BurlyCon Presents…. 2014 Guest of Honor Princess Farhana!
Interview By Czech Mate
LA punk icon, belly dance goddess, and burlesque superstar Princess Farhana (Pleasant Gehman) is a true renaissance woman. Whether it’s opening for Guns N’ Roses, strip-teasing with revolutionary troupe The Velvet Hammer, or shimmying for A-listers like Hillary Clinton and the Rolling Stones, Her Majesty has done it ALL with royal flair.
Princess Farhana is also a prolific writer, actress and producer. She’s the author of “Showgirl Confidential: My Life Onstage, Backstage and On The Road” and “The Belly Dance Handbook”. She’s acted in several films and television shows, appeared in music videos for Madonna and Ricky Martin, and stars in the documentary “Underbelly: A Year in the Life of Dancer Princess Farhana.” She’s produced 17 instructional films, including the first burlesque “how-to” video, “Boom Boom: Hot Burlesque Moves For Cool Chicks”
She’s toured and taught in Egypt, Turkey, China, Australia, Europe, and throughout North America. Her next stop – BurlyCon, where she will teach us her sultry moves in “Belly Dance for Burlesque Artists” and reveal “The Naughty Side of Little Egypt.”
BurlyCon is THRILLED to have Your Majesty as a guest of honor! We hear you’re wearing a tiara in your driver’s license photo…true or false?
Yes, it’s true! I wore a tiara and false eyelashes (of course!) to my license photo appointment… at 10:00 am!
You went from LA punk singer to belly dance princess to burlesque goddess – all while writing, producing and acting. Talk about prolific! What’s your secret? Magical royal powers?
My secret is very little sleep! I’ve been on the road constantly since 1984 when I started touring with my band The Screaming Sirens. I wrote my books and blogs on planes, in vans, train and in hotel rooms at 3:00 am when I’d have jet lag-induced insomnia. And thanks to the Internet and social media, I can manage my own bookings and also produce and promote shows from anywhere on earth.
Screaming Sirens, your first band, once opened for Guns N’ Roses. Those are some serious rock’n’roll roots! Has punk rock influenced your belly dance and burlesque style?
The Sirens played with almost anyone you can think of, from the Ramones to Tammy Wynette, TSOL, Social Distortion, and X. Punk has influenced every area of my life, and that includes burlesque and belly dancing. The whole punk /DIY ethic allowed me to realize that anything is possible! When I first started dancing, I applied what I knew about rock ‘n’ roll to my dance career, for bookings and promotion, making products- it all came from my music biz experience. I figured that if I made instructional videos (and yeah, I started with VHS tapes, that’s how long I’ve been dancing) that it would be the same as a band putting out a single or an album… and I was right!
I also incorporate a lot of theater in my belly dancing – fantasy numbers – and some of them have been considered extremely controversial. That’s all from punk rock, too!
And due to my punk rock street fashion aesthetic, when I first started performing and was literally a “starving artist” I already had the skills to be able to take a bunch of garbage or recycled materials and turn them into great, blinged-out costumes. I can’t tell you how many costumes are made from dumpster-dived fabric, and all the headdresses I made from beer cartons, Mardi Gras beads, and broken jewelry!
I read that someone saw you dancing at a Fishbone concert and said you moved like a belly dancer, you started taking classes, and the roller coaster ride began! It was love at first dance. What was it about belly dancing that grabbed you?
Seriously, I’d wanted to be a belly dancer since I was like four years old…probably from seeing those 1940’s “Sinbad” and “Thief Of Baghdad” movies on our black and white TV…. I thought it was the most beautiful, feminine and exotic thing I’d ever seen! I always wanted to do it, so when that girl approached me at the club, asking if I was a belly dancer, and I found out that she was a belly dancer, I begged to see her perform. Once I did, I got even more obsessed and kept pestering her to teach me. I forced her to hold Saturday morning classes at the studio where The Screaming Sirens rehearsed, and we’d dance among the amplifiers and microphone cords!
Soon after you made a pilgrimage to Egypt. What was it like being an American woman (a true LA woman at that!) studying belly dance in the Middle East?
A friend gave me an airline ticket to Greece (you could do that in the early 90s) and I added on Cairo, quit my job, and with about $300.00 in my pocket, just left for Egypt. I made a hotel reservation (in a total dump in Tahrir Square) by snail mail! I didn’t know anybody, and when I landed, the first thing I saw was that there were no signs in English! I wasn’t prepared for that! By asking around, I found places to see belly dancers and I fortunately hooked up with the best and most famous Egyptian belly dance trainers! I stayed for eight weeks, bought a costume when I was there, and when I got home, immediately started working – while I was still taking classes!
Looking back on it, I kind of can’t believe I did that!!!
I go back almost every year since then, and in 2008 was asked to teach belly dance there, at a huge festival! I’ve taught there four times, and perform there too. And in 2010, I took a tour group of 17 belly dancers there…. I haven’t done that lately, because of the unrest in the Middle East—I don’t want to be responsible for people who’ve never traveled there before, but I still go by myself!
It’s such a different culture, you have to really navigate carefully and be respectful of the people and their customs and beliefs. For example, you can’t dress the way you do in the States or Europe. When I’m there, I cover up: floor-length skirt, long loose high-necked shirt…. No cleavage showing at all, and even your forearms are considered risqué in some places! And you can NEVER tell anyone you’re a belly dancer. It’s considered “haram” (forbidden) by many people, and many equate it with prostitution. They love their belly dancers, and many are household names like movie stars….but it’s a double standard – you’d NEVER want your wife or daughter to be a dancer, it would be considered disgraceful.
You can’t speak to a man you don’t know in a friendly way the way you might here, because it could be construed as a sexual come-on. I don’t cover my hair normally when I go there, but I keep a big scarf handy just in case. When I was in Cairo during the Arab Spring, I was in a car driving to pick up some belly dance costumes I was having made…and we had to go through Tahrir Square, that was the only way to get there. The Muslim Brotherhood was having a HUGE gathering- thousands of people, many getting really rowdy, pushing and shoving and chanting and a stage hung with banners, where bearded mullahs were preaching.
My driver was like, “FOR OUR SAFETY, COVER YOUR HAIR RIGHT NOW!” …and he didn’t have to ask twice!
In the 90s, Michelle Carr tapped you to join The Velvet Hammer, the FIRST neo-burlesque troupe in the country (if not the world). Had you ever performed burlesque before? Did you have any idea The Velvet Hammer would help spark a major worldwide burlesque revival?!
I hadn’t done burlesque before, but I’d always been fascinated with it, from vintage photos and movies. But I had experience stripping. When I was underage, seventeen, I was a stripper in Times Square in New York. They didn’t have lap-dancing then, and I thought it was tons of fun. I loved it! And you could make bank then. My rent in Manhattan was $25 a month in a shared loft and I was coming home with sometimes $450 a night! There was a circuit, and you did all the clubs: The Wild West, Adam & Eve, and a place called Broadway Burlesque where there was still a catwalk. I actually worked with a lot of women that were at the tail end of the burlesque circuit.
None of us in the Velvet Hammer ever in our wildest dreams thought there would be a burlesque revival… we also never thought that The Velvet Hammer would go on as long as it did!
You produced the FIRST-ever instructional burlesque DVD, “Boom: Hot Burlesque Moves for Cool Chicks,” featuring a tassel twirling segment with BurlyCon’s director Miss Indigo Blue! How did collaborating with Indigo come about?
Filmmaker Augusta Avallone (now a burlesque performer and producer under the name of Penny Starr, Jr.) was doing a documentary about The Velvet Hammer, and I asked her if she’d shoot my belly dance videos. So when we were going to do “Boom Boom” she suggested getting Indigo down for the tassel-twirling segment, and I heartily agreed! She was magnificent… and I was happy to spare my own collagen, LOL!
Okay. We’re dying to know. Johnny Depp, the Rolling Stones, former First Lady Hilary Clinton, Uma Thurman, Jude Law – you’ve performed for countless celebrities. Who’s made your heart beat the fastest?
Definitely the Rolling Stones! I’ve loved them since I was a little girl, and have actually danced for them twice. The first time, I was in the dressing room hyperventilating! They came in limos with a full security team, and were there with a bunch of gorgeous blonde models…. it was like a dream!
You famously taught Margaret Cho, one of the most hilarious women in the world, how to belly dance. What’s it like working with Margaret?
I also taught her burlesque! She was in a burlesque workshop I taught in 2005 and was in the middle of a class waving a boa screaming “I LOVE STRIPPING!”. She created her burlesque show “The Sensuous Woman” directly because of that. We toured in 2006 and 2007.
Margaret is just amazing and great at whatever she does! She applies and immerses herself. She worked her ass off studying belly dance and even went to Egypt, and got great at it, shimmies, finger cymbals… with burlesque it was the same. Her concepts for her acts were off the hook, and she learned Sally Rand fans and does them great, and even learned Chinese-style ribbon gymnastics for an act she did called “Chairman Meow”.
She’s really smart, kind and funny, has a great work ethic and is always “there” as a friend. I love her!
We’re not as funny, but we can’t wait for you to teach us! What sexy moves will we be learning in your “Belly Dance for Burlesque Artists” class at BurlyCon?
At BurlyCon we’re gonna be learning some crazy Egyptian shimmies that are earth-shaking, some cool undulations, and a lot of belly dance isolations that will come in handy for extra oomph while tassel-twirling!
You’ll also be teaching us “The Naughty Side of Little Egypt: Contrasting Belly Dance with Burlesque.” Which is naughtier, belly dance or burlesque?
Oh, they’re both pretty naughty! In Turkey during the 1950’s and 60’s, the belly dancers – including very famous ones like Nejla Ates, Princess Nyeela and Greek dancer Boubouka – even went down to pasties! Not many people realize that, and many in the belly dance community are kind of in denial about that!