I am pleased to present a long and interesting conversation with Roxi DLite; a lady that seemed to appear from nowhere a few years ago and joined the ranks of burlesque royalty with astonishing speed. In what seemed like no time at all she was on stage at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in 2009 competing for the title, which for many people who didn’t know anything about her might as well have been a debut performance. Everything impressed me – the costume, the concept, her confidence, the additional skill she displayed when her diamond hoop descended. The judges were clearly impressed too, as she was declared 1st Runner Up. And then the very next year, she went one better and took the title, joining the ranks of some of the finest performers burlesque has ever known! Just incredible.
I have so enjoyed the times I have spent chatting to and hanging out with Roxi. She’s grounded, she plans ahead, she works hard, and she can certainly play hard!
I believe that when it comes to burlesque, or indeed any type of performance, some people begin their careers with an extra advantage – an innate instinct for their craft, a natural way of moving and communicating, with an unquestionable authority that makes it all seem so effortless and engaging. I am always at ease when Roxi is announced – scrutinising a performance from the moment it begins has become rather automatic and necessary for me, but when Roxi is onstage I can just sit back and enjoy it…
(And for the first time, I can include self-portraits of the performer being interviewed – truly a woman of many talents!)
So Roxi, shall we start by talking about your upbringing and family?
As a small child I grew up in a small town called Ahamsburg, with my mother and father. I was always a pretty independent child, I remember sneaking away, riding my Cabbage Patch Kids three wheeler around the neighbourhood and sneaking into neighbours yards picking their flowers for my mom and eating rhubarb out their gardens while they chased me away. I was a tomboy believe it or not. I use to take mud, wrap it up in a leaf and go from door to door and try to sell them saying they were freshly made cabbage rolls, what an entrepreneur I was.
My parents split when I was about five, and I moved with my mother to Windsor Ontario, where I still live. My father passed away a few years after their split. It was a lot to handle as a child, and my mom had to raise me alone. She and my Aunt Joanne moved in together, both being single mothers together. They raised me and my cousin Kristy, who is nine months younger than me, together – they used to dress us the same like sisters. It was nice having a sister, since we were both only children. My mom use to work for CN Rail and she would sometimes bring me into work with her if she couldn’t find a babysitter. I use to love going to her work. We use to count the numbers on the trains and I would make paperclip necklaces.
During the summer my grandpa and grandma would bring me and my cousin in their motorhome and we would tour the states going to Bluegrass festivals. My grandpa plays the guitar and the banjo, and he’s really great at both. I always wanted to learn how to play the guitar but my grandpa said I had to cut my nails and so I never followed through with it. My mother was always really smart with money and she worked really hard to raise me. She purchased a duplex and renovated it into a triplex and my Uncle moved into the basement apartment and he would babysit me when my mom was working midnights. I’ve learned a lot from my mother, she really instilled independence in me.
Later in life when I was a teenager I was a bit unruly and wild and I wanted to experience life and was in such a rush to grow up. I use to sneak away to raves but my mom would always catch me and I’d get grounded. I, like most teenagers, thought I knew more than I did, so I moved out at sixteen, but stayed in school and even went on to college, and then graduated. I started dancing to pay my way through college after a bad breakup left me without a place to live. I moved back in with my mother and started dancing to pay my way through college. I told my mother I was working at Jason’s (a classy strip club in Windsor) as a shooter girl. I don’t know if she believed me or not.
Eventually my family found out I was dancing and they were so upset, my aunts came into Leopards, the club I was working at and I remember being on stage dancing to Big Spender (yes I know cheese) and I looked over and saw my aunt in pervert row with a scowl on her face. I quickly ran off stage and hid, but I got an earful in the bathroom while all the other strippers watched in horror, as this is every dancers worst fear. My mom was away on vacation and so when she came back I had to have the dreaded conversation with her before she heard it from the family. My mother was actually really understanding, and she stuck up for me. She didn’t really embrace it but she understood why I was doing it. I did what I needed to do to survive, just like she did when she was raising me. My family eventually got over it, and now they support me. My aunts came to Exotic World the year I won, which was really great that they finally got to see me achieve something through stripping, which I love so much as a career. I’m really grateful to have such an amazing mother and a loving family. I think she did a good job.
What were your early ambitions and aspirations? When did you first become interested in graphic design, which I believe you studied at college?
I’ve always been a big dreamer but it’s usually as things come and what I’m interested in at the moment, but my interests have always been in the arts. I first became interested in graphic design in grade 11 when I had no idea what I was going to do for college and thought that art didn’t pay the bills. I went to see the guidance counsellor and she directed me to graphic design. I was always really artistic, I use to spend my lunch breaks in high school with my art teacher, Mr. St. Pierre in his class painting pictures for my apartment and making sculptures. I didn’t think I could do anything with my art until I found out about graphic design. I loved the program.
“I’ve learned a lot from my mother, she really instilled independence in me.”
Before graphic design I always wanted to be on stage but never thought there was a spot for me. I would try out for school plays and never get the parts, so I just thought of myself to be more of an artist not an actress. I started dancing to pay for school, and aside from the cash, the stage really drew me toward dancing. I paid off my college and continued stripping even after I graduated – actually I had my diploma mailed to my mothers house because I missed my college graduation because I was dancing in Newfoundland. I realized I made more as a dancer; I have more fun and graphic design will always be there as I can do things on the side which I did for a little while. Now I still utilize my graphic design skills for my own promotional material and in my photography, but I’m confident I made the right career choice. I couldn’t imagine sitting under fluorescent lights after being in the spotlight, and one day when I’m old I’m going to have lots of stories to tell.
When and why did you start working in strip clubs? Was it purely a financially motivated decision?
Yes, it was a finically motivated decision, as I think is the case with most girls getting into exotic dancing. As I mentioned earlier it was to pay for school. When my father passed away I received a small inheritance which I paid for school with and put the remainder on a down payment for a home with my ex-boyfriend at the time, I was eighteen. We had agreed that he would cover my last year of college but when we broke up that all went down the drain. I moved in with my mother and then started dancing to save money for school and to get out of moms house. I left home again at nineteen and got my first apartment in a somewhat rough area of Windsor. When dancing proved to be profitable I moved into a nice loft downtown, that’s when I started moving more into featuring and burlesque. Then I met D’Arcy and he really pushed me and supported me in my decision to perform burlesque. He really is my rock and makes up half of ‘Roxi D’Lite’. I don’t think it would be as much fun without him involved.
You still work in strip clubs. What do you particularly enjoy about it, and what are the essential differences for you personally when you perform in clubs and perform striptease in burlesque shows?
Yes, I do still on the odd occasional work in strip clubs. It’s good to keep my hand in – as Big Fannie Annie says, ‘even if you have a bad day it keeps you in the habit of making money’. If bookings are slow I’ll book a club or two. It’s a lot of fun. To me being on stage in a strip club is really beneficial to being on the burlesque stage. It’s really helped me with my connection to the audience and I get to try out new things on an audience. I still perform burlesque in gentlemens clubs when I feature and sometimes when I’m at smaller clubs just as a regular dancer. There is always some element of burlesque in everything I do.
I only work two small clubs when not featuring. Leopards on rare occasion – it was the first club I started at in my home town, and most of the time I’m catching up with staff and I just go in for a laugh or to get on stage and make a few bucks on the side. The other is a small club in the middle of nowhere called Danny’s in Hanover Ontario. It’s run by a family, that owner is the father Mike, brother Danny and his sister Millie. Mille makes it all happen, she’s such a strong independent lady, she DJ’s bartends, manages, keeps the books and does everything in-between. These people really have become family to me.
In the summer it’s really fun because you work with four other girls that rotate from week to week; we usually always get along and we all have the same break times so we go in the back yard, BBQ and suntan together and catch up. The accommodations are great and it’s always a fun safe environment to work in, and one of the only places that are left in Ontario that is a no-contact club, meaning the customers can’t touch you in a private dance. I only work in non-contact bars. It’s really sad to see what is happening in the industry. More clubs are looking the other way and allowing the girls to do more in the VIP room, which is ruining stripclubs in my opinion. I think the strip club experience should all about a fantasy, it’s fun to tease and be teased. The element of tease has all gone for the most part. Customers want to see how much they can get for how little and the sad part is in most cases it’s a lot.
In terms of stage shows there is a lot that is different between the two but the end result is the same, stripping for entertainment. However, I find some of the modern day dancers hate going on stage and just walk and remove their clothes wihtout teasing and sometimes intweeen their songs they will remove a piece of clothing then dance around for a bit. The art of tease seems to have disappeared. I really try to bring those fundamental elements if striptease into both my burlesque and gentleman club stage shows and especially during a private dance. Burlesque and strippng for me are very closely connected, there are obvious differences between the two, most of which are glitter and money. You can’t wear glitter in the strip club unless you want your best customer going home to his wife covered in glitter. He will never return. Trust me.
As you have said, your family were not initially supportive of your career as an exotic dancer. How did you deal with this, and what persuaded them to see things differently?
My aunts were not supportive in the beginning and my mom had her doubts, but I gained their approval by being responsible and showing them it’s actually a great way to earn money and it can further other careers, as most dancers are there to pay for school or are single mothers. I think when I started getting into the entertainment aspect of it and started burlesque they really started to see things differently. Having them come to Exotic World really was an eye opener. They got to hear stories from the legends and my mom even met Big Fannie Annie. They really started to see it for the artform that it is. Now they come to my shows and really enjoy burlesque and support my decision to strip. I’m very fortunate. I wouldn’t have been able to hide this from them forever, nor would I want to. I don’t like keeping things from family.
So it’s important to you that your family support you, and ultimately understand why you love what you do…
Yes it is so important to have their support. Your family is all you have at the end of the day. I have a really great family and it was hard knowing I was disappointing them at first but they really tried to be supportive and understanding and I’m just happy that I changed their mind about the world of exotic dancing and burlesque.
“I think if I knew what I know now, I would have saved a lot of money and time, but burlesque is one of those things that takes a while to learn … it takes practice to know how to get there and how to break down an idea and make it reality.”
I have heard you describe your discovery of burlesque – that you were unaware that you were performing burlesque until someone thanked you for doing so, and quickly became devoted to the artform… But how did you discover or first hear about The Burlesque Hall of Fame, and what made you want to be a part of it?
I first heard about the Burlesque Hall of Fame through my research of burlesque. Like you said, I found out about the art form after I got off stage, at a swingers club above a local strip club that I was featuring at. A woman approached me and said, ‘thank you for bringing back burlesque’. I was like, ‘burlesque? I’ve got to go home and Google this funny word right away!’ It totally stuck in my head. I felt like I’d heard that word before and never realized.
While I was researching I was a total sponge; all of this stuff I was seeing felt right, like I needed to be doing that. Learning the history behind being a stripper was gratifying; no one could understand why I loved being a stripper so much. It wasn’t just the money, it was being on stage, engaging an audience when very few dancers do that any more. I finally had a stage I could perform on. When I first learned about what Dixie Evans was doing with Exotic World, I couldn’t believe there was a museum and a pageant dedicated to strippers and burlesque history. I remember being in Newfoundland on a booking and after work some of the girls were watching a TV show and it was talking about stripping and they had a clip of Dixie in the museum. All the girls were glued to the TV and I think we were all a bit shocked to see some history behind what we were doing. I never realized years later that that was Dixie Evans until I found out about Exotic World.
My friend who was also featuring at the time, Fiona Pheonix went to Exotic World as a spectator one year and came back with pictures and stories and told me I need to compete or at least attend. I put it off thinking she was crazy and I was a bit shy about it. I finally made the leap the year after and applied. When I got there I realized I had no reason to be shy, everyone was so sweet and supportive and some even knew who I was from myspace and that blew my mind a bit. When I learned about EW and the pageant I fantasied about going and performing but never thought I was good enough to compete and use to think, ‘I’m just a stripper from Windsor!’. I was nervous to go my first time, because I felt like strippers were on the outskirts of burlesque, or that the burlesque community didn’t embrace them, and I was afraid and shy to go to Exotic World. I never was ashamed of being an exotic dancer but for some reason when I was in the burlesque scene, I would hide the fact that I was a stripper, but after the first couple of years, because of Catherine, Dita, Jo Boobs and so many other performers who are vocal about being ex-strippers, I felt confident that it’s not something to be ashamed of and perhaps the burlesque community would take me in as part of the community.
No matter what, BHoF really is the heart of it all. It’s an amazing place where you can learn about the history right from the source, direct from the legends who lived it. It’s incredible. Looking back, I never thought that one year, I’d be a burlesque queen mentioned in the same category as Catherine D’Lish and Dirty Martini. What a dream!
What were your first or early impressions of burlesque? Were there things you identified early on that you felt could be done differently, or to a higher standard?
My first impressions of burlesque was that it was like the movie Chicago or Cabaret and it was an exaggeration of what I knew as stripping. I use to dance to some pretty cheese music in the beginning and thought I was so smart because I was dancing to Big Spender or Bumps n’ Grinds. I thought I had found music that no one else knew about, well at least in the gentlemens clubs, then I started going to festivals and realized those are a few burlesque anthems and really not that obscure and started doing more and more research.
I think my music choice and breakdown of my shows were of lower standard back then. I would treat it all most like being on stage at the strip club – I would find a song I liked, wear my costume and just dance to it. It’s a mistake commonly made with burlesque newbies. I was a newbie too once and I made poor choices just like we all do when we first start out, especially if you don’t have anyone to learn from. I spent a lot of money on crap I didn’t need or would only use once, trying to get my show together. I didn’t know any costume designers and didn’t understand the importance of a really good costume designer, not just a seamstress. I would admittly buy store bought costumes and mix and match pieces.
I didn’t have many options living in Windsor Ontario either. I did a lot of online shopping and what a waste of money most of it was. The more I worked at it I thought I had to tell a story with my performance and I should involve a bit more choreography into my acts. Something that is really foreign to an exotic dancer working in gentlemans clubs. ‘The Runaway Bride’ was really my first real complete burlesque show, I planned everything out and thought up some choreography for my first time, it’s grown a lot since then. I worked really hard at that number, and I’m currently working on revising and re-vamping it again, it has become my signature show.
I think if I knew what I know now, I would have saved a lot of money and time, but burlesque is one of those things that takes a while to learn, I’m still learning. Every performer has their process of creating a show, it’s a different process for us all but it takes practice to know how to get there and how to break down an idea and make it reality.
What did you particularly like about the community of performers you encountered?
Most of all I really love the support. Everyone for the most part is really supportive of each other. It’s much different in the strip clubs, the girls are all competing against each other. Don’t get me wrong, some are great friends, but for the most part it’s not the loving supportive community burlesque is. So that was a huge shock and what drew me to want to attend and be a part of more festivals. I feel fortunate to have made so many great friends through burlesque. D’Arcy and I have met so many amazing talented interesting men and women, all deserving of a spotlight.
What do you recall from that first experience of competing in 2009? What did you take away from it, other than First Runner-Up?
My first experience at BHoF was actually back in 2008, the year before I placed in 2009. I remember being intimated and nervous to attend, but when I got there everyone was so nice and it was really great to meet some of the performers I’d heard about online. I couldn’t believe there was such a large supportive community. In 2008 I applied with my ‘Runaway Bride’ routine which I created so I could enter the pageant. I didn’t get in because there were no aerials, and the application video was terrible and I think the act was as well. It was my first attempt at an application video and my costume was late in arriving, so I used bits and pieces of a red and black costume. I didn’t have my removable tulle mermaid skirt so I used a pencil skirt and attached a petticoat at the bottom of it for removal in the video. It was horrendous. They did surprisingly let me perform sunday at the pool party. I ended up getting everything together costume wise and switched the song and made a better routine.
Originally ‘The Runaway Bride’ was performed to Love for Sale by Julie London. I later discovered Night Train and Diamonds are Forever. I performed the first part of the act without aerials poolside and I remember Luke [Littel] saying I should apply again next year and that he thought I had a good shot of getting in. Before going on stage I remember I wasn’t nervous, even though it was the most important show I had ever performed, for the least amount of money to boot. I was nervous leading up to it, especially after watching amazing performances all weekend long, but it really inspired me to give it my all and I learned a lot over that weekend and made some great friends who I was happy to see the following year. I really haven’t been attending Exotic World for that long but I feel fortunate to be part of the family.
Were you keen to return and compete for the title – go one better, as it were? Did you feel it was possible?
The first year I competed for the title I was shocked that I got accepted into that category, and I feel others were a bit shocked as well. I mean I did kind of come out of nowhere. When I placed 1st Runner Up, I was totally shocked and really happy, I wasn’t at all expecting to place and was completely content with not taking the crown that year. I actually looked forward to competing again because it really pushed me to give my best. I was excited to create a new show for the following year’s pageant. I had the idea of the cigar for sometime and I knew that was the one I was going to work on and bring with me to Vegas. I have to admit, I didn’t know if it was possible for me to win because I placed the year before, and I even had some others tell me they didn’t think it would happen for me which was discouraging to say the least but I wasn’t in it just to win it so I kept a pleasant attitude and just had fun being a part of the pageant.
After the pageant when they announced the winners I tried to not pay too much attention, my nerves were a bit jumpy and I was all fidgety and both Nasty Canasta and Kristina Nekkia who placed 2nd and 3rd both had very neo, contemporary styles of burlesque and that seemed to be what the judges were into that year – my show was more classic and a bit racy so I wasn’t expecting to hear my name. I thought if they were to go for a classic routine then for sure it was Ophelia Flame’s year, so I started to pour a glass of vodka at our table when I heard my name, I ran up white knuckling that bottle of Greygoose happy as a clam. If I hadn’t have won I would have been okay with it. The pageant is just a lot of fun to do and I would have just applied again till I got it.
How did it feel to be written into burlesque history with all the other incredible queens of burlesque?
It really has been a great experience. I mean, I’m a stripper from Windsor, I never thought my career in exotic dance would have come this far, and I for sure never thought I’d make such a name for myself and go into the history books as the first Canadian Miss Exotic World. My mom and family are very proud of me. Being written into burlesque history is the biggest honour. I spent my year touring all over North America, but some of the highlights included my first acting role starring in a movie called Burlesque Assassins, I travelled to Italy to appear on a primetime TV show, and all the while I’ve been coming up with new shows and re-vamping old ones. I guess the crown solidified what I was doing and I’ve just been putting everything I have into my craft. I’m really enjoying it.
What tends to be the main concern or focus for you as you put a new act together – is it predominently the aesthetic, or structure/choreography etc?
I’ve become a bit of a detail freak so attention to detail for every aspect of an act is all so important to me. The new act I’m working on is balanced between costume, mood, music and props. The choreography always comes last for me. I have key points in my music where I know I want certain things to happen but it’s all filler in-between for me. I just dance. I often do things differently for the most part from show to show, it’s not so mechanical for me with the choreography, I don’t count steps, I just really know and love the music I dance to.
This new show is really moody and dark and like the cigar a bit risque with just the right amount of raunch. I’ve been wanted to incorporate my talents as an exotic dancer with burlesque and so this show is special to me. I always find it important to figure out what the mood you’re trying to deliver to the audience and that is what should fuel and inspire every decision in the creative process of developing the act. I want the music to match the mood and loosely match the era of the music those two aspects are of most importance. Everything else comes after for me. I’m never really finished with an act until I’ve done it hundreds of times, as I’m always making changes.
Do you have any kind of internal narrative and/or assumed identity when you perform each act, even if it isn’t obvious externally?
I like to imagine myself as an untouchable vixen that drinks, smokes and strips and looks like you can bring her home to mom but you probably shouldn’t because she’s really a bad girl who is going to bleed your pockets dry, at least that seems to be the persona ‘Roxi’ has developed over the years. It just sort of happened, and it is kind of true. I just always make sure to be engaging and look people in the eyes if I can. I want to make the man at the back of the room hanging on my every move and I want the audience to have as much fun watching as I am having performing.
What is your creative process in terms of costume? E.g. Do you design them and then have them made, or do you work with others? Is it a process you enjoy?
I really like to have control over every aspect of my show, so yes I do like to have a heavy hand in the design process. I sketch out my costumes and bring them to my costume designer Christina Manuge who brings them to life and adds her own special touches.
It’s really great working with her, she’s as much as a nit picker as I am. She’s a perfectionist and there is never a rhinestone out of place. The more we work together the better we’ve become at knowing each others style preferences. I think we make a pretty good team. With this new one she’s really out done herself by adding yards and yards of beautiful black french lace appliques. Part of my costume is a fur muff and she even added a pocket on the inside to keep lipstick and money. It’s her attention to detail and little surprises that make her stand out amongst other designers. I feel fortunate to have her on my team.
Your routines often end with a sensual aerial hoop display. When and why did you decide to learn and incorporate this skill into your routines, and what was it like to be instructed by a Cirque du Soleil perfomer – intense I would imagine?
I decided that I wanted a gimmick to set me apart from the other burlesque performers and dancers in the gentlemen’s clubs so I decided to add the aerial hoop after seeing an aerial hoop performance at a nightclub in Toronto. After a lot of searching I found Tricia Wysynski, a former Cirque performer who was starting a circus school. I was her only student so it was great because I had a lot of one on one time with her. I think I picked it up pretty quickly and I think that’s because of my early involvement in gymnastics, and of course pole dancing really helped build a lot of upper body strength. Training was hard sometimes. My hands would be so sore and calloused from training and I remember my hands giving out before my body somedays. The hardest part of training was rope climbing. Tricia would make me climb a rope without knots about three stories up, getting down is the hard part. You’re legs and arms are so sore from getting to the top and you can’t slide down, it takes a lot of control. I’d like to get back into training again soon and perhaps brush up and learn some new tricks.
You were also a gymnast as a child. Do you think that exotic dance/striptease is ultimately a physical discipline, and that all perfomers should work to improve their agility, movement and overall stamina?
In most cases yes, I think it’s important to improve agility, movement and stamina but more so it’s important to learn new things to add to your performances and to brush up on old skills to keep them fresh, especially if you’re not doing them frequently.
Do you plan to teach or instruct in the future?
Do you have any strong opinions about teaching and the increasing number of workshops and courses on offer?
I’m not too sure if I will teach. it’s an idea I’ve been flirting with but it will be a challenge for me because I’ve never taken a workshop or class – everything I do I’ve taught myself, breaking it all down is going to be really challenging, but I like challenges. There are some things about this new boom of teaching burlesque and workshops that has raised my eyebrow a bit I have to admit. I find a lot of new performers are starting to teach, some of them are still learning themselves. I also don’t enjoy seeing all of the same moves and fan shows all over the circuit. It makes for a very repetitive night. I think I would be the type of teacher to let my students find what works for them and teach the basics and help them develop their own style. I think that’s important, and I also think a burlesque history class should be a prerequisite to any burlesque class.
You recently produced your first show, Boom Boom Burlesque. Was it an enjoyable experience? Did it meet your expectations, and do you intend to produce more shows?
I had such a great time producing Boom Boom Burlesque. It was a happy little accident actually. Miss Astrid contacted D’Arcy and I with an interest in touring to Detroit and wanted our help in producing the show. We thought, why not make it a two night event and have them come over to Windsor as well since it’s right across the river? We had a feeling we could sell more tickets in Windsor than in Detroit because of all of our friends, family and fan base in Windsor that rarely gets to see me perform live. Unfortunatly the Detroit date didn’t work out, the economy is really bad and the venue situation is lacking these days in the D, but Astrid was still on board for our show in Windsor and it all went off without a hitch.
I was out there promoting on the streets every weekend, it’s really hard promoting burlesque to a city that is so unfamiliar with it, so it really took some time to promote. For our first bigger scale event in a larger venue for an audience mostly new to burlesque I think the turnout was great. The audience was really attentive and loud which made me happy to hear they were enjoying the show. I anticipate the next show to be larger.
For the first Boom Boom Burlesque, I pretty much had my wish list of performers and it’s going to be really hard to beat that lineup, Julie Atlas Muz, The Stage Door Johnnies, Peekaboo Pointe, Mat Fraser, Miss Astrid! I mean come on, that’s a pretty well rounded good time for a lineup, I really had no worries with anyone and couldn’t wait to share their talent with Windsor. Everyone loved the show, my family and all my friends showed up, and we heard that there were some “important people in the city” that attended and we heard they had a great time.
It was really stressful the day of the show. Everyone arrived Saturday day, I was hosting everyone at our house. I spent the day with a documentary crew following me around while I made two quiches for brunch in the morning, prepared music and other details for the show, got my personal stuff together, entertained everyone and eventually with the little time I had left get ready to go on stage. It was down to the wire, that was the busiest day of my life. This next show we are getting a stage manager because doing all of that is too much to deal with for one person. I was rushing right up until I got on stage, and I have to admit I completely forgot my routine during my ‘Junglesque’ act. What threw me off the most was my friends shouting funny comments and just knowing my family and friends were watching me, some for the first time even.
After the show everyone was asking us when the next show is, so we’re working on our second Novemeber 12th, right around the release of issue #36 of The Goon starring myself as a villain, so we’re working on promoting that and were involving our friends at Theatre Bizarre and making it a carnival cooch tent theme and bringing some props and characters over from Theatre Bizarre, Trixie Little and Evil Hate Monkey are joining in on the fun as well as Tanya Cheex and hosted by Chris Mysterion from Toronto. It going to be completely different than the last show, especially since Theatre Bizarre has a heavy influence on this theme. I can’t wait to get everyone together. I love entertaining on stage and at home. I like to make sure all of our out of town guests are well fed and comfortable and everyone gets a photo shoot at the end of it.
“Looking back, I never thought that one year, I’d be a burlesque queen mentioned in the same category as Catherine D’Lish and Dirty Martini. What a dream!”
You have performed in some spectacular shows by Theatre Bizarre. When did you first discover the company, and what made you especially passionate to be involved?
Theatre Bizarre discovered me thanks to Casey Miller. I met Casey through my friend Juliana who is a belly dancer. Casey was looking for performers for his mexican wrestling show titled Squared Circle Revue, he has also worked with Revolucha held at Theatre Bizarre and started working with Theatre Bizarre a while stage managing and dealing with talent for Theatre Bizarre’s Masqurade Halloween party, which is held every year the weekend before halloween. Casey also worked with myself and Theatre Bizarre to produce Wonderland, a re-telling of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland through music and burlesque. After I performed in Squared Circle Revue I gained some loyal fans in Detroit and was adopted by the twisted family of freaks at Theatre Bizarre. I remember him telling me about this place and I just thought he was making stuff up to get me to confirm. I mean come on, would you believe there was an amusement park with a roller coaster in the middle of the ghetto?
Casey brought me to the grounds to show me before I decided to work with them, I was blown away and felt like I was ten years old again, I was a kid in a candy store. I just kept saying, ‘this is so amazing’, and the park wasn’t even running or lit up as it was the day time, and it was about four years ago and the park has grown so much since then, but even then it’s something out of this world. Theatre Bizarre is a place that’s very special to me and it really helped shaped me into the performer that I am today. Explaining exactly what Theatre Bizarre is like is tough, it’s one of those things you can only see to believe, the best way I can describe it is, Theatre Bizarre is an art installation on the outskirts of Detroit. It’s in a dangerous part of town in a dangerous city. It’s the grandest masquerade in the world. It’s also completely illegal.
Theatre Bizarre was created by award-winning artist John Dunivant and Ken Poirer and constructed with the help of hundreds of loyal volunteers. A decrepit Detroit ghetto was reclaimed by residents and converted into a carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster, called the ‘roaster coaster’ as it of course has a flame thrower installed in it. There are two permanent stages, dozens of sideshow banners, lighting booths, a midway and it’s all outdoors. Crack houses were converted into a haunted house and the grounds now occupy an entire city block. Everything comes alive each Halloween for a costume party unlike anything you could ever imagine. And despite being in plain sight, Theatre Bizarre operated entirely outside of the law for more than a decade. You can’t just build a carnival in a residential neighborhood but it’s Detroit and the cops had worse things to worry about.
People live on the grounds throughout the year like an artist’s commune, from outside the grounds the houses look like any other on the block, but once you’re inside, giant fishades have been built over the houses to fit in with the theme of the park. For example, Casey lives in Madamme Sandres whore house right next to the snake oil wagon that Jamison, the parks barker and professional busker occupies when he’s home from tour. You can still hear gunshots going off in the surrounding area but nobody messes with Theatre Bizarre. I think there’s a respect for people willing to stand their ground and do something good in the name of art. The entire aesthetic of Theatre Bizarre is the result of Dunivant’s fascination with circus history and sideshow attractions. Dunivant’s intention is to give people “the feeling of being in the presence of divinities and demons but presented with the shameless audacity of a carnival barker—gods as seen by the godless.” The New York Times called it, “part Ringling Bros., part Dawn of the Dead” and the Detroit News called it “a hallucination held in common by a group of people.” It’s so complex and there is so much to love about every aspect of the grounds. Nearly 3,000 people attend the party and everyone wears elaborate costumes, very few are store bought.
The audience really takes their time when putting together their look for the evening. There are resident characters at Theatre Bizarre, most of which are inspired by John’s artwork and come to life by a very talented seamstress Nichole Davila. Despite never taking a sewing course, she designs all of the characters’ costumes to match the aesthetic of Theatre Bizarre. Davila, Dunivant and I created my ‘Queen of the Cooch’ act last year for Theatre Bizarre.
Unfortunately, Detroit city officials shut Theatre Bizarre down last year just one day before the party. Theatre Bizarre became a victim of its own success. It became too big for officials to continue turning a blind eye. After all, it is an amusement park in the middle of the hood. When word got out the grounds were shuttered hundreds of people showed up to help move marquees, banners and props to an alternate location. No one had any sleep but the party went off without a hitch and a great time was had by all, but it wasn’t the same, it’s the grounds that make that place so magical. Theatre Bizarre is currently in exile but we are all trying to save it. The grounds are still there, but until Theatre Bizarre and the city officials work things out the annual party will be held in large venues. Even while in exile Theatre Bizarre will still be the best party of the year, those guys never disappoint and what they’re planning this year sounds insane! I think it’s important for the Theatre Bizarre fans to still support and attend so we can continue to fight for our home back. You can learn more about Theatre Bizarre by going to their website and watching the trailer for the documentary which is near completion. Theatre Bizarre gave me a stage to grow on and a talented group of people to learn from. I love that place and the family I inherited.
The shoot photos and trailers make Burlesque Assassins look like the most fun anyone could possibly have on a film set! Was it as fun and rewarding as it looks?
I had such a blast working on set for Burlesque Assassins. The cast and crew were so much fun to work with and I had a great time getting to know everyone. We worked our butts off for seventeen days, which was a really ambitious shooting schedule. We didn’t have much time to shoot the film so we all had a lot of long days on set, something most of us weren’t used to. We mostly did our own makeup, so sometimes if we had three wardrobe changes in a day we would have to change our makeup to match that look each time and it had to look the same in each shot for continuity, I think that was the hardest part.
It was the first time being on set for a lot of us, it was a whole new world to me. For my first acting experience it was a good one. Acting is very new to me and I have to admit I’m nervous to see myself on screen, it’s always so weird watching and especially listening to yourself on camera. My character, Bourbon Sue is a rockabilly delinquent who is recuited by Johnny Valentine, played by Armitage Shanks, into a top secret gang of sexy assassins who are vital weapons in the war on communism that threatens the free world. My character is mostly confused throughout the film since she is after all new to everything, which really wasn’t too hard to play, since acting was really new to me so I just used my confusion to fuel my characters confusion on film. My favourite scene I got to shoot was my fight scene which I got to help choreograph myself. We all had to have fight lessons and we trained a bit, I can now roundhouse, I learned a lot and I guess I’m a pretty good kicker.
I often describe you as one of the most consistent performers I know, but you also exude a fearless, easy confidence that allows me to sit back and enjoy, knowing I am in safe hands. Are you troubled by doubts and insecurities that may not be immediately obvious?
Aww, thanks. I think everyone has little insecurities about themselves. I don’t really have too many insecurities about performing as I’ve been stripping for quite a while now and all of that initial feeling a bit insecure about taking my clothes off in public vanished pretty fast. I just may get a bit nervous about my hoop being rigged properly or my costume coming off without malfunction or my fans opening properly but I think that’s normal. I’m pretty comfortable with myself and I think that’s so important when you’re a performer. I don’t think going on stage and performing burlesque is something someone should do just for applause or to gain confidence – take a burlesque class for that! I really think the stage should be for serious performers, but I find more and more people are getting into it for a boost in confidence since burlesque audiences are so accepting and eager to hoot and holler for every piece of clothing that comes off, sometimes no matter how good or bad a performance is.
Burlesque hobbyists that create situations like this are driving the industry down because some performers just want to get on stage so badly that they don’t charge or charge very little. This hurts us all in the end, especially those performers who rely only on burlesque as their sole form of income. If you’re serious about performing and have invested in your art, you should be confident enough that you’re worth it and should definitely charge for your work. All of this has to do with confidence.
Do you feel strongly that these things have to be left firmly at the stage door, without exception?
Unless you’re really good at hiding your doubts about yourself, if you can’t leave your insecurities outside the theatre then don’t bother coming in. I don’t think anyone wants to watch an awkward performer who second guesses every step on stage. It sounds harsh but it’s the honest truth.
“I don’t think going on stage and performing burlesque is something someone should do just for applause or to gain confidence – take a burlesque class for that! I really think the stage should be for serious performers…”
You are also an extremely talented photographer! I love the clarity combined with texture and rich colour in your photos that make them unmistakably yours. And I have no idea how you create such incredible self portraits! When did you begin to take photography seriously? What is it you enjoy about capturing other performers?
Thanks Holli. I love taking pictures. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and naturally have a knack for. I took an elective in Digital Photography back in college and did really well in that class. After college I would dabble here and there with taking photos. I was hired as the club photographer at Boom Boom Room, a local night club in Windsor, I would be there anyway to hang out with my friends on the weekend so this way I drank for free and took pictures all night, it was a lot of fun, but that was about it. I started getting more serious about photography when we lost our first SLR camera in New York during the NYBF. I was so upset as we lost it Sunday after we had taken pictures all weekend. I was really bummed out because I also performed in Coney Island for This or That and had finally got to meet Julie Atlas Muz, I was always such a fan of hers and finally got to meet her and got a picture with her. I was mostly sad about losing those images.
When D’Arcy and I returned home, I woke up one day and decided I wanted a studio and I wanted to start taking my own pictures. We went out and got lights, a backdrop and a good camera and the rest is history. I use to edit my own images so that part was easy, I’m still learning when it comes to photography, there is so much to learn about digital photography. I would like to start experimenting with different styles and lighting effects when I have more time. Believe it or not I just push buttons until it looks good, I really have no idea what half of those gadgets do on my camera. I started taking photos of performers because I really want to document all of the incredible people that have made a lasting impression on my life and my career.
Burlesque performers are so interesting and most are really fun to shoot, aside from the wardrobe and styling they bring to a shoot, they also are all so unique and most are really wacky in front of the camera so there is never a dull moment. I really love when a model can let loose and be themselves infront of my camera, I often love capturing them when they are lauging about something and aren’t expecting the shot. It really shows a lot of character, which is something none of them are lacking. I recently had a great time shooting Peekaboo Pointe for her ‘Stripper Housewife’ promo. She stayed with me a few days after the Boom Boom Burlesque show we produced here in Windsor. We baked cupcakes, rummaged through my closet, and went vintage shopping for the perfect outfit and then we made it rain dollar bills as she posed. We had a lot of laughs, I can’t wait to edit those images. I have a lot of fun shooting Peekaboo, she’s super photogenic.
Do you think of photography as something you can continue to do long-term, even if you perform less or eventually retire? Do you think performers should consider alternative and/or long term options?
That’s the plan. I’m always working on building my portfolio and gaining more experience. My partner D’Arcy is helping out more and we’re talking about working together on a photography business. He’s really great with live photography where as I’m better with studio stuff. I often have clients that are housewives and I dress them up and do their make-up and take their picture for their husbands. Women love it. I’d like to stick to boudoir, artistic nudes, pinup and glamour photography with perhaps having a side business that D’Arcy runs for weddings, family portraits etc. I think it’s a natural transition and a good plan for our future. I think it’s very important for performers to have a Plan B, because we have no idea what the future of burlesque will be. A great example of a long term planner is Michelle L’amour – she’s always so busy with side projects, she’s started Naked Girls Reading which is now franchised, she teaches, runs a Sketchy’s and just recently opened a bar. Good for her, she seems to have her long term plan figured out. I find a lot of dancers have no back up plan, which is really scary, your next gig can be your last or you could break your leg, so I think it’s important to always be prepared.
What do you believe, and have observed about the relationship between the performer and the photographer, as someone who has been on both sides of the lense?
I strongly believe a model will perform better if he/she knows their photographer and is comfortable with them. It’s really hard showing emotion or being confident with poses and being relaxed during a shoot, especially if the model is uncomfortable with the photographer. I always try to make my subjects feel relaxed and comfortable and I like to make them smile as much as possible, a bit of wine always helps.
“I find a lot of dancers have no back up plan, which is really scary, your next gig can be your last or you could break your leg, so I think it’s important to always be prepared.”
Are there things you think performers should be aware of when they perform and/or pose, to ensure that both parties are satisfied with the image produced?
I think models should always be aware of their bodies and should always try to relax their faces. It’s sometimes hard to remember to smile or relax your face when you’re twisting and turning in an uncomfortable pose. I always tell my subjects to be conscious of their limbs and to make triangles with their body parts by bending an elbow or knee. Creating triangles moves the viewers eye around an image and it makes for a much more interesting pose which in turn leads to an interesting photograph. Some quick tips I send to my clients before a shoot are as follows.
1. When posing keep your tounge pressed firmly against the roof of your mouth to eliminate double chins.
2. Go slowly when moving from pose to pose. Models should avoid jumping from pose to pose too dramatically or quickly, keep one pose for a few shots but vary it slightly each time. This will give you a variety of photos to choose from each pose.
3. Hair and makeup should be exaggerated so your features show up on film. Stylists know what photographs well and are worth the extra money to make your features pop out of an image.
4. If you have tattoos, piercings or any type of body modifications decide before the shoot if you want to show them off or not. Plan your outfit around either showcasing your body art or hiding it.
5. When posing always try to create asymmetrical poses. Try to create triangles with your limbs, this will elongate your body and guide the eye around a photograph. Also always remember to point your toes.
6. Most importantly relax, have fun and be yourself. Mood is always apparent in photographs. The photo session will turn out so much better if you’re having a great time.
How do you conduct your own shoots – I imagine your experience as a photographer and a performer must influence this?
I try to conduct my shoots with a natural progression. I like to start my models in a standing position then gradually have them make their way to a seated pose or on the floor. I try not to plan too much if I have a client because I just want to have a slight influence on the image, which is usually achieved through photoshop. I want them to really shine in my images and I want each model to make their own personal impression in each image. I try to help with poses the best I can but ultimately it makes for a better image when the subject is just being themselves, so I try to encourage individuality.
You are self styled as a ‘Drinking, Smoking, Stripping Machine’. What overriding philosophy do you apply to life?
Well, you know, you gotta have a gimmick right? There is some truth behind that tagline. I came up with it about four years ago. It took me a while to find a tagline and when I thought up that one it really made me chuckle. D’Arcy told me it would get old fast and I have to admit I kind of think it has. I find that drinking, smoking and stripping kind of go well together and it is how I spend a good amount of my time, however it’s not a philosophy that I apply to life. I try to be gracious, humble and kind, a good friend, girlfriend and daughter and most of all just treating others how I would like to be treated. I’m nice to everyone, until they cross me then I just move along and thank the universe for showing me what that person is all about. I don’t like wasting my time on people who aren’t genuine.
When you aren’t ‘Drinking Smoking or Stripping’, are there other everyday things or pastimes you enjoy – perhaps something people might not expect?
Believe it or not I don’t drink, smoke and strip 24/7. I enjoy lots of activities. I love listening to music, sketching, painting and decorating our home. I also like to play video games on the rare occasion. I love Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, but I’m more into the vintage games and I rarely get to play them, when I do I feel like I should be working, so I don’t play much anymore.
I love music a lot as well. I’m really into electronic music, mostly house. I love going to big clubs and festivals with my friends to hear some of my favourite DJ’s. Believe it or not, I’m not a big dancer at the clubs, perhaps because I do it for a living and I tend to dance sexy and I don’t like drawing attention to myself and hate being hit on or danced with by men at the club. When I’m out I just want to sit back relax and groove, unless I hear a track I really love then I find a corner and dance. Sometimes my friends and I will bust out dancing as silly as possible on the dancefloor – yep, I’ve done the running man in public, it’s all for a laugh.
“I try to be gracious, humble and kind, a good friend, girlfriend and daughter and most of all just treating others how I would like to be treated.”
Something else I really enjoy is cooking. I fancy myself to be a pretty good cook, and thankfully so does D’Arcy. I actually wanted to be a chef before deciding on graphic design as a career choice, but the long hours turned me off. I’m always online looking up new recipes and trying them out. I’m really methodical with how I make my grocery list, everything is organized in sections according to how our favourite grocery store is laid out. I like to only use fresh ingredients, especially herbs, it’s insane how much of a difference fresh herbs make in a recipe. I actually really enjoy grocery shopping, D’Arcy hates how long I take in the grocery store. I love entertaining and having dinner parities and friends over for appetizers. Some of my specialties are fig and olive tapanade, roasted pork tenderloin with apricot glaze and chicken picante, I really love cooking french food, I make great quiches and a really yummy french leek pie but specifically my special dish is Beef Bourginon. I marinate stewing beef for three days with peppercorns, carrots and onions in burgundy wine and then when it’s finished cooking I spoon it into individual ramikins and pop it back in the oven with puff pastry over top and serve with a side salad. It’s so delicious. The last time I made it however, I had my mom and step dad over for dinner, I accidentally used expired beef broth that was in the fridge and totally ruined the dish and we had to order pizza. I was totally bummed out because it takes a lot of time to prepare that dish and when it’s finished it’s pretty impressive.
At this point in your life and career, what are the standout experiences, performances or accolades you especially treasure?
First and foremost, my involvement with Theatre Bizarre, I do it for the love of it and not for the money. My favourite performance with them would have to be the ‘Queen of the Cooch’ act that we created for last year’s Theatre Bizarre. I also really treasure my involvement in the Burlesque Hall of Fame, it’s something that really made me take what I am doing to the next level. Going to Italy was really fun, being on TV there was a surreal experience. Meeting and becoming friends with Eric Powell and now I’m a villain in issue #36 of his comic book, The Goon. I have just seen a sneak peak and I’m so excited to share it with you all. Meeting Big Fannie Annie at BHoF, we’ve really become very close, she’s a great friend and I’ve learned a lot from her. My work in strip clubs, I wouldn’t trade in those experiences for anything, I’ve learned a lot about people, life and a lot about entertaining through my work in clubs. I have so many stories that most of you would never believe.
And, as I often ask in conclusion, what are the three greatest life lessons you have learnt thus far?
Don’t stress out, everything will work itself out in the end. Be patient, something I still struggle with. Don’t wear purple on Italian TV, apparently it’s bad luck!
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.