Standing for an hour in front of B.B. King’s in Times Square, my roommate and I hoped against hope we’d get in. The line was bursting with ticket holders, including but not limited to fishnetted, tattooed ladies in glittery, glamorous updos and dapper gents in pinstriped pants with suspenders. We so wanted to be inside with them later on. As we waited some more, we heard all tickets were sold out. But we waited anyway, since we would have been happy to even stand in the back of the New York Burlesque Festival’s Saturday Night Spectacular. And eventually we got in, standing room only, right behind the spotlight for a fantastic view of the stage.
Burlesque hearkens back to the days of vaudeville, when a striptease act was performed in between comedy, dance, or musical acts. Originally, to “burlesque” something meant to make fun of it, “to tease and lampoon it with theatrical flair,” and the stripteases that came out of burlesque also became parodies, sometimes done with a “gimmick,” a “something special” that made each performance different from the last.
Though the ladies in the clip above describe their performance as “strippin’”, that term isn’t really correct. Though, yes, they do remove their clothing, it’s a more of an art form than that—the sexy removal of a glove or the teasing release of a garter belt is something that comes with practice. Details like these characterize modern American Burlesque performances, also called ‘Burlesque Striptease,’ performances where, according to the Ministry of Burlesque, “humor or pastiche is combined with the classic (non-nude) striptease.” And everyone gathers at the New York Burlesque Festival for a little bit of this cheeky, sexy (and sometimes raunchy) humor.
The event was hosted by famed emcee and drag king Murray Hill, who performs in the style of a 1960s lounge lizard. Hill spares no detail, decked out in a pink ruffled shirt, bow tie, and thick black-framed glasses. His hair is slicked cleanly to the side and large, square shiny rings grasp his substantial fingers. A thick brown line mustachioes his upper lip as he happily bullshits the audience in some jovial combination of Don Rickles and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Hill introduced each sensual performer with a hearty “Holy Shit!” and “Jesus, wait’ll you see our next act.” But Jesus had nothing to do with these performances.
Each artist, girl or boy (as in “boylesque”), puts on a five-minute, original performance—some are elegant, political, sexual, or even animalistic, but always creative. The lively audience—male and female, straight and gay—hoot and holler as each performer’s clothing leaves their bodies, extra applause for a happily twirling set of pasties.
Marilyn Monroe-lookalike Kitten Deville played a Hollywood starlet disrobing for an invisible Hollywood producer, eventually landing a contract after a spirited bumping session.
Sweet lotus blossom Amber Ray sat on a slowly spinning flower as piece after piece of her handmade pink rhinestone flower ensemble made its way to the floor.
Sporting a shiny hot pink wig, Miss Saturn removed her clothes while revolving upwards of 20 hula hoops around her body.
My favorite performance of the night, though, was Ms. Tickle’s “Living Doll”, in which she mimicked the objectification of women while wearing an almost robot-like pink latex body suit and blank face mask. She eventually disrobed down to a g-string (all performers are required to wear a g-string and pasties by law, though there were some occasional slips), out of which she pulled a tube of lipstick she then used to write “For Sale” on her stomach. It was a pleasant surprise, especially since I thought most of the performances that evening would be just erotic humor. But I learned that while being sexy, burlesque also has the power to make one think, just as with any art form.
Many of these burlesque performers are celebrities in their own right, such as Dirty Martini who has appeared in films that have shown at Cannes; World Famous *BOB* who has been photographed by David LaChapelle; and New York School of Burlesque Headmistress Jo “Boobs” Weldon who has appeared on CBS Sunday Morning and Gossip Girl.
Amidst all the glitter, makeup and, well, boobs, these burlesque ladies and gentlemen truly know how to put on a show. Burlesque is sexy, funny, and smart—performers know that sometimes a tickle and a tease is all you need. That, and a really good set of pasties.