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Podcast interview with Berlinothèque. The goal of this podcast Berlinothèque is to tell the stories of people that moved to Berlin with an ambition or a dream, and are working on it, inspiring others in Berlin or somewhere else to not give up on their own ideas.
Model: Miss Riskina (Burlesque Performer/Model)
Fotograaf: Hans Toonen & Hans Wientjens
Make up: Luna van Herwijnen
Lingerie: Bedroom Burlesque: https://bedroomburlesque.com/product/lace-halter-bra-panty-pink/
It is like a game but we make our own rules.
Often unpredictable with exhilarating highs and devastating lows.
Endless nights filled with glitter, tears, cocktails and laughter.
Companions become enemies, enemies become companions, the lines become blurred.
There is no security for the future.
But instead we enrich ourselves with extraordinary memories and valuable experiences from our past and present.
One must learn to deal with criticism even if it hurts like someone’s just ripped out your heart and thrown it into the garbage.
We must pick ourselves up and say, ‘the show must go on’!
We are drawn to the stage lamps like moths to a flame.
Applause is our drug and reality is our come down.
Behind the curtain it’s not always what it seems.
In the 18th century the word ‘Burlesque’ was not associated with striptease. Instead it was a form of humorous and exaggerated musical theatre, often in a daring style that poked fun of the politicians and celebrities of that time.
During the 1860s local theaters were in fierce competition with each other to grab the audiences attention and create a scandal. This was also a time when women went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills. So the idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a powerful challenge and bound to create the most sensational scandal of all. Lydia Thompson mastered the first onstage tease. She was an ambitious music-hall darling who created a burlesque troupe called “The British Blondes”. They seduced and teased the audience with a quick glimpse of their tights, a wink of the eye and other sweet and subtle sexual suggestions. And as planned the public was shocked and outraged – so they bought tickets galore and her theatre was talked about all over the world.
In 1868 Lydia Thompson took The British Blondes to test the American market. Again their teasing created confusion, chaos, controversy and filled theaters. But it didn’t take long until conservative politicians decided the public was having too much fun. So they passed a law against this indecent form of entertainment, and forced theaters to clean up their acts.
These laws pushed Burlesque into the underground. Burlesque took on a new thrilling and dangerous persona. The more it rose in popularity, the more the pieces of the costume fell. Imagine the scene amongst the smoky downtown speakeasy clubs and theaters of Manhattan and Brooklyn. People from high society mixed with the working class as they excitedly watch these rebellious women defy the law and perform the seductive dance of Burlesque.
It was the famous Minsky brothers who took Burlesque out of the back rooms and put it back onstage. But the performers had to walk a fine line between teasing (which was legal) and stripping (which was illegal). Going too far could land them in jail for corrupting public morals. Legend has it that they placed a switch at the front ticket box. If they saw any police coming in for inspection they would flick the switch and a light would flash backstage as a warning signal. The cast immediately switched their act to “the Boston Version” which was code for no nudity. These restrictions meant the girls had to come up with creative and innovative ways to reveal parts of their bodies while other parts remained hidden but still gave the illusion of being naked (which is in fact the ultimate tease). If pasties covered the nipples and they wore a nude colored g-string they could argue to the authorities that they were not naked. When a Burlesque performer was unfortunate enough to get arrested their lawyer would sometimes stand in court with the evidence (pasties and g-string) in hand and depending on how the Judge “favored” Burlesque dancers maybe she would get released without a fine.
Nowadays even though we don’t have to dodge the law in order to perform Burlesque we have the reputation for being the little misfit sister of Cabaret, we don’t follow the rules, and there are no formulas or qualifications. Burlesque is open to artists and amateurs of various backgrounds, talents, body shapes, and points of view. The ones who survive in this world are the performers who are passionate and creative about what he or she does and can put on a damn good show! It is the variety of freaks, femme fatales, glamour girls, and geeks that come together to make the glittering colorful kaleidoscope of beauty through the eyes of Burlesque.
My journey as a Burlesque performer has been full of ups and downs and experiences that have changed my life. I remember 7 years ago when I was preparing for my first time on stage. I was extremely nervous and unsure about taking my clothes off in front of a live audience. As most women do I thought my body was not fit enough for this task. My ass and thighs were too big and had way too much cellulite on them to be anywhere near attractive. In order to get up there and do it I had to tell myself that: If there are other performers with imperfections getting up there and doing it, then so can I.
During my performance I managed to push all of those body issues aside and just enjoy that moment of proudly showing the audience my beautiful performance which I put my heart and soul into creating. I also had to remember the most important thing is to have fun up there! For when you are enjoying yourself and proud of what you do, your smile is pure and your heart is open. That’s when the magic happens and the audience is delighted by your presence.
After my performance there were women coming up to me; these were gorgeous women with great bodies, and perfect skin. They were saying to me, “Wow what a great show! You have such an amazing body, I wish I could have a body like that and know how to use it”. I thought to myself, ‘wait a minute… these ladies are much more beautiful than I am and yet they think that I am something special. How can this be? Is beauty simply an illusion?’
Nowadays thinking negatively and criticizing our own bodies is considered “normal”. This is partly due to the consumer driven society in which we live and the companies that are getting rich from our body insecurities. They are the one’s who are only too happy to add fuel to our self-destructive fire.
Or alternatively a typical scenario that I’m sure you all know is when your hanging out with a group of girlfriends and the conversation ends up with everyone saying how much weight they have gained, or how many wrinkles they have, or how their hair is all kinds of wrong. This negativity is not only self-destructive it is also infectious. You might not realize it at the time but it is likely that you are taking their problems and subconsciously adding them to your own long list of things to be paranoid about.
Imagine the surprise if in this moment there was one girl in the group who stood up and said, “I love my body even though it’s not perfect!” Then proceeded to happily show everyone her beautiful body parts and favorite features. In most circles of friends (and in my world before Burlesque) this behavior would be considered very strange. The first woman I ever saw doing this was a Burlesque performer. I was instantly inspired and drawn to her for going up on that stage and being beautiful, powerful, sexy, embracing her imperfections and being proud of her assets. I could see myself in her imperfections and I loved what I saw. She gave me the confidence to try Burlesque and make new positive discoveries about myself.
Women today have been given the freedom of choice and this has lead us to become preoccupied with trying to achieve as much as we possibly can because we can! We feel as though we must study, work, strive for a better career, follow fashion, have a social life, have babies, maintain the household, while constantly trying to prove that we can manage everything. Along the way we have discovered that it is much easier to complete these tasks while being disguised as a man. For as you might of heard your mother tell you – “If you want to be taken seriously in life you shouldn’t go around looking feminine and sexy. Otherwise people automatically think you’re less intelligent and not to be trusted”. So we feel more comfortable in jeans and T-shirt because that way we can blend into our environment and get on with life without being judged by others. I hear so many women say that they have forgotten how it feels to be feminine. This is why going to a Burlesque show, a Workshop, or starting a performing career is often a personal endeavor to reconnect with their inner feminine side.
Burlesque is a world where anything goes you can dress like a dandy, a drag queen, a silver space man, a decadent glamour girl, a giant blue bunny, or a fetish femme fatale. Or even let your creativity run wild and make a different alter ego every time you go out. There is a sense of freedom within this form of self-expression that the audience members can embrace and be a part of for a night.
Many times I hear women say, “I wish I was able to dress up like that when I go out”. They say it makes them feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Apparently it’s bad if you walk into a room and everyone is looking at you because you are dressed differently. I know this situation very well, walking into to a hip Berlin bar where it’s cool to look like you don’t give a damn. Then there I am walking in all dressed up like I’m about to win an award at the Oscars. Yes they look (especially the girls) but I don’t care, in fact I quite like it. I like it because I put a lot of time and effort into this look and would be disappointed if it went completely unnoticed. It doesn’t mean I want to steal your boyfriend or have the attention of every man in the bar. I do it for myself because it makes me feel like a gorgeous woman and I’m proud of it! Life is too short to blend into the wallpaper while looking out and thinking, “I wish I could have as much fun as her”. I’m sure you’ve all heard your Mothers, Grandmother, Aunties saying, “Enjoy your youthful looks while you have them, before you know it they are gone”. My philosophy in life is – it’s better to regret something you’ve done, rather than regretting something you never had the balls to try.
Burlesque is about a dancers individual exploration and expression of their sexuality, rather than performing to satisfy the desires and ideals of the onlookers. When students come to my workshop with the intention of performing and being sexy for their man at home, or those who want to make acts that conform to popular ideals of what Burlesque should be. I explain to them that Burlesque is not necessarily about pleasing your man, or copying popular trends just because you want to be booked. First you have to find yourself, your sense of humour, your flaws and your strengths, what YOU think is beautiful, what turns YOU on and then own it, claim it, and be proud of it. Show how beautiful you are in your own unique way.
While living in a society that forces unrealistic ideals of beauty upon us. Masses of people try desperately to conform to these ideals. They strive to become replicas of the same soulless mannequins we see in the shop windows. Burlesque is an outlet to express ourselves in whatever way we choose, be it grotesque or glamorous, beautiful or bazaar. You will see throughout this book it is a scene that is filled with many wonderfully colourful and eccentric creatures. Who all work extremely hard to get to the stage in order to entertain and perhaps inspire you to step outside of the box and discover your own journey of self-expression.
Some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had while being a Burlesque Performer is traveling to other countries and getting to know girls who come from a completely different culture and background. While working on my own projects and building my empire at home is rewarding. I learn much more from getting out of my “comfort zone” and going to places where Lady Lou is not so well known. Sometimes the feeling of not knowing what to expect can be unnerving. But I am often pleasantly surprised at how welcome and at home I feel around other Burlesque Performers. Even if you don’t have so much in common, the fact that you both share a deep love for the same art form is a strong connection no matter how different you are. After this kind of experience I always come home with a wonderful burst of energy and inspiration for my own Burlesque projects.
2. Do you see any difference in audience participation/ reaction in Germany than you do in the rest of the world? Do audiences fit in to stereotypes for you (I know you used to live in New Zealand and now live in Germany but perform around Europe so a comparison would be great here if you have seen any marked differences?)?
On occasion I have noticed that there are differences in the audiences reaction / participation which have parallels to cultural stereotypes. For example while performing in Italy I noticed that there was a strong lean towards the classical beauty themes of Burlesque and the perfection of the female body. Which you might say has certain parallels to the way their culture view women. In Germany the audience is often enjoying the more theatrical Burlesque themes such as drama circus and comedy acts. Where as the classical beauty is often seen to be “nice” but perhaps not so interesting. Which means they are harder to please and have more of a critical eye for talent as apposed to just being beautiful.
3. What is the ultimate hot spot for any burlesque fan traveling to Germany? One venue/ night they simply must check out before they go home?
The Bassy Club in the heart of Berlin is where you will find the two best Burlesque Events – La Féte Fatale and Pinkies Peepshow. These parties are made up of an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, freaks, follies and whole lot of fun!
4. Who is your ultimate German burlesque role model?
I draw a lot of strength and inspiration from a German artist called Mama Ulita. She is a full time Burlesque performer and mother (like me). Being able to share our stories about the crazy life of a Burlesque Performer / Mother is like a kind of therapy for me. Also her standard when it comes to perfecting the Burlesque dance is incredible. She is practicing her choreographies two sometimes three times every week!! This is something I always say I will start doing but never get around to, like going to the gym or cleaning out my wardrobe.
5. Are there any up and coming burlesque performers that we might not know about from Germany but should keep our eyes out for?
If you haven’t heard of him yet then check him out… Hedoluxe – “Is here to save you from boredom and ugly clothes”. He is a walking piece of art and one of the most beautiful creatures in the German Burlesque scene.
This post is also available in: German