Photo and design by Mary Elam Photography, Dressed in the decadence of Helmer Joseph, Candycane colored hair by the experts at Schwarzkopf Professional, MUA and styling by Lady Josephine
Lady Josephine enters Blush HQ looking as you would imagine an off-duty Burlesque performer to look. With her hair tied up in a scarf, curlers peeking through, a long red see-through skirt with retro briefs showing underneath, and a matching red vintage button up tee, she sweeps around our show room, holding up lingerie pieces to pose for a picture. A burlesque performer for only 6 years, Lady Josephine is a driving force of the burlesque scene in Montreal. Performing all over the city, with residencies at certain burlesque venues, she also founded Arabesque Burlesque, a burlesque school which offers fitness classes alongside various courses, one of which trains students to create their own burlesque act and get on stage for the first time. We spoke for over an hour, and I was blown away by how poised, confident, and approachable she was. Not that I was surprised; any artist that is passionate about their work is going to push themselves to be their best, as evidenced when she speaks as her experience as a performer. It felt important that we talk about burlesque, not just because of it’s obvious connection to the lingerie world, but because there are few art forms that feature women who are celebrating their sensuality in a way that is accepted and understood. And it’s not just about taking your clothes off… under the sparkly exterior, burlesque addresses issues of gender, femininity, sexuality, and creates a world where women and men love themselves and their bodies. Read on as Lady Josephine and I speak about burlesque, boylesque (male burlesque performance!), overcoming criticism, and fighting the patriarchy.
What got you started in burlesque?
Back in 2009, my boyfriend at the time thought that burlesque would be something I would like. I was totally drawn in and blown away by the first show I saw: seeing women embracing their sensuality, and sexuality on stage, the costumes, the storytelling, and the dance. I grew up a dancer but I stopped when I started studying. I did a little research and found Mademoiselle Oui Oui Encore. I followed her classes and auditioned to perform in Blue Light Burlesque. I performed with Blue Light for about a year and a half, which is where I got my sea legs. They put on a monthly show with a different theme each time, so I had to make a new act ever month. It really forced me to learn how to create, and learn what works, and what doesn’t work. Right after that, I performed with the Blood Ballet Cabaret, which was the same idea where we were making new acts every month for a different theme, but in a completely different show context. I went from Blue Light Burlesque, which is classic, retro tease, to Blood Ballet Cabaret which is edgy, political, and gender-bending, aimed at a younger audience. I really got to explore two very different sides of burlesque.
Making a new show every month sounds very challenging. How did you keep your performances interesting, when each act follows the same sort of timeline; the striptease.
It’s a restricted field of creativity, and I think the best ideas come when you are restricted. In that sense I think creative constraints are really good. And there’s the part where burlesque doesn’t have to be striptease. The definition of burlesque is really fluid and I’m always really interested in people’s take on it. There are lots of great burlesque acts that are still laughing at something sexy, without taking any clothes off. So it can become something that’s like sketch comedy, or like a mini theatre dance piece, but because it’s still talking about sex or bodies, or being a woman or gender, we can place it in the world of burlesque.
I’ve experienced burlesque performances with a very prominent comedy aspect. I like how burlesque can address issues like gender, being a woman, etc. without taking itself so seriously.
The parody aspect, and putting your ego aside as a performer is really essential to burlesque, for a lot of reasons but mostly because the audience is part of your show. Because they have to participate, you have to be able to let them in and to be totally fine with them having an effect on your “planned choreography.” You have to be really open to what they are going to give you. Which means that you can’t put yourself and your vision first: you have to put your audience first. Your main goal is to entertain them, and make them have a great experience; maybe an uncomfortable experience, or a scary experience…. As long as you are putting their experience first.
Does it ever throw you off?
Oh yeah. It’s really only with stage time, and having a lot of different experiences that you get better at dealing with whatever happens. If you can take something really unexpected as a gift, and then turn it into a really unique performance because of how you react to that unexpected thing, the audience knows. They can tell. They feel incredibly special because they know that you’ve done a show just for them and it’s never going to happen again.
And it becomes different for you each time also, you’re not putting on the same show every night. You have to push yourself, and be creative, and be really present.
Yeah, which is really cool because you can bring it to the level where you feel like there was magic happening in the room, and then it kind of sucks because it inherently means that you’re going to have shows where you come off stage and you’re like….. yeah. Maybe there just wasn’t good feedback or you didn’t find the right person to engage with. The show can go so many different ways.
Often the performer will bring someone from the audience up on stage. How do you go about choosing someone? You’re saying that it can really affect the performance in the end….
It can, yeah. Often the person you want to bring on stage is the person that you know is celebrating something that night. Because then all of their friends in the audience are going to really cheer them on, and be happy that they are having this experience on their birthday, or their anniversary, or whatever reason that they’re there. In those cases, it’s nice because it doesn’t really matter how the person reacts on stage; you’re almost doing it for their friends and the audience. If choosing a person is outside of that context, I love choosing women to participate in my shows as a general rule. It’s less expected, and I know that there are more women than men at burlesque shows. I know that burlesque, or neo-burlesque, which is the new burlesque movement, is actually women performing for women, rather than what burlesque used to be. For me it’s important to show that.
What did burlesque used to be? What do you think caused that shift?
It wasn’t something that caused it, it was actually that burlesque died out through the 60s and at the end of the 50s. It was definitely around but VERY underground and not known AT ALL through the end of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The burlesque revival started in the early-mid-90s, with its roots mostly in New York and the Bay Area. A few performers, for different reasons, started to take the art form of burlesque historically from the 30s and 40s and use it for completely different reasons. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s especially, burlesque performers were the strippers of their time. Burlesque was for men, the goal was very much to eroticize the body but to be very entertaining as well. Now, because we have strip clubs to satisfy that service, we can take burlesque and use it for different reasons: to celebrate sex and sensuality in a funny and irreverent way. To make statements because we still live in a world that is run by the patriarchy and gender norms. It’s not okay for a woman to like getting naked – or semi-nude – on stage. It’s still not celebrated that she would want to share her sensuality with the public. In that way, burlesque is a way to be political.
Is there any criticism of that kind of openness? When I think about traditional pop culture, like pop stars or female performers, they get a lot of criticism for celebrating their bodies, or their sexuality, or even just wearing what they feel like wearing because they are not being positive role models in the public eye. You’re talking about combating gender norms, and fighting the patriarchy; these types of political acts tend to get a lot of criticism.
It does. While it is getting more known as an art form, burlesque still mostly exists outside of the mainstream. Thus most of the people who end up coming to a burlesque show are a bit more on board with what we are doing. That definitely doesn’t mean that criticism doesn’t happen, since there are so many different contexts where I am performing burlesque. When I perform at the Wiggle Room, Montreal’s burlesque cabaret, or le 4e mur, the speakeasy bar where I’m performing twice a week now, people go there generally because they have seen burlesque before and they want more. So they get it. That doesn’t meant they don’t get really embarrassed, or they don’t feel uncomfortable sometimes, because most of the time I want them to feel a little uncomfortable, right? That’s part of the excitement of it all. But that’s very different than, let’s say, when I get hired by an event organizer who likes burlesque, but they’re hiring for a corporate Christmas party. In that context, you’re performing for a room full of people who don’t know what burlesque is, have never seen it, and maybe already have preconceived notions of what burlesque is. Often the word is misperceived, people don’t always have the right idea of what it is. You get a lot of shade in people’s looks, especially when they see at first that you’re coming out in this incredible showgirl costume, and then they’re just reaaallly confused when you start to take it off (laughs).
What do they expect you to do up there for like, 20 minutes!!
That’s really funny that you ask that, because speaking of these corporate gigs, they’ll say, “we want burlesque but we don’t want you to take your clothes off….” So… what am I going to do? As an artist it’s really uninteresting for me to just strut around, so I’ve made the personal decision to say no to those contracts even though they pay a lot of money, because I just feel so compromised at the end of it. Not only is it boring for me, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to burlesque because instead of standing up for it, I’m basically saying that it’s okay to feel embarrassed about what I do.
You definitely don’t need to compromise your vision or your work for people who don’t want to understand it.
They’re just not willing to try it, and I find that sad. At a corporate party, I’ll get criticism. I can’t change people’s minds when they have already decided that a woman being comfortable with her sexuality is a bad thing. However, at least half the room is going to love it by the end, even if they didn’t know what it was before. Because that’s my job, and I’m good at it! I convince them that this is actually a great thing. The little bit of criticism is worth it when I think about all the people who I pushed a little bit and opened their eyes to something new. It does change people’s minds sometimes. People come up to me after the show and tell me that seeing someone else who has accepted their body gives them permission to do it themselves.
Which is sad to think about, how our “normal” is being dissatisfied and unhappy with our bodies…..
That’s part of capitalism. The idea is to like yourself much less than you would naturally, so that you have to buy a lot of things to make up for it. It’s a product of consumerism, and when I tell my students that, it’s always a little bit of an “a-ha!” moment because we don’t think about self-esteem in those terms. That’s definitely not to say that we should buy stuff! As a burlesque artist, I transform myself using 40 different products. But to be aware of what you are doing is important. You also use products to transform yourself into YOUR idea of beautiful. Mine is quite a little bit draggy and over the top, and that’s what I think is really fun and beautiful. The transformation is not necessarily trying to be a classic beauty, like Dita Von Teese.
And thus you don’t even have to adhere to beauty norms, or gender norms.
Exactly. And we can talk about boylesque, which is pushing all kinds of beauty norms. Boylesque is just as challenging and boundary pushing as female burlesque, because the gender norms and sexualized roles of men has been just as restrictive in western culture. It’s hard for men to sexualize their own bodies. It’s not always acceptable, because they are the ones who are supposed to be sexualizing other people. When I’m teaching boylesque, it’s often a big challenge, “okay I’m going to learn to move my hips, I’m going to learn how to move my body” whether it’s in a more feminine or a very masculine way. When you’re a man getting on stage, you have to get over this idea that when you have clothes on, you’re powerful. You’re stripping this inherent male power, and that is just as interesting and boundary pushing in a different way.
I have read burlesque defined as the “Art of Seduction.” Now, we have touched upon a lot of different aspects of burlesque, so there is obviously a lot more to it than that, but do you think this is an accurate description of burlesque? For people who don’t know what burlesque is, the main thing that might jump out at them is the striptease performance aspect.
We have definitely touched on a lot of different aspects like the comedy, the storytelling, the theatricality, the political nature. I do, however, like using seduction as a place to start when I’m trying to explain burlesque to someone who has never seen a burlesque show because I first need to convince them that seduction is a positive thing, before I can convince them that seduction plus silliness is a positive thing.
So how do you convince them of that?
I spend a whole class talking about the definition of burlesque with my students. There is so much that goes into it, but if someone asks me “what is burlesque?” I say that it’s theatrical striptease. I say it in a way that’s really exciting and positive. Its THEATRICAL STRIPTEASE! Then I just try to get them to go to a show. If they have it in their mind that stripping is something negative, it’s really hard for me to change that with words. It’s a lot more likely to change when they see a show, when they see that it’s more about laughing than about having a hard-on. It’s actually really nothing about having a hard-on. It’s definitely a good date scenario. You’ll get inspired and it will make you feel celebratory about feeling close with someone, but it’s definitely not about actually getting turned on while you’re watching the show. And I say that because I’m trying to fight the preconceived notions about how burlesque is just trying to get people off, or be gratuitous nudity.
What role does costume and lingerie have in burlesque?
I teach a class called Costume is Choreography, and we are focusing on how to manipulate the actual costume pieces. One piece we focus on is the corset, which would be the same thing as a waspie or a bustier. The first thing that I always teach my students is that there are 3 basic steps of the tease that apply to every costume piece. What is the difference when you are taking your clothes off in a burlesque act, versus when you are getting undressed at night? We look at the different properties of each piece. In the corset class, we are going to explore how the corset impacts your movement quality. When you’re wearing a corset, you cannot do bump and grind with your hips; you are really restricted in this way, and what does that mean? That means that you’re kind of a caged animal, out of your own choice. The corset is keeping your body very straight, stately, and powerful, but it’s caged in the sense that your movement needs to be really controlled and poised. When you take it off, it’s freedom, liberation. How you manipulate a costume piece comes from understanding what that costume piece means.
What is your favorite thing about burlesque?
Being able to connect with a room of people. That’s why I love performing somewhere like le 4e mur, which is an intimate speakeasy bar setting. I can approach people almost individually and make sure that we are on the same page, they know that they are part of the show and they are going on the journey with me.
They can’t hide from you!
Exactly! I get to challenge them, I get to get up in their faces, I get to make it a night that’s really memorable for them. They’ll be like, “I went out, had a beautiful cocktail, and this woman stuck her foot in my face and made me smell it.” I love doing that.
Is that one of your moves?
That’s actually one that I like to do to people who look particularly uncomfortable, because it makes you laugh. I’m not sticking my butt in their face and trying to be suggestive, I’m just doing something that’s really ridiculous. It’s irreverent, and memorable, and celebratory.
So you’ve definitely learned to engage and come up with different tactics, and really play with people. That sounds really fun.
It is really fun!!!!
It also sounds kind of hard.
It is. I say that now, but it’s only in the past year that I would say that I have the skills that it takes to be really comfortable. It takes a long time. You need to get over all kinds of fears and insecurities that you might have with yourself. When you’re going up to people, you need to be so comfortable with yourself that you don’t mind any kind of judgement that they might throw at you. That takes time. It takes time to just have quick reflexes in terms of improvisation. Theatre performers will train in improvisation. It takes having lots of ideas in your toolbox to pick from. It comes down to stage time: eventually most of the things that can happen have happened, so you know how to deal with them.
Did something happen to get you to this point of feeling more comfortable? Was there a significant moment when you felt like, wow that was easier than usual?
It comes in waves. Sometimes I’m really happy with my performance and sometimes I’m not, like any artistry. I remember there a point about 3 years ago where I finally got over having shakes in my legs at the beginning of the performance, from nerves. Everyone’s minds and bodies react differently to being nervous, and mine was always that my energy would get really high in my chest and so I would get really unsteady on my feet even though I’m a dancer. It was just the nerves. So I remember when I got over that, it was a huge relief. It happens now and I know how to deal with it. I know how to do breathing exercises that bring my energy back down so I’m grounded. There wasn’t a point when something changed. It was really gradual.
Would you recommend that women try burlesque? It sounds very empowering and helpful in overcoming a lot of self-esteem and confidence issues. Like if you can do burlesque, you can do anything!
Absolutely. I mean I think everyone has a very different experience, so I don’t want to speak generally, but I can say that in my classes, I have women of all ages. From 17 year olds, to lots of older women. Many of the older women call to check first, and ask me, “I’m almost 60, can I take your class?” And I’m like yeah! I feel so privileged to teach someone who has so much more life experience than I do. It can be really powerful for them; in their life up until then, they maybe haven’t explored that side of themselves. I recommend that everyone take a class simply because it’s not about getting on stage. It’s about physical exploration in the sense that you learn how to move your hips, make shapes that are considered really feminine with your body. Everyone should just explore that side of themselves.
So now that we’ve talked about it a lot.. what is burlesque?
Burlesque is a political statement disguised as a self-made showgirl. It looks like just this beautiful, sparkly showgirl performance, which is great because even if you don’t get what’s happening, you will still enjoy your experience. If you do see what she is really saying, then it really does bring it to a whole different level.
Do you think that people do actually see what you are really saying?
Yes, but not at the first show. That’s why people get hooked on burlesque; there’s people who come to every show, and we have a following because they are interested in what the performer is going to show underneath. At a certain point, you’ve seen lots of really pretty costumes; you’re not going just for that. You’re going because you want to know what they will say. For example, there’s a Halloween-themed show. You wonder, what are they going to do within the constraints of burlesque that we’ve talked about, that will still be in the context of Halloween? There is a lot to explore.
So is burlesque going to change the world?
(laughs) Well I do burlesque because I feel like it changes things, subtly. I don’t think any one person changes the world, but you can do it a little bit.
*This interview has been edited slightly for comprehension and length