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It's my birthday, so I got myself an interview with Catherine D'Lish. As I've mentioned previously, I'm crrrrrrazy about Ms. D'Lish.
Above: Catherine, photographed by Sean McCall.
How did you get interested in burlesque?
Well, I was born with a dirty mind, I’m pretty sure! When I was very young, I spent plenty of time holed up in the garage, enjoying my daddy’s Playboy magazines. There were stacks of them- hours of fun! While growing up, I was fascinated with all things sexual. Long before I finished elementary school I had already had an excellent education, thanks to my mothers collection of “The Joy of Sex” and those types of books. I saw great photographs and references to strippers, stripping and also the Crazy Horse. All of that was particularly interesting to me.
Once in a while, we would drive by a strip club that originally opened in the sixties, “Les Girls”. This seemed like the most wonderfully decadent and exciting building in the whole world! It was painted bright pink, with “NUDE NUDE NUDE” in bold black letters on the walls. The best and a very vivid visual memory was the sign. It was tall and gorgeous- the most sixties thing imaginable. “Les Girls” in big plastic letters, and at the tippy-top was a redhead from the neck up with the best beehive of all time, dangling earrings, and a superb sexy face. I was ruined forever. Of course, having been raised on theater arts and stuffed to the gills with musicals (if I was a boy, I would have been sooooooo gay!), I was certain that hidden inside this magical pink building must be the sexiest and most glamorous spectacle possible. I pictured girls as beautiful as any found in the pages of Playboy, wearing costumes by Adrian or Edith Head, performing sexy and fantastic dance numbers. If only it had been that way…
When did you begin performing?
I was right around 18/19 years old.
Who and what have been your biggest influences?
I think that my biggest “influence” comes from what I imagine a strip show should be- what I hoped was going on inside those pink walls of “Les Girls”…
One of the things I love about watching you perform is your ability to be playful and sensual at the same time, to really work the peel, and to make every step of clothing removal a huge event. It's lavish and spectacular, but all with a wink and a shrug. Do you have dance or theatrical training? Would you attribute any of your style to working in strip joints?
Thanks for that particularly juicy compliment-
I grew up with musical training, I think that this has affected the way I use my body more than anything else. The first time I stripped was the first time I performed on stage without an instrument to hide behind. Long after I started performing as a headliner I worked with a few really superb teachers, but the focus was on strengthening my body, mainly to develop movement without the bad habits that were causing chronic injuries.
When I started stripping, I also started dancing/rehearsing in front of a mirror on my own. As I began competing, the mirror time became more frequent and earnest. That is how it started to come together for me. I figured if I could entertain myself, I might be more entertaining on stage- I still think that it is the best tool: a mirror. And complete privacy!!!! Rehearsing is definitely not a spectator sport, not for me.
The strip clubs were a fun place to use what I had worked on at home, and take it for a test drive…
Above: Catherine, photo by Sean McCall.
You used to be a feature dancer. How would you describe that? Can you tell me how you found out about feature dancing and how you got into it? Would you like to comment on any of the agencies? I always really enjoyed knowing Frank Bane.
Oh boy, the feature dancing experience! I could go on for days-
All of the contests that I did with other features, and the strip clubs that I was lucky enough to be invited to- it was all just the most frivolous kind of fun. At the clubs, one would sort of move in for the week, performing 2-5 times daily, usually Monday through Saturday. Your dressing room could be really comfy and great, or so absurd that you were sure someone was playing a joke on you. There were many times I bathed in a sink or bucket after a messy show because there wasn’t a proper shower available. It could be a big corporate “fancy” club with men in expensive suits, perhaps a tiny beer bar at the end of a dirt road with practically everyone (besides me) wearing a flannel shirt, or some kind of establishment in between. The stages were all shapes and sizes, and could be dancer friendly, but some were made of the most slippery plastic or even steel! Sometimes the girls were hot, and sometimes the girls were not. I was fortunate to not have really suffered, it was fun to meet an entirely new crew of characters in each place I visited- I loved meeting and talking with everybody I met.
It was hysterical- and pretty heart-warming too, in a funny way- by the end of each week, I had become a member of their “family”, and they would send me off with flowers, funny gifts, nice cards- it was silly and sweet. And you better believe that I gathered an impressive assortment of photos with the hottest girls!
I worked with a few agencies, and I agree with you, Frank Bane is a gem. He was always very nice to me, and I enjoyed his company. An agent at the first major “Miss Nude” Whatever contest approached me, I left with a tiara and bookings as a feature dancer.
Having been a feature, I know that those big props are not required. How did you come to perform with them?
Well, I just thought that it was so much more fun to do a show with a prop. That’s it. My reputation as a feature was built on my shows- I never pursued any kind of self-promotion, modeling, etc. Who knows what would be different today if I had been more business-minded, and tried to get myself more “out there”? I was booked on the strength of my acts, and reputation. All of the other features were either in videos or nudie magazines- I never went after those credits, either. And although I have been in many nude clubs, nobody is actually sure if I possess an actual working vagina (I do, by the way). I was very modest, not a prude at all, but my pussy never turned pro. The props were an acceptable substitute for the time on stage that was generally the gynecological display. As I acquired more titles to my name, I was able to get more money per show. I traveled with a roadie and six-or-so prop shows, which I would rotate through the week. I don’t think that I would have enjoyed just traveling around from strip club to strip club without toting along my own playground! Playing with props and “stuff to do” on stage made every show a good time. I was sort of the “Gallagher of Stripping”.
When did you begin making the lavish costumes? Of course one of my favorites is the peacock. Can you give me a sense of what went into that? The materials, time, and cost?
Oh, the peacock costume…
I wore that so many times! Someone else will be sporting that now-
Don’t know how many hours I put into that one. I never keep track of my working hours as I find it depressing. I am just happy when each project is magically finished. I do remember that I used thousands of peacock feathers. I will be ok if I never use another peacock feather again, come to think of it…
I started making bigger costumes when I started entering more “serious” stripping pageants. The first one that felt more extravagant and “showy” was gold sequins with black beading, crystal stones and black feathers- where are photos of that, I wonder?
I don’t remember how much I spent on the peacock costume. And seriously, I don’t care to recall. When it comes to making my costumes, I really couldn’t care less about the cost. Nearly every one took my last dime at the time I made them! I haven’t made a new costume for myself in ages- it would be loads of fun to.
It's well known that you make costumes for Dita Von Teese and perform with her; in her book she thanks you for "dreaming big...and for making the most beautiful burlesque costumes a girl could ever wish for." What is your favorite costume you've made, and what were some of the special challenges?
Hmmmm, I don’t think that I have a favorite of the Dita costumes. I always think that the next one will be better; the next one I haven’t yet made becomes my favorite. They all have presented special challenges, for sure! A larger budget for the materials definitely created more ambitious projects. We really went for it (yee-haw) on the entire MAC show project, and the “Diamonds” costume became an actual labor of love- for the love of the rhinestone! The Cointreau costume and accessories were begging for unprecedented hours of fun, and we put them in, for sure. Every show project is so different from the last, I don’t really compare them to each other- just like any mother should treat her children, I suppose. They are the shiny fruit of my loins (and my unbelievably wonderful team of unbelievably wonderful workers- bless them and their bloody fingers!).
When did you get your champagne glass? What inspired you? Had you ever seen anyone else perform in one? Also, the design of your glass is really lovely--I've seen many of them, and while I've never seen a bad visual of a girl bathing in a champagne glass, yours is one of most photogenic. Would you like to comment on the design?
I made my glass around ’90. It was my first prop, and it seemed the obvious choice- my favorite shows to perform were classic striptease. I had seen other features using acrylic bowls, but when they referred to their prop as a “champagne glass”, I didn’t get it! I designed my bowl and stem to be attractive to me, and suit my body- also to support what I wanted to do in it. Designing the props and overseeing their production is always super fun. It’s just like having a new toy, one of the best things about doing shows, for sure.
Where do you rehearse with the glass?
Nearly every home I have had has had a rehearsal space in it. These days I don’t have an ideal space in my home, but I use a sweet dance studio just a couple of miles from my house. The walls are the perfect shade of institutional green, and I love going there. When I am coaching there, I think that the therapeutic color brings out the best in my victims…
I know you participated in competitions as a feature. Recently you mentioned that some of the neo-burlesque performers remind you of some of the performances you saw then, when we were discussing what a shame it is that so few of those events were documented. Can you tell me about one or two things that you remember with particular amusement or amazement?
Now that is a huge can of worms. So many shows, so little time! I would be typing for days if I tried to give an accurate picture of the many marvels I saw in those competitions. Out of respect for the innocent, I choose not to speak of the crimes committed against good taste. And in the interest of courtesy to my fellow performers, I can’t give any specifics- please forgive me. I say one thing only: you ain’t seen nothin’ if you haven’t been in a room full of teary-eyed cowboys holding up their lighters while a naked girl wearing only white gloves signs “Proud To Be An American” on stage under a black light.
I've always said that you are my favorite feature dancer. I know that you won several awards. I believe they include: "Miss Nude USA, Miss Exotic America, Miss Erotic World,Miss Nude International, Miss Exotic World- ë92 & 94,Showgirl of the Year, Burlesque Hall of Fame, World Duo Champion, and Miss Nude Redhead Universe. " Of course I'm deeply involved with Exotic World and the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and was thrilled that you were able to be a judge this year. How did you find out about Exotic World? Can you describe what the MEW pageants you were in were like? Would you like to comment on any of the performances you saw this year?
Thanks for the lovely compliment. I have won plenty of “Miss Such-and-such” awards; somewhere I have a list of the 30-odd titles. If I could find another contest to do, I’m not sure if there would be any stopping me! I first heard about Exotic World in the back of some magazine I was reading on an airplane. Just a tiny blurb, but that was all it took- I was there in a flash (it was a dark and stormy night… another story, another time).
Dixie is very dear to me, and I have many wonderful memories of spending time with her. She is truly a precious jewel- and I have never met anyone so generous!
It was a different time and experience altogether when I first visited the museum and participated in the pageants. Back in the old days, we took a covered wagon out to Exotic World, and everybody was very careful to look out for savages. You kids have it so easy now with your electric lights and motor cars-
I was tickled to have the opportunity to be one of the judges at the pageant this year. I really enjoyed the experience, and the wide variety of performances. I am very pleased with the awards that were presented; I felt that they were well deserved. Angie Pontani was the perfect choice for the new Miss Exotic World title- I felt that she gave the best show of the night. I hope that everybody had a great time, and that they are all planning what they will do next year!
Photo by Danielle Bedics.
You describe yourself as a stripper. How do you feel about the word "stripper"? What do you make of the constant debate about the differences between stripping and burlesque? And what do you think of the way the meaning of the word burlesque seems to be changing as of late, into a meaning something like "referring to exotic dance"?
You know, you are asking the wrong girl if you want a serious answer on this subject. I like the word “stripper”- I strip. I like the word “burlesque”- I am kind of burly, for a little person…
But I don’t think that I could do anything but snicker if someone referred to me as an “exotic dancer”.
Let’s arm-wrestle the next time we meet to settle this debate once and for all.
Above: Dita left, Catherine right.
What has been one of your favorite experiences as a performer? Is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are plenty of things I really want to do that I haven’t done yet. After I do them, I’ll let you know…
As far as my personal favorite performing experiences go, the most sentimental memories feel far too personal to share. However, I have some super fun memories of times I have shared with special friends: Dita and I getting into our glasses at the same time, and nearly scalding our behinds in boiling hot water; the infamous show that included a Harley and Redi-Whip (come on, it was the best show we ever did!); some rather drunken performances together; and lots and lots of backstage mischief and laughing until we peed with my friends and lovely assistants!
Do you have any suggestions for new performers?
Give it 110%, go the extra mile, haste makes waste, practice makes perfect, take one for the team, grin and bear it, don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today, get your head in the game, nothing ventured = nothing gained, play the hand you’re dealt, don’t burn your bridges, always put your best foot forward, crime doesn’t pay, if you are going to talk the talk you’d better walk the walk, remember that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, the early bird catches the worm, and friends don’t let friends dance drunk!
Thank you, Catherine, for making my day! I can't wait to see you again, perhaps in San Francisco?
http://www.cdlish.com Catherine's website Several of the performance photos are my shots from Tease-O-Rama.
http://www.whiterabbitstudio.com/ Danielle Bedics
http://www.seanmccall.com/ Sean McCall
Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.