International burlesque sensation and former Miss Exotic World (2008) Angie Pontani talks glamina, keeping the drama for your mama, the smell of hot glue, vintage industrial sewing machines, and the New York Burlesque Festival.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
Born a Jersey girl and dancing since age 4, you moved to New York at 17 to study dance and theater at NYU, but admittedly found the program to be “really super boring” and became a burlesque performer “almost by accident.” Tell us about that first performance at the Dutch Weismann Follies and how it changed your life.
Dutch Weismann Follies absolutely changed my life. It was everything that I imagined show business would be exquisitely crammed into this exclusive underground show. They turned a NYC railroad apartment into a speakeasy and created the most gorgeous costumes I’ve ever seen basically out of curtains. It taught me that you can make anything happen. During the first show, I was a nervous and excited wreck. I felt like it was a big accident that I was cast, my dancing skills and experience were way below the other gals, I was also shorter, underage and totally naive. I was totally faking it, watching the other gals and trying my best to mimic them! I had three rehearsals to learn three routines and didn’t even get a fitting in my costumes until about an hour before curtain. I clearly remember sitting back stage with the fantastic cast trying to figure out how to glue my lashes on and how to get those huge headdresses to stay on. The buzz of the audience was electrifying and the smell of hot glue filled the backstage air. I love that smell. It’s almost as comforting to me as the smell of my grandmom’s kitchen on a Sunday. About 13 seconds after the curtain came up on the opening number, I had an absolute Janet Jackson costume malfunction! The minute I threw my arms in the air for a dance move, the girls came out! The costume was a tad too small I suppose, but I managed to get through the number with a lot of spinning and stuffing in. That was it for me, I haven’t performed in any other type of show since and I suppose I wasn’t so bad because I quickly went from being in the chorus line to having several feature acts- I even sang in one. That show was absolutely magical, from the costumes, story line, music, choreography and cast. I am lucky to have been a part of it and can’t wait for Dutch to mount another production! Even after the show closed in a perfect cloud of scandal, as all speakeasy shows should, many of the cast and crew pushed me to keep performing and helped me when I started the Pontani Sisters.
What are the pros and cons of having a manager? At what point should a gal decide to get a manager?
I don’t really have a manager so much as I have 3 amazing booking agents that I work with, one who does my solo performances, one who books my full show Burlesque-A-Pades and one who handles all my work in Italy. They are all much more than basic agents to me and help me with career decisions, press and really anything else I ask them advice on. I am very hands on with my career and work really closely with my agents on everything. The choice to use agents was really made for me when I couldn’t keep up with bookings and focus on my act at the same time. I’m into fast response and being on top of things. When that became impossible because of my travel I got serious about getting representation. The choice to get an agent or manager is a big one and certainly one that someone should consider when they get to the point that they can’t keep up with their work load, but you really need to find someone that you trust and jive with, someone who understands your act and won’t book you into an event that isn’t for you. They are after all a representation of you, so it’s important to get someone who gets you! I also rely on my family a lot and they are always happy to give me their opinions, especially my sister Tara who started the Pontani Sisters with Helen and me.
How long have you been co-producing the New York Burlesque Festival? The festival will have its ninth birthday this fall, and we’d like to know- what have you learned from your role in the festival?
I’ve been co-producing the New York Burlesque Festival since its inception 9 years ago. I’ve learned a lot from that event, it’s not easy to organize 150+ performers, each with unique needs. With these big events, and with every show, it’s about advancing the information, being clear in communication, being organized and having a great team. People are traveling from all over the world for 4 minutes on one of our stages in the big apple. We want to give them and the audience the best experience possible. To do that we advance all the information with each individual performer, the venue tech teams, our stage manager and sound coordinator, the host, the whole crew. It’s all about pre-empting any issues as well as having a fabulous crew, so that when something does go wrong everyone knows what to do. We also search high and low for great venues with nice high stages and clean sight-lines; my favorite is B.B Kings in Times Square! We also will be at Brooklyn Bowl, The Highline Ballroom and The Bell House this year; these venues are all top notch. Additionally, we have a total zero drama policy. Keep the drama for your mama, we are here to do a great show.
Last fall, you said in your CNN iReport interview that one of the most difficult things about being self-employed is ensuring that you stay employed. Many people don’t realize that though you have what some would consider a dream job, it’s a constant struggle to get more work, and that you work 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Do you find that people misjudge the amount of work required to being a full-time performer, producer and choreographer? How do you manage all of that without going crazy?
Well, I think you have to be a bit crazy to be in showbiz. But absolutely, most of my non-entertainer friends don’t even consider my career a real job. They think it’s all good times, parties, traveling and gallivanting. While that is part of my job, 97% is total work. During my “off” days, I am working on upcoming tours, shoots, shows, videos, keeping my site and press materials current, creating new costumes and maintaining my working costumes, thinking up new shows and keeping up with myself! Going to the gym and doing my nails are things that are career requirements to me. When I am in show mode on tour or doing a string of performances, it’s typically a chaotic and sometimes grueling schedule. Plane to tech to show, van to tech to show, plane to tech to show, etc…. That is the schedule and it can go on like that for weeks on end, throw in early morning interviews, time changes and sleep deprivation for fun! You need a lot of glamina (glamour+ stamina) to have a career in burlesque. It’s also tough on family relations sometimes, I love my family and being away so much can be a challenge. This year I’ve missed Easter and Mother’s Day dinner, I’m probably the first Pontani to ever do that!
In the same CNN interview you were quoted saying, “A good burlesque show is when the audience can get lost in the show.” What suggestions do you have as a producer and performer in terms of how to guarantee that your audience “gets lost” in the show?
As a producer, you need to think about more of the technical aspects, aside from getting a great crowd and keeping your performers happy in the green room. Good lights, a proper stage with good sight lines- these things make a good show great. As a performer, you should be thinking and caring about these things as well, but you also have to practice. I like to practice my routines like crazy. I don’t ever want to think about what comes next, I like for it to be instinct so that I can be up there running on instinct and having fun, not panicking about my next step or garment removal, which is also why it’s important to practice in costume. Know your costume in and out and where the weakest points are in case of a tear away emergency. It’s a little insane I know, but when I rehearse, I will first get my basic act down, know my markers in the music and where different things should happen, then I will turn in every direction and do the routine, I’ll do it in the dance studio which is a hard wood floor, then my living room which is shag carpet, then I’ll do it in my tiled entry way and then I do it with all the lights out and my eyes closed. If you can handle that, you can handle any warbled stage or other mishap you might endure.
You, as well as your sisters, have played a significant role in not only the New York burlesque scene, but the burlesque revival in general. Though I’m sure there are many, what are some of the big changes that you’ve noticed taking place in recent years as far as the revival is concerned?
The form seems to be perpetually evolving and changing. Mostly it has grown, there were a hand full of us in the beginning and now there are tons of performers. I also see a lot of sects forming, classic, alternative, punky, comedy, pop, contemporary, themes… people who take burlesque and adapt it to their sensibilities teaming up with other like minded folks and creating full shows. The biggest change is the growth of the scene, it’s amazing to watch and be a part of as well.
Unlike some other performers whom I’ve heard describe burlesque as an almost exclusive hyper-glamorous art form, you seem to stress the realness and audience connection when you describe burlesque, which I find not only much more realistic, but it also shows that you’re rather down to earth. You’ve said that burlesque “is being able to manifest this ideal image of glamour but at the same time create almost an accessibility to the audience where they connect with you… it’s ultra-glamorous, but not off-putting. It’s not like a red velvet rope feeling… We put a lot of effort and money into looking glamorous and fabulous but there’s a realness to it that I think people can connect to… it’s not unattainable.” What do you think is the key to being both ultra-glamorous and making a real connection with the audience?
I think a big part of the key is not taking yourself too seriously. I am very serious about serious entertainment, but there is a balance. I don’t want people’s perception of me to be this false ideal, that’s just not who I am. I love glamour and corsets and 5″ heels and 20 pound gowns and my glass bath tub, but with enough time and effort anyone can have those things. The reality is I also love vacuuming and sitting on my stoop on any given day for hours chatting with my neighbors. I think of Dolly Parton as the ultimate ideal of this philosophy, she is both glam, amazing, wildly talented and a total diva in her own way, but she is also real and real about what is fake. I hope I’m making sense, I have a tough time with these questions because to me burlesque is what it is, and it’s showbiz. I’m not much for analyzing. If you are good at what you do and have a sincerity and love for show business, it comes across and that’s the joy and excitement the audience feels.
I noticed from some of your Facebook posts that you have at least one vintage sewing machine. What are the benefits of using an older model? Any drawbacks?
I have two vintage machines, both hand me downs from my family. One is a huge Viking Huskvarna industrial machine from the 40’s, the other is a 50’s table top Singer. I’ve got a modern singer as well, but I rarely use it. The old machines are quite indestructible and look a lot better too. I don’t make my own costumes anymore, but when I did, I used those vintage machines. My Viking will sew through anything, fingers included. It is a dream with heavy fabrics. The drawback to the vintage machines are repairs, I actually recently put my Viking in storage, there was only one man NYC who repaired that type of machine. He did house calls and came and tuned up my machine once a year, sadly he passed away and I can’t find anyone who can really get her going since! I’ll never get rid of her, in fact I think I will probably end up hiring a mechanic to come and replace the motor and other parts one day. Even though I don’t make my own costumes anymore, I sew quite a bit. I tailor most everything I buy and I make a lot of my own clothes. I love to make my friends homemade gifts for holidays and birthdays, like vintage aprons in really fun novelty prints.
What big projects are you working on at the moment?
There is a lot in the works right now, we are in full swing planning for the 9th Annual New York Burlesque Festival which will take place September 29th – October 2nd right here in the big apple. I am also working on a new touring show with Los Straitjackets, the Rock ‘N Burlesque Spectacular, that will be a two week tour in late October, we will also have a Burlesque-A-Pades tour back on in the winter and I’m going to be releasing some new DVD’s this Fall, including a new Go-Go Robics. I am really excited about that one!