At a Switch n’ Play show at Branded Saloon earlier this month, Poison Ivory gave one of her last burlesque performances for a while. Des’ree’s “Kissing You” poured through the speakers, and she treated her captive Brooklyn audience to a classical fan dance (you know the kind: it pairs sultry, languid limbs with the brisk fluttering of oversized feathers). Less classic was her belly, which made a bold appearance each time the two massive fans parted ways. She was, then, 32 weeks pregnant.
“I had seen maybe two or three performers onstage with a baby belly, and I remember being so moved by it,” she later recalled. “It was just such a magical experience.” We spoke at the beginning of her burlesque hiatus and 34 weeks into her pregnancy; our conversation was sandwiched between mundane domestic affairs, a morning race her partner was running and a baby furniture construction project. She knew, when she became pregnant, that performing with a belly wasn’t going to be easy, but she wanted to continue for as long as she felt physically comfortable. It was important for her, to share her pregnancy with audiences.
There aren’t many forms that require artists to share with their audiences quite this intimately. American burlesque was born in the cabarets and clubs of the nineteenth century, centered around bawdiness and striptease. Although it’s expanded outward from there—there are lots of “neo” forms of burlesque, new or hybrid takes on formal technique—Poison Ivory really loves the vintage stuff, the fans and gowns and cheeky teases.
She became enamored with the art form before she began performing. She was talking so much about classical burlesque—about going to shows, watching and rewatching A Wink and a Smile—that in 2012, her friend bought her four weeks of classes at the New York School of Burlesque for her birthday. She didn’t plan to continue after the classes ended, “but the universe had other plans for me,” she said. Within two years, burlesque became her full-time job. And in 2016, right around her four-year performance anniversary, she gave an energetic routine to Florence and the Machine’s “Girl With One Eye” at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. She won the prestigious Miss Exotic World title in that competitive room, in billowing cream-colored tulle.
Burlesque requires centeredness, a subtle balance of resolute confidence and soft vulnerability. Poison Ivory recalled needing to get back in touch with herself, to get more centered, at the time she walked into her first class. “I was in a very broken place,” she said. “I had been in a toxic relationship, and was trying to heal from the damage to my self-esteem.” She had given up on her original plan of pursuing a career as an actor and a dancer—which had drawn her east from her home in Long Beach, CA—and was feeling unmoored and un-self-certain.
When she started taking her clothes off onstage, it became a way “to be seen for who I am,” as she put it. She doesn’t even use her legal name much anymore; for her, burlesque is not about inventing a wholly distinct character, but about exposing something very true. It followed, when she became pregnant, that she would continue to share herself fully with her audiences. Why hide anything?
Zoe Ziegfeld, a burlesque performer and member of the Switch n’ Play collective, has only encountered a handful of pregnant performers in the 10 years she’s worked in nightlife. “We cut women out of the picture when they’re pregnant, as if they somehow stop being sexy, stop being vibrant, or they shouldn’t be visible anymore,” she said. She watched Poison Ivory’s Switch n’ Play performance from the back of the Branded Saloon, and felt deeply moved by what she saw. “It was so powerful to watch Poison Ivory fully embody her sexiness, her dynamism, her beauty, and to have her pregnancy be part of that,” Ziegfeld said.
Switch n Play’s MC, Miss Malice, had a very different vantage point that night, but echoed Ziegfeld’s sentiment: “I was sitting onstage, so I could see every face in the crowd,” she recalled. “The audience was absolutely mesmerized.”
About whether performing burlesque while pregnant makes a political statement, Poison Ivory was definitive. “Just being a female-bodied person onstage taking their clothes off, and a person of color onstage taking their clothes off, is political,” she said—there’s no avoiding body politics here, in the glare of the footlights, in front of a crowd. Her pregnancy is merely an extension. “My presence onstage has a message regardless of whether I want it to, so I decided to dive in fully and embrace it—to show that I am proud of this skin, the 50 pounds I’ve gained. [I’m still] sexy and deserving of being onstage.”
The crowd at Switch n’ Play, an otherwise-rowdy congregation of drag and burlesque fans, fell unusually quiet when Poison Ivory began the “Kissing You” routine in the soft pink light. She swept across the space with bewitching deliberateness; it was a slow burn of a number, and the belly only added gravity. She debuted this routine before the pregnancy and has plans to keep doing it after the baby is born, but performing it while pregnant made it feel entirely unique for her—so much so that after performing it for the final time before her hiatus, she shed a few quick tears. “It was the last time with my baby,” she explained. “I’ll still do it, but it won’t be the same. I had to take a minute to mourn.”