The burlesque scene is bigger than ever and during your time performing you’re likely to come across lots of different types of people. Many performers find they make lifelong friendships backstage but you can also meet some toxic and troublesome types on your journey through the burly world. This post identifies seven of the most toxic people you could meet during burlesque and how to avoid falling foul of their shennanigans.
Snarky is always spreading gossip about other performers, especially the ones she doesn’t like. If there’s no gossip around she might make something up.
In every walk of life there’s a Snarky Whispers, spreading gossip and bitching behind people’s backs. In burlesque this can be particularly detrimental as we are an industry based on reputation.
You don’t always get the chance to really get to know your fellow performers in the bustle of backstage, so mud can stick. Some performers gossip because it gives them something to talk about backstage, or because they genuinely believe what they have heard is true. Others just like to stir the pot.
“…the best way to handle rumours in burlesque is to prove them wrong.”
At some point or other, most of us in the burlesque world have heard a rumour about ourselves that isn’t true, but by the time it has got back to you, any damage it might do will have already been done. If you know who started the rumour you could call them out as a liar, but the odds are that if they spread a lot of muck, those in the know will already have figured that out.
In reality, the best way to handle rumours in burlesque is to prove them wrong. You could tell everyone who’ll listen that you don’t really suck your thumb for ten minutes before you go onstage, or you could just make them forget it by being punctual, polite, pleasant and a great performer at every show you work. A handful of shows in this manner and nobody will believe any silly rumours about you because they’ll have seen with their own eyes how great you are to work with.
Ida’s always complaining about how she doesn’t get booked for the shows that she wants. You’ll often find her on Facebook criticising the burlesque world in general for not recognising her talents due to some other, less important issue.
Ida moans that she’d get tons of work if only promoters didn’t judge her for being overweight, or for having a kid at home, or for not being in with the right crowd, or for having a Mohawk, or for not having a Mohawk, or for something else altogether.
Don’t let Ida’s negative mindset infect your own thought process. Occasionally you might get promoters who are biased against performers with red hair or who will never work with a Scouser, but the reality is, usually when you don’t get booked it’s because you’re not right for the bill, or you’re one of many people who were right for the bill but they had to make the cut somewhere.
“…work on upping your game, skilling up, gaining confidence and creating a clear and coherent performance style and identity…”
Performing can be a difficult business in the self-esteem department and if you
start over-analysing your looks, body, lifestyle and demographic trying to find something that bookers don’t like you can drive yourself mad. Instead, work on upping your game, skilling up, gaining confidence and creating a clear and coherent performance style and identity so that if they want what you do, they’ll have to book you! If Ida is your friend, it might be worth suggesting you work on skilling up together; perhaps your pro-active, positive approach will help her lose her ‘if only’ attitude.
You’ve met Netta at shows before and she’s really fun to be around, but online she’s a loose cannon. She’s always coming out with controversial Facebook posts or opinionated comments on forums.
She’s constantly blocking people or getting her friends dragged into the row. When she’s not getting into a digital bickering session she’s posting cryptic statuses slagging a certain ‘someone who shall remain nameless’ or alluding to some performer who has offended her or got her back up. She’s the first to pile in and the last to let it go if an online drama kicks off.
If you’ve got a Netta in your life, you’re best to stay back. Way back! It’s bad enough to be a kick-off merchant in real life, but if you start using your professional social networking profiles to get into mudslinging matches this will tarnish the persona you are working hard to build up. If Netta is your friend you might feel tempted to back her up. I would advise against it.
If it’s a petty squabble it’s not worth wasting your time on, and if it’s something really serious you can always report the issue to the site moderators. Likewise, if Netta is someone winding you up online the best thing you can do is let it go; tomorrow she will have a new battle on her hands.
If you absolutely must have an issue out with her, send her a private message, but keep it clean and respectful. Be warned: she may share it with others.
Madame Xerox doesn’t really know a huge amount about burlesque; she’s pretty new to the scene. She has very rigid ideas about what a burlesque costume looks like, and what music and moves you can use.
She’s not really into experimenting and is a little nervous of taking a risk. She thinks that a lot of burlesque looks quite alike and when she sees your act it inspires her to do something similar. In this case, the results are often too similar for comfort. Sadly, Madame Xerox doesn’t realise that she’s made a faux pas, or if she does, she hopes you won’t find out!
Madame Xerox can either be naïve or sneaky. If your Madame belongs to the former category, you should be able to reason with her. Explain to her that you know your acts are similar and you’re sure it wasn’t intentional, but ask if she might be willing to make a couple of changes.
Be clear and realistic about what you need her to change. If it’s a case of the same concept (e.g. a maid) using the same music (e.g. Bibbity Bobbity Boo) you could probably ask her to change one or the other, but it would be unreasonable to ask her to scrap both. If you approach the situation politely and reasonably, more often than not you’ll end up relieved with the outcome.
“…you have the occasion to grow your act beyond your original ideas and can turn your copier into a source for growth.”
If your copycat is more malicious, has sneakily pinched your idea, doesn’t care and won’t negotiate, your situation becomes trickier. Some people try naming and shaming publicly. This is tempting, but it could erupt into a drama that ends up embarrassing both of you. Others discreetly mention this issue to local promoters, especially if the other performer lives and works near to you.
Some may choose to let it go, continuing to perform their act regardless, confident that, as the original, theirs will be stronger. Others drop the act; an originator can always have new ideas so they are willing to give an imitator their cast off.
Perhaps the most positive response is to use the experience as a chance to make your act bigger and better. By experimenting with new choreography and music, expanding and developing your concept or narrative, or re-costuming, you have the occasion to grow your act beyond your original ideas and can turn your copier into a source for growth. Many people redevelop acts by choice at some point in their performing career; why not use a copying issue as an opportunity to work into and develop past your first ideas?
Judge Nudey’s not a performer at all, she’s someone you come across during your life in burlesque. Whether under the guise of feminism (after all, not all feminists agree that burlesque is a fun, creative project for other feminists to engage in), morals or general unpleasantness, the Judge likes to make you feel bad about performing.
They may be someone in your family, an insecure partner or jealous friend, they may be someone in a position of power (see the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival debate), a journalist or just an opinionated person in the pub or on the street. Their mission is to put burlesque down, or to put you down for creating and performing burlesque.
If the Judge is someone close in your personal life, you may want to talk to them and explain why you are drawn to performing. It may be worth drawing their attention to the focus on character, narrative, humour, costuming, choreography and performance skills rather than just the possibility of nudity. If you can persuade them, perhaps pick your favourite show and bring the Judge in your life along to see what burlesque is really like for themself.
If they won’t come around, you may eventually have to agree to disagree. Especially with a parent or other member of the family, it might be a case of asking them to respect your decision to pursue something you love, while you respect their preference not to be directly involved.
“If you decide to speak out, speak honestly and calmly and don’t allow yourself to be drawn into pettiness.”
If the Judge is someone outside of your circle (I’m thinking journalists, internet commenters, random people with opinions in pubs) you have two choices. You can choose to let it go, or you can attempt to fight the corner for burlesque. If you decide to speak out, speak honestly and calmly and don’t allow yourself to be drawn into pettiness. Often, these debates are the only insight the outside world gets into our artform, so if you choose to engage, show them how great we are!
Finally, be aware of when to step away from the keyboard. A few years ago, whenever anyone had anything negative to say about burlesque I used to pile in. It became exhausting and I felt disheartened with continually having to offer the same defence of the thing I love. These days I pick my battles and accept that while some people are willing to have an open-minded debate, others don’t want to. These people will never budge an inch, so I’m better off spending my energies on something more productive.
Penny Shallow-Pockets and Scout Talent
Penny and Scout produce burlesque shows. Penny is a fairly new promoter. She doesn’t have much budget as she isn’t sure she wants to risk her own bank balance in running a show. She will be performing on the night, alongside her troupe (it will be their third performance), and she just needs a couple of out-of-town performers to round out the bill.
She can’t really offer you much in the way of money, but it will be great exposure for you – you’ll get seen by all of her friends from her office! Also, she can promise you some great publicity photos, as her mate is bringing his digital camera.
Scout is running a newcomers show. It will be a great opportunity for beginners to gain some stage experience and learn to work an audience. As all the performers are newcomers no money will be changing hands, but he’s still going to be charging full whack on tickets, and in the adverts he’ll be careful not to mention it’s a beginners’ scratch night.
“If someone is putting on a newcomers’ show there is no excuse for not advertising it correctly and pricing it accordingly.”
If you’re approached to perform by a Penny Shallow-Pockets, take her offer of ‘great exposure’ with a pinch of salt. Who will you be exposed to? If you’ll be seen by jounalists, burlesque industry professionals, TV cameras, etc., or if you’ll be working alongside high level headliners from whom you might learn a thing or two, you might consider working for less than your usual fee. Usually, though, shows that offer you nothing to come and perform can’t boast these sorts of perks.
Also, be wary of producers who offer ‘professional quality’ images or video footage as payment for performance. Ask to see some samples of the photographer/videographer’s work before you make a decision to check if what they’re offering is kosher. In a nutshell, shows that can’t pay might be worth it for the experience if you are a total newcomer in need of some practice, or if you have a brand new act you want to try out in a low profile setting, otherwise you might want to say thanks but no thanks.
Scout Talent is a slightly different kettle of fish. If someone is putting on a newcomers’ show there is no excuse for not advertising it correctly and pricing it accordingly. Newby showcases can be a great way to get your first taste of performing for an audience, but make sure you are giving your time to a promoter who is ethical. Nobody should be making a fast buck from your hard work, and by misadvertising a newcomers’ show audiences may not be receptive to what you do, which could lead to a disappointing experience all round.
Aunt Noroom has been performing burlesque since the early days of the revival. She works hard to make a living for herself through performing alongside a few other allied professions.
She remembers when burlesque was a tiny niche and it was possible to make a little money and have some fun doing it. Now, to her, the scene feels overcrowded and competitive. When asked, she says that people should leave burlesque to those who were there from the start of this run of things, and that newer folks are taking food out of the mouths of established performers.
It’s easy to find empathy with Aunt Noroom’s situation. The boom in burlesque has led to more and more performers coming in, many of them not from any sort of performance background. The quality of performers since those early days now varies more greatly and some weaker performers are willing to undercut in order to get on a bill, forcing the fees down for all of us.
The best way to deal with Aunt Noroom is to be the best performer you can be, so she does not see you as part of the problem. This is also the best way you can support your local and national burlesque scene. Train in performance disciplines that interest you, be that dance, drama, striptease or special skillsets, and always charge a fair price for your performances, because undercutting sells us all out.
That having been said, don’t let Aunt Noroom put you off giving performance a go; she may not realise it, but new performers are the lifeblood of any artform and without them burlesque would stagnate and die.
So a bit like the seven dwarves, that’s our lot.
If you can think of any other tricky burlesque types not mentioned here, let us know in the comments, along with any tips to make getting along with them easier.
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.