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Strict Machine: Burlesque powerhouse Jolie Papillon on discipline, dysmorphia and doing the work

Strict Machine: Burlesque powerhouse Jolie Papillon on discipline, dysmorphia and doing the work

Jolie Papillon by Veronika Marx.a

How do you interview one of the most prolific burlesque performers, producers and bookers in London – arguably the world – who performs up to five different acts a night in multiple venues across the capital? You catch her while she does her makeup, and write as fast as you can. When my pen finally gives out, she immediately downs tools and fishes in her bag for a replacement. ‘A special one for you,’ she emerges triumphantly. ‘They gave me this when I danced on the Orient Express.’

Italian export Jolie Papillon appears to enjoy the glamorous, jet set career that aspiring showgirls, not to mention some of the more seasoned ones, dream of. A trained dancer who came to live in London 13 years ago, she cut her teeth with Lola LaBelle’s House of Burlesque, and an appearance at the legendary Madame JoJos on NYE 2010 sealed the deal. 

‘So much freedom! So much fun. I was in love with it all straight away,’ she breathes. ‘But I moved here during a recession. The cabaret world was already saturated with established and experienced acts, so I knew I had a lot to catch up on and had to work extra hard if I wanted a career here.’

From the beginning, Jolie gained momentum by making connections. In her first six months in London’s West End she landed spots at Volupte, Proud, and as one of Ivy Paige’s Paige Girls. Talking the talk got her off and running, but walking the walk has kept her dance card full for over a decade. 

How does she maintain this relentless schedule? Constant effort, self discipline, and very high standards. ‘Impossibly high actually,’ she admits. ‘I had professional theatre training, and it really makes you tough. You become accustomed to critique and very self aware, and you learn your strengths and weaknesses and how to analyse your performances. It gives you a completely professional mindset, ready to do the job.’ James Clear’s Atomic Habits is currently on her nightstand.

Jolie Papillon by Self Styled.
Jolie Papillon by Self Styled.

We talk through a typical day when she’s not travelling or working abroad. Three hours of morning admin – with coffee, naturally –  covering her own schedule, producing commitments and performer management. ‘It’s just constant logistics – making everything fit somewhere.’ Then exercise, usually at the gym, at least four times a week but five or six times ideally. Getting ready for work starts early, either at home or at her first show of the evening. 

Then the marathon begins. Venue one, the dash across town to venue two, then back to venue one, possibly on to a third. Jolie performs up to 4-5 different acts each night. Venues like exclusive acts, so she sets a big prop act on one stage, then takes more mobile acts elsewhere, in hospitality spaces rather than theatres. In post-pandemic recovery, restaurants and hotels like to upsell with glamorous, improvised and immersive performances, which allow some creative freedom and close interaction with the audience that Jolie really enjoys. 

‘It’s amazing how intimate it gets compared to being on stage, and it’s rare something strange or intrusive happens; at most someone gets a bit over excited and wants to be involved. I have to be disciplined when I get back on stage, though. Muscle memory plays a part, but it’s dangerous to take it for granted.’

La Clique, the annual smash-hit variety show in London’s Leicester Square, offers the best of both worlds: a raised, round stage in a twinkling Spiegeltent with the audience at close range. Jolie joined the cast for a summer run in Cavendish Square and was thrilled to be invited back for the Christmas season. ‘It’s a challenge performing striptease in the round and planning your reveals to engage all sides. We get very mixed audiences who can be quite unpredictable compared to experienced cabaret audiences, so consistency is key. We are such a bonded team and it makes coming to work a lot of fun, too!’ 

Jolie Papillon in La Clique, by Dominic Martin
Jolie Papillon in La Clique, by Dominic Martin

How does she feel when her mainstream and corporate success is attributed to her body type and appearance rather than hard work and business acumen?

‘It surprises me because I’ve never felt I have the perfect body type for burlesque, and I don’t think there is or should be such a thing. I earnestly believe in the empowerment burlesque affords us all.’

Even among her burlesque peers who are deemed to have a ‘commercially advantageous’ and acceptable body type – pert, slender and fair skinned – she has received hurtful and derisive comments about more voluptuous parts of her body. 

‘I’ve suffered from body dysmorphia and eating disorders since childhood. I’m petite, yes, but curvaceous. As a ballet dancer it was even more difficult than usual to find acceptance and avoid excessive criticism and bullying because I didn’t have the skinny dancer body. Later on I found teachers who saw my potential and encouraged me, and with their support and a lot of hard work I became an excellent dancer for my age, and that compensating work ethic has stayed with me.’

I ask how she manages that dysmorphia in a profession that relies on a cooperative relationship with her body.

‘I focus on feeling strong and healthy – in body and mind. If that helps with the aesthetic then all the better! I’ve had some bad injuries over the years; they come with the job and could end your career at any time. I got more and more dedicated to fitness, understanding how to be my own physiotherapist. We all get older, too, and reputation and reliability keeps you in work. There’s so much more to do – I’m a very ambitious person.’

Ambitious women are often labelled difficult and demanding, I propose. ‘Sure, but I’m big on respect. My grandfather taught me to respect others and be respected, and I understood this more when I got older. It’s easy to attract comment and criticism when something so practised and polished looks easy and effortless, projected in clean clips on social media – the visible end result only. I’m only in competition with myself. I always want to do my best, and do better.’

Jolie Papillon by Johnny Cooke.
Jolie Papillon by Johnny Cooke.

Cultural appropriation remains a contentious topic in the scene, and I’m interested in her view as a mainland European, where many of these offences are committed, and defended. 

‘It’s a legitimate issue for sure, and it should be highlighted and challenged, even if it’s done unintentionally or thoughtlessly. Immigration happens in Italy but society is far less integrated, which creates barriers to empathy and appreciation. We’re very behind there, and traditions hold. I think over the past few years the conversation around cultural appropriation has educated a lot of performers, so they in turn are educating clients and producers when they request problematic acts. It’s also encouraged a lot of artists to look deeper at their background and ethnicities to inspire new, responsible acts with personal meaning for them.’

As we’re exploring controversial territory, I ask Jolie about her recent engagement for The Maine Mayfair in Saudi Arabia, which is eyebrow raising when its land neighbour, Qatar, is under fire for human rights abuses leading up to the World Cup, and women continue to demand reform in Iran. She’s conscious of the optics, but hopes that her work there will contribute to real change.

‘If you can believe it, we were invited to provide entertainment by the local government, which is funding these ventures. Oil is finishing so they’re investing in venues and entertainment. I danced in full costume of course, with a female singer. Once, I took off a single glove, but it wasn’t permitted again.’

Indeed, while they were formally invited for ten days and even the Royal family made an appearance, there was a lingering air of uncertainty. One evening a video was recorded and went viral online, and Jolie was not permitted to perform her final act that night. 

‘The lighting made it appear as though I was exposed – topless – so it caused a great scandal. But however slow and sensitive, it felt like progress. Women were allowed to attend and they left feeling so excited about us.’

Jolie Papillon by Veronika Marx.a
Jolie Papillon by Veronika Marx.

Back in London, Jolie is busier than ever post-pandemic. ‘People want live entertainment – the virtual reality boom never materialised and online shows during lockdown failed to fill the void,’ she explains. ‘Requests still heavily lean towards classic, but perhaps for different reasons now. People seem to be craving nostalgia and tradition, to escape to a more glamorous era. At the same time, there is still a real taste for extreme neo cabaret like you find at The Box.’

Is it even more competitive now? ‘Yes, especially with cuts and budget caution, but strong, fully realised acts have survived because those performers used lockdown time well, ready to go again. Others have different ambitions and priorities now and that’s understandable; it doesn’t make people any less professional. People in all industries have made decisions post-Covid to better their lives.’

Several of her contemporaries have become parents in the past couple of years, but it’s not of interest to Jolie and her musician husband. ‘Fostering a younger generation of performers is important to me, though. As I went through a lot of judgement in my childhood, I’m passionate about showing young performers their qualities and strengths, and encouraging them to stand out with confidence.’

A pause. 

‘I am aware I’m not presenting anything extraordinary, new or revolutionary in the classic world of burlesque,’ she continues, clearly conscious of this well worn jibe, ‘but my love for it comes from the golden age of legends, and a desire to keep that bygone era present, in my own way. I feel I’ve made my contribution by trying to build a better industry for those who come after me.’

Jolie Papillon in La Clique, by Dominic Martin
Jolie Papillon in La Clique, by Dominic Martin

We talk about that work, largely offstage and unseen. Gin House Burlesque, co-founded with Betsy Rose and Missy Fatale in 2015, still sets a dazzling standard in the capital and showcases many of London’s finest cabaret artists, and she acts as a booker and career coach for other performers, with firm insistence on suitable fees and fair treatment. 

‘I feel I have raised standards in offering and insisting on a certain level of pay. Any cut to a booker should be on top of the performer’s fee. I make sure any performer I secure bookings for is well treated and respected.’

What of her personal ambitions, I enquire. A big touring show, mainstream recognition? ‘Honestly, my big goal is to keep the industry alive and stay active within it. Life is full of surprises and you can’t predict what comes, only remain visible and be open to new connections by maintaining the ones you have. I adapt as things arrive.’

Jolie Papillon certainly knows how to arrive, and as I gather my things and stop to admire her sumptuous costumes, I find myself sad to leave. An hour later I’m back in the Spiegeltent looking up at the polished, final product; a twinkling butterfly in full regalia. The butterfly flashes me a knowing smile.

See Jolie Papillon and an all star cast in La Clique, Leicester Square, London, until January 7.

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