Not Calm but Carrying On: British Burlesque in Lockdown
‘2020 was going to be a big year for me,’ Eliza DeLite says. ‘This time last year I had two international tours booked in, and when I wasn’t on tour I was performing three to five nights a week in London.’ The 32-year-old burlesque artist was two weeks into a five-week tour across Germany with the Firebirds Burlesque Show when she received a call to say that the rest of the tour had been cancelled, as the country was plunged into lockdown.
‘They said, “It’s over. We’re picking you up at 7am and we’ve booked you new flights home. Go and pack your stuff.” Each of us had some kind of a breakdown whilst packing. I was folding my laundry on the rack and just started crying.’
By the time Eliza landed back in London, she was ‘numb’. ‘What was most heart breaking is that I had been aiming towards this level of tour my whole career and it was just taken away.’
As the UK descended into a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, performers found themselves bearing the brunt of its effects as entertainment and hospitality venues were forced to close.
‘I think we should have done whatever was needed to be safe,’ Bettsie Bon Bon says. ‘I don’t think the entertainment industry was targeted as such, but I do think we have been forgotten about in all of this.’
A celebrated veteran of the London burlesque scene, Bettsie was set to return to the stage the weekend lockdown hit, just three months after giving birth to her daughter. ‘When everything was closed in the first lockdown, that was understandable, but when certain things were allowed to re-open, such as sporting events, I felt it wasn’t very fair across the board.’
Dubbed the ‘Platinum Pin-Up of Burlesque’, Marilyn Monroe impersonator Isabella Bliss shares this frustration. ‘I found it so infuriating to see shops packed with people, not socially distancing, not wearing masks, touching things. That’s where it was so unjust. All these big corporations were allowed to stay open, yet the small venues that were bending over backwards to meet Covid security requirements weren’t.’
Bliss warns of the risk facing an industry that is currently underfunded and undervalued. ‘We will lose an entire culture that is the backbone of British society if the government are not careful in the coming months. We are so blessed with the talent and creatives we have in this country, and if we lose the cabaret and entertainment venues for them to perform in, society as a whole will suffer.’
For many of those in the UK entertainment industry, the notorious Cyber First poster, a government backed advert that encouraged those in the arts to turn to a career in cybersecurity instead, was the final nail in the coffin. The campaign, which featured an image of a young ballet dancer along with caption ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. She just doesn’t know it yet.’ was widely condemned and seen as crass at a time when thousands of jobs across the culture sector were being lost.
‘It was disgusting,’ Eliza says. ‘You wouldn’t have seen that targeted at any other profession. I think what was most hurtful is that of all the professions out there, artists are so passionate about their work. It’s not just about keeping a roof over our heads. It is something that is deeply built within us.’
Isabella adds that ‘the government doesn’t understand that we are performers and creators because that’s where we fit in society. It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Our brains work differently to other people’s.’
A Risky Business
The nature of being a professional burlesque performer is that unlike a regular 9-5 job, there is little guarantee if there will be any work to return to in a post-Covid world.
‘I estimate that it will take me four years to get my career back to where it was before lockdown,’ Isabella says. ‘You’re starting from ground zero again. Your cabaret calendar is made up of lots of little jobs that you’ve worked to get in to that diary. You have nurtured them and networked with those people and it takes time to build a schedule up. It doesn’t just happen overnight.’
Whereas some performers have been entitled to SEISS grants, others have not. This has forced burlesque artists to pursue other sources of income to keep them afloat. Some have turned to subscription services such as Patreon and OnlyFans, and other creative ventures to make money. Eliza Delite set up her own macramé homeware and fashion business, Elysium Studio, in the summer to help make ends meet. However, none of these ventures have made up for the significant downturn in their incomes over the last year.
Others have resorted to applying for more conventional jobs during the pandemic. Isabella spent the first lockdown studying courses in customer service and lean business management so that she could make herself ‘more employable’. She managed to find a job as a receptionist for a private medical hospital, but she was nervous about ‘entering the real world’ as an entertainer.
Unfortunately for Isabella, she found herself in a less than pleasant working environment. She was met by a daily barrage of snarky comments from seniors within her team, including remarks about her career as a burlesque performer.
‘I would go to work crying every day because I wouldn’t know what kind of mood those women would be in or what they would say to me next,’ she recalls. ‘I actually ended up having a breakdown and was signed off work because I couldn’t hack it there any more.’
‘In the burlesque circuit, we support one another. It was a terrible realisation of how lucky I had been to spend thirteen years of my life doing what I had loved, to then face the harsh reality of working a forty-hour week in a job that wasn’t making my soul sing.’
Some performers, such as Odelia Opium, turned to producing online shows to generate income. The self-described ‘Time Traveller of Burlesque’ and professionally trained costumier saw 90% of her bookings dry up overnight when Covid hit. She created Corona Cabaret, a live burlesque and cabaret night streamed via Zoom featuring a selection of international acts and artists. Her online debut, live from her living room floor, was watched by 250 people from across the world. The shows proved to be so popular that they have become a monthly occurrence.
Corona Cabaret hasn’t been without its challenges, though. ‘Our first show in March raised a lot of money for the performers involved, but after a few weeks everyone and their dog were putting on online shows,’ Odelia says. ‘There was so much stuff out there that people gradually lost interest over time and viewer numbers went down.’
The pressure to constantly evolve the show has also caused a strain. ‘People are tired of seeing the same things they saw at the start of the pandemic, so we have to keep reinventing them to keep it fresh. Online shows are fun, but they have an even smaller budget than a live show has. The pay for an online show is peanuts; it’s next to nothing.’
Adapting to online performance has proved difficult for some. No one knows this better than The Poison Ivies, a Midlands-based burlesque troupe of seven dancers. During the pandemic they have been forced to rehearse weekly over Zoom, record their performances individually and meticulously edit them all together. Despite this, they have managed to sell out two online shows and are growing a following on social media, thanks in part to the online content they are sharing with their fans.
Performing and rehearsing during a pandemic hasn’t been without its mishaps, though. Lola Peach, co-creator of The Poison Ivies, recalls some of the technical difficulties that she experienced during one of the troupe’s online shows.
‘I couldn’t hear my music so I had to perform my act in the kitchen in silence,’ she says, laughing. ‘I could just hear myself breathing heavily and my feet shuffling around on the floor. It was so off-putting!’
Other reported hazards of performing from home include severe carpet burns, banging into furniture, and pets and children making unexpected cameo appearances.
Is it possible for burlesque to transcend a traditional live stage and audience? The consensus seems to be no.
‘There are certain things that work online, but I don’t necessarily think burlesque is one of them,’ explains Isabella. ‘There’s something about the magic of cabaret that’s in the room and in the experience. When you’re performing live, it’s a dialogue between you and your audience. I give and they give back. For a good performer, no two performances are the same because you give your audience what they need.’
Eliza DeLite agreed to do one online show for the Phoenix Arts Club before she decided the format wasn’t for her. ‘I thought it would be good for me to get back into my costume,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t touched my suitcase since I came back from the tour in Germany and I wasn’t in a great place. I filmed one of my acts in the lounge and I didn’t enjoy it at all; I felt miserable the whole time.’
Eliza does believe that watching burlesque through a screen can still work for an audience, if not for the performer themselves. ‘It depends on what each person gets out of burlesque. As an audience member, you still get to see these amazing costumes and people performing choreography to fantastic music. It’s still entertaining for them to watch.’
Not being able to perform to an audience has been tough on some performers.
‘For me, burlesque is pretty much everything,’ Lola says. ‘I don’t have any other hobbies or much of a life outside of burlesque. I really struggled to go without it, particularly in the first lockdown. I’ve felt a lot better since November when we got back into the routine of rehearsing every week online and had something to focus on.’
It’s not just the mental health of artists which has been impacted by the closure of the entertainment industry. ‘The performing arts alleviates mental illness in a huge way,’ Isabella explains. ‘That’s why it is so important that we save the arts, because it’s not just important for the people performing, but also for the people going.’
This is partly why Isabella became a performer in the first place. ‘I love that when I’m on stage, I have the ability to connect with somebody in the audience and take them away from their problems, even if it’s just for five minutes. That’s why we go to see shows; we need escapism from life sometimes.’
An Opportunity for Authenticity
One positive aspect to emerge from the pandemic is the breaking down of the artifice performers display to their fans. ‘Because of social media, we have to appear to be happy all the time,’ Isabella says. ‘A lot of creatives are suffering in silence; our lives have to seem perfect.’
Eliza knows this pressure only too well. ‘Burlesque is a competitive industry, and you want to give your followers this perfect, polished image of you because people like to have things to look up to. At the same time, I think it’s really important to let people see that softer side to you.’
One performer who has particularly embraced this new trend is Cleopantha. The 29-year-old, known for her aggressive, feisty persona on stage, saw an opportunity to show another side to her personality by treating her fans to ‘Twerking in Isolation’ videos on Instagram.
‘I’m honestly the most chilled out Northerner!’ she says. ‘I wanted to create some banter because it’s been a really shit time for everyone. That’s why I thought it would be great to implement this silly side of my personality into my art.’
After the year that Cleopantha has had, nobody could blame her. In December, she was hospitalised after contracting Covid-19. ‘I was aching in places that I’ve never ached before. My chest was full of fluid and I wasn’t breathing properly. It was like a combination of bad flu and a really bad chest infection.’
Even three months on she still gets tightness in her chest, and by most evenings she is struggling to breathe normally. ‘I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I’m so tired all the time. I lost so much weight I ended up looking like Gollum!’
Another unexpected benefit to emerge from the subsequent lockdowns is that it has forced some performers to slow down and take stock of their lives and their careers.
‘I think when you’re running the rat race of performing and gigging and working, you don’t always get a chance to reassess those things,’ Isabella says. ‘The pandemic has given me the opportunity to dig deep and think about who I am now at 34 years old, where I want to go from here and what my values in life are now.’
‘I would never have given myself a break before Covid-19 happened,’ admits Eliza. ‘As performers, we all know that we are replaceable because there’s so many of us out there, so we work hard to make sure that we can get those gigs. I think there is this mentality, especially in London, that you need to be doing every single gig that’s out there and working every single night. The assumption is that if you’re doing that, then you are successful. The result, though, is that you’re exhausted all the time and the quality of your work starts to slip.’
‘When things do return to normal, I will definitely be a lot kinder to myself in terms of my work schedule. I want to enjoy my life outside of burlesque because having lived for a year without it, I know it is possible.’
What does the future hold for burlesque in a post-Covid world?
‘I think it is going to be different,’ Odelia says. ‘Many performers will sadly not be coming back because they have had to take up other jobs.’
‘I don’t know if the London scene will be as big as it was,’ Bettsie Bon Bon says. ‘We have lost so many performers back to their own countries, particularly the Australians. I do wonder whether the regional scenes will become bigger, though, because a lot of people have moved out to different places.’
‘I think we’re going to see the re-emergence of the Roaring Twenties,’ Isabella says. ‘Before Covid, we started to see a decline in people coming to see live entertainment because there was so much entertainment on TV. But for the last year, people have been forced to just stay at home. Hopefully, it will make people realise how important it is to go out and socialise with others. As human beings and social creatures by nature, we need that interaction.’
Is it possible that online shows will continue to play a part in burlesque’s future?
‘I think there are things that we can take forward and I do like that by doing things online, we can access more people,’ Bettsie says. ‘I don’t know if there are ways we can livestream our shows online when we do return to the stage. Personally I would love that, as there are shows that I’ll never get the opportunity to see, but if I could watch them on a screen it would be incredible.’
‘The beauty of an online show is that everybody can take part in it,’ Odelia says. ‘Why not incorporate that for people who are sick or have disabilities and can’t access a normal show? I think that would be a lovely and positive thing to have as an option in the future for burlesque.’
With thanks to contributing journalist Emma Green.