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Imogen Kelly: Putting up a Fight

Imogen Kelly: Putting up a Fight

Imogen Kelly: The Fight for Survival

In an exclusive, special piece, Imogen Kelly (Reigning Queen of Burlesque/Miss Exotic World 2012) discusses her battle with breast cancer, the ongoing struggle for progress in treatment, and looking to the future.  Thank you Imogen for this candid, moving article. HM.

(Top image ©Richard Just)

October. Finally October is over. I can breathe out now after holding an extended breath. October means many things to me. October is the month of Halloween. Halloween is the anniversary of my mother’s death to breast cancer at 38. October is also the birthday month of both my maternal Aunt – died at age 42 of breast cancer – and of my Maternal Grandmother – diagnosed with breast cancer at age 55. In October I stop taking gigs and I take a weekend off out of respect for my departed loved ones. This year was different. In October 2013, I paid my respects by stomping out my turf and celebrating my life. I stepped onstage for the first time since a bilateral mastectomy that I hope has saved my life.

October, for me, is undeniably and unavoidably Breast Cancer Month. For many it is the month when we collectively think about those who are putting their dukes up and fighting, those who have not survived the struggle with this disease, and our loved ones who have lived. I hope to be able to add my name to this list of survivors. If not, then at least I can say I went down swinging. I’ll fight like a girl, because all the girls I know who like to fight, we fight mean, we fight hard and despite what society prefers to believe, we are incredibly tough. October is significant to all of us, not only to those of us who have contended with this disease ourselves, but to those of our friends and families who have invested our thoughts, time, care and compassion to the fight against The Big BC.

Imogen Kelly in her final pre-op photo shoot.  ©Vintage Glamour Photography
Imogen Kelly in her final pre-op photo shoot. ©Vintage Glamour Photography

October is a month of hope. My hopes are simple enough. I hope we find better treatments so that my daughter doesn’t have to have this hideous operation. I hope my family’s situation (we do not have BRACA 1 /BRACA 2) can be understood in time. I hope we come to understand what can prevent all cancers from developing in the first place. It is easy to dismiss the campaigns; there are so many now. And with the ethical evil of gene patenting and the lack of progress in treatments, I too am suspicious of so many charities that claim to be doing X or Y. Yet I choose one a year and give it my time, donate an act, donate a workshop or a costume piece, simply because we can’t afford to wait for governments to take on the issues or financial burden of our cancer sufferers. It comes down to us as people making a difference rather than becoming complacent or waiting for the governments of the world to prioritise.

My body has been public property since a very young age, so it’s not exactly a huge surprise that I have chosen to be public. Silence surrounds so much in regards to cancer. I respect it is a person’s right to be silent. For many it is a personal journey, and silence is the way of alleviating stress for other people. Many also believe this is a sign of being strong, like my mother and my grandmother, who believed it was an outward sign of confidence and strength. But all it did was leave me feeling deceived and ultimately very alone when making my own choices. My personal mantra for all women’s issues is: nothing is ever accomplished through silence. So I have chosen to share. Besides, this isn’t just about myself, it is about the annihilation of my entire family, our bloodlines, our future on the planet – our women. I know so many other families face the same dilemma.

Imogen Kelly as St. Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer patients.  ©Leather & Lace Creative
Imogen Kelly as St. Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer patients. ©Leather & Lace Creative

If there is a problem in your family with hereditary cancer, I imagine it will be obvious. If this is the case, please talk to your family about it. Find out as much as you can about what your relatives have gone through. Then find a good GP. Get on top of it and take charge. If you do have a predisposition to developing breast cancer, you do have options. Take away the sensationalism of preventative treatments such as mine and all you have is a medical procedure that can save lives. There is nothing alarmist about it; it is a practical solution. In my view it is a continuance of self-empowerment.

I am on the other side of my bilateral mastectomy now. I have so many people to thank. I want to thank burlesque matriarchs for their advice, guidance and care. I am ever so thankful to Kitten Natividad and Ezi Rider, not just for just surviving, but also for sharing. I also want to thank Holiday O Hara, Dirty Martini and Perle Noire, and a ton of others for just being there from time to time. But the person I think of the most in our burlesque community, and undoubtedly the person I have heard the most from, is Diane Naegel’s mother Sarita. For those of you who do not know, Diane and her mother have both fought cancer. Sarita survives, but sadly Diane passed away in 2011. She was only 31. For Diane’s husband Don Spiro and also for Sarita, my heart still breaks for you both. Still, if it weren’t for Diane, a woman who I never met, I would have delayed my surgery… and probably have full-blown cancer by now. Diane, thank you for being in burlesque.

Imogen Kelly in a post-surgery photo shoot.  ©Roberto Duran
Imogen Kelly in a post-surgery photo shoot. ©Roberto Duran

Burlesque is a show of ownership in a world that constantly squabbles over how the female body should look or how we should behave. In a world full of media that encourages women to criticise ourselves, and each other, in burlesque we continue to stand up and say no to that dogma. Burlesque is a display of joy in being born female. So I’ll keep performing; this is my home. Boobs are constantly under evaluation: too big, too small, too droopy, too flat, too prominent, too sexualised, too scarred. Fuck that shit! Tits are awesome. It’s no wonder we show them off with pride.

October may be over. It is now Mo-vember when we can spare a thought for our gentlemen friends and their fight with the big C! I may not be able to grow a moustache, but I certainly can stick on a couple of pasties and rock those stages! There is also always Muffvember. If you don’t have cancer but have friends and family who are fighting or who have fought, you don’t need to have money to help your loved ones survive. Simply donate a thought to someone who has lost, someone fighting or someone surviving. Send them a message, a card or make a call. Drop in for a cup of tea. It is the key to keeping our spirits up and knowing that, in what is a very lonely journey, you are not abandoned. (Continues after video)

Imogen Kelly’s Moving Farewell Performance at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, June 2013.

I want to thank everyone for their FB messages, for the home cooked scones, the cards and flowers, to those who have driven across town to visit, and to those who have donated money towards my treatments. I owe so much of my recovery to all of you. Can I offer my support in return to Frankie Markstone, Eva Strangelove, Candy Apples, and to any other members of our community with serious health issues. Heal well. X To everyone else, have fun checking your boobies.

Imogen Kelly XXX

View Comments (6)
  • Thank you for this!
    By sharing your story of breast cancer, you gave me a lot of hope because I´m going to the mammography x-tray and ultra sound scan on 20th of December.
    My ‘Patty’ got straight to the ‘photo shooting’ session, and even though I´m pretty confident that ‘Patty’ is just harmless something, it still worries me until I know for sure.
    I wish you all the best, all good energies floating and hoping to see you on Helsinki Burlesque Festival 2014!

  • Love your article Imogen. I am a friend of Christa, Jackie and Liz (
    Burlesque Dames)….and love and appreciate their talent and love for others. I’ve walked in the Susan G Komen 3day for 7 years now, determined to do my small part to find a cure for breast cancer. I am fortunate to have wonderful talented people like Christa, Jackie and Liz who work their butts off doing fundraisers to walk with me. I admire your honesty and determination…we WILL keep walking until we find a cure!!! I LOVE your personal mantra…and it is SO TRUE. So Christa, Jackie and I WILL continue walking !!!!!! If you ever want to join us let us know!!!

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