From Root Canals to Bukaki: A Conversation with Julie Atlas Muz
While I had every intention of conducting a very earnest, professional and polite interview with Julie Atlas Muz, one half of the headlining husband (Mat Fraser) and wife team at the upcoming Vancouver International Burlesque Festival, May 6 and 7th, things somehow went off the rails very quickly. In the best possible way, mind you, but also in a very raw and occasionally raunchy fashion highlighted with bouts of mutual laughter and ribbing.
For those not already in the know, Julie is frequently credited as being one of the true founders and innovators of the neo-burlesque movement that started in New York many years ago. Together with her husband Mat (whose interview can be found here) these burlesque artists continue to shock, entertain and challenge audiences across the world.
The combination of Julie just having completed a root canal, and my downing a stiff cocktail after having worked extremely long hours for several weeks without a break, meant we were unintentionally ripe for a highly candid conversation. I can barely even call this an interview. Rather I’m giving you a voyeuristic glimpse into what felt like a private conversation between two people just getting to know one another. You’ve been warned. Ready? Read away.
Viv: Hi! Julie, Viv here. How are you doing?
Julie: Good! Good!
Viv: Good?? How can you be good? Mat tells me you just had a freaking root canal today! How can you be good?
Julie: Well, that was kind of a knee-jerk reaction.
Ok, ask me one more time.
Viv: How ARE you?
Julie: I’m okaaaaaaaaaay… the pain is starting to kick in and I’m hungry. I just ordered a pizza.
Viv: Oh, shit. Did they at least give you some decent meds for the pain?
Julie: Not really. This is America. Where do you think we are, Canada??
No need to recount the ensuing tidbits regarding various forms of Canadian herbal medicines.
Viv: So, from my point of view, someone who has only been involved with burlesque for five years, it seems to me that you’ve been at the forefront of the scene forever. But in actual fact how long has it actually been?
Julie: Yes. ForEVER. Since 1842. I started burlesque in 1842.
Viv: (chuckle) Well, with such a long history, you have been witness to so many changes and iterations of the scene both in and out of the mainstream media…
Julie: Yes, THANK you, Christina! THANK you, Cher! I mean fantastic. Really. Good on you guys. Thank you sooo much.
Viv: Exactly! So many conversations about burlesque and what it is and what it isn’t. Is it stripping or isn’t it. Is it sex work or isn’t it. Those are just a couple of current topics that come to mind. So I would love to know, which social discussions have been around forever that you think are still relevant today?
Julie: Yah. For sure. Acceptance of all body types is something that is just really fun. All the body politics and the fact that burlesque is supposed to represent all types so long as you’re sexy and funny. That’s certainly a strong message that I adhere to and find to be a conversation that’s still worth having. Particularly with the new generation of burlesque performers who are soooo into rolling in the dough, you know? And then there are lots of conversations that have been happening since the dawn of time that are being rehashed by the newer generations.
Viv: And is there anything new in those conversations that you haven’t heard before?
Julie: Honestly, sometimes I get so irritated by it all, that’s why I’m never on Facebook.
THANK you, Christina! THANK you, Cher! I mean fantastic. Really. Good on you guys. Thank you sooo much.
Viv: Hey, I’ve only been at this for five years and sometimes even I get irritated by some of the conversations, so I can only imagine as a founding mother of neo-burlesque, how that must be.
Julie: Yah, I’m really not a fan of the term burlesque ‘community’. Because, really, IS it actually a community? I mean… what does that even mean? Is the community going to come over to my house and help me dig piles of dirt after a flood? I just don’t understand. I just really care about what happens on the stage and backstage. That’s personally just my bag.
Viv: Just today I was watching an online conversation regarding the idea of burlesque community in terms of its ability to be self-sustaining. For example, to what extent should we expect burlesque show audiences to be comprised of other burlesque performers in the name of community. What are your thoughts?
Julie: I do believe in supporting the economy of entertainment. I do believe in buying tickets for shows and not comping people for shows. Because the way that society shows value is through the exchange of money. That’s why I also encourage tipping. I like the exchange of money through hands. Should it be a closed circuit, self-sustaining community? No. I don’t think so. And that word. Community. It’s just so unsexy. Instead of being so focused on the idea of community, why can’t you just be focused on your work? Why hasn’t anyone made clothes that explode? What if you took all this energy that you are putting into the socio-political aspect of burlesque and put it into making the best act ever. As an artist, I was told very early on, “Julie, just focus on the work and the rest will follow.” Maybe I just took that too much to heart. But Mat (Mat is speaking in the background) says he likes the word burlesque community. Ok, so tell me what the term burlesque community means to you, Baby? (Addressing Mat. She calls him, Baby. I mean, I love this glimpse of domesticity. Mat proceeds to question how else you can describe it in two words or less.)
I dunno, how about show biz? I guess it’s actually more than just show biz. But when the whole burlesque ‘community’ gets up in arms about things, and there’s a big flurry of activity on a certain topic on social media, I will, in my weaker moments stalk it and watch it, you know? But I try very hard not to comment on it.
Branding is how you label the ownership of a cow. I am so against it. I really am. It makes me furious. It just makes you smaller, and limits your thinking.
Viv: How do you feel about the word subversive as I’ve heard it used to describe not just New York burlesque but your work in particular. Is that a word that resonates?
Julie: Sure. I like being subversive. I like being a renegade. I like being transgressive. I think those are all exciting action words. Yah, I can do subversive. What does that mean? Turning the world upside down, right? I like being part of that band of misfits, of outsiders. Another word I would use is buffoon. The Jester would always tell the King what he wanted to hear,but in a funny way. Whereas the buffoon would come in from his little village somewhere and tell the King the truth. If the buffoon was good at it, the King would listen and like it. If he didn’t. He’d chop off his head.
Viv: I had a bit of a conversation with Mat about what it meant for the two of you to come together as a burlesque couple. He had some great observations about the removal of barriers and how your work became more extreme. What’s your perspective?
Julie: I now have the ultimate partner in crime. The whole world became a better and brighter place with Mat by my side. It’s just so much more fun.
You know, though. One of the things with Mat and me, is that we refuse to label ourselves. And that’s a really big hot topicever since the introduction of the internet and everyone creating an electronic identity. Everyone wants to be branded and I think that is SUCH bullshit.
Viv: OH MY GOD! You are the only other person I’ve talked to that thinks that way! I once posted online that I hated seeing people identifying themselves as a ‘brand’. That we, as a species, do not need yet one more mechanism to depersonalize the human experience. Why would someone want to be identified as a product or commodity? I work in marketing and branding in my day job, and I refuse to reduce any artistic expression to something as simplistic as a brand. Branding is intended to be a shorthand. A tool used to processa fairly complex set of ideals, into a dumbed down consumer product. Doesn’t that completely undermine the notion of art? Needless to say, I was lambasted for that opinion.
Julie: Branding is how you label the ownership of a cow. I am so against it. I really am. It makes me furious. It just makes you smaller, and limits your thinking. I mean listen, I was labeled a slut when I was in the sixth grade, but I didn’t think of myself as a slut. Like RuPaul says, what other people say about you is NONE of your business. RuPaul, she just fucking nailed it. You can call me anything you want, you can call me a burlesque dancer, you can call me an actor, you can call me a choreographer, you can call me a radical anarchist… I don’t care. What I care about is what I’m focusing on in the here and now. Which leaves me the freedom to say, ‘SURE! I will act in (a project she is not allowed to talk about yet so I will not write it here), SURE I’ll create a giant 8 foot-tall tap dancing penis that performs to Rape Me with lips licking him — or her– a giant transgendered penis puppet.’ SURE, I can do a wide variety of things because I’m not living in a box that is covered in rhinestones or beads.
Viv: When you are crafting a new piece of work, how much of your process is rooted in what will rock your own personal world versus what you think the audience will enjoy?
Julie: Oh, I am ALWAYS thinking about the audience. Always. I just love the audience. Somebody else said this, but I really can’t remember who, but if you love the audience truly. And you truly SHOW that you love the audience, the audience becomes a magnifying mirror. They will love you back in kind and more. And! In order to truly love the audience you absolutely need to consider what will entertain them. What they want to see. Sure, there are times when I just want to… I dunno…. get chopped up into tiny little pieces or something….
Mat pipes up in the background to ask what part of the audience she wants to love. Julie picks up the thread and continues.
…YES, I also love the old Jewish bag at the back of the audience looking for a pussy shot! You know, that’s fine. You HAVE to love that person, too. Do they deserve my love? Yah, they do. They paid to get in. You have to love them and then you will SURPRISE them and they will have a different experience than what they expected. I feel like in burlesque, you show your love to your audience with a GOOD act, one that has proper structure, with a proper beginning, middle and an end. That’s the burlesque structure. But if I were in a gallery, that audience would get something different. I’m not as familiar with that gallery audience as I am the nightclub audience. So some audiences I know how to love a little bit better than others.
There’s a brief lull as we consider what she’s just said. After a moment we both begin talking simultaneously causing Julie to apologize. Profusely. I can’t help but laugh out loud at her reaction.
Viv: What the hell?! That was so unbelievably Canadian of you! I did not expect that. What did you just apologize for!? First the root canal and now you are apologizing for speaking on a phone call that’s supposed to be about you?
Julie: (also laughing) I had a root canal today. I’m weak.
Viv: All right, fair enough! So, you have not yet ever been to Vancouver, nor has your husband, Mat. Do you have any preconceived notions regarding the Vancouver burlesque scene?
Viv: SQUEEEEEEEEEE! (I literally squeal in delight at this umprompted bit of praise for my flock. I pity Julie’s ears.) Seriously??? That’s my burlesque family! We are performing at Burlesque Hall of Fame this year!
Julie: I freaking LOOOOVE you. I looooooove The Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society! But Mat and I aren’t going to BHOF this year. For the first time ever you have made me regret that we aren’t going. How many of you are performing??
Viv: More than 20 of us.
Julie: (speaking to Mat in the background) Mat! Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society! They are performing at BHOF this year! More than 20 of them! All in one number. (Back to me on the phone) The last time I saw you perform at BHOF you guys were doing a Busby Berkley tribute number with a projection behind you. It was soooo good I loved it sooooooo much! I was so jelly… I wanted that to be my number. You guys are the reason that Mat and I were yaaaaaaay!!!!! Let’s go to Vancouver!
Viv: I am so excited to hear you say all this. You have no idea. The Chickens are all going to feel so incredibly honored.
Julie: YOU guys know how to love the audience. But as far as Vancouver as a whole, I do have some idea what to expect. I imagine it’s going to be: A. Lot. Of. Fun. With a lot of people dressed up in something other than just the standard mini top hat and corset and beaded bra. Which has become sort of a uniform. (Vancouver, this is your cue to step it up!) I like to go out and see things I’ve never seen before. I imagine there’s going to be a lot of smart people. A lot of white people. But you know, it’s only recently that New York burlesque wasn’t all white all the time. I also expect it to be rather colder than it should be. Will I be able to see the Northern Lights???
Viv: Northern Lights??? uuuuuuuhhhh…. no. And listen we were over 80 degrees here last week.
Julie: I grew up in Detroit, which is right on the corner of Canada.
Look what happens to insular communities. They DIE. Look at poetry. Look at modern dance. They’ve killed themselves by being so insular. It’s a good idea to shake things up, move things around.
Viv: Did you ever see the Northern Lights in Detroit?
Viv: So you should know better!
Julie: So no igloos then?
At this point we ventured completely off-topic to discuss horticulture, gardens, urban planning, bird watching, pets and metric conversions. While Julie and I found this fascinating, I’m holding this back as my personal perk of the interview process.
Viv: Ok, we still need to come up with a sound bite. When I chatted with Mat, we came up with a great quotable nugget because he happened to be naked while we were doing our video chat and he coincidentally needed to get up at one point during our discussion. Thus, he very kindly gave me the exploitable fact that he was naked. “My Interview with NUDE Mat Fraser.” We still need to figure out what that line is for this chat. I need something juicy to flog.
Julie: Yah, post root canal just doesn’t have the same allure, does it. “I can KIND of open my mouth… but…”
Honestly, it took another five minutes for us to get back on track after our gut-wrenching laughter. As we tried to be professional we diverted our conversation to her busy travel schedule, the fact that she hasn’t been in one spot for more than 20 days within the last year.
Viv: Oh my god, woman. You have to love your art. That sort of commitment to travel is truly exhausting.
Julie: Yeah. And it really isn’t all that glamorous. But you know, that means that Mat and I really value our time when we are together. And we value our time in airports even less. I have to really tackle my schedule one week at a time otherwise it becomes overwhelming and you can really freak out. And one thing I cannot do, is that I cannot pack for a trip unless I’ve unpacked from the trip before.
Viv: I have taken so much of your time and you must be exhausted. Any words in advance of your appearance in Vancouver?
Julie: Hmmmmm. Well. I will be off my antibiotics from my root canal so I can have a drink. And I know that the acts we have chosen to perform are our classic numbers so I’m hoping that people won’t be sad that we are doing them.
Viv: Oh, no. Oh, FUCK no. No. No. No. TRUST me. Vancouver is going to freaking LOVE you!
Julie: I dunno. I’m used to performing in shows with really high production values where on one night I’m a complete chameleon doing the Little Girl from Chernobyl, my giant tap-dancing penis, One Girl Two Cupcakes… I don’t know if you remember that reference from the internet…
Viv: Uh… YES. I don’t think that’s imagery that’s easily forgettable.
Julie: Yah, right? It’s really not. It’s one of those turn-key moments in cyber pop culture. The possibilities of voyeurism. But anyhow, I will typically do three numbers in one night, five nights a week. So coming to Vancouver and doing one number? Or having this status of headliner… is awkward for me.
Viv: REALLY?????? (You have to imagine the high-pitched incredulity of my voice.)
Julie: Yaaaaah, man. At a party, I will just end up standing in the corner talking to the bus boy. I will just run away from conversations, “Excuse me, I have something I need to do.” Do you know what I mean? Dirty Martini calls it fist pumping. Mat is much more magnamimous about such things than I am. He is very regal in that way.
In order to truly love the audience you absolutely need to consider what will entertain them. What they want to see.
Viv: He so IS! You are so right. Regal is absolutely the word.
Julie: And I’m like the slave girl in the corner, “So, you wanna blow job?”.
Viv: I wish I had a penis just so I could say yes to that.
Julie: I’m sorry we haven’t stayed more on topic, but look what happens to insular communities. They DIE. Look at poetry. Look at modern dance. They’ve killed themselves by being so insular. It’s a good idea to shake things up, move things around. Like you for example. You’ve got your muggle job. Not a bad idea. It’s a GOOD idea to have a muggle job. Do you know what? Pedro Almodovar, do you know who that is? The Spanish film maker?
Viv: Almodovar! Of course! I was watching his films before most of my burlesque contemporaries were even born. (I’m turning 50 this year. I say this with utmost pride!)
Julie: Well, he worked at the telephone company right up until he produced Tie Me Up Tie Me Down in the 90s. Because he never wanted to compromise the art he wanted to produce for the sake of economy. And I do feel that as an entertainer sometimes,that I need to meet a certain acceptable standard in order to continue to get hired. I don’t call that a brand, but there is a real freedom to make whatever the fuck you want, to have absolutely no constraints other than your imagination. Because, who cares! You don’t need to do it for the money. You’ve got that covered. THAT is an awesome possibility and an awesome place to be. I will also say this. To those people who want to include audience participation in their performances. The BEST people to pick? You pick someone in their 50s. Pick that person who is there to celebrate their 55th birthday. Because they do not give a FUCK about looking foolish and they will be So. Much. Fun. If you get a 19 year old or a 20 year old, they will be so concerned about their appearance, seeking approval and their thumbs will be so tired from texting .If you want to have a good time? Run with the radical crowd.
Viv: I love it. You SO just gave me my sound bite.
Julie: I did, right?? I just put that right out there. That was some good stuff.
Viv: You so did. Ok. But you know what? I selfishly have to confess something. It’s been weighing heavily on my mind ever since I chatted with Mat a couple weeks ago. While I’ve been reveling in the GLOW of your collective alternative weirdness, I have to tell you, I have been absolutely mortified and terrified about something.
Viv: I’m making this next statement totally about me, but I can’t be the only performer who has ever felt this. I have to admit. That I am absolutely mortified about the fact that the first and possibly only time I will be sharing the event bill with both you and Mat…
Viv: That I am performing the most traditional, classic, non-boundary-breaking version of burlesque that there is! The most straight forward, gown and strut act ever. It’s the one and only classic act I have, and I’m completely intimidated and embarrassed to perform it at a festival headlined by two of the most OUT there innovative performers I know. GAH! Wait until you get a load of the fabulous WEIRD that my fellow Vancouver performers are bringing to the festival this year. You are going to love it.
Julie: But you know what? Elegant acts just get BOOKED. That’s why my balloon act keeps getting booked. You can still do a classic act and be a total rebel wild thing. I will not, I would not, pin that identity on you as your brand. I will not identify you solely based on that one act. Trust me, I know that you are a crazy person. I know that you are not a follower.
Viv: Seriously, I was tripping out when I was talking to Mat. He was giving this sexy fucking description of New York burlesque when he first encountered it. It was low, and dirty, subversive and angry. And I’m thinking…. oh… well I’m bringing a pink froufrou ostrich and Swarovski encrusted fluff of NOTHING to the stage! I’m thinking, oh FUCK I wish I were doing something else.
Julie: But listen. You watch Catherine D’Lish, she’s super supersuper classic classicclassic. But there’s this intense power.
Viv: Yah, there’s a visceral edge to her sensuality. There’s something slightly dangerous in her stage presence.
Julie: But I can relate to what you are saying with my own confession. I’m performing balloon in Vancouver, but I would much rather be doing my brand new Tap Dancing Penis.
Viv: I’m thrilled to see you perform balloon, because it’s absolutely iconic. A performance of its time and I’ve never seen it live. But, I am just a little bit sad that I don’t also get to see the Tap Dancing Penis, I have to say.
Julie:Yah, He/She was born just a week ago.
Viv: OH! So it really is a brand new baby act. How exciting! Is it circumcised?
Julie: Yah… I couldn’t figure out how to make him uncircumcised. Visually, you know? I mean he’s a big eight foot tall penis I just couldn’t figure out how to make a foreskin work.
Viv: Screaming Chicken once did a bukaki number with a 20-foot long dancing penis dragon and it was also circumcised.
Julie: That ‘s his name!!! Bukaki!
Viv: Shut UP.
Julie: How else could we make all the come happen?
Viv: You know what? You are the Screaming Chickens’ Fairy Godmother. That’s what you are. I just decided.
After several more attempts at hanging up with one another, and with our conversation becoming ever more lewd and laughter punctuated, Julie comes up with a classic goodbye tactic.
Julie: Ok. We are just going to have to do the ‘1, 2, 3, Goodbye’ thing and hang up.
Viv: Deal. This has just been a shit load of fun. Honestly. Can hardly wait to pick this up when we see each other in person.
Julie and Viv: One. Two. Three. Goodbye!! (click)