Dallas legend Black Mariah, who will be performing next at Bewitching Burlesque’s Mid Summer Masquerade on August 8th, sits down to talk White Lightnin’, Jabberwockies, full-figured gals, and complacency.
Interview & Photographs by Shoshana of Through the Looking Glass Studio
Most Texans met you as “Black Mariah of the Lollie Bombs”, but you have been performing for many years, prior to moving to the Lone Star State. Can you tell us about your burlesque beginnings?
I started performing as a soloist in Tennessee. I was going to do burlesque on a stage or else! So I got in touch with a couple of friends who ran a Gothic club night at a local venue, and I debuted at their Halloween show. At that time, no one was performing burlesque in the area. I was, however, slightly nervous when I realized that there was no one else booked to perform that night. Instead of being part of a much larger show, I WAS the show!
I did not disappoint and became hooked on the rush of performing burlesque. I did a couple more solo performances and along came a good friend with a great idea to start White Lightnin’ Burlesque, Knoxville’s first modern burlesque dance troupe. I moved to Dallas about a Year after the troupe started which made me very sad to leave my close knit sisters. I was lucky the Lollies snatched me up as soon as I got here.
With all of the recent growth of burlesque, the mentor relationship becomes very important. Can you describe that relationship for us?
I did not have a mentor when I began. I’m pretty sure I was the first in my town (with the exception of the burlesque shows performed in the 30’s and 40’s) to forge a path for burlesque in the definition we see it now. I do mentor, because I don’t want to see performers have to take the long route, when I have all the information to help them get started.
Beginners should look for qualities in a mentor that we would look for in a mentor of any industry. The qualities should reflect not only a positive and uplifting personality, but also consistency in their interpersonal relationships with other in the community. Good mentors have great relationships in the community and are not prone to breaking deals, or burning bridges. Good mentors also have enough performances and experience in their pocket that they can advise an up and coming performer about potential obstacles and pitfalls. Hopefully a potential mentor can also introduce her budding debutant to other professionals so they can share advice as well.
Can you describe your creative process from seed to stage?
I get tons of ideas. I often write them down in an idea book. I chew on the idea while, to make sure that the idea wasn’t a fleeting interest and it is strong enough to transcend more than one show. All of my numbers have to be something I can perform on almost any stage and be appropriate for almost any type of show. I get a concept of either the music or the costume and make sure this is something tangible, physically practical and affordable. Large props or large amounts of props are often a recipe for disaster. I keep in mind that at any point, I may be the sole person carrying the costumes and props in for my performance. I want nothing bigger than I can handle on my own.
You are known for your fan routines, which many view as more classic burlesque, but often use more edgy modern music. How do you describe your style?
Neo- Burlesque. As I understand, Neo- Burlesque is the modern spin on burlesque utilizing modern music and dance styles or costuming but taking it off like the old days. With “classic” burlesque, the performances are defined as performances utilizing music or a live band playing music from the era of the 30-50s, with classic costumes, props, and choreography. Classic performers look like they stepped out of any of those eras without any indication of the new millennium being an influence.
Who are your burlesque idols?
Dita Von Teese. She was the first performer I saw and her grace and beauty made me want to do this. When I had the chance to meet her and tell her how she changed my life, she was so kind! She was so humble and sweet. She is one of the nicest celebrities I have ever met, not to mention the most stunningly beautiful!
Dirty Martini is also a personal hero for me. She is extremely curvy and confident. Her performances are always very unique, and her facial expressions are just animated and perfect.
Many fans are in awe of your amazing performances and your ability to really connect with the audience. Many women also find inspiration in the fact that you are a full figured gal. What advice can you offer to larger ladies who may be struggling with accepting their beauty?
I wasn’t a full figured girl all my life. I was lean when I was younger, and at one point in my 20s I lost a LOT of weight, nearly 80 pounds down to a size 10. I look at pictures from that time in my life and you would think I would be happier then, but I wasn’t- I thought I looked sick. There was nothing wrong with me, but I just don’t think “thin” was a good look for me.
I don’t think I really felt good about the way I looked until I made the decision to become a burlesque dancer. I was out of shape and knew I needed to get into shape (notice I did not say “lose weight”) to be happy with how I looked on stage. Confidence begins within. I wanted to tone up and not only be healthy but look healthy. And just so you readers know, I don’t think I could have possibly gotten much smaller at the Size 10. Females are not all engineered to be a size 0-2 at our lowest body fat capacity. Don’t buy into that.
If I have learned anything at all from being in the burlesque scene, it is that low self esteem is not reserved for the full figured gal. Body image issues are across the board more equally than people realize. I think people assume larger girls must be self conscious because our “flaw” is obvious to the superficial. Truth is women who do not have to fret over their body mass index can easily find anything else they don’t like about themselves.
Do you feel an extra obligation to represent plus size gals?
Yes. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to fit into designer dresses and have thighs that don’t jiggle, but I just cannot connect with my audience if I am not being true to myself. I am thankful that I am a larger girl but I want to be a healthy full figured girl. I want to inspire women to love themselves for who they are and take care of their bodies. I feel like I am blessed with a unique platform to inspire young women to become the best each one of them can be.
You are a Renaissance woman, in that your art is not exclusively in your performances; you also are known for your pin-up modeling, costume and pasties design, as well as your graphic design abilities in creating beautifully whimsical Lollie Bombs flyers. How has art transformed (or formed) your life?
Art is my life. I get inspiration from every opportunity and experience in my life. I feel inspiration and share the energy from seeing other’s creativity come to life. I become excited like a little kid when I find something that really speaks to me. I can watch the JabbawockeeZ dance, and be just as excited and inspired as I can watching a documentary about birds.
I am more appreciative of creativity and the hard work it takes to achieve iconic success when my eyes and mind are open to love the art.
What does the future hold for Black Mariah? Any upcoming performances or projects we should know about?
You will be seeing a lot more solo performances around town. I will always be a Lollie Bomb first, but I am also working on getting into the Burlesque Festivals and experiencing that aspect of the business. The performers that make it into the festival shows are stunning, and have amazing routines. I will be working on some big debuts this year that will give nod to the burlesque legends, as well as carve a niche in bigger and better performances. My greatest fear is becoming complacent in this business. Once you become complacent, you become mediocre and obsolete.
Black Mariah will be performing at Bewitching Burlesque August 8th at the Plaza Arts Center, and with the Lollie Bombs at the Pocket Sandwich theatre August 21st and 22nd for a Breast Cancer Awareness benefit.