Atlanta burlesque legend Torchy Taboo talks Tennessee Williams, floozies, boredom, Tease-O-Rama 2001, singed hair and melted eyelashes.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
I read a bio about you in which you’re described as the “self-proclaimed Blanche Dubois meets Mata Hari.” I’d love to hear more about that.
It’s actually “a self-proclaimed Blanche Dubois living the Mata Hari fantasy.” Being an educated Southern woman, I am a big Tennessee Williams fan. Blanche is the quintessential mid-20th century faded Southern belle; poor, proud and drenched in illusions of grandeur. With paper lanterns on the bare light bulbs to preserve the mystery, my inner Blanche dances the Eastern dances, cloaked and eyes peeled for intrigue, her Orient Express a Greyhound bus….it’s as much about the fantasy for me as it is for my audience; I share that with them.
In a 2002 interview in Creative Loafing Atlanta, you said that a high school boyfriend told you, “you could never be a stripper; you’re too scrawny.” You started working in strip clubs at 18 and continued to work in them for 17 years. Can you describe when you acquired an interest in burlesque?
10 years old: the boys called little red-headed Suzie a ‘floozy’ because she was developing much faster than the rest of the girls…and she worked it to her advantage, shall we say. With no one to explain the ‘inappropriateness’ of that in my motherless home, she was the very definition of femininity I craved to build my home-made female role-model. One day they asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d toss her hair and say, “a STRIPPER!” I started perusing the back of Daddy’s Playboys for Lili St. Cyr lingerie ads the next day.
Flash forward…19 years old, stripping for about 4 months at the “She Club” (only 1 year after said boyfriend had dared to tell me what I could or couldn’t do with my stick-figure body and my overly imaginative sexuality). I met the grown up version, a woman who actually stripped by the moniker ‘Suzie the Floozie’. All curves and wild red hair…a real Mae West, Rita Hayworth, Tura Satana cocktail of a gal with style & moves…I was sold. Lock, stock & barrel.
How and why did you make a transition from the club scene to burlesque?
Boredom. Even the dreamiest dreamers need some reality now and then. I wasn’t satisfied with the reality pushing in on my pretty bubble…better make a new one. Having been so deeply inspired by ‘the Flooze’ as we called her, not to mention all the childhood fantasies of being a glamour queen/dancing girl the way the movies depicted it…my whole strip-joint career was an attempt to see myself in that role. There were limitations in the clubs as to music and costuming, but I always had the fantasy playing in my head…and added feathers when I could! The transition was strained for me. Being used to cashing in on my tanned blond cheerleader persona, trading it in for Gothy white skin and a bright red Betty Page hair-do cut my money drastically…but thanks to about 2,000 Sci-Fi geeks hungrily ogling a Betty Page lookalike contest at Dragon Con 1995, my dream was becoming real.
You’re from Savannah, Georgia originally and you lived in Florida for a while as well, correct?
Born there, raised in the suburbs of Atlanta. Yes, South Florida.
What brought you back to the Georgia area?
The promise of the beautiful Atlanta spring, the whole city frilly with dogwoods & azaleas…and the hopes of using my previously notable influence to coax Atlanta’s somewhat fractured Burlesque scene back toward a sense of Community….to imbue my home with some of the feelings of love and family I feel when I go to BHoF every year. Oh, and a fella I’ve had a crush on for a long time.
Several performers that I have interviewed state that they think the first TeaseORama in 2001 was a big turning point in the burlesque revival. You performed at that event, so what are your thoughts on that?
Oh mercy! Yes! I’d been having to beg various show-off types (dancers from the Afro-Cuban troupe I danced in, girls from bands, other strippers, etc.) to do the shows I produced. Georgia IS the bible-belt and whether the gals had Jesus in their hearts or not, the social stigma of going tits out in our rock dive bar made them blush and mumble. Meeting all those other ladies from all over the U.S. in NOLA at TOR was when I realized I wasn’t a freak of nature, and I think we all felt the same instant love and awe for each other’s passion & vision. It was amazing. I believe we all blossomed some that weekend.
In Michelle Baldwin’s book, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, she mentions that your signature act involves lighting your bra on fire. Please tell us more!
It is a hand-made set of vinyl breast plates, but one of my awards is ‘best modern day bra-burner’ for CL’s ‘Best Of’ issue one year.
At what point did you begin working fire into your acts? Can you tell us about the origins of that signature act?
As soon as I was booked for TOR 2001. I knew I had to bring my best game. “The Flaming Heart” is totally my take on the old B&W serial adventures that inspired Steven Spielberg to make Indiana Jones… heavy on the temple Goddess aspects. I’d been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell.
You were quoted in a 2007 interview in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times saying, “Everyone who does a fire act gets burned.” Care to share a story about being burned while practicing or performing?
Oh yeah, it came off sounding quite dramatic. What I meant was, it’s just part of the territory…if you stay lucky & stay careful, it won’t be tragic. Stories, hmm, ok. I was with my male counterpart, Buster the Human Blowtorch at the local fetish bar to work part of a Hell scene put on for Skin2 mag. It was a suspension show…NOT my fave. Our part was to creep around under the horizontally suspended guys and ‘burn’ them…ya know…the tortures of Hell, right.
So the show producer hadn’t gotten his timing figured out and kept telling us ‘go-time’ oh, wait, no….’go-time’ oh, wait. 3 times I fueled my hand apparatus to go onstage. They got way over-fueled and by the time I actually fired them up, fuel was all the F over my hands, so as I get to my place on stage under a large hairy suspended man, both my hands were balls of fire, but it was mostly the fuel burning off so I went on with burning all the chest hairs off the sweet dangling man while he talked very calmly to me about mind-over-matter & pain. The burns were minimal after icing.
I do an act to the Eagles of Death Metal’s “I Want You So Hard (The Boy’s Not Good)” where I light, smoke and flick into the crowd a lot of cigarettes. I got too close with the lighter once and torched my bangs, brows and melted my false eye-lash on one side. My girlfriend at the bar who’s not really a BurlyQ fan, was impressed for the first time (after years & years of coming to my shows) and made quite a point of telling me how ‘fuckin’ cool’ it was! LMAO!
I was interested to discover that you and Jo Weldon were in film classes together in college and that you worked together at the well-known Atlanta strip club The Cheetah. Please tell us more about that!
Yeah we’ve shared many adventures together. Even at the tender age of 19, she was my introduction to many parts of my sexual & cultural development as a late bloomer. She was in 2 of my 3 weddings, baby-sat me through more than 1 rough break-up and taught me to love the Cramps…and there’s more. As discretion is the better part of valor, suffice to say she will always hold a place in my heart that no one else could fill.
What’s in store next for Torchy Taboo?
More Atlanta productions. I have a production style no one else here is fool-hearty enough to attempt. A Tiki night is in negotiations (non Burlesque). Taking Thai dance classes, teaching advanced burlesque classes. More Festivals…The Southern Fried Burlesque Fest will be grand! Revamping the Orange Blossom Burlesque Fest for 2012. Love, happiness, dance, travel, sauerkraut, chili & onions!