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Part Three: Race and Burlesque – The Interviews

Part Three: Race and Burlesque – The Interviews

Part Three: Race and Burlesque - The Interviews

Here is the final part of the Race and Burlesque: The Curious Case of the Performer of Colour interviews. Conducted by Chocolat the Extraordinaire. (Click on the performer names to visit their websites.)

The Shanghai Pearl

What drew you to burlesque?

I was always drawn to old pornographic ephemera, and then, because of that fascination, I started collecting pin-ups and photos of old burlesque queens. I don’t know why exactly, but I have always been fascinated by sexy, smiling, nearly naked ladies.

Why did you start performing?

I went to Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque because, after a few years of actively attending shows, I noticed that I almost never saw women of colour performing burlesque. I wanted to find out why this dazzling, hilarious, wonderful artform seemed to only be performed by white people!

I didn’t actually go to the school with the intention of becoming a burlesque performer, but looking back at that now, it all seems to make perfect sense. As I learned more about burlesque’s rich history, I became obsessed and remain so to this day.

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

Yes, acutely. To this day I am still one of very few Asian American performers.

The Shanghai Pearl. ©POC Photo
The Shanghai Pearl. ©POC Photo

I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this. I would love to have this conversation with some academics and learn more, actually.

The fact remains that most arts communities are largely white and have very few people of colour (and even fewer immigrants and/or children of immigrants) participating in them.

I think that for a large percentage of immigrants, survival and safety are a priority. Art school, performance, theatre, etc., are not only privileges and luxuries but literally risky business. Most immigrant parents are grooming their children for the safest, best chances for success: Go to college, get a good paying job (doctor, lawyer, IT, or what have you), get married and have babies. My theory about this is that because the parents took the giant risk of coming to this country, they don’t want to see their children take big risks. They want them to be safe and comfortable.

Another factor is our society’s way of taking the sexuality and pleasure of a three-dimensional human person and boxing it up into a tiny/boring/two-dimensional/galling stereotype (‘sexy’ Indian lady, ‘geisha girl’, wilting China doll, ‘dragon lady’). It does not make for a welcoming environment. These stereotypes hurt and we fight them on a daily basis.

I was raised in a very traditional household; women had a very specific place and duty. Art school, feminism, self expression, self actualisation, etc., are not part of that formula. Sex, glitter, glamour, power, play, pleasure and wildness were definitely not a part of that formula (but thank goodness I found them anyway).

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

Completely fascinating and largely positive.

One of my high points was when I heard of, politely stalked, and finally met the marvellous women of The Grant Avenue Follies. To hear firsthand stories of Noel Toy, Mai Tai Sing and having the opportunity to meet Kobe Yee, Dorothy Toy and Barbara Yung.

On the other end of the spectrum, the experience I had last year when I said I was offended by Dita’s Opium Den act was positively shocking, jarring and awful.

I feel so lucky and grateful to be who I am and doing what I am doing. Especially as an immigrant lady; I have no doubts my life would be very, very different if my family stayed in Taiwan. I’ve been able to travel the world performing burlesque. I am SO grateful for the experiences I have had and the exceptional, powerful, and amazing women I have met through burlesque.

Ray Gunn

What drew you to burlesque? Why did you start performing?

I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when Hot Toddy (King of Boylesque 2009) came shimmying around the corner and ran smack dab into me!  He made me drop my mint-chocolate Magnum (I’m talking about the ice cream bar, you perverts!) and totally glitterbombed me.  After being covered in glitter, I had two choices: Join the Ice-Capades or take up burlesssque.  I took up burlesque. Came to find out, I wasn’t the only guy Hot Toddy glitterbombed. The SAME thing happened to Bazuka Joe and Jett Adore – and thus was born The Stage Door Johnnies.  Blame Toddy.

Ray Gunn.  ©Kaylin Idora
Ray Gunn. ©Kaylin Idora

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

Yes, I was aware, but I actually feel like more of a minority being a guy than being black – minus the occasional drunken suggestion that I should change my name to something like Ricky Godiva, Jason Blackheart or Chocolate Chip.  Also when they wanted to change the name of our show to Mandingo. Ironically, two of the three of us are white(ish). These are all true stories.

What do you think the reason is for this?

The stigma of being ‘A Stripper’, I feel, is a lot stronger in black culture. In its hey-day, black performers were mostly on the vaudeville side of burlesque and didn’t receive as much notoriety as their white counterparts, aside from a few legends like Josephine Baker.  Even now, in my experience, ‘burlesque’ in black culture immediately creates an association with ‘strip clubs’ and all the drugs and corruption that go with it.  I think that’s why it’s kept a lot of black performers away.

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

It was really great, until the popularity of Nerdlesque, when I realised that the only Sci-Fi characters I could do would be Morpheus, Lando Calrissian, and ‘The Black Guy’.

Creatrix Tiara

What drew you to burlesque? Why did you start performing?

Burlesque was something that had intrigued me for a while, but I didn’t get into it until after I graduated from university and figured I could do one ‘naughty’ thing before I had to go home (I moved from Malaysia to Australia for uni). Also, I was cast as the dominatrix in The Vagina Monologues and thought this made great prep.

I loved how free-form it was; you could pretty much do anything, and there was room for satire and commentary and silliness. It was like being able to make a music video on stage. I ended up hanging around Australia for another few years and kept going! (I’m in the Bay Area now).

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

I was aware that I was one of very few, if any, non-White performers around, especially in Brisbane/Australia. What I wasn’t expecting was the backlash I got for pointing this out. I sought out a community of performers who were aware of the complications of being a minority burlesque performer, and a lot of them were based in the US. What I noticed was that in the US, being political about being a minority is more accepted; even when people disagree they let you speak. In Australia? I was nearly sued and ended up being so blacklisted and shunned that I changed audiences and then just changed countries altogether.

Creatrix Tiara.  ©Shilo McCabe
Creatrix Tiara. ©Shilo McCabe

What do you think the reason is for this?

Based on the reception I got, there isn’t really a lot of safe space in burlesque for minorities. A lot of the burlesque scene makes a big hue and cry over being ‘more inclusive’ or ‘body positive’ or whatever, but even then, the most normative of bodies (see: Dita von Teese) gets the most support and respect.

As a racial minority, you’re either expected to play up the ‘Exotic’ factor (I’ve been introduced as the ‘Bollywood Princess’ even though NOTHING I do has any Bollywood in it) or you have to conform to 1950s Victoriana; you’re not just allowed to do whatever the hell you want without a lot of strife. There’s also a lot of racism and cultural appropriation happening on stage, often in the guise of ‘but your culture is so prettyyyy‘ or ‘this is arrrtttt‘, as though they are devoid of responsibility.

On the flipside, a lot of minority cultures aren’t really that supportive of being exhibitionistic about sexuality. I’ve caused a stir in my family for being ‘shameless’ and ‘degrading myself’. The number one comment I get from other South Asians interested in burlesque is: ‘I wish I could do what you do, but my family would kill me’.  And when the scene itself is not safe for you, how are your family and community members going to be assured of your wellbeing?

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

Rough, mostly in relation to the response I get for speaking up about it. I’ve been told that I’m too ugly/fat/brown/knock-kneed/hairy for burlesque. I’ve been told to shut up and play nice. I’ve been told to stop being such a rabble-rouser. I’ve been told that calling out racism is in itself racist toward White people. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits for calling out cultural appropriation. I’ve been excluded and ignored. It’s painful.

But at the same time, I’ve been thankful to find and cultivate communities of performers and producers that grow these things, that care about and think about what it’s like to be a minority amongst minorities, exposing yourself and being vulnerable in more ways than one. We get to rant about similar shit and we get it.  If you haven’t joined the groups Anti-Oppressive Burlesque and Creative Sexuality as well as POC Burlesque Parlour, both on Facebook, I suggest that you do.

What made the biggest difference for me, I think, is changing where and to whom I perform. The mainstream burlesque scene wasn’t home for me any more, and that was largely due to the other players, not even the audience. I go to queer audiences, feminist activist audiences, am part of topical cabarets, moved to a whole new country. My work is burlesque-based, but it’s now more performance art than anything else. I get to embrace the freeform weirdness that drew me to burlesque in the first place, in places that appreciate it more.

Coco Deville

What drew you to burlesque?

I was in the last year of my degree, BA Hons in contemporary theatre and choreographic practices, and the ethos of feminist performance art really hit home with me. Although, I found some of the works I initially came across adopted a rather aggressive and somewhat elitist tone. I wished to make work that had depth and meaning, yet was accessible for all. I found that I wasn’t alone in these sentiments and the ideals of burlesque and cabaret were brought to the table. It ticked the boxes of values I adored, as well as offering an immediate outlet to develop as a contemporary performance artist.

Why did you start performing?

With my background in traditional stage work, I grew weary that personal input and individual creative thought was a mere last resort or stifled entirely. Cabaret gives you back that control; the stage is all yours, the costume is yours, the audience are yours, their minds are all yours. To earn and embrace that power and artistic freedom is rather addictive.

Were you aware that you would be one of very few performers of colour when you started?

When I started seven years ago, I was based in the South West, so back then burlesque was a novelty, an entirely new addition to the live performance scene in that area. In my original repertoire, my race was never an issue or consideration. I believed burlesque had always been about celebrating the female form, her mind and her body, satirising the labels placed upon her, as well as any other areas where nudity/striptease could be used a narrative tool. It wasn’t until my profile increased and I started becoming more mainstream that others pointed out I was the only ethnic performer in a line up.

Coco Deville.  ©Debbie Bowles
Coco Deville. ©Debbie Bowles

What do you think the reason is for this?

I started digging back to the origins of burlesque, cabaret and striptease, and I was truly shocked. The ratio of ethnic performers was so high; in fact, I believe these women were integral to the success of the developing genre. This was a period of history where women and the attitudes towards the female form were changing – the desire to become engulfed in the spectacle, the voyeurism, the escapism that she creates. What better way to add to this than watching a culturally new body shape, persona with unusual choreography. It gave me a new sense of nostalgia and source of inspiration.

All in all, I am wholeheartedly confused as to why there are not more performers of colour in our diversely multiracial society. In many ethnic cultures, the heritage is steeped in performance and decadent entertainment: from disciplined choreography associated with Kathakali and belly dance, the whole role of a geisha, to the social and historical significance of the wild and innovative music and dance styles from African Americans post slavery, namely the birth of rock and roll. Yet, in the modern cabaret scene, these origins are not celebrated by the new generations of these cultures, even though these forms would easily translate and add new dimension to the revival.

How has your experience of being a burlesque performer of colour been so far?

What floats around in the burlesque community is the ideal that we, as performers, are an embodiment of a fantasy. I rejected this notion at first; burlesque was my creative outlet, but the scene has become so saturated that audiences want something new, fresh, and different. So much so that many established performers are fusing striptease with circus skills like fire, hooping, and adopting costuming/props from other dance forms like belly-dance and ballet. So, rather than pursuing a different avenue, I looked into myself, back to basics, embracing what makes me unique in the scene, and I gained stimulus from this. My creative flair and high energy lends itself to a fair few ethnically iconic characters, such as my ‘disco diva’ persona or my fetishised tribal queen act, so, artistically, I am in a rather comfortable position.

I feel that the burlesque revival as it stands is a multi-storey playground for those who are fearless with their creativity, and so, if you have the option to utilise your physicality, race, size, gender etc., then it’s another string to your bow.

Read Part One and Part Two of the Race and Burlesque Interviews.


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