Stripper Talk with Sydni Deveraux: Bullies in Burlesque
** Note from the editor: The decision to publish full or extracts from email correspondence is made on a case by case basis. All names and identifiable details have been removed from the following extracts. Comments will be screened to make sure that no one is attempting to name names. If the producer involved wants to send in a statement to be posted, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sydni and I would like to encourage discussion of this issue in the comments section below. H-M.**
Hello world! It’s Stripper Talk time again! This is a place where I field questions and answer them to the best of my ability, hopefully giving anyone who’s interested in burlesque some insight.
This week’s question comes from a performer whose identity I’ve chosen to protect, with location undisclosed. Let’s call her ‘XX’. All of the identities have been removed from this post, including the location of the people involved. Statements (taken from correspondence) from the producer have been highlighted to give as much of the full story as is allowed at this time, and to encourage a conversation that needs to happen in our community about discrimination and misogyny in burlesque – this episode being ‘size-ism’. As burlesque becomes more and more popular, we need to take notice of the surroundings that we’ve become accustomed to, and make sure that all of its participants are treated with respect. It’s a slippery slope – allow an inch and some will run a mile on you.
I am writing to you after being inspired by this video.
This year I stepped down after six years of performing burlesque, after having a discussion with a producer. I was pulled aside after a rehearsal and told to lose weight by him and that now there was a new ‘code of conduct’ which addressed this issue. Okay… I calmly said that I understood and walked away from the exchange completely shocked. We live in a free country; people can do what they want and produce whatever show they want, but I got into burlesque not to be a skinny girl on stage, but the sexy woman that I am. Later that week I informed him that I could not follow his new rule and did not agree to the terms we discussed, which were:
1. Lose more weight.
2. If I don’t lose weight I will be booked less.
3. I was not allowed to discuss this topic with any of girls.
His response was this correspondence: [Edited down for length.]
“…I wanted it to be a process that we embrace together, with the end result being a healthier, slimmer performer. I want to see the return of the XX on the stage that I originally cast in the show. That’s it…
I represent the audience and what they desire to see onstage. In every aspect of the show … Ignoring social norms of what is attractive is pure selfishness on the part of the performer. That’s a quick way to end up with a show that no one wants to see… If you ignore the audience’s expectations, then they will ignore you and your show.
At the end of the day, you are fighting me about this because a.) your feelings are hurt by my honesty about a situation that we both know to be true, and b.) it dredges up all sorts of hurtful self image issues that you are applying to yourself. If you were to step back and look at the situation rationally, you would agree that this isn’t the body image that you want to represent yourself with or that you want to put onstage. You want to be healtier, more attractive, stronger, faster, leaner. You want the same things that I want for you. You just don’t like hearing it from me.
So, I’ll ask you again. Will you work with me on this? Will you continue to do what you are already doing, slim down, get healthier and be accountable for this with me? Or would you rather tell me to fuck off just because it feels good to do that, in this particular moment?
Which was then followed immediately with this correspondence: [Edited.]
“Let’s be clear about this. You are currently the biggest girl in the show. That’s why I had the first discussion with you…
I do not have height restrictions for the show, because no performer can control that. And the pool of available talent in the city is not large enough for me to put that restriction in place. A performer CAN control their weight. That’s why I am addressing this issue…
…Vegas standards are much stricter than anything that we put forward in this show. Nobody in Vegas would have the prolonged discussion that I am having with you. They would have just fired you a long time ago and hired someone else.”
And my response was:
Since we’re being clear, I understand that it is your responsibility, if anyone’s, to approach me when a change like this is needed. However, I completely disagree with the direction you’re leading this troupe in. When you pitched the show to me, it was a collaboration of gypsy artists, not a weight restricting showgirl strip club. You never pitched a show that would have restrictions on the burlesque performers.
On that note, I am not the largest girl. I wear a size 4. *S is a 6. Fact. I have absolutely no issues with *S size. Perhaps the reason she doesn’t count in your line-up of who’s the largest is dependent on a longer working relationship, again, since we’re being clear.
If you were to step back and look at the situation rationally, you’d recognise that your motives for this are skewed, at best.
I’m not telling you to fuck off. It doesn’t feel good to have to have this exchange with you. I told you when we spoke that I’m now 3 lbs. away from my weight on my license, which was 135 lbs. When I started this show, I was 141. It hurts me that you’re approaching me based on your personal opinion, not fact.
I’ll see you at the show tonight.
None of the girls I spoke with heard of this new rule, nor did they agree with it. Of course, that night was the last night I performed with the troupe.
I was going to walk away from this and never look back, but some part of me feels like I need to tear this open for everyone to see. He had bullied girls about this and that, but about my weight – that was the last straw. Is this where burlesque is headed? This homogenised version for the masses to digest? Is this the future of this art form? What the hell should I do? Do I bring this to the community? My options for performing are slim now that I don’t have a ‘home’ show, so I’m taking this time to figure out what does this is all mean for me. But please, I would love to hear your opinion.
Hello and thank you for writing in, XX.
Woah. I’ve been sitting on this email for a week now, trying to digest my reaction. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway – I’ve stripped identities from this correspondence because the other party isn’t here to defend themselves.
I can’t say I’m surprised, XX, about the feelings that the producer expressed in his note to you, since I’ve certainly experienced those sentiments from producers from time to time, and it certainly feels disgusting to have someone else tell you what you should be doing with your body. Our community is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the world, with those in charge trying to control women by tearing us down based on our appearances.
Here’s my major thoughts about this:
1. No one should be permitted to treat you that way. No one should ever tell you what you should do with your body – EVER.
2. I’ve certainly had gorgeous experiences with most male producers in burlesque, but it’s hard not to be a little wary as many male producers are not strippers as well, and aren’t dealing with the cultural expectations placed on our female bodies on a day to day basis. I recognise that everyone is dealing with pressures placed on us to be ‘attractive’, but none so much as women, in my opinion. I’ve had my wary moments with men working in burlesque. Some tout thinly veiled misogyny as rakishness or wit, or in their casting choices.
3. I hope that burlesque doesn’t become homogenised, but I really want to point out that it did come from more homogenised roots. It wasn’t until the resurgence of this art form that we saw the DIY/anyone can do it culture. This means that for a while yet, especially as this art form becomes more widely known, we are also dealing with the paradigm that striptease style burlesque was created in. During those days, they were constantly examined and written up about their bodies, with producers doing exactly what he tried to do to you, XX. Conventionally attractive or wildly exotic were the ways to get into burlesque. Now that its resurgence is mostly powered by smaller funding, self-producing women and the underground (for now), we have the ability to change this paradigm for good. We must make sure these things are talked about before burlesque gets bigger; we must make sure that we keep our dignity in a culture that loves to rob it from anyone that deals in sex and flesh, let alone just being a woman.
4. It is all of our responsibility as performers and strippers to speak up the moment a red flag happens, to note when you see a producer discriminating or bullying ANYONE, and to take great self care. When a producer bullies one of us, they bully all of us; if we stand by and watch poor treatment, we’ve taught the producer that they can also do the same to us.
5. The notion that the producer thinks that he represents the audience in what they want is possibly the most arrogant and disgusting part of his explanation. It takes all kinds liking all kinds, or else we would all look very similar at this junction in history. His statement made me say, ‘f*** this guy’ out loud, actually. I really don’t like it when people claim to know what everyone wants. It makes me punchy.
6. I would recommend that you do bring it to your community – at least to your troupe – but you should certainly give the offending producer the chance to stand up for themselves. It’s only fair. I guess my hope in having him be there in a discussion would give him the chance to either:
a) Reassess his thinking and apologise. b) Get run out of town.
7. You needn’t have stated your weight in the reply, XX. His request of you, regardless of your size (ANY SIZE), is absolutely asinine and horrible. Unless you enter an agreement with an establishment about being any sort of size, keeping your hair a certain colour, or whatever it may be, it’s not okay to get an email or comment like that. It’s bad enough that strip clubs already dole out this type of treatment to their employees; it’s sad that it’s happening to our contemporary sisters. We need to make sure it doesn’t go any further. Our making sure that all talented types of bodies and humans are represented on stage is our way of standing up to the paradigm that rages on so horribly in this world right now. It’s our way of maybe being able to make a difference for our contemporary strip club sisters, and for all women, really.
8. Until all women recognise that this art form is COMPLETELY dependent on us staying strong, never allowing any iota of room for situations like this to take place, taking care of business, taking loving care of our bodies and ourselves, supporting each other and keeping the power in our hands, more men looking to capitalise and bully us in this community will exist. I believe that women ultimately have all the power – it’s just up to us to fully embrace it.
9. I should note that there are certainly women willing to do the same type of bullying, and to me that feels more dangerous than any man telling a woman to lose weight. You would think that all of this is common sense, that bullying or discriminating against anyone based on what’s on the outside (race, weight, height, disability, gender, etc.) is horrendous, but we’re not quite all there yet.
10. It is certain that everyone has their own preference of what they’d like to see on stage, but it is another thing when anyone will bully or shame someone by stating that their preference is how all people should be. Never mind that variety in all things, body types and people is the spice to life.
I wish that this all is resolved for you soon, XX. Stay vigilant and rehearsed; different gigs will pop up and your performance life will work itself out. When I left my troupe years ago, I was scared that my performance options had dried up. You might have to look in other places, but they are there. I hope that you find support in your local community, XX, you’re not alone.
Be loving to each other and support your sisters in stripping!
PS: “Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”
― Harvey Fierstein
“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
― Coco Chanel, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman
To ask Sydni a question about anything pertaining to being a fancy lady (or mancake) in our shining world of burlesque, please email GlitterWonderland@gmail.com.