Coping with Burlesque Rejection

So you didn't get into the burlesque festival of your dreams - now what?

So you didn’t get into the burlesque festival of your dreams – now what?

Burlesque festival season is upon us, and the sheer number of events happening across the globe these days is staggering — check out this fantastic resource of international festivals compiled by Ri Ri SynCyr.

Thousands of performers are huddling over laptops filling out applications, and will wait with bated breath to see if they’re accepted to perform in the festival of their choice. It’s amazing to see how festivals have grown over the past few years, and delightful to see them thriving in regional areas – but the downside is that demand now outweighs availability, and many a performer will wind up crestfallen when she opens her email to find the form letter she’s been dreading.

Dude, rejection sucks. There’s no way around it – and it’s particularly painful when it comes to burlesque, because what we do is so incredibly personal. We are literally stripped naked, making ourselves deeply vulnerable by inviting (often anonymous) strangers to evaluate our stage worthiness. Our acts our so intrinsically personal: it’s a mini one woman/man show, which you wrote, directed, costumed and choreographed.  You poured hours of, blood, sweat, passion and layers of E-6000 into your baby – and when someone tells you that you didn’t make the cut? It fucking HURTS.

That said, rejection is inevitable aspect of any creative art, whether it’s pitching movie scripts, getting a grant, or auditioning for a play.

It also happens to everyone – I guarantee that the performer you idolize the most has gotten rejected at some point. Any artist who is worth their salt knows that you must take risks in order to attain greatness, and part of that risk involves getting turned down for a show, role, opportunity, job, or partnership that you really, really, REALLY wanted.

Rejection sucks – but it can also be the catalyst for us to work harder, think bigger, and better our craft… both individually and as a whole.

So what do you do when it happens to you? Here’s a triage guide to help ease the ouch and find the silver lining in the email you never wanted to open.

Breathe

It’s not the end of the world, even though it feels like it in this moment. Take a deep breath, and take as much time as you need collect yourself. It’s natural to be overcome with a storm of emotions — hurt, anger, self-doubt — but don’t let those raw feelings take control over you, or dictate your next actions.

Take It Offline

When we’re hurt, we seek solace — but this gets sticky in the age of social media, when sometimes our first reaction is to vent in a public forum. If you get rejected, you need to think very carefully about how to react to your news publicly – and whether you should do so at all.

Friends don’t let friends Facebook when they’re drunk or hella pissed. If you lash out in anger on social media — at best, you’ll be exposing your very personal disappointment in a very public manner which you might regret later; at worst, you could do serious damage to your professional reputation, lose future bookings, and burn bridges.

I absolutely encourage you to seek comfort in your friends — but do it one-to-one: a phone call, a text, a private email, or face-to-face.

And speaking of friends — most of your performer pals know that trashing a festival on Facebook is bad business for all involved… but your non-burlesque friends may not think of this aspect. This is another drawback to posting publicly; say you post a polite and friendly note, like “Well, I didn’t get into  ____ Fest but I’m really happy for everyone who did!” Your non-burlesque friends may pipe in with a well-meaning but misguided attempt to soothe you, something along the lines of: “Fuck ____Fest! I guess they just didn’t want any GOOD acts! Those losers are stupid if they turned you down!! ANGRY CAPS LOCK RAGE!!”

Your friends’ words – no matter how well-intended – will reflect poorly on you.

While we’re at it, it would be a great idea to stay off of social media in general — performers who’ve just been accepted will likely be gleefully posting the news, and you don’t need extra salt rubbed in your wound right now. Close the laptop and practice some good self-care:  watch your favorite goofy movie, cuddle your pets and/or significant other, get outside for a walk, etc.

Re-evaluate

Someone once told me not to take rejection personally. Impossible when your act is such a personal creation, right? But it’s not about you as a person (unless you have a reputation for peeing in your enemies’ gig bags backstage – in that case, it is you, and you might do well with a career on reality TV.)

As a writer, I have a difficult time separating professional rejection of my articles or pitches from my worthiness as an author, because my writing is such an incredibly personal reflection of who I am. But it’s not about me, the person — it’s about my work. And sometimes, I have to go back and re-evaluate the work I submitted with fresh eyes.

Cheesy but true: there’s a learning experience in everything if you look hard enough. After you’ve given yourself a couple of days time, look back through your application and try to evaluate it as a stranger would — was your video kinda crappy? I despise watching burlesque on video — I feel it sucks the life and soul out of the performance – but we are visual artists, and it’s important for us to nail down a video that really captures the essence of our act, as much as a soulless computer-machine can.

Consider this an opportunity to contract a professional videographer to film your act – if you want to shop it around the big festivals, this is a good investment. A two-camera edit is even better.

Think About the Big Picture

“Gee, I am going to channel hours of my personal time, epic amounts of stress, and possibly major personal financial loss into creating a burlesque festival just so I can get drunk on my self-imposed power as I reject performers and crush their hopes and dreams!”….. said no one ever.

You don’t like getting the rejection email… but the festival producers aren’t happy about sending them either. It’s the shittiest part of the job, and NO ONE enjoys it. Producers have many different factors to weigh, and their ultimate goal is to curate a consistently outstanding lineup with enough variety to create a smooth flow. A show with 45-minutes straight of slow songs? Not good flow. Seven fan dances back-to-back? Not good flow. The all-red revue? No bueno.

As the bar continues to be raised, festival producers find themselves in the unenviable position of having to turn down really damn good acts. Much like a thriving job market, sometimes you find yourself burdened by a wealth of riches, and employers wind up turning away incredibly qualified candidates, because there are only so many desks available.

Did you apply to an all-classic fest with a blood-and-gore heavy metal number? Or if you applied to an all-classic showcase — perhaps your music choice was a little well-worn, and dozens of other applicants applied with the same piece? One of the most interesting facets of burlesque is the “collision of like-minded coincidences” that I so often see — performers on opposite sides of the country, developing similar acts without ever knowing about the other’s existence. Maybe a dozen other performers applied with a similar concept — you just never know. But you shouldn’t make yourself crazy guessing, either.

While it’s always good to pop the hood on an act and look for areas where you can refine and improve, you shouldn’t take a festival rejection as a sign that your act is crap and needs to be completely tossed. The act that didn’t get accepted to _____Festival could go down like a house on fire at The _th Annual ____ Fest. Which brings me to my next point…

Don’t Get Discouraged

This is just a tiny little speedbump on your Highway of Awesome — so don’t get sidetracked. After you’ve allowed yourself to feel all of the emotions you’re entitled to feel, wrap it all up, put it away, and move on. There’s always another festival, another year, and another opportunity around the corner. Don’t stop applying because you got rejected once – if I’d done that, my burlesque career would have ended in 2003!

When you get knocked down, you gotta get back up – and usually after you’ve dusted yourself off, you find yourself even stronger for it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experience crippling disappointment in my professional, personal and performance lives — only to have it shortly followed up with a huge success and epic win.

Give yourself some much deserved props for even applying in the first place – it’s a nerve-wracking process, and putting yourself out there for evaluation is a tough but necessary part of being a public performance artist and pushing yourself to the next level.

Repeat to yourself: this experience does not define my worth.

And then get back up on that sparkle pony and back to what you love to do most: create and perform.

You got this, girl.

Now, go get ‘em tiger.

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My article on BHOF in Penthouse

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.

–Sparkly Devil
Penthouse Magazine, May 2011