When I planned out my Partnerships Series, this couple were always a priority for me. Spending time with Michelle and Franky is a joy, and their partnership is truly inspiring. Together they have put Chicago firmly and proudly on the burlesque map, and have created a series of exceptional shows and events. I’m constantly moved by their fascination with and devotion to each other, and their wedding in 2009 will always be one of my all time BHoF highlights.
In this interview, we discussed their early days together, the emotional wedding ceremony, Cyprianism, jealousy, work and play, and proudest achievements. You can sense the love and gratitude in every word…
For those who don’t know, can you briefly remind us how you met? What are your happiest memories from your early years together?
Franky: I had a ridiculous band that was a cross between Iggy Pop and Gary Numan. We were putting together this big theatrical show with a Las Vegas theme. I went to a talent audition for one of those total scam talent agencies (actually went with my ex) and saw Michelle dancing to a Metallica song. Her raw energy blew me away and figured if she could dance to Metallica, she could dance for my little band. I turned on the Franky Vivid game (pronounced ‘stal-king’) and convinced her to shake her future money maker on my stage. It wasn’t long before I realised that she was the real talent and lit the fuse on the band’s demise so that we could pursue her being a star instead of me. It also wasn’t long before I was head over feet for her. My band mates said I fell in love with her that first Metallica day. I guess that’s true, though I didn’t admit it until later.
To be honest, I can’t pinpoint ‘happiest’ moments. We have been incredibly happy for a decade and don’t show signs of slowing down. I mean, the early days were a bit more bohemian (pronounced ‘food-stamps’) and that was fucking charming. Travelling to LA, NYC and more all for her to shed clothing for $50 here and there was amazing. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being taken in by the Lucha VaVoom family in 2004 and then the Burlesque Hall of Fame family in 2005… really happy turning points. It made me happy then to be a part of watching her creative ways to drop a costume, and it continues to be. Every night. Every morning. Something new in the naked arts. She continues to create and as long as she’s doing it starkers, I’m happy.
Michelle: I was bored in Champaign, IL. I was going to school for finance and all I really wanted to do was dance. While I was working in the candy shop at the mall (yeah), I heard a commercial for a talent audition. I went just to see what would happen. I did my Metallica dance and I guess Franky liked it. He later asked where I worked at school and I told him. I also had a job at the school’s physical education building teaching step aerobics, hip hop and pilates. Well, all he had to do was call the building and ask for my info. Whew! Glad I was a protected college student.
He emailed me and told me about his band, and wanted to meet. I said okay, but when I told my mom about this, she told me to bring someone with me because you never know who these people are. I brought my current boyfriend at the time (he was an ex-marine and had the word ‘psycho’ tattooed on his bottom lip) to the coffee shop where I met Franky. There, Franky explained his plans for world domination and I was captivated. Good bye psycho and hello Franky! Well, it was more of a ‘how do you do, Franky’ as I dated someone else after ‘psycho’ and before Franky. As I said, I was bored.
As for our ‘happiest’ moments, that’s really tough! We have so many great moments. We’re goofy together, especially after a bourbon episode. Travelling together is always fun, even when it’s not. We’re a happy couple. Stressed, but happy.
I believe it was you, Franky, who suggested that Michelle put a burlesque routine together. What inspired that – how did you discover burlesque and why did you think it would suit Michelle?
F: The first time I sat down with her to talk her into dancing for my band, I mentioned that we had been trying to put together a burlesque show. My bass player and I had hired some girls from a local strip club and tried to get them interested in the ancient art of the tease. It failed miserably. So when Michelle came along I couldn’t wait to plant the seed. Maybe I was just trying to see her naked. But, to be honest, she took to it like a duck to water. She’d been training her whole life without knowing it.
Our first burlesque show happened about six months after she joined our rock-n-roll extravaganza. The burlesque was the opening act. Michelle didn’t strip then. She choreographed a routine for another girl. As I write this, that show was ten years ago this week. Man I’m old.
I’ve always had an affinity for burlesque and related art forms. It’s just something that’s always sat deeply in my grey matter. As a young child, my family would eat at Old San Francisco Steak House after church and I’d go to the bar and watch the girls on the swing, trying to see up their skirts. That was so formative that today I own a club with a swing just to continue the tradition. In 1990 (before I’d even heard of Baz Luhrmann), I wrote a high school paper on the Moulin Rouge, accentuating it’s history of can-can and sex-for-sale. I got failing marks for the content, not the masterpiece of writing that I still believe it was.
“I brought my current boyfriend at the time (he was an ex-marine and had the word ‘psycho’ tattooed on his bottom lip) to the coffee shop where I met Franky. There, Franky explained his plans for world domination and I was captivated. Good bye psycho and hello Franky!”
Franky, what do you love and enjoy about burlesque? Did it take time initially to discover what your role or involvement would be?
F: 1. What I love: the gratuitous nudity. 2. My role: make sure the gratuitous nudity happens, at all costs, in copious amounts.
Seriously, though. Obviously skin on display has a major appeal to me. I’m voracious about it. Just can’t seem to get enough. But I could get that lots of places that wouldn’t hold my attention like burlesque does. I think burlesque is like a rapper boasting in a hip hop song. You know it’s going to happen. A rap song contains boasting. Everyone knows it. The challenge is to boast better than the next guy, to be more creative, to take something that everyone is expecting and turn it on its ear. Striptease is the same thing. Anyone sitting in a burlesque audience eventually knows exACTly what they’re going to see – nudity, pasties, etc. Every act ends up in the same basic spot. It could be a really stifling art form for that reason. But the journey, the wit, the sheer genius many of these girls achieve in arriving in that state is what makes it worth it.
What do you both recall from the night in 2005 when Michelle was crowned Miss Exotic World? Was it a surreal event to experience together; did it prove to be a significant catalyst?
F:I have video of Michelle in bed at the Holiday Inn in Barstow, in her pasties and her glittery red hair bow, after having just won. That really is the moment I remember. It’s a really sweet moment because she really can’t believe it happened. In the background I keep singing 50 Cent’s Hate it Or Love it because I think it’s funny (it’s probably not). It was surreal because Michelle was so new to the game. She hadn’t even been stripping (professionally) for two years. Barely a year and a half. I don’t know if it was a catalyst in a mainstream sense. In Chicago at the time, I could count on one hand the people that had ever heard of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. But within the community it made people take notice of Michelle… and book her, which was a bonus. Definitely lent a fair bit of street-cred.
M: I remember the night in the desert. It was the first time the competition was held at night and it was beautiful. It was also the last time the competition was held in the desert. It was Vegas or bust after that. I was SUPER happy to win the title but I also couldn’t believe it. And I didn’t know what to do when they announced my name, so I just took my clothes off again. I knew that it was an important moment for me and for burlesque in Chicago. I knew that this was my platform to expose more people to burlesque in Chicago and really put it on the map as a city of burlesque. I also knew, and took very seriously, my role as an ambassador for the museum. I wanted people to know and care! I still do.
Obviously, things are very much focused on Michelle; she is a contemporary titan and in many ways a brand/product. Is this something you quickly and easily accepted, Franky, and have you ever found it hard to maintain your own voice and make time for your separate projects and ambitions?
F: I love it. I used to think there were two types of people: voyeurs and exhibitionists. Before Michelle I would have put myself in the first category. But the truth is that I’m some sort of third type. I actually get off on watching Michelle take her clothes off for others. She exhibits. They… voy? I love it. We’re having an absolute blast and that’s the part that counts to me.
Plus, I actually do get my voice heard. I play many creative roles in our productions that fulfill me. And as the money stacks up (pronounced ‘trickles in’), I have time to write and create. I also curate the club which is one of my greatest joys.
Michelle, I always smile when you dedicate certain performances to Franky. Is it important to you to publicly acknowledge the role he plays in your life and work? Do you ever wonder what path your life might have taken if you hadn’t met, and if he hadn’t suggested burlesque to you?
M: Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t ever met Franky. I’d like to think that I would be doing the same things, but I’m not sure that I would. I think I was headed for a corporate life, living in the suburbs with kids. I would have been full of resentment. I’m very happy that’s not where my life went. I am restless and a dreamer, but I’m also very practical and level headed.
I did struggle with the role that Franky plays in my life. For a while, I don’t think people gave me any credit for what I accomplished. People actually would ask me if Franky came up with ideas for my acts and did the choreography. I mean, really? Not to say that Franky doesn’t have good ideas, but come on! In a world where the empowered woman is queen, I didn’t want to be looked at as the submissive, dependent puppet. His role in my life is HUGE. I lean on him constantly. He’s my sounding board and he’s honest. Always. It’s important to me that people realise that we are a TEAM.
I’m sure that all who were present fondly remember your moving wedding ceremony at BHoF 2009. Can you describe the experience from your perspective?
M: Oh my goodness, I was so nervous! During my performance, all I could think about was what was happening after the performance. I was barely there and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing performing before getting married! This is ridiculous!’ But it was right. I performed right before he proposed to me on stage, so it was only fitting that we were married on stage after a performance. It was important for us to do it there because we wanted our family of choice to be present. The thing I was most concerned about was crying. I am a giant sap. When anything is touching or sentimental, I’m done. Forget it. And of course, crying leads to ruining your makeup, which leads to ruining wedding pictures.
F: I have virtually no recollection of the experience. Seriously, it’s a dream. It WAS nice to finally get to sleep with her that night, though. *wink* I heard later that night that Julie Atlas Muz was spreading the rumour that Michelle and I were Scientologists. That was hysterical. I mean, do a couple of mystical hand gestures and say some voodoo under your breath and people think you’re weird. Go figure.
“I had very bad examples of relationships growing up. I didn’t really know how to be in a relationship until Franky. The give and take and the unconditional love. It is difficult, and I fail often, but he is always there encouraging me.”
You recited Cyprian wedding vows; can you explain a little about Cyprianism and the influence it has on your lives and relationship?
F: Ah, speaking of weird. I should have read ahead on these questions. There’s no short answer here but I’ll try (pronounced ‘fail’… is this getting old yet?)
Cyprianism is a Philosophy and Practice based on an ancient guild of artists and courtesans in Athens called the Knights of Paphos. To say they were a cult of Aphrodite would completely simplify them. What they really were was an organised group of people who created art and sacred sexuality and shared their experiences. It’s a Philosophy that informs pretty much every inch of everything that I do. As an artist, I create based on what it teaches me. As a person, I am centred through the Practice.
I don’t know that I’d call it a religion, although the Knights of Paphos did. But there is a worship of Beauty and an affinity for the Erotic. It really is a truly deep Philosophy that gets deeper each year. It’s not something that’s easy to ‘sound bite’. It’d probably be easier just to say we’re Scientologists.
M: Franky is my spiritual centre. He reminds me of these things when I get spun out of the current.
Does your immediate burlesque community and friends support and enrich your partnership? Do you feel you have created an extended family around yourselves?
M: Yes. I love the people we have in our life. I love that we can go to almost any city and have a friend to share coffee or wine. Say what you want about these heathens, but they are beautiful, gracious and full of love.
F: I do feel like we’ve created a family. Sometimes the siblings fight. Sometimes we can’t all agree on where to go on vacation. Sometimes Daddy’s gotta work late. But it’s an amazing group of women and related men that keep me in stitches. In my forty years on this planet, I’ve met a lot of people. And I can say that right now, at this time, the people I surround myself with are the most genuine, sincere, creative, sexy people with the most integrity and heart that I’ve ever known.
Franky, although you clearly don’t share it, can you understand to any extent the discomfort or insecurity that some men feel about their wife or girlfriend performing striptease, modelling nude, or being the most prominent or visible partner? Or should they just get over it, without exception?
F: I don’t get it. I don’t. I guess if I was jealous or thought Michelle was going to run off I might feel differently. But I trust her completely. Com-fucking-pletely. It’s insane. Before I knew her I had been in relationships where the others were not faithful. You’d think I’d be wired for jealousy. I’m not. I was, but I’m not. Michelle brings that out of me.
Which is to say that I do think the wife/girlfriend/etc. has a lot to do with the level of the man/partner/etc. discomfort. Because Michelle is Michelle I am incapable of being jealous. If she were different, I might be. I’d like to think it’s all me and I’m awesome (pronounced ‘i-am-pretty-awesome’) but I know she plays a big part in that.
“We are always teetering on the verge of it ‘not working’ just because it runs incredibly hot most of the time … I think that the key concept for us is complete honesty. It isn’t always (or often) comfortable. But she knows me and I know her. Inside and out.”
Do you view Michelle as a muse as well as a wife and business partner? I know the sight of her reading in the nude inspired the very popular Naked Girls Reading; does she inspire you to explore and create in other artistic media? Has she enabled you to achieve and improve your own art in ways that you wouldn’t or couldn’t have alone?
F: I consider her my muse and my paintbrush. There is nothing I create that does not have her at the centre of it. Everything I write, everything I design; it all is so the world can see her as I do. I create for, about and with her. When I say with her, I mean like she is paint that I’m spreading on a canvas.
But that all ties back to Cyrpianism. She is the embodiment of what, in that Philosophy, is called The Feminine. Don’t get all post-modern-gender-studies on me. It is more complex than that. Aphrodite was the centre of worship and creativity because she embodied the Feminine, what modern Cyprianism calls the virtues of a courtesan. As humans, we are all supposed to set out to achieve these virtues (Timing, Beauty, Cheek, Brilliance, Gaiety, Grace, Charm). They aren’t considered ‘inherent’. You have to work for them. But every once in a rare while, someone comes along that does naturally have them in huge amounts. Michelle is that someone. If it were 480 B.C. she would literally be put on a pedestal and worshipped as a goddess.
What are some of the joint ventures and achievements that you are especially proud of?
F: Naked Girls Reading. I love burlesque, but we didn’t invent it. Naked Girls Reading is ours and it feels good to put something so magical into people’s lives. The club is also especially dear to me. I think in a hundred years someone’s going to look back and see that that place left a mark.
M: Opening Studio L’amour and opening the Everleigh Social Club. I am very proud of our physical homes for burlesque and sexy arts in Chicago. I’m also very proud of Superstars of Burlesque and all the other shows we produce together. And buying furniture.
One of my favourite new sites from you is Cooking for Strippers, which celebrates your shared enjoyment of cooking, discovering new recipes and cooking for your burlesque friends and visitors. What other pastimes and activities do you enjoy together, and will there be sites or projects dedicated to any of them in the future?
F: I think our hands are pretty full right now. Well, that’s not true. There is something pretty huge in the offing. But I’m going to have to be coy and say you have to wait and see
A venture of yours that particularly intrigues me is The Everleigh Social Club. Can you give us a peek behind the doors of this members club and describe what goes on at your intimate gatherings?
F: I can’t give you a peek. Shame on you. That’s what membership is for. See above coyness and apply it here. *wink*
Can you impart any advice or things you have learned as a couple who work and play together?
F: I don’t recommend it. We are always teetering on the verge of it ‘not working’ just because it runs incredibly hot most of the time. Michelle calls it ‘sprinting a marathon’. After ten years, I’m frankly surprised we’re still rocking it. I wish I knew the answer. I do think that the key concept for us is complete honesty. It isn’t always (or often) comfortable. But she knows me and I know her. Inside and out. We don’t hold back. It’s been that way since the beginning and it’s rare. Human nature is to want to be known, and then to be loved by those that know you. That’s all. I’ve got both.
M: It does run hot a lot! We’re both passionate people. Damn artists. There is a lot to maintain. Many projects and we are both in every facet of every project. What we’re really looking for is our business unicorn. Anyone…
Can it be difficult sometimes to separate the personal from the professional, especially when running your own businesses? Does everything feel connected and inseparable from everything else, and if so, are there downsides to that?
F: It is incredibly difficult. And when you sprinkle in the sexual it gets even scarier. An unsuccessful business move is one thing, but when you are literally going balls out, it’s an entirely different matter.
But that’s why Cyprianism works for us. It addresses the inseparability, the connectedness and the mutuality of things in a really meaningful way. Americans try to compartmentalise to keep themselves safe. Life really requires the vulnerability of connecting it all together in a healthy way. But that can be scary for a lot of people, including us. It can seem like a house of cards, but you can’t treat it that way. Things are connected. They just are. If you are afraid of addressing that you won’t get far. At least in any meaningful way.
M: See above when I tell you that Franky has to remind me of this ALL THE TIME!
“Michelle has the biggest heart of anyone … She has more time and concern for more people than it’s possible to have. She truly desires the best for those she loves and would give the shirt off her back, and often does, to make it happen.”
In your experience, is there inevitably more pressure on a relationship when a professional business is at stake too? Do you think it pressures people to stay together in some cases?
F: I do believe that. Both things. I think your professional business can sort of be like having a child together. Some people stay together for the ‘kids’ when they really shouldn’t. And some people make business decisions based on their romantic relationship, often to the detriment of both. It’s a strange balance. We don’t always strike it, but our most successful ventures (I’m not talking financially) happen when we do.
Can you name three things that you particularly love and admire about each other?
M: Franky has a beautiful spirit. Always giving, understanding and willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. These are things I try to possess, but there are things I have to work on, constantly. But he just has them, so easily. He is patient. If you’re with me, you need to be! I feel that Franky has always been more emotionally developed than me. I had very bad examples of relationships growing up. I didn’t really know how to be in a relationship until Franky. The give and take and the unconditional love. It is difficult, and I fail often, but he is always there encouraging me. Also, he is a very cunning linguist.
F: Michelle has the biggest heart of anyone. It’s interesting to me that sometimes from the outside it doesn’t appear as though that is true. It baffles me. Those that know her would attest to it. It is huge. She has more time and concern for more people than it’s possible to have. I don’t know how she does it. She truly desires the best for those she loves and would give the shirt off her back, and often does, to make it happen.
She is also madly creative. It’s like a bottomless cauldron of pure creativity. Seriously folks, she’s just skimmed the surface. She can phone something in and produce better art than most of the yahoos who call themselves artists. I can say that. She would never. But I can.
I tell her she exists in the saccade. If you look yourself in the eyes in a mirror, you inevitably have to look at only one eye. If you shift to the other eye it appears to your brain as if you never left your own gaze. But the truth of the matter is that there is a split fraction of a nano-second where you aren’t looking at either eye. But it’s undetectable. That’s called a saccade and that’s where Michelle lives.
She can plan more, parse more, create more because she’s residing in that space that others can’t detect. You know in CSI when they start describing something and the camera goes all wooshy wooshy into some graphic that pulls the universe apart by the atoms so the viewer can see inside this strange little moment? It’s like that. Don’t believe me? Watch her watch someone doing burlesque. In a 4 minute act, she’s watched it for two hours. She knows everything that happened, why it happened, what was great, what was atrocious, and how she can help. Change a hand position by a millimetre and suddenly the number works. Insane. Da Vinci had it. I do not.
Have there been any key relationship-defining moments that you can share?
F: Heh, not that I can share. Maybe in twenty years in my memoirs. They are currently going to be titled On the Tip of My Tongue: My Life with Michelle L’amour.
M: I suppose I will wait to read the book…
In their partnership interview, Trixie and Monkey said that their ten year relationship has been an ongoing work in progress that requires constant reassessment, recognition of what they have achieved together, making time to enjoy their own separate space and making an effort not to take each other for granted romantically. Can you relate to this, after being together for ten years yourselves?
F: I don’t feel like we operate that way. The main thing we have to keep doing is readjusting our perspective. You really lose all perspective when you live like we do. I have the best life in the world, which means my worst moments stem from my best life. If I’m feeling pissy about something, whatever it is happened within the realm of my amazing life. It’s a strange perspective and we often have to remind each other of that.
‘Goddam it. I HATE mopping. I can’t believe I’m fucking mopping. This sucks.’ ‘Oh, you mean mopping the floor of your awesome social club because someone spilled absinthe during your vintage French erotica night where I was reading Cora Pearl naked?’ ‘Yeah, sorry.’
M: Wait, so Trixie and Monkey don’t take every shower together? Franky, we’ve been doing it wrong! Seriously, we are together all the time. Always holding hands, touching, etc. It’s sad when I have to do gigs without him. Remember – SAPPY! Perspective is really hard though. I get lost in the details so often that I have to actually remind myself to look at the big picture and recognise our accomplishments.
What are your shared hopes and predictions for the future of burlesque?
F: Burlesque jetpacks.
M: Teleporting! Please! Air travel is just so inelegant.
Are there any upcoming events, ventures or news that you would like to share with the 21CB readership?
F: I’m still a little superstitious about announcing stuff before it’s set in some semblance of stone. We have big plans. Big ones. And they all involve copious amounts of gratuitous nudity.
M: I’m with The Vivid.
Check out these fabulous upcoming events…
Wiggle Room – an evening of stand up comedy and burlesque – will run for five weeks only from Oct. 18th. Visit www.wiggleroomchicago.com.
The first Naked GHOULS Reading in New Orleans on Oct. 27th. More info at www.nakedgirlsreading.com/nola.
Naked GHOULS Reading in Chicago on Halloween (Oct 31st). Check out www.nakedgirlsreading.com.
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.