Presenting our new Reigning Queen of Burlesque, Miss Exotic World, 2012 – Imogen Kelly!
I am so pleased that Imogen Kelly has been recognised and rewarded for a fantastic performance; a performance that symbolises her incredible talent, creativity, dedication, vision, and years of hard work and contributions as a contemporary pioneer in Australia. Her victory has already inspired joy, pride and enthusiasm in the Australian burlesque community, and I have no doubt that she will continue to support and uplift her fellow Australian performers throughout her year as Queen, and beyond.
It has been a pleasure to get to know her over the past few years, and I know she will impress and excite everyone she meets and performs for as she tours the globe during the next twelve months.
I enjoyed a chat with a tired but happy Imogen Kelly on Monday morning last week, to talk about her BHoF experience and future plans…
Holli-Mae Johnson: So take me through Saturday evening and the build up to the pageant – did your preparations all go smoothly; were you pleased with the performance you gave?
Imogen Kelly: Yes, I was happy with everything; I managed my time and my energy very well. I tried to keep very quiet in the days leading up to the event – actually I didn’t keep very quiet at all! Partying a bit too much! But thankfully I decided to get sleep rather than party on at some points, despite my friends being really reckless with all of their preparations for what they thought I should be doing! [laughs] Which involved drinking Margaritas with little umbrellas in them, then visiting all the absurd attractions and strip clubs around Vegas.
On the night, I got to the dressing room… Thankfully everybody was really vibrant and happy, helpful and warm, so we had a really good time backstage.
H: There was a nice atmosphere…
I: It was lovely in my room; I had Coco and LouLou [D’vil] and Darlinda, and we were just laughing, making the most of the time and making each other laugh, it was really great. So by the time I went onstage I felt quite calm; it was really a relief to be sharing the room with those girls for that reason.
H: I remember you saying that last year you could really sense a competitive atmosphere, that emotions were running high. How did it compare, this year?
I: Well, it was still the same. Some performers need to isolate in high pressure gigs. I mean, I can get very quiet before a big show, so if I see other artists needing that, wanting to be by themselves and just focus on what’s ahead of them I never take it personally, although I do prefer it when it’s a happy, cheery dressing room. There are lots of different little pockets backstage at The Orleans, and we happened to have the happy, giggly pocket! [laughs] We even had stage managers coming in saying, ‘what is going ON in here?’ [laughs] We were laughing that much.
H: It’s so nice that it was like that.
I: It was gorgeous; it relaxes everyone and helps them do a better job.
“…just as I was putting down my gear I heard my name – OH MY GOD – and I tried to compose myself – I couldn’t!”
H: How early were you on, where were you in the order of Reigning Queen competitors?
I: I think I was fourth? Third even.
H: Ah so it was quite early on – you didn’t have to wait and wait.
I: Well I thought that was going to make my job harder, because the audience are just coming back from a break, and it’s always tough when you’ve got to be one of the acts that are building the audience back up.
H: Yes, I know how that is… So – to the moment itself – did you feel by that point that you had a shot at this…?
I: I watched all of the acts, and honestly the acts were very good, each and every one of them. I was blown away by the artistry in each performance. By this point I had sat myself down at the back of the audience and was just watching the show thinking, ‘oh well at least I got to come!’ [laughs] I had already picked who, in my mind, I thought was going to be the winner; there were two acts that were really vying for that. So I thought that maybe I’d get ‘Most Innovative’. But then they announced Koko La Douce as the winner of that award. I thought ‘Ohh… well maybe I have placed as a runner up.’ And then the two runners up were the two acts that I thought would win – Trixie Little, and Ophelia Flame who were both incredible. I thought, ‘Oooooo, maybe it’s me?’, and I had my costume bag with me and I thought I’d better go and put it backstage – just in case. So I went backstage and just as I was putting down my gear I heard my name – OH MY GOD – and I tried to compose myself – I couldn’t! I turned into the girl on the cover of Hole’s album, Live Through This.
I really did not think I had won, so it was massive, because the build-up is huge, for yourself as a person and as a performer. It is intense when you put yourself out there to be judged against your peers. You’re always trying to contain your own nervous energy so that you’ve got enough ‘POW’ for the show. So I think by that point it was just a massive relief, and release! I didn’t cry but I was pretty damn teary, just blown away.
H: What does this mean to you – what sort of a milestone is this? Is this an affirmation of a long career and your hard work?
I: Completely! It’s the cherry on top of what has been a really brilliant career. I’ve been performing for twenty years, so to come and break into the American circuit has always been a dream. I’ve got a child and a family to support, so it’s not as easy for someone who doesn’t have those responsibilities. I’d resigned myself to the fact that if I didn’t win this I was never going to be able to tour the States and that’s just how it was going to be, but this has kicked that door open… I just feel like I’ve done everything else.
H: All the boxes are ticked –
I: Yeah, I’ve run out of things to do in Australia, so I sit there and think, ‘what can I do now?’ I’ve toured the UK and Asia since I was a teenager, I’ve had award winning theatre shows, my own troupes, run strip clubs, been in Moulin Rouge kick lines, was the first burlesque performer to perform at the Opera House; I’ve been on TV, in magazines, and at home I’m ‘the Queen of Australian Burlesque’… I’ve just had so many phenomenal things happen for me in my life, but this is definitely it – the biggest thing ever.
“BHoF is a Mecca and burlesque performers should come here just to be re-inspired, because that’s what it does…”
H: So this is going to open the door to new challenges!
I: Yes, definitely. Hopefully it will also open even more doors for me in Europe and the UK, and I want to go back to Japan and see everybody there. I love Japan so much but I haven’t been back for ten years. So I’m hoping it will throw opportunities open to me that otherwise would have been very difficult.
H: What do you think the significance is of someone who is not a North American winning this title (the last person to do that was Immodesty Blaize in 2007) – do you think it brings the rest of the world into it a little more and opens it out somewhat? I know to some people it can often seem like a very American affair…
I: Yes I think it’s really important; it’s amazing that it’s a global competition in the first place. Last year I was wondering whether a non-American could win this again as there are so many local favourites, so I think it’s really important that it is global and a fair competition. Through this title I can not only try to bring the rest of the world in but also raise an awareness of what the Weekend and the museum are about in other countries.
BHoF is a Mecca and burlesque performers should come here just to be re-inspired, because that’s what it does – seeing the Legends and the titans perform and really, really bring it is so fantastic. Last night [Sunday] just blew me away… In fact every night has blown me away! But the loveliest thing and the most rewarding thing and the most healing thing, if you’re having a hard time with burlesque or performing, is meeting the original women that did this and hearing some of their stories and realising how good you have it.
H: Absolutely. So how has the aftermath been – I imagine Sunday was crazy!
I: It was nuts, it was off the hook, and I hadn’t slept, I just kept going. Those naughty friends of mine – a heap of Australians – came over to support me, which was brilliant, but very irresponsible! [laughs] I love them for it though. Thank God they came, because I’ve had such a wonderful time, but they made sure I partied on and partied hard that night! [laughs] But regardless of lack of sleep, to be invited the next morning to the breakfast, to meet the Legends and sit down and chat with them over a meal was great. Hanging out with Camille 2000 – who is totally my kind of woman – was fabulous, I love her so much. Then all I wanted to do was go to the pool party, and let loose! [laughs] But of course there were other obligations and things I had to do – photo shoots and so on. It was really wax on, wax off with the make-up – I made myself up about three times on the day because I kept melting in the Vegas heat, but it was wonderful. I got to do a photo shoot with Don Spiro who is amazing, and he got acknowledged in a big way –
H: Yes, I was really pleased to hear he got an award –
I: Yeah he was chuffed, everybody was chuffed – the MC actually demanded, ‘everybody had better stand up for this man – stand up and get out of your chairs!’ I thought it was great, Don is such a lovely guy.
H: Yes, a very special man…
“…the loveliest thing and the most rewarding thing and the most healing thing, if you’re having a hard time with burlesque or performing, is meeting the original women that did this and hearing some of their stories and realising how good you have it.”
H: I’m sure this is obvious, but have you really been able to take in the significance of your win for Australian burlesque? The response online from Australian performers has been amazing – such zeal, they seem so excited and fired up by this…
I: Well I hope it is, because I think we’re very cut off in a way and easily forgotten. We’re very isolated, and that’s a beautiful thing for us, but it can also be a frustration for the top-end performers, because there are limited opportunities. Australia is tough – I imagine the UK is sort of similar in that striptease has a stigma; people still have a judgement of it. So burlesque still has a lot of ground to break in Australia, and the top-end opportunities, as I said, have become rarer and rarer as we’ve lost more supportive producers in, say, the Opera House or at arts festivals, and people are now viewing burlesque as a naive, uninformed and unprofessional art form. We, of course have artists who really do want and deserve acclaim, but we are so remote – it’s hard for Australians to tour the UK, it’s hard for people to get to America. So hopefully this will inspire everybody back home to get off their tushes and start touring around the world, and hopefully festivals will start opening their doors to more Australians.
H: United by their new figurehead! I mean, you’re so valued and prominent there anyway, but to be acknowledged internationally by the ultimate accolade in burlesque…
I: Yes, it really does consolidate that – the importance of a life of dedicating myself to breaking down barriers, to building up an audience when there was no audience, to opening up a platform for women when there was no platform for women to perform on, and I’ve done all those things. So I imagine everyone is just feeling very proud of Australia right now, and I’m very proud of course of the circuit that I’ve co-pioneered and watched grow and blossom. So I hope this can form some sort of recognition for us all.
H: Can we just briefly talk about the act itself? I recall that you almost didn’t take this act, it was a second choice behind ‘The Chandelier’…
I: Yes I nearly took ‘The Chandelier’!
H: Which is funny really now that things have turned out this way…
I: It is, and as it turned out there was another ‘chandelier’ that had been selected above mine – Scarlett James had a ‘chandelier’ too. So I proposed ‘Flamingo’. In any case, my Chandelier really was what I thought could win, and I thought ‘The Flamingo’ would be one of the most quirky acts that everybody loves, but might not place. I was prepared to come over regardless of prizes or whatever, but I did not pick [‘The Flamingo’] as being a winning act.
H: You said in our pre-BHoF interview that it is a very technical act…
I: [laughs] A million things can go wrong, even though I’ve made it myself, and it is one of those acts where the art is in simply improvising to accommodate when things go wrong, so you can’t choreograph it that strongly; it’s mostly about staying in the moment. But thankfully only one thing went wrong [laughs] and that only lasted a second and I dealt with it really quickly. But yes, it’s one of those acts – even my husband said, ‘DON’T take ‘Flamingo’ – it’s just a costume malfunction waiting to happen!’
H: For people who have never seen it, what are some of the technical things that are involved?
I: It keeps evolving and changing from one thing to another to another. It changes from puppets into a fan dance into a samba and then into a boa dance, and it sounds ridiculous trying to put all of that into four minutes.
H: Yes of course, you had to condense it down…
I: Yes, because it’s usually eight minutes, and in the eight minute routine I have the time to change things fluidly, but making it four minutes to fit with competition guidelines is like running a marathon. The main thing that can happen is that things can get caught, get snagged in bras and stuff, or the headdress falls off at the wrong time and you’ve got to make it look like, ‘I meant that to happen!’ It’s all those little things, and if you’re an experienced performer you can cover those things really well, but when I perform ‘The Flamingo’ I’m always thinking, ‘what’s going to happen this time?’ It’s almost different every time I do it. It always works though, that’s the other thing I know about it. No matter what goes wrong, as long as I do my job it is always effective.
“I just want to finish happy. I don’t know if I can leave any sort of legacy other than that I do interesting and gorgeous shows, and hopefully in that way inspire other performers to keep creating exciting work…”
H: So just to give a shout out to the people who put this together with you – the costume is by Flo Foxworthy?
I: Not entirely. I made the puppets, gloves, corset, backpack and the head dress, Flo made the spectacular underthings. I actually had to cull costume pieces because I couldn’t fit them into the act – I was taking off a piece of costume every fifteen seconds at one point! [laughs] So I had to cull the gorgeous tasselled bra she made me. She also made the bugle beaded shorts, the Swarovski covered G-string and pasties. Flo made all of these in record time.
H: And then I believe you had a boa from Catherine [D’Lish]? I assume it was magnificent, they always are!
I: Yes, what a huge fluffy beast! I call it my lucky boa. Thank you Catherine.
H: I thought it was so sweet that your little girl has been helping you out with rehearsals…
I: Oh… I don’t know if I would call it helping! [laughs] She loves the flamingo, she thinks it’s a game – she’s only two, bless her. On the phone she’s been saying, ‘mummy? Dancing? Flamingo? Desert?’ [laughs] ‘Yes, mummy’s in the desert with her flamingo.’ She loves it, sometimes she just sits there and watches. Most of the time she likes to engage! So she’s more of a destructor or distraction in rehearsals, but she keeps it fun; she loves the feathers and music and gets into things with me, wiggles her little bum around.
H: Aww, so sweet.
I: Some pretty inappropriate moves for a two year old, but we’ll work on that! [laughs]
H: [laughs] In the pre-interview we did I asked you what you would like to do as Queen, and you mentioned a world tour, a new theatre show, that you obviously had plans for Australian burlesque. But now it’s actually happened (!) is that still very much the plan – are there other things you’ve considered or felt inspired to do just in this short time?
I: Yeah, I do feel like everywhere I go I should be bringing a little piece of the Burlesque Hall of Fame with me, so I am trying to get a travelling archive together if I can; I’m going to have a meeting with the museum about that today. And we’ve been talking about possibly bringing Camille 2000 out to Australia for a Legends event that I run in Oz, but we’ll see if that eventuates. I don’t like to make big promises, but we will see what happens.
In the immediate present, Indigo Blue has created ‘The Queen’s Tour‘ – so if you have a festival, anywhere in the world, I’m prepared to come and visit you as part of The Queen’s Tour, which acknowledges the Burlesque Hall of Fame with the Queen as their ambassador. I’ll be happy to come and do a show and talk to people about the Burlesque Hall of Fame. The Queen’s Tour is really very exciting to me. As for my Theatre show, I’ve been talking to Ray Caesar about a collaboration, but it’s all in the pipeline.
H: What do you think you’d like your legacy to be at the end of your year as Queen?
I: Goodness… I just want to do some wonderful shows, and of course raise awareness of Australian burlesque, and… I just want to finish happy. I don’t know if I can leave any sort of legacy other than that I do interesting and gorgeous shows, and hopefully in that way inspire other performers to keep creating exciting work.
H: So what are your next immediate plans?
I: Oh my goodness… sleep. Actually, we’re talking about moving to America for the year, that’s what I’m getting done as soon as I get back, and then straight away I’m off on the Australian Burlesque Festival tour that Dawn Daiquiri and Rosy Rabbit put together. That’s very exciting because they are really going for it this year and I’m on that tour with the gorgeous LouLou [D’vil], Anna Fur Laxis, Peekaboo Pointe and Coco Framboise, plus a stack of amazing Australian artists like Tasia, Lillian Starr and Glitter Supernova..
H: So is there anything else, any final message you would like to impart to your new subjects?
I: I can’t wait to meet you all! Can’t wait to get into all the different circuits and meet all the pioneers of the revival around the world…
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.