Part One: Race and Burlesque – The Interviews

Your response to last week’s special feature, Race and Burlesque: The Curious Case of the Performer of Colour, has been amazing, and you can now read the full interviews with the contributing performers. Conducted by Chocolat the Extraordinaire. (Click on the performer names to visit their websites.)

Perle Noire

What drew you to burlesque? Why did you start performing?

I became infatuated with burlesque because of the diversity, history, glamour, and the unique aesthetic. In my opinion, burlesque is a theatre gumbo. The art form reaches a vast audience because it keeps evolving era after era. That’s what drew me to it. Performing has always been my salvation. It was the one thing that I was good at. I started to perform to escape reality. On stage, I was free. I could be a Queen or a Geisha. The stage became a place of love, felicity, and limitless fantasies.

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

Just because the minorities aren’t receiving proper billing doesn’t mean they don’t exist. For instance, everyone knows about Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans, Lili St. Cyr, Evangeline the Oyster Girl and Josephine Baker. These are mainstream household names to the average burlesque patron. The average patron doesn’t know about the beauties who worked the chitlin circuit that were referred to as Shake Dancers. When you ask the average burlesque lover about the beautiful fan dancer of the heydays, they will most likely think of the beautiful Sally Rand instead of Jean Idelle. What about the buxom, out of sight, voluptuous head turners with hips for days? Many will think of the ample Tempest Storm or Jennie Lee, but Tarza Young was a beautiful black stallion who had similar pleasing curves.

Talented gems such as Tina Marshall, Lottie the Body, Toni Elling, Tarza Young, Jean Idelle and Ruby Richard have a minimal amount of photographs and videos online, which is heart breaking to say the least. Ruby Richard was the Black Pearl of Paris. She performed her signature oyster shell act at the Folies Bergere, yet if you ask anyone about a burlesque dancer who danced with an oyster shell only one name will come to mind and that is Evangeline. Burlesque has a rich, colourful history. Artists of all races have been doing burlesque since the heydays. Unfortunately, many of these beautiful dancers, singers, comedians and vaudevillian artists didn’t receive the fame and glory that they deserved. I think history is repeating itself and this is a remaining flaw in the community.

Perle Noire. ©Kaylin Idora  Not to be used without permission.
Perle Noire. ©Kaylin Idora Not to be used without permission.

What do you think the reason is for this?

I believe when you hear the words burlesque dancer or pin-up model you have a certain image embedded in the brain. The average patron, producer, fan or artist will describe a beautiful woman with blonde, brown or black straight or wavy hair. She will have a thin or curvy physique and her skin will be olive or white as snow. The faces for pin-up models and burlesque starlets have always been beautiful white women. I think that as long as this image is the mainstream prototype then the men and women of colour will always receive a limited amount of publicity, even if their talent or beauty surpasses their counterparts. However, we have so many resources that our forefathers and mothers didn’t acquire.

I encourage every performer – black, white, yellow or green – to take back your power and put your destiny in your own hands. Perform at as many venues as possible and work with the photographers in the burlesque scene and abroad. We have the power and responsibility to learn from our past.

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

I’ve had the pleasure of performing in some of the most historical venues in America and abroad and for that I’m truly grateful. I’m living my dream every day and I’m so in love with burlesque and the stage, so this has been an amazing journey, but everything in life has its positive and negative. I’ve had to deal with producers who are adamant about limiting my performance style to the traditional stereotypes. I’ve also worked with artists who speak to me in slang or a derogatory manner but reserve their gentlemen or ladylike behaviour for the other women in my cast. The hardest battle is proving that I can dance and perform to several themes or that my image should be used for promotional materials. Producers usually want my high energy acts because the majority of the audience loves the change of pace. However, it’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re the one receiving standing ovations but you’re not receiving top billing and your image is rarely used. It’s a constant battle.

With that being said, I have also received the highest praise and grace from some of the top producers around the world. I’ve had the pleasure of working with every burlesque queen in the world, including the illustrious Dita Von Teese during her Strip Strip Hooray! tour. The prestigious Burlesque Hall of Fame has my photo displayed at the museum in Las Vegas and I won three BHoF awards, including ‘Most Dazzling Dancer’ after receiving a full house standing ovation for my tribute to Africa in 2012. Dita Von Teese has been a huge supporter. Due to my affiliation with the tour, the eminent Olivia De Berardinis has created a stunning work of art in my likeness, which is a huge honour and accomplishment. I’ve also become the muse of other talented artists, such as Rod North and Xavier Garza. Thus far, I’ve danced abroad in London, Madrid, Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto, Melbourne, Vancouver, and this year I performed in Milano and Roma at a Voodoo Deluxe production. Historically, ethnic artists usually receive praise overseas and I must admit that I receive the most validation when I perform abroad.

After my performances the fans take my breath away with their words of encouragement and praise for my dissimilarity, passion, and my unconventional presentation of burlesque. The face of burlesque is slowly changing. My experience has been a beautiful journey filled with an abundance of highs. The hard work of the ghost before me has paid off, and if I’m lucky, someone may be able to walk through a theatre door that was closed to me. My reality is the life a lot of people dream of. The life I couldn’t fathom as a child. I cannot give up because I’m not marketable to a selected few. I will remain resilient for the ones before me and after. I love the stage. It’s the only thing that’s never let me down.

La Cholita

What drew you to burlesque? Why did you start performing?

I was drawn to the creative and sensual expression. I loved the diversity of performers from camp to glam, acrobatic to dance-heavy acts. It is one of the most inspiring and empowering art forms I have ever experienced.

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

Yes, that was part of my motivation to get started. I saw it as an opportunity to represent a demographic that I was not seeing at any shows. From my music to my costumes to my stage name, my culture, traditions and upbringing really had an impact and influenced my performances.

What do you think the reason is for this ?

I think culturally it is more taboo for minorities. There are negative connotations associated with showing your body and being openly sexual. It’s meant to only happen behind closed doors with your husband.

When I first started, a large majority of my fans were Latina. They would come up to me after shows and say, ‘I love what you do; I’ve always wanted to do burlesque. But I never could.’  My response is always, ‘Of course you can and you should. Why not?’  I think it’s fantastic that our presence is growing within the burlesque community and that more women from all backgrounds are embracing their sensuality on stage.

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

It’s been wonderful for me. Identifying myself as a Latina burlesque performer has really helped me make my mark. But I think my experience is a bit unique because I don’t necessarily look like a minority. Growing up multi-racial, I was always in the in-between. I had fair skin, so the Latino kids were hesitant to accept me, yet I grew up with such a strong Mexican background that I didn’t always feel I fit in with the white kids at my school either. However, it just goes to show that we really come in all shapes, sizes and colours.

Marianne Cheesecake

What drew you to burlesque? Why did you start performing?

My background is in theatre and creative movement. I was still in Windsor, Canada when I got involved with a troupe called The Cheesecake Club and played a character called ‘Sassi San’ that fit in with that particular storyline. Initially I was drawn to it as it was something fun to do in the community. The plays were scripted by the group – we had complete creative freedom. My character was a geisha, so it was conforming to all the images of geishas, and that was my limitation as I couldn’t go beyond the character. So then when I started doing solo acts without a troupe I got very interested in creating different material that wasn’t restricted to this particular character. When I created my ‘Marianne Cheesecake’ character I had more creative freedom.

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

When I first learned about burlesque, everything was very new to me. I had agreed to co-develop the ‘Sassi San’ character with the other troupe members without thinking too much about ethnicity and cultural ideas as it was just a bit of fun. When I started performing in the UK, I felt a bit restricted playing Sassi San as I felt that I could only perform geisha acts under this character. I wanted to develop a new character in order to do other things, but people would come to me and ask if I could do a geisha act, so I realised that even when I started to diversify myself I was pulled back by others who made me realise that I am part of a minority.

Marianne Cheesecake. ©Phantom Orchid
Marianne Cheesecake. ©Phantom Orchid

What do you think the reason is for this?

It’s not like we don’t exist but I guess it’s more about lack of visibility. East Asian performers are out there but maybe we don’t get booked for the major shows and are less likely to be booked as the headliner. Maybe there are more East Asian performers in the UK but I don’t actually know any outside of London. If they do exist that’s awesome, but I can’t think of who they are as they’re not in the public’s eye. Although, Fancy Chance is fantastic! I started when the scene was just about to boom, so maybe I’ve had longevity just by being part of it early.

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

I have noticed a pattern recently where there are a lot of ‘Shanghai’ themed shows that people are booking me for; they come with the idea of a pan-Asian event and I think people book me because they want an ‘exotic’ feel or look to validate their theme. Other than that, in terms of classic burlesque, I don’t get too many new bookers approaching me for this. I guess my feeling towards that is that at least it’s work and hopefully they run the show with good production values and it’s diverse enough that it’s not uncomfortable. It’s not like I’m working every single night or even every single weekend, but it’s also not like loads of promoters are seeking me out, even though I have lots of different types of acts. I have an Anna May Wong tribute act and people will book me for that because I’m Chinese. I have a Charlie Chaplin tribute act too, and I find that when I get booked for this, sometimes people can – for that split moment – see my skill instead of just seeing my ethnicity.

I started thinking about burlesque in a more businesslike way and that’s when I found the cinematic theme that linked all my acts; I have a lot of tribute acts spanning Anna May Wong to Josephine Baker to Charlie Chaplin. So I can play other ethnicities and genders apart from just my own. Actually, I didn’t just make up the Josephine Baker act on a whim, but a promoter actually commissioned me to create that role and thought I would be the best representation of her for that particular show. I felt a bit uncomfortable from the start as I didn’t know how to deal with the racial aspect and I didn’t know whether it would be appropriate to black myself up (which I didn’t do). I decided to just capture the spirit of the twenties, to get the essence of that act rather than to try to be black or anything. The audience loved it and I got great feedback.

It’s interesting that white people can play with characters of other ethnicities with make-up or costume but I never really see East Asian performers playing other ethnicities.

When I started getting more into promoting and doing my own shows, even as an ethnic performer, I realised the importance of knowing your audience and what can be communicated to them when you present ethnic performers within your cast. With the wide repertoire of acts I’ve put out, I’d like to be able to suggest other classically themed acts to promoters and to have them say ‘yes’ or for them to approach me with an idea that isn’t just about my ethnicity but because of my skill.

Coco Framboise

Coco Framboise.  ©Carl W. William Heindl
Coco Framboise. ©Carl W. William Heindl

I had originally intended to become a writer and I always had an interest in theatre. When I accidentally fell into the world of dance in my early twenties, I tried a number of different types of dance. And when I eventually saw a burlesque show I saw (and seized) the opportunity to merge the writer and the dancer. I loved that I could create and develop an act on my own and present it to an audience without having to wait for permission or only be a part of someone else’s choreography. I could create my own opportunities to present what I had come up with. So that’s what inspired me to start creating burlesque acts.

I didn’t think of myself as a minority when I started and I still don’t. As previously mentioned, the fact that I’m black isn’t usually at the forefront for me when I’m thinking about many of my experiences.

I’m not sure that I know how to respond to the question, ‘How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?’ It may be more useful to ask the people who are looking at me, because it seems to be on their minds more than it is on mine. I tend to be focused on trying to create and participate in more of the kinds of shows that I’d like to see. I’m following my imagination and trying to realise its madcap visions. My hope is that the content of the performances – the wit, innovation, skill, etc. – will be the most noteworthy aspects of each show. I don’t see myself as minority. I see myself as one performer among many, but each of us is one of a kind.

 

Read Part Two here…

 

21st Century Burlesque
21st Century Burlesque

Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.

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