Interview: 21st Century Burlesque Founder Holli-Mae Johnson

About ten years ago I began a website called G-Strings Forever!, a tribute website to both strip joint strippers and burlesque. I was posting fuzzy digital photos of the scene I knew and setting up links and writing articles without the benefit of much site programming ability, and without blogging technology, flickr, or youtube. Inspired by the original Velvet Hammer website, I interviewed curfnt performers and burlesque legends. I wanted desperately to convey what was amazing and inspiring about these art forms and the people in them. Fortunately, as the School of Burlesque and The Burlesque Handbook have begun to keep me busier and busier, other, more able people have picked up that job, and one of the most inspiring is Holli-Mae Johnson, Editor-In-Chief of 21st Century Burlesque.

Above: Holli-Mae, The Editor-In-Chief.

How did you become interested in burlesque?
Well, I suppose it was likely that, as a performer and with the friends and interests that I had, I would come across burlesque eventually. In the nineties, when the 21st century revival was in motion, I was still quite young, and although I encountered ‘burlesques’ and satire in literature, films, plays etc., and various forms of variety and cabaret/showgirl entertainment (in fact I was often singing the 'scene-change' numbers in shows of that type when I got a bit older), my first glimpse of ‘classic’ burlesque-striptease as we know it was in some of the old movies I adored - ‘Gypsy’, 'The Night they Raided Minsky's' and 'Lady of Burlesque'. It wasn’t until the millennium, when I was about fifteen, that I saw more examples of it online and at UK events. The first live American burlesque I experienced was at Tease-O-Rama in San Francisco. I was still underage in America, so it took a little creativity to get me through the door check!
Above: Me with Holli-Mae during the most recent Tease-O-Rama.

Holli-Mae continues:
That first visit to Tease-O-Rama was an epiphany. I was like a kid in a pastie shop. An overdose of glamour, drama, spectacle, exaggeration, fantasy, hilarity, affection, and intelligent, joyous and unapologetic sensuality. And it’s still strong in my veins years later.
But why did I become so interested in it and go on to devote so much of my time to it, as opposed to something else? I guess that’s a ‘why’ question, rather than a ‘how’...

When did you begin the magazine, and what were your goals when you started? What were your resources? With whom do you work?
I founded the magazine in 2007, and launched the website later that year. ‘Flip-book’ style websites were a new option, and with some help I managed to create a page-turning flash template from scratch – so it could be as close to turning the pages of a paper publication as possible, but reach a global online readership quickly and on demand. It was novel and proved popular. Eventually the format changed to allow for a stream of coverage and articles, rather than single flip-book editions.
I remember sitting at our table at Tease-O-Rama in 2007 and thinking about the community of warm, fascinating and skilled individuals all around me. And I wanted to create something fun, informative and entertaining that showed them off, recorded their achievements, and gave people all over the world who were unable to attend these big events, or didn’t have a national ‘scene’ to get involved in, the opportunity to see and read about each other. Something that told stories, and could examine and discuss ideas, issues and approaches. It seemed such a shame to me that once a show was over, you often wouldn’t hear much more about it, or have any record of it unless photographers circulated their photos. (That was one of the most criminal things – so many stunning photographs that weren’t being appreciated by a wider audience. We have some incredible burlesque photographers!) A lot of people I spoke to, especially in the UK and Europe, were eager to learn more about the emerging ‘burlesque celebrities’, beyond their stage personas and iconic images. ‘Dita-mania’ was in full swing by then too of course.
As a non-burlesque performer and a journalist, I felt that I was in a good position to cater to this – I understood what it was to be a performer, but there was no conflict of interest and I posed no ‘threat’ to anyone by making requests and interviewing people. I had been a freelance writer and interviewer for a while at this point, and had produced some small but popular ‘zines’ that covered some of the creative communities I was involved in, or other issues I was passionate about. The burlesque community has flourished and expanded so much in the years since, but at the time I really felt that a magazine might be well received, and add to the relatively small number of established burlesque and pinup related websites available online.
Initially the magazine catered to a broader readership – burlesque, pinup and rockabilly all overlapped to an extent; although the original name, 21st Century Pinups, was supposed to refer to anyone inspirational and/or beautiful that you would pin up on your wall and admire, rather than just a cheesecake pinup girl. Gradually the content became almost solely focussed on burlesque, and the publication was re-branded as 21st Century Burlesque.
Over time, our ‘aspirational’ and celebratory approach, high-profile contributors and collective expertise established 21CB as an industry publication rather than a ‘fanzine’ – focussing on the professional, performing community, but welcoming burlesque fans and enthusiasts, and hopefully inspiring new or less experienced performers with big ambitions by showing them what the best in the business are achieving, how they conduct themselves, and what they have to say.
I had to rely initially on what knowledge I had of site building (my previous zines and websites were fairly straightforward) and basic flash and code (a job after university taught me a lot more about HTML, PHP and SQL, which has proved extremely valuable); my experience and skills as a writer and journalist up to that point, my experience and perspective as a performer, my contacts and industry friends, a fair amount of charm and persuasion... But overall, I think passion and dedication is what really makes things develop and improve. I slept, ate and drank burlesque. I quickly amassed a large collection of footage, articles, books and images. I attended shows in as many countries as I could, watching hundreds of live performances, and quickly developed a critical eye and a detailed understanding of what set the most skilled and captivating performers apart from the rest.
I have always stuck to writing about what I know best, or already have experience of. I really don't like it when ‘mainstream’ journalists decide to start a niche/industry publication (perhaps to make money, or to jump on a trend) and don’t give that industry, and the people involved, the respect they deserve; or announce themselves as an authority before they have contributed anything of value or demonstrated any real knowledge or commitment. Enthusiasm is great, but I think it’s your responsibility to make sure you really know who and what you are talking about if you are representing something through a publication. Much of this can only be achieved over time, but you can advance more quickly if you make it a compulsive obsession, approach people with humility and respect, build strong relationships, and above all - get your hands dirty. If you aren't willing to devote a serious amount of personal time, investment and genuine passion to something and be actively involved, with no expectation of reward or return, then I don't think you should be representing it.
I began as a team of one, and to an extent it remains that way – mainly because I am a ridiculous control-freak! As the site grew and the traffic exploded, I took on more administrative helpers. A long-time friend of mine, Jules, is an excellent assistant – she helps me get through all our emails, run our social network pages and profiles, and makes sure I don’t forget the important things. When we are on the move and spending time overseas, I often have my good friend Verity Vale with me in a travel buddy/wingwoman/childminder capacity (we don’t have kids – she’s minding me! I have been known to leave passports in hotel safes and wander way off schedule frequently!) I also have a great web host, who has hosted many of my sites over the years – a good web host is worth their weight in gold! And our industry contributors are AMAZING - the columns and diaries and articles are fabulous. It’s a pleasure to publish it all and it’s wonderful that so many amazing people ask to contribute.

Above: Holli-Mae with Dixie Evans.

Do you have plans for other magazines?
I would like to create a magazine or possibly a published volume about women, but with some key differences to many of the existing publications I read, and they way in which they do things. I like to tell stories – women’s stories in particular - regardless of how famous they might be, and beyond the usual ‘real life stories’ I see so frequently in women’s magazines. I do enjoy interviewing well known, successful women (whether that high profile and success is mainstream or within their own industry/niche), but even if it is someone I am in awe of or greatly admire, I try to get past that quickly and speak to them as I would anyone else. I think of them as ‘conversations’ rather than ‘interviews’. Often the motivation or ‘excuse’ for an interview is publicity, and that is understandable and often unavoidable, but as long as some of the conversation involves ‘real questions’ and natural, spontaneous responses, I feel it is worthwhile and legitimate. It’s often easy to tell when you are hearing rehearsed or PR friendly answers, and I tend to combat that by asking different, more thoughtful questions that they may not expect, or don’t get asked very often. Sometimes you have to ask some standard questions that they’ve answered a hundred times over to begin with of course – your readership may not know how they got started in their career, for example (sometimes I don’t know precisely either, so I want to ask). But I think you should ask these questions with genuine interest – I certainly know when someone is interviewing me ‘on autopilot’.
I feel so disappointed and bored by what I often refer to as a shallow, ‘What’s your favourite colour?’, interview; the journalist clearly has no great interest in the person they’re speaking to, hasn’t done much research or read previous interviews, or often just has very little imagination. And I really don’t like to hear journalists talking about an interviewee with disdain or a complete lack of respect for them as an individual, because they didn’t appreciate or cooperate with pushy or invasive questions and requests. In my view, they aren’t public property; they aren’t obliged to admit you regardless of how rude or unreasonable you are, or how little interest you have beyond boosting your media career. You often end up with a more honest and interesting interview if you don't milk them for intimate gossip or sensational headlines. If you respect their boundaries and always proceed with discretion and integrity, people will be more disposed to trust you, and feel able to talk about more personal aspects of their life without fear of exploitation. If you don’t have a genuine interest in someone, or can’t be bothered to research and put thought into what you ask, at least respect them and treat them as you would expect to be treated. This sort of recurring attitude is one of the reasons I work independently and don’t look for full time positions at mainstream publications any more.
So yes – eventually I would like to publish collections of stories in some format. I do interview interesting men too, so I’d like to publish a mixed volume that is more gender neutral and simply about people enjoying reading about other people from different walks and stages of life.

Above: Holli-Mae with Miss Indigo Blue at BHOF 2011.

What are your long-term plans for 21st Century Burlesque?
21CB is definitely evolving at the moment. I sense that, but I’m not sure at this point precisely what it will include or the ways in which it will expand. I am happy to say that we continue to grow and discover new ways to support and contribute to the industry; the brand itself is established now, and I have a number of ideas I would like to develop alongside the publication. I am still building my acts and motifs database, and we hope to provide a number of resources in the near future that are requested and/or suggested daily. We are also discussing the possibility of producing an end-of-year print edition this year. We get asked about print editions a lot, and although we don't have a large team, publisher or budget, an annual special edition is something I am very keen to pursue.
Aside from the publication itself, the individuals involved in it contribute so many things to the industry too, and it is these people (as well as the industry readership of course) who make 21CB more than just a static brand or website. My work in the industry extends beyond the publication, and there has been some discussion about making some of the support and services we provide informally, and often privately or discretely, more official and available. It’s an exciting time with so many possibilities to think about – I just wish there was enough time in the day for everything at the moment! I intend to continue the publication, and the brand, until I feel we cannot contribute anything of value or interest any more. It continues to be a 24/7 delight and privilege to do this. It’s hard work, but it rarely feels like a chore; everything and everyone around me, including the issues or attitudes I would like to see changed or removed, reminds me why I love it and why I do it. It’s finding time and room for the rest of my life and work that’s the hard part!
When I began 21CB, I didn’t know if it would still exist years later, or if the community would embrace and support it, so it's wonderful to still be going strong today. 2011 has been pretty surreal so far; it's a dream to officially work with the Burlesque Hall of Fame, it was an honour to judge at the BHoF Weekend this year, and to hear 21CB mentioned and referenced on Saturday and Sunday night was overwhelming for me. I'm trying not to use the word 'honour' too much here, but it really is an honour - I feel truly humbled and grateful for the warmth and support the magazine and I receive from the wider community, and of course the performers, pioneers, leaders and legends (past and present), producers and photographers who are so generous with their time, input and skills - many of whom I am proud to call my friends...
(, 21CB on Twitter
(!/BurlesqueOnline) and Holli-Mae on Twitter (!/HolliMaeJohnson)
Photos copyright Holli-Mae Johnson and Ed Barnas. There is strictly no usage of any of these images--you must contact 21CB for permission to use.


Anonymous said…
Love 21st Century Burlesque. It's by far the most professional and best developed Burlesque site.

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