Over the past five years, my regard for Polly Rae has progressed from awareness, to interest, to hesitation, to respect, to a growing friendship and affection. I first saw Polly and the Hurly Burly Girlys in action at the Soho Revue Bar in 2007, but it was when I spent time with them backstage at the Leicester Square Theatre in 2009 that I began to understand their shared philosophy and what Polly was trying to achieve. The drive and focus was there; the determination to advance to the next level and bring the Hurly Burly brand to the masses. And when I see Polly now, years later, the same focus and determination is set on her face, and her passion for what she does is infectious.
Despite her years of hard work – starting from scratch at a time when there were far less opportunities, classes, and social networks and support widely available – and achieving mainstream West End and international success, Polly seems to have been overlooked or disregarded at times by some in the UK burlesque community. There were certainly mixed opinions about the West End version of the show and concerns about the way it portrayed ‘burlesque’ to the general public. I was honest with Polly about my personal reservations about the first two runs, but my review of the 2012 West End run at the Duchess Theatre explains how much I think the format has improved, and insists that Polly remains the heart and the focus of the show, which is and has always been her brand and vision, no matter who the creative team and producers are.
In short, I feel that this interview is long overdue, and I’m grateful to Polly for her time and her honesty. I hope you enjoy this look back at Polly’s journey and the ‘timeline’ of photographs…
How would you describe yourself to burlesque folk across the world who know your name but want to know more about you?
I’m the ‘controversial’ one! Lol! Only joking.
I am a UK based burlesque performer and singer. I am mainly known as the leading lady and founder of The Hurly Burly Show, a burlesque ‘inspired’ (more on this later) large scale production in the UK. The show began in a small cabaret venue in London seven years ago and now it has had three West End runs.
I am interested to know what your upbringing and early life was like…
I’m from the North West of England. A typical down to earth northern family who all think they are comedians and musicians! I had a pretty normal upbringing; my parents separated when I was young so I gained three more siblings in addition to my younger brother. I had a nice family-orientated home life. My Dad was a model maker on Sci-Fi films and programmes and my stepdad and stepbrothers are great musicians, so being creative runs right through the family!
Are your family supportive of your career – did they support it from the beginning? I know you enjoy a close relationship with your mum; is her support particularly important to you?
They are SO supportive and have been since the beginning. They are thrilled and proud of the success that I have had, particularly because of all the free booze at the after parties!
I am very close with my Mum. I think she is living her life vicariously through me; she would have loved to have done what I have. She brought me up watching Madonna from a pretty young age. I had seen In Bed with Madonna about fifty times by the time I was eleven, so it’s no wonder that I chose a performance career that is quite ‘adult’ and was no surprise to her when I told her my chosen path. She worries, though, as any mother would; showbiz and indeed life is a huge rollercoaster ride and she hates seeing me go through the downs, but she is always there for me no matter what.
You began by taking a class, as many newcomers do. What made you decide to take it further? Did you have any previous stage experience at that time?
I had a little experience. I had been in London for two years; I had moved there from Preston to ‘seek my fortune’ so to speak. Funnily enough it was Bollywood that got me on a stage! I shared an apartment with a guy who was an incredible Indian dancer; he introduced me to the world of Bollywood. I met someone who had a troupe, auditioned and got in! I couldn’t believe it. Who knew that several years later that learning to ‘give good face’ would come so in handy!
With a taste for performance I decided to pursue it more actively; I started taking singing lessons and through that met people who gave me singing opportunities at weddings and in pubs. I started auditioning for girl bands, live bands, dance troupes, all sorts of things, but nothing felt right. That is when I discovered burlesque. I saw a poster for a course by Jo King at the London Academy of Burlesque. Intrigued, I went to an open day and after that I was hooked. I had finally found my calling.
“From the moment I discovered burlesque I wanted the biggest burlesque cabaret show the UK had seen. I wanted to make an impact and I wanted to make it my life … It’s in my nature to strive for perfection and the best quality possible; I don’t know how to give less than 110%”
When did you start to take an interest in singing? Were you trained from an early age or did you take it more seriously later on?
I didn’t train at drama or musical theatre school, no. It was something I always dreamed of doing, though. I wanted to be Madonna the moment I saw her! The thing was, until I got to London, I had never had the balls to go for it. I hadn’t trained and I had no experience, so the attitude used to be ‘what on earth would make me think that I could be a successful entertainer?!’ But with some inspiration through new friends and experiences, lots of encouragement and a new PMA, I just thought if you don’t try you’ll never know. So I started training from then.
Can you recall how the world of burlesque appeared to you at that time, when you were still a newcomer? How do you think it compares to what today’s newcomers are greeted with, perhaps UK newcomers in particular?
It was so fresh and new back then; before the course I thought burlesque was The Pussycat Dolls. Jo had such enthusiasm for true burlesque that inspired me to make huge effort to discover its history. It was when I was discovering what it actually was that I decided to try to make a career of it. Back then there weren’t many avenues that I could pursue; unlike today there weren’t many nights or promoters that I could approach to get gigs, so that’s partly the reason why I decided to just create my own show. Burlesque is very established now; there is a bar for the standard of performance in the U.K and internationally, and there are a lot more people to take inspiration from, a million more books, videos, etc.
When did you decide to make ‘singing and flinging’ your speciality; do you think it enhances storytelling and your connection with the audience?
‘Singing and flinging’!? Ha ha! I love that expression. I decided from the start to sing as part of my performance. I knew that there weren’t many singers on the circuit at the time, so it was something that made me different.
Also, my goal from the start was to make a show, and singing allowed more variety in the show. I think talking and singing enhances your connection with an audience greatly; it breaks down the fourth wall and invites them in a little closer. Singing songs is a great way to get a narrative across, but in terms of storytelling through a burlesque piece I think a story can be told just as well without it.
“…anyone can do [burlesque] – old, young, large, slim, male, female – but in my opinion ONLY professionally if you have skills as an entertainer with the ability to engage and captivate an audience and have talent as a performer.”
Can it be difficult at times to maintain an equally high standard in both elements and achieve a balance between the two?
Yes, sometimes the strip or the ‘tease’ can be lost through the singing or vice versa; sometimes there is too much going on. I often keep them separate nowadays.
A lot of newcomers who attend burlesque classes seem to believe, or are encouraged to believe, that the next step is to try and turn professional. Do you think this is realistically something that everyone should be encouraged to attempt, or should more newcomers just focus on enjoying the experience and fun of classes?
Good question. I believe the same applies to burlesque as to any form of entertainment, should you want to pursue it professionally. It’s not for everybody and I think that has been a huge misconception. There is a huge difference between enjoying it as a hobby and people paying to see you perform. I think the ‘anyone can do it’ message has been somewhat lost in translation. Burlesque isn’t discriminative, no; anyone can do it – old, young, large, slim, male, female – but in my opinion ONLY professionally if you have skills as an entertainer with the ability to engage and captivate an audience and have talent as a performer.
“… many of my students have no aspiration to go pro yet; they come every week because they enjoy it, because it’s fun, because it makes them feel more confident and womanly, because they want to spice up their sex lives, etc. I love that.”
I don’t see any problem with encouraging and inspiring people to take it to another level; that’s what Jo did for me. But I think it’s important for people to understand that just because you have participated in a course or workshop doesn’t automatically mean that you will be able to go out into the industry. I don’t mean for this to be discouraging; what is wonderful is that there are a great many stages for new performers to get up there and shake their stuff and express themselves in whatever way they wish to do so, and I’m all for that, but it’s just that only a few will make it. Give it a bloody go though – why not? But note to promoters: know who you are booking. See their act before you present it, and if it’s not of a certain standard make sure our ticket buying customers are aware that this is amateur vs. professional. It’s amateur nights that bill themselves as professional nights that give burlesque a bad reputation.
There is another side of burlesque that many of my students enjoy. They have no aspiration to go pro yet; they come every week because they enjoy it, because it’s fun, because it makes them feel more confident and womanly, because they want to spice up their sex lives, etc. I love that.
When you created your first troupe, were you already focused on creating a polished, serious group that could book gigs, or was it still for fun and enjoyment at that point? Was there a point when a certain combination of members and collective talent was achieved and you thought it could really be something successful?
From the moment I discovered burlesque I wanted the biggest burlesque cabaret show the UK had seen. I wanted to make an impact and I wanted to make it my life; there was absolutely no doubt. I had spent so long messing around trying to find my ‘calling’, so once I had I knew I wanted to go for it. It’s in my nature to strive for perfection and the best quality possible; I don’t know how to give less than 110% so the standard was always there. We did our first showcase at Too 2 Much (formerly Raymond Revue Bar) and it was after the success of that that I knew I was onto something.
How did you first secure a venue in which to perform with your troupe? Did you have to do your time in other shows, or did things just fall into place through luck or charm and persuasion on your part?
It seemed to happen surprisingly easy actually; I wanted to put on this showcase to trial our initial material (along with friends who wanted to do the same with their own alternative acts) and I wanted it to be at Too 2 Much. I had seen Holly Penfield performing there a few months previously and was in awe of her and the venue – the place was PERFECT! It was a simple matter of calling up the venue; it turned out that it was available early evening before their club night and the deal was simple – we take the door and they take the bar. It was too good to be true! After the success of that, we became regulars. It seemed to magically just fall into place, but I do feel very lucky that I got in there at the right time.
“we had a wonderful journey together; we discovered and learned so much with each other and from each other … It was real blood sweat and tears, but we had a ball.”
We did a bit of time in other shows. Our very first performance was at Hip Hip, which was run by the Whoopee Club at The Bethnal Green Working Men’s club. It was an amateur night where you could get up and do your thing. We did ‘Fever’; I sang and the girls danced in formation with these feather fans and black handkerchiefs, in black cheapo basques from Debenhams! We didn’t even strip! We thought we were the bees knees though – so much fun! Hip Hip and The Whoopee Club were brilliant; it’s such a shame it’s no longer running.
You must have some special memories from your years performing with the most well-known Hurly Burly Girlys (Ooh La Lou, Bettsie Bon Bon, Felixy Splits, Liberty Sweet, Laurie Hagen, etc.) What did you especially love and enjoy about the girls and your work with them, as a group and as individuals?
Oh I miss those bitches (that is our pet name for each other and my other fellow close burlesquey pals). You know, we had a wonderful journey together; we discovered and learned so much with each other and from each other. We were good friends and that is what made it so special. We were working on a wing and a prayer, and although I was the ring leader all the girls mucked in and worked so hard; we created routines together and came up with costumes and concepts together. It was real blood sweat and tears, but we had a ball. It was only Liberty who was already involved in burlesque when I met her – the rest I met through auditions and zapped them with the burlesque bug; it was amazing to see them develop as burlesquers and as performers. The work we did was more ‘burlesque’ (in comparison to HB) I guess, a bit more raw and rough around the edge, which was really charming.
In 2010, everything changed for you after a meeting with William Baker. That must have been an exciting and surreal time…
It was indeed. Prior to meeting William I was in a rut; I knew that in order to take Hurly Burly further I was going to need help. I had run out of money and didn’t know what to do. I was initially looking for a stylist – someone who could enhance the show visually on a budget – and Walt, my then manager, mentioned that he knew William. I never thought in a million years that he would be interested in working with me! It took about six months of Walt bugging him to meet me. We sat in a coffee shop in Soho and I told him my vision for Hurly Burly. We got on like a house on fire; he was so taken with the idea that he said that if he was going to get involved he would not only want to style it but would want to direct, artistically direct and develop the show with me. Seriously, I couldn’t believe that someone of that calibre would want to work with me, or his team (Steve Anderson, Ashley Wallen, Terry Ronald, Nick Whitehouse) who all came on board. They got my vision immediately and I loved that, and the fact that they were so big time in the business was a bonus.
Was it difficult and emotional when a new cast was decided and all but one of the HBG would no longer be involved? Was this something that you wanted to avoid, or something you believed was a necessary change in order to produce a new production with different demands on the cast?
Of course, it was awful. It was like breaking up with a boyfriend; one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Hurly Burly was/is a business, but it is so personal too and dividing those two things is never easy. I love all my girls, so having to let some of them go was heart breaking. It goes without saying that it was a situation I wanted to avoid. At the same time, I was being given the opportunity to work with William, and to do so I knew I would have let go of some control, as the direction we were going to go in could well be the one and only chance I would have of taking Hurly Burly to the next level. As hard as it was, I understood that certain changes and compromises were going to have to be made.
The Girlys went on to form their own troupe, The Folly Mixtures. You must be happy to see them still performing together and making a success of it…
Oh, I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. I’m blown away by the success they have had and I really admire the attitude, drive and enormous amount of hard work they have put in to achieve it. They have stayed true to themselves and in a way still carry on the old Hurly Burly flavour (sans a front woman of course). It’s so much better though; their Tony the Tiger/Frosties act is GENIUS.
How did you cope with the pressure and demands of taking the lead in a West End show? Did you feel entirely comfortable and ‘ready’ for the role? Did it feel like a big step up?
It felt like a massive step, especially as I was about to be thrust into a new territory. I was so overwhelmed, swept up in it all and excited that I don’t remember having much time to think about it. I did find the pressure that I put on myself difficult; I knew I could do it and knew I was ready, but I’m not going to lie – there were times when I doubted that. We were doing something very different on a new platform too, so the anticipation and nerves surrounding the response we were going to get were pretty scary!
“I knew that we had made something that would provoke mixed opinion and discussion. To be honest, some of the criticism has been valid. I have agreed with a lot of the commentary and we have used it and will continue to use it to improve our show.”
Was it hard to read some of the criticism about the first two runs after all the investment and hard work, or were you prepared for mixed opinion in advance?
Of course it was hard, but in this business you have to learn to accept that you can’t please everyone. We got some great feedback too. I knew that we had made something that would provoke mixed opinion and discussion. To be honest, some of the criticism has been valid. I have agreed with a lot of the commentary and we have used it and will continue to use it to improve our show.
Has the reality of having your own West End show met your initial hopes and expectations, in positive and/or negative ways? Has it significantly restricted you in terms of other projects and performances? Was it difficult to hand over and share control after being in charge of every element of your shows and troupe members?
You know I adore the HB show; I’m so proud of what we have achieved. Going from a small cabaret bar in Soho to the glittering lights of the West End is no mean feat, I know. As I said earlier, my dream was to create the biggest burlesque/cabaret show the UK had seen, and I achieved it. That in itself is mind blowing for me; you dream away but you don’t really expect it to come true. I love so many aspects of the show – the creative, hanging with the girls, the feeling of performing to a large audience, to name a few – and in many ways it is how I thought it would be. Things are never exactly how you expect though; it has been much harder than I thought, physically and emotionally. I have had to make compromises and sacrifices, but I genuinely believe it has been worth it. It’s all a learning process and the experience is so valuable.
Do you feel, or have there been times in the past when you have felt isolated from or even ostracised by the burlesque scene/community in the UK? If so, why do you think that is – is it the consequences of being seen to represent burlesque in the mainstream through a show that some may not view as ‘proper burlesque’, or simply of doing something contemporary and different? Perhaps simple envy of your mainstream success? Have you found it hard to stay in touch with fellow performers and maintain visibility while working on all these demanding productions?
Yes, I am aware of the criticism that has been directed towards the West End version of the show. I am aware that some people have an issue with the fact that the show is not burlesque in its truest form. However, I am the first to admit that it isn’t. I think one of the mistakes we made in the beginning was to refer to it as solely a burlesque show, which would have been quite misleading, especially to those that had never seen anything of that nature before. Now we say it’s a ‘burlesque inspired’ show, which I think is far better and I think has taken the edge off the negative feelings towards us. People will still argue with that, but you can’t please everybody.
Our show does tick the boxes of burlesque, so to speak; there is striptease, there is parody, many of the acts have a narrative, etc. Maybe it’s the issue that we use modern music, a lot of modern lingerie and don’t stick to the vintage formula. The ironic thing is, the burlesque we are all inspired by was a parody and/or representation of its time, so you could argue that The Hurly Burly Show is in fact more true to burlesque than you would think. We do still pay homage to the past, though, and it’s so important to me that we continue to do so. Maybe people are simply envious. I don’t know.
I have found it hard to stay on the ‘circuit’ because of my commitment to the show; it keeps me so busy. There was a point when I was contractually unable to perform elsewhere, which wasn’t nice. That’s long gone now, though, and whenever I can I perform on the circuit at La Reve, Volupte, Wam Bam, etc. I’m still very close with loads of members of the scene.
Are you keen to increase your activity and visibility abroad, particularly in the US scene perhaps?
I would love to, I truly would. I do a lot of solo work in Italy and around Europe, and I have a stint in Shanghai early next year on the cards too. Having a visibility in America would be awesome, though. I need to get my ass into gear and work on some new solo acts! I adore going to the Burlesque Hall of Fame; that is where it’s at, and I would love to compete one day.
Do you acknowledge the fact that a lot of people believe that burlesque should remain an ‘underground’ art form that rebels against and mocks the mainstream? Obviously your work attracts mainstream attention, but what is your view on this – do you find the issue complicated? Do you believe that burlesque needs mainstream attention, acceptance and relevance to survive and prosper in the long term?
Yes I do acknowledge that fact. I understand that it is frowned upon in many ways because some of it is diluting or causing misconceptions of what burlesque actually ‘is’. It is a complicated issue, but looking at it in a positive way, I do think it is good because it is keeping us all in work and more and more people are enjoying and celebrating this wonderful art form who would never have been exposed to it. If people are really interested they will take the time to find out more about it and discover its history, as I did.
In terms of prosperity, I believe there will always be an underground scene. It may not survive in the mainstream in its truest form because the mainstream is fickle, so it needs to keep evolving and changing to keep people interested.
“I ADORE cabaret … I feel most at home in this environment … I love being on a big stage with a big production, but you can’t beat sitting on some random guy’s knee and stealing his drink, not being quite sure how he is going to react!”
Would you encourage those who want to take burlesque somewhere new and different but feel nervous about ‘breaking the rules’ as it were? What advice would you like to offer?
I think there is room in this world for everyone and everything. I don’t think there are any rules per se; there are guidelines of course, but art is all about interpretation. And jeez, there are so many interpretations of burlesque. Burlesque is often described as a type of show, striptease, parody, satire, even a style or theme of dress or type of music.
As I said, the mistake we made was to publicise the HB show as a ‘burlesque’ show. I think that is what caused the criticism. I think if you want to push boundaries, go right ahead, just don’t say something is something if it’s not. With that said, though, the legacy still needs to be protected and respected.
I would love to talk about your new production that ran for a week at the newly refurbished Hippodrome Casino – Between the Sheets. You must be thrilled with how it came together; I know it had to come together literally within days. When did you originally discuss or plan this concept – was it with this venue in mind?
YES! That was amazing! We did pull it together in what seemed like five minutes, but I was very fortunate to have such an incredible team to make it all happen.
I had actually been doing a smaller scale version of Between The Sheets at Volupte for a few months prior, so when the Casino approached me to produce a show for them it seemed like the perfect project to expand upon.
I wanted to create a show that was more intimate, with myself as the host, and two of my favourite burlesque performers (Laurie Hagen and Kitty Bang Bang, who are two of my closest friends), with the focus more on my singing and neo-burlesque performances. The idea of ‘Between The Sheets’ was a brilliant concept to draw upon. You can make anything about sex!
Was it always scheduled to clash with the Hurly Burly Show run at the Duchess or was that just unfortunate? Did you have any regrets about dividing your time or were you eager to give this new venture a chance?
I had BTS booked before the Duchess opportunity came along; it was really awkward timing but there was no way I was going to miss out on either. I was delighted that I made both work. No regrets – it was the most crazy time of my life but SO worth it.
Your passion for this show and your happiness on stage at the Hippodrome just shone out of you; it was a joy to watch incredibly special and amazingly talented friends having the time of their lives together on stage. What did this show mean to you, can you describe the experience?
Thank you so much for the compliment; you are right, we had a ball. And that is because Laurie, Kitty and I are so close; our relationship on stage is real, the laughs we have are genuine and I think that’s what makes it so special and people really warm to that.
This show was my chance to go back to my roots and do it 100% my way. I ADORE cabaret – the intimacy of it, the ‘stripped back’ feel (no pun intended!), the things that go wrong, that old school vibe. I feel most at home in this environment. Don’t get me wrong – I love being on a big stage with a big production too, but you can’t beat sitting on some random guy’s knee and stealing his drink, not being quite sure how he is going to react!
I also loved the opportunity to try new things. I always wanted ‘boys’ in my show and was so pleased that I found such talented, strapping young men (Phil Antony, the incredible Chinese pole artist Edd Muir, and Alain Terzoli) to fit the bill. It was wonderful to integrate them into the show, not just as solo guests but as characters throughout the show. Keep your eyes peeled on the circuit for Phil Antony – he is a boylesque star in the making. He has been performing most recently in Boylexe.
What’s next for Between the Sheets? I really hope to see it return soon – what is the current situation? What plans do you have for its development?
Yes, I absolutely want to develop this further and really make something of it as I did with Hurly Burly. It is sitting on the backburner somewhat at the moment as I am busy with Hurly Burly, but 2013 will be the year to get back ‘Between The Sheets’. I hope we can get some sort of residency and perhaps tour it. Casino lounges seem to be the perfect environment for it, so I will be looking into that.
You have reached your thrilling thirties! Have your ambitions and priorities changed with age?
Yes they have actually. My maternal side is kicking in now; I’m looking for Mr Right and all that comes with it – God knows when I’ll have time for that though! My career is still so important to me; I’m hoping to find the perfect suitor to have both.
Do you feel that maturity adds to your performance and/or has significantly changed your relationship with your body and your own sexuality? Are there things you can achieve and appreciate now that you didn’t and couldn’t at a younger age?
I’m an awful lot more confident in my own skin now, physically and psychologically. I do think that adds to my performance. I have a better understanding, a better knowledge. I’ve learned SO much over the past seven years; if I was starting out now, things would be very different. I’m a woman now and I really feel that way on stage. I’m very happy to be thirty-one – I’ve never felt better, sexier or more secure in myself.
“I’m very happy to be thirty-one – I’ve never felt better, sexier or more secure in myself.”
What is your favourite stage of the build-up to a show – when does the adrenaline really kick in for you?
It takes me about 1.5 hours to get ready, but I’m always in 2-3 hours before the show. I like to take my time but always make sure I’m ready with at least thirty minutes to go before show time. In this time I drink a glass of bubbly wine and listen to the cheesiest happy songs I can find on my iPod. I dance and sing around my dressing room like a loon and everyone who is around joins in – especially when the Spice Girls come on. I love to listen to music that I listened to when I was growing up, before all this when it was still just a dream.
I use this time to really try to ignore my nerves – I get terrible stage fright! I feel physically sick about five minutes before I go on – that’s when the adrenaline really starts to kick in. Once I’m out there, I’m fine!
How has burlesque in the UK changed and developed, in your eyes, over the years? What are your hopes for its future?
In the UK when I first started seven years ago, there were very few burlesque nights. Whoopee was established as was The Flash Monkey, Immodesty Blaize had done her show at the Arts Theatre, Volupte had literally just opened and Wam Bam had just started, but that was about it. Now you can see a burlesque or cabaret show nearly every night of the week!
It has changed in so many ways. Unlike when I started, there are very few shows nowadays that are dedicated solely to burlesque performance. Burlesque is very often mixed with cabaret, variety and circus now. I see fewer and fewer ‘classic’ burlesque performances; it has become a lot more innovative too. When I first started, it was perfectly acceptable, new and exciting to come on wearing a nice costume and strip off; now the bar has been raised and there is an awful lot more competition, so the challenge is to make sure your act has an edge.
And there is, of course, the mainstream cross over which I talked about earlier. But I do think the mainstream is influencing the art form in wonderful ways too; the innovation is coming from combining burlesque with modern day or alternative art, fashion, music and ideas, etc., and I think that is really exciting.
I really hope that it’s still prospering in all its forms in five, ten, fifty years from now. I want to be on that panel at BHoF entertaining the new generation with all of our stories. I think it will be in one form, or another. Good entertainment is good entertainment, so if it stays good then it won’t disappear anytime soon.
What are your own future plans and ambitions?
I really hope that Hurly Burly continues to expand and grow. We have just come back from a season in South Africa which went really well; we will hopefully return next Summer. There is Between The Sheets, which I have high hopes for. I plan to work on some new solo material too. I just want to keep working, establishing brands, being creative and doing what I love. I’d love to get into creative direction more too. I adore performing but I also love to come up with ideas and see them manifest; it would be nice to create a show that I’m not in, working with and developing artists. And then there is the fashion label, the recording contract, the Hollywood movie and, of cours, the fragrance… Ha ha!
Finally, as I often ask people, what are the three greatest life lessons you have learned thus far?
Go with your gut, be yourself and don’t worry about what people think.
Interesting and inspiring.
Wonderful in-depth interview – thank you Polly and Holli-Mae.