s a philosophy that has served Perle and many under her tutelage well. Perle’s former student (and House of Noire gem) Poison Ivory was crowned Miss Exotic World 2016, which Perle also considers a personal victory for herself.
“…any time a person of colour reaches out to me with that complaint or they notice that other troupes aren’t featuring women of colour, I always say: don’t present a problem, present a solution. If you feel that you’re not being represented, go out and represent yourself. That’s exactly what I did.”
“I’m so glad she won,” Perle reflects. “The act that she won with – she created that act many years ago, it was her first act – but I definitely worked with her before she competed, and I like to think it made a difference. And she won!”
On the much-discussed topic of the underrepresentation of people of colour in burlesque, Perle is characteristically thoughtful.
“Personally, any time a person of colour reaches out to me with that complaint or they notice that other troupes aren’t featuring women of colour, I always say: don’t present a problem, present a solution. If you feel that you’re not being represented, go out and represent yourself. That’s exactly what I did.”
Dedication, a thick skin, and finding your voice are key. “If you want to be a performer you have to put yourself out there, and you have to realize you’re going to get more rejection than praise,” she says. “I would tell a new baby performer that they have to remember that burlesque is an art form and is part of show business. They need to truly research everything. They need to research all of the legends first; they need to go to the Burlesque Hall of Fame – not to compete, but to meet legends and listen to their stories. They need to humble themselves and respect the process.”
“So many new people that I’ve met feel like they don’t have room to evolve,” Perle continues. “I’ve been performing for over ten years and I can count on one hand how many performances I thought were stellar. I would say take your time to actually do the proper research and find out if this is the place where you want to have a voice, and then find out what your voice will be in this art form and this craft.”
As in her approach with the House of Noire, Perle believes that burlesque can be elevated not only by what you put into it, but by how or where you frame it. From gritty bar shows to the Sydney Opera House, Perle has witnessed firsthand that presentation can make or break the audience experience and their continued engagement. It can bolster the argument for burlesque as art – or leave people confused by the variety of variety, as it were.
Opulent classic shows and gradations of performance art can peacefully coexist, yet many savvy producers foster a dedicated following by cultivating cohesive packages consistent with their brand and the talent that will be presented side by side, or feather fan to feather fan.
“It’s different when you watch burlesque for the first time in a bar than when you watch it for the first time at the Koko in London. It changes the patron’s view,” Perle says. “There’s also just a plethora of different types of burlesque out there, and they’re not necessarily being explained to the patrons.”
At the end of the day, Perle’s primary concern is with presenting her own best work and continuing her journey as a teacher, artist, and fully realised woman. At the moment she is radiantly happy, and it shows.
“The first production I ever did with House of Noire was romantic; it was very, very romantic,” she confesses.”I’m in love – so my acts are very romantic and a celebration of love. Very sensual.”
When asked if the pint-sized version of herself ever had an inkling of how far her talent would take her, Perle says absolutely not.
“Stepping on to the stage at the Sydney Opera House to perform as a woman who is not the ideal image of beauty – black, poor, without any proper dance training – yet here I am performing at one of the most prestigious venues you could ever perform at in your entire life? No, I did not see this. I imagined it, but this life so far has surpassed my dreams as a child.”
The House of Noire will make their New York Burlesque Festival debut in October, and in December they will appear at Kitty Nights Toronto.
Perle Noire interviewed by Jessica Price.