12 Tips on Supporting Friends in Burlesque Competitions, by Jo Weldon.
In the world of burlesque, ballyhoo is part of the fun. Taglines and titles pique the audience’s curiousity and make for vivid introductions by emcees. Pageants and competitions offer opportunities to make things up and then invent value for them. It should always be in a spirit of fun, but of course it can get much more complicated than that.
In a spirit of support and compassion for competitors, I’d like to offer the following suggestions for being a good friend to someone who is participating. You know your friends best, and some of these suggestions might not work for everyone, but I hope they help friends of competitors think about the best ways to be supportive.
1. Feel free to pamper, if you’re that kind of friend. Many competitors told me it was helpful to them when friends surprised them by offering to help them rehearse, work on their costumes, or do their hair for the show. If this is something you’d enjoy doing for your friend, it will be appreciated! Bring them a healthy snack when you know they’re stressed, have a pedicure party, help them glue rhinestones. It’s simply a matter of whatever you, as a friend, know would be the most supportive of them.
2. Give them space if they want it. Many times, they may not be talkative about their preparations, and might want to be alone beforehand. Some competitors have told me that they get nervous when people ask them if they’re nervous. I’m guilty of this myself. I get nervous for them and then ask them if they’re nervous, which they weren’t until I inadvertently conveyed my nervousness for them. Now we’re all nervous.
3. Honour their feelings. It’s okay if they have intense feelings. If they actually are nervous, there’s no need to talk them out of it. Let them process it and get to the other side, and they’ll be grateful you didn’t short-circuit them on the way.
4. Talk them up. Remind them of all the awesome they are, and of every time they’ve blown people away. Help them access their own excellence by reminding them of how it feels to be excellent. If they say, “But what about that time I tripped and cried?” say, “But what about that time you got a standing ovation?”
5. Refrain from talking down others. It doesn’t help to talk down the pageant or the other competitors. It may make your friend feel foolish for participating, or, if they become convinced that all the other people in the pageant aren’t very good, make them wonder if they also aren’t very good. “It’s an honour just to be nominated” is actually a valuable sentiment, and a generous and most often true one.
6. Support at the show. If at all possible, go to the show and cheer. Actually screaming out their name continuously may have the opposite of the desired effect and can make the judges feel distracted, harassed, or manipulated, and that is not good for your friend. However, your friend knows the sound of your “Woooooooo!” and it will make them feel supported.
7. Let it be about them. Save your description of the time you competed on America’s Top Potato Peeler for your interview with Rolling Stone – or for another time long after the competition.
8. Give realistic advice. If you know, based on empirical evidence, a lot about the competition, it makes sense to talk about it with your friend to help them evaluate the best way to maximize their performance experience. If you’re speculating or relying on second-hand information, take care. You may feel justified to speculate, but you don’t want to help your friend second-guess themselves out of their best performance with half-true information.
9. Support them even if they win. If they win, let them have a day of handling it improperly before you decide how they’re handling it. Whatever you do, encourage them to be gracious. Don’t insult their competitors and previous winners by saying things like, “It would have been criminal for anyone else to win,” which in effect says it wasn’t much of a win since everyone else was pretty bad, or “Finally, a real queen of this pageant,” which is unnecessarily insulting to the previous winners, and trivializes the win by implying that he or she is now in the company of a lot of unimpressive previous winners who didn’t live up to the hype about the competition.
10. Support them even if they don’t win (most competitors don’t, you know). See #5. Also, see #9. Also, it probably isn’t helpful to them at all to tell them that they were robbed or that it was rigged. Again, honour their feelings, let them rant a bit if they must if that’s part of their natural process, but don’t feed their anger. On one hand, if you don’t let them be upset, you short-circuit their feelings. On the other hand, if you express anger, you increase the value of the title they did not win by the intensity of your feeling about it. Be cool, be kind, feel the love for all.
11. Make it about the performance, not the title. It’s totally possible that your friend may be a better performer than the winner, but did not win. This is not a huge betrayal of them and their passion. It is simply the outcome of a pageant that was made up by somebody and that some other people decided to take seriously and that came out that way on that particular night. Also, there are people with fantastic international careers who have never competed or have competed but not won a title. Generally speaking, no actual harm has been done – to your friend, or to our occasionally grandiose art form. In many cases you can honestly tell them, “You were good enough to win, I don’t know why you didn’t” without getting into a hater loop. Hater loops are bad for everybody.
12. Be consistent if you’re inclined to criticize them for wanting to compete. If you don’t believe in competition, that is a valuable point of view to be discussed. However, if you don’t believe in competition, then consider whether you are giving your friend mixed signals. Do you get excited or angry about who wins reality show competitions? Do you judge or otherwise participate in competitive events? Do you do audience member participations with competitions in them? Do you use superlatives in your taglines or advertising (it is impossible to use them ironically)? Do you talk a lot about who headliners really should be? Do you use winners’ titles to promote your shows? Do you talk down the producer or other competitors in a pageant to try to decrease its value? It always appears competitive to talk down another show or producer, unless they’re actually stealing from or defrauding people, or beating them with sticks or something.
I believe in burlesque – what it was, what it is, and what it will be. This idea of adults creating performances for adults in the format of self-contained, self-generated, independent routines, it’s magical. I don’t think anything can destroy it, because so far, nothing ever has. I believe we can retain our joy in it in spite of disappointments and differences. Whether or not competition is actually good for art or community – community defined by the dictionary definition, not by a standard of ‘community as a place where nothing bad ever happens between its members’, although that’s certainly a goal to aspire to – is another topic.
The Miss Exotic World Pageant is 20 years old, and the neo-burlesque movement is about the same, so for competitions and pageant to be part of the scene is no bait-and-switch to the ideals of New Burlesque, as some have suggested; it’s part of the very fabric of the development of neo-burlesque. It doesn’t have to be, and may not always be, a part of our community and lifestyle, but a lot of people love pageants and competitions and vote with their money and time, not just by producing and performing in them, but by buying tickets and attending these shows. While they’re here, let’s make the most of them, enjoy them, help them drive our art form to new levels, and be compassionate to the bold performers who put their hearts, their souls, and their tender egos on the line, all of which help drive them to create glamorous and hilarious and thought-provoking art for our entertainment.
Applaud for all of them, even if you only scream your heart out for your friends. Every one of them, even the ones who aren’t our buddies, appreciates support. If you can help them keep their hearts light, it will keep your heart light, too.
By Jo Weldon (Voted Biggest Cougar in Burlesque Two Years in a Row. There Can Be Only One.)
Jo Weldon, commonly known as Jo Boobs or Jo Boobs Weldon, is a performer, photographer, author, activist, educator, and essayist based in New York City. Weldon’s body of work centers around stripping and striptease. She established and runs the New York School of Burlesque and wrote The Burlesque Handbook, the first manual ever published on how to create classical and neo-burlesque routines. Weldon is active in the burlesque community, contributing her knowledge and experience to projects and collaborations. Though she now works in the theatrical world of burlesque Weldon has never lost the influence of, and inspiration from lap dancing and strip clubs. She continues to work as an advocate for sex worker rights and freedom of sexual expression.