The first burlesque show I went to was in November 2006. I was an instant convert. The headliner was Immodesty Blaize, the British Queen of burlesque. A statuesque, plus size glamazon. She was elegant, beautiful and extremely confident. She’s still the best performer I’ve ever seen.
Coming a close second was another performer on that bill, Dirty Martini. A voluptuous, plus size performer from the United States with a flare for cheeky performances, a little humour and a lot of bump and grind. The show left me with a lasting impression that people of all sizes, genders, and walks of life could be involved. Women that were a size 20 were sharing the spotlight with women that were a size 8, and all were appreciated for their talent over their looks.
As a scene, it was intertwined with the Vintage and Fetish scenes I was already involved with. Both of those were body positive, but this seemed to take it a step further.
On New year’s Eve 2008/9 I found myself accidentally thrust from the audience onto a London burlesque stage. I answered a call for last minute help from a friend and a few hours later I was wearing a hastily put together maids outfit while picking up performers discarded clothing on stage at Madame Jo Jo’s in Soho. I was instantly hooked. From there, I became a professional stage maid and stage manager. I worked at some of the best shows, and on some of the best stages, across London and the UK for the next seven years. I loved my time in the burlesque scene, but when I moved to Newcastle from London I stopped working at and going to shows. In the past three years things seem to have changed a lot, especially surrounding the body positivity ethos. As a relative outsider, I just don’t see it’s presence anymore.
I reached out to a few plus size performers to get their perspective on the current UK burlesque scene; what I was told confirmed my fears. Just one person was willing to have their thoughts published, and that was on the understanding that I wouldn’t use her name. So for this article I’m going to call her Miss X.
Loula – What attracted you to burlesque?
Miss X – “I saw my first show around eight years ago and I just loved everything about it.
“I was already interested in the vintage and rockabilly world and this seemed like the next step. I searched out videos of performers when I found Immodesty Blaize, the first plus-size performer I’d ever seen, she became my idol.
“From there I found more, mostly American, plus size performers and I found a local teacher and took classes. My first performance was at their graduation show.”
Loula – How did you feel during, and after, that performance?
Miss X – “Amazing. Just, amazing. I was the biggest person in the class, but I got the biggest applause of the night. That was the ultimate confidence boost and what pushed me to continue.”
Loula – How did your burlesque career progress?
Miss X – “I started locally, usually getting the opening slots of the show. As I met more people on the scene I got more opportunities to perform.
“My early career had the same progression as anyone else’s. I worked my way up through the ranks, got to medium billing and started performing at bigger shows.
“My first set back came when I applied to a very large show and didn’t get a spot. At the time I thought I needed to work harder and really perfect my acts. I made more contacts, got myself on the bills for bigger shows and worked my little lace socks off!
“The next year I applied again, and again I was turned down. That one hurt. Especially when I saw that the final line up had girls that had just a few months experience.
“I just couldn’t see what I was doing wrong, until my partner pointed out that they were all slim. That’s when it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I believe I was passed over because of my size.”
Loula – Was that the first time you’d had a negative experience within the scene due to your size?
Miss X – “Looking back, no, it wasn’t. But I hadn’t noticed it until then.
“Audiences were always amazing. Women would talk to me after the shows and say that I’d proved that being plus size wasn’t a problem and that everything was possible if you tried hard.
“Other performers and show producers would say similar things. Or I thought they were. I now recognise that “you’re a great dancer, considering your size” is a backhanded compliment.”
Loula – Burlesque has always been seen as a very inclusive, body positive, movement, do you believe that to be true?
Miss X – “In the beginning, for me, eight years ago it was. I was welcomed with open arms and everyone was really helpful and positive. There was this public message that all bodies were to be celebrated, compares would talk about body positivity.
“Now, in my experience, absolutely not. It’s fallen by the wayside. It’s been forgotten. If you don’t fit the slim, cookie cutter ideal you’re shunned.
“The newcomers scene is actually still really supportive, it’s when you work your way up that it changes. The producers just don’t want to hire you when you don’t fit their narrow body ideal. When you do make it onto a bill, the other performers are extremely competitive and can be very nasty.”
Loula – What do you think has caused the scene to change so drastically?
Miss X – “I think it has a lot to do with how insanely popular burlesque became. The burlesque mantra was that “anyone can do it”. Suddenly every hen-do included a burlesque lesson, burlesque was on TV, in the magazines and everyone seemed to be a teacher.
“The amount of performers of all shapes and sizes seemed to double overnight. At first, I thought that was a good thing, more performers means more shows and more variety. Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that. As with everything, the bubble eventually has to burst.
“Burlesque reached saturation point and fell out of fashion. Audiences got much smaller and changed from supportive, respectful, people with major crossovers into the vintage and rockabilly scenes, to hen-do’s and groups of men that probably ought to be at a different type of strip club. With that, shows started to close due to poor ticket sales. The new audiences aren’t interested in body positivity, that’s not what they are there for.
“The best performers seemed to rise higher than ever before, most moving abroad, which was amazing for them, but it left a vacuum in the UK. With so many performers applying for places in shows, things got very competitive and only the best got the jobs. That was ok, for a hot minute it meant I got more work with some of the remaining body positive shows.
“Unfortunately, cliques soon formed. Tight friendship groups where they only promoted each other. I was on the outside from then onwards. The cliques were formed mostly of the mean girls and the body shamers. Things got even worse when countrywide financial problems and the gentrification of inner cities meant that some wonderful venues closed their doors. Now not only are there fewer shows, but there are fewer venues too.”
Loula – It sounds like the scene has totally changed in the three years I’ve been away! Do you think it’ll ever change back?
Miss X – “I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.
“There are some signs that the cliques are breaking down, when all of your enemies have left the scene, you’ve only got your clique left to turn on!
“Things fall in and out of fashion all of the time, the players change too. As some of the producers and performers retire, others take their place.
“I think the scene being forced to reduce in size is a good thing in the long run. It sorts the wheat from the chaff and eventually, I think the UK burlesque scene can return to its roots as a body positive movement. It’ll just be doing it without me.”
Loula – Oh? Have you stopped performing?
Miss X – “I have. Quietly. I haven’t announced my retirement, and I don’t plan to. I just want to take a break and see how I feel later. For now I need to get my head straight and remember that I got into burlesque because I love to dance. All of the nastiness has ground me down and the thought of being backstage with other performers makes me feel sick. My own body confidence has taken a huge knock thanks to others comments.
“I know other plus size performers and aficionados that have become very anti burlesque. It comes to something when even plus size audience members don’t feel comfortable at shows anymore.”
Loula – Do you think you’ll ever go back?
Miss X – “If it changes, I might go back. But those changes have to be pretty huge.
“The scene needs to take a good hard look at itself and remember that it’s supposed to be about building others up, not tearing them down. It’s supposed to be shocking and subversive and fun. At the moment, it’s none of those things.”