When I planned my schedule for the New York Burlesque Festival 2013, one of the first priorities was to arrange my first proper conversation with festival co-producer and Miss Exotic World 2008, Angie Pontani. We certainly made up for lost time with a long and interesting discussion, an updated edit of which I present to you here. Refreshingly candid, utterly dedicated and a workaholic after my own heart, Angie Pontani is a contemporary pioneer with an infectious confidence and vision who has earned her place in the burlesque history books.
H-M: Angie, let’s start right back at the beginning. I believe that you came to New York when you were about 17 to study dance?
AP: Yes, that’s right.
I’ve heard you describe your transition to burlesque as somewhat accidental and I’m interested to know what your previous awareness of burlesque was and how you came to be involved with Dutch Weismann’s Follies…
I grew up watching old movies; it was my family’s pastime. We watched Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Carmen Miranda films and listened to Frank Sinatra. I knew I wanted to be a performer all my life and all my references were this old Hollywood glamour. I wasn’t interested in the movie Heathers or what was happening in Hollywood at that time. I had this notion that I was going to come to New York and be the next Ginger Rogers.
I was working at a restaurant and one of the guys I was working with was a dancer in Dutch Weismann’s. He said I should come and do the show, and it was the first burlesque show that I’d seen. This was the mid-nineties in New York: there was no reference to burlesque and my only reference point in our culture at that time was Bettie Page, but the swing scene was really big and pin-up was starting to make a comeback. I was cast in the Dutch Weismann’s show, and at that point I heard the word burlesque for the first time and I started researching it. I went on my giant Apple computer that I had at the time – Google didn’t even exist then – looked it up and found out about Dixie Evans and Blaze Starr and so much amazing stuff. It was at this point that the scene was just starting to unfold in places like NYC, LA and New Orleans. When Dutch Weismann’s closed, I found people like Tigger! and Dirty [Martini] and [World Famous] *BOB* and Murray Hill. And when Dutch Weismann’s was happening, the only other running burlesque show was Le Scandal, created by Bonnie Dunn. Dutch Weismann’s was the accidental step-in for me, and I never stepped out.
Today you have a team of agents that help you with your workload. Does that reflect how things have progressed for you? Has it felt like a gradual rise; do you feel you found a gap and filled it? How did things progress for you over time?
I love to work. I’m really a workaholic and I’m a firm believer that you have to create your own opportunities, especially in show business. I was always very active in making things happen, making events happen and learning to produce by default. As I’ve got involved in bigger events and bigger shows, I’ve been really fortunate to have other people come and help me. Booking agents, and people like Jen Gapay of Thirsty Girl who I partner with on larger events I produce, like the festival. It kind of all happened organically. However, I don’t have any less work to do; I feel like I have more people to talk to about more decisions. It’s the same workload; I’m still just as insane as I was many years ago.
Do you find that some people assume or perceive that success and longevity make things easier? Would you argue that it makes things more difficult, if not harder when you have to sustain something like that?
I absolutely think it makes things more difficult. When you go out on the road to do a great show, people are expecting your next show to be just as great. You’ve raised the bar and then you have to live up to this every single time; you can’t keep doing the same things. Every few years I like to check myself and be like, ‘Okay, where were you two years ago at this point? Have you advanced? If you haven’t then you better get moving.’ Show business is one of the hardest businesses to exist in; it’s like owning your own business and you never stop working. It’s brutal, but it’s also brutally beautiful.
“…to do a service to the industry you’ve really got to train and practice, rehearse, and work … At the end of the day it’s showbusiness. It’s our job to entertain the audience and to be true to our art form…”
Do you think that today’s burlesque newcomers have unrealistic expectations? They have a ready-made scene to walk into, unlike your burlesque generation who created the contemporary movement. Have you come across newcomers who have unrealistic expectations of how easily fame and glory will come?
Some, but I guess that means we’re just doing a really good job of creating this veil of amazingness. I was very fortunate to come into this when I did, and I wonder, if were coming into it now, if I would be as drawn into it and as passionate about it. When we all first started in the scene, we weren’t emulating anyone. Of course we were influenced by the Dixies, the Blazes and the Tempests, but we had no prototype to follow. We were all just like, ‘Okay, let’s do this. Let’s get in the bar and put on a show,’ and we did. I think this creates a certain kind of ‘can’t die’ attitude and you just keep going. I’ve met some of the new girls that are coming into this scene who are amazing; I think it’s just a different mindset. If people are coming into this thinking they are going to roller-skate through and next thing you know they’re going to be on the cover of Elle or touring the world, good luck. You can’t just jump on stage and find success; it’s a multi-faceted hustle, and that’s entertainment, not just burlesque.
How did your sisters get involved and how were they incorporated into things? Did they have the same dance training as you? How did your collaboration progress and develop?
We all grew up taking dancing lessons, from literally three years old until seventeen-eighteen. When Dutch Weismann’s closed, which I think was 1996 or 1997, I was really bored. I pulled a Scarlet O’Hara and I made costumes out of curtains and made fruit headdresses. I wanted to do a show on the Boardwalk for the Mermaid Parade, and I forced my sister Tara to come and dance with me. We went down and danced on the Boardwalk, and then Helen came into the picture a few years later. It was the same thing. It was very organic and we weren’t trying to make a career at that point in time; we were just having fun and guerrilla performing wherever we could.
What is their current involvement in the scene? Do you still collaborate a lot with them at this time?
My sister Tara has twins now that are seven years old; she’s a little preoccupied with them. She lives upstairs from me; she’s my proofreader and web helper and my advice-giver. Every once in a while she’ll come back and do a performance. And Helen, we still tour together. When we go out on the Burlesque-A-Pades tours Helen comes out, and we’ll have a third person, like The Maine Attraction or Gal Friday, and we do the group dances with them.
You have always delivered classic burlesque and don’t personally put a lot of emphasis on narrative or statement. Do you think that some people dismiss the idea that classic can also have a narrative and create a deeper impact? Do you appreciate neo, alternative and political performances and feel that it has a place, even though it’s not your particular creative cup of tea?
I appreciate good performance; that’s really all it needs to be for me. I love great boylesque; I love great political performances. When someone is amazing and is rocking what they are doing – really putting everything into it – that is what I love. All I notice at that point is the performance. I’m an old-fashioned show pony – I do it for the applause. Maybe I’m thinking something subliminally when I’m putting these acts together, but I don’t mean to. I don’t dismiss anyone’s political statement or anyone’s reasoning or narrative for why they do what they do; as long as you do it well, that’s the important thing. As a performer, you’re like a salesman. You have to sell it and be true to yourself if the audience is going to buy it. I’m not really comfortable doing certain types of comedy or dance acting. Classic is what jives with me. I do feel that some people dismiss classic and that’s not really fair. First off, this movement is built from ladies who performed mostly classic routines, but we’re supposed to be a community that’s open-minded to everything. You can’t just say, ‘She’s not doing anything crazy, she’s not making a statement, she’s just up there as a pretty girl.’ That’s dismissive. If you want to be open to one, you should be open to all.
“You can’t just say, ‘She’s not doing anything crazy, she’s not making a statement, she’s just up there as a pretty girl.’ That’s dismissive. If you want to be open to one, you should be open to all.”
Do you think that some of that is in response to the fact that, as Trixie Little’s recent article discusses, alternative acts aren’t seen to be as rewarded or recognised as classic is? Is that an argument that you can appreciate?
Absolutely. It seems that people think if I’m going to win Miss Exotic World then I have to do a classic number or I’m never going to win. I don’t think that is true. For sure you can say the majority have won with classic, but certainly not all. Imogen Kelly didn’t go out there and do a purely classic number and she’s not the only example. I can understand the frustration with everybody. It has become a more serious competition and a much larger scene with a huge emphasis on the pageant. But honestly – and I can say this because we go through eight bazillion applications for the New York Burlesque Festival – applying with a straight classic act right now is the highest competition bracket because we see so many of them. They can be amazingly beautiful and they can be amazingly boring as well. The same glove peel, the same song, the same costume style… When someone does a classic act and really sells it, it is a stand out.
I think the way to sell a really great classic number is to really go over the top and be amazingly polished. You have to take it as a challenge and really get into to it. I do understand what Trixie is saying and I agree with her, because if people are trying to copy a prototype of what they think will win them a crown, then they aren’t being true to themselves and furthering their own vision, so they likely aren’t delivering their best performance. I think this is the real problem – people mimicking what they think will get them the crown or further their career. But regardless, the idea of this community or that event becoming a serious beauty pageant without irony or a bit of punk rock spirit is the exact opposite of what is was born of.
Do you think there are inevitably some quality control issues nowadays? Does such a saturation of classic, and a lack of high quality, original, well constructed and executed classic acts, work against its reputation as well?
I think that when an audience member sees a burlesque show, classic or neo, if it tickles their fancy they think, ‘Oh, I can take off my clothes, I can do that.’ But it’s not that simple. There are so many opportunities to get onstage with little training in pretty much in every city in every country in the world. Anybody can go and get a costume and pretty much jump on a stage and perform. While that’s a great and amazing thing, it shouldn’t be the only thing. There are some fantastic big shows out there that are wonderfully curated, produced and on fantastic stages. I’d like to see more of that. It’s ok to have all levels of performer; it’s necessary. We all start somewhere. But to do a service to the industry you’ve really got to train and practice, rehearse, and work on your costume and act and show. At the end of the day it’s showbusiness. It’s our job to entertain the audience and to be true to our art form, which is extremely diverse. I think you really have to put everything into it if you want to get anything out of it.
In terms of your creative process, are you as hands-on with that as you are everything else? Are you still a DIY performer at heart when it comes to things like costume, or do you outsource things like that now?
When I first started, I made all my own costumes; I did everything myself. Now I have costume designers that I work with, but I’m very hands-on with it. It’s a burlesque costume – I can’t just say, ‘Here, make me this dress.’ I have to tell them I want this dress, and it has to have these snaps, with hooks and eyes over here, etc. The two people that I work with the most are Garo Sparo and David Quinn; they’re both amazing. I trust them more than I trust myself. Generally, I will tell them what I want and how I want it to work, and ask them to make me look good. Otherwise, I torture Brian [Newman] to edit my music for me, and if I’m making a big prop I have to source that out too. It’s a hands-on business for the most part, though. When you’re a burlesque performer, the character you’re putting out on stage is really yourself so you can’t outsource that to somebody else. It’s not like you’re playing a role – you are yourself exemplified. To be successful with it, you have to be comfortable with it, and to be comfortable with it, you better be a darn part of the creative process.
Have you found that either longevity or multiple pressures have affected your creativity? Have you had to adapt the way you work to compensate for that, or to keep things stimulated?
I go and watch older performance videos of mine because I find you can get lazy in your performances. I’ll be going, going, going – and then I stop, watch a video from when I first developed the act and realise that I’ve cut out part of the act and am just walking in circles. You’ve got to stay on top of yourself for your own quality control.
Let’s talk about the New York Burlesque Festival. What sort of position were you in when it was conceived, and how did you meet your co-producer, Jen Gapay?
The initial concept was that I wanted to do a big supper club show with a big band at a place like The Supper Club, which is now the Edison Ballroom. I knew Jen Gapay because Jen had worked for The Village Voice and she was a producer and organiser for events like the Siren Music Festival. They used to do huge Christmas parties and she hired The Pontani Sisters a lot, so we had a good relationship. I knew she was more accustomed to doing bigger events than I was, so I called her and the initial concept was to do this supper club show. She said, ‘You know, there is so much burlesque – why don’t we do a festival?’ I thought that was a great idea. I’d been to Tease-O-Rama and got an idea of what kind of interest I thought we could generate being in New York. I had a great network across the country because I had already been touring for several years with the Pontani Sisters, and I knew a lot of the different performers that I could reach out to to help us get a great and diverse cast, so it just worked out. We went for it, and we did it!
Do you consider it to be a pioneering event that has lead to the multitude of festivals we have today?
Yes, for sure. Aside from Tease-O-Rama and Exotic World there weren’t any other weekend festivals going on when we started. Jen and I (with the help of my sisters Tara and Helen who co-produced with us until 2007) really stuck our necks out and risked a lot when we had very little to lose. From the onset, the festival brought performers from all over the world together and from the feedback we got and get, people love it. We work hard to create a positive experience for performers on and offstage. It was and is a great networking event as well as an opportunity for entertainers to play in front of a fantastic audience in great NYC venues. The festival also brought and continues to bring so much international media attention to New York and the burlesque scene here. It was a big part of helping to establish NYC’s reputation as a hot bed of the burlesque renaissance and home to so many stars of burlesque. I’m very proud of what Jen and I have created and I certainly believe that our event inspired a lot of other producers to create their own home town festivals, and even some other silly award ceremonies like our ‘Golden Pastie Awards’ have sprung up.
Do you find that your dual roles as a performer and producer inform and support each other? Have you come across a lot of clashes of interest as a result of those roles?
I much prefer performing, but if you really want to make a living in burlesque, it’s wise to start producing at some point. You can’t wait for people to bring these opportunities to you; you have to make them for yourself. I have a lot of problems with it because I get so entrenched in the producing aspects of it when I’d much rather be dancing. I just started to work on my act for the festival and it’s because I have no time. It’s a difficult balance, it really is.
You were crowned Miss Exotic World in 2008. How did you first come across Exotic World and the Burlesque Hall of Fame? What were your early experiences? I think a lot of people, especially those who are new to this scene, find it really interesting to hear from those who experienced it early on in the revival…
I first heard about Exotic World in the late nineties when others were discovering it, hearing tales of the desert, the ranch, Dixie and all of the amazing artifacts – especially the Weekend. Everyone was so excited by the pageant and meeting Dixie and Tempest and the other performers the event brought out. The first time I met Dixie was in 2001 when she was at Tease-O-Rama; we shared a dressing room. She was amazing; hearing her stories and being around her was just a gift. It was so intriguing. It made me more interested in burlesque and more grounded, realising this is who I want to be, this is what I want to be doing. There was such a depth of information, such a history and a story here.
For years *BOB* was like, ‘You have to come to Exotic World! You have to come! You have to come!’ But my sadness is I never actually went to the desert. It’s tragic. I wish now, more than ever that I did. We were really busy with The Pontani Sisters, going out on the road for months at a time, so I never made it. That was very sad, but I followed it. The internet was a dinosaur at that point. I remember going online and waiting for someone to update a Yahoo group about who won and see all of the pictures of people in the desert in the sun, by the pool. I first went in Vegas in 2006 and I didn’t go to compete; I did a tribute on Friday night to Blaze Starr. Dixie let me do the number on Blaze’s original smoking couch. That was so amazing, but also horrifying. When they pulled it out of storage it was missing a leg. It was the day of the show, of course. I remember the host that year was rigging it with hangers and bricks. It was okay; it worked for the show. I went back in 2008 when it was at The Palms. Everyone was moaning and complaining about the conditions outside and the intense wind. It was difficult, but I thought it was kind of a fun challenge. And I was thinking to myself, ‘You guys are so funny. A few years ago this was in the desert, where people were actually passing out from heat exhaustion. This is the Ritz-Carlton.’ Then I won, and that was even more fun.
What impact did winning have on you personally and professionally at that time?
Winning at that time was a real honour. Professionally, this is something that I think is a grand illusion in the burlesque community. When you won Exotic World, you got a trophy and the previous Miss Exotic World would buy you a crown and give it to you, then you made your sash. Then you went home with a big smile on your face. Going back again to this self-starter thing: winning is a great thing, but it’s what you make of it. At that point, most of the girls that won already had careers and it’s just an additional, but fabulous feather in your headdress. I was already established at that point, but to get the thumbs up from Dixie, Satan’s Angel, Marinka, Tura Satana – all of the amazing legends – was the greatest honour to me.
One of my all time favourite performances is your step-down performance the next year. I love using it as an example, in an age of massive props and mountains of crystals, of how something so simple can have such a dramatic effect. It was very moving. How did you come to the decision to do something like that?
I love that number and to me, it felt very symbolic of stepping down and living forever. It was to La Vie en Rose. I remember everybody from the Hall of Fame was saying, ‘Once you’re a Queen, you’re always a Queen. It’s not really about giving back the crown,’ so it felt appropriate to me. I brought a costume that fits into a Ziploc bag, and this was right at the time when the tides started to turn and people got really serious about robbing the Swarovski crystal factory to compete and bringing in props on U-Haul trucks. I was a little nervous about my choice, going in there with something so simple. I remember performing it and it felt so amazing and so freeing at that time. I’m so thankful that I went with it. Honestly, it was Helen [Pontani] and Peekaboo Pointe saying, ‘Just do it, do it, do it.’ I’m so glad that I did.
As a previous Miss Exotic World, I’m interested to hear about your hopes for the future of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. At this stage of our discussion, I feel that the events that took place a few years ago and the consequent divide and personnel changes are not something I want to avoid or skirt around. You have not attended the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend since, and I’m offering you the opportunity to describe that time from your perspective, which you are free to decline or accept.
I accept. It’s quite hairy and I don’t know everything; I don’t know if anyone does. But for the betterment of our community, and the honesty of Dixie’s life work, people and BHoF need to talk about what happened and what can happen. In 2011 there was a divide. The two key members of the organisation who spearheaded the move from Helendale to Vegas separated; they worked for years as a team, together. They helped Dixie and Charlie [Arroyo] at the ranch, reorganising everything, cataloging items, trying to make a bigger, better and safer museum and pageant. I believe they both had the best of intentions, including Dixie’s wellbeing. They relocated everything to Vegas and worked side by side with Dixie on all things Exotic World/BHoF since around 2005. One party primarily controlled the museum and the other the pageant/weekender, but again, they were a team and both in excellent relations with Dixie. In 2011 the museum managing party and the ‘Board’ served the production team of the Weekender legal letters (including myself as I helped to line produce the event in 2010) informing us we were no longer acting on the behalf of BHoF. The former managing partner of the weekender was also served with several lawsuits, which ignited tons of rumours which helped fuel the drama level within the community during this time. Dixie at that point chose to not participate in BHoF and to continue on with the other party who tried to take what was going to be the pageant and mount a new show.
Personally, I felt like I had to go where Dixie was going. I love burlesque and I love the museum and I love the collection, but in my heart I couldn’t not support Dixie’s choice; she created the weekend, she made the museum the roadside legend it was, and she reunited so many legends. This was her baby and she was of sound mind and body until the day she died; she was very clear about what she wanted. I heard her words and I respected them and I chose to support Dixie and the events that she went on to do and lend her name to until she passed away.
You can’t change the past. You can only affect the future. I feel the Burlesque Hall of Fame needs to have changes within it, structurally. I feel that anyone from BHoF who was involved with what happened in 2011 should not be on the board or involved in the organisation in any form. It is a conflict of interest and I feel a hindrance to BHoF. The organisation needs to be transparent in terms of decisions that are made currently and specifically those that were made at that point in time. Why and how were people terminated from the board? Why did the hands of producers change without an actual discussion, meeting or actual vote? Where is our real museum? What is the action plan to make that happen? Who decides who is getting honoured and awarded? There seems to be a lack of standard operating procedures. And I’m not saying that pre-2011 was was run with ease – it’s always been a little out of the hat, but now it seems to have lost the heart that fueled it. If we’re going to protect the integrity of the Burlesque Hall of Fame and have a Burlesque Hall of Fame, we have to be honest, create solutions and create systems that work. There should be a balanced and active Board. There should be Miss and Mr Exotic Worlds invited to be on the Board. I know Dirty Martini is on the Board, but that just happened last year and is not enough. There should be performers that are classic, performers that are alternative and performers that have a more exotic dance background. Performers that are amazing producers, teachers and historians within our community.
Dixie’s gone. It is a hole in my heart that she was not able to resolve her issues with the Burlesque Hall of Fame. And she did try before she passed. At this point, I think the real salvation is honesty and more focus on the museum growing and not just the pageant. Without honesty, it’s nothing; it’s a farce.
You can’t have a legacy that’s missing years. There are people now who don’t even know about Dixie and Helendale and all that she did, or why she left. We need get back to where we came from and make it something that’s for the community and the legends. Then people can be excited about it and trust it again, and it will be something we can be proud of .
Thank you for being so candid. I appreciate that.
I just want people to be honest and open about it.
You identify as a New Yorker, a Jersey Girl and an ‘Italian stallionnette’ all at once – how do you reconcile and celebrate your heritage and origins? How do you incorporate your family; how are they a part of your work and your life?
My family is so supportive. They’ve seen some of the amazing things that I’ve been able to do with my career. At first they thought I was crazy. They wanted me to finish college and do something that’s more secure. They are so proud because of all of the accomplishments I’ve had and the amazing events and world travel I get to do. In terms of my heritage and origins, I’m an Italian-American East Coaster, and I can fit that stereotype at times, but I don’t mind. It lends itself to my character, my Angie Pontani onstage. People respond to it. It’s a natural thing; it is actually me.
We’ve talked about your work as a producer, but surely one of your biggest productions to date was your wedding. The photos of you and your husband (outstanding musician Brian Newman) surrounded by your friends and family looked incredible. Did it get to the point where you thought, ‘I’m really glad that I’ve produced a few things before this’?
I looked at my wedding from Day One of planning as a big show. In fact, I kept calling it a big show. When Brian and I met with the pastor, I kept referring to it as a show, and the pastor was like, ‘Hey, really, c’mon!’ Honestly, all of my work and training in producing burlesque shows led up to cultivating this wedding; it was amazingly helpful. I had set lists, I had David Bishop, I had a run of show sheet… My work in burlesque was great training to prepare for the wedding. And I know by calling it a show some people feel like that’s impersonal and unromantic, but it’s not – it’s realistic. It was very romantic and it went off without a hitch. The only hitch was I forgot the wedding licenses at our apartment. Jen Gapay went and got them for me because she’s my neighbour and brought it back to me! It was a big show and it went great.
There have been some other high profile burlesque weddings and a lot of them have been community efforts. Were your loved ones in the burlesque community incorporated into your wedding, and did that make it feel extra special?
Absolutely. My set designer Steven Hammel created the set. My costume designer Garo Sparo made my wedding gown. The band was all Brian’s musician friends. The DJ was my cousin. I literally called everyone that I love and work with and asked them to be part of it. Why wouldn’t I? They’re my trusted resources for everything else. They know me and they knocked it out of the park for us. Everybody talks about their wedding and planning it and going totally insane, and it took a lot of time, but it was fun and I thought it was pretty easy all in all.
Do you think that burlesque has achieved a distinct mainstream identity and awareness at this point and is accepted as a valid and legitimate art form, or do you feel there is a significant amount of progress to be made?
I think there is still a lot of significant progress to be made. Burlesque is everywhere. It’s in nightclubs, supper clubs, theatres, but not really properly represented. Recently The Nance was on Broadway and it was a story of a burlesque comedian. Nathan Lane starred, and it was a great show. I glanced over at the stripteasers and they literally showed their numbers for two seconds on a rotating stage and then they were gone. This was a great baby step, but to really legitimise it and get it back into the culture as a valid form of American dance and entertainment, or entertainment, period, we still have more steps that need to be made. I think it’s happening. When we go on the road, there are some venues that we play that are rock ‘n’ roll nightclubs and some are giant 500 seat supper clubs that sell out for $50+ each. It’s a really varied audience and it’s growing and growing, but there’s still more work to be done.
I’m particularly interested in hearing some of your thoughts as someone who has observed the development of the revival, particularly in New York which to this day remains such an iconic and influential scene…
In the beginning there were a couple of shows a week; it was nothing. It was kind of an anything goes environment. Of course, as the years progressed it’s grown incredibly. There are different kinds of shows at a million different venues, any night of the week, with themes and production groups, and they all draw different types of crowds. It’s amazing to watch. I’d like to see more focus on production values. Even though this explosion has happened, there are not a lot of shows happening in theatres or even on stages for that matter. The floor show rules in New York. Some of that is because we have space issues, but even still, I think we need a more diversified scene. It’s still very diverse in terms of style: you have places that are classic, places that are crazy, places where anything goes. It’s a great barometer for the whole world right here in New York, which makes sense because it’s New York!
How much do you stay in touch with other national and international scenes – do you try to make an effort to stay in the loop and follow how they are developing as well? Would you say that you have a good global awareness?
I think I do just because of the New York Burlesque Festival, and because of events like Dixie Evans Week. I’ve managed to stay in contact with a lot of different producers in different countries around the world. I feel like I have a decent grasp on those scenes. I like to travel and perform; I get to do that quite a lot and see what’s happening across the country and around the world. It’s amazing to watch and amazing to see how those scenes have progressed, compared to New York.
Speaking of Dixie Evans Week, do you want to talk about how you became involved in that and its importance to you?
We started Dixie Evans Week after a conversation I had with Kitten De Ville. Kitten had gone to visit Dixie in her rehabilitation home. She called me up and we were talking about how sad we were about Dixie being almost alone there and everything that had happened with the Burlesque Hall of Fame. We wanted to shower her with love, money and attention because we felt that Dixie was not receiving the same love and adoration because she didn’t participate in the Burlesque Hall of Fame anymore. Obviously we knew we couldn’t bring busloads of people to see her at the home, and she didn’t want that. We wanted her to know that people really loved her and appreciated her and respected all of her donations – her gifts to our community. We decided to create Dixie Evans Week. Kitten and I talked about it and we received permission from Dixie, then we got Jo Boobs, Dr. Lucky, David Bishop, Baby Doe and Michelle Baldwin involved because we wanted a diverse group. We didn’t want people to say, oh, this is just Angie and Kitten, or this is just the Burlesque Hall of Fame side; we wanted it to be all-inclusive so people would be more comfortable giving. Our initial goal was to have people give money towards Dixie’s rehabilitation so that we could provide her with premiere care. Obviously she didn’t live to see that happen, so then it came to covering her outstanding medical bills and ultimately providing her with a final resting place worthy of her legacy at Westwood Cemetery where Marilyn Monroe and several other superstars are buried.
“I think that coming into the burlesque scene in this contemporary day and age, people are not necessarily recognising or respecting their past and the legends … There is so much to learn from the legends, so you have to pay your respects, pay attention and know your history…”
I was talking to Jo Weldon shortly after Dixie’s death and we were so glad that she knew about this before she died, that she knew it was happening and that people loved and cared about her. I imagine that this was important to you too.
Dixie had good care at the time. As we all know, when you have an older person, especially in The States, you’re not talking about real money. You’re talking about fake money that grows on trees in the insurance companies’ back yard. Medicare offers mediocre services, not top of the line, and Medicaid is even worse. You really need a ridiculous amount of money to get premiere care. She had good care, but we wanted extra good. Jo, Dr. Lucky, David, Kitten and I talked about it with her; we wanted her to know that she wasn’t forgotten and people loved her. People understood the sacrifices that she made to our community despite the difficult situation. It was very hard for people to know what to do or how they could contact her. You can’t have a busload of burlesquers from Denver show up at your trailer or to see you in the hospital. It’s not appropriate, but we wanted her to know how much she was loved, and she did. She was very excited about it.
Talking about the legends more broadly, would you say that enough emphasis or importance is put on them in the wider community, especially among newcomers or perhaps in other countries that are not as in touch with the Burlesque Hall of Fame? Can we talk more about how they’ve influenced you in particular?
I’m big on loyalty and respect. I think those are two things that are really vital to have in your life. I respect the legends so much, and there is so much you can learn from them. I’ve been so fortunate to spend time with Dixie Evans and Tempest Storm, and write letters to Blaze Starr.
When we did our Dixie Evans Week event in New York for Dixie, I was a little bit disappointed that there weren’t more new performers there. I felt like they should have all been there out of respect. There were a lot of performers donating their time, but mostly veteran performers. I think that coming into the burlesque scene in this contemporary day and age, people are not necessarily recognising or respecting their past and the legends. We had a similar experience with our Mothers Day show this year. Turn out was fine, but with Kitten Natividad and Shannon Doah on the bill, you would imagine that every aspiring performer would be banging down the door to get in there. There is so much to learn from the legends, so you have to pay your respects, pay attention and know your history.
What are some of your most rewarding achievements and shows to date that you look back on?
I’m proud of being in the forefront of the neo-burlesque revival. I would have never imagined we would get this far. One of my most rewarding achievements is winning Miss Exotic World. It was an amazing competition and I was up against strong powerhouse performers. To be in that legacy – in Dixie’s legacy – and to have my name on that list of names is a tremendous honour that no one can take away. I’m really proud of my show Burlesque-A-Pades. It’s something I work really hard on and I incorporate a good amount of history into the show; I like to go and research comedic sketches and update them for the modern age. We do 30 – 40 shows per year and it’s wonderful to see the audiences response. My entire career is a giant reward. I get to do so many amazing things and work with so many amazing people, so it’s hard to boil it down to just a few moments or achievements. I am very fortunate and thankful for what show business has given me.
“…any performer knows at the end of the day you’re doing it for the dough, of course, but you’re really doing it for the applause. Nothing feels better then entertaining your audience.”
Can we talk a little about your personal life, if there’s any spare time left? What kind of things do you enjoy doing offstage? I know you enjoy cooking…
My personal life is crazy right now. I’ve been travelling all spring and my husband has been in the studio so we have hardly seen each other. And now we are going back into New York Burlesque festival season which is always insane. Living this lifestyle, you have your droughts and your floods. If you have a flood then your personal life is getting home or to your hotel, taking a shower and putting on your pajamas, waking up and getting back to work. And when you have a drought, it’s nice because you have time to recuperate and get back into your life. When that happens, I’m like grandma. I like to garden and jar my vegetables, I like to cook, play with my nephews, sew, crochet – pretty much the opposite you’d think of when you think of a burlesque performer. I like to stay home and just be my inner-grandmom self.
What are your future ambitions or plans that you can share, and do you have any key life lessons to impart?
For the future? Be better, faster, stronger. It’s been my life motto. Every time I do something, I try to improve upon it. The shows that I’m working on for 2014 are going to be bigger. We’re going out with bigger casts this year and more advertising. We’re just putting forth a bigger product and trying to keep going with the times. If burlesque is getting bigger, we’re going to get bigger with it. The same thing about my acts – just focusing on my acts and practicing. It’s not re-inventing the wheel. I have some really exciting projects in the works that I can’t wait to share in a few months.
And as far as life wisdom goes, if you want to do it, just do it. There’s nothing to it, but to do it, and do the best job you can. If you don’t do the best job you can, then you’re doing a disservice to the whole community and the whole genre. At the end of the day, this is show business and it’s our job to entertain the audience. This is my favourite thing ever: I was reading this article on Fred Astaire and he said, ‘Everybody asks me, what was your message? What were you saying with your feet?’ He said, ‘I did it for the dough, and I did it for the applause.’ And that’s my favourite because any performer knows at the end of the day you’re doing it for the dough, of course, but you’re really doing it for the applause. Nothing feels better then entertaining your audience.
With thanks to Angie Pontani for her time and involvement in the editing process, and to Lady Monster for her excellent transcription services.
Burlesque Hall of Fame / Miss Exotic World Judge, 2011 Holli Mae Johnson is the founder and editor of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, a pioneering publication created twelve years ago to unite, document and celebrate the global burlesque community. Holli is actively involved in the burlesque community on a day to day basis and is privately consulted by performers and producers at every level for promotion, critique, recommendations and encouragement. As a documenter and critic, she has seen countless burlesque and variety performances from across the world and provides an intimate perspective and insight into the lives and careers of burlesque’s greatest pioneers, performers and personalities.