Sparkly Devil Scholarship recipient Precious Ephemera writes in tribute to burlesque legend Camille 2000 to mark her passing after a long and valiant battle with cancer.
Camille 2000, ‘the Girl for Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’, is an unapologetic woman with a particular kink for racking up legendary stories and experiences. No one could describe her as ‘subtle’. At 73, Camille is not just any burlesque legend but the entertainer who kicked open the door for any contemporary person performing burlesque against the grain and with an attitude. We can thank her for introducing the world to the fusion of performance art and burlesque.
When she began her career, she found out quickly what it would take to make a name for herself and followed suit to become a travelling feature, but after a decade of mastering her craft, and observing the market sliding towards live nude shows and lap dances, she started breaking from the classical standards of the burlesque she was initiated into.
She started changing up the music, bringing in what she refers to as ‘aggressive art’ – most notably donning leather for her famed tribute to the Marquis de Sade and killing herself on stage in ‘Black Widow’. She remembers her peers, mentors, and naysayers telling her that what she was doing ‘isn’t Burlesque’, to which she fearlessly and ferociously replied, “Well, it is now!”
At the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in June, just before intermission, Bambi the Mermaid took the stage to present the Legend of the Year Award to The Cosmic Queen. An emotional moment, she described her friend and legend the indefatigable warrior of individuality, lifetime wild woman and the Godmother of Neo-Burlesque.
Camille was escorted onto the stage and shared what was news to many: the previous summer she was diagnosed with Stage IV metastasised cancer in her lungs, spinal cord, adrenals, pulmonary artery, brain and “everywhere fucking else”. Her doctor told her she wouldn’t live to see Christmas. She sobbed as she accepted the honour and emphasised how she was standing there alive as a direct result of the kind words and loving support of the burlesque community, their belief in her and the opportunity to receive this award in her lifetime.
Weeping in gratitude and brushing tears from her eyes, one of her eyelashes affixed itself to her right cheek where it would remain for the rest of the night. She stood before us like a seasoned athlete in eyeblack, symbolic of warpaint in the fight to continue to pronounce her rebellious truth in the realm of the stage with her humble battlecry: “Thank you for loving me”.
I had the privilege of speaking with Camille 2000 on the phone about her experience at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender. I didn’t realise that my call would coincide with the auspicious one year anniversary of her cancer diagnosis. When I asked her about the inspiration behind her performance she plainly stated, “Because I am fucking dying. If that man can rise up and come back from the grave then so can I, and if someone like me can do it, so can you.”
She credits the collective consciousness and the unified spirit of the community for guiding her through what would have been an impossible performance. She knows it was a miracle. “As soon as my foot touched the stage I started crying, and here I am, this old woman crying and dying in front of all of you. Our spirit guides were just carrying us through; it wasn’t me”.
Her prophetic performance in the 62nd Annual Titans of Tease Reunion showcase is one for the history books that everyone in attendance will remember forever. She underscored a career of ‘aggressive art’ with something so meaningful in its symbolism that the audience held their breath in awe of it.
She began seated, centre stage on a throne shrouded in a white cloak stretched wideways, her hands joined in prayer. Her burlesque daughters, Whitney Ward and Bambi the Mermaid, appeared from the wings in white gowns with feather fans as angels at her side. With resilience and power, Camille simply stood up and the crowd went wild for her. Her pasties were rhinestone crosses and she presented herself with arms outstretched in the theatrical imagery of a Christ figure. At first glance, one could compare her performance to a glitzy passion play or a throwback to the religious drama of an eighties music video, but we soon realised that we were bearing witness to a parade and peel for the ages.
With her very life, the Godmother of the Neo-Burlesque movement would usher her community through the door she busted open decades ago, directing all of us to walk through fearlessly and never look back. In her final reveal, Camille opened her palms for the audience to behold crimson crystallised stigmata wounds. Shortly after, dripping in self-respect, she transfigured her hands into their signature gesture for which she is famously known.
For those who might not understand the religious phenomena of stigmata – it can be defined as marks resembling the wounds of the crucified body of Christ, said to be supernaturally impressed on the bodies of divinely chosen people. St. Francis of Assisi was the first stigmatic on record and he, like many purported stigmatics, first saw angels before he received his wounds.
To be a stigmatic was a very big deal, it meant that you were so deeply devoted to your divine calling that the object of your worship bestowed his own wounds upon you, giving you the likeness of a God who would give his own flesh to relieve the world of its shame and misery. The word itself is plural for stigma: a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
In burlesque, we are no stranger to the stigma of sexuality and womanhood. We walk through the fire of stigma surrounding sex work, mental health, ageing and morbidity, threats to the lives of gender variant individuals and rights to sovereignty and safety for all bodies – especially women. Social stigma is ascribed to any person who deviates from what is considered by society to be acceptable, normal and comfortable. It’s often met with fear, rejection, and violence. This performance punctuated our collective mission to walk through our deepest fears and to have faith in our art in order to pierce the veil of shame.
When I asked Camille if correlating this aspect of her performance was intentional, she said that I hit the nail on the head about her message, adding that she was just following her intuition.
“Me and Whitney and Bambi did nothing – our spirit guides did the whole thing, we were just guided. We all need to thank the baby Jesus or whatever, for healing our demons”.
She floated through her act to the tune of Amazing Grace, lifted up and given over by the support of free-thinking wild women everywhere.
No one in the audience could tell if the eyelash on her cheek was intentional, but we could not avert our eyes from Camille’s messages about the body. About disgrace. About dis-ease. About stigma, surviving, sanctifying our own bodies and following our intuition. But most importantly as a woman and burlesque icon, Camille showed us her whole self, sobbing on display, in deep unrelenting physical pain, in the absence of shame, with jubilation before the community she loves. Watershed. Bloodshed. Humility. Ecstasy. “Thank you for loving me.”
As Legend of the Year, Camille has already chosen the unofficial colour theme for next years Titans of Tease Showcase to be S&M – and of course when I said “S&M isn’t a colour,” she replied, “Well, it is now!” Touche.
Before I got off the phone I thanked her, I told her that every cell in my body was different now because I know her and I asked her about the eyelash that migrated to her cheek with her tears. I said that it reminded me of warpaint and rebellion, that I thought it was an iconic look by a woman who wasn’t afraid to come to the stage and stand in the centre of her truth no matter what.
I asked if she would find it a fitting tribute that any of us rebel-minded friends and fans would wear an eyelash in such a fashion to honour her commitment to breaking through stigma. She said she thought that was a “fan-fucking-tastic idea” and gave all of us her blessing to honour her in this way.
I want to remember that Camille didn’t need fixing when things were out of place, that she took the stage against the odds to let us love her exactly as she was that day. I want to remember what humility looks like on a true bad-ass.
This week, Camille received news that there are no additional courses of treatment for her to take. The next phase of her care will be to transition her to hospice. The doctor described her as an absolute miracle, saying she has never seen anyone with this diagnosis live to see even one anniversary of it in her entire practice. Over the phone I can hear Whitney and Bambi by her side chiming in that she looks like a million bucks and you wouldn’t even know what she’s been going through. “Yeah – that’s cause I’m not done terrorising all you mother fuckers,” I hear her say, and we all laugh before everyone reminds me that I absolutely must watch Lola Rocknrolla’s Bloodbath of Terror.
It is abundantly clear to me that Camille is not going out without leaving her mark. Without our legends there is no us. You are a part of a historical unfolding. How do you choose in this time, through your art, to pave the way for the next generation? What would you sacrifice? Are you willing to show up with your whole self, unfiltered, to contribute to something beyond your comprehension? You have been called to expand on the dreams of the ones who came before you and I believe we all have what it takes to make them proud. So, what are you waiting for? The door has already clearly been kicked open. And if she can do it, so can you.
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.