Jennifer Taylor explains how a new taste for tease has shaped the face of London burlesque…
Things are getting raunchier in London’s burlesque scene.
A new sexual revolution has helped fuel the mainstream popularity of burlesque, once considered alternative entertainment – audiences now are sassier and more sexed-up, thanks to a glut of naked flesh in popular culture. Burlesque performers, never shy about getting their kit off, are welcoming these new audiences with open arms into their nipple-tasselled bosoms, stripping off more and more layers.
At the start of the burlesque revival it was corsets, frilly knickers and feather fans that dominated the stage – now we’ve moved from big vintage knickers to the G-string, to the C-string, to the merkin. The merkin, a pubic wig in the form of an oversized vajazzle, was not something I saw on the burlesque stage in London ten years ago.
Stripping nearly naked is nothing new in this world though; tastes have changed, not burlesque. “In the 1930s one of the most famous performers stripped naked and smoked a cigar with her pussy,” says cabaret star Dusty Limits. “We think we’re so progressive but it’s really nothing new. The puritanical drive against display is a historical blip.”
That blip may be ending, thinks London burlesque sensation Miss Polly Rae. “Tinder is something that’s helped change attitudes to sex,” she says. “It’s more acceptable to enjoy casual sex now, and you can find it like that.” She clicks her fingers dismissively. And if you haven’t been merrily Tinder-fucking away, you can’t have missed the tits-and-arse parade that is Game of Thrones – it’s fair to say no-one’s shocked anymore.
Then there’s 2011’s trash-sex-novel phenomenon 50 Shades of Grey, which brought S&M to housewives the world over and made burlesque all the more palatable in the mainstream. “It helped. You can walk into a sex shop now the way you walk into a Topshop,” Polly says.
But Polly admits that performers have to know what they’re doing with explicit acts – a seasoned pro, she knows it’s still all about titillation. “If you take it too far, the performance can lose its allure – if you take the element of tease away, you’ve got nowhere to go,” she says.
While audiences became more de-sensitised to nudity, London’s heart of burlesque experienced its own dressing down. The city has been stripped of several significant venues such Madame Jojo’s, the Black Cap in Camden, and The Soho Revue Bar. The saturation of the market seen at the start of the burlesque revival has been squeezed out, leaving professional performers competing to produce the best quality acts.
“It’s less about striptease and more about skill,” says Polly. “Unless you’re really, really good, it’s no longer enough just to take off your clothes.”
An accomplished singer herself, Polly works with fire-breathing burlesque pro Kitty Bang Bang and a range of acrobatic performers, fusing genres. “You gotta have a gimmick”, the iconic burlesque rule from 1959 musical Gypsy, has never been more true, with performers and producers desperate for acts that give audiences something new. With fewer places to see burlesque, quality and innovation have propelled real talent to the forefront. Polly stars at The Hippodrome as well as in Between the Sheets, but she misses the dirty cabaret clubs of a decade back.
“It’s very sad we don’t have the old clubs but I’m super happy where I am now,” she says.
You can close as many venues as you want but we’re always going to find a place to play…because if we don’t, we’re fucked!” she says with a laugh.
Beyond high-end production quality, authentic burlesque is found in the gritty satire of taking the piss. On a literal level, burlesque means ‘to parody’ – but with performers feeling the cold wind of cabaret venues’ doors slamming shut, where have the edgy, raucous performances gone?
Burlesque starlet Miss Luci Furr once hit the stage at Madam Jojo’s and recently performed in the dingy backroom of The Four Thieves pub, Battersea. A sexed-up Betty Boop with a foul gob and enormous tits, she is the epitome of dirty, comic burlesque. “Nudity for women isn’t always a funny thing,” she says, “naked men are funny, not women. It takes more intelligence to add that layer of wit.” These backrooms are where the real daredevil strippers flourish, and Miss Luci hands out communion wafers to her audience before stripping out of a nun habit. Her current routine ‘Lady Garden’ features an astro-turf merkin and she’s working on a tampon tax act. It’s harder to find this kind of burlesque these days, but if you’re willing to look beyond the Groupon deals, you can.
Venues like the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club still have that authentic feel that lends itself to such performances. In 2008, Dusty Limits held a mock wedding cabaret spectacular there, satirising marriage conventions in light of the then-ban on gay marriage. “We also made fun of the antiquated idea of fathers giving away their daughters,” he says with a nostalgic grin. But could that kind of satirical cabaret riot happen now, amidst increasing gentrification?
“It could happen at Bethnal Green,” says Dusty with confidence. “It’s maintained the charm and accessibility that it always had. You’ve got to have places like that.”
And so burlesque lives on. Yet in the background, the debate about the sexualisation of women still tumbles on with it, shedding tired sequins as it goes. We’ve become more sexually liberal, but society is also more politically correct. The burlesque attitude says we’re welcome to do whatever we want with our bodies, so will they, and anyone with a problem with it can sod off, frankly.
“It’s a mistake to assume that because some people don’t like their body being looked at, that people looking at bodies is a bad thing”, Dusty says.
“I would be depressed the day I went on stage and someone didn’t sexually objectify me!”
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.