Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interview with Deirdre Timmons, Filmmaker

Interview with Deirdre Timmons
Dierdre Timmons, Filmmaker
Director, A Wink and a Smile

"An intoxicating mix of private thoughts and public behavior, A Wink and a Smile exposes more than the human body by putting gender, power, sexuality and social identity under the glittery spotlight, as it follows the lives of ten "ordinary" women who do something extraordinary – learn the art burlesque dancing and striptease. Through their adventures, we see how a homemaker, a reporter, a doctor, an opera singer, a taxidermist and a college student, join the American cultural revival of burlesque, as it moves from fringe fascination to mainstream obsession, engaging a world where performance art and showgirl spectacle, music, theater and sensuality crash into over-the-top glamour - a world where many want to go, but very few dare." On Saturday, May 2, I'll be performing with some of the subjects of this film at Quad Cinema in New York, so I took it upon myself to interview the director.

Tell us a bit about your history as a filmmaker.
My filmmaking career began with acting school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when I was 19. I wanted to be an actress, but gave up on those designs when my family made it perfectly clear that acting was bad, like stripping! It turns out they were wrong on both counts, but I listened to them anyway and instead became a reporter for newspapers, magazines and online publications. But you can’t control fate. I started dabbling around with screenwriting a few years ago and that was the beginning of the end. Or the end of a false beginning, perhaps. I wrote script after script. And then I took film classes to learn how to turn those scripts into reality. After making 15-some short films, I set out to make a feature-length movie on something that was sweet, funny, edgy, sexy, female-oriented and true. And when you add all that up, it equals a documentary on burlesque!

How did you get interested in the subject of burlesque?
A little embarrassing disclosure here: I did not know that burlesque was back. There. I said it. I was rearing a child as the “burlesque renaissance” was ramping up, so somehow I missed its emergence from the fringe world to the mainstream clubs and cabarets. When I met a woman who was studying burlesque at Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in Seattle, however, I almost fell over. I knew burlesque would contain everything that would make a film I could be proud of: Cultural revolution, fantastic music, beautiful costumes, true tales, and sex appeal that would speak to every age, race, gender and size.

wink 1 burlesque

What drew you to the Academy of Burlesque?
After first hearing of the Academy of Burlesque, I contacted the Headmistress, Miss Indigo Blue, and I told her I wanted to make a film about burlesque. I also told her I’d never made a feature-length film before and that I would be flying by the seat of my pants with her, if she were to be involved. She listened, but certainly didn’t respond as if this were the best coffee date she’d ever had. When I settled on an angle that I found interesting – the journey of becoming a striptease artist – I asked her if I could cover her 101 class. She didn’t answer my request for a long time. Then she sent me an email that just said, “Yes.”

How did the students respond to your presence?
It’s certainly awkward having cameras and lights in your face with some stranger asking you intimate questions about your body image, your sexual journey, and your basic life motivations -- not to mention that you’re stripping for the first time in your life with cameras recording every angle. Can you imagine? So in the beginning, I’d say the ladies were more reserved with the cameras and my questions. But at some point, everyone just let go, gave me their trust, opened up, and ran with me. That was very exciting. That’s when I knew we were going to reach some epiphanies that would not only help the film, but would help the film’s audience in reaching their own life epiphanies.

Wink and a Smile burlesque

What was the most surprising thing about filming the students? About filming the shows?
Two things about filming the students. I was surprised at how loving the whole process was. I felt very maternal toward the women and the project all the way through. And I was oddly surprised at how sex and self-image were so entwined in the process of learning the art of striptease. Looking back, that seems like a major “Duhhhhh,” but really, I was so fixated on the glamour of burlesque that I hadn’t thought much beyond that. As far as filming the shows, the professionals were mind-blowingly professional. Most of them didn’t receive their music until right before the show. But they showed up and they blew us away with their creativity, their beauty and their great senses of humor. I just want each and every one of them to receive acknowledgment (and remuneration!) they deserve considering the high level of entertainment they bring to fans.

Did you ever take a class? If so, what was it like?
Yes I did. I’m a ham from A to Z and I was only too happy – at the age of 42 and having nursed for more than two years – to get on stage, be funny, and strip. And I don’t even like to be naked! I’ll never forget the first time I stood on stage twirling tassles looking out into the audience seeing about 20 friends – men and women – laughing and holding up their drinks, I thought, “Well, so much for being self-conscious.” It was extremely freeing. In the long run, it has also made daily dressing and just walking down the street a lot more fun! I feel like it's something everyone should try once in their life, even if it's in the privacy of their own home.

Wink and a Smile burlesque

Do you think you'll stay interested in burlesque?

Yes. Our company, Golden Echo Films, shoots burlesque shows whenever possible. Burlesque performers are smart, hard-working, focused, fun, talented and experimental. As I shift into making narrative musical films, I will continue to tap into this fantastic pool of talent. The burlesque community definitely feels like family to me.

Tell us about what's next for A Wink and A Smile.
Wink is hitting theaters in May and June. Then it will probably go to cable. And then it will be available on DVD. Stay tuned at or

What's next for you? Any other subjects catching your eye?
We’re now editing our second documentary, Pretty Funny Women, which will be completed this year. It’s about a particular group of female stand-up comediennes in LA. It will be funny, perhaps a little sad, and peppered with snippets of redonkulous dancing. And I’m now writing scripts for narrative musicals. Stay tuned!

Trailer on YouTube:
Find us on Facebook under A Wink and a Smile

Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for

Friday, April 17, 2009

Biography and Burlesque!

Tonight I'll be performing at this fabulous event:

Rachel Shteir Gypsy Rose Lee Book Release Event

You can read excerpts from Rachel's book and purchase it on

Albert Garzon, who charted the music I'll be performing, is a bit of a biographer as well. Check out his information on Lydia Thompson's daughter, Zeffie!

Zeffie Tilbury, the daughter of Lydia Thompson, was born on November 20, 1863. Her father died a year later in a tragic accident while horse racing and hurdle jumping.

Zeffie Tilbury, age 7:

Zeffie was drawn into acting because her mother was one of the most famous actresses in England. And soon to be the most famous burlesque performer in the world.

Zeffie - age 20:

A sampler of Zeffie's long and successful acting career:
Aug. 1885 - First trip to USA with Mary Anderson Troupe. Zeffie played in "Pygmalion" (which was new at the time), "Ingomar" and other shows. The Mary Anderson troupe troured a good portion of the country. Lydia Thompson accompanied her daughter on this trip (Zeffie was not quite 22 years old) and Lydia had many friends in America to introduce her to.

Mary Anderson - mid 1880's

1886 - "The Coming Clown", "Blackberries" and "Turned Up" - Royalty Theater, London. Zeffie appears with some of her mom's old Ixion comrades including comic Willie Edouin and his wife Alice Atherton.

1887 - "Sultan of Mocha", "Babette", "The Golden Key" and "Kenilworth". Zeffie performs in the UK with her mom in a number of burlesques, and stars in the revised edition of the burlesque, "Kenilworth".

1888 - "A Winter's Tale" - Zeffie and her mom are back in the USA touring.Zeffie with the Mary Anderson troupe; she has a leading role in "A Winter's Tale".Lydia is touring and headlining under promoter Micheal Leavitt. Lydia's tour hitsCanada, and as far West as Los Angeles, but runs out of money in the mid-West.

1892 - "As You LIke It" - Zeffie and Lydia performed together in Philadelphia; Zeffie playing Rosalind to Lydia's Audrey

1894 - "Crust of Society" Zeffie and Lydia appear together in the American version of Dumas' "Le Demi-monde". Lydia plays the supporting role of Lady Downe to Zeffie's starring role as Mrs. Chapel. The producers of this show are listed as: Mr. & Mrs. Arthur Lewis (Zeffie is Mrs. Lewis !)

1901 - "Twelfth Night". Zeffie stars as Maria at Her Majesty's Theater, London.

Her Majesty's Theater, London

1903 - "Crust Of Society" - Zeffie is back in New York, with a remake of her successful production from 1894. (she is almost 40 years old)

1904 - "Twelfth Night" - Zeffie is back in New York with the Mary Anderson troupe - this time at the Knickerbocker Theatre on Broadway. Lydia Thompson accompanies Zeffie primarily for moral support as she does not perform on this tour.

Knickerbocker Theater, New York (Broadway & 38th St.)

1905 - "Winter's Tale" and "Twelfth Night" - Zeffie is back at the Knickerbocker in New York with Mary Anderson. Sadly, Lydia was not up to the task of oversea travel at this time and stayed behind in London.

Zeffie Tilbury in the early 1900's

Click here to read more about Zeffie, and to read more of Albert's research!

Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

More Burlesque (Well, Stripping) on Film!

"Of all the roles available to pretty, young actresses, one of the most enduring is "stripper with a heart of gold." The latest A-list actress to join the elite club of movie strippers is Jessica Biel in her upcoming film 'Powder Blue.' Biel told Access Hollywood that her preparation for the role gave her new appreciation for the job. Hear hear, we say. We look forward to seeing Jessica Biel's heart of gold, and in the meantime, here are the Top Ten Movie Strippers."
Best Movie Strippers

As we used to say when I worked in strip joints, if they're taking off their clothes for money, they're strippers! And we love it.

A similar article appeared in Entertainment Weekly awhile ago.

I love the articles, but they're not so very burlesquey, and they didn't include my personal favorite:

Friday, April 3, 2009

Teaser: An Interview with Immodesty Blaize

If you've ever seen Immodesty Blaize perform, you don't have to ask what burlesque is; she's it. With a larger-than-life stage presence and a smouldering charm offstage, Immodesty leaves a warm, curvy, sensual impression wherever she goes, and leaves every person she encounters with a happy yearning. Without further ado, I present the neo-legend that is the UK's gift to modern burlesque, Miss Immodesty Blaize.

Immodesty Blaize

When did you first see burlesque?
I blame my mother. We watched Gypsy together when I was very young, 5 or 6 I think. Obviously Natalie Wood was beautiful, but I thought Mazeppah was the coolest lady I had ever seen. I liked her humour and even then I knew she was HOT.

Were you a performer before you began doing burlesque?
I never went to stage school, however I used to travel the country as a little girl doing national dance competitions, with modern, disco and rock ‘n’ roll styles. It was all very ‘Solid Gold’ but I loved the sequins, spandex and the smell of hairspray! I racked up an impressive shelf of trophies but it was tough doing the elimination rounds and once you had experienced being knocked out of the competition and having to leave the dancefloor with your tail between your legs, you quickly found more inventive ways of really sparkling for the judges and letting your personality shine, along with ratting a bigger bouffant. During my late teens I took up both Latin and Arabic dance. I often find even now that I incorporate some of my Arabic shimmies, or a salsa step into my acts.
When I first performed burlesque circa ‘98 there was no great awareness of the genre in London, or any kind of performance community yet. I had to literally bang down doors for stage space, and explain every 5 minutes what burlesque was and what my act was. There wasn’t that much footage of the legendary performers readily available at that time either, just books mostly; so I used to be inspired as much by Hollywood movies and actresses, Busby Berkeley musicals, as well as kitsch icons like Liberace, Divine, Grace Jones, Betty Page, and Dalida….I also remember studying the ‘great effect’ scene in ‘The Graduate’ for hours hoping I’d somehow master the dynamics of twirling a tassel by osmosis.
I don’t like to look at other performers’ acts for ideas unless I am consciously creating a tribute like my reverse striptease bathtime tribute to Lili St Cyr. Even then I’ll add my own interpretation and choreography. Instead I find ideas on my travels; maybe a new piece of music, or a piece of amazing fabric for a costume, or a scene in a book…anything really. My act with the 6 foot vintage telephone came from listening to Blondie’s ‘Hangin’ on the Telephone’ in my dressing room. I had a brainwave, then dismissed it as ridiculous. After my show I realized I had been sitting staring at my autographed picture of Betty Page talking on a small black telephone and decided it was a sign! I scribbled some drawings on the back of a napkin and sent it straight to my propmaker to see if my idea was possible. Then came the fun part of watching every film noir movie I owned to distill the ultimate femme fatale. It took about a year to complete the act through concept, research, design, construction and choreography before it was ready to unveil.

Where did you learn classic moves?
I owe that to my mentor, Basil – a true showboy with a pedigree par excellence, he’s the real deal. He was on the road from the age of 14, performing with all the European burlesque greats from the 50s onwards, in notorious theatres such as The Windmill, the Leeds City ('Titty') Varieties, the Talk of The Town, the Friedrichstadtpalast etc. He even performed with Liberace for 3 months when he came to UK to do The Palladium.
Basil tracked me down at one of my shows. His stories were amazing and we just clicked right away. Basil cracks the whip over me if he sees me holding my hands in the wrong way. He even gave me special tips he learnt from Marlene Dietrich. Basil can parade as well as any model on the catwalk and fan dance as well as Faith Bacon, but ten times more camp. He’s a gem.
I also really pay attention to the movement styles of legends like Lili and Blaze…they all had such different, diverse and unique ways of moving. And whilst it’s good to learn tricks of the trade from them, I also think it’s absolutely essential to develop your own unique body language, style and ‘isms’ – little moves special to you. That’s what makes you individual, and is part of your unique persona.

Immodesty Blaize

You seem to have been born for burlesque--not just your appearance, but your style, your carriage, your sensuality. Do you feel that?
Wow, thank you for the compliment! Well I really had no idea as a little girl that I would be Immodesty when I grew up! Looking back now, I see the signs were all there, but not in the ways you would expect, I was no stage school kid. I think I just always wanted to be different.

Immodesty Blaize

How did you come to hear about Exotic World, and how did it feel to win the title?
I knew of Exotic World for years but didn’t realise the pageant was open for international gals too. I was approached to participate in Miss Exotic World when I performed in Dita Von Teese’s show at the Orpheum in Los Angeles, as Dixie Evans had been watching, celebrating her 80th birthday. I was thrilled; Dixie had been an idol of mine for some time, an inspiration.
Well….I cried when I won the title; how embarrassing - I put it down to jetlag and a smudge of eyelash glue in my eye! Actually I think I might have been a little overwhelmed. All the girls had been just so welcoming, and it felt fantastic to be given the stamp of approval by the wonderful legends who had inspired me in the first place, and who had lived the burlesque life the first time round…particularly since I do embrace the classic style, that finally felt like validation for me. It had also been such a blast during the weekend too, catching up with my American burly friends; there is always such great camaraderie, and I particularly love that aspect of the American burlesque community. As I walked out from the venue onto the Strip holding my trophies that night, the fountains at the Bellagio went up right in front of me with that deafening classical music. It was like a camp Vegas homecoming!

Having seen US and UK burlesque, have you noticed any particular differences, either in the audiences?
My fan base is around 60% female and pretty darn glamorous! I’d say it’s a spread of media/celeb/fashionista/cultural types and sassy women. I have found the male female ratio in USA audiences to be similar, although there seems to be much more of a music and rockabilly contingent in USA.

What do you consider to be unique about your style onstage? What do you most enjoy about performing?
I don’t know if I can put my performance style into words... does ‘va va voom’ count?! I guess all my heroines along the way have been strong, very passionate women, and I have various parts of Eastern Europe in my heritage so I like to inject a bit of that fiery European passion into my performances! I’m not a cheesecake girl.
Performing is a wonderful ritual for me, right from the moment I wake up that morning. I can be quite reserved off stage as I like to have quiet moments and take time to watch everything and observe; perhaps this surprises some people who don’t actually know me. I do believe in ‘transmit’ and ‘receive’, not just ‘transmit’ all the time. When I perform, that’s when Immodesty lets rip so I enjoy all aspects of that process! In particular the feeling just as you make your entrance and you have the whole stage laid out like a blank canvas ready to be filled with something fabulous and sparkling. It takes so long to put an act together behind the scenes, so actually getting to perform it is a lovely reward for all the hard work.

What has been your most scandalous moment? Your proudest?
Hmm, well being a lady I’m not sure I should put my most scandalous moment in print! [What a tease! ;) ] Proud moment….goodness…. I’m going to mention a different kind of proud moment…I received email correspondance from a lady who had suffered from an eating disorder and self harming, and after she came to one of my shows she said she was inspired to work on her issues. She wrote a few months later and attached a photo, saying she was getting up to a healthy weight again and doing really well. It was deeply touching.

What's next for you?
Immodesty Blaize
My debut novel ‘Tease’, published by Ebury Press will be on shelves this May. It is a bodice ripping bonkbuster, so think Jackie Collins does burlesque via Dynasty with a huge squirt of Chanel! There’s more sex, scandal, Swarovski and shoulderpads in my novel than you can shake a stick at. If you can’t make it to a UK bookstore you can check my website for updates and links to order it online.
I’m also super excited about the next annual Tease Show at London’s Koko. I put it on every year, and the 2009 show has another incredible line-up, with Catherine D’Lish, Kalani Kokonuts, Michelle L'Amour, and Perle Noir amongst others, with special guest Marc Almond, our 12 piece big band, and our British queen of camp comedy, compere Julian Clary. Oh and yours truly too!
Here is a link to last year’s for a little teaser of what’s in store for 2009’s show; May 11th – 14th , details can be found at or on my website.

What would you most like to say to new performers?
I’d say, embrace what you have and don’t worry yourself about what you don’t have. Find what makes you unique and what suits you, and hold on to that. Far more memorable to do your own special thing and be yourself than just doing a version of a show you’ve already seen someone else doing. I would also say, go for quality over quantity every time. Oh, and of course, have fun!

Images from Immodesty's myspace

Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for