The Reigning Queen Of Burlesque, Imogen Kelly, talks pink flamingos, performance art, popping burlesque cherries at the Sydney Opera House, and plenty of other dirty deeds done “Down Under”.
Interview: The Dirty Blonde
Q: Your performance at Burlesque Hall Of Fame Weekend was flawless –a fun, cheeky, high-energy routine full of pink feathers and lots of sass (and ass!) that had the audience on their feet. Were you surprised by your win, or did you feel when you took the stage that this was your year?
A: Thank you! I love that routine, I always have such a great time performing it, without fail. It’s like watching a cyclone hitting a flamingo flock—5 minutes of fluffy, pink, slightly-absurd-but-somehow-sexy, leggy mayhem.
The great thing about performing it is that I never have time for nerves as I am usually pretty preoccupied having fun. The music is so high energy, I just get carried away. I didn’t expect to win simply for that reason. Flamingo-Go is fast paced and technical. I guess I must make it look easier than it really is. Its strengths are that it’s fabulous and rather saucy too, if I do say so myself.
Q: You have toured very extensively around the world, but have less experience with American audiences and less exposure overall in America. Were you concerned that would be a factor during the Burlesque Hall Of Fame Competition in Las Vegas?
A: Of course! I was competing against performers who have a strong rapport with American audiences and therefore possibly the judges as well. Even I went into that competition with favorites and was thrilled that I was up against performers I have so much admiration for. I certainly wouldn’t have been sore if I lost to one of them. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest.
That being said, one thing I do know about myself as an artist is that I’m a dark horse in any race. I would never enter any competition thinking I was going to win; I’m never that arrogant and it can lead to a hard fall if you lose; but I never underestimate my acts either. I’m a highly trained performer with over 20 years of experience in burlesque. I just try to do my best and let the work speak for itself. You can go in telling yourself you’re the best, but there is no way to know you are going to win and you never know what you are up against. Just offer your audience the best of yourself.
Q: People are talking a lot about the fact that an Australian was finally crowned Queen. Do you think it’s significant that you are the first non-North-American to win the Queen Of Burlesque title in years? What do you think this will mean for the Australian burlesque scene?
A:I think it is essential for the competition to be embraced globally at this point, for its growth and also for its integrity. It is an absolute delight to share what I do with American audiences, who may not have realized that burlesque has been thriving for generations in other pockets of the world. I would hope eventually that BHOF would be the event that would bring the whole burly world together- all for one big dirty weekend! Australia is certainly very proud of me. And I am proud too—not just of my win, but as Queen of Australian Burlesque I am proud of the circuit and style that I have pioneered. I am proud to be presenting that internationally.
We are different in so many ways in OZ. Our audiences are tough and expect a high level of presentation, personality, energy and skill. So for Captain Kidd to win last year, and now myself as Reigning Queen of Burlesque 2012, I should think people would be sitting up and paying attention to what is going on in OZ.
As for my return home, I may as well have had a ticker tape parade- people were just so gorgeous. I am being called “The Don Bradman of Burlesque” which is hilarious. Don Bradman is one of our national heros, also an underdog who took the pommies by surprise in the battle for The Ashes. The burlesque scene is very alive with excitement. It has meant a lot that one of our pioneers has been recognized on such a huge level. So yes, everyone is very pleased with themselves down under.
Q: What is it like to perform in an environment like BHOF? Do you find it more intimidating to perform for your peers, or is it energizing to be in front of a huge audience that is so passionate about burlesque?
A: BHOF is a massive thrill, with such an electric atmosphere it is impossible to describe. The audience is the most deafening, insanely supportive, warm, happy audience EVER!!! And I mean that. The Colosseum in Rome would crumble under the wake of that sound. If that audience were before the walls of Jericho, Joshua would be turning around and asking them to turn it down a touch.
It was hearing them scream and cheer that made me want to blow their minds. I wanted to throw it all right back at them and be worthy of such adulation. I’ve played stadiums that have made less noise… so I wasn’t intimidated. I was turned on to my maximum setting.
I will add that the stakes are higher when your audience is full of people whose opinions matter to you personally. I think what mattered to me even more was that there were so many Aussies out there, fellow artists who are close to me who had flown all that way and spent thousands of dollars just to cheer me on. I could hardly let them down now, could I?
Q: Aside from your flamingo, what other routines do you most love to perform? Is there one in particular that you are very attached to or that has a very special meaning for you?
A: Lordy, I have about 200 routines sitting around my house. I love all of them. So in choosing for BHOF I originally wanted something grand, where I could show off my theatre or circus skills but in the end I was beaten by rigging technicalities and freight. So I opted for Flamingo because even though it has no heavily constructed character and no wiz bang tricks, it has a lot of classic burlesque elements that seamlessly work together. It took 8 years or so to finally solve the flamingo act; so I knew it was a solid act—entertaining, glamorous and distinctively mine.
Marie Antoinette is my favorite act ever. I performed her last year. I love her because she is my signature act of 20 years and she is very much a part of me–the monstrous part! My Marie is an evil bitch diva who essentially f*cks a cream cake. She was the first Marie Antoinette in burlesque so I also take pride in the fact that she has inspired so many others to do a Marie Antoinette act. Having a Marie Antoinette act is almost as obligatory these days as having a champagne glass routine or a fan dance. It makes me smile. I’ve infected burlesque with my monster.
Q: Aside from winning the Queen of Burlesque title, what do you consider your greatest burlesque achievement? What other performances, productions, or current projects are you most proud of?
A: My most memorable moment would have to be my wedding. We shut down the city of Sydney and took over one of the main streets to be publicly wed in front of tens of thousands of people.
My husband to be cruised in on a dragster with a rose between his teeth to I Was Made For Loving You Baby. I was pushed at high speed in a giant cake on wheels to the alter where I finally burst out in a red satin gown with a 4m train. I was then hoisted onto the stage by two of my carny friends on stilts. When we came to saying the vows I tore off my frock leaving a few strategically placed pieces of lace much to my parents’ horror.
That was a fun marriage and the celebrations didn’t end until the next morning when some of us were ejected from a club into broad daylight for running around the club in the nude. So we then ran around on the street nude… I still don’t know what those bouncers were thinking.
Other than that I performed at Sydney Festival in Hyde Park, this time in front of a hundred thousand people. I did 4 acts, was on huge screens, it was nuts. I also popped the Sydney Opera House’s burlesque cherry, performed and traveled with The Famous Spiegeltent for many years… training circus with Romanian gypsies was interesting and of course being the first stripper to graduate from The National Institute of Dramatic Arts is an instant milestone—although they had no idea I was a professional stripper until quite a way into the degree… hehehe…
Q: You have had a long rich history of performance experience. You’ve been involved in theater shows, burlesque troupes, kick lines, have written countless plays and screenplays…the list goes on and on. Did you always know you wanted to do burlesque, or did it grow from a general love of theater?
A: When I was 15, I used to joke to my careers adviser at the convent that I wanted to do stripping for work experience. I just liked watching her get red in the face. I started burlesque as a teenager on the strip circuit. There was no scene when i started. Actually, I was the scene. It was my humble beginnings as a performer and although I have worked in many different genres, strip-based performance is the base note to my work.
Q: You also describe yourself as a “performance artist”. Do you prefer that description to “burlesque performer”? What does that term mean to you?
A: I am a performance artist. I perform on many different levels in many different genres of performance so it is important people realize my burlesque is just one of the lines of acts I produce.
My performance art is satirical, socio-political, feminist driven character Epics—where yes, much to the audience’s joy, I end up naked… My burlesque work is geared for pure entertainment, lots of fun, sexy, big costumes with a massive wow factor. I’ll always find some way to get slightly twisted if I can.
I will always prefer work that is subversive over straight striptease, but I do have corporate, tamer work that is more accessible. If you are going to perform for a living, you have to be adaptable and diverse.
Q: We all have burlesque idols that we look up to. Are there any other performers that have been a particular inspiration to you throughout your career? Any legends that you are in awe of, or contemporary performers that you really admire?
A: I draw inspiration from so many performers. When I started working in sleazy, violent,dingy clubs I would carry a picture of Camille 2000 in my wallet to remind myself that at some point striptease had been gorgeous. I love Camille. II also love Lily St. Cyr who I have drawn comparisons to my entire career. I think she is stunning. I’m always humbled if I draw comparisons to any legends.
At the moment I am inspired by Dr. Lucky and Glita Supernova- because I miss doing bent work and am working up a new act for the queer fringe in OZ. Dr. Lucky blew me away in Toronto. Glita Supernova always blows me away.
Q: What are your plans for your year as reigning Queen? Do you plan to continue not only touring, but branching out into entirely new avenues?
A: The touring is fun and fabulous and takes a lot of planning to get right. So I’ve put out some feelers and I’m waiting to see what comes back to me. My aim is to work with Indigo [Blue] to try to make the Queen’s Tour international. I’d also love to see the burlesque museum in Las Vegas grow to become a must see attraction in Las Vegas. These aspirations could take a few years. I’m also looking at avenues to create a bridge between performance artists in Sydney and New York—an exchange or a residency. All of these things may take years to come to fruition but from my experience, I just set a ball rolling and wait for it to pick up speed.
As to my career, I am looking into all sorts of things from TV appearances to a PHD. I always have a lot on the boil. I got asked to ride through the city naked on a horse the other day… my response was “not at a trot, not without a bra.”
Q: You have quite a full burlesque calendar these days. How do you spend your time when you’re not performing? Do you have other hobbies? Being so busy, how do you unwind?
A: Pft!!!Unwind??? I don’t get to unwind! There is no unwinding. LOL! The trick is to not get wound up in the first place. I’m pretty zen.
As burlesque is my art, and I love my art, I spend free time these days planning new and wonderful events for the Australian burlesque community, like my Living History events, Bent Burlesque (Queer female performance) and a showgirl archive of Aussie artists that I hope one day to exhibit. I make puppets and costumes for myself, draw, paint—in truth I don’t have much free time as there is always so much I want to do and it usually revolves around performance.
Q: You also have a young daughter. What advice do you have for other performers with children? Is it difficult to travel with her? What does she think about burlesque? She must be in love with the costumes, especially the incredible flamingo!
A: It’s funny you should ask. She has taken to calling my hands flamingos and talks to them all the time. She feeds them and cuddles them which is sweet— unless you are trying to write on the computer. I love that she gets exposure to so many amazing, creative women. I do try to keep her away from burlesque, though, simply because she is a child. Burlesque is adult entertainment and it needs to stay that way.
Contrary to what I believed in my pre-mommydays, having a child is the most creative and empowering thing I have ever done. It is also perceived as being the most pedestrian thing a woman can do, so I’m disappointed that some peeps have such an issue with it. I thought this movement was all about breaking down taboos, not adopting more of them.
My advice would be more for the burlesque community in general. If one of your pals gets knocked up, don’t abandon them. Being a new mum is quite lonely . It gets even worse when you realize that your friends don’t support you. I guess really you just find out who your real friends are, but I also think in a culture that is so much about empowerment, women being defiant and strong, we come up a bit short when it comes to accepting motherhood. We don’t all want kids, nor should all of us have kids, but if your girlfriend has a bub, don’t let her be lonely. Be a pal and invite yourself over for a cup of tea. You don’t have to offer to wipe arse or cook scones. You’re not intruding. A conversation with another adult can help remind you of who you really are.
Q: And, finally: What one question have you always wished the media would ask you? Can you please ask and answer it now for your PinCurl fans?
The best piece of lady advice I ever received was in etiquette class at the convent; “a lady never swears, or gets drunk at the races.”
So whatever you do don’t become a lady, it’s obviously a really un-fun decision.