Chicago’s Red Hot Annie talks doomed merkins, Vaudezilla, paychecks and Beast Women.
Interview: Femme Vivre LaRouge
You have been performing burlesque since early 2008, modeling since 2003, and I take it you were a ‘theatre kid’ before that, correct? Tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming a burlesque sensation!
You’re right! My first show was a church play in 1995. In college, I trained in acting, voice, and musical theater. In the ‘burbs’ I had my choice of some really prime roles, performing in at least 3 shows every year. When I moved into the city of Chicago, I was surprised to find that the skills I had weren’t enough to get roles. I worked in a couple of talent agency offices at first, and really got a solid picture of just how political the acting world in Chicago is, and I didn’t feel like starting over at the bottom to prove myself again. I went from being in a show all the time to just a few in a couple years – Elizabeth Proctor in “Crucible” and being part of a couple ensembles that did questionable sketch. During that time, I’d been watching burlesque shows, but it wasn’t until the end of 2007 that I decided to get involved in performing it.
Your numbers are marvelously unique and creative- where do you get your inspiration and what is your creative process like?
Thank you. My inspiration tends to appear out of thin air. One of the things that my particular performing education taught me was that “not thinking” and “not editing” is one of the best approaches to your preliminary expressions. It’s not fool-proof…I’ve put together some stinkers, too, but once the idea is up and moving, that’s when I can tell if it’s good and start to refine it. So the truth is, I’m not really sure how I ended up with some of my ideas…I’m pretty sure they actually picked me.
Your production company, Vaudezilla, offers a great deal, from dancers to all-out event planning, emcees to vintage celebrity look-alikes, and all the trappings of an entertaining evening, such as face painting and caricatures! How do you coordinate all your talent?
I’m very lucky to be surrounded by exceptionally talented and motivated performers, so coordinating all of the talent is really the easy part. If you’re really curious why we’re so successful, google Donna Touch, Jeez Loueez, Barrett All, RenZena, Trixie Sparx, and Cherry Brandi. It’s not hard to see why we’re able to provide such diverse offerings. When we need more people, I’m also able to book from the community – Chicago has an amazing burlesque community, boasting over 125 performers, the vast majority of whom I work with.
Aside from being remarkably creative, you must be a very organized and motivated lady to have accomplished all that you have- what advice do you have to give to girls with big dreams and little budgets? (Or to those of us that perhaps have less business sense that yourself?)
I am definitely organized – compulsively organized, you might even say!
My best piece of advice to girls with big dreams and little budgets is not to think of burlesque as an “every (wo)man for himself” sort of enterprise. There’s no prize for being able to do every facet of this crazy art form on your own. A self-titled master of all trades (the quintessential actor/model/burlesque dancer/DJ/costumer/choreographer/producer) leaves no role for other people in their creative process. And one of the things that most creatives who actually make a living (like myself) know is that you need a network to survive. I work on photo shoots and commercial sets several times a week, as a hair & makeup person. In that world, you are always part of a team – even if you are the star of the show, you know you can’t do anything without contributions from the director, producer, photographer, sound guy, makeup artist, and more.
Being the expert at a specific role is one of the hidden secrets to success in this industry. It’s not about knowing everything, it’s about surrounding yourself with the people who know the things you don’t and letting them shine brightly and fiercely as part of your team. I like DIY in my clothes and jewelry, not on my stage – there, I like experts who know and excel at their niche every single time they perform, whether it’s in onstage or backstage.
Have any anecdotes you would like to share with us about a particularly rewarding experience or, likewise, a performance fiasco?
I find that the stories I like to tell are usually the ones where I was humbled a bit, so I’ll share one of those. This year at the Texas Burlesque Fest 2010, I was performing my fan act to Erykah Badu’s “Annie Don’t Wear No Panties” song. In the act, I wear a merkin (a strapless panty that is taped or glued on). I had been relaxing upstairs in the air-conditioning prior to my act, and when walked down the stairs to the stage, this whoosh of steaming hot Texas air hit me. I should have known right then that my merkin was doomed. At first, I was so cocky! I walked out on the stage – feeling good about my new moves and fancy fan work (courtesy of fan dancing expert, Barrett All). But as I performed the song, my merkin started to slowly peel off! By the end, everyone could see it dangling between my legs and I actually had to rip it off and throw it into the audience! I’ve never heard a crowd go more crazy wild!
What do you enjoy most about performing?
I’m an exhibitionist! I love being in front of people, so that’s why I particularly dig the performing arts, but the aspect of burlesque that really appeals to me is the chance to refine acts over the course of time. When I was doing theatre and films, you really only had a finite number of chances to improve and develop the character. In burlesque, you might be doing an act for 5-10 years (or more, certainly), and that amount of time to refine the act is an exciting prospect for me.
What are your visions and hopes for the future of burlesque and variety?
I’d really like to see burlesque performers doing the things that will make them more money. I’d also like to see less producers in general, and more good producers who can actually create jobs and money for performers.
I commonly say that I don’t think burlesque makes money, but it’s usually because many performers don’t know how to manage themselves. I make an extraordinarily comfortable living as an artist, but I also won’t make business decisions based on ego.
I’ve seen performers accept a $100 one-time paycheck over a $20 paycheck someplace else that would have been worth more in the long-run. For example, I’ve worked with Beast Women for three years, now. When I started, there were 5-6 burlesque performers working with them. Now I’m the only burlesque performer from the original bunch that still works with them. And I’ve had at least a half-dozen really amazing, high-paying gigs come out of being a member of their ensemble, not to mention the advantage of having videos on a proper stage that have influenced my being hired online by dozens of other folks!
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been big name performers without managers who turn down the kind of money that would make us up-and-comers choke on our rhinestones. And they seem to do it just to keep the perception that they are worth more, something that agents would never recommend for folks like us, where – certainly with exception – even being one of the top 10 performers doesn’t exactly include national fame or loads of money. Ego focuses strictly on the money, business minds consider the money, as well as the longevity of the opportunity represented by the money.
Please tell us about your upcoming performances.
In 2011, I’ll be headlining the Jim Thorpe Burlesque Fest (www.jimthorpeburlesque.org), as well as a featured performer at the Southwest Burlesque Showcase. I’m also an Executive Producer for the Windy City Burlesque Fest (windycityburlesquefest.com). In addition to the shows I produce with Vaudezilla (Vaudezilla.com), you can find out more about my upcoming shows at RedHotAnnie.com.