Burlesque: There Are Big Hearts Behind Those Busts.
Story Femme Vivre LaRouge
It struck a poignant cord with me this year at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Legends Q&A how many of our legends have followed humanistic pursuits, not only in the performing arts, but in the social spectrum as well. I realize that it might be easy for the uninitiated to think of these sensual entertainers as divas or mere attention-seekers, but they are, in fact, intelligent, empathetic, strong, and passionate women who have chosen to share their love of life with others. Judith Stein and Shannon Doah, legends of burlesque, have displayed themselves with grace and glamour for international audiences. But their beauty goes much further than skin-deep. These ladies have followed up their lusty and illustrious careers as showgirls with work that serves others. Judith Stein brings humor to housebound patients and Shannon Doah aids animals in abusive homes. We are lucky to have living legends such as these to look up to.
Judith Stein, a resident of Nelson, British Columbia, has been inducted into The Burlesque Hall of Fame as Canada’s only Legend of Burlesque. She is active in the Canadian burlesque community as a performer and mentor, and teaches workshops on the art of striptease “for your inner tramp” (theartofburlesque.com) Ms. Stein’s performance career began in 1974 when she took up topless go-go dancing to help pay for college. From there she had the chance to learn the art, firsthand, from some of the greatest peelers in the business, and became an internationally acclaimed sensation herself. I was lucky enough to meet Ms. Stein this year at the BHoF Reunion and she was absolutely delightful, “the last Legend standing” at all the after parties!
Judith Stein now works with Interior Health of British Colombia as a Home Support Worker. She provides services to those who wish to remain in their own homes, but need a helping hand with cooking, meds, bathing and hygiene, etc. Furthermore, when these patients are getting ready to pass, Ms. Stein keeps them clean, comfortable, and in good company. She states that, in these palliative health care cases, “Of course, mine die laughing.” Some of the men she has cared for even knew her from her original days as a performer, one telling her, “I can die a happy man now.” Judith says that the great reward in this type of work, the same as with burlesque, is “The smile on people’s faces.” The importance of her work is obvious, and her patients are grateful; as one woman put it, “You walked with me to the end of the road.”
When asked, “What have been some of the more challenging and rewarding aspects
of your careers?” Ms. Stein replied that, after quitting burlesque, she moved to a small town and was open about what she had done in her previous career. “Some of the challenging things were being taken seriously as an intelligent, caring human being; being taken seriously by men, and dispelling the myth that I was probably a hooker, and dumb. I remember when I moved here, there were radical feminists, and they challenged me about my choice of career.” A long-time feminist herself, and member of C.O.Y.O.T.E. (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), she attempted to explain to such challengers that, “I earned my own living, I did what was right for me.” She says, “I had to educate a few people.” Judith states that what was rewarding about her career in burlesque was the ability to entertain, lots of money, travel, independence, and being her own boss. In her current line of work, it is rewarding to do something that is needed, to provide a valuable service.
I asked Ms. Stein, “What has remained constant between your careers, and what has changed?” to which she replied, “What has remained constant is my love of people, and to provide the service with the utmost of charm, grace, and intelligence.” As to what has changed, “When I was a dancer, I thought the world would never end. I hadn’t given much thought to aging. When you’re young and beautiful and in demand, you don’t think about the days when you’re going to go through menopause, health issues, and that you’re not going to have all that money again.”
When asked, “What are some of your accomplishments that you are most proud of?” Judith replied that it has always been the ability to entertain people, “to present myself as an intelligent thinking and aware woman, and well-educated.” She shared a chilling story with me about dancing at a frat party, after which a group of young men rushed the stage, shouting “Rape her!” and pulling at what was left of her costume. She said, “I got away, by sheer luck” and she took them to court over it. Although the case was not a total success, the judge was impressed that she was not after any monetary compensation, but that she was charging these disrespectful hooligans because it “was the right thing to do.” When asked by the judge what she would like to see happen to them, she stated that she would like for these boys to be sentenced one year of compulsory women’s studies. And that is just what happened- a great accomplishment, indeed, and hopefully a turning point in those wayward young men’s lives.
I also requested that Judith Stein honor us with a favorite memory from her career in burlesque. She told me a charming story about an old cowboy who came up to her after a performance in Odessa, TX, and said in the customary drawl, “Ma’am, you’re one fine filly of a lady and I’d be right honored to buy you a drink.” Later, while performing her cowgirl act in assless chaps, he played the spoons on her bum; it turned out that he had also played the spoons at none other than the Grand Ol’ Opry! Judith shared the following with me as well: “Two years ago I performed at the Vancouver burlesque festival, and it had been about 22…23 years since I’d been on stage. The music started, I walked onstage, and the whole place stood up. I was incredibly honored. It was thrilling to be back onstage, to entertain again, to put myself out there and spread the love. The young people who are involved in burlesque have been so gracious, and have honored us more than we could ever have imagined.”
For anyone interested in doing the type of work that Ms. Stein now does, she shared, “In every town there’s a senior citizens place, nursing homes, assisted living, and neighbors who live down the street and might need a hand with groceries, shoveling their walk, or just someone to drop in for a cup of tea and a visit.”
“There are no great deeds, only small deeds done with great love.” Mother Theresa
Shannon Doah (also known as Patricia Oppelt) was born in London, England, and now resides in San Diego, California. She is once again active in the burlesque scene, performing, teaching workshops, and selling some truly lovely merchandise at vintageshowgirl.com. Shannon Doah began performing in 1967, in San Francisco, after which she moved to Hollywood, and subsequently traveled a great deal to perform, into the 1980s. Elegant, gracious, and sympathetic to the needs of others, she reminds me of a modern-day Audrey Hepburn.
What influenced your decision to focus your energies on assisting with the Animal Safehouse Program, and implementing the subsequent Canine Coach Kids and Silent Companion programs, after your illustrious entertainment career?
I had been volunteering at a local humane society for nearly ten years when I was asked to join the front desk staff. I was still performing, but I was traveling less and beginning to think I should transition into a new career. I thought working for the shelter would be a place I could wrap my heart around. Within a year I became the program director for Humane Education volunteers and the Animal Safehouse.
When Janet Winikoff spearheaded the Animal Safehouse, it was a new concept and only a handful of these programs existed nationally; today there are hundreds. The program is life-saving and provides shelter for the pets of domestic violence victims who wish to leave their abuser and enter a battered women’s shelter. I won’t go into detail about my personal history, but I empathized with the women who needed this resource, and supported the new program. When Janet moved, she encouraged me to continue her work. I conducted presentations to professionals and the public on the link between violence to humans and cruelty to animals. I was thrilled to see animal welfare and domestic violence workers collaborate. I attended the domestic violence community’s workshops. I learned that a woman is abused by her partner every 9 seconds so the chances are high the family pet is also at risk. In fact, 75% percent of family violence victims who have animals report that their pets have been harmed or threatened. This added worry has kept victims from leaving their abuser and entering a domestic violence shelter. I also learned that animals could be protected in restraining orders, as property.
The need for kindness programs to help break the cycle of violence to humans and animals inspired me to create the Canine Coach Kids program. Through my experience, and from information from workshops, I learned that the children who most needed interaction with animals were those who had been displaced and exposed to violence and could readily relate to animals that were homeless and abused. I set up animal shelter tours for the kids from DV and transitional housing shelters. During one visit, a boy didn’t want to participate and was sullen and withdrawn. As we entered the rabbit area, I gave the kids some greens to feed the rabbits. The young boy’s face lit up with a big smile as he gave the rabbits their treats. According the DV shelter’s manager, it was a break-through for the youngster. I started my new program with trust and help from the community, support from my peers, child therapists, and plenty of eager homeless dogs at our shelter.
In the Canine Coach Kids program, side by side with their dogs from our adoption program, children experience goal setting, the power of the Human-Animal Bond, compassion, and a sense of responsibility. The homeless dogs’ adoptability increases, and many are adopted before the sessions end- and the kids are delighted get to train another dog!
My inspiration for creating the Silent Companion project blossomed when I served as Chair of the Domestic Violence Council Shelter and Support Services Committee. I worked on collecting data for the National Domestic Violence Silent Witness Project (awareness campaign using silhouettes of domestic violence fatalities). There were no animal silhouettes. Animals are often the overlooked and forgotten victims of domestic violence. In 2003, I created the animal figures to serve as a powerful educational tool to remember animal victims of family violence and to bring awareness of the correlation between human violence and animal fatalities. Each figure represents a companion animal killed by a perpetrator of domestic violence and animal abuse, and is a life size silhouette. Each figure wears a collar and tag with the name of the pet (when available), a description of the pet, other family members, how the animal was killed, and the outcome or conviction of the perpetrator. The animal silhouettes are displayed at international conferences, candlelight vigils, and other family violence awareness events. I’m pleased that others have shared my vision and additional silhouettes have been created.
What have been some of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of your career after burlesque?
Getting up at the same hour I had been going to sleep was a huge challenge!
When I was performing, I wasn’t open about my occupation. I often received a negative reaction to this profession. Although I didn’t disclose my former life, I was insecure that when I spoke to the professional community they wouldn’t take me seriously. I decided to call upon my stage experience to help me prepare for the public speaking. If I could strip off my cloths in front of a crowd, why not speak? I created a “show” with rehearsals, a script, and slides (no power point then!) Eventually, it became second nature to speak, and really quite enjoyable.
What has remained constant between your careers, and what has changed?
Well, I’ve never been mainstream, and I’m a progressive thinker. I think I’ve proved this by my choice to become a strip tease artist and in my willingness to create, develop, and implement programs where they don’t exist. I believe in humanitarianism and the rights of all animals. Creativity in my life has remained constant. It’s part of everything to me and has given my life meaning. The way I approach work comes from my ability to see possibilities and draw from my creative nature. What has changed is that I’ve learned I am a great collaborator.
Please honor us with a favorite memory from your career in burlesque.
There are so many fond and funny memories. Being a lover of tropical weather, I took the opportunity to perform in a huge outdoor Tiki Hut on the island of Tahiti. I was the Feature and I followed two Asian acrobats. There was no stage and the audience sat in circular fashion around the floor. Since it was all outside, if the weather was bad, I got several nights off with pay and flew over to the beautiful island, Moorea. This was 1970 and only two hotels existed on the pristine island!
I also read on your website that you are related to Jane Greer! Being a fan of film noir (for anyone interested, Jane Greer’s most famous role was the femme fatale, Kathie, in 1947’s Out of the Past, which is a visual dictionary of film noir’s classic conventions), I was very interested to learn this, and I can absolutely see the resemblance- you both have such a graceful and sophisticated loveliness. Would you care to share anything about this intriguing family connection?
The film noir actress, Jane Greer, is my cousin from my mom’s side of the family. She was classy and beautiful. I think it runs in the family, and a reason I keep my strip tease shows a class act.
Are there any resources you would like to share with our readers who might be interested in volunteer work or implementing one of the programs that you have conceived and carried out?
Readers may contact me though my website: www.vintageshowgirl.com
Readers can contact their local animal shelters or domestic violence shelters and inquire about volunteer work or programs to help break the cycle of violence. Please report animal abuse to your local animal shelter authorities.
First Strike Humane Society of the United States: http://www.animalsheltering.org/programs_and_services/first_strike/
Directory for Safe Havens for Animals: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/abuse_neglect/tips/safe_havens_directory.html
Guide to Safe Havens for Pets: Guidelines for Programs Sheltering Pets for Women Who Are Battered by Frank R. Ascione, Ph.D.: http://www.vachss.com/guest_dispatches/safe_havens.html
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (1-888-799-7233)
Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-344-6000
Sexual Abuse Hotline: 1-888-272-1767
Elder Abuse Hotline: 1-800-510-2020