All Photos of Performer Lily Verlaine By POC
In the mid-90s an alternative pin-up and rockabilly resurgence began bubbling up in my hometown of Houston, Texas. Though I could never get into the role of swing dance revivalist as I was too much of a rock n’ roll chick to work a poodle skirt or jelly roll, much less pin myself into piles of taffeta in 90% humidity, pin-ups of Bettie Page caught my eye in our city’s preeminent erotic boutique. Possessed by singular zeal, I spent countless hours between bartending shifts hunting down Bettie’s 8×10 nudie shots on eBay, amassing a prized collection in short order. I bagged and tagged them and lovingly stored them in a hat box, not fully cognizant of why this kooky pin-up from the past had become a sort of sexual guru in my consciousness – but inexplicably, she was.
Nearly ten years later I was a nine-to-fiver in Seattle, having run away from Texas with a “band dude” I married at 24. Bettie was nearly forgotten, as were most sexual emblems that served only as painful reminders of a mysteriously sexless marriage I couldn’t seem to kickstart or alternately, pull the plug on. I was convinced I’d die a horny, unfulfilled woman; an outcome that with a libido like mine seemed as cruel as it was incredibly ironic.
The glamour and fetish photos of Dita Von Teese I noticed in magazine editorials stirred up a flicker of my old infatuation, reminiscent as they were of Bettie’s sex kitten ways. At the same time I began noticing handbills for a Seattle burlesque troupe called The Atomic Bombshells. They were retro, but in an almost tongue-in-cheek sort of way; they had tattoos but weren’t trying too hard to be tough. More than either of those qualities, they radiated supreme confidence (which of course was what my lady crushes were truly about).
Unsurprisingly, Band Dude didn’t share my interest in seeing cute girls (even ones that weren’t me) strip down to their skivvies and twirl as if it was their last night on earth, so I ventured out on my own to catch a show. It seemed fun and a little risque, and what I saw changed everything.
In light of my sadly stunted sex life – one in which I’d been invisible for 10+ years – the unequivocal command these women held over the room turned my world upside down. You couldn’t ignore them; they would eat you alive. They stalked the stage, unashamed and in full view, teasing the audience into submission. With the thrust of every perfect curve or sublimely dimpled thigh they reduced the theater to panting, slack-jawed burlesque love-slaves. The Bombshells were effervescent and sexy, glamorous and wild; springing their boobs from jewel-encrusted brassieres and releasing the fleshy orbs of their ass cheeks from the tiniest of fringed g-strings gleefully, as if being (nearly) naked was ohmygodgirlthebestthingever. Beneath those fluttering showgirl lashes I recognized the sparkle in their eyes. It was the same rapturous joy in stripping so identifiable in my precious Bettie Page photos. Being a woman could be so much fun.
By 2007 the marriage to Band Dude ended in an inferno of anger and misspent youth only a few degrees shy of The War of the Roses. When our house finally sold I was extricated. As a newly divorced thirty-something, I felt like a tiny bird on a high-rise windowsill. I wasted no time with my new-found freedom, doing what many emancipated ladies do: spending money on myself, putting my soap dish wherever the hell I wanted, and trying to get laid, no strings attached. And I went to a lot of burlesque shows, hollering until my throat was hoarse and my eyes suitably starry.
Eventually I settled into my new life with a little less bucking and kicking, and like magic I met someone exceptional. Someone that encouraged me in all things, someone that loved me in the electrified, heart-bursting, kaleidoscopic way I loved him, someone that actually enjoyed seeming me naked. Repeatedly. One night after we’d been to see Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker, he asked me that most obvious of questions: “Why don’t you take a burlesque class?”
Although I was well aware of the existence of Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque and had written an article on the documentary A Wink and a Smile, I’d never considered the idea of myself on stage. I wasn’t a “stage person”- just someone that criticized stage people in print. Besides, I’d grown accustomed to a certain level of quality. Seattle boasts top dancers like Miss Indigo Blue, Lily Verlaine, and Kitten LaRue. Could I do that? Would I do that? The answer of course, was that I had to.
Dutifully signing up for the spring of 2009 Burlesque 101 class, which was to culminate in a recital at the Jewelbox Theater, I proceeded to grow increasingly terrified. Costuming, reveals, and my somewhat misshapen figure were of primary concern, but the class was distant enough to be do-able. Quickly though, my first lesson learned from burlesque became painfully clear: being naked in front of a crowd isn’t as difficult as entertaining one. (This, above all, separates burlesque stars from wanna-be’s).
The recital came and went and I pulled it off. I’d like to think my act to Bill Allen’s rockabilly anthem “Please Give Me Something” which involved an ape, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and humping a jack o’ lantern didn’t scar people so much as astound and bewilder. Two minutes and fifteen seconds never seemed like such an eternity-but I did it. Afterwards we celebrated my feat of daredevilry and fledgling confidence with toasts all around, boozy declarations of future fantasy stripper names on all my friends’ lips.
In the afterglow of that flash “performance” I knew I’d never hit the stage again – once was quite enough, thank you – but in my usual manner I threw myself headlong into my current obsession and landed a mercurial little column in The Stranger aptly named (by somebody else) “The Burlesque Box”. I set about interviewing performers and venerable producers at a rapid clip, listening to their personal histories and bonafides, be they ballet or sex work or just plain blond ambition. When the column was eventually nixed, I had an arsenal of material with nowhere to go. At my soon-to-be-husband’s suggestion once again, I started a blog called Burlesque Seattle Press.
The blog caught on, gaining momentum through weekly fan-girl content written with a journalistic eye. Because I didn’t really know anyone or strive to make friends, I stayed comfortably distant and wrote about what excited me devoid of (most) pressure from the outside world. I met scads of phenomenal ladies and gentlemen from their 20s to their 80s (including my heroine Dita Von Teese) that confided in me and revealed much more than a little T&A. I documented these exquisite creatures for nearly five years and found that burlesque performers and strippers were much less narcissistic than most musicians. Underneath all that drag, burlesque/boylesque stars were shockingly humble. Most were quite guarded, at least until I got to know them over repeated sittings. Perhaps that’s the paradox of being both in drag and naked simultaneously. Showing everything, showing nothing.
What I did gain during my time immersed in burlesque was an education worth its weight in gold on moving through the world as a woman with confidence. The physicality and sheer strength required to be en pointe or hold a yoga pose for minutes on end as Lily Verlaine does as the Omnipresent Desert Goddess in House of Thee Unholy is simply astounding. Equally awe-inspiring is the execution of a flawless ballet move that took years to perfect, the ability to effortlessly twirl a single breast, or holding an audience member’s gaze in deep gridlock. Presence is a heady perfume.
Confidence, like the art of the tease, is a skill that can be learned. “Fake it till you make it” is a mantra that rings true. Although everyone that puts something personal on stage deserves respect and their moment in the spotlight, not all are in the same league as the true entertainers and beautiful strippers whose performances are akin to a slap in the face. It’s the complex spirit of the thing that unites them, and few that have tried burlesque return to the selves and the bodies they had before without a profound change.
Though eroticism is often the initial appeal of burlesque, at times it’s not sexual in the slightest. The flavors and intentions are mind-boggling. It’s physical. It’s personal. It’s political. It’s also quite fluffy and frivolous. Most of my favorite performers were and are wild, untamed women – fiercely independent, operating in their own Swarovski-studded vacuums, oblivious to what anyone else is doing. They are women not much different from me.
I will always experience life through the lens of burlesque. It shapes how I present myself to the world and has given me license to crank up the volume of my own style and carriage. Not to mention its influence can be felt every day in my weakness for shiny objects, fake lashes, and increased makeup skills (thank you BenDeLaCreme). Most importantly I learned that there’s no need for cliché or feigned surprise, no reason in life to pander for applause. Take up space. Move with purpose. Earn it.