There’s more to burlesque than nipple tassels and Dita Von Teese. In this week’s Sex Talk Realness, Cosmopolitan.com speaks to burlesque performers Bunny Buxom,Creatrix Tiara, Lucky Charming and Iris Explosion about performance, body positivity, and what really makes someone sexy.
How old are you?
How long have you been doing burlesque?
Bunny: Three years.
Tiara: I did it actively for about five years. Now I’ve moved into performance art and the production side of things.
Lucky: Three years.
Iris: Four and a half years.
What made you want to try it?
Bunny: Early in my college years, I started fantasizing about being a strip club stripper, but knew I would never be comfortable with the physical aspect of some clubs or full nudity. Around the same time, I fell in love with pinup culture and photography, which lead me to Dita Von Teese. Once I found out what burlesque was through researching her, I was dying to try it. I just had to wait until I turned 21 first!
Tiara: It was a combination of a few factors: I was cast in The Vagina Monologues as the dominatrix and, not really having any clue what dominatrices do, I thought a burlesque class would help out. I also had been thinking about it for some time and wanted to do something a little bit “naughty.” Little did I know what sort of roller coaster I’d be thrown into!
Lucky: I’ve been an actor for most of my life, and toward the end of college, I realized that more and more of the shows I was doing involved less and less clothing. I’ve always been pretty comfortable with my body, and when I saw that Chris Harder was offering a Boylesque 101 class, I figured I should give it a shot.
Iris: The short story is that I graduated from college with a BFA in theater, discovered how much life as a professional actor sucked, and realized taking off my clothes for fun and profit was a lot more rewarding.
Do you perform professionally or just for fun?
Bunny: Professionally, though it is amazingly fun.
Lucky: Definitely professionally, but it’s always fun. Burlesque is not my main source of income by any means, but I still consider it a job.
Iris: Both! If it weren’t fun, it wouldn’t be worth doing, but it’s a business too. If you’re stripping for a room full of cheering people, you absolutely deserve to get paid, no matter your experience or commitment level.
And what do you do for work when you’re not doing burlesque?
Bunny: I work part-time as a barista.
Tiara: Right now, I’m looking for work. I mostly freelance — in writing, digital media, creative production. I’ve also done after-school tutoring and other education-related work.
Lucky: I work in a sex toy shop.
Iris: I’m a sex educator.
How did you feel the first time you tried burlesque?
Bunny: Excited! I went to the New York School of Burlesque to learn the basics, and from there created an act for the student showcase. In class, I was in awe of headmistress Jo Weldon for her magnetism and confidence. I wanted to be like that. I remember noticing that burlesque was much harder than it looked and realizing that there was so much more to it than just taking clothes off. It really is an art.
Tiara: Before: “Hmm, I wonder what this is all about…” During and after: “OMG, THIS IS SO FUN, I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT.” I do remember waking up the next day after my first class and being surprised that it is possible for boobs to be sore.
Lucky: I was in a workshop with a bunch of other guys. I was nervous, but most of all, I think I just felt like a big dork.
Iris: Excited! It was a long-time dream, and I was well prepared after taking classes with the New York School of Burlesque. It was great to finally achieve that goal! A lot of close friends attended my first show, and it was so nice to have them cheering me on and giving me big hugs once the show was over.
What about the first time you performed on stage?
Bunny: I was super nervous before hitting the stage. I wanted to be good, and I was scared to do something I’d never done before, but the nerves were good because it told me how much I already cared about something I was only just starting. Onstage, I felt at home. I was energized and confident. I felt sexy, playful, fierce, and in control. It was just right. That feeling lasted for a couple hours after I left the stage, but then it was replaced by an intense desire to do it again, to make more acts, to do more shows. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Lucky: I can’t recall ever being more terrified than I was right before my first strip. But as soon as I got up there and heard the audience cheering, I was instantly high. Afterward, I could barely talk. All I could say was, “…Wow.”
Iris: At that point in time, I was already an experienced stage performer, so I felt pretty comfortable in what I was doing, even if it was in a new skill set. More than anything else, I loved the opportunity to create my own unique piece of theater, with complete creative freedom.
What’s the secret to being a good burlesque dancer?
Bunny: In my opinion, there are a few staples of a good performer, but they’re no secret. Passion, commitment, drive, practice, continuously learning, and confidence.
Tiara: People have different definitions of “good” when it comes to burlesque. Some people are all about movement and body — whether you are really strong with dance, or you look good. Others care about the costuming and the glamour you exude. For me, I’m all about the story and the message. I kind of see burlesque as a live-action music video, in a way, with a huge history of political satire. The pieces that stick with me are the ones that are raw and honest and creative, whether or not there’s any actual dancing: The experience is stunning and memorable, with strong commentary.
Lucky: I think what’s most important is knowing what your face and body can do, and emphasizing that to your audience. Know yourself, love yourself, and show yourself.
Iris: Confidence in yourself. Not just confidence in your body, but in your creative visions and personal sense of style.
How has doing burlesque influenced how you see your body?
Bunny: Doing burlesque has definitely had a positive effect on my body image. I’ve always enjoyed my body, but as a woman, I’ve been bombarded with advertisements and popular media telling me how I “should” look my entire life and have gone through various stages of insecurities. Burlesque has opened my eyes to what people look like when they’re not photoshopped and has helped me to accept and be proud of every bit of me: my freckles, stretch marks, cellulite, etc. Burlesque has also helped me experience what my body can do. I love that I can accentuate different body parts with different costume pieces and how different my body can look from dressed and undressed. Versatility is really fun to experiment with.
Tiara: Burlesque was the start of me really getting in touch with my body and my sexuality in ways that I hadn’t done before. I used to be the type of person who would be happy as a brain in a jar and was very disconnected from my body — mostly because the only physical things that were prized growing up were athleticism or mainstream beauty, and I have neither. I did get a lot of backlash from other performers and trolls in general about how I was too ugly/hairy/knock-kneed/fat/brown/etc. to do burlesque. That just spurred me on to be more radically body-positive, to fight back against notions of there being One Good Burlesque Body, that people have to look a certain way to be qualified to go onstage.
Lucky: While I still struggle with body image, burlesque has definitely helped me embrace what I’ve got. Being a gay man, I still feel a ton of pressure to be ripped and muscled, but through my performances, I’ve learned that there are still a ton of people [who] have the hots for the little guys.
Iris: Let me put it this way: When people will pay for a ticket to see your cellulite, and cheer uproariously for a peek at your stretch marks, you tend to feel a whole lot better about your body as it is.
Bunny: My partner is incredibly supportive of me. He listens to my new act ideas and watches my choreography and gives me feedback. He often runs sound when I produce shows and proofreads my copy. He helps me whenever I need it and is my cheerleader when I can’t be. He’s in nightlife showbiz too, so we’ve even collaborated to make duets in each other’s chosen art. My previous partner was with me when I started doing burlesque, but we broke up shortly after my debut. He was excited for me to try something new, and he was proud of me for taking a chance. We remain good friends, and he comes to a lot of my shows.
Tiara: They’ve been cool with it! They’ve come to my shows and I often deploy them as my videographers, haha.
Lucky: I’ve been single for the vast majority of my burlesque career, and didn’t even have to think about that until about a year ago. At this point, it’s a major part of my identity, and if you aren’t super turned on watching me take my clothes off on stage, you definitely shouldn’t be dating me.
Iris: All of them have been very supportive. I think they enjoy that I get to be an audience’s object of desire, but they get to go home with me when the show’s over. They did have to get used to all the glitter they’d inevitably be covered in.
What about your friends and family?
Bunny: My mom is actually my namesake! She was a Playboy Bunny, and when I named myself, it was as an homage to her. Needless to say, she has always been incredibly supportive. She’s helped me sew and make many of my costumes, and she comes to all the shows she can. When my grandma is in town, she comes too! My sisters are supportive and think it’s really cool. We’re a very performance-geared family, so we all seemed to find our own scene. My dad likes the business aspect of it, like the production and self-promotion. I thought he would mind more about the nudity of it, but he doesn’t! They’re all happy that I’m happy and that I’ve found my calling.
Tiara: A lot of my friends are either involved with burlesque or know people who are, so they’ve generally been supportive if not outright fans. If they’re not OK with it, we probably aren’t friends anymore! My family, on the other hand, are hard to crack. They think I’m prostituting or selling my body or something, and have really given me a lot of grief about it. Even people I thought would be more allied have not been supportive. We don’t talk about it — best not to stir up more trouble.
Lucky: My friends have been super encouraging from the get-go. My parents aren’t surprised by much that I do these days.
Iris: None of my friends were particularly surprised that I chose this avenue of expression; I’ve always been a bit of an exhibitionist. My family took a bit of time to come around, but now they’re my biggest fans! My parents and both my grandmas have seen me perform, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by a proud and supportive family.
Who is the typical person who comes to watch your shows?
Bunny: People looking for a good time! I would say equal gender balance, with a large age range, pretty much 21 and up. There are so many fans of burlesque that are regulars at shows, and it’s always a pleasure to see repeat patrons. There’s usually a bachelorette/bachelor/birthday party or two in the house. Sometimes it’s people who had no idea what they were walking into, and it’s always rewarding to watch someone experience burlesque for the first time.
Tiara: The audiences are really diverse, but lately I’ve been focusing my energy on events that are catered toward queer, people of color, and/or feminist audiences and causes.
Lucky: It depends on where I’m performing, but I get all walks of life in my audiences.
Iris: The audiences are usually an even split between men and women in their 20s and 30s. We get a lot of couples on dates, and if it’s a show themed after a movie, TV show, or video game, a lot of enthusiastic fans. Those shows are always my favorites.
What has burlesque taught you about sexiness?
Bunny: It’s relative. You don’t have to be the popular media’s interpretation of conventional sexy to be sexy. Sexy is a mindset. It’s not a look; it’s a feeling and a confidence that can be applied to pretty much any other mood. I love displaying sexy in ways that aren’t expected, in acts that are funny or creepy. Burlesque has taught me to present sexy in different ways and thus change the commonly displayed version of sexy. My sexy is body-positive, so in addition to doing a creepy/funny/sexy act, I’ll shake my breasts, shake my butt, and shake my belly. Breasts are sexy, butts are sexy, bellies are sexy too, all sizes and shapes of them.
Tiara: The best kind of sexiness is the silly, funny, and the not-so-secretly deeply political kind.
Lucky: Everyone’s got it. It may look a little different here or there, but it’s not as hard to come by as most people think.
Iris: Sexiness isn’t something you try and exert on other people. Sexiness is something you cultivate, and when you trust yourself to just be sexy, then people will come to you.
What should people know before they try burlesque?
Bunny: It’s even more fun than it looks. It has the ability to help you get to know yourself in ways you didn’t think, and it can help to heal your relationship with your body if you have a negative self-image. It’s a powerful, empowering, and fun way to express yourself.
Tiara: There’s a lot of burlesque out there — not everyone has to copy Dita von Teese! People tend to downplay the non-“classic” burlesque (even in the industry) and assume that burlesque is just sequins and feathers. And that’s great, but that’s reductive. So if you don’t want to do the pretty dance but want to do something more grotesque, great! If you do want to do pretty dances, go for it! If you want to put on troll horns and gray paint and swing to Parov Stelar’s Catgroove, awesome! The sky’s the limit — don’t let people tell you otherwise. But for the love of god, please watch the cutural appropriation .
Lucky: What their finest features are and how to accentuate them.
Iris: Don’t be afraid to look silly, don’t be afraid to stand out, and know that the glitter will cling to you for the rest of your life.
By Rachel Hills