The feeling that I needed to show people what was under my clothes has always been there. A natural-born exhibitionist, I was frequently toddling out in my birthday suit to greet my parents’ guests and lifting my skirt on the playground for whoever cared to look (parent/ teacher conferences were had.) Was it a case of nature or nurture? The final grandchild in a generation of boys, for my Grandmother, Great-Aunts, Aunts, and Mother, I was the little girl at last and being a tomboy was no option. From infancy I was decked out in all manner of frou frou. Bows, bonnets, frilly dresses, and shiny black mary janes. My grandmother, a red-headed bombshell in her heyday and all around force of nature, insisted that I be frilly to the skin and put me in the cutest of cute underthings. Lacy socks, tiny little eyelet-trimmed camisoles, crinolines, and my favorite — the ruffle-butt panty. (This continued for as long as she lived. When I got older, she would laugh and clap her hands to see me blush as I opened Christmas boxes containing stacks of wildly colored slips, panties, and tights.) I was a baby doll and I preened and pirouetted under their doting attentions.
As I grew up, my fascination with all things tiny and showy grew with me. I was eager to join the grown-up club and the day my mother and grandmother took me shopping for my first bra was a thrilling one. And even though there was teasing the next day at school (I was one of the first girls in fifth grade to get my boobs; surely they were making mountains out of mole hills,) I was walking a little taller knowing that underneath my Esprit top was a darling little cotton number with a pink bow in the center. And then one day, as snoopy adolescents do, I was invading the privacy of my parent’s closet when I came across my father’s stash of Playboys. I had heard rumors about them from my brother and cousins and there they were, under my own little hands. Exhilarated with the forbidden, I slowly turned the pages and became forever changed by the images of those big-haired, stockinged and gartered beauties in all their 80’s glory. I wanted to be them. Naked and beautiful, ornamented with delicate, silky things and high, high, high-heeled shoes. They seemed miles higher than even my mother’s highest evening shoes. For better or worse, an obsession was born that day. But even the strongest obsession can become buried. As I grew into an adult, I discovered that it can be difficult to connect who you are with how people see you. It was easier to be quiet, cute. To not draw attention. People seemed to be good with that. Sexy was somehow threatening.
Fast forward to a year ago. Recently returned to Chicago from two years of fashion schooling and work in L.A., I was weary and disheartened. Work had been difficult to find and keep for both me and my husband, and in a tough economy I was finding it woefully difficult to bring any of my dreams to financially viable fruition. Hoping to make any kind of money on the side, my husband and I decided to join artistic forces and create an illustration business. We worked mostly doing poster art for musicians, who were mostly our friends, who were mostly unable to pay us. In an attempt to drum up any kind of paying business, I looked for other kinds of performers in need of promotional art and my research brought the local burlesque community to my attention (“Look at those costumes,” I thought. “Surely they have money.” Now I know better!) I fired off a slew of introductory emails to every Chicago performer I could find. No one replied — except for one. A then unknown to me Franky Vivid, production partner of burlesque powerhouse, Michelle L’amour. Though he didn’t have work for us, he wrote, he was always interested in meeting local artists and invited us to their drawing series, Bordello, and to an upcoming show.
I knew what burlesque was, historically speaking, but had no idea what to expect from a modern interpretation of it. From the moment the lights went up on the first performer, I was a goner. It was like the mother ship calling me home. The lights reflecting from the rhinestoned pasties were like beacons. The crowd hollered and cheered; the energy and excitement soaked me to the bone. It was dirty and ridiculous and elevated all at once, and it was exactly what I had been needing. I went home and signed up for a class that night.
It sounds silly and trite to say that burlesque changed my life. I mean, it’s just women getting up on a stage and shaking their shit for all to see. It’s just fringe, stockings, rhinestones. Flashy lingerie. High heels.
It’s just stripping.
And it’s just wonderful. And I’m completely in love with it.