The fascinating Laurie Hagen interview continues. At the end of Part One, we were discussing her early career…
Laurie Hagen: I danced in musicals for a few years and I ended up dancing in Beauty and the Beast in the West End as one of the original cast members, which was really exciting. I was a plate, and a napkin! [laughs] It was really cool to be a member of the original London cast, and the costumes and scenery were incredible. It was my first long contract – a year – and since a young age I had worked very hard to get to that point. Aside from being on Broadway, being on stage in the West End was the ultimate thing to me – literally my dream job. So I surprised myself when, in a few months, I generally got bored of what I was doing. I was especially observing the actors in the company; they were able to play around and discover new things, whereas, as a chorus dancer, you have to do exactly the same thing every single night and you can’t really express yourself that much. That really frustrated me and I had no idea that I would feel that way. And I ended up injuring myself towards the end of my contract anyway –
Holli: And that was a turning point for you…
L: Yes, big time, otherwise I would have just carried on auditioning and got work, but end up a bit stuck in what I was doing at the time. The injury forced me into reassessing everything and I had quite a lot of surgery back home in Belgium, so I was there for almost a year before coming back to London. I came back because I just had to come back, but there was nothing lined up for me and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I ended up going to acting classes and decided to audition for drama school. I wanted to do a post-graduate in acting, which I ended up doing at East 15 Acting School, and I had a phenomenal time doing that. Then I got an acting agent and started working in TV and theatre. It took me in a very different direction, but it was such a blessing in disguise, it really was.
I spent a few years doing quite well, but I really missed the movement side of things and dancing. I mean, you do a lot of physical things when you’re acting too, but I missed choreographing and being creative in that way. So I was in a play where I was playing a showgirl, and I had to learn a fan dance for it. For me, one of the most exciting things about being an actor is research – researching your character and their era. I was researching burlesque and became really, really interested. I went to see a few shows in London and was completely blown away by what it involved and how creative people were and how in charge they were of what they were doing – they could do anything they wanted, you know? Choose their own music and make their own costume… It really struck a chord and was very exciting to watch.
H: Am I right in saying that you ended up taking your friend’s place at a burlesque class which Polly Rae was leading?
L: Yes! At the time, I used to go to this amazing body popping and street locking class, and I got to know this really lovely girl called Siobhan, who was an amazing dancer. I suggested we try out a burlesque class as I thought it would be really fun to do with a girl friend, and she was totally up for it. But she has a little boy, and on the day of the class she phoned me up to say her boy wasn’t well. I almost didn’t go because I thought, ahh, I don’t really want to go by myself – I had imagined doing it with a group of mates, you know? But at the last moment I thought, screw it, I’ll just go. And yes, it was Polly teaching one of her classes at Dance Attic; she’s an incredible teacher as well as an amazing performer. It was an amazing class, and so much fun to do – I was smiling so much throughout and really enjoying myself.
Anyway, after the class she called me over, and it was really one of those right place, right time moments. One of the girls in her burlesque troupe had left to work in the US, so she was looking for a new girl to join the troupe and she invited me to audition the week after. I had no idea about vintage clothing – I had no idea what I was going to wear! So I ended up wearing this pencil skirt with high heels and stockings; I couldn’t really move in it, but I thought I could hardly turn up in my jeans! They were doing a warm up and it was so embarrassing because I couldn’t really move. [laughs] I auditioned with some other girls and had a really lovely time, and then I got the call the next day! It wasn’t really my intention to become a burlesque performer – I was just genuinely interested in it and then it just all happened. It was a great way to fall into it and a really nurturing environment to start off in as well, being part of a troupe.
I had to learn the material quite quickly, but it was a wonderful time with a lovely bunch of girls who are still my friends now. And I got to know other people very quickly; as you know, the burlesque circuit is very close knit and can be very supportive and friendly. I got to know Dusty Limits quite quickly too. He was hosting for us at the time at the Soho Revue Bar and he encouraged me to start singing again, which was cool because I sang in musical theatre but never really solo. He pushed me to develop some solo material and invited me to perform at the Vauxhall Tavern in a show he was doing at the time. He introduced me to a lot of people. Things happened very quickly, in a very supportive manner.
H: And you got into hosting through Dusty as well I recall?
L: Yes! Well, actually, I was shoved on at Proud Cabaret quite a few years ago for Sara Colohan, who hosted her shows back then and had a last minute job in the South of France. She asked if I could just have a go, and as an actor you say yes, I can do that. It’s a really good challenge as well to take the opportunity and just do it. It was one of the most terrifying things ever, but I didn’t completely die on my arse. It was that thing of really having to push yourself into something; I said so many times that I was never going to host, but doing it in character was how I got away with it.
H: It must have been so much fun to come up with all your personas, like Madame Jo Jo –
L: Absolutely, it was really fun but also a necessity! I could never go out there as myself; a lot of people do and I have so much admiration for them because there’s nowhere to hide, like being a stand-up comic. So I thought I’d do a heightened version of myself, and as soon as the wig is on, that’s half the battle. It was the Folly Mixtures who booked me as their resident host –
H: Of course, they are some of your previous troupe mates.
L: Yes, exactly. We had a history together and knew each other very well, and they started their own troupe and wanted a regular host. They took a chance and said they wanted me to do it. So although it was a very daunting task, it was in the best possible circumstances with a bunch of girls I knew I would have so much fun with. It’s thanks to them that I started doing it on a regular basis, and then I started dipping in and out of other shows as well. So I fell into hosting as well – who knew! A lot of falling! [laughs]
H: I’m interested to know how easy you find it to retain that control underneath while you’re playing this humorous, seemingly out of control character on the surface, but having to retain control and authority as well. How did you learn to master that?
L: You have to go with your instincts. It’s up to you as a host to really gauge an audience and to either get them going or get them to calm down a bit if they’re too raucous. You’re there to introduce the acts, but also to look after the acts and do the best possible introduction for someone. So that, for me, is the job of the host – to link everything together really well and be ready to jump in if anything goes wrong. You have to be on your toes the whole time and it does take a lot of energy. Doing a couple of acts are like a burst of adrenaline and effort, but when you’re hosting a whole show you have to stay on your toes the whole time and be ready for things to fall apart, if the music cuts out, etc. So it’s quite challenging, but at the same time it’s really exciting to do. Every time I host, I feel like I’m learning more and more; there’s no ‘school of hosting’ – you learn by doing and you have to throw yourself out there. I always try to get the running order in advance so that I can do a bit of research. That, as well as my songs, is the kind of preparation I can do, but everything else you have to be open to and ready to answer back to.
H: And that can only come through experience –
Holli: As you said previously, you started off in life admiring all these ‘golden age’ MGM personalities who were all genuinely versatile, multi-talented performers who could turn their hands to so many things: they all acted and sang and danced and delivered comedy… Was it your intention to emulate them in your career, or has it all just happened?
Laurie Hagen: I guess I was really drawn to people who were all-rounders, although sometimes I wish I was just a brilliant singer or something. It’s so wonderful when people are absolutely amazing at one thing, and that’s definitely not my case. I’m good at a lot of things and I guess that’s a strength, but sometimes I do wish I was kicking ass at just one particular thing. But yes, I have always admired people who are all-rounders – someone like Amber Topaz who can do everything to such a high standard.
H: In a climate like this in which everyone who works on any sort of freelance, self employed basis is finding it increasingly difficult and competitive, has being so versatile helped you to find regular work?
L: You can’t rest on your laurels for very long because there are so many people out there. Every year there are more people who are inspired and want to do the same thing, and you get a new wave of amazing performers joining you every time, so you have to up your game. I guess being very individual and doing your own thing and throwing in every single skill you think you can get away with is the thing to do to keep yourself on a level with everyone else. I mean, watching some of the performances in Vegas – Roxi DLite and her incredible hoop act, for example – there was incredible physicality and astonishing skills on display. You know that the next time you create something it’s going to have to be at least as good as that. You know Mr Gorgeous? My goodness. I hadn’t seen him perform before, but he was just brilliant. All the elements were there: skill, comedy, rapport with the audience… I thought all the men were absolutely incredible. You have to keep ahead; I’m constantly thinking, oh gosh – what am I going to do next?! It’s quite daunting.
H: Let’s attempt to cheer people up a bit who are astonished and sickened by your many talents! Is it as effortless and natural as it looks, or does it require particular and constant effort and hard work to keep all your skills really polished?
L: I’m the kind of person who needs to work a little but harder at stuff. I’m not naturally flexible; I can hold a tune, but I haven’t got the most amazing voice; and I’m quite shy, so when it comes to hosting I really have to push myself. So it definitely takes work. I’m not one of those people – like the incredible Kitty Bang Bang – who improvises and is just incredible in that way. I could never do that; it would scare the hell out of me. And I like to have things choreographed… So, different ways to different people I guess, but I feel I have to put the work in, definitely, to get the results. I’m not one of those people who can just turn up and wing it.
H: You certainly do a very good job of making things seem off-the-cuff and effortless. I get the impression that your family in Belgium must be very supportive of your career – it sounds like they were very on board from the start…
L: Very much so. When Polly first rang me and said she wanted me to join the troupe I was so excited, but at the same time I wondered how my family were going to feel about it. So I rang my mum and dad straight away and said, ‘I’ve been offered this opportunity and want to do it, but I want to talk to you about it.’ And my mum said, ‘That’s wonderful – do it now before it all starts sagging!’ [laughs]
L: Yeah. My mum loves London and has come over every year that I have been here, so she has seen the evolution of things I’ve done in burlesque and cabaret, and she knows a lot of people and loves that environment. My sister has been over to watch shows as well. They are very, very supportive. I guess I was very lucky to grow up in an environment where I was encouraged to dance, etc., whereas my mum grew up in an environment where that wasn’t really possible for her. So I’m very fortunate to have a very supportive family. And winning a trophy in Vegas, I think it’s a mark of achievement for them to enjoy – girl done okay!
H: It’s obvious that you have a real passion for London and love living here. What’s your everyday life like in London, and what is it you particularly love about it?
L: I just love the diversity; there are so many different kinds of people who live together on the same road. I love that about London. In the little road we live in here in Kentish Town, they organise a garden party every year and everyone turns up, all from different walks of life. That’s why I love being here – it’s so very open minded and you get to know so many interesting people. Culturally as well – the theatre here is incredible. It’s just such a vibrant place to be in. And I love the sense of humour! Because I moved here as a teenager and I didn’t know anyone, I have chosen the people that I hang out with and I’m very attached to London because I’m very attached to the people that I’ve chosen to be friends with, if that makes sense. So yes, I have a really personal connection to London.
Holli: We’ve touched on the fact that you draw a lot of inspiration from some of your heroes from the MGM era of musicals and so on, but who else inspires you on a day to day basis, contemporary or past?
Laurie Hagen: I guess there are quite a lot of people – and now my mind goes blank, of course! [laughs] There are dancers, singers, actors, people who can do it all. Being on the cabaret circuit, you get to meet and watch so many amazing performers who create their own material, and that’s something I have a lot of admiration for. People like Sarah Louise Young, Dusty Limits, East End Cabaret, Frisky and Mannish, Fancy Chance – all these people who are writing their own material as well as performing it and touring it. These are the people I feel inspired by on a daily basis because I’m so fortunate to get to hang out with them and perform with them. They are the people I really look up to.
H: And you must be constantly inspired by new things and new people all the time in that environment…
L: Yes, absolutely. I’ve only written one song so far, so I would love to have that gift of being able to write my own material; I have tremendous admiration and respect for that. People who really put their heart and soul into their work – it’s theirs and there’s no hiding behind anything.
H: Currently, you, Polly, Kitty and Yaya are working on Between the Sheets together at The Hippodrome, and there has been quite an evolution which I have loved observing over the years. It must be satisfying to reach this point together. Do you really feel that sense of progress and evolution?
L: It is such an evolution and feels like such an achievement, definitely. To be working with three of your closest friends in a show like this, and with such genuine chemistry between us which people have remarked on and is what sets the show apart from others. We are genuinely really, really good friends who put on a show together, and we do group acts as well as solos, which I think can be so powerful. To have a group act with people who really love each other and know each other inside out is something that really comes across.
H: It does – it really shines out.
L: Yeah, it’s lovely to be a part of something like that and it’s lovely that it translates and people can see some genuine friendship there. It allows us to be successful and put on a regular show.
H: It must be so satisfying. I remember coming to see you guys at the Leicester Square Theatre years ago, and since then you have built up such a strong reputation that gives you so much freedom now. You’ve been handed the reins to create this show exactly as you want to…
L: Exactly, yes. It’s an incredibly fortunate position to be in and such a great venue as well, without the pressure of having to do a small run and sell a certain number of seats in order to make a little money back or break even. It’s such an incredible opportunity to be given a license to create new things. We don’t have to show any acts in advance – we just do them and hopefully they come across well. And yes, it is very satisfying to be putting on a show with people you genuinely feel so much for.
H: You essentially get to go to work with your best mates every day – it’s the dream, isn’t it?
Holli: As someone who has recently created an act that many people consider to be an extremely innovative and a refreshing addition amongst all the more conventional classic burlesque, I wondered what you think of the London burlesque scene. Do you see it as a predominantly struggling or flourishing scene right now – are there things you would like to change or see happen?
Laurie Hagen: It’s interesting because I joined it about seven or eight years ago, and already back then people were saying, ‘It’s going to finish soon; you’d better get it out of your system now because burlesque is on its way down here.’ And it’s sort of a running joke here as you know – people say it all the time. I think there are more and more people who want to do it, so perhaps the quality of burlesque is not always what it should be, in my opinion, but it’s definitely not dying out. People have a genuine interest in it and want to watch these shows; I can’t see it dying out – and certainly not cabaret. There will always be a place for cabaret. People will always be interested in having a really interactive experience, I think. As an audience member, feeling like you are almost part of the show is something that people are always going to crave, and the danger element makes it an exciting environment to be in. I can’t see that element going and people getting bored of that experience.
H: Obviously there’s quite a lot of merging between the cabaret and burlesque scenes in London. Do you think they need each other almost; do they need to merge to retain innovation and energy?
L: I think so. I love watching a show with a lot of variety, and despite how different one burlesque act can be from another, getting a singer, and then a hula hoop, and so on – I really thrive watching a show where I’m not sure where it’s going to take me. I really love that. So I would say burlesque and cabaret are perfect partners, for sure.
H: With your recent US experience in mind, would you like to see more innovation in the UK burlesque scene – in London or more broadly? If you took the versatility of some of the cabaret performers away, do you feel that there’s a lot of innovation left?
L: I definitely need variety. There are only so many fan dances you can watch, one after the other, you know what I mean? I think everyone has to up their game. It’s interesting the response you get as well: in London, it’s quite hard to get an enthusiastic response from an audience, because everyone has seen everything already, so you really have to work hard to come up with something that is a fresh take on whatever you’re doing, but it’s important. As soon as you start going out of London, where perhaps there is less burlesque and cabaret around, people are much more receptive, but I guess it’s good to be in London because you know that if someone is giving you a genuinely great response then you are doing something right.
H: Maybe that’s another reason your reverse strip is so well received in London – it’s something unexpected. Do you have hopes that this act will inspire more innovation and encourage people to think outside the box and take on something more challenging?
L: Gosh, that would be amazing. I never dreamed that it would have such an impact, but yes, that would be the greatest compliment.
H: A few final things then. Any future ambitions on your mind at the moment?
L: Well, I want to keep trying to improve things and keep going. I’m an actor as well as a burlesque and cabaret performer, so as long as I’m working and living off it I’m very happy.
H: As someone who is so versatile, what about a one-woman show? I can imagine you doing something like that…
L: Well, a few people have talked to me about that, and although a few years back that would have been far too daunting a task, I think that’s the next step. It would be terrifying and challenging, but I think that’s what you need to do in order to grow – go out of your comfort zone. So I suppose that is the next stage… Gosh, that’s scary! [laughs] I think, first, I need to write more material; it’s fine doing covers, but I think if you’re going to do a show by yourself there needs to be a lot that is yours. So that’s the next immediate challenge – to write stuff and make it worthwhile.
H: But it’s a challenge you relish, I’m sure.
L: Oh yes, for sure. I mean, a few years ago I said I would never, ever host, and now I’m hosting, and a few years ago I said I would never do a one-woman show, so perhaps that really is going to be the next thing, yes!
On that exciting note, we concluded our chat. Thank you so much Laurie for your time and input.
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.