Laurie Hagen is, hands down, one of the most multi-talented, endearing, dedicated and creative women I have ever met, with an inspiring story to tell. When I first saw Laurie Hagen perform, years ago now, I knew I had seen something very special, and I was thrilled when I read and heard the reaction to her ovation-worthy ‘Most Innovative’ performance at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2013 from people in the States, many of whom were discovering her gifts for the first time.
Her triumph was the perfect moment to finally do a big interview with Laurie Hagen; her talent deserves so much more publicity than my pre-interview preparation could discover online, and so many people have asked to know more about her after her Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend win and the subsequent viral circulation of her mesmerising ‘Reverse Striptease’ video.
The following is an edited transcript of a long but fascinating chat Laurie Hagen and I had in June. Pour yourself a glass of something and settle down to enjoy it – Laurie Hagen Part Two is coming later in the week…
Holli: Let’s begin by talking about BHoF – it was a first time experience for you. Take me through your Saturday…
Laurie: Absolutely. I hadn’t been to the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend before, so the whole thing felt very new to me, very exciting, but also quite daunting, obviously. The first time I went into the theatre on Thursday, my stomach flipped! [laughs] Such a huge stage and such a huge occasion; it really sunk in when I saw the venue, without even seeing people perform. When you see people perform, there goes the pressure – it just ramps it up even more, but at the same time, the atmosphere was really positive backstage. ‘Best Debut’ were on first and it felt really calm backstage with just us getting ready. I’m used to things being really hectic backstage, but it was just the ten of us spread out in the dressing room, having chats and getting to know each other, which was lovely. So it was a combination of, ‘Aaahhh, I can’t believe this is about to happen!’ and things feeling quite lovely already.
H: And what was it like out there? Because, of course, it’s not just any audience you are performing for; it’s an audience packed with peers and burlesque icons, a really informed burlesque crowd…
L: It was incredible. Being in the audience from the Thursday night onwards, the atmosphere was incredibly supportive, so you felt that they would be rooting for you regardless of whether they knew you or not. People genuinely wanted you to do well, so that was lovely to know. But at the same time there was the other side of the coin – everyone is there, everyone that you admire; you feel star struck just watching them walk by. I remember talking to Kitty [Bang Bang], who is a very, very confident performer who doesn’t get nervous, and she told me that she came out of her bin last year and saw Dirty Martini in the front row as one of the judges, and she thought, woahh! [laughs] So even Kitty got nervous, because you are literally performing for your idols.
H: Did you think in advance about the other acts that would be in that category and how your act might be received?
L: I tried not to think about it too much. I was so pleasantly surprised to have been selected to perform in the first place, particularly as I hadn’t attended the weekend before, but a couple of people who I hold very highly in my esteem, Polly Rae and Kitty Bang Bang –
H: Didn’t they almost strong-arm you into applying?
L: Well I hadn’t thought of applying, but they said I should this year with my reverse striptease. I was just so, so thrilled to be selected and do something which I guessed would be quite different. Having the opportunity to go out there and perform was incredible.
H: So did you go with any expectation of picking up anything? Was it a genuine shock when you were awarded?
L: Absolutely! I mean, obviously I’m not going to say I didn’t want to win – of course I wanted to bloody win! [laughs] But it was really important for me to do my number justice and to do it well in front of all those people; I think that was the most important thing. But if I win something, that’s fucking awesome! [laughs] Picking up ‘Most Innovative’ was just incredible; it means a lot to win that. Very exciting. It’s definitely the one that made me think, oh, if I could just win that one it would be amazing! I’d be utterly thrilled and honoured.
Holli: Okay, so let’s talk about the act, because everyone is still talking about it post-BHoF. People have said all sorts of things to me about it this week; someone said that it ‘transcends burlesque’. It’s had so many different responses from the BHoF audience. I know a little bit about how you went about this act, but how do you feel when people describe it in that way; how do you view it? What was your intention and what initially inspired it?
Laurie Hagen: Well, it was created initially for a show that Polly, Kitty and I put together for the opening of the Hippodrome Casino last year. Polly wanted a new solo from me, so I thought about what I could bring to the table. A reverse strip is something people have done before, and it was just the simplest idea to take it to its extreme and do the whole thing in reverse. When I started talking to people about the idea, they were a bit like, ‘Hmm… Yeah…’ No one said that’s a brilliant idea, and I had no idea myself whether it would work or not.
I’m really into weird movement, contemporary movements and isolation, and I really enjoy trying to study and replicate it. I’m quite obsessed with Michael Jackson and watched him all the time when I was a kid. I used to watch his videos and try to mimic his movement, just because I thought he was the most phenomenal dancer. So filming stuff and then watching it and trying to replicate it is something that I’ve always been interested in. Anyway, once I came up with the idea, the first thing I did was Google and YouTube it because it’s such a simple idea – someone must have done it? So I started looking for clips of other performers and I couldn’t find anyone who had done it that way. That’s half the battle. I thought, yes! No one has done it before; that’s incredible.
H: And quite a rare thing nowadays.
L: Absolutely! And then I started working on it and realised, ah! That’s why no one’s done it – it’s a bloody nightmare! It was really tough; for quite a while we really didn’t know if it would work at all.
I started hiring a little studio around the corner from where I live, and I took my laptop with me and filmed myself doing a really classic strip. I tried to put movements in that people would recognise, so that if you watch it backwards people can process it and see it. It took so many sessions of me filming myself and watching the footage in reverse. Certain things you think will look great in reverse look terrible, and there are other little moments where you have no idea. Like the chair thing: the first thing I would do is drag a chair on to start the strip, and then when I finished watching the footage and the chair movement going off I thought, oh – that’s really nice! But I had no idea it would be – it’s not as if I came up with the idea of having a chair and pushing it off, it was just through watching the footage. So I ended up having to do a lot of editing of all these versions – I still have all the footage somewhere on my computer – piecing together all this structure and also the basics of how many items of clothing I could get back into properly. You know, it would have been great to have stockings and a bra, but it was just never going to happen; I felt quite limited as to what costume I could use, so that was quite challenging.
And then the music. I picked my song, Keep it Hid by Dan Auerbach, who is the singer in The Black Keys, and it was my boyfriend Michel who suggested it would be a good song to do a striptease to. At that point, I hadn’t even thought of the music being backwards, but every time I watched it in reverse, this track just stuck to my head and I decided to keep the track that way too. Although it sounds very weird, there are still musical phrases in there.
H: It just sounds fantastic, perfect for it.
L: Yeah, it sounds amazing, doesn’t it? I actually sent a clip to him on Twitter saying, ‘Ah, I hope you don’t mind – I’m using your song and doing it backwards!’ But so far no response! [laughs] So yeah, the music was another element that was just there from practising and playing around with things; I just stuck to that – lots and lots of practising. And then, when I had the final version I was happy with, I had to learn it, and that was really, really difficult.
H: I can imagine!
L: Yes, and especially with the music – I love choreographing to music, but there’s no way you can count that, so it’s all about just listening to those weird, backwards sounds.
H: Yeah, because it’s not like some conventional striptease where you can milk every beat and bump – you’re not able to use that track for obvious cues and synchronise with it in that way…
L: Exactly. Towards the end, things are a little bit freer, but almost the whole act is built on specific noises, so it took a long time to learn it. Whenever I was backstage at the show, I would practice and they would say, ‘Oh, look, there she is doing her weird stuff again’ [laughs] – me trying to imitate myself. So yes, it took a really long time to learn.
And then, of course, to try it out was terrifying. I showed it to a friend of mine, Antoine Vereecken, who is one of my closest friends back home in Belgium and a phenomenal contemporary dancer who teaches and choreographs. The first time I showed him, I started doing the routine and I think I managed about four or five steps and then I fell over! [laughs] In the most comical, cartoon-like manner; it was really bad! I should put a clip of it next to the proper video of it because it was so hilarious, but it kind of took the edge off. I did it again, and he was amazing and gave me some really good pointers. Up until that point, I was trying to imitate exactly what I was doing on the video, and he said to me that, from a performance point of view, I needed to exaggerate my movements so that it would translate. It was very helpful for him to give me that note – that you have to exaggerate everything, because it needs to read on stage and read live.
So then came the question: is this more of a video performance as opposed to a live performance? Michel shot my little video for me, which was great to get bookings, but at the same time, I thought I might have shot myself in the foot because it might be more interesting as a video as opposed to a live performance. Luckily, I got booked for quite a few shows and the response was positive.
H: How long would you say it took you to really get it down, to the point where you were ready to perform it?
L: It took about six weeks, obviously not intensive every single day, but it took a long time to figure it out and film it. It’s definitely the one I’ve worked on the most. The costume was probably the simplest thing to get, but the choreography took a seriously long time.
H: I really admire the meticulous attention to detail – it appeals to my nature. I’ve seen you do it live a few times now, and everything, every time, is bang on. You have that dress perfectly lined up on the floor, and I marvel at the fact that you don’t fumble picking up a strap, or don’t catch the hat, or a shoe doesn’t fall over… [laughs]
L: It’s kind of terrifying because, up until now, my solos are all very much comical characters and if things go wrong it can be even better because you can just make a joke of it, but to do something very serious and all about the movement, there’s no room for fucking up, you know? It has to be spot on.
H: Do you consider yourself to be very meticulous by nature? Does it almost make it easier to do something like this?
L: Yes, I am quite perfectionist and I guess that’s in my nature, for sure, but I always thank the stage managers, who are amazing because they do half the work for me and set up for me. Things are so specific to set up and you have to trust them to do it well, and they always do. Of course, I clean up after myself in this act, which is quite nice for them, for a change! But I always thank them afterwards because it is so specific. A lot of them take pictures and practice it just before.
H: Do you actually say, ‘Right, this needs to be so many feet/inches here, and this there’? Is it really that specific?
L: Yes, so, so specific. I try to set the coat on the chair already so they just have to carry on the chair, but I have to mark it down on the floor. And the way the dress is set and the shoes are set. At one point, towards the beginning of doing this act, I used to tell them to put my shoes together but against the front leg of the chair, but then I’d sit down on the chair and it would wobble a bit and my shoes would fall. So I did learn a few tricks to make it even easier, but it is very specific, especially when people are moving very quickly and trying to make it a smooth transition. People feel so responsible, like if they do it wrong they’ll fuck up the whole act, so I always really feel for the stage manager; it’s definitely a challenging one to set up.
And then there’s the whole hat throwing thing as well –
H: I was going to say! As I sadly couldn’t attend the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend this year, the two things I was wondering about were: how did it translate on that big stage, and who ended up throwing the hat to you?
L: That was the challenge; they have so many people to tech, so you have five or ten minutes to sort everything out. The stage is so big that there was no way I was going to catch it from someone throwing it from the wings. I had thought, from watching the other shows, that one of the stage managers could be on the floor by the audience, which is what happens at the Hippodrome – someone’s at the front of the stage to throw it to me there. But that wasn’t possible. And then I asked if one of my friends could do it, but that wasn’t possible either. So we tried it with one of the guys walking on and throwing it at me, but he felt that wasn’t the right way to do it. So they ended up saying to me: ‘Right, we’re going to throw it to you from the rigging!’
L: Yeah! Which was a fricking awesome idea. We tried it once and I caught it, so we put a little mark on the floor –
H: So we are talking about a completely vertical drop?
L: Yeah! So I thought, right, there’s my mark, there’s my chair. I had to change some of my choreography so that I would end up in that spot. Sadly, on the night, the spotlights were on; I had asked for no spotlight, but I guess it’s an automatic thing to put a spotlight on a performer. I was so blinded through the whole thing, and then it came to catching the hat. I was on the spot and I looked up, and I just couldn’t see anything because of all the lighting. I almost caught it, but then it fell on the floor –
H: Oh no!
L: Yeah, so I just carried on and ignored it, and I came off feeling really deflated – disappointed because I really wanted it to be the best it could be. And then David Bishop, the stage manager, said, ‘Laurie, come back! Look – everyone is on their feet!” And the whole theatre was on their feet, which was amazing. So I thought, oh, maybe it’s not that big a deal then – phew! But yeah, I was really disappointed. When I watch the video I’ll think, argh – that’s so annoying! Almost caught it! But that’s the nature of the act, I suppose.
H: Well, regardless, it has clearly made a massive impression on people. Did you expect that response – a standing ovation?
L: Not in the slightest! I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? Such a weird looking act. When I’ve done it in the past at different shows, sometimes the audience needs a bit of information about the act so that they get it from the beginning, because otherwise it’s, ‘Here’s Laurie Hagen,’ and it’s like, ‘What is she doing?’ [laughs] So you just don’t know whether it’s going to go down well or if people are going to clock on to it soon enough, because it’s not a very long act; it’s just over three minutes. So I didn’t know how it would go down, but I did know that people were very supportive after seeing the other shows. I knew that if it wasn’t their cup of tea, they would still be appreciative. I wasn’t worried I’d get stuff thrown at me or anything! [laughs] The reaction was insane, just amazing.
H: Did you enjoy your experience at BHoF overall – was there anything you particularly enjoyed on your first visit? Will you come again?
L: Gosh, yes, I would definitely come again. The whole thing was just phenomenal, seeing all those shows and so many people perform. The closing show was just astonishing, just one star after another. Seeing all your idols doing their thing is incredible.
H: Sunday is powerful, isn’t it?
L: Absolutely amazing, the atmosphere all round. And the boys! Gosh – the boylesque is just incredible; they were just astounding. I was very happy to be in ‘Best Debut’ and on third, so I could change quickly and watch the whole of the rest of the competition. The standard was just incredible – so many new ideas, people being very clever with their skills and putting so much effort into their acts. Everyone is upping their game; it was very inspiring to watch. My face was hurting from smiling so much. I had such an awesome time – it’s a bit shit to be back, to be honest! [laughs]
H: Was the impression of the US scene it offered as you expected?
L: Even more so. Polly Rae and Kitty Bang Bang told me it would be amazing once I went out there and met everyone and got that community feel. Obviously I was aware of it, but I just didn’t expect it to that extent; it was so lovely. And I’ve had so many messages since from people on Facebook, some saying they are residents in Vegas and to let them know when I come back to the US. Just so supportive. It was brilliant to be in The Orleans and see all these other people in the hotel and casino saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ They were completely fascinated by everyone turning up, dressed to the nines, and all came up and spoke to us. Some of them ended up buying tickets to see the show, which was really cool to see.
H: Did you find the US scene more versatile than you were expecting it to be? Do you get the impression that the view of the US scene over here in the UK is that it’s almost solely ‘classic’ territory? Were you expecting that level of variety and innovation?
L: I was, but not to this extent; it was so impressive. They can do it all, they touch on all the elements: the skills, the sensuality, the costume, the ideas, the humour. And that’s just one performer, you know? It’s very, very impressive. And yes, perhaps the notion that it’s more about just the classic burlesque is not accurate; there is so much variety out there and done to such a high, high standard, but at the same time you can see people there genuinely playing off the audience. It was very, very impressive indeed, and very inspiring.
Holli: I’m so glad you enjoyed it, I really am. So let’s move on a bit now and tell people a bit more about you – particularly your new US fans who keep asking me about you!
What was your upbringing like, and what were your early interests?
Laurie Hagen: I started doing ballet when I was about four or five, and my mum was very much into tap dancing, so I grew up watching lots of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers movies. My mum really wanted to be a tap dance teacher, but she couldn’t get the opportunity to do that when she was younger, so she decided that when she had had her kids – and my dad was very supportive – that she would start to do lots of courses in tap, and she became very good very quickly and ended up opening her own tap dance school for children. She would take me along to her classes because I wanted to make noises with my feet as well, and she bought me tap shoes. So the bug was there from quite early on. I trained in ballet, although I never really wanted to be a ballerina, and I’m definitely not physically made to be a ballerina, but I knew I wanted to do something in the arts. I really loved watching musicals and I loved the versatility of musicals: singing, acting and dancing. That was my first love.
I started doing professional ballet training at the age of eleven when I went to a school in Antwerp, where you would have your normal classes and then loads of ballet and dance classes. It was good to do that as a base, but it was quite a tough school, especially as I knew I wasn’t going to go into a ballet company; it was never going to happen – I had terrible turnout, for one thing! [laughs] So it was a tough environment to be in, especially as a young teenager, and I think my parents could see it was taking its toll on me. I was interested in doing other stuff and sampling all the other styles of dancing, singing and music.
They allowed me to go and audition in London at musical theatre schools, and when I was sixteen they let me move there and do a three year musical theatre course. I lived with a Polish family for the first year so I wouldn’t be on my own, and it was all about learning English and coming out of my shell, because I was really, really shy when I was much younger! Then I completely took to it for three years, and the idea was to go back to Belgium after that and hopefully get a place in a musical theatre company over there. But, of course, having come from a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere, moving to London at the age of sixteen completely opened up my mind – there was no way I was going to go back! I started getting work as a chorus girl and dancer in musicals, and my parents said that if could support myself I could stay in London. So I did!
Find out more about Laurie Hagen at www.LaurieHagen.com
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.