Australian burlesque performer and academic Lola The Vamp interviews Bella De Jac about the Australian Burlesque Museum and Australian Burlesque Association, with additional information provided about the special photographs accompanying the interview.
Australian burlesque history is quite different to both European and American burlesque history. The scattering of information we currently have indicates a lot of international performers visited us, which was typical of Australian theatre in general, and what we created was various combinations of burlesque, showgirl and drag performance.
I have done some research into the Tivoli circuit – which was close to vaudeville, featuring many big stars, but also seemed to contain a risqué element, using what we would now call burlesque-style imagery on its posters and even having international striptease acts on occasion. This was very different to the way the USA did vaudeville and burlesque, which had a distinct separation of theatrical content and almost defined themselves by not being the other.
I’d love to say more on the topic of Australian burlesque history, but the truth is, information is only just coming to hand. The establishment of the Australian Burlesque Museum is an enormous and important step in collecting and preserving our history. Its first stages have been welcomed with great enthusiasm and I recently got to sit down with Bella De Jac, the new Museum’s Managing Director.
Bella is a darling performer who I first met after she returned to Australia following a stint in the UK. From here, she has become a major player in burlesque, with headlining stints at several festivals this year alone. She also debuted at the Burlesque Hall Of Fame in 2013. Set to take the reins on a huge and important project, I had many questions to put to her!
Lola the Vamp: Tell us about how the Australian Burlesque Association came into being? Was it partly prompted by the Tease Time Round Table Event at the Australian Burlesque Festival 2013? (Tease Time Round Table was an industry pow-wow that allowed us time to theorise and speak about the state of Australian Burlesque and learn about its history.)
Bella De Jac: I’m a little bit of a research nerd, when I’m given the time. I was fascinated with burlesque history and the burlesque legends, and it made me sad that we had no real connection with our own past in Australia. I think across all fields of work in Australia for a long time we seemed to idolise what happened elsewhere.
I had the concept of an Australian Burlesque Museum in my head for a few years and when the Tease Time Round Table came around it seemed that everyone else was really keen to see our history researched and preserved too. So I decided it was time to make the concept a reality. I started getting advice on structuring it, formulated a plan, started contacting people and it all went from there.
“I want to know where we came from. I don’t want to pull punches and I don’t want to gloss over the tough parts. I want to know about our history in all its dirty glory.”
Are you nervous about juggling responsibilities as Managing Director with a flourishing international burlesque career?
Yes! I’m not going to lie, if I think too much about how much I need to do over the next twelve months I feel like I’m going to poop my glittery pants!
I just have to remind myself that if I can get through the last two months I can handle anything. We launched our Pozible campaign at the same time as I left to tour as a headliner with both the Australian Burlesque Festival and the Perth International Burlesque Festival. It was a deliberate move as it was ‘Burlesque Season’ in Australia with the festivals and the Miss Burlesque Australia state finals going ahead in various states. I took the opportunity to have it announced by the MCs of the shows to raise awareness of the campaign and talk about it with as many people as possible. Trying to juggle the responsibilities of maintaining the campaign and still actually setting up the association with the relentless tour schedule was a massive challenge, but I have a great team and a fantastic community and we made it to our target with a whole day to spare.
I’ve got more tours coming up, including the New Zealand Burlesque Festival, but our whole team travels and we’re blessed to be in an age when we’ve got so many tools to communicate at our disposal. Our Head Curator keeps reminding us that we have and will continue to do the best we can with what we have; it’s too easy to get down on ourselves for not getting more done in less time but ultimately this is a labour of love. We are already making some grand leaps and I can’t wait to see how the Association and Museum develops. I’m better when I’m busy anyway!
Can you share a story about Australian Burlesque history that we have never heard?
This was passed on to me by a gentleman who is a regular on the Sydney Burlesque scene and had a friend who was present at the Theatre Royal in the late 1940s. His friend described an act in detail which played out between a comedian and a burlesque dancer which would be just as funny now as it was then.
The performer enters, bows to the audience, stands front of centre stage, in tails (or a dinner suit). Quite formally he announces he will be performing a classical piece on the violin. He starts to play and we can almost hear the people groan. This is not what they expected. He tries to calm their concern by telling the audience why this piece of music is so full of life and that they should appreciate its classical tempo. More groans.
As he plays, an elegantly dressed pretty girl enters up stage right, walks across behind the violinist, unseen by him, and takes off something she is wearing. She engages with the people, smiling seductively at them, then exits up stage left, still unobserved by the violinist who continues to play. The people now are beginning to appreciate ‘the gag’ and applaud loudly.
The audience’s reaction is misinterpreted by the violinist who takes it as appreciation of his playing. He intersperses his performance with a running commentary about the musical piece. Encouraged by their continued enthusiasm, he thanks them and says he finds their interest inspiring. As he continues to play, the pretty girl moves repeatedly from left to right to offstage, and right to left to offstage, discarding one more item of clothing on each pass, until she’s wearing nothing but a glittering bra and G-string. The violinist still does not acknowledge her presence but keeps up his patter throughout.
One more pass and just as she is about to leave the stage she removes her bra but cleverly covers her breasts with her arms as she ducks behind the curtain. The violinist is nearing the finale and closes his eyes in feigned concentration on his performance. By now, the audience is expecting a real treat when the young lady returns, hopefully, completely naked.
On her last pass, though, she prances across the stage wearing red flannel combination underwear that covers her from her neck to her ankles and wrists! The crowd erupts in laughter and howls of derision and their reaction forces the violinist to turn around. He catches a glimpse of her as she exits, turns back to the crowd and says something like, ‘What was that? It looked like a giant tomato sauce bottle!’
Are you having a permanent museum space? If so, where?
Yes we are! Maison Burlesque in Richmond has very kindly donated a space in their building on Bridge Road and we can’t wait to get it fitted out.
What is the structure of the Australian Burlesque Association? As I understand it, there is you, The Strawberry Siren and Raven, as well as key players in each state who are finding images, stories and other memorabilia.
Our structure has me as the Managing Director and Founder, then I have three Assistant Directors. These are The Strawberry Siren who is also our Treasurer, Elena Gabrielle and Raven. We also have a Head Curator, Alexander Edwards. Then we have State Coordinators who, as the title suggests, will coordinate activities in their state including research and fundraising. They are: Lila Luxx (QLD), Foxtrot India (NSW), Tiffany Blue (ACT), Grace Cherry (TAS), Luna Eclipse (SA), Ellashaye D’more (NT), and Melanie Piantoni (WA).
We now also have Coco Lectric who will be our American Legend Liaison. Many of the American legends toured the circuit in Australia and through them we look forward to piecing together what that circuit looked like.
The Australian Burlesque Association is very new so we expect it will evolve over time. We have the support of our amazing community and so many people have offered their time and help I imagine it will grow quite rapidly.
How is it going to ‘work’? What business structure will be in place? Could you explain for international readers a little of what this business structure is and how it is most effective for the Association?
At this stage it will work as a non-profit association. It’s exactly what it sounds like, which is that it can turn a profit but this must go towards furthering the objective of the association. A non-profit cannot distribute profits to members except as bona fide compensation for services rendered or expenses incurred on behalf of the organisation.
With our first task of initial fundraising completed, our next steps along with the actual set up of the museum is to incorporate. An incorporated association can apply for a number of different government grants and affords us more opportunities and assistance. There is a lot of paperwork involved in this and it may take us a little while but we all know burlesque performers are used to lots of admin!
How will the museum sustain itself? I hope to assist as an academic researcher with grant assistance where I can, but will you have the monthly overheads of a museum space to meet?
The museum will be initially sustained through fundraising. We are also on the lookout for larger corporate sponsors. If you own or are a representative of a company that may be interested in getting in at the ground level with the first ever Australian Burlesque Museum we’d love to hear from you!
Once we incorporate we’ll be looking at grant funding along with yearly memberships. We are very lucky that the museum space has been donated which cuts out a huge potential expense. However there will be ongoing costs of insurance and storage that will need to be met, and that is our greatest challenge.
You must be very passionate about burlesque, and Australian burlesque, to do this. What is your biggest motivation?
I think we’re all passionate about this; maybe I’m just a little more crazy? I’d be very happy to spend my later years with my head buried in research, cataloguing burlesque history. To me burlesque is my career and livelihood, my community, my circle of friends, my fashion inspiration, my reading material, my exercise regime. It is, in short, my life!
I want two things. Firstly, I want to know where we came from. I don’t want to pull punches and I don’t want to gloss over the tough parts. I want to know about our history in all its dirty glory. I want to celebrate the lives and achievements of our burlesque legends and what they overcome to make those achievements.
Secondly, I want to record what is happening right now so that future generations can access all this information, all the stories, the interviews, the photos, and the costumes so that our history is never lost again. The best way to look forward is by knowing what came before us. I’m looking forward to that journey.
A bit of information on the shows pictured by Grace Cherry of Tasmania‘s Miss Kitty‘s Meow:
Reg and Mattieau ran RegMat productions. Reg and Mathieau were Aussies who had performed at the Lido and the Moulin Rouge in Paris. There were many other Australian girls dancing at these shows during the 1970s, and as I’ve heard from sources, many of them were looking to come back to Australia and settle. Reg and Mathieau took a number of these dancers with them when they started RegMat.
So unlike traditional burlesque shows (and definitely unlike a burlesque show today) RegMat shows were full Las Vegas/Parisian styled productions. The performers were trained ballet dancers, many of them with a lot of stage experience, and unlike a burlesque show it wasn’t so much about the striptease as the glamour and high production values. There would be only 4-5 ‘topless’ dancers during the show, and like the Lido or Moulin Rouge it wasn’t about striptease but showcasing the body, the lines, the costumes.
Tasmania gave RegMat a home for these productions as Wrest Point Casino was the first real casino in Australia. There wasn’t the infrastructure for shows of this magnitude across other areas of Australia at the time. But the productions would tour to some areas of Australia, and into Asia. They ran until the early-mid 1980s.
It’s hard to say without sounding like an absolute knobhead how much of a big deal these shows were in Tasmania. Tassie can be pretty insular still, and I imagine this was more so in the 1970s and 1980s when travel – even interstate – wasn’t as accessible. So to have real showgirls, and ones of the quality that I’ve heard of, made a massive impact. Our audience members at shows vary considerably in age group but we definitely have a massive older age demographic. These people will always inevitably come up to me after shows talking about how they remember Wrest Point Casino in its glamorous heyday (very different story now!) and the amazing productions that RegMat showed. The costumes, headpieces and props were out of this world and would still be coveted today.
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.