Burlesque has a dark side, and it isn’t all about empowering our peers, but it could be.
On the surface, the enticing lights illuminate Burlesque as if it were the perfect industry. Women supporting other women. Men supporting other men. Body positivity, and the joy of knowing that you can be anyone you want to be, explore any pathway creatively, and make Burlesque your own in a world without rules.
When asked by those on the outside whether ‘anyone can do burlesque’, one-thousand showgirl and showboy voices reply in unison that yes! Burlesque is a non-judgemental, safe-space where you can finally learn to shimmy off the shackles of your mere mortal self-deprecation to become a more confident, sassy version of you. But is this truly the case? Or is burlesque hiding a deeper, darker, dystopian secret?
A few years ago, I had climbed the burlesque ropes to a point where I realised that the art of burlesque was my calling.
I had trained in classical ballet. I had always had an explorative, open mind, and I came alive when in front of an audience. I had a spark, and I quickly realised that burlesque was the catalyst that would turn my spark into a flame.
It was more than a hobby. It was obvious that its glittering grasp had left me hooked beyond any other civilian vocation. I decided, in that moment, that I was going to take a risk. That I would quit my day job, and in a terrifying moment of sink-or-swim, force myself to become the best I could be as a professional burlesque artist. My art would pay my way in life, and thus I had to learn how to be not just incredible at my faculty, but exceptional at marketing it too. I had to become a businesswoman.
Now, many would say that the two are incapable of going hand-in-hand, and that to choose one compromises the other, but here’s the thing: to ‘make it’ as a burlesque artist you have to have more than just a great act – you have to have the ability to promote that act. Why? If not, you will be sucked into the void of incredibly talented, penniless sitar players and impoverished geniuses, unable to get by.
This is the harsh reality for the majority of us who are performing our butts off. Burlesque can be an expensive business, and without the financial support from someone or something else, our journey to success can be a bottomless struggle.
Thus, on the 20th February 2015 I unveiled what was the biggest act of my career at the time, my Giant Diamond Ring routine.
It was not only two years in the making, one year of costuming and another of choreography, it was financially the biggest investment I’d ever made in my journey. It was to be my golden-ticket towards gigs that would transform my art from ‘getting by’ and ‘surviving’ to finally being able to pay my way. Yes, I knew at the time that I was still learning my craft, and I also knew that in order to get the level of bookings I dreamed of I would need to promote it like never before. But what I didn’t know was how quickly it would finally reveal to me that all was not what it seemed in my sacred industry I passionately adored. A dark side of burlesque was about to be revealed, and it would forever leave a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth.
The night after my first performance of the act, I knew something was wrong.
My facebook messages had started flashing alarmingly frequently with questions from my dear friends of ‘Are you ok?’ or ‘I’m so sorry this has happened.’ A few scrolls of my timeline later, there it was, staring me in the face. A post shared in every burlesque group or forum you could think of, clearly pointed at my latest act. Scrolling through the comments and reactions I distinctly remember the taste in my mouth, and a feeling that someone I deeply loved had horrifically and unexpectedly betrayed me.
The night of the reveal, one review had gone up which showed my debut performance in a neutral but critical light, yet it was the reaction of my beloved industry which cut the deepest.
‘An empty can rattles the most…’ were the comments.
‘That’s what happens when you sh*t glitter’ was another.
‘The truth will eventually be exposed behind the hype. Talentless.’
But they didn’t stop there. It got to the point where some of them even contacted members in the Burlesque Hall of Fame asking them to pull my application on the grounds of not only being ‘talentless’, but also calling into question my ethnicity.
The worst: ‘I don’t even believe she’s actually Asian. She’s not brown enough.’ Malice I can handle, racism I cannot.
As the tears flowed down my face I realised that those in the burlesque industry I thought were my comrades – my sisters and brothers in fighting for empowerment, encouragement and positivity in our industry – had been harbouring claws the moment I dared to raise my head above the parapet.
Suddenly, burlesque wasn’t about love of others’ successes, love of the Art, love of each other and body confidence… burlesque had revealed a dark, competitive, sinister side in all its glory.
Now it would be easy for those reading this who were privy to the criticism to say that some of the comments were deserved, perhaps even justified. An act was promoted that perhaps on the debut night didn’t yet live up to the hype. But here’s the catch: it was never billed as the best act in the world, I had never professed to being the best dancer in the world. But what I had was a unique, impressive gimmick which was to be my one-way-ticket to finally being able to survive on the art I so passionately cared about.
Did I believe the hype? Of course not. Did I feel silly saying it was going to be amazing? Of course I did. But guess what? This was my job. Not my hobby, my job. This was the act that would finally allow me to transition from struggling artist to a professional woman who could hold her head high and support herself.
And so what did I do? I didn’t react. I didn’t reply. I held my head high and carried on.
I carried on gracefully in silence for a year. And the act? Several performances later, it went on to be booked as the headline entertainment for the Formula One Grand Prix. It went on to be booked at some of the most extravagant shows I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It went on to give me the freedom as an artist I’d only dreamt about, and I went on to be accepted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
But the story doesn’t end there.
You see, this isn’t the start of a witch hunt or petty revenge to expose those who went after me, or criticised me, or bullied me. This is a lesson, because what happened was not simply terribly bad, it turned out to become remarkably good.
Rather than crushing me into giving up, it inspired me to be strong. After all, it is only under extreme pressure that real diamonds are created. Every single day and night I decided to rehearse that act. Every single day and night I worked to prove the haters wrong. Every single month that passed I told myself that a day would come in which I would get to a point where I felt bold enough, talented enough, good enough and brave enough to tell my story. To reveal the truth that was the other side of burlesque.
And that day is today.
Why today? Because earlier this year I took all the negativity, all the comments, all the criticism and poured it into a new act. I wanted to show every single burlesque baby starting out, or every single girl or boy who had been slammed for an act they cared about, how to cope and move forward towards a positive future. And so, following the transformation of my diamond ring act, I decided to create something to once and for all silence the naysayers.
I combined my new-found stage presence and honed performance with something I had been hiding for far too long: my singing voice. Rather than let this break me, I let this empower me to create an act that – stripped back from the gimmicks – would hit back at the negativity without a single inch of room for doubt. And so here I am, writing this from Hollywood after the video blew the minds of some of the most incredible and influential people in our industry.
I hope some of you may take the time to watch it, knowing now the journey I’ve come on to get me there. I hope some of you may now be able to speak up about your own experiences in this industry. I hope some of you may now not be afraid to be criticised, or even bullied, knowing there is always a light at the end of the tunnel if you stay strong.
And finally, I hope to reveal the unspoken reality that even though it seems that burlesque is not what many of us thought it would be, that there is still a way we can change it to become that. There are still many of us here that really do care about the values we thought we were signing up for when we started down this path.
And whilst I spend my life in varying degrees of striptease, the irony is, I’ve never felt more exposed. But it’s time to stop being afraid to stand up and say that our glamorous, sugar-coated industry might not be the supportive haven we all imagined when we donned our pasties for the first time, but know that there are enough of us that can make it that way, if we truly care, if we truly stand up together.
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.