New York burlesque star Angie Pontani (Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2008) is an inspirational woman I have always admired. As a fellow monster multi-tasker, I often have a WWAD (What Would Angie Do) moment when I think I can’t possibly do ALL THE THINGS for another second. When Angie revealed she was pregnant, I was fascinated to follow her journey and see how she would manage everything, especially with all the physical and aesthetic expectations and demands a burlesque performer has to navigate. I was delighted when she agreed to document the whole journey in a candid, intimate feature, so get comfortable and enjoy Angie’s progress from Showgirl to ‘Showmom’, in her own words…
Two Pink Lines
December is one of my favourite months of the year. I adore being on the road with my Burlesque-A-Pades family, travelling from city to city performing for people who just want to have fun and celebrate the season with their friends and family. Little did I know last December when we were running lines, rehearsing our steps and packing the van, there was an extra cast member in the 2015 Burlesque-A-Pades tour, and no one knew about her – not even me!
My husband and I had discussed starting a family several times over the years. It was something we were both interested in, but we were also entertainers with a packed travel schedule who loved our lifestyle.
“If it happens, it happens,” we mused, but ultimately our plan was to wait a few more years. After all, we were both flying pretty high, having just wrapped shooting the Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett Cheek to Cheek special for PBS, with Brian playing with his band and myself casting and dancing. He was getting ready to go on tour with the project and I had a new fitness web series, some spectacular one-off shows, a monthly podcast, Burlesque-A-Pades tours and additional tours in Australia, Europe and Hong Kong. And that was just the beginning of the year!
I found myself on the road with Burlesque-A-Pades just not feeling myself. As we packed up and settled in our hotel each night, I was more interested in sleeping then having girl chats with the cast. I felt my costume tops shrinking. My hair was bouncing like the Pantene girl, and I hadn’t had a pimple in weeks. The Maine Attraction joked that I looked like an ageless vampire; I was literally glowing.
I had my suspicions – we all did – so we took a show-family trip to Target in Indianapolis and stocked up on party snacks and pregnancy tests. In a hotel bathroom post-show in Indiana, I spied two pink lines.
I was ecstatic; my brain was electric with visions of the future! Matching outfits, the perfect nursery, nighttime snuggles and that beautiful baby smell. But my emotions were so mixed as I sat down with my calendar, looking at the gigs I had and calculating how pregnant I would be at that time.
Fantasy and Reality
I felt confident that knowing my body, and considering the pregnancies I’d seen my sisters go through, I could perform up to about five months without anyone thinking anything other than I had been eating too much pizza.
But I was unsure about how some of my employers would feel about my new ‘condition’. I believe a producer has the right to hire the performer they feel best fits their show; I know what’s expected when someone hires me, and it’s my job and pleasure to deliver that performance. I had cold sweats imagining myself onstage at Viva Las Vegas unable to get up from a drop, or being unable to find the snap on my tear away panties underneath my potentially giant belly.
I rang in the new year performing three months pregnant in The Snoopadelic Cabaret, and I couldn’t help but smile every fifteen minutes thinking I would tell my baby that she technically performed with Snoop Dog! At four months I headlined the Girlesque Festival in Toronto, where I was pouring tequila shots into potted plants at a post-show celebration.
At five months I was in rehearsal every day for Viva Las Vegas, trying to master the ‘maternity’ gown my costume designer Garo Sparo had made for me. Its side ties adjusted to whatever size I might become, with lots of embellishment and a giant headdress! The perfect distraction to draw attention away from my belly.
It was about that time when I started contacting producers who had hired me for shows later in the year. Shows where I would be seven, eight, or nine months pregnant. As much as it made me feel selfish and unthankful for the life my husband and I were creating, it was a sobering and sad moment.
Cancelling a show is something that I have rarely done and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I sent my emails and made my phone calls, holding my breath for responses and feeling let down to be missing the opportunities. But as I have learned and am learning more and more every day, part of my job as a human being is to grow and change. Life is not stagnant. While I might lose an opportunity or two here or there, I can gain them as well, and just as we evolve and change, so do the opportunities.
At seven months a tremendous gift presented itself when Lady Gaga asked me to pose naked with her for Bruce Weber and CR Fashionbook! The irony that I have spent most of my life maintaining great shape and waiting for these opportunities, and I get it at seven months pregnant with alien boobs and a hairy belly, was not lost on me.
‘I don’t know how to pose without a waist!’ I thought to myself, realizing how totally ridiculous my arsenal of sexy lady pin-up poses would feel to me at that moment! But as we took to the white shag carpet in all our glory, I felt sexier than I had in a long time. It was a magical moment between two friends, both marveling at the female body and celebrating our lady magic for one of the best photographers in the world. ‘Thank you, Universe,’ I thought to myself. When the magazine hit the shelves, women from around the world were writing and tweeting, thanking me for sharing the realness of my pregnant body. Something about sharing the visual of me pregnant, un-Photoshopped, and real at such a vulnerable time in my life gave me a greater confidence in not only my body but my entire womanhood. I was proud to be able to share that with the world and for other women who might be going through the challenges of pregnancy to see and relate to it.
Another absolute gem of my pregnancy performance experiences came when I was working with Jonny Porkpie. He had already hired me to be in his scripted show Mob Jews. I would be eight months pregnant by the time the show hit the stage, but Jonny didn’t flinch at news of my incubation and instead revamped my character to be a perpetually pregnant gangster! So much of the witty banter and plot line was turned to work around me as a pregnant protagonist.
Performing so pregnant was a revelation. I kept telling myself to go easy, but when I hit the stage, I forgot it. I was the same old popping, dropping, bumping and grinding Angie Pontani, just with a giant belly. I could see the cast grimace in fear as I jumped and bumped and popped and dropped. I felt lighter than air on stage. Dr Footlights strikes again!
I hesitate to use the word ‘empowered’ because I think it can be tossed around too lightly in life, but in these shows, I felt so empowered not only as a woman, but as an artist and as an expectant mother. Everyone in the cast and the audience was on board with the show, me, my character, and my striptease. It was a love fest, a moment away from the uncertainty I was facing in my daily life about what my future would hold. Those shows were a place where I could be Angie Pontani the burlesque performer AND Angie Pontani the soon-to-be-mom, and it was easy, free and natural.
Away from the stage, my husband was still on tour and I was home and focused on the life literally growing inside of me and what I needed to do to prepare. I was putting the finishing touches on the baby’s room, refolding her clothes daily and reading up on swaddling and breast feeding pointers. But I was distracted by the things I felt that I had to sacrifice and let go of. So many things that I not only love, but have worked so hard to get to do in my life. Perhaps this is a hazard of having a baby at a later age, when you have already established your career and ways of living.
I repeatedly told myself: you have done all of these things before and can do them again, but in my heart I asked myself, ‘will you want to do these things again?’ And the potential answer to that question made me sad. The fear of the unknown, the fear of not knowing what I would want.
In order to be the mother that I want to be, would I be required to end some parts of my life? Would I, by sacrificing so many aspects of my career, be that miserable mom who waves goodbye to her husband from the front door in a house coat and waxes poetic about her days on the road while washing out cloth diapers and hanging them on the line to dry?
Or would I totally embrace my new life? Will I be the East Coast Italian version of June Cleaver? Totally rocking momdom, putting out seasonal pillows, making Halloween cupcakes and caring not for my pre-baby existence?
There are so many variables, so many questions that only you can answer, and even now, while my precious and totally amazing, just shy of a year old snoozes in the next room, I’m still not sure of the answers.
I delivered my daughter, Sistilia Josephine, at forty weeks. After a long, failed induction I had to have an emergency c-section. From the moment when the surgery team rushed my room, to now, is a hallucinatory blur. I remember the sound of them unlocking the wheels on my hospital bed to whisk me down the hall. I remember passing my parents and tossing them a thumbs up. I remember my amazing husband hopping behind us trying to get his scrubs on. I remember that hideous shower cap they made me wear and I remember singing every song from West Side Story as my distraction technique so I didn’t lose my mind as they cut open my stomach and struggled to pull out Sistilia.
My recovery time was short by force; I jumped back into work three weeks after having Sistilia. While pregnant I was determined to have jobs to come back to. The fear of becoming irrelevant and fading from the stage while changing poop diapers – it’s real. So much in this fast paced world is about what you are doing right now. What you did 15 – 20 years ago, what you’ve been doing since you were 19, what you did last week – it’s old news. If it’s not in your social media stream anymore, did it really even happen?
My insistence to be able to juggle everything was strong, and with the help of a great production team and family, it was also possible! I was on-site as a co-producer at the New York Burlesque festival three weeks after giving birth.
Now, almost a year down the line, I’ve run out of meetings to get home because a sitter has to leave early. I’ve showed up to gigs with pureed apples clumped in my hair. I’ve pumped in more dressing rooms then I care to count. I rehearse routines in front of my baby girl who squeals with delight at each step. I schedule meetings around the ebb and flow of my breasts.
Every day is a sleep-deprived adventure where I accomplish more than I ever have before and likewise nothing at all. I’ve had to remind myself time and time again to put down my phone, put down the computer. Work will always be here, but these moments – breast feeding at 3am, getting drooled on at 4am, changing a stinky diaper at 5, walking around the block 600 times with my baby in tow trying to get her to sleep while in my slippers – these moments won’t return and I want to drink them all in.
You learn a lot about yourself when you have a baby. I’ve learned that part of me is driven by the passion of my work, part is driven by my passion to succeed and create, and now, part is driven by my passion to show my daughter by example that you can do anything with your life. You can have a family and a career, you can be fabulous and a super-fly mom. You can earn money and make baby food and do the laundry and have a clean house, and be wearing pants and matching shoes and have your hair done. These things are possible, not all the time, but they are possible.
Within that realm of possible things, you also have to accept that sometimes things won’t work. Sacrifice is part of life, and so is chaos. And with that, you just might forget to show up to a private lesson you booked because you got peed on and distracted, or you will have to turn down a show you have wanted to do for years because you literally cannot find a babysitter, and that costume budget you used to have… has been invested in Pampers. Throughout all of this, you will be tired, more tired than you ever have been before. You will have to schedule just about every second of your life, including bathroom breaks and showers, but it can be done.
Now, as Sistilia approaches her first birthday, I find myself adjusting to my new lifestyle and am able to focus on the future, which for me includes a tour of Italy in the fall. I plan to bring Sistilia to drink in the culture and meet her cousins. Then perhaps a trip to Las Vegas where I’ll be making an appearance at the 20th anniversary of Viva Las Vegas. And I am currently working on some exciting new projects that will take me off of the stage and into some new arenas.
Through my experience I have come to further appreciate that there are so many inspirational mom performers out there today. We have our own little social media communities where we extol the virtues of being a mom in showbusiness and the realities of being a mother today. Typing back and forth to each other from destinations all over the word, comparing sleep notes, travel tips, funny stories and words of encouragement as we all trek into parts unknown. These fellow Showmoms, my daughter, my husband, our families – they are all my daily inspirations to be the best me that I can be, and the best me just happens to be a Showmom! Hopefully Sistilia thinks that’s cool when she’s 14.
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.