Atlanta’s Katherine Lashe, the “Girl Behind the Behind,” talks Southern Fried Burlesque Fest, working for free, Dita, and looking cheap.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
You’re the producer of the first ever Southern Fried Burlesque Festival, to be held in Atlanta March 10th-13th. Tell us a little about all the preparation required for such an undertaking.
Many of us had been kicking the idea around for a while because there just weren’t any festivals like this here. We figured being fairly centrally located in the Southeast and a major city, we could showcase a happy medium that would include ultra classic burlesque, the more modern neo-burlesque, as well as variety acts.
One of the biggest decisions was who to have headline the event. The first people I contacted were our very own local legends Torchy Taboo and Jo Boobs, who actually used to work at the Cheetah here in Atlanta, and have always been a great inspiration for me. Dirty Martini had been in Atlanta before with the Sex Workers Art Show Tour back in 2007, and was just amazing. She and I had a conversation about how much she loved Southern cooking, but she never actually really got to have any when they were on tour because they were always just passing through. I had made the joke that maybe we could just bribe Dirty with a real, home cooked Southern meal and get her to perform – which got me wondering what it would take to get her to come down. With Ursula’s encouragement, I sent Dirty an email and she sounded excited, so we began the booking process. I had chatted with Gary Beeber online about bringing “Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque” to Atlanta, and we ended up being able to set up a screening to kick off the festival on Thursday night.
I have a confession: I have zero graphic skills. The beautiful banners on the webpage, the posters, the t-shirts, are all designed by Ursula Undress. That was actually how I got her into this, she was helping out as an advisor/graphic designer and it just ended up that she was so passionate and had so many great ideas she ended up becoming a co-producer. She is great to work with as we both have opposite strengths so we really complement each other as a partnership.
Your bio says your debut in burlesque was opening for Dita von Teese in 2003. Tell us more about how you managed to debut opening for one of the biggest names in burlesque.
Shortly after moving to Atlanta I ended up getting a job at The Chamber as a go-go dancer/performance artist. After working there for a while we started what we jokingly called “Team Chamber” which consisted of all the payroll artists which included myself, as well as burlesque performers Renea le Roux and Gia Nova. One day the manager came up to us and said, “You’re opening for Dita in two weeks, do something burlesque-y.” She had just been on the cover of Playboy about a month before she came, and I had no idea who she or what burlesque really was. We ended up putting together a performance and costumes in the two weeks we had, and managed to pull it off fairly successfully. Afterwards, I got to sit back stage and talk with Dita for a while and she was amazingly nice, gracious and more than willing to answer all of my random questions. My favorite part of the conversation was her talking about how she has a room that holds all of her costume pieces, and that she sometimes would just sit in there and gaze at them, basking in their beauty. She was so glamorous, like a porcelain doll of a French Can-Can dancer, and after that I was kind of hooked and started looking more into it.
You’ve been performing burlesque consistently since 2004, but began producing in 2006, and you’re one of the founders of Syrens of the South Productions. Tell us about the creation of Syrens and how it’s evolved over the years.
Syrens of the South was a name I came up with for a sister act, and it ended up carrying over to the production company. I started out with the idea that it needed to be something different than anything else in the Atlanta area at that point, which was dominated by troupes. Blast-off Burlesque had just formed about a year before, and they do amazing Sci-Fi and more comedic performances. Dames Aflame is Atlanta’s oldest burlesque troupe, originally started by Torchy Taboo, and does very Vegas showgirl style performances, feathered headdresses and all. There are a couple of vintage themed troupes, but I never wanted to do any one theme. I do acts from Grease to The Sex Pistols, so I really needed to be in an environment where I could do all of it.
Syrens of the South is not a troupe, it’s a production company that works with everyone. We’ve had members of local troupes as well as independent performers from all over the country grace the stage of a Syrens show. We’re able to pull from a much bigger pool of performers rather than limiting ourselves to a core group and trying to mesh schedules for group rehearsals. I like to trust that everyone will be professional, work on their own acts when it’s convenient for them, and come together to do an amazing show!
You’ve taught burlesque history classes at festivals, but you’re probably best known for your Business of Burlesque class. What does that class entail? What is one piece of burlesque business advice you wish you’d received before you got started?
The “Business of Burlesque Class” is my most requested class when I travel to festivals. I go over everything from how to manage oneself as an independent performer to how to produce a show and make a budget. I also go over how to price merchandise, places to order it from, and how to work a crowd to get them to buy as well as how to lock in your stage name to establish yourself.
The one piece of business advice that I wish I’d gotten is sometimes it’s okay to turn down a gig. When I first started I did everything and anything offered to me regardless of pay, and really started over-saturating myself with not enough time to produce new, quality numbers. If they don’t appreciate the time and effort that you put into putting together a number including creating a costume, choreography, and concept through payment, or some great exposure, it’s absolutely okay say “I’m sorry, but I am unavailable for your event.” I’m not saying that any of us are in if for the money, I do free shows for causes I believe in or for major exposure; but the moment it’s not fun and you don’t feel good about it, what’s the point? Everyone deserves to get something for their efforts, and if you’ll do anything for free all the time, it cheapens what you do and cheapens what your fellow performers do and no one will ever get paid what they’re worth.
While growing up in Tennessee, you studied everything from ballet, to clown and mime workshops, and seemingly every aspect of musical theater, including dance, voice, scene study, movement and even lighting, sound and especially costuming. It’s almost like you were prepping to be a burlesque powerhouse without even realizing it! How did the skills you learned in those areas translate to your burlesque career?
I know that my theater experience definitely helped me as far as being comfortable to take risks, and helped the most with producing and running a show. I’ve stage managed a lot, and that knowledge is what made me know what information we needed from each performer for each act to make sure everything flowed as smoothly as possible.
The dance training helped for obvious reasons, since the striptease and dancing goes hand in hand. My ability to pick up choreography fairly quickly has been a huge help, and I know I wouldn’t be able to do that without the years of having it drilled into my head.
The costuming has probably been one of the biggest helps as far as a money saver since, as Mae West said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” I’ve made costumes for myself as well as many other Atlanta performers. Often my sewing for other people is how I pay for my own costumes. I have this little beam of pride every time another performer is on stage wearing something I made because I got to help make their vision come true!
Anything you’d like to add?
Burlesque has been an amazing opportunity for me, not just for performing but as a catalyst for personal growth as well. I have never been a size 0 with Double D breasts, and I never will be. Starting in middle school, I was obsessed with my size and weight because at a size 8, I thought I was a cow. One of the things I love about burlesque is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a size 2 or a 22. If you have the self confidence and the right attitude, you’re sexy because that shows from your soul, not just your outer appearance. I have never really been one to have a lot of female friends, but the women involved in burlesque have this inner confidence and glow that isn’t as catty and judgmental like a lot of the women outside the community. I’ve gone from someone who had almost no female friends to someone that has a wonderful group of burlesque sisters that are my family and I love them all as such.