Fem Appeal, The All-Time Queen Of Taglines




Interview: Happy Birthday to Fem Appeal, All-time Queen of Taglines

Above: Fem Appeal by James Ridley


Happy Birthday to fellow Leo Fem Appeal! It's her birthday TODAY!

I am not generally a show producer, aside from producing student showcases, but I do produce my birthday show every August at Coney Island USA, which over the past two decades has remained one of the most influential venues in the New York burlesque scene. Every year, the first person I ask is fellow Leo Fem Appeal. I also have her as a guest lecturer every year in The Coney Island Master Class in Burlesque. She’s just that good. 


Also, it means we get to ride the subway uptown together, where we get to sit together for an hour and say things we would neeeeever say to anyone else. Those subway rides with her are easily the thing I miss the most about not being able to teach in Coney Island during the pandemic.


Born and bred in New York, Fem Appeal has been a beloved powerhouse in the city’s burlesque scene for over 15 years, and was performing several times a week when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down venues in March 2020. She’s known for her genius takes on pop culture characters and is a headliner in the nerdlesque scene, as well as a creator of her own characters, many who develop or recur over time as her repertoire expands. 

W talked about the times, the world we live in, the protests, and then I started recording and we proceeded with the interview, as if all was still as usual in the world and in burlesque, even though all the venues are closed, none of the festivals are happening, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next. We do, at least, know what happened before.


Jo: When was your first performance?

Fem: My first burlesque performance was September 2, 2005 at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn for Miss Galapagozonga. Anybody could just show up, do two acts, and have the audience decide the winner. My first number was history repeating as Emma Peel, who is who I envisioned when I thought about who I wanted to be as a performer, and I loved The Avengers. She’s kind of a chameleon -- a super villain, a super spy, super smart. I’ve always had an affinity for drag, so my second performance was my janitor act. The audience voted, and I won! I got hooked from that very moment. 


I found burlesque the summer of 2005. I was going through a divorce and I was part of this group called Fuckin Cool Women Society. We met one weekend a month and do brunch, this incredible group of women. We were kind of out there, fun, and adventurers -- artists, doctors, lawyers, massage therapists. Joanne and I lived in the East Village and she said I needed something to take my mind off the divorce. I had this sense of panic about the whole thing. To distract me, this group planned a dance class, and someone found an ad for a burlesque workshop on the back page of The Village Voice. We did the workshop in a Pilates studio and I was hooked. I was the only one of the group who said I wanted to do more of this. Then Galapagazonga, I met people in your workshops and did some student showcases.


I remember walking home with you and you described the acts you had in mind -- you described the Jimi Hendrix act you were planning in detail from beginning to end.


A lot of my early burlesque acts began as Halloween costumes, and I tended to be dudes or weird creatures. I had dressed like Jimi Hendrix, a favorite of mine, at the Halloween Parade three or four years in a row.


I know you started Kitty Nights not long after that and you were doing a new number in a new costume every week! How did you get started with Kitty Nights?


I lived on 12th and A in the East Village. Bar on A was my neighborhood bar. The owner approached me and said, “I know you’re a performer -- do you have any interest in doing something here?” I decided to do a burlesque show and we started doing it July 2 2006. We didn’t charge anything, at first I had 10 performers. Mind you, my burlesque education was pretty on the fly. I performed, did a workshop or two and spent a lot of time at burlesque shows. Starshine Burlesque was only a few blocks away, so every Thursday I would go there and that was my education. The show had a first half, a second half, and a host, so that's what I did. And you had to have a raffle because that’s how people got paid -- raffle and tips! This was so much to learn. I made a lot of mistakes but had a lot of fun. 
At one person I had a co-producer, Burgundy Brixx, who moved to Vancouver and started Kitty Nights there, and one in Toronto, and for awhile there were three Kitty Nights!
I loved producing and I hated producing. I got a lot of flak for being a producer when I was so new to burlesque, but that’s how it goes. I’d like to point out that I was performing quite a bit at other places, but I was approached by the owner of the bar -- and why not, let’s do it! We knew performers, we wanted as much stage time as possible. I got booked pretty regularly as a performer, partly because of being in the student showcases.




Who would you ask for permission? Everybody was just playing it by ear. As you know, most of the people who gave you any flak aren’t performing any more or they’re on the outs or something. Most of the people who are still around were actually very supportive and excited because it was a new bar, new show, new audience, and you had a very dedicated audience. We all go together to your show, then to another show, then to a diner.


I promoted other shows and I admired other shows. At the heart of everything I found this medium that I really enjoyed and I didn’t see a limit or an end to it. Back then if you heard about an act someone else doing an act, you didn’t do that act. I was really good about reaching out -- often personally or on MySpace. 


I did my first international gig in Vancouver in 2010 and my first European gig in Helsinki in 2017, and I did Storm and my demon act. I saw Imogen Kelly do a Little Red Riding Hood number, and I changed mine into just the wolf and have elements of all the characters in the story. … I love the lightbulbs that go off in your head when you say, “I love this, I want to keep this, how do I make it better?” I made it into a werewolf and I love my number now.


I think the picture of you in The Burlesque Handbook is when you were still Little Red Riding Hood! I think now it’s harder to not do similar themes, especially in Nerdlesque. You are so amazing at Nerdlesque!  Was there the term Nerdlesque when you started?


No, not at all. Not at all. When I started I was informed by the things I loved, and I’m big horror and science fiction fan. I loved doing music based numbers when I dress up like musicians, like Jimi Hendrix. I had a James Brown number, a Grace Jones number, a Tina Turner number. I stopped doing Tina Turner because, you know -- if you can’t really do Tina Turner, don’t do Tina Turner. But I can do Grace Jones, I get where she’s coming from. I loved movies, and a movie would come out and I’d go, “Oh my god, I need to do that.” I do Blade, E.T. … I do Lt. Uhura. You’ve asked how I did a new act every week, but there’s so much to draw from! There are a lot of acts I no longer do. The appeal of Kitty Nights was that the stage was small, you were right there with the audience, so a lot of things I did worked better for close-up kind of things. Little things that would work at that show didn’t work at Slipper Room or somewhere where you’re further away. Anything I really loved, I kept, but some things were one night only.


Fem as Lt. Uhura. Photo from Burlesque Beat.

I loved doing Kitty Nights because I could do something that I would do only once. You had to be there! 


The thing I learned along the way is If you know your music and choreography you can get along in any venue. I was performing once at Lucky Cheng’s and Gal Friday told me my CD wasn’t working. I did my act with no music and I had that number in my head.


And people loved it!


It was terrifying, but it went over! So good advice is know your music and love your music. I have changed music after performing an act too, but some have had the same music always, like Janitor, who’s based on a janitor from school.


You’ve created some phenomenal original characters.


I have a cat act that’s gone through so many versions. It was originally a lion. Everyone who got booked for Kitty Nights always thought about doing a cat act. Weirdee Girl suggested an all-cat-themed show, and I did one, called The Litter Box, where everyone played a cat that was up for adoption. In my act everyone got adopted but me. Then later I became just a cat at a club trying to get my dance on.




You know I love that act! Kitty Nights ended several years ago. The last time you lectured at my Coney Island series you said you were performing 4-6 nights a week. You were a full-on performer even though you have always had your day job. Up until the lockdown, what were some changes you saw in burlesque from between when you started Kitty Nights and the end of burlesque as we knew it?


From Kitty Nights I was known to a lot of producers, and we did a lot of quid-pro-quo booking, where we booked each other and went to each others’ shows. Once I ended Kitty Nights it really freed up my time. I thought once I was done producing I wasn’t going to perform as much. We all know that thing where people love a producer. The minute I stopped producing I worried about my own relevancy, but I found I was booked more. I did White Elephant Burlesque a lot and got to be in every show one month, which was called Fembruary. Before the lockdown I was performing pretty regularly and at Stand Up And Take Your Clothes Off, and all these new performers. Be nice to new performers always! They’re very enthusiastic, very passionate, and they often have their own shows and invite you as a performer or audience member. I did a lot of shows in Bushwick, I did Midnight Fingers at the Slipper Room, I did Lillian Bustle’s shows in Jersey City. I was booked as much as I wanted to be booked. I had a bunch of gigs that got canceled because of the crisis. 


One of my favorite places, Coney Island, -- I always looked forward to the opening season of performing there. Of course I lost all those gigs. Today was supposed to be the Mermaid Parade and it’s not happening.


Now who knows what burlesque will be like! Are you doing any online shows?


I’ve done two online shows. The first was actually for Midnight Fingers with me, Tiger Bay, Jenny C’est Quia and Fancy Feast. That was scheduled for April 16th [the lockdown began mid-March] When Matt Holtzclaw asked if we wanted to go online. I was in a real state of panic and mourning my former life and all these other things, and I just said, I don’t know if I can be a part of this. I’m not feeling it -- to create something out of the pain I’m feeling is not really how I do my art. And so I came up with the idea to be Michael Meyers. I had just moved in with my dad. It was a beautiful day and I was outside at 6 am. I created a video of MM going outsides, seeing the lay of the land, and coming back to his room and social distancing. It was pre-recorded. It had video, animations, edited music. My second was a Zoom live for Margo Mayhem’s burlesque anniversary. I still have this thing -- am I good enough, am I going to be a weak link? I did my thing, as a zombie in my room, and it was ridiculous. It was nerve wracking because there’s so much work to putting together a virtual performance. It was hard to relax and have a good time in the moment.


In response, I don’t have an overwhelming desire to become a virtual performer. I took one gig. Because it’s so stressful I don’t want to book those as much as I would at venues in real life. The part that I really love is the interaction with the audience and the immediate feedback and the backstage time. That’s taken away. I understand the need for people to continue with their art … I live with my dad. So here in my room, takin my clothes off .. you know.


It’s not the same vibe (laughs)


I want venues to open when it’s safe to do so. Either I figure out what I want to do or I take a break. I bought a ringlight and a tripod for my iphone. I reached out to other performers about how they are doing their setups, and they are not doing what I can do. If I had a better setup maybe I’d say yes to doing more virtual shows. This would be a stress I just can’t add right now. Because getting to my day job every day is stressful. Being with people who think they don’t have to wear a mask. I tested positive or the antibodies. That doesn’t mean I'm immune. I’m for sheltering in place as long as it takes, even though I miss my friends, I miss performing. I miss the human touch like I never thought I would. The smell of somebody when you give them a hug.


I’m wearing makeup now but I don’t usually because I wear a mask.


Before we wrap up. You’re talking about a mask for COVID but you do a lot of acts where you don’t take off your mask. Sometimes it’s a mask, sometimes it’s makeup/prosthetics, sometimes it’s a full head. When I was doing my book I had so many photos of you but in everyone you’re wearing a mask. I had to put you in because you’re one of my favorite performers and you’re also such a pioneer. It’s just gonna have to be that amazing wolf. 


I love that I’m in your pasties section considering I don’t make my own unless it’s something I slapped on. I did a New York Act where I taped pretzels to my chest. Pasties are whatever you paste on.


I love wearing a mask. I just never thought we’d have to wear one as much as we’re wearing today.
I know! I used to do a lot of acts in mask and maybe I don't want to do that anymore after all this! 
I feel like we could do another whole interview, with your fifteen years of experience. But is there anything else you want to talk about before we wrap up?


We talked about this before you started recording the interview, so I want to cover it. One thing that has changed is that I used to say, “I’m not a Black Performer. I’m a perform who happens to be Black. And oh my gosh am I black these days. Not that I was ever trying to run from it. When I did my art I wanted you to see the character before they saw my skin. I used to subvert gender and all these other things, but now because of all that is happening [this interview was conducted on June 20th], I’m more aware of being a performer of color. I’m all about the movement, but a lot of my acts aren’t very political, except for Abraham Lincoln. It’s ridiculous and I developed it for a benefit for Divina Gransparkle when she was having trouble getting a Visa. 


You fuck shit up! You’ve been fucking shit up the whole time I’ve known you!


Well, thank you. 

So concludes my interview with Fem Appeal. If you’re now as obsessed with her as you should be, you can get even MORE of her on Perle Noire's talk show, where Perle will be interviewing many of the most influential BIPOC in the burlesque community. Fem was the FIRST person she interviewed to launch the show and that's a sign of many amazing things to come!


Oh, and about those taglines, these are just a few of the ones she's chosen for herself:


- The Rosa Parks of Burlesque: She’s Coming From The Back of the Stage To The Front of the Stage For YOU

- The Dark Matter of Burlesque

- "Fem Appeal" PAUSE "BLACK"

- She’s The Pot AND The Kettle 

- The Cast Iron Skillet Of Burlesque: She’s Well Seasoned 

- The Black Face of Burlesque 

Follow Fem Appeal on IG at

https://instagram.com/femappeal

Interview conducted June 20, 2020

Meeting Recording:
https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/share/xcMyc4DR8EhJGdLjtUz7XI0kG9zMX6a8hicf-6UNzR7g_ROEwxI-h_RdLyri1MHL
Access Password: femappeal2020!


If you just can't get enough Fem, you'll love Perle Noire's celebration of her and interview with her on her new talk show! Perle will be interviewing iconic and pioneering performers of color every week!

Perle Noire Talk Show


Search this blog using the word "interview" to find interviews I've done with performers over the past decade.




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