Atlanta burlesque performer and model Ursula Undress talks motherhood, rockabilly, curves, and confidence.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
First off, congratulations on expecting your second child! Since you already have a daughter, are there certain things you’ve learned since having your first child that you think will make this pregnancy (and raising this child) any easier?
Well, we just found out that this one is a boy, so we are pretty much throwing any prior knowledge out the window! One thing that I will definitely do this time around is to make sure that I stay active as a performer and as a woman in my own right. Last time, I was in mid-Michigan finishing my degree, and sort of got sucked into the mom/full-time student aspect of things, and forgot to nurture other parts of me. Burlesque has definitely helped me to maintain some balance there and keep the individual me alive, and I also have people who have promised to keep me from falling into that again.
How on earth are you able to balance being a mom and expecting another child, as well as being a production assistant, burlesque performer, graphic designer, and having countless other responsibilities?
Honestly, I have no idea. I am a creative person and thinker, so being organized isn’t one of my strong suits. Mostly, things happen in order of urgency around here! I do have these elaborate fantasies that my life is completely organized and my house is always clean, but I know that will never happen. Other than that, I am a pretty even-keeled person, and that keeps me from being insane about not being able to juggle everything. Not to mention, I have the best husband in the world, and a small, but strong support network of friends here to call in a pinch!
You have a background in musical theater and dance. Tell us about the making of Ursula as we know her.
Well, 14 years of performing in both musical and dramatic theatre came in handy for sure since Burlesque is just as much about having stage presence if not more than stripping. I also was a choreographer, and that definitely helps with understanding what the language of movement can do to a performance, and with creating a character.
As far as the birth of Ursula goes – that actually didn’t happen until I had been performing Burlesque for a few months. I was performing in the beginning as “Chrystal Shawnda Leer,” trying to be more classic and all that, but I didn’t exactly look the part, and I definitely liked to pick music that was more rockin’. I had kicked around the new name, Ursula Undress a few times and told no one to take it. When I opened for Unknown Hinson with a Rockabilly number that December, Katherine Lashe said “tonight, Ursula was born!” So, I guess the rest is history…the Cult was born – ha!
Tell us about your role(s) in the Southern Fried Burlesque Fest.
Well, I am what you would call the co-organizer. Katherine and I work very closely and really balance each other out when it comes to the kind of experiences that we bring to the table. She has had a lot of Burlesque Production, Sci-Fi Con, and festival experience and knows how they work, and I completely respect her knowledge. I have been both an employee manager and production manager in my former careers in events and weddings, and understand logistical aspects of pulling together an event and how it looks, so that is also covered. Not to mention the whole graphic design thing has been my job since the beginning, so I am responsible for all of the printed and designed material. Right now, we work side-by-side and are a really smooth team that has done pretty much everything together without a single conflict. I am so glad her brain is so terribly organized, and that she can do timelines and charts and all the stuff I absolutely do not excel at!
For many, one of the biggest draws of burlesque shows is the variety in body types of the performers. Being a lovely, curvy gal like yourself, do you have any advice for curvy girls who haven’t yet come to terms with the allure of their shape?
Honestly, this is one of the main reasons I perform. I, like many other women, have spent FAR too many hours being unkind to myself over the way my body looks. Ever since I hit my mid-20s, I have felt everything from guilt and fear, to full-out hatred for not looking the way I did in high school (I was a size four back then). Then, one day I just realized that, hey – I am still attractive, desirable, and I am still womanly, and all of these negative things I have been telling myself were just that – things I told MYSELF, because no one else was saying them to me. Then I thought – how AWFUL would it be to actually SAY some of the things I would say to myself to SOMEONE ELSE?! How would I feel if someone said any of those things to my daughter? It would be cruel, and hurtful, and wrong. That was a huge moment for me.
Fast forward to 2007, one day I am doing research on Burlesque because I wanted to get into it, and I watch a video of Dirty Martini. I was FLOORED. This woman was the embodiment of grace, style, and SEX. She had so much attitude and confidence. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her! She really was the final push to get me back on stage. She is a representation of what a woman is like who doesn’t give a damn about what the media says women should be, and THAT makes her incredibly sexy and alluring. I have yet to find a woman who hasn’t watched her and made this connection between sexy and being confident. So, you can imagine how excited I am that we are bringing her in for our first year.
Now, I feel like I have become an advocate for this kind of thinking and it is really a focus of my Burlesque Fitness classes that I teach. The main thing that gets drilled into the women in my class is that confidence is really what makes the difference in a woman in many ways. I have women my age, and older that are learning that it is okay to be seductive, it is okay to be flirtatious, and most of all, it is perfectly okay to not worry about what other people think! I am not an advocate of being physically unhealthy by any means, the thing is that there are lots of ways to be unhealthy, and I believe that not embracing who you truly are, flaws and all, is one of them.
You’ve opened for Unknown Hinson, of “Squidbillies” fame. How did that come about and what was the show like?
Oh my god, it was amazing! Basically, I was hired by Syrens of the South Productions – it was sort of my first foray into professional Burlesque. That was the night Ursula was born, and I was completely embraced by the audience that was there. I finally felt like I was at home onstage in front of them, because these are people who appreciate loud, high-energy music. Doing his shows now is just a riot, and I will do anything I can to not turn down being able to perform them. I have fans that only get to come out to see me perform there because of distance, and they are so loyal and raucous! Those shows are definitely the most high-energy for me, I think.
Meeting him was also incredible – he is what I would call a complete Southern Gentleman and was so complimentary to all of us pretty gals backstage. And as busy as he is, he still remembers us individual performers when we work together.
From what or whom do you take your inspiration?
Mostly it is music. There are just some tunes that you listen to, and you can actually visualize being up on stage doing the movements, wearing the costume, etc. It is really strange, because I am such an aesthetic person, yet I rarely begin a number with a costume idea or something visual like that. Other times, it is movies or just a photograph from a time period. In the end, I would have to agree with Kitten De Ville, that it really is all about the music. Some days I would just kill to perform with a live band!