A month ago, sitting beside Kalani in her tranquil, beautiful home, just days after the Burlesque Hall of Fame pageant, recording the following interview, I felt both priviliged and excited.
Privileged, because Kalani had, despite her shyness and desire for privacy, had invited us in to look around her house and stay to chat (And we did, until the sun began to rise, and the conversation once the tape stopped was MINDBLOWING!)
But chiefly excited, because I have met Kalani repeatedly over the last few years and got to know her somewhat, and I thought for such a long time about what I would like to ask her and discuss with her if I ever had the chance – and I just knew she wouldn’t disappoint me.
Kalani casually remarks on the very things most of us would love to say out loud or admit to thinking, but never do. She has an incredible, breathtaking presence – almost regal in the way that Catherine [D’Lish] can be, and spending this intimate time with her imbued me with a calm inner stillness and confidence.
So do not be intimidated by this statuesque beauty. She is both modest and self-assured; she knows what she likes, and especially what she doesn’t. And she knows what she wants – from herself, from burlesque, and from life…
H. Okay, let’s start with the obvious – congratulations!
K. Thank you!
H. It was SO wonderful. And I realise this seems like such a throwaway question and everyone has probably asked you, but I sincerely want to know how you feel – how it felt to finally win…?
K. You know, honestly, I already knew I was going to win – it’s just something that I’ve always been able to do in my lifetime –
H. To know?
K. Yes. So when I didn’t win in ’07, I already knew that I wasn’t going to win. I already knew that, and I already knew Immodesty was going to win – I just knew it.
K. Yeah; I just knew that that was going to be. And I was very comfortable with that. And when I competed in ’09, I kind of already had the feeling that I was going to win. But it’s still always shocking; you’re like, ‘Wow, that really happened, I really did win!’ So I was really shocked. When I got ‘Most Dazzling’, I thought, ‘Oh okay – didn’t win, but that’s fine, okay, I get a trophy. That’s cool, I’ll come back next year, no problem.’ But then – I didn’t know you could win twice.
I don’t remember who was standing next to me – I think it was a man. And El Vez said, ‘So nice she had to win it twice’, and he goes, ‘That’s you’. And I said, ‘It’s not me, I already won something’ – in a lot of other pageants you win something and that’s it – a congenial kind of thing. So I was like, ‘Me?’ Kinda shocked, but I knew it also.
I didn’t really get to see a lot of the other acts, which is always very disappointing for me…
So I feel great. I’m a little disappointed I can only ever perform on one Saturday ever again *laughs* But otherwise yes, I feel great. I’m happy.
H. Again, this will be something people have asked, but is it possible for you to describe Saturday from your point of view: preparing, waiting, performing, winning – did you do anything specific…
K. Usually, on the day of a very important performance, I like to stay home and have some time to just be calm; I like to meditate, clear my chakras and everything like that. I like to get there early and listen to my ipod…
There was a lot of pressure on me this year to win, because of… other various reasons that made it important for me to win this year. So I usually don’t have that kind of pressure on me.
It was all kind of a blur for me when I was onstage – a complete blur. Usually you can ask me what happened, and I’ll rememeber exactly – ‘Well this happened, that happened, I tripped over that…’ But this time was just a complete blur, because I had a major warderobe malfunction, but you couldn’t tell. Then I just went into panic mode, and then it became a blur. But I don’t really remember a whole lot because, you know, I was stoned *laughs* which is probably why I was so calm! But I really was a ball of nerves…
H. Do you find that it helps you not to overthink things – I know other people say that –
K. Only with the anxiety. Any other performance, I don’t have to get high. I like to have a drink, but as I said, there was a lot of pressure on me, for me to actually win – I had to win it this year.
H. Can you say what some of these pressures were?
K. There is a lot of things that my UK Manager has been planning as far as selling the Tease Show, being represented by EMI etc. So, in order for him to sell myself as an act, I had to win it this year; It was important as far as timelines were concerned and closing business deals that I did win this year. That, and a few other things, were why I felt I had so much pressure on me.
H. Understood! So what happened after that announcement – how did the rest of the night go; because I think we had a big hug and a photo, and then you were whisked away and we didn’t see you from that point – was it a big flurry of press?
K. A lot of people just rushed the stage, and I’m a very shy, shy person, so – great on stage, but I generally just shy away from people! So everyone rushed the stage and I was a deer in headlights! That lasted for about an hour, and there was a lot of picture taking and congratulations, which was wonderful, but I really just wanted to go home and get in bed; read a book… *laughs* And eat! And just be in a quiet place. I usually take off after shows, so I csan go somewhere where it’s quiet.
H. Wind down from it –
K. Yeah. I’m great on stage, but off stage I’m really not as sociable.
H. And was the press and media quite intense, did that take up most of your time? There were some camera crews too…
K. There could have been, but there was so much happening, and I noticed them a little bit in my peripheral vision, but I really couldn’t see or understand what was happening. I don’t know… The Travel Channel or something! *laughs* I don’t know…
H. So what has happened in the days since Saturday?
K. I did laundry, and I slept for a really long time, which is great. I’m just kind of taking it all in and thinking ‘ok, what now, where do I go from there?’ But usually once I finish a show, I’m right on to the next one. Actually, once a show is finished, I don’t even want to think about it again. It’s done – I’ve been there and done that. I’ll perform it, but I’m already onto the next show. I’m planning it, drawing it out, things like that.
H. This might be a difficult question, but what do you hope to contribute and/or achieve in the coming year as reigning queen? Do you feel like you’ve become a spokesmodel of sorts – have you had the chance to think about how you’d like to make the most of it; maybe promote your ideas and the BHoF…?
K. Well as I said, once I’ve done something, I put it behind me and just sort of move on, because I always like to be moving forward. Naturally if there are any responsibilities or things I have to do, or any social engagements I have to be at, then of course I’ll do that. And I’d like to hand a beautiful crown down to the next BHoF winner – that’ll be nice…
Kalani – The Beginning.
H. Well as you say, let’s move on…
Compared to some of your contemporaries, other well known, prominent burlesque performers, not a lot, I would say, is commonly known about you at a basic level. So, at the risk of asking you a dull question –
K. No, no…
H. Can you talk about where you were born, and your early life – your origin and heritage…?
K. Sure. I was born in Denver, Colorado, and then we moved right away to Hawaii, and there I was raised until I was ten. And then we moved to Alaska.
Now, my mother was a stripper her whole life – she quit stripping a couple of years ago; but like Gentlemens Club stripping.
H. More conventional stripping –
K. Right. She used to, when she was younger… She did a lot of shows and made all of her own costume. She had all different kinds of shows that she would do, but then she just stopped doing it. After a certain period, there really wasn’t a call for shows any more, because people just weren’t interested, so she stopped doing them.
And that’s how I remember her – doing shows. And I actually started dancing illegally, at the age of eighteen (it’s twenty-one here in the United States, if there’s alcohol) in Alaska, and that’s when I saw my first feature entertainer, and I thought, ‘Oh I can do that, but I can do it better.’ So I had to wait until I was twenty-one, and the second I was twenty-one, I left Alaska and came to Las Vegas. And that’s how my family came here – they all followed me.
H. You were the figurehead, charging away…
K. Uh yeah, they were actually making me crazy, so I had to get away from them, but –
H. But then they followed you – oh well, that didn’t work out!
K. I know! *laughs*
H. I also read that you trained as a hula dancer, a tahitian dancer – was that as a child, when you were younger?
K. Yes, it was as a child, but every now and again I’ll do the show again, just out of boredom *laughs* But the only reason I don’t do a hula/tahitian show now as a burlesque performer is because so many acts ruin it for me by coming out in a grass skirt and an ukelele and do something that is completely forgettable that I… Every year I see it, and every year I go, ‘Okay, I’m going to do one’, and then I see it and I change my mind.
H. There’s some strange sacrilege being committed…
K. Yeah *laughs* It just turns me off! So I decided that I was going to do one, but it would be very traditional. Not with a hula skirt – there’s another way that Hawaiian dancers perform; they actually wear a Victorian dress. Because, you know, we had royalty. And I was going to perform it like that, but then again, somebody came out with an ukelele and some bad Hawaiian music… It just killed it for me.
H. I know that your foray into the world of burlesque started somewhere quite different – was it a biker bar or something?
K. It was a stripclub, but it was a biker bar, yes.
H. What motivated the move into more erotic and sensual dance from the Tahitian, more traditional dance?
K. Well, I became a feature entertainer. A feature entertainer is a girl who does centrefold magazines and/or porn ot whatever. Or they have gigantic implants – they look like clowns – it’s like a freakshow. So what they do is, they get booked to travel around to different clubs and they perform for a week.
H. They’re ‘in residence’ –
K. Yes, but they’re only booked into stripclubs. Now, a lot of burlesque performers in the 70’s could no longer make money in the normal clubs, so they had to move into the gentlemens clubs. That’s where I learned, at the Palomino, the art of burlesque from the older entertainers, who did travel around as burlesque entertainers, and were forced to move to actual strip clubs and perform there.
I saw a feature entertainer in Alaska; she came to the club, and I didn’t even know that this was a job – something you could do. I think her name was, like, ‘Candy Apples’ or something like that. And she has these really big giant basketball sized boobs. And I was like ‘Wow, she does shows and they’re themed – she’s an indian and then she’s a -‘, you know, all the things you would be. And I thought, ‘ I wanna do that’. So I started making these little shows with what little I could get in Alaska. I had maybe ten shows and I came to Vegas with those and started working at trhe Palamino, which was the last burlesque club.
H. Did you ever feel a motivation early on to be admired, to feel more mature at that age, or was it more of a financial thing that brought you into that – was there any underlying motivation of this sort?
K. I was just always really good at it and i thought it was really interesting how you can garner certain reactions without talking and just moving – it was just always really interesting to me, because I love to watch people. I love to be onstage, not because I like to compete or anything like that; it’s just because it’s what I ‘do’ – I would do it regardless.
H. As you said, it was the feature dancer that really captured your imagination. And this makes me think of a question I asked Catherine a little while ago which I think is relatable to you.
I asked her if the more theatrical, more sophisticated performance that perhaps the feature dancers were starting to tap into, had maybe a subtlety or a creative aesthetic that more conventional stripping or erotic dance didn’t fulfill…
K. Exactly, exactly. The nice thing about being able to work out your shows in a stripclub is – it’s like bootcamp for stripping or burlesque. And those guys don’t care what you’re doing; nobody is really paying attention – you have time to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I actually didn’t care for feature entertaining, because I did it for about a year, and I had to be on the road a lot.
H. So the novelty wore off quite fast then!
K. The novelty wore off because I felt like I wasn’t being appreciated for what I did and all the work I put into everything. And men scare easily – so if you come out in a really big costume and you look super unapproachable they just… It just wasn’t the right atmosphere and I wanted to move off into something that was really really artistic, and I knew that wasn’t the place to do it. So I actually just quit.
H. Which brings me to the next question – When or why did you make the full transition to ‘burlesque performer’ – how did that come about?
K. Well, what happened was: I quit dancing, I quit everything, for about seven years, and I went snowboarding. That’s my thing, snowboarding. If I could just snowboard all the time that’s what I’d do. And then I ran out of money, and I thought, ‘Well I’d better go back to dancing because I’m broke!’ So then I thought; well, dancing/stripping is okay, but I also want to perform. So I went to Club Paradise and they have a great, amazing stage – it’s the only three curtain stage in town with a spot, so it was a great place for me to go; I didn’t have to pay a house fee and I could do my shows. I stayed there for four years and cultivated again what I was doing – I hadn’t danced in seven years, so I just disappeared for a while *laughs*
H. Kept a low profile –
H. Can you describe any of your early routines and concepts?
K. Hmm, let’s see…
Okay; I had a cowboy – I can’t stand Country music, but it was a necessity travelling on the road – there were certain shows that you had to have, because they expected to see them.
H. Standards –
K. Yes – standards are a ‘cowboy’, country or cowboy, because you’d be booked into the mid-west or the south a lot. Another is something american, U.S.A, red white and blue –
H. Very Americana –
K. Exactly. And another one would be a cat – most girls had a cat show.
H. I think that’s still fairly common now.
K. Yes. And then back in those days, girls had a very ‘chippendale’ looking show where you had the collar, the bow-tie – you know. And that was the traditional strip.
But also, the difference from burlesque as it was and burlesque as it is now is – you’re only up there for five to seven minutes, maybe ten minutes at the longest. Traditionally, the way we did it; the way feature entertainers and old burlesquers did it – we were up there for thirty to thrity-five minutes. That’s a long time to be onstage…
H. Do you remember the first routine you did that really felt to you like a ‘burlesque’ routine?
K. I had this show that was a black velvet gown with a white feather boa, and I would dance to Zizzi Topp’s ‘Never Go Crazy About a Sharp Dressed Man’. And it got slower after that, but it was a four or five song routine. That was probably the closest.
Also, every girl wore stockings and garters, or at the very least stockings. And that’s another act that I think noone really knows how to do any more – a proper stocking strip. It’s not the art of taking your stockings off; it’s what you do with them on. If it’s done properly it is absolutely amazing and noone knows how to do it any more…
H. Mmm – it can be incredibly erotic…
K. Very, because you’re actually on the floor – you leave one on and the other one slides, and it’s fabulous if you know what you’re doing. I haven’t seen anyone do it for years…
H. Am I right in thinking you competed in hula dance competitions?
H. Did this give you a taste or a drive for competing early on?
K. You know, I always competed with myself, to see if I could make the images in my head reality.
But it’s like comparing apples and oranges; you can’t compare one girl to the next – it’s very very difficult, especially when you reach a certain level, because we all do something so different. I mean, how can you compare Immodesty Blaize to what I do, or what I do to what Perle [Noire] does? It’s all so dramatically different.
But, in my opinion though, the BHoF should have strict parameters as far as what they want to see, because a lot of girls don’t understand what the judges are looking for – and I was one of them!
H. Yes. I think there is definately a commonly held view that there is a bias towards the classical, the more conventional –
K. Well, of course. I mean, there should be. There really really should be. I have very strong opinions as far as some of the acts that I see that don’t belong on the burlesque stage whatsoever. It makes no sense to me at all.
H. I mean, without naming specific ones…?
K. I couldn’t remember their names anyway –
H. What kind of thing are we talking about?
Performance art. Like… when a girl has a giant papier mache poo, and she’s coming out of it, and she’s pouring chocolate sauce all over her. That isn’t burlesque, it’s performance art. You know; when you’re smearing blood all over you – it’s not burlesque, it’s performance art. Or any kind of impersonation – when you just straight take a scene from a movie when you do some kind of impersonation.
K. Exactly. To me, it’s just an impersonation or it’s performance art.
H. Maybe you would say that is more on the variety side of things…
K. Yeah, but they didn’t have a variety category before, so this was new. Thank God they did that, because it’s very confusing for a lot of people.
H. Yes, I think now they’ve defined more categories… But I do, I did, feel some sympathy for some of the girls, maybe some of the younger performers especially who had thought, ‘I’m going to do something so innovative and different –
K. Conceptual –
H. Totally outside the box. I did feel quite sorry for them and I think a lot of them were really disappointed when things didn’t go their way, if you know what I mean.
K. Oh trust me, I completely understand what you’re saying. I mean, I appreciate the creativity, but the thing is that a lot of the acts are so bad…
I’ll tell you something that noone knows about me – I have never sat through a whole burlesque show.
K. I can’t. Unless I have… a syringe full of heroin – maybe I could do it! *laughs* To keep me in one place – I just can’t tolerate it. Most of the acts are so…
H. Not even if all your friends were in it? You still couldn’t…?
K. No. Some of my friends yes, but I’m very particular in who I like and who I don’t like. I just cannot watch one fan dance after another after another, I just can’t do it; it’s just so boring, so boring to me.
H. So, how did you first come across the Burlesque Hall of Fame and ‘Miss Exotic World’? And do you remember your first experiences of seeing the real vintage legends perform, and what that might have inspired in you?
K. I googled it – I googled ‘burlesque’. It was about five years ago I think, and I had been performing on stage regardless and I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute, maybe there’s a call for this!’ I remember Dita – she has been coming up and performing around , and I thought, ‘I wonder if there are other places where other girls perform…’ I wanted to dance again in different places, but I didn’t want to be a feature entertainer. So I googled ‘burlesque’, and that’s how I found what was, at the time, ‘Miss Exotic World’.
H. Which was literally down the road!
K. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’ And I ordered a video tape, because I didn’t understand exactly what they were looking for. I had to buy a VCR player to play the video tape and I thought, okay – i’ve got it, I can see what they want…
H. And do you remember your first experience of seeing the really vintage performers performing?
K. Oh yes! But… They’re so old, and they really don’t have a lot of the flexibility and dexterity that they may have had at one time, but it really helped me to understand as far as timing went, as far as what they did and when they did it. Which is something you don’t get to see a lot. They took their time too – they were out there a long time…
H. Did you ever get a chance back then to have any real discussions with them?
K. No… But I spent a lot of time with Tempest Storm, a lot of time…
H. And did you find that inspiring; did you learn anything, contextually?
K. From Tempest? No.
She’s very straight-laced and very proper, and she always gives the ‘correct’ answer, but she won’t really tell you how it was. But I love to listen to Satan’s Angel –
H. I think we all do!
K. She is absolutely amazing to talk to.
H. Have you had a chance to speak to Dixie much?
K. Yes, in fact I spoke to her on Friday night a little bit.
H. I know most people seem to have the biggest repsonse/reaction after speaking to her…
K. Yes, I’ve spoken to her quite a bit, and she’s absolutely lovely.
H. I know, as is self-evident, that you have pretty strong views on things, such as the time and investment and quality that should be put into a routine or concept. And I have heard you talk about this a lot –
K. Yes, because It’s very important –
H. Yes I think it is, so I like the fact that you talk about it. But for the benefit of any of my readers, or maybe for performers who are either fairly new to the industry or performing, or for those who have ambitions and desires to improve and take things to the next level etc. Can you describe what creating a new show entails and consists of for you…?
K. For me… My biggest inspiration for a show is music. I love to just space out when I’m at the gym or listening to my Ipod. I believe music inspires everyone and everything, and anything that gets created. Because you don’t look at a great painting and go, ‘Ohh, I want to make music’, or look at a piece of sculpture and say, ‘ I want to dance’. But music inspires all of that.
So music inspires me first and foremost.
H. See, I find that so interesting, because you’re such an artistic person in so many ways – you paint, and so many physical art forms… And I wondered, in terms of conceiving costume and setting at least, if you might be the kind of person who was stimulated by images as well…?
K. Images yes, if they’re done well, and I’m always most curious about inspired people to create certain images. But i’m theorising – probably music. Music inspires me to write, or create, or paint, or dance – so first and foremost it’s music.
H. So once you’ve found that key piece of music, what comes next?
K. What comes next is – I start visualising the show in my head, and what I do is think of the biggest show I could do. And of course some of it just isn’t possible – just logistically. I mean, nothings impossible, but without a few hundred thousand dollar budget it’s not possible. And is it packable? Will it translate to an audience? Am I just really high? Things like that.
So you just have to think about those things – is this a great idea, will the audience like it, or is it just a crazy idea?
So, I think about it for a while, and then I work it out. It takes me a long time to work a show out. Once I decide I’m going to actually manifest the show into reality, it takes about a year, sometimes longer to finish a show.
H. Yes… See, I think that’s important, especially for newer performers to hear that that’s the kind of timescale we’re talking about.
K. Putting a show together in three months – it just doesnt happen. The costumes have to be made and the songs have to be worked out. Then you have to go onstage in front of an audience, put the costume on, dance to the music and BOMB. You have to bomb; everything is going to go wrong the first time you perform it – it’s all going to go wrong. You will go, ‘Oh my God, this is the wrong song’ or, ‘why did I put that zipper there,’ or something like that. So after you work it out, it can take months. I’ve had shows which I have done mor many many years, and finally figured out a new way to do it, and then – it suddenly became a finished show.
H. What would you say to… I can just imagine what some people’s responses would be – people say to me, for instance, ‘Oh I just don’t have the budget or the financial capability to do what I want to do…’
K. See, I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that. When people say, ‘I can’t afford this…’ You’ll figure it out, because creation always finds a way. People don’t give themselves enough credit as far as what they can achieve. Like attracts like – you get what you think about whether you want it or not. So it’s really important to put the energy out there – of creation. As long as you have a goal, everything else will fall into place. It’s nothing you ever have to worry about – you will get the money.
Another thing I always tell girls too is, I do create maybe one show a year, because of the exorbhitant costs. Just to give some sort of a timeline of how often you are creating costumes. And I believe Immodesty is the same – she’s about one a year.
H. I’ve heard her talk about the same sort of timeframe –
K. Because the cost is just crazy, and just getting stuff done – it seems to be about that, maybe a year and a half – it just depends…
H. It’s quality over quantity isn’t it? You’d much rather have one, well polished, fantastic show…
K. Right. You’re better off having a couple of great, amazing costumes than ten crappy ones.
Kalani On Stage…
H. Another thing that Catherine [D’Lish] and I discussed is something else I think you will have thoughts on. We were discussing the more recent wave of performers, and that they seem more primarily concerned with how their performance makes them feel, and what it adds to their life or consciousness, when maybe it should be more about the audience, often a paying audience, and their experience, And that the priority should be more about the audience having a good time, and what you are giving to them, rather than it being all about what you are getting from it. Do you have any thoughts on which way round it should be?
K. I actually agree with you – it should be the other way around. I like to perform because I love to see when my audience is happy, or when they can escape with me. If I can take them out of their everyday normal lives and take them on a journey with me for a few minutes – it’s such a gift. To be able to give that to an audience – it’s a selfless thing. It’s not up there going ‘Oh look at me…’ It’s nothing to do with that. It’s something I enjoy – actually giving people that, and I want them to experience what I see in my head.
H. Another term that drives me crazy that’s bandied around, especially in mainstream press when some performers are interviewed, is the word ’empowerment’. They always talk about how ’empowering’ it is. Does this concept frustrate you at all – does it seem irrelevant, or does it have some significance?
K. Because I actually don’t read anything and i don’t move in the burlesque circles ( I have my own set of friends and they’re very eccentric)…
The phrase, ‘I go on stage to feel empowerment,’ makes me think, well – then just go strip. It seems to be an insecurity issue to me – when i hear, ‘I feel empowered,’ it makes me think, what is going on in this person’s life where they need to feel that kind of empowerment? No, I don’t feel empowerment onstage, I don’t want to empower myself or the audience; I want there to be a kind of kismet – an energy exchange – I want us to move together in this space for a little while – that’s my goal.
But… Are they really using that – empowerment?
*We briefly discuss programs such as ‘Faking It’ in the UK, and the wave of new ‘have a go’ performers who look at burlesque as a way to regain confidence and ’empower’ themselves, and that it frustrates some established performers that mainstream popularity for burlesque has meant the birth of the ‘have a go’ ethic…*
H. …I guess it comes back full circle to detracting from the audience and what it should be about –
K. I think there is a place for everything – I know there are lots of acts who have no business being onstage. I understand that everyone has to create in their way, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. So I really have mixed feelings. I mean, I don’t mind if they want to onstage and and do whatever it is they need to do; it doesn’t matter to me, but don’t be offended if I can’t sit through it, or if you can’t sell tickets to it, or if you can’t really make a career from it.
H. You admit that, at heart, you’re a shy, almost introverted person who likes their own space and isn’t always socially comfortable. And I always find it so interesting when performers are like this, but also perform. Is there any part of you that does thrive on the exhibitionist aspect and the audience interaction – do you feel you hand over to an alter-ego?
K. Oh sure of course. But I don’t go on stage just to perform or anything – it’s just the way I create. Creation forces me to move onto the stage and do that – it’s about what I’ve created, and I don’t have to be onstage, I could do it for somebody else –
H. It’s just a form of expression –
K. Yes – it’s a vision. I could create a show or a movie or write a screenplay. This is just the way I create. I’m not so narcissistic or self-absorbed where it has to be me in the middle of the whole thing – it doesn’t work like that for me at all…
Click here to read Part Two…
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.