Who’s a Pretty Burlesque Princess Now

By Guest Contributor Tiara the Merch Girl, originally published at The Merch Girl

I wrote this for AO (Adults Only) Magazine in mid-October last year, for Issue 3 that was meant to come out…now. I haven’t heard anything beyond “yes we got it”, and since some people have asked, I figure I’ll post my original article here. There weren’t pictures in the original submission, mainly due to copyright issues, but I’ll see if I can add some pics here.

Thank you to everyone who helped with research and quotes.  Feel free to share!

No one is jerkin’ while looking at my merkin, my skin is cracked like a shoddy creme brulee; not even a Prozac milkshake can shake my blues away – oh no, no no, it’s not a pretty princess day!

- Kitten on the Keys

My first taste of burlesque and pinup style was on my 21st birthday in Melbourne. A close friend had brought me to the Royal Melbourne Show (a massive carnival and agricultural show) as his present to me, and while there I spotted a tent advertising Old-Style Photos. I ducked in, put on a saloon girl costume – red bustier with white “boning”, a poofy red and black skirt, fishnets and a garter holding up a set of cards – and hammed up for a set of sepia photos that placed me in the Wild Wild West. I loved the outfit (which was surprising as I don’t normally like many things girly) and ever since then I had been hunting out for anything reminiscent of saloon-girl style.

My foray into burlesque as an apprentice performer and enthusiast meant many hours of looking up photos and art of burlesque performers, many echoing the pin up art of people like Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vagras. Around this time rockabilly and alternative modelling also came in vogue, with many pinups sporting cherry A-line dresses and full-sleeve tattoos. Hollywood and mainstream pop culture also caught on to the cheesecake, with Vanity Fair continuing the tradition of casting upcoming movie starlets in classic poses as part of their annual Vanities Girls series.

While quite a number of the photos and performers were eye-catching, and often inspiring (that dress! that fascinator! THOSE PASTIES!), after a while they started to all look the same. The same poses, the same tropes – naughty teacher, just out of bed, exotic princess – the same look. The same tattoos on the same curvy bodies. The same buxom blondes, devillish redheads, sultry brunettes. Hardly anyone darker than milk chocolate – though if they were they either fit the same poses or had animal print thrown onto them.

Burlesque and pinup has been celebrated lately for its acceptance of diverse body images, and for its openness towards amateurs and hobbyists. There’s no need to look like the models in those magazines, no need for trim bellies and thin thighs; anyone can be beautiful. But does the current scene have standards of its own? What happens if you’d rather not be in a cherry A-line dress or have a tattoo, would prefer your waist be set free than wrapped in a corset, can’t stand a couquettish smile and would rather hold a sneaky sneer?

A few months ago I explored the issues of racial representation in burlesque performance, mainly dealing with cultural appropriation – could a performer take on artifacts from a foreign culture, and how does that affect the people of the original culture? My article on this on Racialicious, a blog dealing with race and ethnicity in pop culture, generated a lot of discussion from within and outside the burlesque world. Some applauded me for reflecting their concerns and worries; others thought I was imposing my assumptions onto a culture I was barely acquainted with.

In the interest of fairness, and also to broaden my own mind on this area, I decided to poll various people involved in the burlesque and pinup scenes about how they feel beauty standards played into their creative scene.

The first thing I noticed was there was a subtle split over whether burlesque and pinup had their own set of beauty standards and expectations. A few of my respondents contended that there were no such thing as set standards – that a “burlesque beauty” could look like anything, be any size or any colour. British performer Tempest Devyne describes beauty as “seeing someone confident in their own skin, it’s a sparkle in the eyes that shows an awareness, a softness, a kindness of heart”, while Rev. Jay Leal, producer of USA’s Curl Up & Dye Burlesque, describes a burlesque beauty as “the sexy / naughty underbelly of vintage class and elegance”.

The others described a set of traits defining a burlesque/pinup beauty, many repeated: hourglass figure, pincurls in highlight-less dark hair with a Bettie Page fringe, alabaster skin, well-placed tattoos. Perth’s Iskra Valentine and England’s Lucy Longlegs, who both had darker complexions thanks to Russian-South Asian heritage, described teenage years of attempting to bleach their skin with lemon juice, tumeric, and other concoctions to better match the looks of people idolized within their gothic alternative communities; the already-pale Miss Bertie Page of Brisbane has talked about touching up her crotch before shows.

Another factor that was often repeated was the importance of good grooming – tidy hair, polished feet in stockings, fully shaved, well-done nails and makeup. Mackenzie Dulcet of Canberra talks about choosing clothes that flatter one’s body – “I know most burlesque gals just love their frilly boyshorts and g-strings, but my stumpy legs are always going to look better in a pair of lacy briefs so I break those babies out!” – while Melbourne’s Lil’ Thelma Thunderbird expresses her disappointment at attending burlesque shows where she sees “girls with stockings but no shoes, no stockings with dirty bare feet, costumes that need mending, no nailpolish or makeup”.

But what really defines good grooming? Many women find the prospect of shaving or waxing body hair to be problematic politically and personally (Hair in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues opens with a statement on the topic’s high contention amongst the people surveyed for the play): would they lose out for having fuzzier legs than normal? Who ultimately decides what is “flattering” – the wearer of the outfit, or the people running fashion lines and beauty magazines?

Such expectations, says Rev. Leal, exist from established burlesque traditions. But where did these traditions come from, and what happens if you decide to break with tradition? You may end up with Simone de la Getto, who started all-black troupe Harlem Shake Burlesque in San Francisco in 2003 after being tired of being the only black performer in her area. In an Hour.Ca interview, she describes the reaction from one of their earlier shows:

Before I would never notice, because I would go on stage and do my thing and love it, be happy, la la la la la, and my friends would be like, ‘Okay, the audience was in shock. They’re there with their mouths open.’ And I’d be like, ‘Really?’ Because I’m just there on stage, making sure I don’t fuck up, listening to the music and trying to keep the choreography, and smiling and having a great time. And then one day I actually saw the audience while we were performing, because the light bounced off the stage and I could actually see who I was dancing for – and here I was looking at people with gaping mouths. They’d been screaming for the group before, but for us… so I was like, ‘What, are we bad? Are we doing something wrong?’ And then at the end, we got this uproarious applause. I was so confused.

de la Getto is hardly the only performer from an ethnically diverse background to elicit such a reaction. Lucy Longlegs, who has a background in bellydance, mentions being told that her act based on the legend of the Seven Veils was deemed “too political” simply because it made some references to Middle-Eastern culture. Mackenzie Dulcet talks about how performers from ethnic backgrounds are often expected to perform something related to their culture, “as though the audience wants an explanation”. Iskra Valentine had trouble earlier this year being accepted into a local burlesque troupe because she was not keen on 40s style vintage. A few months ago I performed an act based on my teenage love for Savage Garden – none of my props, music, or costumes suggested anything about my cultural background. Yet the host insisted on introducing me as “the Bollywood princess”, despite me specifically requesting her to do otherwise.

Performers like us may have run into the expectations of what enthusiast Bobby Hogg calls the “collective audience”. According to him, this collective audience “wants to see Hollywood type beauty of the 1940’s/50’s. A performer can be Black, Asian, Hispanic, or White, but any performer will notice that as she molds her looks towards those 40’s & 50’s archetypes, she will become more succesful.”

These archetypes, say other performers, are examples of “altruistic glamour” and “self-created beauty”, more attainable in contrast to the highlights and tans common in mainstream media. Some say that “they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t like it” and claim that it is easy to achieve – but is it really easy to tame wild hair in tight curls or stuff ample bellies into crushing corsetry? How many put themselves through a style that is not necessarily their own to get a step ahead?

Even the mainstream media and fashion world has caught on to the pinup vibe, with performers such as Dita von Teese making deep red lips, waspy waists, and old-style glamour trendy again. The resurgence of the heydays of the 20s to the 50s, including the steadily growing popularly of burlesque and its crossovers into other facets of pop culture – such as von Teese’s appearances on Eurovision – have brought on a lot of new events promoters and agencies putting on “burlesque” shows that more resemble “historical reenactment than progressive performance art” (as mentioned on leading industry web forum Ministry of Burlesque). These promoters have a limited understanding and appreciation of burlesque, picking only conventionally-attractive performers to adopt the same corset-and-feathers-pinup styles, increasing the pressure for emerging performers to fit in to get exposure.

British journalist Laurie Penny uses her experience of being in a burlesque troupe that slowly lost its progressive edginess as proof that modern burlesque was nothing more than “fancy stripping” for the male gaze. Her article in The Guardian garnered a lot of discussion from others in the burlesque scene, saying that her perspective was short-sighted and that not every performer does strips for men’s benefit – but Penny does have a point. Newer audiences may not have a full appreciation of the diversity within burlesque, and it’s usually easier for newcomers to adopt the usual safe styles instead of taking a risk on something groundbreaking.

Indeed, there has been some concern with the upcoming film Burlesque, where a small-town performer (played by Christina Aguilera) joins a burlesque club (owned by Cher’s character) to make it big: as NYC performer Philly Caramel asks, “Will we then have a bunch of persons thinking that you can only succeed in burlesque by trying to look like whatever character Christina Aguilera will play?”

Fellow Black American performer Vagina Jenkins asks for perspective, nothing that things are much better for ethnically-diverse performers now than in the earlier parts of the 20th century. Performance legend Josephine Baker found it easier to break into the European scene than into the US, and – in an interview with New York burlesque queen Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon – burlesque veteran Toni Elling spoke of Black performers in the 60s not being promoted, not being paid as much as other performers (in those days, Hispanic and Asian performers were considered “white” for booking performers), not being allowed be featured acts, and of always being named Samia Davis Junior. Indeed, she says that the one time she was not considered “Black” was when she was in Japan for Exotic World, where she was treated like a queen.

However, things may not have changed much in the last 40 years; there are still performers who employ cultural artifacts and stereoypes in their act, including blackface and “blueface” – evoking Hindu deities while portraying them as crazed savages instead of complex forces of creation and destruction. Granted, it’s a little difficult to book Krishna or Kali for a revue, but there’s already been years of Hollywood and mass media reducing Asian and Pagan deities to evil demonic beings (such as in Charmed) and in the process belittling the beliefs of millions of people around the world – does the burlesque world really need to perpetuate the same old damaging stereotypes?

Enthusiasts like Bobby Hogg may say that “there is no reason to get angry about these issues – no one will ever change the wants or the opinion of the audience collective, it must be accepted & worked with.”. There are, however, quite a few people in burlesque and pinup that are breaking away from the vintage mould, and getting quite a following as a result. Baroness Eva von Slut combines old-style glamour with heavy tattoos, gothic style, and the presence of a heavy metal band, while The Pinup Blog maintainer Tali Shapiro regularly trawls independent art, fashion, and design websites such as DeviantART for inspiration; her posts often display a broad definition of pinup that encompasses women of all outlooks and backgrounds confident and powerful in themselves, featuring such diverse work such as the Rosebud Burlesque Club, which uses burlesque to raise awareness of breast cancer, and Palestinian-American slam poet Suheir Hammad, whose poem Not Your Exotic smashes apart society’s concept of the “exotic other”.

Within the burlesque community, there is a growing appreciation of talent regardless of aesthetic; as Kellie Vella, one-fourth of La La Parlour comments, “looks are transitory and fashion-driven, but a hot/powerful/potent/clever/funny performance transforms the performer and the audience.”.

Burlesque and pinup are still in the beginning stages of their resurgence, which means there is still a lot of work to do to encourage a diversity of looks and body images. In many ways it’s not just limited to those scenes, but connected to societal pressure as a whole – many decades of conforming, pressure, and displeasure at anyone who doesn’t fit the correct “look”. Jenkins calls this “the everyday work of defying expectation, of claiming space and time on our terms that so many of us engage in and commit to in order to make it safer for future ecdysiasts to do their thing”.

Events and projects such as Kaleidoscope in San Francisco and the upcoming Shades of Burlesque Festival, as well as productions such as the queer, trans, and culturally-diverse Mangoes with Chili tour, provide opportunities to inject a little more colour in the burlesque scene, changing it from the days where people like Philly Caramel had no pinup performers or models to relate to.

Ultimately, though, one thing rang clear with my respondents, regardless of background: it’s talent that makes the difference, and each of them would like to be regarded as a talent in their own right – not as a Black performer or a lesbian performer or a plus-size performer, but as a performer with their own styles, tastes, and personality. With their own beauty.

Tiara the Merch Girl is an emerging burlesque/circus/improv performer who spends a lot of time analysing and researching ways to not just be the only South Asian performer in her scenes. She also provides in-character stage and production services to people who need an extra pair of hands to put on a show. Read more about her at http://themerchgirl.net and drop her a line – she’ll love to hear from you.