In 2011 I saw Inga Ingenue, a five foot revelation in pink and black stripes, perform her iconic Minnie the Moocher act at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. It remains – after 14 years in burlesque – one of my absolute favourite acts, and INGA, as she is now known, is one of my favourite people. In 2018 she was back on the BHoF stage, this time competing for Miss Exotic World, Reigning Queen of Burlesque. The rest is history.
We recorded a long and comprehensive interview last year over the course of a few hours, and with the support of Jessica Price at Burlesque Seattle Press, I can now present an edit of our conversation for your reading pleasure…
Holli: I was looking at the post you put on Facebook before BHoF saying that you’d been applying for 10 years and had never been accepted. You were going in with mixed feelings about competing altogether. Can you talk me through your feelings leading up to it?
INGA: I didn’t get into the competition for ten years. I got into the showcase a couple of years in a row, but I hadn’t been accepted to compete. So, after a while I decided, whatever it is BHoF is looking for, maybe it’s not me and that’s okay.
It broke me for a long time, but then I reminded myself that I don’t do this to get into competitions. That’s not the reason why I started or why I make work. But I kept applying because I wanted to get into the practice of it, and I liked donating to the Burlesque Hall of Fame and didn’t want to give up entirely.
I had this act I loved that I was very proud of, but it was seven and a half minutes long. I thought, ‘I’m not going to get in; I haven’t for ten years, why would I now?’ Then I got the acceptance email. I didn’t even know what to do. I called Indigo Blue – I was staring at the screen on my laptop and was like, ‘What do I do? You just press yes and then you’re in?’ She said, ‘Yeah, just do it.’
The reality of having to cut a seven-and-a-half-minute act to four minutes hit me. I got a lot of help from Waxie Moon, who helped me edit down to the essence of what the act needed to be. Still, I didn’t go into it with the expectation of winning. I just wanted to show this piece I was proud of and perform well.
“I went up, Medianoche put the crown on me, and I said, ‘What do I do?’ She said, ‘Walk forward and wave.’ “
When the competition happened, we were all called on stage for the award ceremony. At that point I thought, ‘I’ve accomplished all the goals I came here to accomplish. I did my act. I didn’t fall down. I made new friends and I’m going to hang out with my mom after the show and everything will be fine.’ I really was not expecting to win.
They called the Second and First runners up and I was like, ‘One of my friends is going to win and I’m going to be really happy for them,’ because everyone in this competition, especially everyone in the Queen category, performed so fucking well.
When they called my name, I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. The ladies had to basically push me to the centre of the stage and say, ‘You should go get your crown’. I went up, Medianoche put the crown on me, and I said, ‘What do I do?’ She said, ‘Walk forward and wave.’
What are your plans for your reign? Are there particular issues that matter to you?
Right now, the main ideas are community building, fundraising for the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and support of the Legends. I’ve had good feedback about how to support the Legends better and things that the museum can do to help support them.
I would really like to speak on how to be a burlesque performer and stay healthy and grounded. I think it’s easy in our world to get caught up in the competitions and the Top 50 and ideas of glamour and success that don’t make you happy in the end, they don’t fulfil you.
To really help people remember why they got into burlesque and to keep those things in mind and make work they’re proud of… that’s what makes our community so special. It’s not the titles, it’s not the festivals. It’s our sense of community and what we put on stage. To get back to those core values is important.
“To really help people remember why they got into burlesque and to keep those things in mind and make work they’re proud of… that’s what makes our community so special. It’s not the titles, it’s not the festivals. It’s our sense of community and what we put on stage.”
The word ‘community’ has become a sort of poison to people. They scoff and say, ‘What community?’ A few years back, I wrote about the definition of the burlesque community in that ‘community’ is essentially a collective with a common goal or focus. It doesn’t mean we’re not a family who fall out sometimes…
Exactly. I agree that community doesn’t mean that we all get along all the time. We can’t. I think it’s more about remembering what burlesque is supposed to be about. We’re spread across the world, so the way we keep in contact and know what’s going on is through social media, which is amazing. We couldn’t do this twenty years ago.
At the same time, social media is dangerous because you can talk to people without having to directly address them. It means communication can get skewed, that we can start attacking each other or we can chime in on things that we don’t have direct knowledge of. A sort of mob mentality can start. I think that’s dangerous, especially in an artistic community as small as ours. It’s worldwide, but compared to the size of other communities, ours is actually very small. What we do affects each other.
We’re also completely self-created and self-sustaining. Obviously, we have fans and audiences who come to our shows and help monetarily, but the performers and producers make it what it is. There’s no upper management. We make ourselves what we are.
Ultimately that means we are responsible for making the community good or bad. Whatever you put into the community, whether it’s your words or your work, that’s what it’s going to be. It’s our responsibility to make the community what we want it to be.
What are your views on cultural appropriation and racism, and how those issues are handled online?
I’m incredibly grateful for the social media hyper-communication that has happened. I think without it, a lot of us wouldn’t be aware of the damage those things can do. I live in Seattle, and there’s a very special kind of racism and cultural appropriation that happens here, where everyone grew up being told racism doesn’t exist here, and it’s bullshit.
There is racism here, but it’s subtle and hard to see. For people of colour, this is a toxic area to be in. We need these messages brought to us and put in front of our faces, how this is affecting people and what we’re doing to allow these cycles of hidden racism to continue.
I feel in the burlesque world, we kind of have the same situation. For a long time, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re liberal here,’ and couldn’t see our own racism. I think that it’s vital for these things to be brought in front of us in words that are not apologetic. That’s vital to change happening in our world and in our culture.
I completely agree with the stance that the overall burlesque community has taken. When I first started doing burlesque back in 2005, all kinds of crazy cultural appropriation happened, and we didn’t even think about it. We didn’t think about the fact that a white girl doing a geisha act wasn’t okay. We should have, but we didn’t because it just wasn’t part of our cultural awareness. We needed people to put that in our faces and be like, nope, that’s not cool, and these are the reasons why that’s not acceptable.
“It’s dangerous when people who are not involved in an initial conversation on social media suddenly jump in when they don’t know the whole story. All they’re doing is reacting to emotions that were incited as opposed to looking at what’s going on and seeing what’s helpful for this conversation to be resolved, and for things to move on and get better. “
I saw a thread online where a girl who had appropriated a culture in her act was confronted. People presented her with facts and said, ‘we want you to know this is offensive to us.’ She listened and wholeheartedly apologised. People leapt on the thread and shouted down her apology and attempts to make amends. Do you think when it gets to the point where people won’t allow others to acknowledge what they’ve done and apologise, that’s a problem?
I completely understand why, especially people of colour, are at a point where they’re like, you know what, there are no apologies anymore. Just don’t do it. As a queer person, there are certain things people do where I’m like, you know what, fuck you, I’m done. I also understand that change will never happen if we don’t let people change, because we don’t give people room to change.
It’s dangerous when people who are not involved in an initial conversation on social media suddenly jump in when they don’t know the whole story. All they’re doing is reacting to emotions that were incited as opposed to looking at what’s going on and seeing what’s helpful for this conversation to be resolved, and for things to move on and get better.
Sometimes I even have trouble – or I don’t feel like I can take a side on something because I see both sides are right and wrong in some ways. I understand that I am a white person saying this and I’m not telling any people of colour what they should do, but I think overall, as human beings, a good thing to do is remember that everyone else is also a person just trying to get through life.
Most people don’t want to hurt other people. They’re struggling through their lives the same way you are. If you sit down and have a real conversation and realise they’re a flawed person, just like you are, you will get through to them and change will happen. However, I also understand it’s no person of colour’s responsibility to do that. It is white people’s responsibility to reflect on themselves and ask, what am I doing to make this cycle of racism continue, and what can I do within myself to stop? What can I do to help other people stop?
Regarding social media and people’s fixation on visibility and affirmation, I wondered if throughout your career you’ve ever felt overlooked, or whether you’ve been happy to be someone who just quietly cracks on with creating. Do you think we have to be full time PR machines?
In 2011, I was lucky enough to win Miss Viva Las Vegas. I think around then I was a more of a PR machine; I was always online, always posting because I knew that was part of staying relevant in people’s minds. Personally, I just got tired of it. I felt like I was living my life for other people, so I could take a picture and post it, putting makeup on every morning so that I’d look good in a photo. It felt really fake to me, like I wasn’t concentrating on my work or myself.
So, I stopped, and I have to say it did affect my career. There are so many burlesque performers, so many names and faces, and if people don’t see you all the time then you’re not going to be in their brain. I had to come to peace with that. It forced me to reexamine why I do this. I asked myself, ‘Do I do this for the recognition or because I’m an artist and I have something that I need to express on stage?’
Of course, I love getting the recognition – we all do – but I do this because I’m called to it, because I love it, because it’s the only thing outside of the dance world that has ever made me feel fulfilled and like a whole person.
“I felt like I was living my life for other people, so I could take a picture and post it, putting makeup on every morning so that I’d look good in a photo. It felt really fake to me, like I wasn’t concentrating on my work or myself. “
Since BHoF, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by amazing messages and conversations with people who told me how much my work has affected them. I’ve been so humbled by that. I knew my work had influenced people in Seattle, because I’m a teacher have a lot of contact with new performers, but I had people in France and Germany and Australia telling me they’d started doing burlesque because they saw my videos on YouTube, and it was so overwhelming and shocking.
People I respect like Jo Boobs and Dirty Martini and all these Legends sent messages or came up to me at BHoF to say, ‘You have always been a queen and now you have the title.’ I was like, ‘Are you shitting me?’ I hope this is a testament to the idea that you can work hard and make work you’re proud of and in the long run, people will find you.
I do think having an online presence is important – because how else are people going to know you’re doing all that? – but if you make work you’re proud of that is true to you, from a genuine place, it will touch people.
I’m interested to hear more about how you conceived and developed ‘Minnie’, especially its conclusion. It’s one of my all-time favourite acts and still just blows my mind.
I went to Burning Man, and Kalani Kokonuts and I performed in a little burlesque show. That was, I think, the first time Kalani had ever seen me perform. She watched my performance and gave me this amazing idea.
She said, ‘Hey, you’re clearly a former dancer in gentleman’s clubs; there are these acts where ladies do acrobatic stuff with stockings. I bet you’d be really good at that.’ I decided to make an act where I did floor work and took off my stockings. It was originally with a completely different costume that I made myself, so it was kind of rinky-dink.
Then in 2008 or 2009, I was invited to perform at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival. The producer had seen that act and really liked it, but said, ‘We’re trying to represent a more classic burlesque show – would you be willing to do that act but do it to retro music?’ So, I decided to do it to Minnie The Moocher and I laid down my act to that song. Then I got to the venue for tech, and the stage was one of those horrible textured portable stages, not conducive to floor work. The stage was going to eat my skin if I did all the work I planned. So instead I decided to sit in the chair and do my stocking pull.
Then at the show, I was just going to pull the stocking at the end and hit a pose, but the funeral march played at the end of the track. Suddenly it hit me – ‘Oh my god, I’m at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival surrounded by all this kinky stuff. The funeral march is playing. I should strangle myself with my stocking!’ So I just did it, and then I came off stage and I was like, ‘Shit, that’s my act.’ I spent the next two years doing it to that song and finding all the nuances in the music.
Every once in a while, I’ll make up an act in twenty minutes, but that’s few and far between. Maybe it’s just the ballerina in me, but I’m always workshopping. Every time I put something on stage I’m workshopping it, finding new things that I can do with it.
I think newcomers especially put that kind of pressure on themselves, to be creating something new, to have bigger and better costumes. But you’re not going to get immediate success. It will be trial and error for a long time before you hit on what works.
Sometimes as a new performer you experiment, figuring out your strengths and where you need to put more work in to get better. Make as much work as you’re inspired to make. But I believe if you want to get really good at what you do, find five of your favourite acts, and do nothing but those five acts for two years. See how good you can get at them. If you can even boil it down to three that will be amazing, but if you put all your energy, money, and rehearsal time into those acts and perform them for a couple of years – you will have five acts you could perform in your sleep.
I think the quality of your work is more important than the quantity. Think about any of your favourite performers. Do you really care if you see them do an act you love more than once? No, you don’t. In fact, you’re probably making somebody’s day. It’s like your favourite song – you want to hear it a thousand times.
Stage presence. Can it be learned, or is it essentially innate? Is having a dancer’s background a positive or a negative?
I think yes to both. Some people have stage presence, it’s innately in them and it grows the more they perform. Others come to performance without the same kind of stage presence, but it’s something that absolutely can be learned. You have to find the right teacher for you. Some people fill the stage with a presence that’s very loud. Other people fill the stage with presence that’s very quiet. Find someone who has the kind of stage presence you’re drawn to and learn from them.
A dance background can be very beneficial going into burlesque, because it means you already have an awareness of your body. You’ve been on stage before, so you have some tools for getting over stage fright, and it can make you more innately graceful. It can give you better balance, and it can give you a special set of skills that not everyone in burlesque has.
You can do the splits, you can do high kicks, you can do turns and spins on your heels and balance on one leg. All those things that people without dance backgrounds might not be able to do. However, as a dancer, we’re taught to look the same. There are many different styles of dance, but we all basically blend in with each other.
In burlesque you’re not supposed to blend in, you’re not supposed to look the same. What makes you special is what makes you different. Dancers going into burlesque sometimes can end up having a similar aesthetic, which is not the point of burlesque.
Dancers are also taught about making shapes, so sometimes as a dancer you can approach burlesque as making shapes in space – this is what an accentuation looks like, this is what removing this item of clothing looks like – as opposed to how it feels and how to convey that to the audience. Dancers aren’t really taught to use our faces – we’re taught to work from the neck down – but burlesque is all about your face. That can be another big challenge.
You use your face so well, playing with the audience and having an unspoken conversation with them. Where did you develop that?
My dance instructor when I was growing up had a theatre background and worked in various dance fields. She’d worked in musical theatre, she worked in chorus line/Broadway style dance, she’d worked in ballet and famous jazz companies. She knew there were lots of places dancers could work.
She looked at my five-foot frame – this was back in the nineties when you had to be really tall and skinny to be a ballerina – she was like, ‘Alright, you’re probably not going to be a ballerina or in a chorus line. What I see in you is that you’re good at embodying a character, you’re willing to be a ham onstage, which not a lot of ballerinas are. I’m going to teach you how to be a character performer, because I think that’s something that you could really do in the dance world.’
“all these things I knew how to do that never really fit together all suddenly made sense…and there’s boobs! This is everything I’ve ever wanted. “
She taught me facial expressions, how to change my movement to fit a specific character, how to project my energy to the back of the room and make myself seem taller on stage. Her name was Susan Wright; she was a dance trainer for Olympic athletes, gymnasts and synchronised swimmers. She was very good at making things look really polished and helping people energetically take up the stage. She taught me a lot and I am forever indebted to her.
When I saw my first burlesque show, I saw people using all these skills that I had been taught, but I’d never seen that particular combination: stripping and a theme, breaking the fourth wall, having direct contact with the audience. I saw that, and life suddenly made sense, all these things I knew how to do that never really fit together all suddenly made sense… and there’s boobs! This is everything I’ve ever wanted.
We’ve filled in the background on how you began and trained. How did you come across the world of burlesque?
I was a dance major in college. I ended up getting an injury – I hurt myself so badly that I had to stop dancing. I stopped, and I was very sad for four or five years. Then one day a friend in Seattle said, ‘You should see a burlesque show, I think you’d really like it. You like strippers, there’s vintage music, there’s great costumes, you will love it.’
Burlesque had been going on in Seattle – this was probably back in 2003 – for maybe five years in a kind of fringy way. I went to this tiny burlesque show, and it was like the clouds parted and stripper Jesus rammed her rays down upon me. My whole life suddenly had meaning. I saw that show and thought, that’s for brave people. I could never do that. But I wanted to be involved somehow, so I got my courage up and got into a couple of newcomer competitions a troupe in Seattle was doing before their shows.
I got a job at another show called The Bedroom Club as a pickup girl. I was so excited because I wanted to see all the costuming close up, I wanted to talk to the performers backstage, I wanted to see as much as possible. I was just excited to be part of that world. After a couple weeks the producer said, ‘Someone told me you’re a dancer, you should make up an act. I see you on stage – you’re good, you have a good rapport with the audience.’
“I went to this tiny burlesque show, and it was like the clouds parted and stripper Jesus rammed her rays down upon me. My whole life suddenly had meaning.”
So, I made up this little drunk sailor number to The Andrews Sisters Rum and Coca-Cola. I figured if I messed up or fell or whatever, it was all part of the act. I auditioned it for my producer and she put me in the show. Then after a month or so, she said, ‘You should have two acts in your repertoire, not just this one.’ So I made a Girl Scout act where I took cookies out of my clothes and fed them to the audience. After that it just kind of snowballed. This interest turned into an obsession and it turned into my whole life.
Eventually I and several ladies started another troupe called Sinner Saint Burlesque, which is still around today. Incidentally, Sydni Deveraux and I both started out as stage kittens for Burning Hearts within weeks of each other. Then Sydni, me, Evilyn Sin Claire, and Ravenna Black left and started a weekly at another club that went on for many years.
I eventually went solo for a while, then in 2011 I was lucky enough to join the Atomic Bombshells with Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover and Indigo Blue. All these wonderful performers that I’m still lucky to share the stage with now.
I love the transition you’ve made nominally as well. You were Inga Ingenue and then The One and Only Inga and now you’re just INGA. What thought did you put into that evolution?
When I first started doing burlesque, I chose Inga Ingenue because I loved the term and Inga was the only name I thought sounded nice with it. I had that name for many years. I had a little card where I phonetically spelled it out, but people would still call me ‘Inga-Inga New’ to the point where ‘Inga-Inga New’ became my nickname in the Seattle burlesque community.
After a while I got tired of people mispronouncing it. I started burlesque when I was 24, you know. Ingenue fit me at that time, I felt called to that character of a young girl who’s both an artist and a muse, discovering the world around her because I felt that way.
I got into my thirties and realised I didn’t give a shit about being an ingenue anymore. The name didn’t fit me, it didn’t suit the work I was making, which was more intense and grown up, more sexually aware. I was doing full on classic striptease where I felt like a grownup. I decided well, what if I gave myself a title instead?
I settled on The One The Only for a couple of years, then realised that it looked terrible in print. Also, ‘the one, the only’ is a common intro hosts say about a lot of performers. People still just thought my name was Inga anyway, and I was like, who cares, it’s my name, it’s my choice. Now I’m happy just being INGA. It feels right and it’s kind of fun to have it all in capitals and feel like Cher, one name.
“Creating new performers and putting new energy into your city’s community – those are things that might not necessarily be recognised by the Top 50 or the Burlesque Hall of Fame competition. But those things are vital and just as important.”
Is there any more you’d like to comment in terms of competition, polls, and their place in our scene? (I say that as the founder of the biggest poll in the industry…)
Well, I’m saying that as the Reigning Queen of Burlesque! (Laughs) I think that because we are a non-corporate artistic world, we must find our own ways of rewarding ourselves for our work. What’s dangerous is getting so wrapped up that you think if you’re not receiving those accolades, it means you are not worth anything as a performer.
You can be making amazing work in your own community and maybe that’s as far as it goes. You can be a community leader, you can be an instructor – these things are vital to keeping burlesque alive. Creating new performers and putting new energy into your city’s community – those are things that might not necessarily be recognised by the Top 50 or the Burlesque Hall of Fame competition. But those things are vital and just as important. Not being on that stage or on that list doesn’t make it any less important.
I’ve know that you have conflicts over these things from a feminist point of view as well. From that angle, how do you feel about pageants and so on?
We’re a small community of artists trying to push forward this idea of feminism and gender inclusion, to destroy ideas about who you are according to your assigned gender, and pageants and title winning is kind of an archaic form of competition for women.
I do have a lot of conflicted feelings about competition within the burlesque world because the whole point of neo-burlesque is being celebrated for your differences, for fighting the idea that all human beings, especially female bodied people, have to be judged based on appearance. It can pit you against your sisters and put you in a mindset where you see your burlesque sister as someone who could potentially take something away from you, someone that you need to beat in order to achieve your goal. I find that really problematic.
“It’s hard because you think, ‘I had this title and it made me special.’ Then when you give your title away, you’re like, ‘Oh, am I not special anymore?’ You’ve got to do a lot of soul searching to realise that you were always special, you were always important because of who you are. “
It’s best if you approach competition from a healthy place, knowing that someone else’s achievement is not your failure, and similarly your achievement is not someone else’s failure, and realise that the people you’re competing against are human beings. We were all chosen to be in that competition for a reason. We’re all there because we love doing what we do. If you approach it from a place of wanting to make connections with people, as opposed to others getting in the way of what you want, then competition can be a healthy thing.
I also know from winning a competition before that a title can overtake you, and when you give it away you may feel that you lose a part of yourself and have to spend time rebuilding from that. It’s hard because you think, ‘I had this title and it made me special.’ Then when you give your title away, you’re like, ‘Oh, am I not special anymore?’ You’ve got to do a lot of soul searching to realise that you were always special, you were always important because of who you are. If you know that, whether or not you get the title you’ll be grounded in who you are and why you do what you do.
“It’s best if you approach competition from a healthy place, knowing that someone else’s achievement is not your failure, and similarly your achievement is not someone else’s failure, and realise that the people you’re competing against are human beings.”
What’s life like day to day for you – are you sustaining yourself purely as a performer?
I don’t sustain myself primarily on performing. I made a purposeful choice a couple of years ago to stop doing that because I found myself only making work that I thought would get me work. I was unhappy on stage, and you should never be taking your clothes off in front of people and be unhappy about it.
I pulled back from performing and I do have a day job. I work at a shop here in Seattle called Pretty Parlor. Ruby Mimosa from the Atomic Bombshells also works there. I also do rhinestone projects for people – when BenDeLaCreme was on All Stars 3, the burlesque act she did with the multiple bra reveals with all the pasties, I rhinestoned that costume and was so proud watching. I was like, ‘That’s my work on BenDeLaCreme, who’s killing it on screen right now!’
I’ve really liked not depending on performance to pay my bills. I like being able to pick and choose what shows I want to be part of, what acts I want to make. For me that gave me a lot of freedom. I know other people feel the opposite where they want to be able to do it full time, put all their energy into it. For me, at least up until now in my life I, I needed a little bit of a grounding.
I think you’ve come to the realisation that the ultimate goal is to be happy and at peace, and that comes in a lot of different forms. You’ve found a balance in your life that works for you.
Totally. I feel so honoured and ready to take on the responsibilities of Queen. I have an amazing role model in Miss Indigo Blue. I realise I’ve been given an opportunity that not a lot of people get and I’m not going to waste it. I still believe that I deserve it, but what does it even mean to deserve this? Everyone in the competition deserved this.
This has been given to me and I’m going to take full advantage of it, utilise this gift I’ve been given and be a good Queen. That’s the short of it. I want to work with the Burlesque Hall of Fame to promote fundraising and awareness. I want to work with the community and museum to help the Legends and promote awareness of burlesque history. Also, if it’s useful to people, to talk about how to approach what we do in a way that is healthy and continues to not only let us grow as an art form, but to keep the core ideas of what neo-burlesque is about within burlesque.
I would love to help people remember what those core ideas are, and put them into their work and daily lives. Because that’s what’s going to keep our community amazing. That’s what will keep it revolutionary.
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.