Imogen Kelly’s New York Burlesque Festival Diary
Beating the Burly Blues NYC style: Miss Exotic World 2012 Imogen Kelly‘s New York Burlesque Festival Diary.
Today I saw a crab escape from a Chinese restaurant and make a dash across Grand St. After dodging mincing leaps from women in heels and amongst much high pitched screaming, it slid into the gutter and was free. Meanwhile fellow captive crabs had also broken lose in the cargo hold of a New York bound plane causing chaos and hysteria. It was a day of crustacean emancipation! I was present for a small but pivotal moment in crab history. I find it odd, however, that despite all the glamour and fabulousness of my jet set life, this was the highlight of my recent trip to New York. I found this small act of freedom inspiring. We have all been that crab.
It’s great to be here in this chaotic soup that is New York, yet something has changed and I don’t think it’s the city. The art galleries fail to captivate me; when I go out I find myself not shopping on Broadway, but watching leaves fall in Central Park. I’m not blown away by shoes, but I am uplifted by how friendly people are. I don’t notice what people are wearing; I just notice them. I tip my waiters too much and help old ladies with their shopping.
I’m in my bed at Julie Atlas Muz’ house, lying in the dark, my head on a pillow that says ‘Freak’, pondering this recent shift of soul. I’m waiting for my body clock to move into sleep mode. It doesn’t want to do this; it is still onstage at BB Kings for The New York Burlesque Festival.
So I get up. I wander around. I peer into the tiny closet crammed with all things Atlas Muz. I don’t enter. Whatever you do – do not enter! Firstly there is a haunted wig head that flies out and attacks you, secondly I am worried it will be like Being John Malkovich and I will fall down a hidden slime chute and wind up in Julie’s head. DO NOT ENTER! So I stand there at the entrance, gazing at familiar objects, costumes and prized photos of one of my favourite burlesque performers, one of my heroes, and surely one of burlesque’s bravest creatives.
I am thankful to be here; it’s exactly where I need to be. I am reminded that I’m gifted to be an innovator, and lucky to have such wonderful artists as friends. I think of Julie onstage and how wild and free she makes me feel. This reminds me of the important job I have: to place art on stage, to lift people out of their sorrows and most importantly, to stamp out my sexual turf in a world that says women should have no such thing.
For a while there, I honestly didn’t think that was important. For a moment I nearly didn’t come back to the stage.
My recovery from a double mastectomy has been long and full of fluctuations. I expected it would be a slow climb back to feeling like my old self again, but the fact is I’m still waiting for that to happen. It’s not just the physical recovery, nor the grief associated with losing a body part; it’s my soul that is tired. I weary of the hunger and desperation that’s infested our subculture, I am bored by the vacuousness of blatant pageantry, and I’m exhausted by the vanity and bitchery of some performers. The fact is, I’m not my old self. I’ve shifted. Things that I used to accept as being part of the game have simply become a bore.
While I was sick, I lost total interest in burlesque. In fact I made my mind up that it was superfluous dribble. For the first time in my adult life, I stopped working. I got to read books, read the paper and watch the news. I started to wonder why I was concerned with how many Swarovskis I could cram on a g-string, when the world itself was in a dire state.
Species are becoming extinct, Fukushima is leaking poison into the oceans/the air/ the ground, humans are becoming less and less civilised, war is upon us, Ebola is spreading and fluffy puppies are thrown into dumpsters… it’s no small surprise I spiralled downward.
So coming to New York is a significant test as to whether I continue to perform. I first came here in 2007 with my Marie Antoinette act and caused a minor heart-quake in the burlesque world… and also a plague of Marie Antoinettes – sorry ‘bout that. It was a very defining moment for me as a performer, as it made me realise I was actually good at something. So attending the New York Burlesque Festival is always a sort of homecoming for me.
This is the New York Burlesque Festival’s 12th year in the running. It was one of the world’s first burlesque festivals and proved that not only was such a thing possible, but that such an event was a wonderful way of bringing artists together from all over the world. It is run by two of my favourite women, Angie Pontani and Jen Gapay.
The thing I most love about this festival is the diversity of talent and styles curated for the stage. Everyone is just poured in together. You have relative novices onstage with legends and queens. I have seen some of the best acts EVER at this festival. I’ve seen some of the slickest stage manoeuvres possible performed by stars that shine bright and glorious, and I have seen acts allowed onstage that are really just a great idea, not yet well executed, but still given a chance. This is where I first met so many of the people who encapsulate what the revival is about for me personally, but also where I got a sense of how important our communities are to the individuals that comprise them.
So that’s what’s inspiring me this time. I am less blown away by acts and tinsel, and more blown away by people. This account of the New York burlesque Festival is not a list of accolades to further boost our collective narcissism – this needs no further boosting – but rather an acknowledgement of the people I love and that this revival needs. These are the people who inspire me at this point of my career and life to simply keep going.
Persons whom must be mentioned for their utter gorgeousness are Minnie Tonka for having pre-show drinks and snacks for all the out of towners. I think every festival should do this… but not every festival has Minnie. Thank you Minnie. I have to also acknowledge lovely Darlinda Just Darlinda for being a beautiful woman as well as a wonderful, kind and generous soul. She always makes time for a cup of tea and a chat – my favourite combination.
Thursday night the person who popped my cork was The World Famous *BOB*. She came out in a fabulous, skin tight gold dress. Her instructions to her costumier were that she wanted to look like a golden boa constrictor that had swallowed Jane Mansfield, and I have to say that is what I saw. After insisting that women should follow her diet of mayonnaise and simply stop caring, she stated “you too can look this good” …and she did look good. Combined with the Mr Whippy blonde hairdo she looked amazing! *BOB* is one of my favourite burly persons, not only because she is a pleasure to listen to as an MC, but also because she is one of those people that is the heart of our community. She is gracious, warm, outspoken, political and supportive. Thanks *BOB*, for the dress, the diet advice and for being.
Of course, we must mention the Perle at this point. Perle Noire – thank you for getting tipsy, laying your head on my lap and making puppy eyes at me. Perle is dynamite onstage, but mostly I love her for her fragility, her femininity and because when in Oz, she stole the key to the toilet of an outback latrine because they dared to charge us to pee. Standards, people, standards!
Friday night was sprinkled with sparkle – onstage highlights were Sydni Devereaux and Medianoche for their perfection, Dangrrr Doll for her valkyrie-like presence, and Apathy Angel, who can move her tush like a wind-up bunny. Literally… my eyes are still watering… stick a fluffy tail on that thing!
However my favourite moment was sitting down with Jo Boobs Weldon in front of a screen and having a bitch about the unsustainability of wearing heels and makeup every night. Here are our findings:
Aim: To watch the show in maximum amount of comfort.
Method: Find couch, a screen, drink booze, open mouth and let words come out at random.
Observations: A mutual accordance was struck in our level of discomfort with our footwear and we agreed that makeup was annoying.
Result: We got ‘merry’.
Conclusion: Dolling up is not the most viable expenditure of our limited time on the planet. Getting drunk is way more productive.
This made me feel normal. Thank you Jo Weldon.
The dressing room. THE DRESSING ROOM! How I love dressing rooms, especially in New York! Especially when Tigger! is in the house. Firstly, this guy is great! Secondly, this guy is great! He’s a sure-footed, outspoken, highly skilled, humorous, intelligent pornographer. He’s my friend, he cares if I feel like shit, and he’s really great at showing off! He’s a perfect example of what manlesque is all about.
No New York Burlesque Festival is complete without Murray Hill, who I think is such a great person and a wonderful MC. Thanks Murray for walking onstage halfway through my act. My act was epic and the audience needed you at that point. I needed you… I always need you. Can I hire you to do that every time I’m onstage?
There were so many great acts on this night, and some very strong performances from the Australians. I have to mention the incredible Kelly Ann Doll who is an Oz community kingpin as well as a force majeure onstage.
Second to that, I was intrigued by Michelle L’amour’s hypnotic abilities. But to pick a favourite I’d be doing you all a disservice. I was performing so didn’t get to watch much, but backstage Kitten and Lou were contagiously awesome, so I’m giving them the best backstage award. Runners up Gal Friday and my personal favourite person, Dr Lucky.
Finally Sunday night – to me this is the most important night and the key, I think, to what keeps this festival and possibly much of the New York burlesque community a community.
The GOLDEN PASTIES. Firstly, two words: Val Valentine! What an incredible woman, a great performer and a sure reminder of how fascinating our legends are. At age 77 she just simply hasn’t lost any of her charm, sensuality or ability to spread joy.
As for the rest of the show, there were some fabulous costumes and some big personalities, but pretty dresses and stage-eating aside, my favourite act was Reubenesque Burlesque’s ‘Fat Camp’. If you don’t know why, you need to see this act.
On with the awards. Now, I want a pastie. Everyone wants a pastie. The reason everyone wants a pastie is because the awards themselves are a burlesque satire of burlesque. I love that I got beaten at nomination level to The Khaleesi Award by Dangrrr Doll… who not only dressed up as Khaleesi but also had her own dragon accompany her for her victorious collection of an oversized nipple cover.
I love that the winner for best MC didn’t even get to be announced before Albert Cadabra was onstage to claim it, with hot babes flanking either side. Just as well he was actually the winner. I love that Most Bountiful Booty culminated in a spontaneous booty-off by the nominees.
Irreverent, celebratory and just generally ridiculous, The Golden Pasties is a great way for us to laugh at the disease of ego-mania. The fact is, if we fail to acknowledge how absurd our subculture can be at times, or start taking ourselves too seriously, we run the risk of missing out on what is so awesome about burlesque – and that awesome thing is everyone else around you.
A Golden Pastie win is a genuine token of love from the community, but also a laugh at the trappings of showbiz. The star struck blood-thirst and competition induced tedium that is tearing apart many burlesque communities around the world is harnessed here in a good humoured mockery of that desperation ‘to be something’ – even if it is the World’s Best Online Over-Sharer. It’s a mock competition that everyone in this community invests in.
It’s this good humour and levity that reminds us not to give in to the dark side of the farce, but if we just keep laughing, especially at the not so great parts of our basic human nature, we will always be achieving what we came here to do. To place art on stage, to lift people out of their sorrows, and most importantly, to stamp out our sexual turf in world that says left-of-centre-sexually-celebrated-weirdos should do no such thing.
See you onstage.