The Chicago Starlets – Michelle L’amour’s burlesque supergroup; a captivating chorus line of bright, beautiful women who each began by attending and advancing through the classes at Studio L’amour. They regularly perform in long running, L’amour-produced shows in Chicago, and have repeatedly entertained the audience at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, winning ‘Best Group’ in the 2010 pageant.
I spoke to Lady Ginger, Frenchie Kiss, Greta Layne, Lily Bloom, Rhonda Vous, and Delia Aces about the life, laughter and love they share as members of the Chicago Starlets, and I want to express my thanks to them for their enthusiasm and generosity – I am so happy that this feature has come together. I love watching the Starlets perform, and I am always so impressed and moved by their dedication, passion, intelligence and professionalism…
When did you each join the Starlets?
Lady Ginger: I joined the Starlets as an apprentice approximately five years ago and after six months became a full Starlet. It was the most unexpected yet most wonderful thing that’s happened to me.
Frenchie Kiss: I became a Starlet about five years ago. Gosh, time really flies when you’re having fun! I can’t believe it’s been five years!
Greta Layne: I became a member of the Chicago Starlets in December 2008.
Delia Aces: I became a Starlet after my second student show, December 2010.
Lily Bloom: 2008 (I think I was an apprentice and then official at Christmas or the New Year).
Rhonda Vous: I first became a Starlet Apprentice in the winter of 2007. I became an official Starlet in June 2008.
Why did you first decide to sign up for classes at Studio L’amour?
Rhonda Vous: I always had an interest in burlesque before I even really knew what it was! I had heard of Michelle L’amour and actually contacted her before she had a troupe to learn more about it. I chickened out of going to see and meet her at a show, but I did get to meet her at the very first Starlet show she produced (called Star and Garter at that time). I asked her what I had to do to get up on stage, and she told me about her classes. I signed up immediately, and the rest is (like my clothes) history!
Lady Ginger: I actually began classes with Michelle before she opened Studio L’amour. I have a degree in theatre and was doing some acting in Chicago. I got really burned out of the audition process, however, and needed to try something different. I read the description of Michelle’s classes, and thought, ‘props, music, taking my clothes off… That sounds right up my alley!’ I was hooked within the first 30 minutes of my first class.
Frenchie Kiss: I started taking classes with Michelle before she had Studio L’amour. I wanted an extra-curricular activity from my day job, so I thought, ‘burlesque is a perfect extra-curricular activity!’ As I took more classes, the more I was hooked and loved having a creative outlet.
Greta Layne: I began taking classes in winter 2006. At the time, Michelle was teaching out of a belly dance studio. I had actually shown up to take a belly dance class, not knowing much about burlesque or that it was being taught there by someone so accomplished. The class I showed up for ended up being full and the owner of the studio suggested that I drop into the burlesque class since I was already there. That was in the winter of 2006 and I haven’t stopped since!
Delia Aces: I knew a little about Michelle for a long time; I was totally intrigued by burlesque, adored the idea of it, and knew that we were lucky enough to have a Miss Exotic World winner in Chicago. I procrastinated for a while, and then in late 2008 I saw a show (Michelle and the Starlets) and was convinced that it was time to take a class. I started classes in January 2009 and have been hooked ever since!
“We are all here because we want to be, because we love what we do, so we give everything we have to it and to each other…”
What is special and rewarding about being a member of a troupe, and this troupe in particular, as opposed to performing solo?
Lady Ginger: The really great thing about being a member of a troupe, and particularly this troupe, is the support we all get and give. There’s always someone that will give you valuable and honest feedback on what you’re working on. We also inspire and push each other to be better. The Starlets are unique in that we are all trained/encouraged to be strong soloists who are also dynamic members of a group – you’re constantly pushing yourself to improve and are constantly inspired by the others in the group.
Frenchie Kiss: What is unique about the Chicago Starlets, is that we’re a group of featured soloists – really great soloists – who also happen to have an amazing group dynamic on stage. There aren’t many groups where each performer can stand out on their own, and I think that’s what makes us so strong all together. It also helps that there are so many of us – we’re a force to be reckoned with! And it’s fun to be on stage with all of my sister Starlets.
Greta Layne: I think what makes this troupe special is the great feeling of family, of sisterhood, that we share with each other. The friendship and love for one another is genuine and I think that makes a tremendous difference to the dynamics of working together. It’s also beneficial to be able to bounce ideas off someone that you respect in the business and know that you’re getting feedback, including constructive criticism, that you can trust.
Delia Aces: I think the incredible support network makes being a Starlet so rewarding. From the time I took my first student show class to re-working a performance for the NOLA burlesque festival, I have always had girls in the troupe that I can rely on for constructive criticism and advice. We are each other’s biggest cheerleaders, but also don’t hesitate to be honest with each other when something isn’t working.
Lily Bloom: The support and friendship of the other girls. I think the troupe is so successful because we all work really well together and our personalities complement each other.
Rhonda Vous: I love the ‘sisterhood’ feeling of being in a group, but what we also get that’s unique is the one-on-one personal encouragement and education from a burlesque superstar! It really is a great situation because we not only get to be a world class troupe, but we learn to be world class soloists as well. It’s amazing to get inspiration and encouragement not only from Michelle, but from each other.
What has it brought to your lives off stage?
Lady Ginger: It has really enriched my life through all of the friendships I’ve established through burlesque – not just with the Starlets, but with all of the incredibly talented people I’ve had the opportunity to meet while travelling. It also has made my life more glamorous, and more exciting. It challenges me in my daily life to be better at what I do, to work harder, and to keep trying new things.
Frenchie Kiss: My life is much more glamorous now. Also, being a Starlet has definitely kept me on my toes because there is a lot to do! And it forces me to be really meticulous about my time management. But I love the fast-paced nature of performing, especially as we’re preparing for big shows. And I love have this creative outlet.
Greta Layne: First and foremost, being a member of the Starlets has brought a lot of laughter, love, and smiles to life offstage. It’s been an amazing journey meeting new people as well as traveling and performing in cities that I may not have otherwise had a reason to venture out to.
Delia Aces: After my first performance I really felt like I could do absolutely anything. It was terrifying and exhilarating and I hope that never changes! I am a big believer in doing things that are outside of your comfort zone, and burlesque certainly fits the bill. It challenges me as an artist as well; I constantly have to learn how to do new things and problem solve some very unique problems.
Lily Bloom: Confidence, positive attitude and a hectic social calendar! And my chicago family.
Rhonda Vous: I certainly have much more confidence in life in general. It takes a certain amount of confidence to get on stage the first time, but it takes more and more each time you do it. This translates to personal life as well.
“Michelle is that really unique friend that can read you like a book, that cares enough to ask, that really listens when you speak, that respects you and you can tell really cares about you…”
Have you formed friendships and do you socialise with eachother off stage?
Lily Bloom: Yes and yes. We are like a big burlesque family.
Lady Ginger: Absolutely! That’s one area where the Starlets have been very lucky. We all get along, we all genuinely like and respect each other, and we’re constantly getting together for each other’s birthdays, for dinners, etc. The Starlets have truly become a second family to me.
Frenchie Kiss: We do spend a lot of time socializing with each other off stage. We’re pretty lucky to be like a family, which I think is unique with so many performers – we’re very supportive of each other, and genuinely happy for each other’s successes on and off stage. We have family dinners and we hang out.
Greta Layne: The friendships that have been formed are as solid and as precious as gold. We spend a good deal of time socializing in ways that do not involve burlesque. We’ve been to (and stood up) in each other’s weddings, have had numerous birthday, brunch and dinner gatherings, and we’re always there for each other if someone needs a shoulder to cry on.
Delia Aces: Absolutely I have made real friendships within the group. There are so many of us and we don’t always get to see each other outside of rehearsals but there are several people whom I consider true friends and we hang out as often as our (day job) schedules allow. These friendships are very important to me because although I have close girl friends, there is a burlesque bond that we have. No one but burlesque friends really understand things like costume mishaps, rhinestone envy, and how important it is to put your pasties on straight!
Rhonda Vous: Oh yes! We have Starlet outings pretty often (usually hosted at Michelle’s home where she cooks for us) and we are always invited to each other’s birthday parties, weddings, etc.
What do you think of Michelle as a teacher and friend?
Delia Aces: Michelle is one of the best teachers I have ever had; she’s hard on me when I need to be pushed, but encouraging and warm when she knows I’ve worked hard and improved an act. She is incredibly busy, but has always made time for me whenever I need advice or help, either as a Starlet or a friend. You can’t talk about Michelle without talking about how purely talented she is. She works her ass off, but she also has something that few others have, this amazing innate talent.
Greta Layne: Michelle is an amazing teacher and a wonderful friend. She helps each individual grow as a performer and will always push you in the right direction. She aims, and succeeds, in making you challenge yourself constantly while equally putting you at ease.
Frenchie Kiss: It’s a rare thing to be so close to Michelle because there are many demands on her time and she is accessible to many people. She is such a gifted performer, an amazing visionary, but also very hard working, and she wants to share burlesque with as many people as possible. So as my teacher, I feel inspired and challenged by her work and her approach to performing, and learn from her continuously. As my friend, I feel fortunate to know her because there is a comfort with her – an honesty and a foundation where you can be relaxed. Sometimes it’s funny for me to see fans interact with Michelle because I forget they don’t know her as well as I do. She’s incredibly powerful and gracious, but to me, she’s also just Michelle.
Lily Bloom: She is a great mentor both as the troupe instructor and to each of us as a soloist. She is professional and expects professionalism from us also. She’s also approachable as a mentor, and a witty and fun friend.
Lady Ginger: As a teacher, Michelle never ceases to amaze me. She is so down to earth, and really cares about the students that come through the studio. She is able to establish relationships with the students. Michelle has the unique ability to challenge students, to encourage them, to allow them to have fun, to make them feel relaxed while at the Studio; she makes Burlesque accessible while maintaining the highest quality of instruction. I know I would never have got where I am without her as my initial teacher, but also without continuing to take classes with her. As my friend, wow… Michelle is that really unique friend that can read you like a book, that cares enough to ask, that really listens when you speak, that respects you and you can tell really cares about you. The care, the dedication, the work that Michelle puts into teaching and performing is the same energy she puts into our friendship and the other friendships she has established. She’s an amazing woman.
Can you describe the experience of performing, and winning, at BHoF in 2010? What was it like to perform with Michelle as part of the group?
Performing and winning at BHoF in 2010 was amazing, magnificent, nerve-wracking, exhilarating. We had competed the year before and hadn’t won, so we were all extra motivated to really hit the best performance we could, and we were determined not to let Michelle down, especially considering that she was performing with us. Having Michelle with us was the icing on the cake, the thing that made the night absolutely perfect. Michelle is the head of the troupe, but she is also one of us; it wouldn’t have been the same without her. Waiting to hear the results felt like forever, but then you hear your name called – everything went into slow motion and it all became a blur after that. It was a truly perfect experience, sharing the stage with so many talented performers, and such an honour to bring the title back to Chicago.
Do you all have input into the routines? What has inspired some of them, and are they put together with certain strengths, details or goals in mind?
The routine itself, or the idea for a routine, can be inspired by so many different things – a song, a conversation, a photograph, etc. The style of the routine is inspired by Michelle’s respect and love for the grandness of Ziegfeld routines and Busby Berkley films and productions, among other things (high energy, high production numbers with lots of girls). Michelle choreographs all of our group numbers, but she is always aware of each girl’s strengths, weakness, and talents when putting numbers together. Michelle gives us choreography that is challenging to all of us, but she knows that the Starlets have a high performance ability and will work hard – she knows the Starlets can do it!
What do you feel makes a strong and successful group?
A willingness to always work hard and push ourselves to our own personal boundaries. A respect and dedication to the art form and each other, dedication to putting on the highest quality performance, a great sense of family, and the ability to communicate within the group. We are all here because we want to be, because we love what we do, so we give everything we have to it and to each other.
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.