We invite you to enjoy Adele Wolf in conversation with one of the world’s best loved burlesque legends, the warm, witty and wise Miss Judith Stein, documenting her journey from college gogo dancer to burlesque headliner, and her ascendance to Legend at the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
Judith Stein began performing burlesque in the 1970s and toured across North America. As an Oklahoman, I must mention that she once performed in Norman, OK and a local gentlemen taught her how to two-step.
She retired and founded Kootenay Kate Designs, which she still operates, and was introduced to the burlesque revival by Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon. Since then, she has performed at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, headlined several shows and festivals, and appeared in the film League of Exotique Dancers. It was my absolute pleasure to interview ‘Mama Beaver’ for you all to enjoy!
How did you get started in show business?
I was going to school at the University of Oregon and I ran out of money. I needed a job that I could work at night. Someone told me they were hiring topless gogo girls. I was this radical little feminist and I was like, ‘Oh my god!’
But, push came to shove, so I went down to the club. Lo and behold, just about all of the gogo girls were from the university or women that I knew from the feminist movement. So, I started as a gogo girl and we danced in between the strippers.
Eventually, some of the other women said to me, “Judith, why don’t you become a stripper?” I was hesitant, but they told me I could make $400 a week and I would get to travel. I’m a farm girl, so I wanted to travel.
I went to Alaska and I worked for six months in Anchorage and Kodiak. I got enough money for my costumes and the whole nine yards. I did a couple of local shows before they sent me to Fairbanks, Alaska.
What did you study during your time as a student at University of Oregon?
Art History. I married an American in Toronto because he deferred on his draft. Once he got cleared, he said, “Let me put you through school.” I had been working as a childcare worker for emotionally disturbed children at a residential treatment center. I knew psychology wasn’t where I was at and I didn’t want to be a social worker. He suggested Art History, saying I could use all his notes. He was doing a double PhD. So yeah… I got my degree!
“Your job is to make them feel good, not for them to make you feel good. They paid the money. It’s not your mental masturbation. You need to have emotional generosity.”
What was the first night you performed like?
I’ll tell you about the first night I was a stripper. The club I was working in would have a men’s night. They would have one feature dancer and a couple of strippers who lived in the area. It was pretty wild – no holds barred. That particular night, one of the girls couldn’t make it. The club owner knew I was working on becoming a stripper, so he told me I was on.
I had no costume. I had no makeup. Nothing. The other women sat me down, stuck on false eyelashes, and put on my ‘cock-sucker red’ lipstick. I had someone’s bra and someone else’s panties. Someone had a new g-string.
Then, they threw me onstage. I think I was pretty bad actually. I was scared shitless. The guys in the audience seemed to know I was new, so they were really nice to me. But then they started throwing silver dollars. So that was my first one. I have to say, the other women were really good to me.
From then on, anytime a stripper came through I would pick their brains and watch. That’s how you learn – you watch. You can take as many dance and theatre classes, and yeah maybe you can dance, but burlesque wasn’t about the dance. It was about entertainment.
What was your time working in San Francisco like?
I got to work with Holiday O’Hara, Toni Lynn, Isis Starr and her husband. They were great and they mentored me. I remember a makeup tip. They pulled out this Revlon, bright red lipstick and told me, “This is what you wear. It’s called ‘cock-sucker red’.”
I worked at a burlesque theatre. At that time, in the 70s, you went on between the dirty movies. So it was quite a shock for a farm girl; you had guys with newspapers on their laps. I was absolutely horrified, but that’s where you got your chops. And you learned most of your lessons backstage. You’d work with someone for two or three weeks and we mentored each other.
So I got my chops and then I got an agent out of Portland. I started to work in little clubs in places like Spokane, Washington. I started out opening, but I worked my way up. I was happy to be working and making money.
What was it like being a feminist stripper during a time when a large part of the feminist movement had anti-stripper sentiments?
When I decided to out myself as a stripper, there were a number of raised eyebrows. I had read all of the feminist literature and knew the philosophies. I thought, “Wait a minute… we’re talking about owning our own bodies. And quite frankly, there are more important issues in the feminist community to be dealt with than me taking my clothes off.” We had to fight for birth control and being able to get a credit card. There were a couple of naysayers, but it was my job.
The women I worked with in the club were educated, which was a very different thing in my generation. Most of the women before us didn’t have an education. They started families at a young age – 15, 16. My generation had birth control and the summer of love. I burned my bra, but I didn’t inhale. Well I did. But we had freedom to do what we wanted.
I found a feminist group called Coyote for sex workers. So I became part of that. We were fighting for women’s rights and supporting each other in the sex industry. I was earning a living. I was getting an education with the money that I was earning. I didn’t ‘cop out’ with a wedding ring. I was on my own.
“I thought, “Wait a minute… we’re talking about owning our own bodies. And quite frankly, there are more important issues in the feminist community to be dealt with than me taking my clothes off.”
What inspired you to focus on comedy in your performances?
Well I’m 5’2, weighed 90 pounds and was a 34A with a deep breath. I wasn’t your standard stripper faire. A lot of people were doing gloves, panels, stockings, dusters, that kind of stuff. I really didn’t feel like I could pull that off. I like to play and I think there are people who like some silliness.
Because I wasn’t a dancer, I got really gimmicky. I would take a guy’s glasses and stick them in my underpants with the arms of the glasses sticking out. He’d have to try to put them on with his hands behind his back while I was moving all over the place.
When I worked in Guam, the club would have us introduce the girl that went on after us. The place was owned by Korean gentlemen and most of our customers were Japanese tourists. My boss taught me some Japanese, like ‘good evening ladies and gentlemen’. ‘Little titties.’ I would say ‘Canada beaver’.
Out of that came this schtick I would do. I had long, white blonde hair at the time and used to bleach my pussy hair too. The men would come up to the stage with hundred dollar bills in their hands and say, ‘Omiyage! Omiyage!’ which means ‘souvenir’. So I’d snip off a couple pubic hairs for them.
Why did you decide to leave burlesque and retire in Nelson?
For the last five years of my burlesque career, I was back in Canada. I moved back to Vancouver and I had a great agent. At that time, I was making fabulous money because the Canadian strip scene had opened up.
Every little town had a beer hall and they always had a stripper on. Well, there weren’t enough features to go around in Canada. So I would book myself from the States and I would make really good money.
As I traveled around, I could see that [burlesque] was changing. Because there weren’t enough features to go around, they started pulling people off the street. There would be some girl with dirty bare feet and cutoff jeans who had no idea what she was doing up there. Next thing you know, the jeans are off, the panties are off, they’re laying on their back and spreading their legs. I was like, ‘nope’.
I had come through Nelson a couple of times and I really liked it. So I moved here and started a business. I’m in the middle of the mountains. I’m eight blocks from a huge lake, where I can swim naked and eat the fish out of it. There are hot springs an hour away and my ski hill is twenty minutes away. The architecture is beautiful. The main street is still vital. On any given day, I can walk down the main street and say hello to half a dozen people. It’s really nice.
Tell me about your Victorian nightgown line, Kootenay Kate!
When I moved to Vancouver, I hooked up with this guy that had two kids. I was looking for a flannel nightgown for his daughter for Christmas. When I was growing up, you always got a new flannel nightgown for Christmas.
Well, I couldn’t find one anywhere! So I thought I would make one. I wasn’t much of a seamstress to begin with, but I made one. A few people saw them and wanted one as well. So I made about three nightgowns that year.
Someone suggested that I could make a lot of money with my gowns at the craft fairs. So I started making Victorian flannel nightgowns and taking them to the craft fairs… and sold out! I got commissioned by the Vancouver Opera and some Hollywood movies that were shot in Alberta. So that was great!
What was it like discovering the modern burlesque revival?
For years, the women in this town would ask me what it was like to be in burlesque. They would ask me to teach them how to strip for their husband and I would teach them a couple of moves.
I decided to teach a class, and when I googled ‘burlesque’ Jo Weldon came up. I emailed her and introduced myself. I told her people were asking me to teach stripping and asked if she could send me one of her handbooks.
She emailed me back and said, ‘Judith Stein! The other legends talk about you at BHoF!’ I’m thinking, “What’s a legend? What’s BHoF?” So Jo sent me all the information, and I went to BHoF the year it was at The Palms, about seven or eight years ago.
I went to one of the showrooms and saw Fannie Annie, Holiday O’Hara, Satan’s Angel, Isis Starr… all of these people I knew! And then these people I’d only heard about like Tempest Storm and April March.
After that, I got asked to perform at a few shows in Canada. I called up a friend in Vegas to have a costume made and picked out some music. My first show out of retirement was here in Nelson at this beautiful little theatre with the Cheesecake Burlesque Revue. Everybody that I had known as Kootenay Kate was there and they were just wonderful.
Then I did the Vancouver Burlesque Festival with Burgundy Brixx and I got a standing ovation. Tigger! was there and told me I needed to be in the Legends show at BHoF. I thought about it, called him up and told him what I wanted to do. They had me close the first act, and after that it really took off and I started going all over.
“The job of a burlesque performer is to entertain. You can have the most beautiful costume and fifty years of dance training, but if you’re not an entertainer, you’re dead in the water.”
Can you tell me about any memorable experiences since you’ve been involved in the modern burlesque community?
Tigger! and I were in San Antonio and we had gone out to dinner together. As we walked back into the hotel, a guy called out for amateurs to get up on the bar. I looked at Tigger! and he said, ‘Go ahead.’ So here I am, in this bar with all these little chicky-poos doing booty pops and everything else. I was in a white suit with my hair in a bun… and I made $50 in tips.
What advice do you have for burlesque performers today?
Get paid. Do not work for free. Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. The job of a burlesque performer is to entertain. You can have the most beautiful costume and fifty years of dance training, but if you’re not an entertainer, you’re dead in the water.
Put out the love. Your job is to make them feel good, not for them to make you feel good. They paid the money. It’s not your mental masturbation. You need to have emotional generosity.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve just started putting together a workshop called ‘The Menopausal Strut’ for women over fifty. Once you reach a certain age, you’re not considered sexy or sexual. It’s just about allowing women to get together and dig out that lingerie and those high heels from the back of the closet. They have a grace that comes with age and they’ll learn how to use it.
Burlesque legend Judith Stein interviewed by Adele Wolf.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.