Cocktails, Costume and Concept with Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover
“So tell me. Who and what are you wearing?!” Showing up as nothing less than their usual and inimitable glorious selves, I interviewed the generous Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover over cocktails the night after performing their headlining Clown Act at the Calgary International Burlesque Festival. Lou looking resplendently poised and dapper in top hat and tails, Kitten in a vintage 60’s thigh-high slit velvet gown with matching tap pants. Nothing less than divine of course.
VC: What are your favourite costumes?
K: That’s really hard. We have nostalgic favourites but whatever we are currently working on becomes our automatic favourite. Because we travel so much I have to say that it’s when we come home and unpack and tend to our costumes that I feel really comforted. It’s a sense of home because these are things that are always around us when we travel. I definitely feel that way about our Last Dance costumes by Danial Hellman. They have been around the world with us and are well-worn and loved. We are very sentimental about those, every time I put them on it’s like putting on your favourite pair of old sweatpants or something. Except that they’re completely fabulous.
When you first conceived that disco act, at what stage did your vision for the costume come together?
K: We’ve actually had two different sets of costumes for that act. It was commissioned for a big charity fundraiser in Seattle. They were just looking for a disco act, it was meant to be an exposition piece, not even a burlesque act. So we made this disco dance. It didn’t turn into a burlesque act until later on for a Hallowe’en event in New York, and it had to have a dark twist, so we added the suicide pact with the Draino martini. We performed it like that once, and then it stayed that way ever since. We were like, “This is the act.”
L: Yes, we decided we should take our clothes off during the act.
So what was the first costume, before it became a burlesque act?
K: Silver sequin, really glitzy and flashy and pink. They were really great.
When did you decide it needed to be something different?
K: When it became a burlesque act with striptease we had to redesign the costumes to accommodate and we went to Danial – who also made our wedding clothes; he’s brilliant. Our wedding clothes were the first things he ever made for us, and he was so great with those pieces that we went to him for the next version of the disco act. He had the most BRILLIANT idea of a vintage Donny and Marie theme.
L: Danial is such a great fit for us because not only does he do incredibly beautiful women’s clothes, but he also tailors menswear. So that’s really great for us. He also did our cowboy costumes which we also LOOOVE so much.
K: Mr. Gorgeous did our clown costumes that we’ve been debuting in different places recently. He is so amazingly talented in so many ways.
How different was it working with Mr. Gorgeous – who is obviously also a world-class performer – from Danial who is strictly a costumer?
K: The main way that it was different is that our costumes are usually very gender specific. It’s a clear his and hers set. Whereas these clown costumes had the intention of making them more androgynous, like a true twin set. And that was fun and different to do.
L: We didn’t want there to be a strong gender difference until the very end when we do the strip tease.
K: And Danial’s taste level is definitely higher than ours. There are times when we go to him with a concept and there’s some eye-rolling going on when we are like, “No! We want it STUPIDER! MORE STUPID! More cartoonish!” and he will be, “UGGGH! FINE!”
Are there are specific challenges to your designing costumes as a non androgynous, male/female duo?
(Pause. Two glasses of white wine are delivered to Kitten and Lou. Pisco sour for me, at which point we raise our glasses to the city of Calgary and their Alberta hospitality, which we mutually agree to be a charming and refreshing combination of wide-eyed excitement and professionalism. Way to go Calgary International Burlesque Festival.)
K: We work almost exclusively with three favourite costumers. Danial, Mr. Gorgeous, and J. Von Stratton from Seattle. For the most part they really know us and our bodies and what we are looking for, so we don’t really have too much of a struggle. But there is almost always a thing, for Lou especially, that will bring special challenges.
L: I think the trickiest thing we have ever encountered in figuring out the design is how to end up with both of us ending up at the same amount of naked. We both want to end up pretty naked, yet how do we make that happen since I can’t actually get as naked as Kitten. So, our costumers have come up with some pretty creative solutions around that.
As an audience member enjoying your work, there appears to be a distinct look to all of your costuming; is that a conscious effort or does it just naturally evolve in that direction?
K: It’s absolutely a conscious thing. We collaborate extensively with all of our costumers to achieve the look that we want. They have their own input with respect to execution but we really come to them with this idea of us as being living cartoon characters. We want to be the cartoon version of these cowboys, or cartoon versions of this type of clown. We really want to bring high camp and high cartoon aesthetics to all of our work.
L: We really try to create a two-dimensional feel with our costumes. We love 2D cardboard props, making things very flat, that sort of idea. We also try to replicate that with our costumes to a certain degree. While costumes are obviously 3D there is always something about the boldness of the pattern or style that implies 2D. For example, Mr Gorgeous actually top-stitched the dots on our clown costumes because we couldn’t find a fabric with a large enough pattern.
K: We are definitely not the type of people who are interested in super detailed gold leaf appliques or anything that is small, intricate or detailed. Our look is very graphic and high impact. The clown costume has a little bit of sparkle here and there, but it’s really about the graphic effect of the print. Not that we are shy of bling – our cowboy costumes are definitely encrusted – but it’s about what is going to achieve the maximum impact here. And the clown costumes really don’t need anything because we have this eye-popping primary colour pattern. We are not ones to be interested in the tasteful side of things. We like it to be a little too much. A little gaudy. A little outrageous. I don’t want a detail if it’s not going to show onstage. I want the back of the house to know it’s there. At least with our duet costumes. Our solo pieces tend to be a little more intricate or elaborate.
From the duet point of view have you ever come up with the costume concept first and developed an act from there?
K: Yes. With Clowns, for example, we had a clear concept. We created a mood board for the type of clowns we wanted to be. Very Poiret Clown inspired with the pointed hats.
L: But did clowns come before the song?
K: No. (chuckling) The song came first. The music is often the starting point for us.
L: But in my solo work I usually start from the image, so I would start with the costume. But not as much for our duets.
Does either one of you guide the artistic vision of your duets more in any way?
K: Often I feel like with our duet acts we develop the overall concept first: “We should do a clown act to this song.” And then Lou really gets into the nitty gritty of the choreo. We both choreograph all of our acts but Lou has the extensive dance career and gets all the finer details down.
L: There will be times where we are working on a segment and I will be like, “Just go away for a bit, and let me figure this out…” and then we will rework it together.
Anything in regards to construction of your costumes that people would be surprised by?
K: Our clown costumes are interesting in that they are made with actual real hula hoops. He even left the little pebbles in them, so I could hear them when I’m moving around. Our cowboy costumes are a special kind of beast because they are snap tape. We tend to never ever use snap tape because it doesn’t stretch. But for these costumes it’s the thing that just needed to happen. Danial’s costumes are so beautifully tailored and they fit your body perfectly, but snaps wear out, so there’s always that fear that our little shorts are just going to explode off of our bodies. Most of our costumes are usually a mixture of zippers, snaps, hooks. The usual.
L: Most of our costumes are actually like clothes; they have some strippable elements, but for the most part they fit like regular clothes. If we have pants, we may take them off by somersaulting out of them rather than just ripping them off.
Have you ever had to modify an act to suit the costume?
K&L simultaneously reply: YES! Definitely.
L: Our cowboy act we actually created the first half of that act as part of a larger more dance-based piece that didn’t have stripping in it. We wore entirely different costumes. We had a completely different dance piece that we then had to build these costumes into. We often are finished with a version of the choreography before we start working on our costumes, which is different, because Kitten doesn’t do that with her solo work at all.
K: Yah, we work with these really amazing costumers, but because of our insane schedules we are often working with insane deadlines for them. So we will get the costumes like two days before we have to debut them
OH. MY. GOSH.
K. We have basically already completed the act before we have all the costume pieces.
L: Our disco piece, I remember a couple of days before debut feeling like it was never going to work, but it did. We had this one rehearsal where it was not working out and one of the costume pieces ended up getting accidentally thrown into a planter in the studio. This brand new, never-been-worn piece just completely covered in dirt. And then you just figure it out.
Going back to earlier in your career, did you ever have to DIY any of your costume pieces?
K: I would if I could. But I honestly do not have ANY sewing skills. AT all. And to be honest I just haven’t had any interest in that part of act construction. I’ve always been happy to hire someone more talented than me. We definitely have cobbled together some things like head pieces or things like that.
L: We can definitely hot glue the hell out of a head piece.
K: We can definitely hot glue. However, we invest a lot of our income back into our costuming for sure. You don’t necessarily have to do that, but for us the look is so much a part of the fantasy that we are trying to create that it becomes crucial to this world we are creating.
Does that mystical cartoonish existence that you create on stage ever cross over into your off-stage life?
K: It really IS our life. We really are so fortunate in that we do this for a full-time living and that our life is this whirlwind of travel and shows. There’s a very thin line between Kitten the character on stage and Kitten at home. I’d say it’s pretty thin. Don’t get me wrong, there are days I just want to lie on the couch and watch Netflix like everyone else.
And you don’t look like a cartoon character while you are doing that?
K: (looking like a kid caught with her hand in the candy jar) Wellll… it depends. (We all laugh together.) I do love a glamorous kimono to lounge around in. Our apartments are also decorated in a way that is over the top. It’s ridiculous.
L: Our personnas definitely come out of our real, off-stage personalities.
I think it has to in order for it to read as authentic. Ok. So…ever have any costume misfires??
K: Definitely. Like when I was debuting a new solo at the New York Burlesque Festival on the Saturday night in my new insane costume by Mark Mitchell, who is brilliant, and the costume has this piece that is a fringe shimmy belt. I rehearsed with it a ton of times, with a magnet closure, but I didn’t account for the fact that when adrenaline kicks in on stage that your movements are easily 50% more intense, and the SECOND I started moving, the thing just went WOOSH and flew off my body and I had to do a full eight sets of eight counts pretending I have a shimmy belt on during this choreo. ‘Just imagine that it’s there.’
How about you, Lou?
L: Magnets are always tricky. At the end of our cowboy act, the snake bites me in the crotch and it’s attached by a magnet. I’ve had the snake fly off prematurely.
K: In recent endless costume drama we have the case of the haunted neck ruff! For clowns the neck ruff, it’s as though Lou’s has been haunted during the last eight times we’ve performed it.
L: I wasn’t even ready to talk about that yet, but go for it.
K: Either it’s exploded off his body unexpectedly or won’t come off at all, with no rhyme or reason as to why. It’s fastened with snaps, it’s the simplest technology. Mine pops off at the right time, every time with no problem. We were just recently doing a show in Provincetown five shows a week for a month with no problems, thirty shows in a row. And then, a string of eight shows in a row, like major headlining festival shows, where it won’t come off, or boom it’s suddenly hurling across the stage.
L: And then there’s Kitten thinking, well Lou lost his, I guess I’ll take mine off, and then trying to figure that out, and we have this whole choreography with the neck ruffs and we’re looking sideways at each other trying to figure out what to do. It’s way harder to fake it in a duet when there’s a mistake or one person has a costume issue. You quickly have to figure out how to get on board with each other.
That’s one of the things I like about our cowboy costumes is that for the most part we have different pieces from each other so they come off at different times. There are a couple of matching pieces that need to come off together, but I like that combination.
K: I have a deep love for those cowboy costumes, every time I put them on, I’m so delighted with myself.
What about costume maintenance?
L: (Gesturing to Kitten) This one claims that she does not know how to operate a sewing needle.
K: I don’t even know how to sew a snap. I don’t even know how to properly thread a needle.
Properly? What do you mean properly? There’s no such thing! There is no proper way to thread a needle. You just stick the thread through!
K: But isn’t there some sort of special knot or something?
It’s just. A knot.
L: That’s the thing. She won’t even hear this conversation.
K: I dunno, it just seems complicated to me.
L: Sooo… I sew a lot of snaps.
K: Yes. Lou sews all our snaps.
At this point we digress into our mutual dislike of sewing snaps. How it seems like so much work for one tiny little thing. We also discover that none of us are sure if one is supposed to sew through each individual of the four holes? Or whether you sew it like a button giving you two loops rather than four? I also learn that this is not even consistent among designers. Danial painstakingly sews each individual hole with an individual thread, whereas Mr. Gorgeous sews them like buttons. Seriously. Only Kitten and Lou could make this inane topic of conversation something of interest. In the end, I see the wisdom of Kitten’s position with respect to not knowing how to thread a needle.
K: Lou really is the custodian of all our costumes. It’s very sweet. She treasures them like they are our little children and treats them with extreme care.
They are almost like characters in and of themselves, are they not?
K&L: (chuckle in agreement)
L: I have one more costume snafu story for you, which was in Provincetown. Kitten was doing a solo, took off her bra and threw it offstage. But I was handing her a giant hoola hoop that she uses, and the bra got caught on the edge of the hoop. I saw it happen as I was pushing the hoola hoop out and couldn’t catch it in time.
K: So I hoola hooped and the bra flew into the audience and they TOOK it and kept it as a souvenir.
(Gasp!) That’s horrible.
L: And I watched it all unfolding in slow motion, “Noooooooooooooo!!!!” and then it went out into the audience and never came back. Then there was the time I accidentally stuck my codpiece into the bag of Donna Denise.
K: Donna Denise! Who is an ultimate goddess of life! The idea that your codpiece got to hang out with Donna Denise for a weekend is very exciting.
L: I know! She sent it back to me with this note, “Dear Lou, I have an ‘item’ that I think is yours.” Every time I perform with her now, I secretly plot what other costume piece I can shove into her bag.
K: You know, it’s interesting to note, going back to the character of our costumes, I have to say that one of the very first things that started creating a buzz around us was before we had really performed as a duet, hardly anywhere, but we just attended BHoF together and were turning out looks for each event, and people started talking and taking note. And this speaks as a real testament to the power of costuming and your public presentation even off the stage. How your look relates to your persona. We were just walking around in these insane looks that we like to wear, and people were all, “WHO are you two? What are you all about? What’s happening here??” We wore this one look where we were connected by the hair, sort of a fetishy look.
L: Her hair was fastened to my collar, for example.
K: Yah, we were turning out some pretty intense looks.
If you each had two words to summarize your persona, what would they be?
K: Camp and???
L: Cartoon and human. Which is sort of a funny combination. It’s sort of about finding something universal in being human.
K: We talk a lot about how we use artifice to reveal human truths and our costumes are definitely a huge part of that. We use artifice with our drag and our costuming with the world that we create for ourselves on stage to reveal something true about ourselves, about being a couple, about being a queer couple.
L: Reality and truth aren’t necessarily the same thing.
What most resonates for you when you are watching another performer?
K: It’s not about genre. There are straight-up classic performers that will make me lose my mind. It’s about an intangible fire or joy in performing that comes through. But for me at the end of the day it comes down to thoughtfulness. Have they carefully thought about what they are doing? So it’s that combination of thoughtfulness of presentation and joy is a magical combination
L: I love would I would call idea-based performance. A really clear concept that they are presenting. But that can be completely overshadowed by a powerhouse performer doing a classic act.
K: I could watch Perle Noire take a duster off for eight hours straight and die a happy woman. And she’s not reinventing the wheel per se, nor are WE! Honestly. Everyone is like, “You guys are so unique and ground breaking,” but what we deal in are these tropes of Americana and nostalgia. The Western, The Clown.
But to me your interpretation feels so pure, as though it’s distilled down to the pure essence of the genre.
K: Distilled. I like that word. Yah. It’s a testament as to whether you enjoy what we are doing even though we are bringing these very classic images to the stage or what makes Perle Noire so electrifying even though she’s doing this classic idea that we’ve all seen, but you haven’t seen it like THAT. Or you haven’t seen what we are doing exactly the way we are doing it. Which is what makes it seem fresh. What are WE bringing that makes it different.
L: I think it’s really important to start out by recognising that everything has been done. If you come to the table thinking you have invented anything then you haven’t understood it yet.
How do you feel about people claiming ownership of ideas?
K: You know, I think it just depends on the context of presentation. Honestly. With burlesque you can almost always find somebody else who has already done it. However, I do feel it’s important to be respectful of iconic performances. Julie Atlas Muz made a famous act where she climbs into a bubble, and sure, we know that someone has done that before back in the 20s. But she has made that act in our day and has become famous for it. Someone in Vegas saw her do that act and tried to rip it off and put it in their show, and she was like “NOPE! You can put this act in your show, but you are going to have me teach the performer how to do it and you are going to pay me for it.” And as far as that goes, I’m, “Yah… own your shit.” Don’t let someone rip you off for monetary value if it’s something you know they got from you. But on the other hand, can someone be mad that there’s someone doing an act in a green gown to Night Train? No. You can’t. You just have to figure out if someone is trying to copy the essence of what you created, truly, or that there’s just a lot of overlapping material in burlesque. We are always striving to bring some element of surprise to our acts.
L: Also I think it’s so much about the filter of personality. We say if we are cowboys, what does a Kitten and Lou cowboy look like?
K: We’ve created these personas that can then navigate their way through all these different characters or milieus.
I hear what you are saying. There’s only one thing left outstanding… you still owe me second word: “Kitten and Lou are camp and???”
K: Dazzling. Camp and dazzling.
There is no doubt that Kitten and Lou have been dazzling in all aspects of creating fantastical, camp personas that always feel fresh. In watching Kitten and Lou perform in their full costumes, there’s an immediate sense of being transported into a version of the burlesque universe that belongs, wholly, and indisputably, to the world’s show busiest couple.