New York Burlesque sensation, Headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, and author of the recently published book The Burlesque Handbook, Jo “Boobs” Weldon talks glamour, the Muppets, popped pasties, and evil nurses.
By: Divertida Devotchka
Congratulations on the recent publishing of your book, The Burlesque Handbook! Care to share briefly how this book came to pass?
I had been producing handouts for classes for years, and also selling a 50-page ebook. I tried a couple of times to sell the handbook as a coffee table book, because that’s what everyone seemed to expect, since I was also a photographer. Then my agent, Brandi Bowles, and I came up with the idea of a portable, affordable handbook, and my editor Rakesh Satyal at HarperCollins picked it up. He had been to the Slipper Room and knew that it wasn’t just a “How to Strip for Your Man” type of book–although I’d love to do one of those too–and let me describe the way we’ve been doing burlesque in the independent scene.
You left home at 18 to become a stripper in an Atlanta strip club, and you state in your book that you were “disappointed by the lack of glamour” and that you found that working in such clubs was “high in drama but lacking in theater.” Burlesque was obviously the cure for your lack of glamour and theater. Tell us about that first experience when you made that discovery.
Coney Island, baby! Bambi the Mermaid took me to see shows at Coney Island and The Blue Angel. I also saw The World Famous Pontani Sisters at Marion’s Restaurant on the Bowery. Then I went to Exotic World, and it all came together! But as I say in my book, I was always seeing burlesque and performance art from the 1970s on…there’s a whole lot more to that story!
You mention the Muppets as one of your influences and inspirations. I’d love to hear more about that.
Oh, the Muppets backstage, who wouldn’t want to be in showbiz after seeing that? Also, the way they could mix smart humor with childish wonder. And the way they’d do tons of production to set up a one-liner. Of course the Muppets were influenced by burlesque and vaudeville humor, so it’s sort of a circular reference!
In your book you also state that “burlesque history is full of genius and passion and playfulness and dirty-mindedness combined with a willingness to do darn near anything to get applause.” I love that description and it made me wonder, what do you consider to be the most ridiculous things you have done for applause?
Leaving out some of the really filthy stuff, probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve done is Godzilla. I worked on that tail for months. And the giant head has Swarovski eyes.
Performers know that the occasional minor wardrobe malfunction is virtually inevitable. Do you have any suggestions on how to recover gracefully when one’s clothing gets stuck and doesn’t come off as planned (or when there’s a major prop failure or a popped pastie?)
Laugh, don’t cry! Use your showmanship to keep the audience entertained. Don’t let them get tense or upset on your behalf. Play it off, and if possible, call everyone up onstage to help you out of your costume! [Regarding] lost pasties–it’s a blessing, not a curse, but protect the venue’s interest and cover up if you need to.
You made a very good point in your book when you said, “Burlesque is prone to archetypes and zeitgeist…your chances of doing something that hasn’t been thought of before are slim.” Please explain more about this philosophy.
Thousands of people have been doing burlesque for decades. It takes a little research to know if what you’re doing is really new. I’d rather see people just follow their hearts and do what they love than strain to avoid doing an act with a theme others may have used. There have been tons of evil nurse acts, but you might do the best evil nurse act ever! Cleverness is awesome, but it isn’t enough to entertain an audience if they can’t see your bright idea. I’d rather see a common idea executed brilliantly than a unique idea executed poorly. I think it’s important for performers to put execution above ideas. In any field, it’s more fun to think up brilliant ideas than to do the work to bring them to reality–inspiration is a gift! Naturally, the best combination is originality and hard work. If you’re a real artist, you’ll probably enjoy the work as well.
What other projects and events are you currently looking forward to?
I’m excited to teach all over the world! I’m currently working with disabled performers, including Liz Carr, to develop burlesque numbers for the DaDaFest in Liverpool this winter. I’m also working with Keep-A-Breast and The Young Survivors Coalition to do burlesque programs for cancer patients and survivors who often feel alienated from their bodies after diagnosis and treatment.
Anything you’d like to add?
I hope everyone who wants to try burlesque will just do it! There is nothing at all to stop you from having the time of your life among some of the most loving and joyous performers in the world.