Interview with Don Spiro, Burlesque Photographer

What is your name, and your main area of participation in burlesque?
I am Don Spiro, a burlesque photographer based in New York and LA. I have been attending burlesque for ten years and photographing seriously for eight.

Above: Don Spiro with Dirty Martini at the New York Burlesque Festival.
Photo by Allen Lee. All other photos in this post by Don Spiro.

How did you get interested in burlesque?
I was always interested in it someway or another. I’m a movie fan, and I loved the films of the old vaudeville performers like the Marx Bros, Abbot and Costello, Mae West, etc…I loved the references in Bugs Bunny cartoons to Sally Rand and much preferred the Pleasure Island sequence to the rest in Pinocchio. My parents took me to Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney when I was young, I still have a garter that was tossed into the audience.I’d been with my girlfriend Augusta since high school, her grandmother was Penny Starr. Augusta did a striptease as part of her drama class in tribute to her. When we moved to Los Angeles we became friends with Rita d’Albert and other members of the Velvet Hammer Burlesque and started seeing their shows in the 90s, then went with them to the first Tease-O-Rama in New Orleans specifically to photograph them. We both have filmmaking backgrounds, so it felt natural to do.

What does burlesque mean to you?
Burlesque is a traditional American art form. It’s a folk art that’s been through countless changes and definitions. A direct line can be traced from music hall theater to the modern strip club, but now the romanticized glamorous form is being kept alive mostly by nostalgia practitioners and hobbyists. New Burlesque has become it’s own genre. It has led me to meet new friends across the world and build a reputation as an archivist, as well as establish another niche in the world of photography.

What was your first experience with live burlesque?
The first live shows I saw as an adult were of the Velvet Hammer back around 1997. That’s how I met Kitten de Ville, who I had seen go go dancing at clubs in Hollywood. Dita von Teese was just becoming popular and I saw her perform a few times at small clubs.

What is one of your favorite experiences so far?
Too many to choose from, but one of my favorite experiences was Augusta and my first attendance of a Velvet Hammer show in the 90s. The swing revival had just started, the band was either members of the Royal Crown Revue or Frenchy (featuring the Fisherman) and the entire audience at the El Rey were dressed in suits and ties and stockings and heels. It was liking walking into the past. I also ran into our friend Jeff from college, who had just started his new retro magazine, Barracuda.I became hooked on New York burlesque at the first Tease-O-Rama in New Orleans when the Velvet Hammer combined with it’s sister show, the Va Va Voom Room and performed with World Famous *BOB*, Dirty Martini, and Julie Atlas Muz. It was hosted by Miss Astrid, who had the entire crowd at her whim. I also met a ton of other performers from around the country and a ton of people who would later become performers.

Do you travel to [perform, attend shows, photograph, etc,]?
I travel as much as I can and use photography as an excuse. I can usually pick up portrait work anywhere I go and combine it with a chance to see friends. I’m also involved with a few shows that require travel. My interest in preserving and documenting the culture has led to my involvement with Exotic World, now known as the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Besides photography, events such as the Miss Exotic World Pageant, Tease-O-Rama, and the New York Burlesque Fest are opportunities to see friends from all over the world all gathered in one place.I’m primarily a studio photographer who also shoots live events, so I’ve also been shooting promotional material for Lucha Va Voom, the burlesque and Mexican wrestling spectacular put on three times a year in Los Angeles (and select other cities) by Rita d’Albert and Liz Fairbairn.

Above: Catherine D'Lish at Teaseorama.

Above: Miss Astrid, AKA Kate Valentine.

Who inspires you most, and why?
Besides Augusta, whose passion for her grandmother’s profession led us to see our first show, there has always been Kate Valentine, aka Miss Astrid, because she is what I want a performer and producer to be. I find inspiration in nearly everyone I know (how can you be friends with Kitten de Ville, Michelle Carr, Dirty Martini, Julie Muz etc…and not be inspired?) but Kate has had an integral part both in making modern burlesque a reality and in raising the quality to the point where I measure events and performers by her standard. I know how good a burlesque show can be because Kate’s done it, I know how a performer can control a crowd because I’ve seen Kate do it.

Above: Foxy Tann and the Wham Bam Thank You Ma'ams.

What is your favorite aspect of burlesque as it is now?
I like the comraderie of afficianados all across the country the best, even though everyone has gotten into the scene for different reasons and often argues as to what the scene actually is. I think that’s natural, and I am enjoying seeing the progress of what had been a roots revival that started independently in small areas that transmuted into a cross cultural modern phenomena, and I am curious what it’s next incarnation will be.

What would you like to do or see next in burlesque?
I would like to see some way to make a living at it (especially in photography!) because as a way of earning a living burlesque is now in the stage of stripping at Gentleman’s Clubs. That’s one of the biggest differences to me between New Burlesque and classic burlesque: very few performers who practice new burlesque can make a living at it. Many spend more on costumes and dance lessons than they can make at a show.Other than that, I like where burlesque is now and that I’m able to be involved. I don’t know where it will lead but I’ve been observing where burlesque is now and comparing it to what it’s been in an attempt to see where it may go next. One thing I’ve noticed is a definite difference between the first group of “New Burlesque” performers and the current crowd.The first group of performers developed almost independently and were primarily inspired by the legends of the past that they saw in old film clips and vintage magazines or live around the pool at the Exotic World ranch in Helendale, CA, not by going to live shows because they didn’t exist at the time outside of what they did themselves. These are the people who came together in New Orleans at the first Tease-O-Rama and saw what each other was doing. The Velvet Hammer and Dita Von Teese in LA, Dirty Martini and Angie Pontani in New York, Jane Blevin in New Orleans, Dane’s Dames and Hot Pink Feathers in San Francisco are all in this class.The second group of performers in New Burlesque can almost qualify as “post” new burlesque, and that first Tease-O-Rama can qualify as the sea change. Future performers had a chance to see New Burlesque and take that as their inspiration, rather than the original performers of the past. Many performers, troupes and shows developed as a result of that first showcase. As a result, I know a lot of new people in burlesque who don’t know Lili St Cyr from Blaze Starr, or a Sally Rand fan Dance from a Jennie Lee, but they saw Dirty Martini or Dita von Teese and want to be like them. Fortunately, burlesque instructors like Jo Boobs, Michelle L’Amour, and a few others are also archivists and know the history of burlesque so they can pass that respect down to their students.

Anything else you’d like to say?
I’ve been approached often enough by grad students doing a thesis on new burlesque that I’ve actually gotten concerned about academics trying to relate it to this or that agenda and creating a false record of why it exists. Everyone I talk to seems to have a definition and reason for the popularity of new burlesque and I have to say to them all that they are both right and wrong. Everyone gets into burlesque from completely different perspective. Some do it for self esteem, some have political agendas, some are performers looking to expand their stage vocabulary, some come from adult entertainment, and some are just into nostalgia. Some just want to entertain: Michelle Carr co-founded the Velvet Hammer in 1995 simply because it was a show she imagined would be fun to see and it didn’t exist at the time. So its popularity stems from a multitude of reasons, all valid.

Above: Valentina Violette, AKA Michelle Carr. Photo by Don Spiro.
Some of his burlesque shots are for sale at


Anonymous said…
If you get the chance have this man take your picture. He does great work and he gets it as a photographer. Meaning he can actually help you with your poses.

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