As someone who has lacked body confidence in the past, I have always looked upon burlesque performers with a sense of admiration and benign envy. I’ve had periods of my life where getting into a bikini has made me feel as anxious as coming out to my family, or putting on a presentation at work to the most senior members of my organisation, but for burlesque performers they’re confidently and elegantly peeling off their clothes in front of many people during every single performance.
Stats show that I am not alone – according to a report by the Mental Health Foundation in 2019, over a third of adults in the UK have felt anxious or depressed because of body image concerns.
So I decided to speak to the producers and performers of the virtual Burlesque show ‘Burlesque at Home!’ (@burlesqueathome), to understand how they make it look so easy and how burlesque makes them feel about their body…
Irving Olvera (he/him) [@irving.olvcon] – Co-Producer
Originally from Mexico, Irving came to London three years ago with a vision to create a platform for people in the fetish and kink community to connect. Burlesque at Home! (BaH!) was launched by Irving’s kink web app Tell Me Yours.
First things first Irving, what exactly is BaH! and where did the idea come from?
BaH! Is an international show that brings burlesque performers together from all around the world, in a series of online shows. We launched three weeks after the UK lockdowns started. In each show we’ve been fundraising for different charities and BaH! and TMY aim to normalise the conversation around exploring sexuality.
The idea for BaH! came about when I was explaining the launch of the TMY app to Patricia, as I wanted to find a way to spread the word. Patricia is a burlesque performer and was struggling for work during the pandemic, so we both decided to try something new. I wasn’t even familiar with burlesque at the time, but I’ve now seen how powerful it is.
So now, what does burlesque mean to you?
It’s a way of owning your own body and being able to express yourself in a sensual way to an audience, or even just to yourself. It’s great to be around people in the community who are sex positive, body positive and really unashamed to be themselves.
I did notice that the performers body’s were all quite different, there was a variety of shapes and sizes, which was refreshing to see. Do you make a point of including different body types in your shows?
100%. One of the missions of TMY and BaH! is to show that all bodies are beautiful. We believe that we shouldn’t be ashamed of the body we have and that we can all be sexy in our own skin.
And are your shows an inclusive space for the LGBTQ+ community?
Yes definitely. One of the main pillars we have been pursuing from the start is inclusivity and diversity. We try to have performers from all races and communities. Every show we try to connect with a performer from a new community, including the queer communities, and make sure we’re communicating with everyone in the right way.
So I’m sold. What’s next for BaH!?
We have our next event on the 19th of August online. This is going to be an awareness edition about the #FreeBritney movement. It’s about celebrating control over one’s body and life, while standing against forced medication and forced birth control.
Patricia Kattkins (she/ her) [@patriciakattkins] – Co-Producer and Performer
Patricia and Irving have been close friends for ten years after they first met in Mexico. Still based in North America, openly trans performer Patricia has a background in dance, ballet and theatre, but found her calling in burlesque when she wasn’t playing a character anymore, but being unapologetically herself.
Patricia, how and why did you first get involved with burlesque?
In the 70s and 80s showgirls were a big thing here in Mexico, so I’ve always had these images of powerful women who inspired me in the past. Dita Von Teese also inspired me when I was younger. I started burlesque five years ago and started touring with my first act. I just loved it instantly and placed my act in different events in Mexico.
And what does burlesque mean to you?
As a trans artist, it’s just a safe space for me to be there to show whatever I feel like showing or communicating. For example, it was really empowering going to straight nightclubs and doing my act. It gave me a lot of confidence in who I am. Sometimes you feel a necessity to be validated and burlesque gave me that.
It sounds like a great way to validate yourself. How else do you feel when you’re performing?
It’s special. You’re in a different place mentally and physically. It’s a very powerful place being on the stage, like a different dimension. It’s my favourite place.
That’s amazing. It sounds so liberating. What top tips would you give to someone who wants to get involved with burlesque?
Just go for it! The body is a very powerful thing, a powerful tool and it’s wonderful what you can accomplish when you love and know your body. There’s no limits. You can create anything.
Paul Aleksandr (they/ them) [@paul_aleksandr] – Host
Paul is based in Birmingham, UK, and is primarily a drag performer who performs up and down the country. They use drag as a vessel to do a variety of things – producing shows, hosting and organising events. Paul believes that drag and burlesque both allow the individual to find a little recourse in something that relates to them.
How did you first get introduced to the wonderful world of burlesque?
Locally some people started putting on a burlesque show, I started meeting burlesque artists. I really appreciated the overlap between burlesque and what I love about drag – drag performers were bringing the outfits and music from drag into burlesque, and burlesque artists were bringing dance and performance into drag. A close friend of mine put on a burlesque show at the strip club where she works and I hosted it. I then started hosting more and more burlesque shows.
What makes burlesque special to you?
What appealed to me is the relationship it has with the audience – both burlesque and drag are interactive. It’s not like you’re at the theatre where you watch, clap and leave, with burlesque people are seeing something much more personal and intimate. There’s a direct relationship between the performer and audience. Burlesque is holding up a mirror to the values we have regarding bodies, sex, stripping and all of those things.
And it’s extremely important to think about how we perceive these. So, what do you think about seeing different body shapes, sizes and genders within burlesque?
It’s super important and reflects the reality of what people look like generally speaking. People can be curvy, very big, very small, petite, tall – that’s the reality and why can’t that reality be seen on stage? Seeing different bodies makes the performer and audience feel good. Different bodies are hot, and people have different tastes. Diversity is far more entertaining and it’s so important for us to see it.
I agree 100%. And obviously over the past year most shows and events have had to be virtual. How does the experience of hosting a show on screen differ from performing in front of audiences?
I’ve heard a few performers at the very beginning saying it was hard without the immediate feedback from the audience, but I think the past year has been about us all learning something new. For the online events it hasn’t mattered where the audience is in the world, they can still watch a show. In many villages, towns, and small cities, there are no burlesque scenes. It’s also been more accessible for people with disabilities, concerns or worries who can’t go out and enjoy events as easily. People from any background have now been able to see something they wouldn’t have normally been able to watch. I think that’s really healthy and really exciting.
Lady Blue Phoenix (she/ her) [@lady.blue.phoenix] – Performer
This black bi female is one powerful act who uses burlesque to raise issues about race and body positivity. Currently living in England, Lady Blue Phoenix has lived in several different continents and noticed that every country she has travelled to translates the “desired body” to the slim and skinny body. But Lady Blue uses her performance to challenge those beliefs.
So Lady Blue, you mentioned to me that you identify as bi. What do you think burlesque means to the queer community?
I feel it’s a way for us to literally be us, to express us. When you’re on stage you’re vulnerable and you’re displaying an art piece which embodies your sweat, blood, tears and every emotion you could think of.
And what’s your experience of being a black LGBTQ+ female in the burlesque community?
Burlesque is a very inclusive community for different sexualities. If you’re bi, queer, non-binary, trans, they do make you feel like you are welcome. It’s very rare for me to go into a burlesque backstage area and feel like I’m going to be attacked for being bi, for being black- maybe because that’s more visible. I have heard of situations where people have made others feel uncomfortable. It does happen in some cases, but it’s not as bad as it was. It’s improving but it could definitely be better.
So overall, do you think burlesque is a positive space for different bodies?
As I say, it’s gotten better. When I first started out it was rare to see more than three people of colour in one show. Now overall some shows are diverse and some are not. For example, there have been shows made with larger performers only. Just because we’re larger, it doesn’t mean we can’t dance or be high energy, and it doesn’t mean we should be less valued. The first time I saw a disabled performer was during the lockdown. I do think we need to get people to realise that there is a lack of diversity in body sizes, in sexual orientations and in ethnicities on stage. We need to work together to make it better.
I agree more work needs to be done in all areas of life to increase diversity. Taking what we’ve said into account, how do you feel about exposing your own body in front of an audience?
When I first started burlesque my body image was shit. Besides being the weird or odd kid, I was the fat kid, I was the unattractive kid. I wasn’t skinny and I didn’t tick all the boxes. I was bullied for it. The pain, feelings and memories will never go away, but the scars may heal over. You do have to fight that battle when the scars reopen from time to time, but my partner has worked really hard to help me realise that I am beautiful and the past is the past.
And do you feel like burlesque has helped you come to terms with the way you feel about your body?
If it wasn’t for burlesque I would probably have an eating disorder of some sort by now. Being brainwashed since a kid by the whole of society and being told you’re not beautiful for looking a certain way, isn’t great. Being a person of colour it’s even harder because you either have to conform to survive and lose your cultural identity, or you have to fight to survive.
Burlesque did help me come to terms with my identity as a person, it helped me accept myself, my body shape and size, it also helped me accept my sexuality. As a person of colour your voice is diminished in some places, but the one place my voice isn’t diminished is on that stage. I can perform an act about body positivity or racism, it’s a way for me to express my inner soul.
Polly Anther [@pollyanther] (she/ her) – Performer
London Lingerie designer by day, edgy burlesque performer by night, Polly Anther’s look, music and style can be described as 70s pin-up girl meets metal head when she performs. With 8 years burlesque experience under her belt, she has now mastered lying on her front on a bed of nails and using fire tricks in her acts – don’t try these at home!
So Polly how do you feel when you’re on-stage performing burlesque?
Being on-stage is such a free feeling. It’s the one place where I can really be myself and let go and share those experiences with an audience. It’s just a really nice space where I can let loose and share a part of me with other people – I’ve never found that anywhere else in my life.
You have a very intriguing, eye-catching burlesque style. What inspires that?
When I first started burlesque I thought it was sequins, pin-ups, Hollywood and jazz, because I had a very closeted view. For a couple of years I tried this and I did enjoy it, but it didn’t really feel truly like myself. I do have a massive love for 80s heavy metal, so a few years down the line I thought I don’t really know anyone who’s doing a mash-up of the two, but that’s me in my everyday life. So why not feed that into my acts? Since I’ve been doing that it now feels authentic. It’s a real mixture of me.
And how does burlesque make you feel about your body?
People always say to me ‘you must have so much body confidence’, but I hate to burst the bubble… it’s not really true. We all have our insecurities and it’s always a goal to love my body more. However putting your body on-stage for people to see in an artistic context, it makes you see yourself in a different light. It’s not even to do with looks, more about how you feel and that empowerment of sexuality and your sensuality and sharing it with people. It’s more about what your body can do and how it can make other people feel. It brings me another step forward toward accepting my body.
For your last performance you were lying chest-down on a bed of nails. Tell me where that idea came from?
It’s usually not what I do but I was really inspired by Alice Cooper’s song Bed of Nails. I knew a bed of nails was done as a side show stunt by circus performers, but I had only seen it incorporated into burlesque a couple of times. I thought it’d be great if I could actually do that. So I went to B&Q and made my own bed of nails – I wouldn’t recommend it that way as there are people that teach you how to do it. If anyone’s reading this and wants to try, please go to a professional!
Wow, that’s brave! Surely the bed of nails hurt?!
It does hurt and after a show I have little rows of bruises where it’s been, but it’s basically mind over matter and you have to make sure you’re being really careful. I learnt from watching videos on YouTube, but again, I wouldn’t recommend learning that way to anyone else who’s interested.
So you mentioned you’d rather not stick a label on your sexuality right now, how welcoming do you think the burlesque community is to everyone in the LGBTQ+ community?
I do recognise I’m sat at a high place of privilege in the community as a white, cis female so I can’t really speak on behalf of other people, but I’ve only experienced lovely things. I know this isn’t always the case for people of colour or trans people, or other people who are still fighting for their place. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, however as a whole it is really one of the most welcoming performance communities that I’ve personally experienced. I hope in the near future we can be in a place where everyone feels completely comfortable and well represented in this community.
And finally, what are your top tips for anyone who wants to get into burlesque?
Go to a class. I didn’t go to one, but I know a lot of people who attend classes and people who teach and they’ve found their little place, like a little support network. I would then say have fun with it, but think of what you want to say creatively in your performance. Make sure there’s a bit of you in it. When I started doing that, that’s when I started feeling like a performer.
Burlesque seems like a really cathartic experience and a great way of showing the world a piece of you. I’m not sure about you readers but I’m thinking of heading down to my local burlesque troupe after speaking to those awe-inspiring producers and performers. Thanks for chatting with me folks.
We’re excited for ‘BaH!’s’ next event #FREEBRITNEY Edition this August – do I even need to explain why it’ll be great?! To find out more follow @burlesqueathome on Instagram and Twitter. To find out more about ‘Tell Me Yours’ visit tellmeyours.co.uk or follow TMY on Instagram @tlmyrs and @TlmyrsApp on Twitter.
Written byMegan Evans