Canadian burlesque performer, pin-up model, pin-up photographer and vintage stylist Bettina May talks burlesque Green Cards, $8 weekly food budgets, veganism, and the New York Burlesque scene.
Q: The New York Daily news dubbed you the “Jiggling Genius” when last Fall you earned your Green Card and were the first to be awarded the moniker of “Alien of Extraordinary Ability”. You may be the first burlesque performer in history to have earned a green card based on excellence in the field. Can you walk our readers through the process? Did you find you had to explain what burlesque was to government officials, or even though there was no “burlesque” checkbox on your application, you found people were pretty aware of the art form?
A: It was a real uphill struggle to get where I am now. For one thing, no one involved had ever heard of burlesque before, including my lawyers, first for my two consecutive O-1 Visas, which were each good for one year, and then with my Green Card in New York I had to repeat the same research over again when I got a new lawyer. I had to work so hard to school my lawyers on what burlesque and pin-up are, and they in turn had to explain that in a way that defined it as the art form it is to the US Government. I only ever got to speak to two actual government officials over the many years it took to get here, and they had no idea what burlesque was.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to make the U.S. home and why? Was it simply for work reasons akin to every great immigrant story or is there more? Do you plan to pursue citizenship, or will you remain a Canadian citizen?
A: I think I’ve always wanted to live in New York City, ever since I was a little girl watching old musicals about showbiz, I knew this is where I wanted to end up. On a broader scale, the US simply has a greater population density than Canada, so it’s much easier to be a touring performer, and once I started touring all over the US (I think there are only a handful of states I haven’t performed in, maybe Wyoming and Michigan?) I realized the only place I could make a full-time living as a burlesque performer was in New York City. The scene here is so diverse and it’s a town that really appreciates live entertainment. I’m definitely going to apply for US citizenship when I’m eligible in a few years, but fortunately I don’t have to renounce my Canadian citizenship to do that. I still love my home country, and love going back to visit.
Q: Speaking of your native Canada, how has the Canadian burlesque scene evolved in the past ten years since you were performing there full time, or has it?
A: I left Canada in 2009, and the scene there was already thriving, particularly in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. I feel like it’s really exploded in recent years, with weekly and monthly shows in the major markets, and a great presence of performers from my hometown of Victoria and across the country at international festivals.
Q: You have been living in Brooklyn for 3 years working on this process. To afford your legal fees, you allowed yourself a weekly food budget of $8, which is virtually impossible to pull off anywhere, let alone in New York City. What did a typical meal look like for you?
A: Pretty much every day I ate some kind of soup made of whatever dried bean or lentil was on sale that week, and the cheapest, heartiest veggies I could buy. My other meal of the day was pearl barley (cheapest grain you can buy) and steamed kale. That saw me through the better part of three years; it’s amazing what you can get by on.
Q: Speaking of food, I watched a recent interview where you talked about your passion for veganism for both environmental reasons and animal compassion concerns. What are the three biggest things you wish everyone knew about veganism?
1. Vegans love food! People always assume I eat boring food or don’t like it, but we’re almost always foodies and eat amazing food all the time!
2. It’s not as hard as you think! I’ve eaten vegan out of a tour bus all across the Deep South, and actually went vegan in Paris, France of all places. Vegan food is everywhere, you just have to know what to look for.
3. Chocolate is vegan! You don’t have to go without favourite foods, we even have delicious cheeses made from cashews that even the most devout cheese lover goes crazy for!
Q: You are a household name, due in a large part to your years of extensive touring. Have you always been a traveler at heart? Can you please share some of what you’ve learned over 10 years of touring- a little do’s and don’ts list so to speak for gals considering taking their show on the road?
A: I’ve always loved traveling, I think from when I was a little girl camping all over the west coast with my family. Gosh, this question could fill a whole book, so I’ll just leave it at this: Take a shower and shave every chance you get on the road, sometimes you never know where your next one will be! And always be a gracious visitor when people are hosting you. You are representing your hometown and the burlesque community at large, and if you leave them with smiles on their faces, they’ll be much more likely to bring you back and others like you!
Q: Speaking of traveling, you have taught your infamous Pin-Up Class all over the country, in which you teach women of all backgrounds- from housewives to performers, how to achieve the perfect pin-up look for them. What are your top three make-up tricks every gal should know?
1. Have a good blue-based red lipstick in your kit, it’s the only thing you need to wear on a daily basis.
2. Lose the bronzer and get a good rosy-cheeked blush!
3. Shape your eyebrows, and define them for stage and photos, either with eyeshadow and a stiff angle brush or a sharpened pencil in your shade.
Q: Bettina’s Bombshell Basics was just released by World Dance New York, which is essentially your workshop in DVD form. Can you tell our readers a little about the inception of this project? Who approached whom? Did you maintain all creative control? Any hilarious behind the scenes stories our readers would enjoy?
A: World Dance New York contacted me a few years ago wanting to expand their dance brand into lifestyle videos, and wondered if I could put together an instructional video about being a Pin-Up model. We did our first video then, “How To Be A Pin-Up Model”, which is everything I teach in my class. For this second DVD, I wanted to show how to use pin-up styling techniques of a wider variety of hair types, eye shapes and also how vintage style lingerie is great for curvy gals. They are great producers, giving me complete creative control. We filmed this video backstage at one of my regular burlesque gigs, a Dances of Vice show produced by Shien Lee called Nuit Blanche at Beaumarchais in NYC. If you look closely you can see performers getting ready in the mirror behind me and you may even see Albert Cadabra, the host of the night walking past in the background too.
Q: You seem to wear so many hats: burlesque performer, pin-up model, vintage stylist, make-up artist, costumer, hair stylist, photographer, teacher, producer….. What’s next for Bettina May? Any new upcoming projects you are eager to share?
A: I’m getting set for another big burlesque and pin-up class tour of the West Coast in March with an amazing musician from back home in Victoria, Lily Fawn, starting in Portland, OR and ending at Viva Las Vegas, where I’ll be modeling in the Secrets In Lace fashion show, teaching a class on vintage lingerie and also offering private photoshoots. People can see my full schedule and sign up for my classes at http://bettina.ca/calendar/. A long term goal is to open up a pin-up photography studio in Manhattan; I currently have one in Brooklyn. Also within the next year I hope to be launching a new product line, but that’s all I can say about that at the moment.