THE LEGENDARY, SHOCKING, AND JAW-DROPPING Coney Island Circus Sideshow has been keeping the classic Ten-in-One format alive since 1985, and is currently the last remaining place in America where it can be experienced. A “Ten-in-One” is ten acts in a row—such as fire-eaters, human blockheads, sword swallowers, contortionists, and burlesque—for one admission price. Sometimes there is a bonus exhibit offered at the end: a “blow-off,” allegedly something more provocative or hair-raising than the rest of the show, which of course commands an additional fee. We at Penthouse have our own version of a Ten-in-One. Here, for your entertainment and amazement, for one low price, are ten attractions highlighting the fairer sex’s recent contributions to the neo-sideshow and -burlesque scenes—because everything is better when done by a gorgeous woman. Following that is our blow-off, which is only so because it’s about a man, even if he is the world’s most hard partying man. Now, step right up, and enjoy feats of wonder, twirling tassels, and more!
The Coney Island Girlie Freakshow
Coney Island has been reveling in the recent wealth of female performers by offering the Coney Island Girlie Freakshow, with all-women acts and a late-night Bad Girls Show. The star attraction is Angelica, a sensual fire performer with a cheeky sense of humor and extensive tattooing, including more than half of her face. It’s difficult to pull your eyes off her, but worth it to take in Amazonian goddess Ser pentina, who dances erotically with a giant python; the superflexible Pain-Proof Rubber Girls’ acts of contortion and playtime with pointy objects; and Jennifer Miller, a genuine bearded lady who juggles machetes while wearing fetish heels. The cast rotates, but a veritable bevy of odd talents and beauty is guaranteed. It’s thrilling to see so many women take charge of the stage with their own daring acts and bravado, not merely as scantily clad assistants. As sideshow impresario and the un official mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, said at a recent performance, “Is it a feminist thing? Is it an exploitive thing? Yes!”
Behind the Burly Q
, a documentary by Leslie Zemeckis, comes out on DVD on April 12, after showing theatrically in major cities. It’s a unique and fascinating look at the original women of the vintage era of burlesque, including classic photographs and footage and recent interviews with both unknown artists and greats such as Tempest Storm.
Zemeckis became interested in the subject after performing in a one-woman show about a Gypsy Rose Lee–type character. She says, “I started doing research and realized that no one’s ever done a documentary on the history of burlesque. It’s amazing … nobody ever talked to the people who actually worked in it.” Zemeckis emphasizes the differences between the original burlesque shows and the modern version. “The new burlesque thing is so huge,” she says, “and it obviously comes from that, but people don’t know what a burlesque show is. They think it’s just the stripping. They had musicians, chorus girls, comedians, novelty acts—that was a burlesque show. What we have today are just strip shows, but what’s good about them is that they’re keeping a part of it alive. But they’re also perpetuating the myth that it’s just a strip show. At least it keeps that part of the artistry going, and the interest.”
Zemeckis also interviewed Alan Alda, whose father was a singer in early burlesque shows (sometimes referred to as a “tit singer”), and Chris Costello, who reminisces about her father, Lou, and his time as a burlesque comedian. The movie and its subjects are compelling, and Zemeckis has a talent for letting them shine while removing herself from the picture, unlike many documentarians. Behind the Burly Q is an important example of keeping the history alive, as many of the subjects passed away before the film was finished. The screen time Zemeckis gave them was their last, and maybe only, opportunity to tell their stories. The DVD release includes three featurettes, bonus interviews, and more.
When former stripper Lily Burana married a military man, the adjustment to army life was difficult, especially with her new husband thousands of miles away, deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the midst of what she called her “deployment blues,” Burana, author of I Love a Man in Uniform
, came up with the idea for Operation Bombshell, a burlesque workshop that allows her to use her dance skills to teach military wives how to shimmy and shake. Stuck at home while their partners serve overseas, these women need something to lift their spirits, and Burana decided burlesque would do the trick. The first Operation Bombshell class was held at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2008, and she has since traveled the country offering classes, free of charge, whenever they’re requested.
Burana promises that she can turn the women into bombshells in 90 minutes or less (the duration of the class), and she does it by teaching them a routine choreographed by burlesque star Jo Weldon especially for Operation Bombshell. The classes give the wives a chance to relax and have a good time, and they leave with a newfound confidence—and some new seduction skills they can share when their husbands come home.
Bump and Grind
Walking into a burlesque class for the first time was intimidating. The other women were wearing tight tank tops, booty shorts, and high heels. My T-shirt and yoga pants seemed out of place. The first few exercises focused on breathing, posture, and admiring our bodies, and we had to check ourselves out in the mirror constantly. I felt like the most uncoordinated girl in the group, but when a classmate told me she felt silly, too, it took off some of the pressure.
Instructor Kitty Cavalier (left) says that she teaches the class so women can learn to “break out of their shells and get naked with themselves,” and she stresses body confidence. “Look at your gorgeous body,” she repeated throughout class, encouraging everyone to constantly caress their curves and touch their bodies. Another important element is what she calls “pinup posture,” which means learning to present yourself with confidence and show off your womanly wiles—even if you’re not sure you have them.
The class went through an entire three-minute routine, learning it step-by-step before putting it all together for a simple yet sexy performance. Within the span of the hour-long class, I didn’t exactly get over my awkwardness or learn to move my body the way Kitty could, but I did learn to stop taking myself so seriously and have fun.
Jo Boobs, Headmistress
Although The Burlesque Handbook
teaches the ins and outs of putting together a professional act, burlesque star Jo Weldon’s tips can be utilized by anyone—including your girlfriend.
Weldon is the founder and headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, as well as a distinguished dancer in the burlesque world known to fans as Jo Boobs, so she knows a thing or two about the art of tassel twirling. Her book focuses on everything a dancer needs to know, from proper posture to making pasties, but even if your girl’s performing for an audience of one, she’ll benefit from the information. Moves like the “straptease” and “glove peel” can easily be put into practice at home, and the lessons on seductive stocking removal are sure to come in handy on the stage or in the bedroom.
Even men can glean some tips from the book. “Any time a guy makes a striptease game out of taking off a jacket or shirt in front of a woman, there’s a good chance she’ll admire his confidence and playfulness and find him more attractive,” Weldon says. Which means you should buy the book for your girlfriend, but give it a look before handing it over.
Every June, for four days, a virtual army of neo-pinups and -burlesque performers flocks to the holy mecca of retro striptease culture, the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend in Las Vegas, which has grown exponentially since its inception on a dusty goat ranch two decades ago.
A burlesque museum was always the dream of Jennie Lee, a stripper from the 1950s who began her modest collection in her rundown ranch mack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert. She died in 1990 from breast cancer, and her friend and fellow fifties stripper Dixie Evans (known in her day as the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque) took it over and christened it the Exotic World Burlesque Museum.
Dixie, a savvy businesswoman, knew she needed press to draw attention to the museum, so in 1990 she founded the first ever Miss Exotic World burlesque competition. The majority of the participants were retired burlesque performers from the sixties and seventies, with appearances by “feature” performers from the contemporary strip-club scene.
For a decade, the Miss Exotic World pageant quietly chugged along as a quaint, desert side attraction, attended mostly by local bikers and reporters from papers in the area. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t just vintage vixens and Hell’s Angels out there in the dust; an entirely new generation of young women began trekking to Exotic World seeking a shot at the crown, and a chance to spend face time with the founding women of burlesque.
The pageant was renamed the Burlesque Hall of Fame, then it moved to Las Vegas in 2005; it’s now one of the biggest and most prestigious burlesque events in the world. In addition to the Saturday-night competition for the title of Miss Exotic World, there are classes, seminars, and pool parties.
At the Golden Nugget, I sit poolside with a bucket of beer and a bunch of bikini-clad showgirls with names like Nasty, Gigi, Roxi, Dirty, and Clams. Even in Las Vegas, the burlesque performers draw stares. Splashing around and balancing beers in our cleavage, we entertain our poolside compatriots by smashing our breasts and asses against the see-through glass walls of the pool.
Several hours later, I wake up in my hotel room, face-first in a pile of glitter, with a sunburn, a headache, and my bikini draped over the lamp shade. And it’s only Thursday….
What sets this weekend apart from the many other burlesque conventions that have sprung up over the years is the intense focus on the living legends, the precious few dancers from yesteryear who are still around to entertain us with a story or two. Friday night is the Legends Showcase, one of the most emotional and thrilling events of the weekend, in which a handful of the seniors dust off their pasties and perform for a packed audience of screaming fans.
Toni Elling, who came out of 40 years of retirement to perform, says that before she discovered the Burlesque Hall of Fame, she was “not in a good place. I was down on myself and feeling quite useless.” But after attending her first weekend, she was overwhelmed by the love and support she received from women young enough to be her grandchildren. Now, Elling says, “I have renewed energy and look upon myself differently. I feel I have things to do and have found people who really care about me, and I am more content than I have been in years.”
The young performers have a similar reverence for the weekend. Nadine Dubois of Lili’s Burlesque Revue in Minnesota has attended the event with her troupe for the past seven years.
“We feel it is akin to going to the ‘promised land’ for our art form,” Dubois says. “Not only do we grow as performers every time by being inspired by both the legends and modern performers of burlesque, we look forward to spending time with those same performers, as they are like family to us. It is truly a magical gathering.”
Magical indeed, given the epic amount of female nudity you get to enjoy both onstage and off during those four days. Although the event is steeped in female bonding, there’s eye candy aplenty for the menfolk to enjoy.
Jim “Roz” Rosnack, producer of Lunatic Fringe Burlesque Company from Austin, says, “These girls bring something to the table that has been missing for a long time: the art of the tease, glamour, seduction, and sometimes silliness, which to me is very sexy.” Rosnack says the “something for everyone” appeal of burlesque accounts for why it’s equally popular among men and women—and especially popular with couples. “It’s something to take your lady to, for a romantic and fun date. She can put stockings on, a pretty hat and retro dress, and … drink Martinis and watch shows reminiscent of the Ziegfeld Follies. The men are happy, the women are happy, it’s the best Friday-night date available—and it’s in every city in North America.”
Mig Ponce, part of the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s production team, appreciates the major production value that comes with performances at this level. “I really love that they put effort into putting on an amazing, dazzling performance,” Ponce says. “This really packs a wow factor that you can’t find anywhere else.” Indeed, the production values were through the roof, with the biggest and most elaborate props and sets in the history of the Saturday-night competition.
Perhaps most stunning of all is the giant cigar prop belonging to Roxi Dlite of Windsor, Ontario. The tiny, raven-haired beauty casts aside her sparkling purple corset dress. Wearing nothing more than a few strategically placed rhinestones, she climbs atop the massive, smoldering Freudian homage and whips the audience into a heart-palpitating frenzy.
As the competition comes to a close, the audience is breathless from the innovation of the acts, from Miss Tickle’s breakaway fans that turn into massive, angel-like wings to Nasty Canasta’s tribute to The Picture of Dorian Gray—as she strips off her clothes, they appear on a digital “painting” of her nude body that hangs above the stage.
The final moment arrives: The newest reigning Queen of Burlesque is Roxi Dlite; overjoyed and slightly tipsy, she bounds onto the stage carrying a bottle of vodka, then forces the retiring Queen, Kalani Kokonuts, to do a shot with her onstage. In addition to being the first Canadian to win the title, Dlite’s crowning is significant because, unlike most of the performers, her “day job” is working as a club stripper.
The stripping-versus-burlesque debate has been flogged to death over the years within the community, by a mix of burlesquers who are supportive of exotic dancers, and by those who mistakenly think they are somehow morally superior to club workers. Roxi Dlite hopes to use her crowning as a way to bridge the gap between the two communities. “My goal is to educate the dancers I work with in the strip clubs,” says Dlite. “I want to show them that there is a history and an art form to what they are doing. I also feel quite strongly that it’s important for the burlesque community to be more supportive of modern striptease because it’s just a modern day version of burlesque; it is still an art form. The modern stripteasers are just as talented and just as passionate about their art form as the burlesque community is.”
Spoken like a true queen, indeed.
The author has been performing burlesque since 2000. For information on June 2011’s event, go to BurlesqueHall.com.
Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque
New York City burlesque star Dirty Martini was crowned Miss Exotic World in 2004. She was photographed by fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld in early 2010 for V magazine. Also in 2010, she was the focus of a documentary by Gary Beeber called Dirty Martini
and the New Burlesque
, which examines New York’s neo-burlesque scene. Beeber interviews Dirty and other performers about their artistic struggles and triumphs, their quest for romance, their ideology and philosophy, and what they do to pay the bills.
Vintage footage of such original bump-and-grinders from the fifties as Sally Rand, Dixie Evans, and Lili St. Cyr are contrasted with Dirty’s modern versions of their classic acts. Other nudie cuties included in the film are Julie Atlas Muz, Angie Pontani, the World Famous *BOB*, Jo Boobs, and Bambi the Mermaid.
On April 16, the movie will be screened at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, followed by a revue of peelers, including, of course, Miss Dirty Martini herself. We won’t be missing this rare opportunity to watch a film and then see its stars shimmy out of their clothes onstage!
On the Offensive
The recent burlesque explosion has brought hundreds of nicely naughty pasties-and-G-string-driven events to New York City. It’s generally a playful diversion, harkening back to a more innocent age of erotic delights. In the cracks left between those striptease events, !BadAss! Burlesque puts on a show for only the truly modern audience, where even the most blasé can expect to be thrilled by its performers’ brazen immodesty and daring provocation.
Penthouse spoke with Velocity Chyaldd, torch singer for the tempestuous rock band Vulgaras, and producer of this night of challenging kicks.
What is !BadAss! Burlesque?
!BadAss! Burlesque is a platform where burlesque performers take their art to the next level. We began it a little over six years ago, and it’s mostly been a monthly event; we are transforming it this year into a large-scale seasonal event, with proceeds benefiting the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
With all the other burlesque events in the area, how does !BadAss! stand apart?
Most burlesque shows are sweetness and light, celebrating a delicate side of female sexuality. !BadAss! was created to express the darker side of the feminine psyche. We are the show to which burlesque performers bring that number they’ve been wanting to perform that the other shows won’t allow.
Is it an “anything goes” kind of night, or are there limits?
We don’t wish to place any restrictions on our performers, as that would defeat the purpose. We aim to provide a censorship free environment for the burlesque artists as well as the audience. We’ve had acts portraying such topics as bloodletting, abortion, suicide, mental illness, domestic violence, death, God, Satan, and protests against war/social injustice. We celebrate the dark side of the divas who inspire us, such as Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, Janis Joplin—and even Tom Waits.
Does the show ever offend anyone?
I hope so, otherwise we aren’t challenging the audience enough. We’ve had the occasional dramatic response; you have to expect that when you display your wild thoughts the way we do. I think Mae West said it best: “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”
Dead Man’s Party
When asked to perform burlesque for the Zombie Bawl, the after-party for Zombie Con, an annual walk/bar crawl through New York City for which all the participants dress as zombies, I jumped at the opportunity.
Since I was creating a one-off performance for a zombie party, I knew I could really get crazy. My first thought was that I wanted to destroy part of my costume onstage. My second thought was that I wanted to be covered in fake blood. For costuming, I went classic burlesque, with a black taffeta dress, a sheer vintage slip, fishnet stockings, garters, and of course a sequined thong and pasties.
I did my number in two acts. The first act was a pretty classic striptease, except instead of slowly teasing my stockings down my legs, I tore them to shreds, which made the crowd go wild. For act two, I performed with long sheets of white tulle, rolling around and wrapping myself in them before I pulled out my plastic tarp (if you don’t protect the stage, you don’t get rebooked), candles, and a bottle of fake blood. By this point I was down to shredded stockings, a G-string, and pasties. First, I sprayed the crowd with fake blood, then I alternated between pouring hot wax and stage blood on my (mostly) naked body. There was a beautiful girl in the front row wearing not much more than a bra. I had her lie down on her back, and I slowly dripped hot wax on her quivering flesh between deep tongue kisses. There wasn’t much more I could do after that performance, so I finished with an homage to Carrie, dumping a gallon of stage blood over my head. I loved performing for such a fun crowd, and I hope to do it again next Zombie Con.
—Ryan Keely, 2011 Pet of the Year Runner-Up
Sword Swallowing Sirens
The science of sword swallowing is trickier than it might seem at first. There are not one but three gag reflexes that have to be beaten down through perseverance and the desire to stick something long and hard into a place not designed to receive it, all for the acclaim of total strangers. What’s even more curious, the majority of the diversion’s experts are men.
The Sword Swallowers Association International sponsors the annual World Sword Swallow ers Day in late February. In 2011, more than 20 performed at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditoriums across the world. But we want to call your attention to two years before, on February 28, 2009. More than a dozen sword swallowers at seven Ripley’s locations around the world performed; nine of them in front of New York’s Times Square Odditorium. More than 30 feet of steel went down nine hatches, which, though impressive, didn’t set any records.
A record was made there, though: the largest documented gathering of female sword swallowers—no fewer than four women, the youngest, Alison Cheevers, being only 19. Also participating was the Lady Aye, who claims to be the world’s only Jewish female sword swallower; and Coney Island’s pierced and tattooed bombshell Heather Holliday (above). Rounding out the fearless foursome was Natasha Veruschka, who holds the record for swal lowing the longest sword by a woman—29 inches. At an earlier event, she swallowed 13 swords at one time, setting another world record.
Although outnumbered by such illustrious stars of the sideshow as Todd Robbins and Donny Vomit, the gor geous girls stole the show. They swallowed the same lengths of solid steel, over and over again, as the male artists did—and they did it in corsets and high heels.
Blow Off: The Most Interesting Show in the World
Musician and professional partier Andrew W.K. (right) recently took a new role, as sort of a rock ringmaster of the Dos Equis–sponsored Most Interesting Show in the World. He led a 17-city tour of music, magic, burlesque, and other variety acts presented to the public with no cover charge and free Dos Equis.
“There really is this party feeling,” Andrew W.K. tells us. “It doesn’t feel as much like a traditional concert; it feels like a celebration. We have local performers on every show, as well as an incredible performer named Bubble Man…. I really, really love magicians and magic. I have for years. A lot of my friends almost seem to specifically hate magic; I had never even conceived that someone could hate magic! That’s like someone telling me that they hate candy or roller coasters or amusement parks! But I actually have a lot of friends who do hate candy and do hate amusement parks. Why am I friends with these downer people?
“Anyway, this has been unbelievably exciting just for that, to watch a magician perform. Elliot Zimet is a Las Vegas–level magician. He performed for a year with Ringling Bros. circus, living on the circus train…. He has birds in his act that we bring on the road. Live parrots! It’s incredible.
“The whole show really becomes like a song. That’s the beautiful part of it. Even when there are moments of spontaneity and improv, it’s still like a song, an hour-long song, with all these different parts and performers. Some sing, some do magic, some dance, but they’re all part of a song. And when it’s tight like we have it, it really goes by like a song…. And working with these people who have that kind of timing, that vision to practice what they do to the point where they’re masters, it really elevates you and what you do to another level. It’s like playing with a good athlete; you just play better.”
And play Andrew did, rocking out on an elaborate full-size piano onstage, glistening with sequins, surrounded by falling confetti, while sexy dancers kicked and twirled around him. It wasn’t his usual headbanging show, but the audience seemed willing to expand their minds and take in the brain melting skill demonstrations and colorful eye candy—and especially the free Dos Equis.