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Interview: Catherine D’Lish

Interview: Catherine D’Lish

I recall my first Tease-o-Rama experience, in SanFransisco. I still didn’t reach the 21 age limit in America and some extremely inventive tactics were employed to get me through the doors of some of the great state-side burlesque events (or failing that, lashings of old-fashioned charm). But thank the Good Lord I got there in the end, because this was to be the fateful night I ‘experienced’ Catherine for the first time. And she truly is an experience.

Sadly and inevitably, the wonderful evening was drawing to a close. We had seen legends, old friends and new talent. But there was one more ace to play…

On she came – all hair and hips and exquisite costume, and I couldn’t look away. It was a blast of pure woman; she had every single person in that theatre in the palm of her hand from start to finish. Playful and powerful, with perfect timing and expert delivery – I had never seen anything quite like her before, and I haven’t since.

I have been lucky enough to get to know Catherine off-stage since that evening years ago, and she really is one of the most charming, poised and intelligent women I have ever met.

She has an almost regal presence; and I love to see the awe and excitement in people when they speak to her for the first time. But she is also incredibly funny, with a dry wit and a mischievous sparkle in her eye, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn, when we hosted classes for her a few weeks ago, that she is also a naturally gifted teacher. She puts her pupil at ease and compliments them on their strengths , but at the same time has a shrewd eye on their every gesture, and will patiently encourage them until everything is done just as it should be.

Catherine is one of life’s guilty pleasures; you can watch her over and over again, and always feel as though, somehow, something intimate and personal has passed between you. For the duration, you are the only one in the room, and she’s doing it just for you…

Catherine in her Glass at Tease-o-Rama, Portland (by Tom Connard)

The following interview took place in the days leading up to Catherine’s journey to London, and her performance in The Tease Show… (May ’09)

I attended a Q & A at Tease-o-rama in October last year, which you began by stating, ‘I’m not qualified to teach. I don’t really know how to dance. I don’t really know how to sew’. Woman – are you completely unaware of your own genius?! Of how idolic and inspirational you are?

Well, on one hand my statement is true – I would be completely lost in a dance class, and I am only self-taught with the costume work. However, on the other hand, there are people that like my work in both areas, and acquire new skills in my classes. I say ‘I’m not qualified to teach’ because I don’t hold a degree or have much of an education.

Mostly I said ‘not qualified’ because I thought I was being a little funny. I am totally qualified to make jokes.

But thank you for the compliments!

You have described your career in burlesque as ‘a weird accident’. Do you think there was a creativity and imagination, even a subtlety in yourself that feature dancing and more conventional ‘stripping’ didn’t fulfil? (And I don’t mean to be derogatory towards conventional stripping at all)

I don’t think that you are being derogatory towards conventional stripping, and I’m glad that you don’t want to be. It was accidental; I fell into stripping as a way of life. I answered a classified ad for $$NUDE$$ dancers as a joke, I thought it would be a funny thing to do one night. Turns out it was funny every night. And here I am!

I don’t find performing at burlesque events significantly more fulfilling than the shows I did in strip clubs. Actually, I’ve learned that every audience (no matter the venue) is pretty much the same, and reacts to the things you do almost identically. And even though nobody is tossing money onto the stages at a burlesque event as they do in a ‘strip joint’, I enjoy the larger space, and the feel of being in a theatre.

“If my parents had known what I was up to, I think that they would have locked me up, sent me to a private school, and I would now be a surgeon instead of a stripper!”

People love performing for many different reasons – what drives you to perform? Do you get a kick out of the control? Are you an exhibitionist at heart, or is there another core reason?

Oh boy – I am not at all an exhibitionist, nor am I aiming for control! I do enjoy the performance experience, just because when I am on stage having fun with a show, I’m just having fun.

Putting on a ridiculous outfit and then dancing around, taking it off and crawling around on something is a good time. Come on – that kind of thing is enjoyable no matter whether you do it on stage in front of people you don’t know, or if you are doing it in your own home with the drapes closed! (I do both, and if you don’t mind my saying so, my at home show for the pets is good stuff…)

You briefly touched on your childhood and upbringing the last time we met, and I got the impression that things were fairly liberal and open, and that maybe you were exploring sensuality and the erotic quite early on. I know you remain very close to your mother especially…

I am close to my mother, and she loves to come to shows. She’s pretty liberal, but when I was growing up I don’t think that she was aware of just how much I was ‘exploring sensuality and the erotic’, or just how early I started doing that! If my parents had known what I was up to, I think that they would have locked me up, sent me to a private school, and I would now be a surgeon instead of a stripper!

'Baby Catherine' - A Rare Glimpse of Catherine at 20.
'Baby Catherine' - A Rare Glimpse of Catherine at 20.

Your ‘signature acts’ – the glass, the chaise, always seem as fresh and exciting to me as they were the first time I had the pleasure of seeing you. What is the key to keeping things fresh and fun for yourself? I have heard you say more than once that, ‘you are as good as your last show’ – is it the endless opportunity to improve that is the key, or have you had phases of complacency/auto-piloting?

That you still are entertained by the acts is good news to me. I do care about each show, and want them to be good. One key to keeping it ‘fresh’, I think, is aiming for a combination of quality and finding a way to take pleasure in the experience. The ‘only as good as your last show’ motto couldn’t be more true. I would quit performing before I could develop any kind of complacency; it’s just not in my nature.

I know that you are self-taught when it comes to prop and costume making. What are the most vital lessons and techniques you have learnt over the years, through mistakes or happy accidents?

I think that it is important to always experiment and try new things. Take your new ideas for a test drive. Endeavour to make each project an improvement over the last. Don’t hold back. A stitch in time saves nine…

“Putting on a ridiculous outfit and then dancing around, taking it off and crawling around on something…is enjoyable no matter whether you do it on stage in front of people you don’t know, or if you are doing it in your own home with the drapes closed! (I do both, and if you don’t mind my saying so, my at home show for the pets is good stuff…)”

What sort of props did you create early on? I imagine there were triumphs and failures…

The glass was my first prop, just as you see it now. I sure have gotten a lot of mileage out of it!

Some things started out unsuccessfully, and had to be tweaked a few times before they seemed right. For example, when I initially decided that I needed a giant black vinyl penis to ride, I made one that was stuffed. Incredibly impractical! Eventually, I arrived at the internal blower inflatable version (christened ‘Chubby’). Hours of fun…

Are there any new acts currently in conception, and/or do you plan to resurrect older ones – maybe the birdcage, the web…chubby?!

Yes, I have some new acts, but they are still merely a glint in their mother’s eye. I have just resurrected the spider web, and have been re-introduced to the Ultimate Spider Workout. It’s funny you should mention my old pal ‘Chubby’ – just the other day I unearthed him from the depths of my storage space, a little wary of what his condition might be. I was so pleased to see that he is feeling great. He did seem a little lonely, though. What do you think, a classic black vinyl striptease number? (And what about the Redi-Whip?)

Catherine in her Bird Cage, Atlanta.
Catherine in her Bird Cage, Atlanta.

You are so celebrated and idolized within the burlesque community, but there are those who say that, by rights, you should be far more famous and enjoying huge mainstream success. How do you feel about this – is mainstream fame and fortune something you have desired, courted? Do you have a need to be remembered and celebrated by millions, as some do?

Well, I feel pretty responsible for where I am now – I never did attempt to promote or market myself. I am just starting to really learn about that sort of thing. Silly, isn’t it? I am no success story, not yet. I don’t have the type of ambition that wants to be ‘remembered’ or ‘celebrated’, but I have to admit that the ‘fortune’ idea has some appeal…

It is great to see you hosting workshops and doing more teaching. Do you enjoy teaching others?

I couldn’t begin to explain how gratifying the workshops have been. And how much fun I’ve had meeting wonderful new people and working with absolutely delightful performers. The fact that a person would want to spend an hour or so working with me is something that I don’t take lightly, and I do my darnedest to make their class an experience that they are happy with. I truly do love working with these endearing pupils, and am very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given by the kind folks that have been setting up the classes.

“I absolutely feel that it is each performer’s responsibility to entertain the audience. That somebody being on stage makes them feel good about themselves, or empowered, or that they are sending an important message to educate someone should take a back seat (in my opinion) to holding the interest of the spectators.”

One of my favourite quotes from you is, ‘If you are going to take up the air and the space and people’s dollars, you have a certain amount of responsibility’. I would love you to expand on this concept of ‘responsibility’…

I absolutely feel that it is each performer’s responsibility to entertain the audience. That somebody being on stage makes them feel good about themselves, or empowered, or that they are sending an important message to educate someone should take a back seat (in my opinion) to holding the interest of the spectators. I’m not saying that every act should be frivolous fluff, just that the individuals sitting (or standing) out there in the dark must be presented with something that doesn’t leave them feeling left out.

Catherine in Repose, by Christophe Mourthe.
Catherine in Repose, by Christophe Mourthe.

A few other long established performers have said to me that they believe the new wave of performers under prepare and under research in general, and perhaps are performing for the wrong reasons, overlooking the (paying) audience – and their contrasting experience/view of a performance. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Honestly, I haven’t noticed much of a difference, just that there are more of them! I think that they are approaching the adventure with the same kind of enthusiasm that their predecessors did. I have high hopes that the growth in numbers will create a friendly competitive situation that will only improve the genre as a whole.

Have you come across any new, upcoming performers recently that particularly impress or excite you?

Yes, I have, for sure. I am excited most by and very curious to see what they do with the promise and capabilities that they have. Some might start really raising the bar, and some won’t, but at the very least we will have some funny stories to tell when we are all senior citizens. Keep a scrapbook!

I have heard you talk about the way in which performers conduct themselves, both on and off stage – that the audience is having an entirely different experience to you, and that a performer should come off-stage and be gracious etc. Have you encountered a lot of disappointing, or even surprising conduct in other performers, or alternatively, inspiring behaviour by certain individuals that should be an example to others?

Sure, there are bad apples in every bunch. But there are far more performers that are pleasant to be around both onstage and off. It’s really nothing but sad to see somebody go through an emotional crisis at a show. I do understand – I have totally been there myself, but if one can’t come to the event and be a pleasure to be around, put on a great show, and then come off the stage and be fun to hang out with, I’d wish that they would stay home until they are more prepared to do so.

I encourage the students that I’ve had to do the work that it takes for them to have a good performing experience before they hit the stage. Work out all of your crap ahead of time, and then go show yourself off without those pesky insecurities and the emotional trauma. I also encourage them to have a ‘safe’ person – one person to tell all about it, somebody that cares enough to listen you go on and on (and on!) about what went wrong with your show, and will then pat you on the back and give you a pep talk. Lucky me, I’ve got a terrific ‘safe person’ in my lovely assistant/pet girl Evie Lovelle, and I know what a relief it can be to have access to a sympathetic ear…

Professional and pleasant conduct is a joy to be around, and will be greatly appreciated by both your fellow performers and producers alike.

Back in the Pageant Days - Catherine competing for one of her many titles...
Back in the Pageant Days - Catherine competing for one of her many titles...

You have had incredible success in competition and pageantry, and have a collection of titles (Miss Nude USA, World’s Performer of the Year, Miss Erotic World, Showgirl of the Year, Miss Exotic America, Miss Nude International, USA’s Best Shows, Miss Exotic World – twice! Miss Nude Whatever (my favourite!) and so on…) and you have described your study of pageants in preparation for these contests – learning ‘what wins’. Looking back, do you think you wanted to win these titles for winning’s sake, as a pastime, or because it meant you had ‘reached the top’, become the best? Is there a thirst in you to compete, to ‘win’?

My ‘thirst’ was for learning how to do something well, and if I would do it really well on the night of the competition, then I could receive a tiara as a present. I had to learn how to win, and how to have a broader appeal. Trust me; I haven’t won every contest I’ve entered. I found competing to be tremendously challenging, and that drove me on to try and excel at it. The winning wasn’t such a big deal to me, all of my sashes and crowns have fallen by the wayside. The shenanigans that were a part of each pageant were what made for great memories!

The shows and the people involved with the competitive stripping circuit were fascinating. It was an interesting education for me, as I am not the beauty queen type, but I found a way to ‘do my own thing’ and still have it win over the judges and the audience. I feel confident that I didn’t have to compromise myself in any pageants, except for sometimes painting on a fake tan. Miss Nude USA had to have some pigment on her, but I got to take that trophy home and scrub myself off!

I know that Dixie [Evans] loves to tell the story of the first time she met you, wet and bedraggled, at the door of the EW ranch. How do you recall that occasion?

That was a special evening!

Oh, it was a dark and stormy night…

I had seen a blurb about the museum in a travel magazine on an airplane. I am pretty certain that I made a bee-line for Dixie’s place soon after I got home! Ok, maybe not a ‘bee-line’ exactly, I got pretty lost meandering through the desert trying to find the place. However, when I finally did get there, I met the most wonderfully generous, sweetest possible fairy-godmother of burlesque. I am completely head-over-heels for Dixie; I fell for her within moments of meeting her – just as everyone does. I loved hearing her stories, and have had the best times talking with her over the years. I consider myself very lucky to know her. I don’t know many people that have as generous a spirit as Dixie, she has given endlessly to the world of burlesque, and I love her dearly.

Do you have fond memories of past Miss Exotic World/BHoF weekends?

I have great memories associated with the Miss Exotic World weekends, and even sweeter memories of spending time visiting with Dixie. One night that stands out in my mind was when a busload of people made the pilgrimage to the pageant out in the desert, and had obviously taken LOTS of drugs (I’m guessing LSD and/or some Ecstasy). The after party at the nearby hotel bar was wild; there was some amazing karaoke and very impressive dance moves. I’m not knocking the Exotic World contestants, nor am I condoning drug use, but the performances I saw later that night were pretty unforgettable!

A  timeless beauty...
A Timeless Beauty...

I believe you are the greatest ‘classic’ performer alive, but who does the greatest believe to be the greatest? Who do you consider to be the best performer on the circuit today, and who do you believe to be the best of those no longer performing, or sadly, no longer with us?

That is a stunner of a compliment, thank you very much. I haven’t seen all of the performers of the present, nor of the past – so I don’t think that I am prepared to answer that question. I have definitely seen many that I quite like certain things about, or admire elements of their shows. One of my favourite things about burlesque is that it gives the individual performer free rein to do whatever they like, without any guidelines or boundaries. There is no standard choreography, nor lines you must read verbatim. Burlesque is a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of performance excellence.

The one thing I especially enjoy about your performance is your rhythm and timing; you really use the music – you milk every beat, every blast, and every climax. I have always wondered if you have a musical background, or if you just have a natural sense of rhythm and timing…?

I started as a music student, never ever ever ever guessing that I could or would be a naked lady on stage. I really enjoy music, and feel that by listening to the music, it will tell you what to do.

“No matter how huge the goal, project or problem, if you diligently continue to chip away at it or take even the tiniest steps forward to correct the situation, you can achieve the results that you desire…”

I also love the moments of audience participation – usually a slightly embarrassed but delighted gentleman in the front row being invited to unlace you! What would you say the rule is on audience participation – should one be afraid of it? Should it be only a spontaneous, incidental feature of a performance?

The first rule of audience participation is to be kind to your victim. They will generally let you get away with just about anything, but be considerate of their feelings. They aren’t just a prop, they are people, too!

One of my favourite images of Catherine, by the brilliant Sean McCall.
One of my favourite images of Catherine, by the brilliant Sean McCall.

You always manage to look so immaculate and stylish – but in such a seemingly effortless way! Please tell me you don’t wake up each day looking like that – do you have the odd pyjamas day like the rest of us mere mortals?

I invariably wake up naked (a naked mortal), but every day is pyjama day at my house! My shoes come off within seconds of coming through the front door, and I begin disrobing even before I am past the foyer. I like to be at home most in PJ’s that I’ve made out of the sweetest, softest fabrics I can get my paws on. If it is hot, every day at home becomes bra and panty day.

I am afraid I must just slip in a trivial, superficial question for myself! Your hair – I MUST know the secret as a fellow (jealous) redhead, to achieving such a glossy tumble of auburn waves! I always wait for the moment in every performance when you gather up your hair and let it spill over one shoulder – it’s just gorgeous!

Big secret:

Clean hair- no hairspray, brush and toss as needed…

Ahh! What a product-loving fool I’ve been!

At the risk of destroying some of the mystery, I know so many of us wonder what the everyday life of Catherine D’Lish is like! Where do you currently call home and what is it like? Is it the sensual ‘Palace D’Lish’ we imagine? And what do you enjoy when you aren’t traveling or creating – in the way of music, movies, cuisine, embarrassing TV programmes?

I am currently living in the outskirts of Los Angeles, in the countryside. I like to go for walks every evening with my dog; it’s quite private and quiet around here. Right now, I am seeing baby bunnies and baby squirrels running around everywhere – it’s pretty great.

I’m not sure what kind of ‘palace’ you are imagining, but I like to keep my house cozy with only candlelight in the evenings. I’ve sworn off working late nights and have taken a vow to not ever pull another all-nighter on a costume. There have been far too many of those!

I enjoy the luxury of candlelight, and have music playing constantly from the moment I wake up, and I often have a cat or two on me. I haven’t had much time lately to indulge in lazy days off, but I find that a tasty meal combined with a great movie (or some embarrassing TV) can be a nice break at the end of a busy day.

You said something at one of your Q & A sessions that I found intriguing. You said, ‘I’m a person that likes to be critical…I want to be better… I want to win, but there’s a price…’

What is this ‘price’…? (You might not even remember saying it, but I genuinely have wondered ever since what you meant!)

At that point in the Q & A session (could we go back in time), I would suggest you have raised your hand and asked, ‘huh?’ I must have meant something by what I said, and have had a point (whether or not I finished making it!), but I have absolutely no recollection of what I was getting at, whenever that happened.

Let’s guess:

a) The price is $5

b) You’ll never be satisfied – but doesn’t this just mean that you’d end up cocky and unbearable if you were completely satisfied with yourself? That couldn’t be it…

c) Ok, I give up. We’ll never know what the price is. Let’s go with $5.

Catherine never struggles to find a willing 'participant'...
Catherine never struggles to find a willing 'participant'...

So, finally…

Do you have any real regrets thus far in your life, and is there anything you especially want to do or achieve in the future?


Is there any performance or achievement that stands out in your memory?

The best is yet to come!

What are the three greatest life-lessons you have learnt?

1) No matter how huge the goal, project or problem, if you diligently continue to chip away at it or take even the tiniest steps forward to correct the situation, you can achieve the results that you desire. Nothing slows down progress like inconsistency. It’s a very ‘Little Engine That Could’, or ‘little ol’ ant moving a rubber tree plant’ kind of thing…

(let’s stick with the children’s story morals theme here)

2) The Princess and the Pea

3) Cinderella

Well you certainly transport me to fantasy land at every show, and I know I speak for so many others when I say thank you for all that you do and all that you are. Thank you Catherine…

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