Burlesque has a storied history in New York City. It first appeared in the 1800s, mixed in with other vaudevillian entertainment, and it rose in popularity (and decreased in clothing) until Mayor La Guardia and moral outcry got to it in the 1940s. That’s when many Times Square burlesque theaters closed and attendees of Depression-era shows were reduced to “sex crazed perverts.” Later, many of these very buildings became home to peep shows and sex clubs in the seedier days of Times Square, which in turn suffered a similar fate during the Giuliani-led Disneyfication of the neighborhood in the ’90s. As this was happening, groups of artists in underground venues were bringing creative and often strange stripping back to the city, giving birth to what is now hailed as the neo-burlesque movement.
Years later, even as rents continue to rise, innovative folk are still taking off their clothes. The variety of bodies, costumes, and acts is rather tremendous, from wild and mysterious neo-burlesque nights at The Box and classic burlesque shows at The Slipper Room to the oddities of Coney Island and scrappier operations found in bar back rooms. Scores of performers also produce and book their own shows. We talked to six burlesque performers, veterans and newbies alike, to find out what keeps them disrobing in the Big Apple.
“I never even heard of burlesque until I moved to New York,” says Sincerely Yours, who recently competed in the Miss Coney Island burlesque pageant. “I got into burlesque six years ago and what drew me in was the sheer shameless rawness of it all. It wasn’t about the glamor, but the diversity and body shapes. Acts with nudity not being just the objective, but a method to tell a story. Loving their bodies as they were, proudly displaying not just skin but soul in such strange, hilarious and innovative ways.”
“In the very beginning, we were rich in ideas, but maybe not costuming,” says Dirty Martini, an internationally-renowned performer and winner of the coveted Miss Exotic World title. “Most of our costumes were made on a budget in a 99-cent store. This was in stark contrast to the other burlesque scene developing in LA at that time in the early 90’s.” She explains that now New York dabbles in more high-end burlesque, while LA is “experimenting with performance art.”
Self-professed “Burlesque Mayor of NYC” Jonny Porkpie, who we recently profiled for his Dead Sexy Halloween show involving “penis pasties,” agrees that much of the burlesque gems in the city were born out of a sort of creative necessity. He creates and produces shows often, frequently alongside his partner Jo “Boobs” Weldon, Headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque.
“New York City has always had the reputation for being idea-focused. That may have evolved from our lack of space and lack of cars; dragging stuff on the subway and fitting into tiny dressing rooms, you want to pack as much bang as you can into as small a bag as possible, and a clever idea can help make that happen,” he explains. “In many places, they have a few shows a month; NYC has at least a few shows every day, and performers sometimes do several a night. So they need to think big while thinking small.”
“I have done some shows out of state, and many of those areas must rely on joining forces to form a burlesque troupe, pitching an entire show to a venue,” adds Sincerely Yours. “Here, almost every burlesquer is their own brand: choreographer, promoter and makeup artist. We are truly lucky here; though the scene is quite saturated, there seems to be enough houses and niches for all of us misfits to do our strange art.”
Cyndi Freeman is an award-winning storyteller who performs burlesque as Cherry Pitz and co-produces the recurring Hotsy Totsy burlesque show, which whips up unconventional burlesque tributes to pop culture phenoms like Stephen King, The Big Lebowski, Mad Men, and Star Trek. She says New York works for her because it’s more welcoming of comedy in burlesque, rather than just classic glamor.
Üla Überbusen, the award-winning and ukulele-playing host of old-school Victrola Burlesque and classic showcase Twirly-Whirly Burly-Q, agrees. “Many think of New York as the birthplace of Neo-Burlesque, with artists like Dirty Martini, Jo Weldon, Tigger! and Julie Atlas Muz,” she says. “There are so many performers and shows here you can create all kinds of acts and know there will be a venue for them. There are a lot more opportunities for burlesque performance of all kinds here.”
“I think the cool thing about the NYC burlesque scene is that it’s just so hugely vast. You have disabled sideshow performers mixing with beauties wearing exclusively Swarovski crystals,” adds Cerebral Pussy, a newer performer with cerebral palsy who is also a good friend of mine. Her innovative acts include a mermaid number and The Nude Deal (an “FDR criptease”); they use humor and sexuality to make audiences reckon with the disabled body in ways beyond the typical “inspiration porn” or sexless being. “You also have a pretty solid crossover from the drag and performance art worlds. Many of the performers I’ve met in NYC started doing burlesque because it was a hybrid of many different creative outlets. You can literally call anything burlesque if you take off a piece of clothing.”
“New York has come to be the most friendly and welcoming scene with less drama than other cities because we all are used to living close together,” says Dirty Martini. “This city can be so fast and so harsh that we consciously made a place where being welcome is the point. We prefer the freaky and unusual and we celebrate each other.”
Since you don’t have to be a performance insider to know this city is lacking in cheap and large spaces (though some are working to help with that), I asked each performer what they would do if they had access to a spacious loft space of their own.
Jonny Porkpie: First, a better costume closet, where I could see everything at once, rather than having it all crammed into this IKEA crap. Then… Free rehearsal space? Mmmmmm. More big group numbers!
Üla Überbusen: I would have a wall of mirrors for rehearsal. And clothing racks so all my costumes would be easy to find. And I would line the walls with shelves for all of my wigs– I have 37, mostly in little bags in my closet. The biggest thing though would be the wall of mirrors.
Cherry Pitz: First I would cry for joy! Next, I would build a massive walk in closet. Right now, half my living room is dedicated to costumes and props. Where this looks great on stage, boxes and boxes of stage-wear makes my living room look like a storage facility. If I had a huge loft, I would create a rehearsal space with dance mirrors and sound system. And I would also plan on many parties! Sigh.
Cerebral Pussy: If I had a big loft, I would make a wheelchair accessible performance and party venue. As a disabled burlesque performer, I’m realizing how rare it is to perform at accessible venues. I’d make a space where weirdo, freaky, and diverse bodies can not only be patrons, but actually perform. Then I would throw a big bacchanal tea party, starting as burlesque dinner theatre and ending in a dance party.
Sincerely Yours: For the first three years of my burlesque career, I lived in an industrial loft setting. It was great because I came up with some really interesting acts by having free open space to explore in. Did some ridiculous photo shoots there, too. Though we’re used to tiny stages here in the city, [when] you don’t have space to move and dance, it can really affect your overall stage presence. One day I’d like to have a loft of my own where I can rig my aerial apparatus. A loftier dream, owning my own studio.
Dirty Martini: I’d probably have big giant props on stage to make me look all cute and small! This is not a reality here and it’s not one for a mid-level touring artist. Shipping costs are crazy so the only giant touring show is Dita Von Teese’s. She’s not the only performer using big props now, but certainly in New York it’s very rare and costly to store such things. Someday I’ll have something I can climb on, but I might have to move to Jersey to get it!