I am proud to present a brand new interview with Neo Burlesque icon Dirty Martini, the Number One Burlesque Performer of 2009 – as voted by thousands of you in the end-of-year countdown! I have so enjoyed the opportunity to get to know even more about Dirty and explore her past, present and future in more depth.
Bold, brave, beautiful, graceful, intelligent, outspoken, gracious, generous and joyous. An artiste, a muse, a model, a teacher. A force of nature. An entertainer.
Your official number one…
You – Dirty Martini – are universally recognised as an icon! Do you recognise yourself as such, or is it something you aren’t really conscious of?
I am thrilled to be recognized and treated so well in all of the cities I’ve performed in. I consider it a miracle for something so wonderful to happen to me at all because I wouldn’t give up on my love of dance and my dream to be a showgirl.
You have to be one of the most self-confident women I have ever met – it glows from every Dirty pore! Where does this incredible self-confidence come from; why is it there, and does it ever desert you?
Of course everyone has moments of self doubt and sadness. It is important to remember that we create our own reality – after soul searching I realized that I didn’t want my reality to be one of self hatred and I didn’t want that for any women anymore. Lets banish it! Forever! Oh, and men hate that women don’t enjoy their bodies, so if not for yourself then maybe for them?
How do you think one cultivates such an instantly recogniseable image and iconic performances? I know there will be so many who come to read this interview that will desire this above all else – to create a persona and a reportoire that is truly iconic…
I think that above all it’s very important to be willing to experiment and fail. Some readers may not be the best burlesque performers, but that doesn’t matter in the least. Burlesque may bring them to something else that they excel in and then the dominoes will all fall into place. When you get there, you’ll smack yourself in the head and wonder why you didn’t do it years ago. When ladies email me and ask advice, the first thing that I tell them is to just get in there and do it. Maybe it won’t make sense and maybe it will, but the trick is to know when you have a great original idea and run with it.
This brings me to the word original. This is key. Everyone in the world is so different and burlesque has room for everyone. Performers must do their research and know that copying someone else is the cardinal sin of burlesque. Sure fan dances are for everyone, but there are tricks and twists that smart performers do to make it their own and it’s so much more interesting. For instance, Nasty Canasta’s fan dance that is solely performed to a car alarm thereby parodying New York Burlesque. She’s brilliant. So performers should always strive to find their original voice and search for music that not everyone uses. Become a little nude detective!
At the risk of sounding like a psychiatrist, can you give us some insight into your early life and childhood, before the birth of the icon you are now? Were you raised in an environment that embraced the individual and the expression of the body, for instance?
I was fortunate to be born into an artistically minded family. My mother was an opera singer and visual artist and my father a band director. Although they encouraged my dance training and career, I’m sure that they weren’t thrilled with my will to become a performing artist. My mother is an independent thinker and certainly a feminist and avid reader. She encouraged my penchant for risk taking, but isn’t what you would call body positive. I suppose the flip side of that is what helped me to realize the need for women to feel comfortable in their bodies and with their sexuality. Certainly no one in my family had this going for them.
As a young dancer, I wasn’t getting any encouragement there either. Most of my teachers considered my body size and shape to be a problem and obstacle to overcome. I knew that they were right, but I still thought I looked fine for the normal world which seemed completely acceptable. Somewhat like a person who loves to play baseball but knows they won’t ever have what it takes to be in the big leagues, I plugged along loving ballet and figuring that I’d be a choreographer or find a way to dance in another way. The fact is that I managed to channel all of my dance training from my teens into college into a new dance form based on the nostalgic glamour of old burlesque. I think as a result, I’m probably one of the only dancers from my graduating class at Purchase College that is still working as a dancer and continuing my college thesis. Imagine that!
I know you became a dancer at an early age, and you have expressed a need to dance; that you ‘had to dance’. But why the move into burlesque – as a burlesque dancer? Was it just because it was, as you saw it at the time, a lost form or genre – something less obvious/popular to ‘make your own’? Or did it feel more like a destiny – somewhere you were supposed to get to…?
Why burlesque? When I was working with a few collaborative theater and dance companies, I was looking for something to do solo that made some sense to me. It was a toss up between romantic ballet – a favorite genre for me – and classic burlesque. Both are glamourous, challenging and involve a drag esthetic, but I felt that burlesque embodied a more current idea of a sort of socialist body image idea. All body types were welcome and accepted in the old burlesque. Some of our surviving burlesque legends would tell you that they had to diet and stay trim, but the fact is that there were many variations in body type then and now there is a very narrow range for acceptability. It’s not that there was a higher consciousness then, nudity was the important factor.
I did see the ability to translate my dance training into a way that audiences could understand and appreciate my body by putting my curves in context through the 1950’s look. Since then, burlesque has grown into both a venue for discussing these issues and also a more commercial idea of retro culture. I think that both are valid and different and important as a venue for discourse.
You also have early roots in theatre; indeed, I believe you fashioned a burlesque fan dance while in a theatre company in 1997. What part does theatre play in your life now; do you intentionally choreograph/put together a burlesque routine with the intention of incorporating theatre?
Burlesque is a form of theatre. It may be for a low ticket price or in a bar, but burlesque at its best should be challenging and transformative. I approach my burlesque routines the same way that a choreographer or writer would sketch out a part of a play. Some of my routines have a story and intention to communicate complicated ideas. Other more classic numbers are just sheer expression of love glamour and sensuality.
You must have some stories to tell from your time on tour with these theatre companies…
It’s been pretty incredible to organize that much costuming and makeup for a long tour in a place with no glamour resources. We’ve had some crazy times on the road for sure. It’s behind a bar in Barcelona that my name was born. Everyone in the cast was being very polite to order the specialty – Sangria – at this old bar in the gothic district, but my friend chris jumped behind the bar to make himself a ‘Dirty Martini’ when the bar staff didn’t know what that was.
You have even appeared in an off-broadway production – is this type of performance something you still have time to do, or is it something you wish you currently did more of?
I worked so heavily in collaborative theater and dance groups early on that it was important for me to define myself through solo work. Now ironically through my solo work, I am able to perform with incredible theater artists who know me through nightclubs and burlesque in wonderful theater pieces. I’ve worked with Taylor Mac in Red Tide Blooming, Julie Atlas Muz in several of her evening length works, Penny Arcade in Bad Reputation and New York Values as well as more burlesque oriented performances such as Anti-Gravity’s Broadway Bares performance and with Tweed Theater along side artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Jackie Hoffman and commedian Caroline Rhea. The latter was so befuddled at the presence of a barely clad lady named Dirty Martini getting such an audience reaction that she had to practically unscrew her face, shake it out and put it back on before going onstage.
“Of course everyone has moments of self doubt and sadness. It is important to remember that we create our own reality – after soul searching I realized that I didn’t want my reality to be one of self hatred and I didn’t want that for any women anymore. Lets banish it! Forever!”
Can you describe the experience of performing in Carnegie Hall? How did that opportunity arise?
Haha! I got into Carnegie Hall through the back door! I’m glad you didn’t pose the question ‘how did I get to Carnegie Hall’, that answer is obvious – the NR to 57th street!
I have a wonderful sexagenarian friend named Martin DiMartino who when diagnosed with a degenerative illness decided to make his two big dreams come true before he lost all of his dexterity. One was to Climb Kilamanjaro and another was to play piano at Carnegie Hall. He did both and in fact performed annually at Carnegie Hall on his birthday for 10 years. A few of those years he asked me to perform in the show and I was so happy to have that memory. I’m thrilled to say that Martin is much better today. He’s in great shape and moves better than the day he was diagnosed and that is the kind of spirit that inspires me to love myself and everything I was born with all the more. Incidentally, as far as I know, Tempest Storm and I are the only two teasers to perform at Carnegie Hall. I’m sure her show was a little grander, but who’s counting!
You seem willing and eager to experience and partake in as many art forms and performance genres as possible. Is it just feeding a need to perform, to create in any way possible? As with dance – is there a need in you?
In New York City we are lucky to be in a very creative environment. There are so many artists here that I respect in burlesque and in other genres, so when the opportunity arises to work in another form I grab it while I can. At the moment, Taylor Mac is mounting a 5 hour theater piece called The Lily’s Revenge. There are a few burlesque performers involved like World Famous *Bob*, Tigger and Darlinda who is stunning as the bride. I was sad that I didn’t have time in my schedule for this show, but contributed to the film that will be a part of the evening along with Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser. I love to work with shows that challenge me and see fellow performers work in new ways. Theater is very inspiring. So full of infinite posibilites…
What is your response to the question: ‘Why perform?’ Some of the answers your contemporaries give just fascinate me – and they tend to prioritise the art and the audience. But you do talk a lot about self-esteem and body image – is it wrong in your eyes to use performance as a vehicle for self-confidence?
A performer’s first priority is their audience. Giving a good show has to be the goal. Everyone is on a journey and a by-product of performing burlesque is becoming more comfortable in your body. In my experience, the women who are more socially acceptable in their looks have a harder time accepting themselves. They simply haven’t had to face the opposition of society and overcome it. Why perform? Because you have to. It has nothing to do with money, making people happy or any lofty values. Performers must do it. It burns in their veins. To be quite frank, if you want to be famous, don’t do burlesque. Become a pop singer or an actor. People love that crap and you can make millions.
In our interview last year, you said that burlesque was considered a fad in the US, rather than an art form. Do you think this is still true, more than a year on?
I sincerely hope that burlesque remains a viable form for people to work in. It certainly has come and gone and come back again, especially in New York. I did just see a Monty Python sketch where Terry Jones performed a strip out of a tuxedo into tassels on a bra and panties while lecturing on socio-economics to Black and Tan Fantasy. I’m sure that influenced me in some way when I saw that as a young lady. What I’m trying to say is that burlesque may have recessed into the background for a bit, but it hasn’t gone away.
We are currently in the midst of a ‘stripping for your husband 101’ craze with all the bachelorette parties and weekly venues because burlesque is accessible as a form. It’s art for the masses and very appealing to people in that capacity. When I started noticing that covers of mainstream magazines had famous actresses posing in 50’s bathing suits in cheesecake poses and that movie about Bettie Page came out to mainstream audiences, that’s when I felt that the wave is almost over. Then, again, I thought it was almost over when Moulin Rouge came out so I guess we wait and see and hope that it remains appealing to the public.
When discussing the appeal of burlesque, you cited one reason for its resurging popularity as ‘sexual oppression’. Do you really consider society to be sexually oppressed – or were you thinking specifically of the USA when you said that?
I think that different cultures have their issues around the way women are viewed, but the US is by no means the only country that is sexually repressed. After all Queen Victoria practically invented it! Just because it’s legal and accepted that women can be topless in public doesn’t mean people have the courage to flaunt their sexuality on a stage. I’ve even felt a sweeping movement of conservatism in Europe on the beaches and in the spas. It’s upsetting. I hope it’s not because people are feeling unattractive due to mass media brainwashing! Huh. That’s why I love Coney Island. There are all ages and body shapes and nationalities on that beach and it’s so stunningly beautiful!
“Why perform? Because you have to. It has nothing to do with money, making people happy or any lofty values. Performers must do it. It burns in their veins. To be quite frank, if you want to be famous, don’t do burlesque. Become a pop singer or an actor. People love that crap and you can make millions…”
You clearly have vehemently strong views about the ideals and projections of beauty and the female image, as portrayed and encouraged by the mainstream media. What in particular annoys and concerns you?
My main concern is people’s consumption of tabloid news and newspapers. It seems innocuous when you pass by a tabloid in the checkout counter, but I view it as a kind of propaganda and women are the main targets. This star is too thin, maybe annorexic! That star is too fat, maybe has a drug problem! Kirsty Alley is the new spokesmodel for Jenny Craig and what a hero when she loses half of herself. The world hated Anna Nicole Smith when she was a overweight mess, but after her miraculous weightloss she was diefied. When she died people were shocked by her drug use, but it was practically part of her contract with TrimSpa. These are judgements that have ramifications beyond the star in question.
Another concern is that the normal person of moderate means has no connection to art. Museums and opera are for the rich. This lends to the breakdown of free thought in the world. Understanding of art and cultural critique is essential for world peace. It’s no wonder the US has been so aggressive and war mongering. Look at our arts funding and education, it’s the lowest of priorities and so embarrassingly underfunded.
You also previously told us that ‘there is something inherent in the world of the tease that speaks to women’ Why do you think that is? Is there a subtlety that woman are receptive to and can appreciate? Do you think womens sexuality is more complex?
I don’t think that women’s sexuality is more complex. It’s just different than a man’s and just in case you haven’t noticed, the world is mostly still run by men. If this wasn’t so, there would be a majority of women in politics because we have the capacity to work together so well. The fact is that men run the world and their idea of womens sexuality is different from ours. Women have the ability to achieve complete freedom when we are able to express ourselves completely and to date our sensuality and sexual power has not been fully expressed because it has been filtered through a different lens. Burlesque has been the clear expression of our view of ourselves. There are a few men who are willing to put themselves in the vunerable position that we have chosen and their voices are also clear shouting out their opposition to the societal norms that have bound them.
You were crowned Miss Exotic World in 2004. What did that mean to you – did it hold the significance and sense of achievement for you that it has for others? You can see the hunger for that title in the faces of all those who perform each year…
I’m not such a big competition person. I’ve never been very competitive against anyone but myself. In fact, when I was on the old Exotic World stage for my first trip to the Pageant in 2001, after the crazy show was over and the photographers had taken all their photos, there I was standing in a line with all of these incredible performers and some locals Dixie recruited from the local strip club. They were announcing the ‘winners’ and there I was wondering why we had to be judged after that experience we had together.
That said, I think being acknowleged for your work is important. There are too many festivals now trying to copy Exotic World instead of offering awards of acheivement. Winning Exotic World was important to me because of Dixie Evans, Tempest Storm, Kiva Queen of Fans, Tura Satana, Kitten Natividad, Dee Milo, Joan Arlene, Satans Angel, Marinka and all of the wonderful ladies that have shared their talent at the BHoF. I love that they are coming together and enjoying their past with each other and passing on knowlege to us, the younger generation. To be a part of that tradition is marvellous and humbling.
Why do you think the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend is, and continues to be so special? What hopes and visions do you have for its future?
As I said above, it’s all about the Friday night show for me. To see a show of the original stars of burlesque in their sixties through eighties is groundbreaking and transgressive for our culture. People bring their A game to these big shows and it’s fun to watch performers push themselves. Miss Exotic World Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend remains the 1st and only reigning queen of burlesque competition.
“…the biggest steaming pile of bullshit is worrying about the future. If you have your feet on the ground and enjoy what you do and work hard, there’s no problems that can’t be solved when you get to them.”
You claim to be the ‘first fan dancer in post-war Bosnia’, in 1997 when the peace accord was signed. That is another experience I would love to hear more about…
I toured to Sarajevo winter festival with the Fortunettes and Tale of the Dog, two Pink Inc. shows that we performed in a lovely communist bunker of a theater. It was the first time I had performed a burlesque routine after doing a bunch of research by watching every fan dance ever captured on film. At least that’s what it felt like. The people in Sarajevo were incredibly resilient. We were there right after the cease fire and there was still limited water and curfews and many war mongering profiteers still in town. I remember walking around on a shopping trip when what in hindsight must have been a CIA guy ‘befriended’ us and took us out to lunch to question what we were doing there and what we bought in the market. It was a little scary there of course and sad to see all of the bombed buildings but I’m so glad that I was able to go there and watch those amazing people enjoy and experience their first spring out of their basements in 4 years.
I always find your writing and rhetoric so intelligent and engaging – do you especially enjoy writing on the things you’re passionate about and involved in, and giving advice?
Of course! I have a big mouth and it’s got alot to say!
You have travelled the world as Dirty Martini – are there any special, particularly significant shows or events that you will always hold dear and remember? Or any places/countries that you especially enjoyed visiting?
I love going to new places, but especially seeing new performers and shows crop up and get better and better. The best to date though is that this weekend I was asked to pose for a fashion editorial in V Magazine shot by Karl Lagerfeld in Paris on the historic staircase at the Chanel Atelier! What a trip. Mr. Lagerfeld was lovely and respectful and I think everyone had a great time. I kept the team laughing and smiling the whole time. I just kept weeping the whole time. Being in Paris enjoying the glorious sunset over the eiffel tower, working with the best in the business and wearing haute couture in my shoot. Dolce & Gabanna even made me a stunning bustier. I couldn’t keep anything unfortunately, but it was an amazing experience. Lagerfeld even looked me in the eye and said ‘we will change fashion!’ What a dream!
And so to a few final things I always ask…
Could you describe an average day in your life when you are not performing? e.g. things you enjoy doing, hobbies, general atmosphere and home life etc.
I’m usually recovering from travel or shows late at night, but some of my favorite days are ones where the time just gets away from you. One whole day away from the internet! Imagine. I love going to brunch with friends and seeing a horror movie or a horrible movie in the afternoon Going for dinner with someone I haven’t seen in a long time that I really miss is wonderful. There’s quite a bit of forced relaxation as well. To keep my body together on my free time, I like to have tune ups at my brilliant Chiropracter Dr. Daniel White. I used to see him when I was dancing more seriously and recently became aquainted again. He’s got the touch to keep me on track after cramped air or train travel. I love getting together with Julie [Atlas Muz] and getting massages and taking ballet. It’s excellent upkeep and it’s amazing how fast the day goes after class and then lunch and then massage and then trim shopping etc. etc.
Life in the Martini home is always a surprise. I live on one of the busiest blocks in the center of NYC, so the pace of life never slows. I always feel that there’s something to work on and usually there is always something to avoid doing. The months come and go with their pace usually slower after new years and around August, but some years it’s surprising where the major activity is and I look to my horoscope to try to predict the ebb and flow even though usually there is a predictable flow. One of the things that I like the most about my life is the unpredictability. One day I’m performing in front of giant stars or being flown somewhere for a fancy photo shoot and the next I’m trying to rid my apartment of the mice that come in from the rain or lugging my laundry down the street or changing in a broom closet for a show. I love it all.
What are the three greatest life lessons you have learnt?
1. Try to stay as positive as possible
2. Know your strengths and weaknesses and don’t undervalue your talents
3. Don’t listen to or hang out with people who say you can’t do something you care about doing.
What do you still hope to acheive and experience, in particular?
I’m mainly focused on being ready for opportunities that arise. I like to diversify my life and knowledge and strive for whatever is next. I never dreamed that I would be immersed in the life I currently lead. I feel very thankful for the timeline of my life and the opportunities I’ve been given. My intuition has been reliable but I also like to work very hard on things that I believe in. I think also that the biggest steaming pile of bullshit is worrying about the future. If you have your feet on the ground and enjoy what you do and work hard, there’s no problems that can’t be solved when you get to them. It’s best to enjoy the ride and take your love, joi de vivre, friends, great experiences, honors and even failures as they come. I would also like to learn how to ride a horse someday. I find them attractive and terrifying.
Any real regrets in your life, or things you would like to have done differently?
I think it’s very important to give credit where it is due. Sometimes when you are defining yourself you don’t like to acknowledge your main influences and when they mention how much they’ve helped you it’s like poking a cut. Sometimes you don’t really know how much you’ve been given, but in hindsight it’s embarrassing to admit. I wish I would have done everything sooner. I can get complacent so it’s hard for me to recognize when to really bust a move and finish a project especially if it’s something that is a real challenge. Really though the only regret for me is listening to teachers that had their own problems to work through. I wish that I could visit the younger me and set myself straight on a few things! I could slap some teachers that I’ve had when I was a child and even in college, but even more I’d like to slap myself for believing their narrow minded opinions…
Wise and wonderful words from your official favourite burlesque performer 2009!
My thanks to Dirty Martini for all her time and generosity.
For more of Dirty Martini, visit her official website.
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.