Burlesque documentarian, critic, and enthusiast Holli-Mae Johnson talks dime a dozen publications, the importance of critique, judging BHoF, evolving, and the future of burlesque.
Q: You founded 21st Century Burlesque in 2007 originally as “21st Century Pinups”, and covered a broader subject matter including rockabilly & pinup lifestyle pieces. Why did you decide to narrow the focus exclusively to burlesque? Did your 2007 pilgrimage to Tease-O-Rama play a part in that decision?
I think initially I wanted to represent the full picture of the US scene I discovered. When I went to American burlesque festivals and events in the mid 2000s there was a big rockabilly and pinup crowd, alongside and partly comprised of the burlesquers in attendance. I interviewed people like Masuimi Max and Bernie Dexter alongside well known burlesque pioneers, and covered rockabilly fashion. However, you are right to say that the 2007 and 2008 Tease-O-Ramas played a part in the magazine’s direction; it was a life-changing experience. I had a world class introduction to the contemporary movement: some of the very first performers I saw live were Dirty Martini, Catherine D’Lish, Michelle L’amour, and Jo Weldon. Murasaki Babydoll! Tigger!! How insanely fortunate is that? How could I not fall head over heels? The burlesque community members I spent time with at Tease-O-Rama almost ten years ago inspired a publication which has dominated my life and my heart ever since. I wrote more and more about burlesque and was embraced by the burlesque community to the extent that a dedicated publication became an obvious step.
Q: When Pin Curl began in 2009, there were a small handful of pinup and burlesque publications, including 21st Century Burlesque, and Bachelor Pad Magazine. Now there are countless publications, with a new one seeming to pop up every few months or so, from small blog based publications to magazines trying to go the main stream route to be available in bookstores worldwide. Do you find this inspiring, frustrating, or something in between? What are perspectives or qualities you admire in other publications, and what qualities turn you off all together?
As the global scene expands, inevitably there are more attempts to document it. I’ve seen a number of attempts come and go. Some people get excited about the idea of starting a magazine but soon realise how much time and effort is required to sustain one, and beyond those essential demands, the knowledge, connections and skill to do it properly.
At the beginning I thought carefully about whether a print or digital focus was the best way to go, but ultimately focusing on an online site was a no-brainer. I didn’t want to pay WH Smiths (major UK high street news retailer) £3000 to be lost and unseen on a shelf crammed full of magazines. I couldn’t afford a big print order upfront. I also wanted to connect with the community on a daily basis and be able to talk about new and relevant issues and stories as they happened. Social media was starting to pick up, and once I began publishing online people were hungry for more at the click of a button. Honestly, I’ve never looked back on that decision. In February 2015 over 100,000 people visited the magazine site. A print version could never compete with that.
In terms of the other burlesque titles around, whether currently publishing in print or dormant online, money can have a helpful and/or negative effect. I’ve seen titles die because the motivation was to make money rather than focus on quality content and make the necessary sacrifices to produce it, and I’ve seen a poor quality print title survive because it’s collectible and appears to have funds for sponsorship and other promotion. But funding can’t buy experience, or editorial skill, or knowledge, or personal and emotional investment and contribution to a community. I encourage other would-be writers and documenters not to be discouraged by a lack of funds. 21CB is proof that you can have a valued and lasting impact on a shoestring.
Fellow online publications like Pincurl, Burlesque Beat and This Is Cabaret have long held my respect; articles are well planned, proofed and researched by informed, articulate and respected people who involve themselves in the scene on a daily basis. The passion and knowledge shines through, and like me they recognise that producing quality documentation is so important when we continue to fight so many mainstream assumptions, stereotypes and misconceptions.
I should mention at this point that there are many fantastic performer blogs which document the scene with just as much passion, knowledge and intelligence, and they don’t have to be editorially perfect to matter. But if you start a publication and put yourself out there as an authority – a representative – you owe it to the international community and its fans to do a good job.
Q: Many of these other publications are based in the U.S. and cover very little of the rest of the world, if any. Do you feel being U.K. based is an advantage or disadvantage?
To be honest, most people I speak to assume I’m American or live in America. It’s only since I’ve published more London reviews that my location has become more obvious. I can understand the assumption; the magazine was set up as a direct result of the American scene, and to this day the majority of the content covers the States. I have been making a concerted effort to cover other international scenes more regularly, and have begun to set up international contributor groups to give them control over how their local scene is represented and gather contributions from local performers who enjoy writing. Europe is definitely underrepresented and I aim to tackle that this year too.
I have always pitched 21CB as an international publication, and I recognise that I need to do more work to truly and regularly reflect that. There’s no excuse for me not doing that; I have all the contacts and travel under my belt to make it possible. It’s a definite priority.
Q: As a self-described “control freak” how do you balance the need for more new and relevant information daily than one woman could possibly provide herself, with the desire for quality control and journalistic integrity? Is there a “vetting” process for contributors? Do you still proofread and edit each and every article before it goes live?
Quality over quantity is going to be particularly relevant this year, as I am now juggling a full time day job rather than spacing out freelance work alongside the magazine. I sometimes get frustrated that I struggle to publish daily news and updates and up the amount of weekly content, but ultimately I would rather put out well crafted pieces which I can thoroughly proof, edit and discuss with my contributors, making sure everyone is satisfied with what they are putting their name to and how the scene is represented for years to come.
The majority of content contributors are recruited on an invite basis. I frequently read performer blogs to discover well written, passionate content which deserves a larger audience, and commission new content, including the popular festival diaries and other special pieces. Increasing numbers of people contact me with their work and ideas, and I fully encourage that too. Not being asked doesn’t mean you aren’t wanted and welcomed – please feel free to contact me and get involved!
Q: At the end of 2012, you achieved a long time goal of having an issue in print that included some of your “greatest hits” from the online publication. How was it received? Is there another print edition in the works?
The print edition contained, with one exception, brand new and exclusive content. It took me a long time and was a huge learning experience, and finally holding it in my hands was an emotional moment. The generosity of the performers, writers and photographers involved was moving and affirming. I received excited and enthusiastic feedback, but I know the price limited the number of copies sold. I went with a print on demand service due to lack of funds and uncertainty about how many people would buy it. As the print edition got bigger, the price went up, but I don’t regret a single page. I have smaller print editions planned, designed to be more affordable.
Q: Ok, let’s talk about the new elephant in the room. Burlesque is an art form that for many reasons, has been void of critique, review, or criticism and that is slowly changing. In my opinion the two key reasons, are BurlyCon peer reviews and your show reviews. Let’s start with the obvious, why does burlesque need review? And why are “people who give a shit about burlesque” such as yourself, the perfect folks to do it? What qualifies you to be a good critic, and what process do you use to give a honest, and fair review?
The podcast interview you link to reveals a lot about my work and attitude to this issue, should people want to know more. But essentially, as the art form has grown and expanded, become saturated with performers of varying degrees of ability, and staked its claim as a valid, flourishing genre of performance which should be respected and acknowledged, some form of quality control is desirable and useful. Not to mention the fact that every other established art form is reviewed and evaluated as a matter of course. Many performers want it, and ticket buyers look for it. For me, as a documenter first and foremost, reviews are another form of documentation; they serve as a record of what works and doesn’t work, and what has made an impact and proved successful in our contemporary history. Sometimes they hold producers to account if they are selling something of poor quality to their audience, and they break through politeness and indiscriminate positivity to give an accurate depiction of a performance. They also tell the story of a production beyond surviving images and footage.
The main thing in my mind which distinguishes a critic from other people with informed views is the act of articulating their opinions and observations in writing, supported by a structured argument and the ability to evaluate everyone on equal terms. I have watched the very best burlesque performers from across the world do their thing for ten years, and watched many newcomers develop from the earliest stages to professional headlining. As a result I have an informed sense of what high quality burlesque performance is, and measure what I see accordingly. Being well travelled also helps me to judge how original and innovative an act is, and what it contributes to the art form. On top of that I am observant, analytical, and a writer; reviewing is an additional contribution I can make.
I talk to so many performers who get frustrated by relentlessly glowing feedback, even for acts which they know require more development. There seems to be a pressure to be enthusiastic and supportive and preserve self esteem, rather than provide honest evaluation. Some people admit that they feel they can’t be honest with their friends about what they really think, fearing backlash and screams of ‘Who the hell does she think she is?!’ It can be helpful to have someone who is informed but sufficiently removed to give honest, considered feedback. I began by giving private feedback when asked to individuals at both ends of the scale, but more and more people encouraged me to write public reviews, and now I think they are more important than ever.
Every performance I review, whether I’ve never met the performer before or have lunch with them every week, receives an honest review based purely on what I see. Most people are gracious, some less so, but the relationships that matter survive the critical process.
Q: Though you have a performance background, you have never been a burlesque performer. Is this an advantage or disadvantage as a burlesque documentarian and critic?
It isn’t something which has handicapped me so far; I have never felt excluded or undermined in any way as a non-burlesque performer. In fact, it gives me a clarity of vision which I might not have otherwise; I have no rivalries or creative pressures, or local agendas and hoops to jump through, or a struggle to find work and develop acts alongside trying to document the scene on a global scale. I understand how it feels to perform, and prepare to perform, but I’m not trying to juggle two conflicting roles.
Q: I admire how you’ve managed to deal with the negativity thrown at you because of your role as a critic. I wrote one recap back in 2010 of a local event, and in a sea of positive things, there were a few negatives. The producers were so hurt by that, that a personal rift still continues to this day, and I chickened out of ever writing about another event, particularly one in my own state. I’ve heard you speak a little on the onslaught of negativity that has come your way from reviews past; one in particular being notorious. How do you deal with the criticism of your criticism? Are there productions you just won’t review?
Last year, a mainstream reviewer who reviewed a burlesque show in London was subjected to bullying and intimidation of the lowest order for publishing her impartial thoughts and opinions, and I think that is absolutely unacceptable. How does that sort of behaviour represent the burlesque community to the mainstream world? It was embarrassing and infuriating. It is due to incidents like this that I refuse to be bullied or pressured into holding back or altering my reviews to suit producers or performers, whether they have damage control in mind or they are incapable of graciously accepting and considering an opinion that doesn’t entirely suit them.
If a show is badly executed and of poor quality, ticket buyers deserve the truth before they put their hand in their pocket, regardless of hurt feelings or producers’ excuses, or threats. I felt strongly about the ‘notorious’ review you mention primarily for this reason: the top ticket price for such a flawed production was outrageous in my mind, and could have purchased luxury dining and cabaret elsewhere, even a night watching Dita Von Teese and some of the biggest guns in the business. It appalled me that people were going away with an empty wallet and a complete misrepresentation of what top quality burlesque entertainment is.
The positive responses I receive far outweigh the negative ones. People thank me for my honesty and for creating discussion. Most performers graciously acknowledge any criticism or suggestions, and some contact me to ask for in-depth feedback. It is especially rewarding when I receive thank you notes from performers who claim my review has motivated them to up their game, redevelop their act, and emerge improved and empowered. I think most people realise that I haven’t invested a decade – one third of my life – into this art form simply to tear people down or flex my ego. Every comment I make is thoughtfully considered; every review I write goes through an evaluation and editing stage. It is, of course, only my opinion, and I’m not demanding that people listen to it, but it is an informed, thoughtfully expressed opinion, and shouldn’t be angrily dismissed purely because it makes you uncomfortable.
Q: In 2011, you were honored as a judge in the Burlesque Hall of Fame competitions. As more and more festivals pop up all over the country, many offering a queen of burlesque title of their own, do the BHoF titles still hold the weight they once did? Is BHoF still the pinnacle of burlesque performance in the world? Do the performances of the weekend salute the diversity in burlesque enough, or is “classic” burlesque too heavily favored?
The BHoF titles are undoubtedly the most coveted and acknowledged by a long way. The months of buzz around the event and the response to my coverage every year confirms its dominance. Other festivals award fun titles which people enjoy, but I think the majority don’t pretend to offer something with the same prestige or history attached. Looking back over the list of Miss Exotic Worlds, it’s hard to argue with names like Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Michelle L’amour and Catherine D’Lish; worthy titans of our industry lend their star power to that list and help it maintain a high profile. Who wouldn’t want to be immortalised alongside them?
I think recent years have seen a wider variety of performers honoured with a slot on the BHoF stage. Some will argue that’s purely due to pressure from an increasingly diverse community, but I like to think that the organisers want to reflect that BHoF can move with the times and doesn’t have to stick to the aesthetic principles and traditions the event initially upheld. Dixie Evans and her peers were predominantly ‘classic’ performers after all, catering to a male audience and managed by male producers who wanted feminine, glamorous shows, showcasing a particular body type. We know now that this is not the only enjoyable style, and audiences have changed significantly.
Today there is a huge and diverse range of performers all over the world offering high quality examples of several sub-genres, and it would be wrong if they weren’t given equal consideration. When some of our finest, most creative performers don’t make the cut and some of those who do make it offer nothing extraordinary or memorable, it is baffling and frustrating. We can only speculate on the politics, perceptions and pressures at play. That said, if people depart from their style and submit something they feel is ‘BHoF friendly’, or simply don’t apply at all – the committee can’t consider you, or see you at your best.
Classic, ‘gown and glove’ burlesque does get attacked and dismissed, and I think saturation at a mediocre level is largely to blame for that. But when classic is done well it is sublime and I will happily sit through hours of it. If someone comes out this year at BHoF and gives us outstanding gown and glove and demands that crown from her core, she should be rewarded for that, just as a mesmerising striptease on aerial silks with a raw, contemporary backing track should be rewarded if it is judged the best on the night – as we saw last year.
Q: What do you see as the future of burlesque in five years? What are the positive trends you see, what are some of the negative ones?
As more and more people pursue a professional career and compete for paid work, I hope creativity, quality and diversity won’t continue to suffer in order to secure mainstream corporate work and limited headliner spots at festivals. A number of people I speak to from major local scenes are reporting a sense of stagnation; I certainly sense it in London. I see so little new work and generally the same lineups and productions dominating popular venues, often at the mercy of commercial interests and the largely unimaginative vision of mainstream producers. It is easy to become complacent with a regular run at a popular tourist venue locked down. I would like to see performers spend more time on, or return to, the essential basics of top drawer burlesque entertainment before they commission the big prop or glue more rhinestones on: character development, choreography, use of music, transitions, connection with the audience, core strength, ENERGY, and so on.
I would like to see more creative, responsible and brave producers emerge who can counter the regressive breed of (mostly male) producers who cast based on their own narrow aesthetic tastes and what they have decided an audience likes and wants. Vivacity Bliss and her London show Cabaret Roulette is a great example of both innovation and good producing. The casts are diverse and are asked to create new work based on a chosen theme. The audience is challenged, surprised, and treated to new creative choices and ideas – performers and ticket buyers win in this situation.
I hope that the international community will continue to circulate, connect and collaborate. I know money is tight for many of us, but the burlesque community has a wonderful tradition of opening our homes to people we have only met online and making sure guests are taken care of. I hope the international festival and fringe circuit continues to embrace burlesque performers too; I love seeing new friendships and creative partnerships blossom from them.
As we have already discussed, I hope more people will become open to constructive feedback and evaluation, be that from respected, informed reviewers, or their peers, or both. We grow as individuals and as a scene when we communicate honestly and openly with each other. Most of the newcomers I meet are eager to learn, inform themselves and contribute something of value, but it is up to the more experienced among us to guide and direct that learning to produce a new generation of conscientious, confident performers who will represent our art form well and develop their own voices at the same time.
Q: Are there major trend differences between burlesque in the U.K. vs. the U.S.?
Well, both embrace classic and alternative styles, but the sources of inspiration and motivation are different, in my mind. The UK has centuries of theatrical traditions, from mummery to Shakespeare to Victorian music hall, and today burlesque is enjoyed as part of a larger cabaret genre of entertainment. Americans I speak to don’t always realise that there are very few back to back striptease shows here, unlike in the States, where there can be hours of it. Both national scenes have their share of long running weekly shows which bring in the tourists and largely stay the same, as well as more experimental, alternative performance in less high profile venues. Sadly, London is losing some of these treasured ‘safe spaces’ for experimental alternative art and the LGBT community.
The educational and networking opportunities in the States, such as BurlyCon and major events like BHoF, as well as the fact that it’s a far larger country with more performers in circulation, allows it to proceed with a confidence and pace which the UK can’t always match. The States can’t match the UK’s centuries of tradition, but their contemporary burlesque history is much more defined and ingrained. The modern day American pioneers – and the burlesque legends – are like a burlesque royal family who circulate and educate those who have come after them.
The UK has amazing performers like Vicky Butterfly, Kitty Bang Bang, Laurie Hagen, Lolo Brow and Aurora Galore, but there is no large scale, unifying event at which people can access them and their peers. I was recently at the Hedben Bridge Burlesque Festival in the north of England, a relatively small but warm and very well run event in its third year. This is the sort of event the UK needs to support and help to grow; the sense of unity, thoughtfully curated shows and top quality headliners was inspiring and exciting to observe.
Q: What do you hope to leave behind as your largest single contribution to the 21st century burlesque revival? What do you hope your place in the history books will be?
Jo Weldon once described me and the magazine as a pioneer in the contemporary scene, and before then I hadn’t thought about it that way. But when I look back at what was there before 21CB, and the online landscape it sketched out for the international community before popular social media took hold, I think that’s a fair description. I am proud that the magazine provided a place for performing and non-performing members of the scene to showcase their work and share ideas, and despite the tidal wave of changes in my life at the moment I am doing all I can to ensure the ‘show and tell’ continues. It would be wonderful to reach a tenth anniversary of publishing, and it’s not that far off.
The beauty of online media is that an ongoing archive of contemporary documentation can be enjoyed and referred to long after I or others are unable to add to it as frequently. I am content to contribute this resource; the things I have witnessed, the pleasure of recording it and the incredible people I get to spend my life with is its own reward. But who knows – there might be an extra project or two in the pipeline…