There’s more to it than just stripping, you know. Incorporating music, dance, comedy, and — occasionally — nails (more on that later), burlesque is an almost impossibly wide-ranging performance art with its roots in centuries-old Italian drama. Which means it’s about traditions as well as tassels.
For decades, this saucy stagecraft disappeared from London before making an appropriately opulent comeback in the 2000s. As well as shows in underground venues, today there are festivals, West End theatre productions, and even a World Burlesque Games Festival.
With an increasingly saturated 'scene' — not to mention the hardships that have faced some of its top venues in recent years — what does it take to forge a career in this most esoteric of industries? We asked some of London's biggest stars.
1. Experiment — and fail sometimes
The quintessential celeb showgirl, Immodesty Blaize started her career in the late 1990s and is widely credited with helping to revive what was then a fairly moribund performance art.
She’s done her thing for the likes of James Brown and Depeche Mode, and gained plaudits the world over for bold, outrageous shows featuring a giant 6-foot glitter-coated telephone, and her ‘reverse strip’ trick enacted in a bathtub. (You’d need to watch it to understand it.)
It all started in London.
“I’ll never forget the night I almost burned down the Arts Theatre,” Immodesty remembers. “My bra landed on a hot lamp at one point. It was the feathers inside that caused it to burst into flames. There was a bit of panic — but I decided the show must go on and all that.”
It’s difficult now to understand just how radical Immodesty’s act was at the time (accidental pyrotechnics and everything).
“There was no industry here when I started performing,” she says. “It wasn’t accepted as a theatrical art form. I had to break down some of the snobbery. We had to keep ourselves a bit hushed though. If it’d been openly known there’d be nipple tassels, we’d have been closed down.
“It was also unthinkable that someone who wasn’t a size-zero would do a striptease,” remembers the self-styled ‘curves ambassador’. “I wanted to prove there should be no rules or regulations over who does this.”
Immodesty says the key to her success was a willingness to innovate.
“If this is something you want to do, then research, research, research. Know your genre. But know that audiences want something fresh and different too. Experiment — and allow yourself to fail.
“People may disagree with me, but I think it’s easier to do this now. It’s an art form people are much more open to. Yes, some of the venues are gone,” she says (partly in reference to the still-uncertain future of Madame Jojo’s). “But artists will always find somewhere to go.”
2. Be businesslike
“Anyone can put on a corset and strip it off. That doesn’t mean you can charge people to watch it!”
Miss Polly Rae is West End cabaret royalty: the brains behind the Hurly Burly Show, the glorious boudoir romp Between the Sheets, and currently, a weekly residency at the Hippodrome Casino. Today she slips out of her on-stage persona; speaking to us not as ‘la-di-dah lady’, but as ‘Lancashire lass’.
A multi-talented performer, producer, compere and singer who ensures her burlesque shows are always filled with variety, she’s been a mainstay of the London circuit since 2006.
“Back then, the bubble hadn’t burst,” she recalls. “But soon after that, everybody wanted a show.”
The imbalance of supply and demand meant, inevitably, that not every performer could stick around as long as her. “In some ways it was good,” she reflects. “There was a lot of shit.”
When burlesque is good, though, it’s really good. “It’s about embracing femininity and sensuality,” explains Polly. “There are women in our audience who get inspired by seeing other women getting all their insecurities out there — stripping them back, and just confronting them.”
But. “You don’t become a burlesque performer for therapy”, Polly cautions. “You either really want to be an entertainer — you’re addicted to the adrenaline — or you want to do it in your private life.”
And if you’re in the latter category, Polly teaches burlesque workshops including at Coco de Mer: an erotic boutique for Londoners wanting spice up their sex lives. How’s that for ‘adult’ education?
“To make a living from it, you’ve got to work all night and hustle all day,” Polly advises. “It’s called show-business for a reason! You have to think not just creatively but also logistically, financially.
“Most of all, you have to be able to sell your own brand. Speaking as a producer, if I’m looking at a new burlesque performer — I need to see videos, I need to see an established social media presence.
“It’s hard bloody work. But if you put the time in, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.”
3. Remember to laugh (especially at yourself)
Say you’ve done your research. You’ve got your feather boa, you’ve practised everything in front of the mirror, and you’ve even tanned, shaved, and plucked yourself in all the right places. Now — how’d you go about getting your first ever burlesque gig?
“That’s the easy part,” insists Lynn Ruth Miller. “Find a promoter, call them up. Sure, people can teach you to take off your clothes in a sexy kind of way. Me, I just rip them off and romp around. And I’m doing okay!”
These words come from an unlikely source. At age 84, Lynn Ruth is one of the oldest women working in the burlesque industry. Still more surprising is the fact she’s a recent convert.
“I came to it as an extension of my comedy,” she tells us. A journalist and teacher in her native United States, Lynn Ruth had a career change at age 70, choosing to enter the world of standup comedy. Needing to give her show an edge, she recalled that old adage that ‘sex sells’.
“I make fun of it. My burlesque is a comic thing,” explains Lynn Ruth, who performs at the likes of the Museum of Comedy. “But since I've started, I’ve also learned that proper burlesque — the things that would get me hospitalised if I tried them — can be exquisite. It is an art.
“Anyone who wants to try it should be given a chance,” she adds. “It’s no bad thing to allow someone to feel beautiful on stage. I lived with anorexia for 30 years. But I’m very comfortable with my body now.”
Lynn Ruth says that both the industry itself and her audiences are immensely supportive of what she does — there’s no hint of ‘act your age’.
“I even have a second cousin who thinks I’m famous, which is ridiculous. All I do is take off a few clothes in front of strangers, then go home to bed.”
4. Get freaky?
Further proving the point that burlesque takes all sorts, Lou Safire tells us he got into burlesque for “a dare” back in 2008 and then, well, just carried on.
“There’s the stereotype of showgirls, but actually burlesque is very gender neutral,” he explains. “The most crucial thing for anyone starting out is just standing out from the crowd.”
Lou explains that his own personal niche involves elements of the circus ‘freak show’ – making for a darker spectacle compared with your average evening of clothes-removal.
“I’ve got a bed of nails,” he says coolly. “I do some fire-eating, and some body-stapling.”
If some of that sounds painful, wait until you hear about the financial hardships facing a solo performer wishing to organise their own shows in central London’s dwindling venues.
“You can end up paying £2000 to put your own thing on,” says Lou. “To make your money back, you’ve got to charge £30 a head on the door — and people just won’t pay that.
“So in reality, as well as offering a diverse show, you’ve got to be diverse in where you perform. That might mean looking outside of London. Look at that as good news if you like to travel.”