Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jo! I just finished reading your book and want to learn more about burlesque! Can you recommend any noteworthy books or films that I should have in my collection this second?

I highly suggest you check out these DVDs: A Wink and a Smile, The Velvet Hammer Burlesque, Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque, Burlesque Undressed, Pretty Things, and Behind the BurlyQ. Do a web search to find them, since they're not all available in the same formats. There are lots more, so if anyone wants to recommend one, feel free!
There are lots more recommended in my book, as well, so be sure to check the resources for that.
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Ask me anything about Burlesque!

Burlesque Etiquette

The Burlesque Handbook has been out since June, and people have been very kind in their reception of it. Interestingly, one of the chapters the more experienced performers have told me they appreciate has been Chapter 10, "Backstage Etiquette: How to Win Naked Friends and Influence Nude People." In this chapter I discuss how to get involved in the burlesque community, how to get booked to perform, and how to behave if you want to get booked more than once. The following excerpt is from that chapter.

1. Ask before you take pictures, and be genuinely willing to not take them. People who don’t mind being photographed doing all kinds of wild things onstage may not want to be photographed checking the crotch of their underwear for clitty litter. Or they may wish to be photographed only by professionals. This is not necessarily uptight of them. There are a lot of issues around photography and burlesque. And for god’s sake, if you post a photo online and someone asks you to take a picture down, do it!

Backstage at the Vital Theatre
Backstage at the Vital Theatre. Yes, I asked before I put this photo in my book.

2. If someone is making a documentary about you, tell the show producer about it when you first discuss your booking rather than springing it on them right before the show. Most performers seriously don’t want your camera crew or photographer backstage, unless it is part of a carefully developed art project or prestigious news show, and sometimes not even then.

3. Do not perform numbers that are messy without prearranging it with the producer. If you leave water, confetti, glitter, wax, food, etc. onstage, you are affecting other performers. If there has to be a long cleanup between your act and the next one, you are also affecting the performers, so don’t assume it’s okay to make an unannounced mess just because you brought your cleanup crew—especially if your crew would be taking up valuable backstage space.

4. Don’t get drunk before the show unless the producer seems to be heartily endorsing it. I for one will not allow drunk performers onstage during my showcases.

5. Consider carefully whether or not eating backstage is a good idea. Protein bar, yes. Plate of spaghetti, no.

Peekaboo Pizza
Peekaboo Pointe backstage at the Slipper Room, showing how to not get pizza on others' costumes.

6. Until you get to know people, listen more and talk less. I am naturally loquacious, but I try not to make other people nervous with it.

7. Brush your teeth, chew gum, drink water. Everybody loves fresh breath. And bathe. Really. Even if your life partner has a fetish for stinky armpits. Please.

8. If you are genuinely upset about something, decide carefully whether you need to express your feelings immediately or if it can wait until after the show. Everyone is in a fragile and self-absorbed state immediately before and after performing.

9. Even if someone asks you, don’t critique them in front of anyone else. No matter what they say. Save it for a workshop.

10. Ask before bringing your dog backstage. And your boyfriend or girlfriend is probably even less welcome backstage than your dog, which at least everyone can pet.

Our Dressing Room, Tease-O-Rama 2003
The sign on our dressing room door at Tease-O-Rama. Close quarters--just the way we like it! But a tight space is no excuse for inappropriate touching or other assaultive behavior, so keep it professional and consensual at all time.

You can ask me any question about burlesque here.

All photos by me.

Speaking of manners, if you use material from my blog (or from anybody's anywhere) without proper credit, you're not only a cad but an intellectual property thief. So link back to earn and show respect.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Glitter Lips!

People always ask us about our fabulous glittery lipstick. It's actually layers of lipstick and cosmetic glitter. In the video below, taken at my book release party with Storybook Burlesque, I teach Hard Cory the fundamentals:

Glitter Lips on Youtube

And, a more serious glitter lips tutorial:
Glitter red runway lips

Go Forth and Sparkle!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Quickie with Karen Abbott

I've had tons of fun with Karen Abbott, whether it's been when she's jumped in to help at a student showcase at the Slipper Room, or doing a grand event at the New York Public Library. She's always playful, smart, and hotter than a biscuit. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her about her newest book, a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee. Her first book, Sin in the Second City, was a fascinating insight into Chicago's notorious Everleigh sisters and their high-end brothel. Karen manages to make her intensely researched documentary work read like great fiction, and you can feel her enthusiasm for her subjects on every page. I knew her approach to Gypsy Rose Lee would be equally iconoclastic and vivid.

Karen Abbott

You've chosen some spicy subjects for your books, and write about women who've been entrepreneurial from the margins of society. Do you find any similarities between the sisters and Gypsy Rose Lee?
Both Gypsy and the Everleigh sisters were very crafty, enterprising, relentlessly self-inventing women who overcame difficult pasts to achieve great success. I have similar ways of describing the women. I’ve called the sisters “a 19th century amalgamation of Martha Stewart and Madonna,” and I’ve said that “if Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a secret love child, it would’ve been Gypsy Rose Lee.” They were all forward-thinking and revolutionary in their own ways. They were always the smartest people in the room.

What were some of the differences in doing the research for the two books?
In some ways, Sin in the Second City was a much easier book to write since hardly anyone had heard of the Everleigh sisters; no one had any preconceived notions about them. Not so with Gypsy. She was, at one point, the most famous woman in the world, and nearly everyone has an idea of who she was, or who they think she was. So some people end up criticizing the book they think you should have written, as opposed to the book you actually wrote. I enjoyed it, either way; Gypsy was a woman who always inspired passionate debate, and clearly she still does.


What first got you interested in writing about Gypsy?
My grandmother is 92 years old—just eight years younger than Gypsy, who would’ve turned 100 on January 8—and she always told me stories about growing up during the Great Depression. She once relayed a tale about a cousin who claims to have seen Gypsy Rose Lee perform around 1935. The cousin said that Gypsy took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove, and that she was so damn good at it he gladly would’ve given her fifteen more. So this story got me thinking, who was Gypsy Rose Lee? Who could possibly take the simple act of peeling off a glove and make it so riveting that one might be compelled to watch this for a full half-hour?
So I began researching, and I came across a series of articles from the year 1940 about Gypsy in Life magazine. One said called her “the most private public woman of her time.” I thought that was interesting—here’s someone who was primarily known for (literally) exposing herself, and yet she was considered intensely private. Another article expanded on that theme, saying that she was “the only woman in the world with a public body and a private mind, both equally exciting.” Another claimed that she was the “most popular woman in the world, even outpolling Eleanor Roosevelt.” Wow, I thought—pretty impressive. And then I came upon a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt herself to Gypsy Rose Lee that read, “May your bare ass always be shining.” That was the clincher; I had to write about this woman. I spent three years researching American Rose, research that included connecting with Gypsy’s sister, the late actress June Havoc (I was the last person to interview her) and Gypsy’s son, and also spending countless hours immersed in Gypsy’s expansive archives at the New York Public Library. I became obsessed with figuring out the person behind the persona.

What was the biggest surprise for you?
I was surprised by how incredibly complicated Gypsy was. In the movie and musical, she’s portrayed as this sunny, spunky girl whose success was largely a fluke. But in reality Gypsy was nothing if not calculating. When the moment came, when the opportunity presented itself, Gypsy seized control and wholly reinvented herself. There’s a scene in American Rose that portrays the moment Louise Hovick (Gypsy’s birth name) becomes Gypsy Rose Lee: “In that moment Louise Hovick traded in the last piece of herself, and when she opened her mouth it was Gypsy Rose Lee who spoke. She told the manager that she could fill in for his missing lead, strip scenes and all, and then she sat before her dressing room mirror and met her creation for the very first time.” Gypsy the person had a conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation. She was forever caught between her humble roots and her ambition to be accepted by New York’s cultural and literary elite. (My favorite example of her dichotomy: she attended opening nights at the Met wearing a full-length cape made entirely of orchids, but backstage, for the amusement of her burlesque friends, she performed very naughty tricks with her pet monkey.) For all of Gypsy’s mental fortitude and steely nerve, she was physically weak and oddly susceptible to illness. “The body reacted,” June Havoc told me, “because the soul protested.” Taking just one aspirin could upset her stomach, and she suffered from severe ulcers that made her vomit blood. She adored her creation because it gave her the things she’d always wanted—fame, money, security—but she loathed its limitations, either real or perceived. She lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set.

How have readers responded to this depiction of Rose, compared to how she's portrayed in the musical Gypsy?
In the musical and movie, Rose is portrayed as an ambitious, slightly eccentric woman who desired fame and fortune through her daughters—but within limit. In reality, Rose Hovick had no limits, and readers always have a strong reaction to her. The Hovick women’s family dynamic was the most fascinating part of my research. I spent hours at Lincoln Center looking through the correspondence between Rose, Gypsy, and June, and the letters reflected a constant whiplash back-and-forth of emotion between the three of them. Rose would blackmail Gypsy about her early days in burlesque and threaten to reveal her “true nature” to the press, and in the very next letter beg for forgiveness and tell Gypsy how much she loved her. Gypsy knew about all of Rose’s secrets, as well—including where the literal bodies were buried. It was a codependent relationship that neither one could relinquish. There’s a line in the book that sums up their relationship: “It is a swooning, funhouse version of love, love concerned with appearances rather than intent, love both deprived and depraved, love that has to glimpse its distorted reflection in the mirror in order to exist at all.” As for Gypsy and June, I believe there was friendship and love there, but it was incredibly fragile. When I interviewed June, she told me that she was “no sister” to Gypsy; she was nothing but a “knot in her life.” She lived with that hurt until the day she died.

You've been a supporter of the burlesque scene in New York for awhile. Would you like to comment on that?
First, thanks for saying that! I’ve been a fan of burlesque since I first saw you perform with Dames Aflame in Atlanta back in 2007, and it was thrilling to learn more about the New York burlesque scene when I moved to the city. I have so much respect for your talent and art (I always tell people it’s not nearly as easy as it looks!) and I’m grateful that you’re all keeping Gypsy’s smart, sassy tradition alive.

Do you think you'll continue to write about women of debatable virtue?
Absolutely—my next book is set during the Civil War and tells the true story of four very different, daring women who risked everything for their cause. I know that description’s a bit vague, but I’m in the very early stages of research and don’t want to give too much away. But I’ll always be drawn to morally ambiguous characters, especially when their stories take me back in time.

Karen's Website

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