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.
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.
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.
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?
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 www.koko.uk.com 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 burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.