Jo Weldon: A Life Less Ordinary
Any journey into the modern history of the burlesque arts eventually leads to the devilishly lovely, spectacularly intelligent Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon. Her name, like the celebrated body part it represents, precedes her.
In the early aughts, her name popped up in books like Michelle Baldwin’s Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind alongside other New York City performers with fantastical names like Dirty Martini, Tigger!, The World Famous *BOB*, as well as the West Coast’s Miss Indigo Blue, Catherine D’Lish, and Dita Von Teese.
Though it seemed new, many of these renegade artists had been performing in one form or another since the early nineties. Something exciting was happening: a movement was taking shape in tiny dive bars and somewhere in the desert in Helendale, California. Jo Weldon was there stripping and observing, soon emerging as a teacher and something of a historian.
Weldon is the founder and Headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, which she fondly refers to as her whole world. There you can find her teaching first-timers the essentials, hosting student showcases and tirelessly spreading the gospel of self-love and stripping. Many students are driven by curiosity or a personal journey to develop self-confidence, others are directly influenced by the neo-burlesque movement as a fully developed art form.
When Jo and her friends started performing, source material was scarce and came from a weird amalgamation of pre-internet inspiration. That DIY fire still plays a role in what Jo loves about burlesque today. Though newcomers may arrive unaware of the legacy of eccentric showgirls before them, Jo encourages her students to know their history.
In 2017 Jo was presented with the Dixie Evans Award at the 15th Annual New York Burlesque Festival, an honor named for her friend and mentor. Like Exotic World founders Dixie and Jennie Lee, Jo is a link that has brought many together in the spirit of acceptance that those ladies intended.
“Dixie had some qualities that are so important to me that I really do want to emulate,” Jo says. “She was so open to everything, she loved every approach to burlesque even if she didn’t really get it. No matter what people’s approach, she was just so glad that they were trying it on and that they were doing it and cared about it. She wasn’t judgmental or territorial. She wasn’t insecure. She didn’t need to defend herself by putting other people down. She had compassion and love for everybody. She was human, she had her stuff, but she didn’t mind that burlesque had changed. That’s something that I’ve tried to remember as burlesque changes.”
This approach inspired Jo’s fellow teachers as well, many of whom didn’t realize they had gifts to share until Jo helped to draw them out.
“In 2004 Jo asked me to do a thirty minute spot in her all-day burlesque workshop at the now closed Bowery Poetry Club (it ironically became Duane Park),” recalls performer and New York School of Burlesque instructor World Famous *BOB*.
“She sent me her syllabus and it covered everything… I mean everything! Burlesque history, burlesque dance vocabulary, burlesque in cinema, stage entrance/exit, how to make pasties, how to twirl, on and on. Feeling that everything was addressed I asked myself what I could personally share from my years of experience, and how to conquer low self-esteem is what came up for me. That was when I created my ‘Ultimate Self Confidence!’ curriculum and I’m forever grateful to Jo for seeing in me and so many others the untapped potential that we often don’t share, because we don’t even know that we have it. She’s a force of nature and thousands of people have been lifted up by her insatiable style of teaching and limitless passion for burlesque.”
Tigger! first performed with Jo at a 2001 holiday show at the Slipper Room. “The number of amazing burlesque artists whom she has taught, who have then gone on to teach so many others, who have also gone on to teach so many others, is staggering. She is the beginning of an infinity mirror of burlesque education,” he says. “She has nudged me and many others to join the faculty of the New York School of Burlesque, to share in the joy of teaching other performers, giving our all to improving the art of burlesque everywhere.”
“In our very first class together, Jo introduced us to the rules of burlesque, then immediately told us all to do whatever the f*ck we want,” recalls Poison Ivory, NYBF alumni May 2012. “I took that advice and decided to do exactly that.”
Jo’s reverence for the past coupled with an outlaw instinct to dismiss the rules make her a compelling teacher and accomplished writer. She is author of The Burlesque Handbook and Fierce: The History of Leopard Print as well as numerous articles on stripping and sex work.
She has been a member of the production team for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender as well as Co-Curator/Vice President of the Board for BurlyCon. She’s advocated for sex workers, burlesque, and a life of freedom, glamour, and self-love. But as it turns out in unwrapping the gorgeous gift to ecdysiast history that is Jo Weldon, burlesque is, well… just the tip. Her journey is as fascinating as the history she teaches.
A Rocky Road
Although Jo reads as a quintessential New Yorker, she hails from Colorado and moved to Atlanta in the early seventies. Jo was always a bit of an outsider. Being different led to bullying and physical violence and by fourteen, Jo had endured plenty. She developed a keen interest in wild women, dreaming about life as a stripper. “Stripping to me seemed like a form of anarchy,” she recalls. When she told her mother that she wanted to be one, her mother’s response was, “Don’t you think people will be mean to you?”
“Meaner than high school?” was Jo’s pragmatic reply.
At eighteen, Jo started stripping at Atlanta clubs like the Cheetah 3 and quickly found her footing in the sink or swim world of strip joints. She was fascinated with the customers in the anthropological sense; they were all so different. The day shift customers were often preoccupied with being seen (it wasn’t until the late eighties that corporate accounts and bachelor parties reshaped the clandestine world of strip clubs). Though she expected to be a lone wolf, Jo enjoyed the people she worked with, making friends with many of the women while learning the ropes.
For years Jo thought her experiences in Atlanta were the extent of her new profession, mostly table dances aided by paying attention and connecting with customers from the stage. She honed her skills in the strip joints while hanging out with other misfits and dating members of the hair bands of the day. Around this time she heard about feature dancers and received requests from friends to help them make themed costumes.
Typically feature dancers would have a number based on a hit song like Hot for Teacher or White Wedding. Some were, as Jo puts it, unique-ish. Feature dancing was lucrative but to generate interest, the girls had to have ‘credits’. Many entered contests to pick up title credits, through which they could get booked on feature circuit tours for a few weeks at a time. Many were porn stars. Jo recalls that Catherine D’Lish was particularly adept at winning titles (“She won every award in the book, she was Miss Exotic World twice,” Jo remembers). For a time, Catherine, Dita – who was doing fetish at the time – and Jo had the same agent.
Introducing Tanya Hyde
‘Tanya Hyde’ – aka young, metalhead Jo – gained momentum doing centerfolds. Jo’s social media proudly nods to the teased hair, frilly lingerie, and soft-focus images emblematic of Tanya’s wild years. The pictures represent a rapid series of shoots Jo did with photographers of the day to get credits. She was in Penthouse and European Playboy. The photos continued to pop up in various places for years afterward. Jo didn’t mind, signing the releases with pride.
“I think my favorite was a phone sex ad – I had a phone sex ad! I would give anything to be able to find it again,” she laughs. People ask ‘don’t you think it’s degrading?’, uh…I don’t feel degraded. I have the same ability to walk, talk, and run for office that I did before,” she says. “Which isn’t to say that you can’t be degraded, it’s that it isn’t inherently degrading. It inherently pays well.”
Jo layered feature dancing into house stripping for a few years but felt the niche didn’t really lock in for her. She got lonely by herself on the road. But she did gain confidence and was certainly unique – not too many feature dancers in those days were eating fire or doing fetish acts.
As for the overlap between stripping, feature dancing (and much later, burlesque), Jo emphasizes they were entirely different animals. Most strippers didn’t do much of a number, it was more about ‘mingling’, as women called it in Dixie’s day. Feature dancers learned to be extremely adaptive as the laws and specific requests from clubs varied. Contracts specified pay, lodging, and merch sales, but information was always lacking. “You had to show up at a place you’d never heard of or been to before and figure it out,” she reflects. “You had to be extremely adaptable and have a sense of humor.”
Business and Books
Throughout these years Jo was also a journalist covering the legislative beat. She was an English major and earned a Business degree with graduate work in Media Ethics. She interviewed dancers and wrote a book about the feature circuit and the entrepreneurial women that powered it. True to the moral high ground of the day, publishers wouldn’t touch it.
Jo’s private life was also reaching a crossroads as alcohol and drugs took a toll on her and those around her when she was under the influence (which was often, and full throttle, according to Jo). By 35, she was hungry for change.
“By the time I left Atlanta I had been in an extremely violent environment, and I moved to New York in the late 90s. Part of the reason was to be in New York, to come to something; but also, it was getting away from a lot of violence.
“I wanted to write. I wanted to publish a book. There were writers around me but most of them weren’t focused on it in the same way. I was getting away from a version of nightlife and people in that nightlife, although at the time I hadn’t yet equated that the bad things that seemed to keep happening in my life could be related. After I came to New York, there wasn’t so much of that.”
In New York she met other writers with backgrounds in sex work, such as Lily Burana and Jill Morley. She continued researching whatever subject piqued her interest, writing what she describes as a kind of media analysis response to anti-porn feminism. By now Jo was working as a dominatrix, another professional layer to her sex work and anthropological, money-making pursuits.
The Difficult Dominatrix
When asked about the transition from stripping and feature dancing to dominatrix work, Jo says they started around the same time. “I was doing fetish acts and working in fetish clubs in the late 80s and early 90s before I was a feature dancer, so I incorporated it, but it was less known then. The internet wasn’t really going, and people didn’t have access to that information. The fetish community was much smaller and less segregated. It really overlapped with the gay S&M community. There weren’t as many differentiated roles.”
Jo developed a clientele as a dominatrix that she enjoyed. “I was a pervert, I was one of them. I didn’t think I was separate from the clients,” she says when asked about occupational revelations from that time. “I was very lucky and developed really nice relationships with a lot of really beautiful clients, really lovely people. I miss them,” she trails off. “That’s not everyone’s experience, and not all of them were lovely, but I built up a clientele of really lovely people. I’d love to know what they’re doing now.”
In the late 90s her dominatrix work dropped off as she had less time. Jo also recognized that she had personal issues to work out and that she needed to stop working them out in sessions. She was being a little dangerous.
“There was really great stuff about it, and I loved other dominatrixes,” she says. “What I learned was that a lot of the abuse that people inflict on others comes out of shame and fear. I saw the people that were great were more at ease with who they were. Most of them that liked themselves were reliable, showed up on time, were respectful. No-shows and people who were difficult had shame about what they were doing and who they were doing it with and tended to dehumanize people based on their own fear in a way that’s almost impossible to define.”
Meanwhile as a writer Jo found herself clashing with other women, namely anti-porn feminists. The issues were complex. In some ways she identified with what radical feminists said about patriarchy and didn’t disagree with everything they said about adult entertainment, but she found the discussion often dehumanized sex workers.
“I’m whole, I’m human. I want my struggles and problems recognized, but not at the expense of being thought of as a damaged human being,” she says. “We both hate patriarchy, we both know that sex workers are stigmatized and stigmatization is dangerous for them, that jobs are unfairly limited for women. We should be working together somehow. I was surprised we were so at odds. I thought we were having a conversation.”
“The fact that men take pleasure in what I do for a living doesn’t mean that I don’t,” she continues. “There was this structure of men’s pleasure in opposition to women’s that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t expect to be in opposition to those types of feminists. In looking back, suffragettes and flappers, both proponents of new dawns for women’s agency, weren’t too crazy about each other. Feminism is some complex shit,” she says.
Jo recalls creating early acts for Rocky Horror nights that combined disco with what might loosely be called a form of burlesque. The public domain clips in Devo’s 1981 video It’s A Beautiful World also caught Jo’s eye. The women in it, whose names were lost at the time but discovered later, possessed an outlaw energy that resonated with Jo. By the time she was in New York, she found that experimenting with burlesque allowed her to freely create without conforming to a clientele to make money.
Teaching and Recovering
Today Jo’s focus is mostly on teaching. “I had this epiphany yesterday – I was teaching a bachelorette party, 10 women, and they all wanted to tassel twirl, which is uncommon at bachelorette parties. So, they all took their shirts off and put on tassels. Watching 10 women, all very different, looking at their bodies in the mirror and just liking themselves and being amazed and loving what their bodies were doing in that one moment… I kind of don’t care about anything else. I value all these other things about burlesque, but just that moment, laughing and enjoying their own bodies, that’s so hard for people to do.”
She has also learned from being in recovery. “I’m lucky that the 12 Step was good for me. Whatever people do that works for them is good, but I do better with other alcoholics. That’s what helps me so I don’t feel alone and I don’t feel special. If I give you my solitude and specialness, then I can have community and intimacy.”
In light of the strong, resilient Jo Weldon we know, it’s hard to imagine a time when anything, even dependency, could get in her way. She laughs. “I wouldn’t say that I survived by my own fine qualities. Grace only. I have not always made good decisions. I do seem to be exceptionally resilient, but there have also been times in my life when I have not been, and I was hard on the people around me.”
Another recent challenge was something many women are hesitant to talk about – menopause. “In your fifties, you have to do your maintenance if you want to stay flexible, you’ve gotta work at it,” she says. “That’s real, and my menopause was rough.”
A few years back Jo moved to New Orleans, which turned out to be a way to realign. “I have periods of self-destructiveness in my life, and I would say that came out in me in menopause. If I had been more knowledgeable and listened to people who gave me advice, I wouldn’t have had such a hard time.
“I think every woman at least in her mid-forties should educate herself about menopause and consider whatever she’s previously believed in her life about how to manage her physicality and hormones and be very open to what other people say. I would love to see more info out there for women. Part of it is that as you get older you become less confessional, and you think that your own experience is less unique,” she says.
“Menopause is a good opportunity to ask ‘is everything I’ve always thought still true for me? Do I choose to be flexible and open or do I want to settle in to what I already know and what I’m comfortable with?’ These are decisions you must make. As you shift from when you’re a teenager to when you’re 30, figuring out who you are and you’re like… oh shit I’m somebody else, I’m a middle-aged woman now, I have a whole other persona to deal with.”
“I’ve had to rethink what we are currently calling privilege at least three times on a major level in my life. I’ve had to rethink my relationship to gender many times. Right now there’s a certain type of activism that can be very vigorous and very harsh, and I’m having to reevaluate my relationship to that as a lifelong activist. Do I need to think about activism in a new way? Do I need to listen to this? Sometimes no, sometimes definitely yes – I’ve found that although I have the wisdom of experience, I also have the delusions of privilege. I have to be vigilant about that.”
Jo is interested in the aging female body on display. “I’m 55 and I can kick and strip!” she yells. “I’m super proud of being an older person on stage because when I was in my 20s, people asked me what I’d do when I got too old to do this. I said I’m going to keep doin’ it.”
She uses Instagram to celebrate her middle-aged body, which “when I was young, I was constantly warned would be disgusting,” she says. “Ageism is real, in burlesque as everywhere, and in this era the best way to fight body shaming is to keep putting it out there and show that they can’t erase these bodies.”
“Do you ever think about how The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was written by T. S. Eliot in his twenties? You have people in their twenties talking about how they fear aging, the whole die-before-I-get-old thing. Fear of aging starts really young, and our feeling of separation from older people starts really young.”
Perhaps the solution is listening to each other. “With compassion, though it’s a challenge, we can build an army,” she believes. Jo Weldon’s life has been an infinitely adventurous series of twists and turns that she rose to meet, not always fearlessly, but always in keeping with her original mission. “My mission of not being sorry,” she laughs.
Jo Weldon’s Fierce: The History of Leopard Print is out now from Harper Design Books. Visit www.historyofleopardprint.com for news and events, and keep a close eye on joweldon.com for everything Jo and NYSB.