For the last several hundred years, society has primarily measured it by:
- Monetary gain
- Critical acclaim
- Peer respect
Skill and talent certainly play a part, but these must be measured, and no one ever agrees whether Picasso was better than Matisse, or Beethoven better than Mozart. Critics say one thing, the populace says another, and peer respect comes generally from one’s own field (unless you’re David Bowie) as Oscars or Grammys or—nowadays—gracious Tweets.
When I first chimed in about 21st Century Burlesque’s Burlesque Top 50 —and the idea of betting on it*—I handicapped based primarily on peer respect and popularity: a performer’s showings at the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekender in Las Vegas, other festival appearances, and the general feeling of love in the community. I mostly ignored critical acclaim (because, as Bastard Keith—or was it Doc Wasabassco?—once said, “Burlesque criticism is not a thing,” a sentiment I’m beginning to agree with**), and I don’t have the figures to discuss monetary gain.
But now, we really have to talk about internet popularity.
An easy example on the difference between popularity and internet popularity: Imogen Kelly.*** Last year, Imogen failed to appear at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in Las Vegas and sent a letter explaining her absence, a letter that was read to the audience (that the letter was read should say something about her qualifications). The entire house—500-plus people—screamed and wept. That’s popularity. But this year, Imogen barely squeaked into the 21st Century Burlesque Top 50 at number 50. That’s not what anyone would call internet popularity. Anyone under 30 is already mentally advising Kelly to get on Instagram, consider Twitter (it’s not totally irrelevant yet), hire a Millennial intern, etc. etc.
Well, let’s chop it up. 2015’s 21st Century Burlesque Top 50 list is full of dramatic falls from previous years. Dirty Martini—who spent 3 straight years at number 1—has fallen to her all-time low of number 6. Indigo Blue, who spent her year as reigning Queen trying to make BHOF—and the idea and legacy of being a reigning Queen—better, is at number 30. LouLou D’Vil, 2013’s Queen, is at number 20. Former Queen Michelle L’amour, who has always been in the Top 5, has slipped to number 15, despite an Italian tour last year and having the most-viral of all “viral” burlesque videos, Butthoven: 9.7 million views on Vimeo and pirated so often on YouTube it’s impossible to track. Midnite Martini, who took Queen in 2014 with an aerial act—AND also as an Asian-American person (isn’t there a lot of talk on the Internet about diversity?)—has fallen from 2014’s number 7 to number 24. This is the most dramatic next-year fall from a Queen we’ve seen on this list.
Speaking of Queen, the current reigning Queen, Trixie Little (6k followers on Instagram, 5k Twitter), is at number 19. Just let that sink in a little. That’s the lowest ranking yet for a reigning Queen. Reigning King Matt Finish is at number 48. What does this say about the relevance of our BHOF titles?
Dita Von Teese—who fell out of the Top 10 last year to number 12—has fallen to number 16. I’ve argued to colleagues that Dita belongs to a different stratosphere, a different career entirely, but considering her obvious mainstream fame, number 16 is still a puzzler.
How’d my New Yorkers do? Tigger*** makes it in by an orange hair at number 45 (27 last year)—shocking considering that not only did he basically invent boylesque, he continues to be one of the most universally well-loved characters on the scene IRL. His compatriot Julie Atlas Muz (2.8k Twitter followers, no Instagram) came in at 40. Granted, she’s hasn’t been in the Top 10 since reaching #6 in 2010, but in 2015 she did a show with Basil Twist and reigned as Mermaid Parade queen at Coney Island with her husband, Mat Fraser, who blew it up last year on American Horror Story: Freak Show.
Who cares about New York? Or L.A.? Well, there’s some argument as to whether the “current revival” stems more from one or the other, but most scholars are in agreement that the Angels and the Apples got us here, so it’s worth asking. Kitten DeVille? Not on the list. Darlinda Just Darlinda? Not on the list. The Evil Hate Monkey—who seems to have abdicated to a sweet gig in Europe—is not on the list. Nasty Canasta is not on the list, despite being a powerhouse producer under the Wasabassco brand and an inspirational performer. Angie Pontani (27.7k Instagram followers)—co-producer of the New York Burlesque Festival—one of the earliest international modern burlesque festival—and going strong after 13 consecutive years—is not on the list. I doubt she cares, since she just had a baby and her husband, Brian Newman, has been touring with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.
There’s plenty to celebrate. Change is good, and Dirty Martini would probably be the first to say it. Amber Ray is at number 17 after a big European tour—and everyone has one of her flowers. New York darling Hazel Honeysuckle has hit the list at number 28, and talented trouble-maker Dangrrr Doll*** is at 26. Rubyyy Jones*** is on the list at 23. The Europeans are here and they are weighing in—and, as rumor has it, making better money than the yanks. Most of the new-to-me names are from the U.K. or the Continent, and it’s always nice to see Australia chime in, because that’s where American burlesque performers go when they want to get paid. (See upcoming lists for 2015 continental breakdowns.)
Catherine D’Lish (48k Instagram follwers), 2014’s number 49, has fallen off the list. Does that mean she’s no longer relevant? (Not IMO.) Or is there something to be said about the list? Not the person tallying votes (Holli-Mae Johnson does not get nearly enough thank-you Tweets) but how and why people vote the way they do.
I argue that the once-concentric circles of financial success, critical praise, peer admiration, and popularity with audiences have finally split into a Venn diagram that includes—and only occasionally overlaps—that of internet popularity. And nothing feeds internet popularity like—well, internet popularity itself.
Newbie to the Top 10 this year Jeez Loueez (#4, 5k Instagram) struck it big with a YouTube video —6k views, which, yes, counts as “viral” in the burlesque community. That she touched a nerve is a big lift. (That Rick Delaup is less than an ideal role model shouldn’t be news; the offline gossip is myriad, but I’ve yet to see anyone go on the record.)
While Top 10 newbie Bella Blue (#8, 5k Instagram) is building an IRL empire in New Orleans, her widest exposure last year was the “Lucky Pierre’s incident,” a social-media debacle that gave one performer 15 pixels of fame, a venue dead (it was already dying), and helped make Bella an internet household name.
Our other fresh face in the Top 10, Vicky Butterfly (#10, 2.7k Instagram), reached a wider audience via IRL and old media, from heavy touring and appearing on national television—but TV is so “online” now it’s hard to call it an old media.
Burlesque Top 50 stalwart Roxi D’Lite (#3) is CRUSHING it on Instagram with 44k followers, and her participation in Theatre Bizarre may be getting ambient lift now that Detroit is constantly in the news.
And Perle Noire (#2, 11.6k Instagram)—who lives by Avis’ old tagline—landed a story in Cosmopolitan, which is still read by a lot of women even if they did hear about it from Reese Witherspoon and flip through it on their iPhones.
Some of our other players do seem to be doing it the “old-fashioned” way. Aurora Galore*** (#7, 4k Instagram) was touring all over in 2015, as was former King Mr. Gorgeous (#5, 6k Instagram). And there’s always a mix of new and old: Medianoche (#9, 15.6k Instagram) toured in 2015 and runnered-up in Vegas, and Dirty Martini (#6, 9.5k Instagram) is still Dirty Martini, with or without Twitter or Snapchat—or whatever the fuck is coming next that we’ll have to pretend to care about.
And then there’s Kitten and Lou (#1, 3k Instagram), who have just charmed the pants off of everyone in no time at all. It’s just marvellous, and true to the original spirit of the Burlesque Top 50: 2015 was their year.[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]Don’t be too quick to reject … the Burlesque Top 50 list—but don’t put too much stock into it, either.[/pullquote]
Internet popularity is not nothing—it’s become good enough to make a career. There’s this dog named Tuna who is SO famous that his owner has no other job but to take him to gigs. Not that this is happening for anyone in the burlesque world—yet. But since physical beauty carries so much weight on Instagram, it certainly could. And not all forms of success are mutually exclusive. David Bowie was incredible by all the traditional measures of success I’ve mentioned, and at 354k Instagram followers, he was doing all right on the internet. I mean, not as well as Tuna the Chiweenie or anything (1.7 million Instagram followers).
If you want to “be successful,” you need to clarify your terms. Don’t be too quick to reject the results of the “popularity contest” that is the Burlesque Top 50 list—but don’t put too much stock into it, either. It is a measure of something, but other things can be harder to weigh.
If the current Top 10 would give me the data, I’d love to publish a infographic of burlesque earnings: 10 pie charts that showed each performer’s estimated income from 2015, split into performance pay, dividends from other related work (producing, costuming, teaching), and DAY JOB INCOME. Armed with this, intel on past festival wins, a list of Instagram followers, and a quick custom Google search on 21st Century and Burlesque Beat, you could actually see how everyone ranks by the metrics of monetary gain, peer approval, critical acclaim, and internet popularity.
Actual popularity remains as mysterious as ever.
The world is always changing, art is always changing. If the muse says one thing over and over again, it’s this: Come here. Do something different.
We talk a lot about revolution, but we might not know it if we saw it.
* I’ve heavily researched the idea of betting on BHOF in Vegas. Steve Wynn—THE Steve Wynn—barely got the World Series of Poker past the Nevada Gaming Commission, the ONLY event you can bet on in Vegas that isn’t sports or a pure game of chance. The issue is knowledge of outcome, and since BHOF is easily corruptible, it ain’t gonna happen. The only option—for BHOF or the Burlesque Top 50—is to get one of the online Brit outfits to run us a book, and YES, that will still be illegal for Americans.
** The “rise” of burlesque journalism (21st Century Burlesque Magazine, Burlesque Beat, This Is Cabaret, the now-seemingly defunct Burlesque magazine, and a zillion smaller blogs) corresponded with the decline in journalism in general. Journalists are so hard-pressed to rub two nickels together that they often rewrite a press release into two paragraphs of “promo”—which is about what the average reader has the attention span for. While more ink is spilled over burlesque now that at any other time in human history, most Google searches don’t upend anything deeper than a promo or an interview. “Burlesque criticism,” unfortunately, was dead on arrival.
Meanwhile, since every idiot with a Twitter handle can express his or her own opinion, the Internet is rife with both bias AND it’s reverse: the shouting down of dissenting ideas. In the world of burlesque, Facebook in particular has become a place where only one kind of “conversation” is permissible: “This bad thing is WRONG.” “YEAH YOU’RE RIGHT.”
If the current revival of burlesque was born of inclusion—all body types, all skin tones, all orientations, all genders—it’s become increasingly inclusionary of skill set and talent. The market is saturated—which, like New York’s sprawling Off-Off-Broadway scene, is a nice way of implying that it might be getting harder to find the good stuff. If competition is to inspire greatness, someone has to be on top.
*** Disclosure: Imogen Kelly, Tigger, Dangrrr Doll, Rubyyy Jones, and Aurora Galore have all contributed to Burlesque Beat, which I co-founded and once helmed.