My article covering last year’s Burlesque Hall of Fame is running in the May issue of Penthouse, which is on stands now.
(Note: this is my original version, not the shorter edit that appeared in the print edition)
It’s the middle of an oppressively hot afternoon in Old Vegas, and the wilted, shabbily dressed tourists seem to be melting right down into Fremont Street Experience. This tarnished and worn section of Sin City is either charmingly retro, or strictly for the buffet & respirator crowd, depending on your view.
As heat-weary vacationers slowly trudge along in seemingly slow motion, suddenly a burst of color flashes through the concrete and neon and rivets everyone’s attention. It’s a trio of women in retro swimsuits and wedge heels, clutching brightly colored parasols that match the twinkling flowers nestled into their pin-curls. They giggle and chatter as they merrily bounce along, looking just like a set of bomber girls who stepped right off a B52 wing – except for the multitude of tattoos, piercings and flaming magenta and orange hair dye.
And this is just the beginning. For the next four days, a virtual army of neo pinups and burlesque performers will flock to the holy Mecca of retro striptease culture, the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend in Las Vegas.
Every year, hundreds of performers and fans of the current burlesque revival make a pilgrimage to the holiest of events amongst tassel twirlers, which has grown exponentially since its inception on a dusty goat ranch two decades ago.
A burlesque museum was always the dream Jennie Lee, a stripper from the 1950s who began her modest collection her home, a rundown ranch in Helendale, California, smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert. She died in 1990 from breast cancer, and her friend and fellow stripper Dixie Evans (known in her day as the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque) took over the ranch and collection, and christened it The Exotic World Burlesque Museum.
Dixie, ever the savvy business lady, 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 strippers from the 60s and 70s, with occasional appearances by modern “feature” performers from the current stripclub 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 the local rags.
And then the young women of the burlesque revival began trickling in. 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 forewomen of burlesque.
Now christened the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the pageant moved to Las Vegas in 2005 in search of a bigger, brighter, splashier homebase for the little show that could, which has now blossomed into the biggest and most prestigious burlesque event in the word. In addition to the Saturday night competition for the title of Miss Exotic World, there are classes, seminars, photo outings, and pool parties.
And on this Thursday afternoon, the fun is just starting, as the biggest and brightest burlesque stars from around the globe land in Sin City and prepare to embark on the world’s most glamorous 4-day binge of pasties, Swarovskis and hard liquor.
At the Golden Nugget, I sit poolside with a bucket of beer and a bunch of showgirls in bikinis with names like Nasty, Gigi, Roxi, Dirty, and Clams. Even in Las Vegas, the burlesque performers still draw a crowd of stares.
Splashing around the pool while 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, like an aquarium tank full of booze-guzzling Showgirl Fish.
Several hours later, I wake up in my hotel room, face first in a pile of glitter, with a sunburn, and headache, and my bikini draped over the lampshade.
And it’s only Thursday…
But Burlesque Hall of Fame isn’t just one huge glitter-binge set in America’s Playground with the biggest names in burlesque; 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 of burlesque, the precious few dancers from yesteryear who still are 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 legends well into their 60s and 70s dust of 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, she says she has “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. I have renewed confidence and love myself again.”
The young performers also hold a similar reverance for the weekend. Nadine Dubois of Lili’s Burlesque Revue in Minnesota has attended the event with her troupe every year for the past 7 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 a plenty for the numerous menfolk to enjoy.
Jim “Roz” Rosnack, producer of Lunatic Fringe Burlesque Co. 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 even silliness, which to me is very sexy.”
Rosnack says the “something for everyone” appeal of burlesque accounts for why it’s equally popular amongst both men and women (and especially couples).
“Its something to take your lady to for a great romantic and fun date. She can put stockings on, a pretty hat and retro dress, and not hang out in some rock and roll bar all night with loud bands and obnoxious drunks. She can drink martinis and watch shows reminiscent of the Ziegfeld Follies with all the props and dressing. The men are happy, the women are happy, it’s the best Friday night date available and its it every city in North America.”
Mig Ponce, part of the event’s production team, echoes the appreciation of the major production value that comes with burlesque 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 cast aside her sparkling purple corset dress, and wearing nothing more than a few strategically placed rhinestones, she climbed atop the massive, smoldering Freudian homage and whipped the audience into a heart-palpitating frenzy.
The running joke this year: what CAN’T you rhinestone? The many performances brought forth Swarovski-studded shopping cart, folding chair, and yes, even toilet seats. Trust: if you leave anything sitting still for longer than 5 minutes, some burlesque perfomer will grab her E-6000 and rhinestone the fuck out of it.
As the competition winds to a close, the audience is breathless from the innovation of the acts, from Ms. Tickle‘s breakaway fans that turn into massive, angel-like wings, to Nasty Canasta‘s tribute to the Portrait of Dorian Grey – as she strips out 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 an entire bottle of vodka with her, and forces the retiring queen, Kalani Kokonuts, to do a shot with her on stage.
In addition to being the first Canadian to win the title, Dlite’s crowning is significant because she works as club stripper for her “day job.”
The stripping vs. burlesque debate has been flogged to death over the years within the community, the resulting discussions a mix of burlesquers who are supportive, and 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 personal goal is to try and educate the dancers that 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.
Penthouse Magazine, May 2011