On Burlesque [Essay]

by Guest Contributor Tiara the Merch Girl

Depending on who you ask, burlesque can either be a tool to poke fun at the Establishment by bringing them down to the “low-brow”, or a way to bask in vintage 1940s and 1950s glamour. It’s a growing art form with plenty of enthusiasts jumping in for a chance to shake, shimmy, and show off. However, with its overwhelmingly White presence, how does it deal with performers and fans from culturally diverse backgrounds?

I’m Tiara, a Malaysian of Bangladeshi heritage currently based in Brisbane, Australia. I started getting into burlesque in January and have recently debuted to the public as Tiara the Merch Girl (after being said Merch Girl at Brisbane’s Burlesque Ball). I also seem to be one of the very few Asian (or at the very least non-White) burlesque people in the area; the only other person I know of is Maiden Chyna, who is as new as me. I got into burlesque as I love performing and was intrigued at the possibility of expressing myself and my sexuality in ways that I was never able to when I was in Malaysia. I’ve seen fallen in love with the sheer creativity, talent, and humour that has come from burlesque performers around the world.

In my burlesque adventures I have noticed a distinct lack of resources, information, or even talent from culturally diverse backgrounds. As it is, there are hardly any growing organised scenes outside the UK, USA, and Australia, with small pockets in New Zealand, Canada, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. While they do exist, they tend to either be overlooked or exoticised. How does race and culture play out in burlesque, and its sibling subcultures such as rockabilly and pinup?

What Is Burlesque?

The word ‘burlesque’ is commonly thought to have derived from the Spanish word burla and the Italian burlesco, which literally means ‘to send up’. The original burlesques, first popularised in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales but more prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries, were a form of musical or theatrical comedy that parodied classical opera and theatre pieces in bawdy and risque ways. It was also a means for satirising current political and social issues amongst the middle and working classes. Burlesque travelled to the US in the 19th/early 20th centuries, originally as part of vaudeville and variety shows, but eventually forming into a subgenre that heavily incorporated theatrics, striptease, and elaborate sets and costumes.

Currently there are two main genres of burlesque – the Traditional (Classical/British) burlesque, which is more comedic and satirical, and the American burlesque-striptease, which strongly involves glamour and sexuality. There are also subgroups and crossovers with other subcultures and art forms – gorelesque (which is more horror and Gothic-based), acrobatics and other circus skills, modelling, pole dance, and so on. While individual burlesque performances are as varied and diverse as the people that do them, there seems to be a few common elements in modern/neo-burlesque:

    * “Horrible prettiness” (from the book of the same name by Robert Clyde Allen), referring to the subversion of gender roles and beauty norms by having non-conventional-looking women dress up in a often-feminine and glamourous manner, but acting rowdy, bawdy, and sometimes uncouth – like “one of the boys”
    * Careful and clever use of music, props, and costuming to evoke a mood or theme
    * Telling a story or making a joke through performance
    * A light, fun, relaxed attitude that’s willing to send itself up
    * Flamboyancy and the willingness to go to grotesque extremes with looks and behaviour

In places like Australia, burlesque performers tend to cross genres and styles; many performers come from some other artistic background and incorporate that into their performances. While there are still divisions over style – Parodic vs Pretty – they’re generally subtle and many performers play around with both main genres. There are also many enthusiasts that get involved in burlesque as a means of expressing their sexuality and body awareness, particularly amongst those that don’t fit traditional beauty standards or that come from more restrictive backgrounds. There are also many male burlesquers, or “boylesquers”, many of whom also work with drag and subverting gender norms. The burlesque scene seems to be more open than most in terms of age and looks; many established performers and new entrants are in their 30s and 40s, with not as much pressure to “stay youthful” as in other arts.

Burlesque Around the World

Burlesque in its “native” style doesn’t really exist outside the US and UK; indeed, the scenes in other countries tend to adopt American and British aesthetics and creative norms. However, the idea of using performance art as means of expressing sexuality, having flamboyant fun, or mocking the upper classes is one that is strongly evident in many other traditional and cultural art forms. For instance, many burlesquers look to Bollywood and bellydance culture as a means of inspiration, with their striking costumes and strong use of music and dance to tell stories, while the Indonesian dangdut scene has often courted controversy for being “pornographic” mainly due to the relatively-revealing costumes and gyrating.

There seems to be a thriving burlesque scene in Japan, with troupes such as Murasaki Babydoll getting standing ovations in major conventions like San Francisco’s Tease-o-Rama and the launch of the Tokyo branch of Dr Sketchy’s, an “anti-art school” franchise created by American illustrator and fine artist Molly Crabapple that incorporates live drawing classes with burlesque/alternative performers as models.

Singapore also has a Dr Sketchy’s branch ( and just recently hosted Australian performer Kelly Ann Doll in residence, making her the first burlesque performer in the country. Singapore does have a strong comedy and variety scene, with comedians such as Hossan Leong and Kumar, and Japan’s multitudes of variety TV and game shows with bizarre and humorous skits make it a strong starting point for Asian burlesque.

China has also started its foray into the burlesque world, with the opening of burlesque and cabaret club Chinatown in Shanghai. It was formed by New York producer couple Amelia Kallman and Norman Gosney, who wanted to bring a touch of ’30s Hollywood glamour to China. Despite its location and rich cultural heritage (the venue used to be a Buddhist temple), the acts are still very American; the girls in the resident multicultural troupe Chinatown Dolls have names like Miss Sassafrass Sassypants and Miss Ruby Tuesday, and English performances make up most of the acts. The inclusion of Chinese culture seems to be limited to a couple of Chinese acts and songs (including a Chinese calendar girl act), a poster of Chairman Mao on the wall, and local MCs making fun of the expats – their core audience. Are they concerned by China’s censorship to not incorporate more of Chinese culture beyond the superficial, or have they just not considered it thoroughly?

In some countries, such as my native Malaysia, it can be very difficult to satirise socio-political issues without getting in trouble with the law. While ’50s American performers such as Gypsy Rose Lee were frequently arrested over indecency charges, Malaysian productions and media have come under fire and controversy for being subversive or for “threatening national security”. (An example of this is the 2001 public production of The Vagina Monologues in Kuala Lumpur, where the performers were nearly locked up for discussing vaginas and women’s sexuality openly.) Therefore, it can be quite difficult to pull off burlesque in those areas: either you’re charged for public stripping or you’re charged for mocking the government – or, as the New Year’s Eve Paul’s Place incident shows, you could be charged for “black metal”.

There’s also the association made between burlesque, stripping, and sex work – they are not necessarily related but often get conflated with each other. While not all burlesque involves stripping – and indeed it never started out that way – modern mainstream burlesque, especially that of Dita von Teese, have made the assumption that performers need to be bare to be authentic. The question of whether or not to strip is still a matter of debate amongst burlesque performers and enthusiasts, many of whom are tired of the dismissal of burlesque (both by outsiders and within) as just “fancy stripping for the middle class” and ignore the rich artistic legacy and creativity available. The idea of women being loud, brash, open, and dominating in the public eye, especially around men – the “horrible prettieness” alluded to by Allen – also runs counter to a lot of traditional cultural norms, which stress on politeness, being demure, and modesty. It’s not surprising, then, that people who were raised in particular cultures may not be immediately drawn to burlesque; they may consider it too much like sex work instead of a flexible and diverse art form that can include as much sexuality as they wish.

Personally I would love to bring burlesque to Malaysia; there’s definitely talent for it, with seasoned comedians, theater performers, and dancers, and the creative people in Malaysia are also people passionate about social issues – such as singer/writer Shanon Shah, who is also active with Sisters in Islam and LGBT rights in Malaysia. Malaysia also has very rick traditions of culture, arts, and social commentary, and it would be very interesting to see how the Malaysian public interprets burlesque for self-expression. The trick now is to pull it off without landing everyone in jail or being accused of hosting “promiscuous sex parties” with Satanists! It takes careful navigation of laws on decency, subversion, and public speech; just the act of organising and hosting a burlesque show in Malaysia could be a lot more political than the content of many contemporary acts.

Burlesque and Cultural Expression

Despite the existence of burlesque groups outside the US and UK, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of variance in terms of cultural diversity and expression. As demonstrated by Shanghai’s Chinatown club, the burlesque presence overseas is still deeply steeped in 1930s-1950s British/American aesthetics – glamour, corsets, spangles, feathers, Moulin Rouge can-can dresses. The challenge seems to be balancing your assertion of your cultural identity (however much you want to) without turning into something exotic or a token.

There are quite a number of culturally diverse burlesque performers in the US, many of whom are inspired by the iconic Josephine Baker, the first African-American to star in a major motion picture and integrate a concert hall, as well as a strong player in the Civil Rights movement and the French Resistance during World War II. Contemporary performers such as Brown Girls Burlesque and Vixen Noir also do a lot of work in encouraging women of colour (and queer women of colour, in Vixen Noir’s case) to explore burlesque and express their sexuality through performance.

What I find interesting, but also a little bit troubling, is that quite a number of performers from culturally diverse backgrounds use their colour or race as their main means of identification. There are quite a few black performers with “Coco” or “Cocoa” in the name, or make some reference to being dark: Honey Cocoa Bordeauxx, Coco Framboise, CoCo La Creme, Miss Coco Lectric, Foxy Tann. The Shanghai Pearl and Tomahawk Tassels use their cultural heritage as a selling point. Some characters, like Alotta Boutte, are obviously tongue-in-cheek references, but does it become problematic when their image is built up on exotic stereotypes, such as Mimi RedLips’s Geisha and Harajuku acts? How about when it’s part of a homage to your heritage, such as Coco Lectric’s Indian Doll?

How about when other performers incorporate elements of cultures that are not their own? Every cultural stereotype has been part of a burlesque act one way or another – from walking like an Egyptian to being a Twisted Gypsy . My burlesque teacher, long-time Australian veteran dancer Lena Marlene, has a Buddhist burlesque act based around fire (her signature prop) and saffron yellow robes. She took up Comparative Religion in university and personally enjoys subverting religions of all kinds. Some others, like Scarlet O’Gasm, have used religious iconography to make political statements – she performed at an event commemorating Obama’s election as President with a routine involving a burqa.

Since burlesque is largely about making the sacred profane, and has never really been known for being politically correct, are all cultures fair game to any performer that wants them? Where do you draw the line between respectful inspiration and appropriation – especially when the cultures often appropriated are heavily underrepresented in burlesque? Is using common stereotypes and cultural iconography mocking the use of such stereotypes in popular culture, or does it just add to the stereotyping? Do culturally diverse performers have an obligation to involve their cultural background into their burlesque character and performances, or can they get away with being neutral?

Burlesque and I

Questions of appropriation are especially difficult for me given my multicultural background. Despite coming from Bangladeshi heritage, I know hardly anything about the culture or lifestyle; I have only been back in Bangladesh for short holidays and am generally considered a foreigner even amongst my relatives. I was born and raised in Malaysia, which itself has a melting pot culture that often borrows from Malay, Chinese, Indian, European, and various other cultures; however, as a ultra-minority I never felt liked I “belonged” anywhere, and indeed I’m very iconoclastic even amongst my peers. Things became more complicated when I moved to Australia in 2006 – what do I say when people ask where I’m from? What culture am I supposed to align myself with?

I have quite a few ideas for routines and acts, many of which involve cultural elements I was exposed to in my lifetime – traditional dances, props like the kuda kepang, songs, even advertising and other tropes of pop culture. However, a lot of these elements aren’t really “native” to me in a sense – they’re Malaysian, sometimes very specific to Chinese or Malay culture. Yet I don’t feel comfortable incorporating anything Bengali or Bangladeshi – I don’t know enough to make the best use of Bengali culture. Burlesque is a way for me to express my thoughts and experiences creatively, and a lot of that involves my upbringing and heritage. What can I incorporate fairly, and what is off limits?

The routine for my public burlesque debut, at Brisbane’s Cabaret Burlesque competition in June, is directly based upon my Muslim upbringing. It was originally a cheeky idea – what if you did a reverse strip (putting clothes on instead of off) and transformed into a Muslim woman? It’s not something anyone’s done before, and the twist would be funny at the very least. Building up the routine, especially the choice of song, transformed it into a meditation on how Muslim women are also sensual and sexual beings in touch with their bodies, despite the assumptions made by their veils and headcoverings. The choice of song, Deeyah’s “Pashto Lullaby (Lori)“, was significant in many ways – besides setting the tone for the act, it also echoed Deeyah’s personal clashes with Islamic fundamentalists over her video for “What Will It Be?“, a feminist Muslim anthem that depicts a woman in a burqa stripping off to a bikini before jumping into a pool.

Tiara the Merch Girl – Cabaret Burlesque – Islamic Routine – PLEASE READ THE DESCRIPTION from Tiara The Merch Girl on Vimeo.

I was rather nervous performing this act for many reasons: it was very personal and heartfelt, but because it was also a lot slower and more sombre than typical burlesque acts I was worried I would lose the audience out of boredom. I am usually a very restless person, but the act required careful focus and stillness – something I had to work on a lot. I was also worried that Islamic extremists would come across my act and condemn my family and I to hell – if it happened to Deeyah it could happen to me!

To my surprise and delight, the audience absolutely loved my act. It achieved what I wanted: it made them think about their own assumptions regarding Muslim women and those who wear the veil. Many people connected with the act and felt it was beautiful, heartfelt, moving, inspirational. I moved my teacher to teachers and received many hugs and kudos from the audience and beyond. And I didn’t even get a death threat! The response was overwhelmingly positive and humbling; I’m glad I took the opportunity to tell my truth through an art form that I loved.

Do other burlesque performers from culturally diverse backgrounds get to express their truth too, whether about their cultural identity or otherwise? How much of a “cultural ambassador” do such performers need to be to be taken seriously? Are culturally diverse performers participating in cultural appropriation when they dress up in traditional burlesque attire – a throwback to Victorian and French cabaret – or play around with cultural artifacts? If burlesque is so accepting of people from various backgrounds, looks, ages, and so on, why are there still so few performers of colour? How can the burlesque world be more open and accepting of performers from other cultural backgrounds, and incorporate them – not just their stereotypes – into their creative world?

The Merch Girl (my site)
Ministry of Burlesque
Kittie (founder of Ministry of Burlesque, has excellent essays about burlesque history & culture)
Burlesque Magazine (Australia)
Unleash Your Fire (Vixen Noir’s Erotic Performance academy with a strong focus on queer women of colour)
Burlesque Daily (by Jo Weldon, headmistress of New York School of Burlesque)
Brown Girls Burlesque:
Horrible Prettiness

(Tiara photo by Darcy Papparazzi; all other photos of Josephine Baker, Murasaki Babydoll, Brown Girls Burlesque, Tomahawk Tassels, The Shanghai Pearl, Mimi Redlips, and Honey Cocoa Bordeauxx from the performer’s websites)