The F-word has been front and center throughout the world and at the forefront of discussion within the burlesque community of late. With ‘Nasty Women’ and ‘Bad Feminists’ globally speaking out on important women’s issues, it has been amazing to see how the burlesque community has been combining political expression into our body of work (pun intended).
Fringe season kicked into full swing in Australia from late January to March, with local and international shows making the journey to Perth for the month-long season of World Fringe before heading over to the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
Baby Got Back started springing up on everyone’s radar when images of a rather imposing trio of women called the ‘feral pussies’ thrust themselves onto our Facebook timelines. These statuesque women were sporting giant bobble-like cat heads perched atop their crowns towering triumphantly over their audience in stripper-shoes, neon coloured knee-pads and bodysuits with sets of nipples stitched on, wearing over-sized love heart collars with the words: Dyke. Slut. Whore.
Baby Got Back originated in 2015 and was the booty-child of Australian burlesque powerhouses Frankie Valentine and Vesper White. What began as an hour long dedication to all things booty, has become a platform that highlights some important women’s issues.
Alyssa Kitt caught up with the producers of Baby Got Back, Frankie Valentine and Vesper White, to talk all things pussy power.
Alyssa: What’s the basic concept for the show?
Frankie: Initially we came up with the concept because we are a couple of booty-obsessed perverts! As we continue to do the show, it’s evolved into something far more politically relevant. We use it as a platform to highlight some of the issues we feel as women in today’s society. Whether that be body shaming, slut shaming or judgment about what we [as women] choose to do with our bodies and our sexuality.
Vesper: We started by surfing this booty-obsessed wave in popular culture. We threw around some concept for ass-centric acts and developed a Fringe-length show. We realized just how rich in material our show was for exploring themes of the female body in public space.
The female body as a political weapon! I love it! Baby Got Back has strong political undertones, but was that your original intention with the show itself? Or has it evolved from the original version?
Vesper: The original concept was purely about developing ass-centric acts with a neo-burlesque flavour. It was an absurd show designed to entertain and be a little left of field – silly, disgusting and hilarious. I think art as a force for social change is coming back into vogue. We as artists are realizing our voices are somewhat privileged and that we have a social responsibility to push against.
What differentiates Baby Got Back from a lot of Fringe spectacle shows is that we come with a distinct political undercurrent. There are other great artists coming from a similar space – Betty Grumble, Glitta Supernova and Kitten ‘N’ Lou are our contemporaries whose work we very much admire.
Tell me about the cast for Baby Got Back.
Frankie: We asked Miss Jane to come on board with us [in 2015], as we’d always admired her work and she was and continues to be an integral part of the cast. Comedienne-stripper Perri Hunter was our MC for the first two versions of the show. This first show had the same ridiculous absurdity and comedy that you find in the current version but [since then] we’ve added a little more depth and relevance.
Vesper: Perri Hunter was great. We met her backstage at a show, you couldn’t really NOT notice her. She was this tiny blonde with the foulest mouth and she had the whole room of strippers in stitches while she was talking about her asshole. She’s currently based in America and couldn’t be a part of this incarnation, but she still writes for the show.
The current cast has a few new additions – tell me a bit about how you chose the cast and what their acts are like.
Frankie: This year we’ve added Memphis Mae, an MC from Sydney known as the ‘Queen of Crude’ and that she is! We love the concept of constantly challenging people’s perceptions and Memphis definitely delivers in this regard. She is this tiny, little beauty with the sweetest smile and the foulest mouth that takes you on journeys you never expect to go on.
Vesper: Memphis blows a balloon up with her asshole. I’ll just let that sit with you for a moment.
Frankie: Miss Jane became a permanent member of the cast. There is such a pure joy to the way that she performs and exists in her body. I couldn’t imagine doing the show without her and her touring antics are a constant source of hilarity and entertainment.
Vesper: Bella de Jac has come back with us for a second year. She brings a visual depth to her pieces and she’s really pushed herself and her performance style with this show. Her vagina dentata act is really visually striking and bizarre – a pieces that slows the flow of the show in a really considered and atmospheric way. Her act is very Guillermo Del Toro.
I think our cast will continually evolve and considering our show’s theme is so closely allied to body positivity – we’d like to strive towards a more inclusive and diverse cast.
As burlesque performers in 2017, has there been any recent events that you think has kicked feminist discourse up a notch?
Frankie: Ahh there has been so many things. I think people in general, at least in our circles are becoming much more aware. Behaviours and oppression that was once kept quiet and swept under the carpet has now been forced into the spotlight. This feels like a positive step forward. At the same time, we are arguing about the same things that the pioneers of feminism fought for decades ago. It’s hard to see progress sometimes.
Vesper: Globally, we’re seeing a huge shift by the masses in their reconsideration of power and those that hold it. We feel constantly under threat and humiliated by a patriarchy that refuses to forge equality. I think social media has been a huge force for change in uniting people who otherwise would have such a small voice.
The election of a megalomaniac toddler with a trigger-happy finger who signs away human rights for women around the world has lit a fire under all of us to realise the war being waged over our bodies. I think great burlesque keeps its finger on the pulse – I can use my work to continue the discourse and amplify the female voices around me, even if it’s one small Fringe tent at a time.
Do you think that burlesque is a unique performance medium for this topic?
Frankie: Not at all. I think art is any form or medium can be used as a platform to express your political views and comment on the political climate. In regards to burlesque, one of the things that I love about it is that you can use it as a medium to express your views, to defy conventions and make a stand.
The fact that someone who treats women so appallingly (amongst so many other bad behaviours) was recently elected president of the United States of America has definitely influenced our show. The collective gathering of women throughout the world in protest, women supporting women, slut shaming and the resulting slut pride, the movement towards self love and body positivity, sex work acceptance – these are all themes of the show.
It’s amazing to see such momentum on women’s rights issues in the wake of Trump election and the infamous “grab them by the pussy” quote. I’ve seen a few photos of the Baby Got Back performers in white leotards sporting the words “Pussy grabs back”. Is this the feral pussy routine?
Frankie: The white leotards are actually our curtain call costumes, separate to the feral pussies. We each have a different slogan hand painted on the leotards. We chose slogans that are relevant to the current political climate and one that speaks to us as fierce females with sexual agency.
Tell me about the Feral Pussies and the cat heads…
Vesper: The Feral Pussies were actually developed prior to the now infamous “Grab ‘Em by the pussy” line. The Feral Pussies are an exploration of the monstrous feminine in motion: raw, wild, aggressive sexuality that challenges the softer aspect of the feminine. But after Trump came out with that line it all fell together into this beautifully relevant opening piece. The Feral Pussies are complete with six nipples and unique, furry pussies.
I’m blown away by what you’re doing with Baby Got Back – it’s powerful, relevant and inspiring. You’re in Adelaide for Fringe right now; what are your plans for the show going forward?
Vesper: Thanks so much. It’s great to feel the support of our sisters-in-arms! We’re at Adelaide Fringe after our sell-out season in Perth. It’s such a mental environment here, it’s kind of overwhelming how many fantastic shows are all trying to find audiences in one space.
Frankie: We would like to continue to grow as artists and push ourselves creatively, this show gives us the freedom to do that with no boundaries. This year we would really like to take the show to Brisbane and New Zealand, possibly Sydney and Canberra. We’d love to get some funding behind us to really tour the crap out of it. So if anyone has some cash floating around and wants to get involved… or buy us a hot meal. Or a drink – hello!
I heard of an incident from Kitten ‘N’ Lou’s show, where some audience members went to their burlesque show expecting a pretty strut and strip show and being quite confronted by their boundary pushing topics in their similar style of politically aware neo-burlesque. What has the audience response been to your show – have you had any similar incidences?
Vesper: I think Baby Got Back is a real honey-trap. Our marketing is a little salacious and definitely geared towards attracting gaze. We get a lot of folk thinking it’s a tits-n-ass piece – either young males or women who pass the show’s flier immediately to their male partners and suggest it’s “their kind of show”. We have to continually educate punters on the content of the show and ascribe no definite gender to our target audience.
We’ve created a really safe space. I’ve had women come up to me after the show in tears, so moved by the presentation of our often naked bodies. I’ve had men come up and high-five me and want to talk about its thematics. I think we manage to unite a few different tribes in the space.
I love that you’ve just described the show as a honey-trap!
Vesper: Yes – totally unionising elements.
Frankie: We’ve had a really positive response to the show. It’s so gratifying to see the joy in people’s faces when they leave. The show is equal parts striptease, comedy and social/political commentary, so despite the serious undertones we handle ourselves with a lot of love and joy and I see that reflected in a lot of our audience when they approach us afterwards.
I’m so happy to hear that the show is making a space for positive change. In that same vein – do you feel that by facilitating discussion on feminist discourse in an unexpected place, such as at burlesque show, that you are creating a bigger space for change?
Vesper: Absolutely. I think making the discussion accessible to all is really important. We try to bring joy and laughter to an often brutal or divisive conversation.
Frankie: I think that creating work that highlights some of these issues whilst still being joyous and entertaining – it’s a really beautiful way to deliver the message and perhaps makes it more palatable for people.
Find out more at www.babygotback.com.au
Interview by Alyssa Kitt.
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.