Burlesque VS the Morality Police

By on August 2, 2015

One of the things many performers love the most about burlesque is that it offers performers a space to explore and express their own physicality, sexuality, humor, intelligence, and everything they are with full agency.

The Shanghai Pearl, burlesque performer and instructor from Seattle. (Image by POC Photo.)

“For myself personally,” shares The Shanghai Pearl, “burlesque is really the antidote for all the toxic shit in our culture. There’s the Virgin/Whore Complex that says your sexuality is one thing, it’s this or it’s that. And for an Asian American lady, my sexuality is a China doll or a wilting flower or a dragon lady. It’s just so stupid. We all have bodies and we all have stories, and if it wasn’t for burlesque, I don’t know how I would have told those stories or how I would have found many of the stories to even tell.”

But sometimes the world intrudes on this happy bubble of personal agency and expression. An article has been circulating on the internet about a school teacher who may or may not lose her job because of a video of her performing burlesque. (UPDATE: The burlesque dancing teacher, Lottie Ellington, was forced to resign and has spoken out about the situation. Read her response here.)

Sadly, this is not the first time the stigma our culture attaches to women who engage in sexy behavior has caused problems for burlesque performers, and it is unlikely to be the last.

Red Hot Annie, burlesque star and co-producer of Chicago’s Vaudezilla. (Image by GUD Photography)

“Believe it or not,” confides Red Hot Annie, “I had a very similar thing happen to me about 8-9 years ago. In addition to acting, I did some modeling (some more racy images, to be certain), and I actually directed these really adorable children’s plays in the suburbs of Chicago. Someone caught whiff of my modeling work and there was a big dust-up, including multiple articles in suburban papers calling into question how appropriate it was to have someone ‘like me’ teaching children.

“At first I lost the position, but the theatre community that I belonged to rallied behind me and I got the position back. There was a lot of publicity, and I don’t think the theatre wanted to be seen as a place that wouldn’t support its performers.

“At the time, it was very traumatic for me, but now I can look back on it and feel a certain level of gratitude. Yes, it ‘outed’ me, and yes, it really brought into focus the potential for people to be really shortsighted and puritanical – but it also gave me a helluva lot of pluck and has reminded me that living out loud is one of the best things a person can do for everyone else who feels they have to hide this part of themselves… in the long run, anyways.

“That said, I’ve seen some really difficult things unfold for people over the years, recently including one of my Vaudezilla performers. A good number of burlesque performers are teachers and work with children, and there are many people who still hide burlesque from their families. Even if you are up front about it when applying for work, they might still hire you and then fire you later – for reasons they claim aren’t associated, of course.”


So what’s an aspiring burlesque performer to do?

Just give up? Stay home and bake apple pies? If you’ve assessed the risks of being outed in your own life, and you want to perform anyway, here are a few ideas for how to minimize the risks involved.


Keep It Private

If exposure (haha!) is a big concern for you, and you want to perform but aren’t attached to performing publicly, one option would be to throw private parties with some of your friends and perform for each other. That way, you’re performing in a more controlled environment where you can know for certain that no one is taking photos or videos of your performance and the likelihood of causing a scandal is diminished. You can always change your mind and decide to start performing publicly later, while images on the internet never go away, so you can’t take that decision back once it’s been made.


Minimize Exposure

burlesque-censored-300If you’re set on performing publicly, but you want to lessen the chances that you’ll be found out, there are some things you can do. “If you are looking to stay undercover,” Red Hot Annie advises, “I’d avoid photos and videos where possible, and maybe avoid Facebook profiles or any unnecessary promotion.”

One performer who chooses to stay anonymous agrees: “Unfortunately I am in a position where I, too, have to hide that I’m a burlesque performer due to not only my job, but also my family. I would love to do more public performances, but I stick to private, members-only clubs, and my troupe doesn’t have a Facebook page. It definitely makes marketing our show rather difficult.”

“One of the girls in my group is going through this right now because of something called a morality clause where she works,” says another performer who also prefers to remain anonymous, “so she can never be in promotional photos or videos of our group and usually keeps to the back of the stage. I feel awful for her.”

Red Hot Annie has a possible solution: “If you’re working with a troupe or group of performers, is there someone else who can be out there and be the ‘face’ of the company, that would make it easier to have promo? That way people who want to keep on the downlow would still benefit from the publicity.”

“That said,” Red Hot Annie continues, “if you want to perform publicly, no matter what you do there is some risk of your family, coworkers, etc. finding out that you are a burlesque performer. Since everyone can now take photos and video on their phones, there is no way to guarantee that images of your performances won’t leak out to the public. We’re getting to the point in society where it’s become very difficult to hide who you ‘really are’ – so you’d have to be take a lot of precautions if you intend to keep things separated. I’d also ask myself what I really want out of burlesque – because if the performance itself is enough for you and you are getting that, there’s not necessarily a reason for a Facebook profile, etc. anyways! I guess it all really depends on how much you want to mix your worlds together.”


Disguise Your Identity

If you’re set on performing publicly, but you want to minimize the chances that you’ll be recognized, dramatic makeup and wigs can go a long way toward disguising your identity. Look into how to create more of a drag queen style makeup with contouring, modified eyebrows, etc. You can transform yourself to look like your new burlesque persona!

If you have identifiable tattoos, you can use something like Dermablend or another heavy-duty concealer to cover them up! This video demonstrates how to cover your tattoos using affordable products from a drug store.

None of this is a guarantee that you won’t be identified, of course, but it can make it much less likely.


Keep it G-Rated

It’s also possible to participate in burlesque shows without doing striptease acts. This way, you can perform less scandalous acts without worrying about whether photos or videos of your performance will get out and cause problems for you – though it’s still possible that you may be considered “guilty by association” just for participating in the same shows where striptease is performed.


Here’s to Your Success, Whatever You Decide!

Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself whether the many benefits of performing burlesque publicly are worth the risks and choose how you will mitigate those risks if you decide to perform anyway. This is a very personal decision, and there is no one right answer that will work for everyone.

Do you have any more ideas that we didn’t mention? Please share in the comments – and we completely understand if you need to use a pseudonym to talk about this!

The founder of Tease! Bang! Boom!, Bombshell Betty began performing in 1996, toured internationally with her first burlesque troupe in 2001-2002, and founded her burlesque school in 2004 in San Francisco. She has released a burlesque training DVD and 2+ hours of free burlesque training videos, published the pinup modeling book “Plain Jane to Pinup Queen” in 2008, and has toured the US performing and teaching classes and workshops.

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