La Cholita

La Cholita by Laura Byrnes Photography.  Byrnes also shot our cover.
La Cholita by Laura Byrnes Photography. Byrnes also shot our cover.

Los Angeles’ La Cholita, the Latina Queen of Burlesque, talks motherhood, medieval torture tactics, her new band, rhumberas, body image, and childhood bedazzling.

Interview: Divertida Devotchka

Congratulations on your baby boy! (He’s your first, right?) Regarding your pregnancy, you mentioned in a recent interview that you were “excited and thrilled but also terrified at the same time.” Now that he’s here, do you find that you’re still slightly terrified, or has instinct kicked in and taken over?

Thank you so much!! Yes he’s my first and the best thing that has ever happened to me. Having a baby is an immensely joyous occasion but nobody talks about how scary it can be too. Aside from the fact that you are growing a tiny person inside you, all of these  crazy things are happening to you physically, emotionally and mentally, then there’s this stigma like you are just going to drop off the face of the earth. Suddenly everyone is treating you like you’ve been stricken with some terrible disease! Even some of my closest friends stopped inviting me out or calling because they just assumed that I would no longer have a social life but that’s when I needed them most. All I kept hearing was how this was the end of my career as a performer but I think the most terrifying aspect was that it was a serious reality check. It made me really reevaluate my priorities and my life. It was a year of intense transition for me, I had to look closely at myself, my career, my relationships, and be brutally honest with what changes needed to happen. That was hard, especially letting go of people and accepting the things I couldn’t change. Dealing with heartbreak, devastating post partum, and all the new changes in my life there were times I wanted to crumble, but then I would look at this amazing gift I’ve been given (my son) and all the hardships I faced suddenly turned into artistic gold. I stopped whining and feeling sorry for myself, grabbed a pen and started writing music and finding ways to channel those emotions into creative outlets.

Valentino has been the biggest blessing in so many ways, he is the ultimate love of my life, he’s so inspiring, just an endless source of light and happiness that pushes me to strive harder and be the best I can possibly be and as a result all these amazing things began happening. I’m more successful in my career than I’ve ever been: traveling around the world, headlining tours, performing with my idols. It’s been the most challenging yet most rewarding experience of my life but I feel like a fucking warrior now. He has awakened a strength and unconditional love within me that I never knew I was capable of there’s nothing in the world that compares to motherhood!

Cholita Live. SH Photo
Cholita Live. SH Photo

You’re fresh off headlining a European tour. Tell us all about it! Care to share some of your fondest memories from the tour?

This tour was an epic experience on so many levels. I love to travel, and Europe is incredible because there is so much history which is an element you really aren’t exposed to living in L.A. In Ireland I explored abbeys, Victorian gardens, lush country side and saw a knight sarcophagus that was just mind blowing. In Belgium I visited a castle and learned about all of the brutal torture tactics used to punish prisoners in medieval times and although it was disturbing it was fascinating. Each country was more interesting than then last. It was amazing to be half way across the world and in every country have fans, some people driving as far as 5 hours to make it to see a performance.

I am so incredibly grateful to each and every person that comes out to my shows and I really enjoyed the European audiences because they were so enthusiastic. They just do it the way they feel it and aren’t afraid to go crazy and I LOVED that. At one show in particular there was a girl who I noticed kept looking at me but looked really nervous so I smiled and said hi and she came over with a little piece of paper. She didn’t speak any English so before the show she had looked up all the things she wanted to say to me and printed them out on a piece of paper. She read each line to me and I melted, Is that not the sweetest thing ever?!

Another big highlight was fulfilling my long time dream of dancing in Paris; it was magical. Paris is enchanting, breathtakingly beautiful and the whole city is blooming with love. It’s just in the air and you feel it. I’m a big time romantic so I fell madly head over heels with the entire city. I cried as the car took me to the airport, I didn’t want to leave and definitely look forward to returning. Everyone was asking about my band which was really exciting for me too since it’s a fairly recent endeavor for me, we’re working on a European tour next summer so I can’t wait to get back!

CholitaSingsLiveI’d like to know more about your band, La Cholita and the Kreeps. Can you describe your style for our readers and fill them in on when and where they can see you play?

Currently this is the project I am most excited about and of which I’m most proud!   It’s like a new romantic relationship, everything is fresh and thrilling like a constant natural high and you want the whole world to know about it. Our sound is influenced by psychobilly, surf and garage rock. I sang with a few different bands but never really felt like I could let go and be me;  I was always upholding this kind of glamorous image. Although I do identify with it, there’s also a part of me that wants to trade my heels for creepers, get in a pit, get rowdy and dance and sweat like a wild woman!

Showmanship is really important to me so I still approach each performance with The Kreeps the same as I would a burlesque performance. I’m always thinking about new costuming, hair, makeup, props, etc. If fans are coming to see us I want them to feel like they got their money’s worth.  My favorite performers are those who really dive in and are 100% in the moment giving it their all, they don’t even have to be great singers it’s just that raw passion. I hate when I go see a band and he/she had a great voice but they just kind of stand there or walk back and forth I could have just bought the CD.  The thrill of performing live is that exchange of energy that happens between you and the audience because no two are alike.

I was really nervous at first because I had already made a name for myself doing burlesque, so on one hand it was good because I had a fan base on my own and people were curious, but I also knew they would be more critical.  It’s like you are only allowed to be talented in one capacity. But if you are an artistic creative soul by nature chances are you are probably good at a lot of things.

I know that not everyone is going to like me but I can’t sit around and not live my life out of fear of what other people think. So far we have been REALLY lucky, and the response has been tremendous we had our first show in May and things have just taken off it’s incredible. We’re playing places like The House of Blues in Hollywood, The Las Vegas Shakedown and opening for legendary acts. One of the biggest music magazines in the UK just featured us as what’s new in music, which is insane and awesome.

Photo: Aaron Settipane. Image from Dita Von Teese and Special Guests "Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray!" at the Roxy Theater. May 17&18, 2011.
Photo: Aaron Settipane. Image from Dita Von Teese and Special Guests "Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray!" at the Roxy Theater. May 17&18, 2011.

You recently performed with Dita von Teese in the “Strip Strip Hooray” show in L.A. Since seeing Dita was your first ever burlesque show when you were about 19 years old, that must have been quite the accomplishment to see things come full circle. Did you ever expect that things would turn out that way when you first began performing?

It was very emotional for me because when I got the invitation I instantly went back to the night 9 years ago when I was watching  her perform on stage for the first time and thinking to myself, this is what I want to do. I have always held her in the highest regard, and have a deep respect and admiration for her work. To have your idol tell you they love what you do and ask you to be in their show is just beyond, words cannot express. I was pinching myself all the way until my heel hit the stage the first night and even then thinking to myself, “WOW is this really happening?” On top of that I just had my son 3 months before and hadn’t performed in a year so it was the ultimate comeback! Being on stage again at a historical venue was like reuniting with an old friend, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It was overwhelming. It was very exciting to perform for a whole new crowd and to have such a positive reaction from them. I was over the moon and remain grateful to Dita for the opportunity. As far as whether I expected it to turn out this way, not necessarily I mean I always set goals with the intention of fulfilling them and I always give my all when in pursuit of those goals but this was HUGE and I feel really lucky. It is definitely a moment I will cherish near and dear to my heart forever.

Speaking of your first burlesque show, you said in a recent interview that your mom took you to that first show, and you said of that experience, “it felt like I had been training for it my whole life without knowing it until that moment.” First of all, let me just say- your mom sounds AWESOME! Second, I think many performers had that same epiphany (I certainly had the same feeling) but I’ve never heard it described so perfectly. I’d like to know more specifically the things you were doing that were “training” before you realized that’s what it was. Do you have dance or theater background? What about costuming?

Yes my mother is awesome. As an artist herself, I think she understood what it was like to dance to the beat of your own drum so she has always supported and encouraged my interests .I always say that I tap danced my way into the delivery room because performing has been an innate instinct for me for as long as I can remember. I started Ballet and Tap when I was about 2 or 3 but I knew I wanted to do more. I became involved in theatre and music first by putting on shows in my living room for family members and house guests, then in the yard recruiting neighborhood kids as my back up dancers which evolved into me joining community theaters and playhouses.

In middle school I wrote all my school’s plays and was obsessed with makeup and costuming. I played a lot of male roles as well as crazy people and villains; I loved the transformation and challenge. I was also born with a deep rooted lust and fascination for elaborate decadent costuming. I would watch old Mae West films and Ziegfeld Follies girls and just be in awe day dreaming of being a modern day version of that. My mom bought me my first Bedazzler and I Bedazzled *everything*!! She also had an extensive collection of gorgeous vintage rhinestone jewelry that I would wear to preschool. I don’t think anyone in my family or who has known me since then is surprised one bit by my career choice now. It’s funny because when I’m working on costumes and acts sometimes I have flashbacks and it will remind me of being a little girl, bedazzling my dresses and imaging they were big beautiful showgirl costumes that I would be wearing on a big stage and now they are.

You’ve described your performances as “a love letter to the things that have inspired” you, most notably Latin culture. Your fiery Flamenco act won you the title of Miss Viva Las Vegas in 2007, effectively making you the first Latina to become Miss VLV. You’ve also got an act that you describe as “if Mae West was a Mariachi,” as well as a Día de Los Muertos routine. Being that you’re a pioneer of Latina burlesque, what has it been like to see it grow over the last few years? (I’d heard you say in another interview that you’ve started some sort of revolution. Was that your intention or did you find that it just sort of happened?)

It was a demographic that wasn’t being largely represented anymore. Some of my favorite dancers were the rhumberas from vintage cinema like Amalia Aguilar and Yolanda Montes (Tongolele) but I hadn’t seen anyone do anything like that since Russ Meyer queen Kitten Natividad. When I first started, it wasn’t my intention I just saw a place for myself within the community because I knew my style was different, and that I brought a unique element to what was currently being offered. It’s an honor to inspire people; I think it’s the best compliment you can receive. But you never know if that is going to be the outcome of your work.

Every act that I do comes from the heart, and at times as an artist I think you feel vulnerable when you debut a new project because it’s like you are putting a piece of your soul out there for people to judge and criticize but when I think back to the people that have inspired me they were all pioneers in some way. Just because something isn’t being done doesn’t always mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. I think the most important thing is that you are genuine and true to yourself, that’s how you create a signature and if you can inspire others in the process that is a beautiful thing. It’s great to see so many interpretations of Latina Burlesque from glam, to camp, and traditional to modern Latin culture. It’s been wonderful to see the Latina revolution evolve over the past few years and become a thriving contribution to the burlesque world; I hope it continues to grow.

Photo: Skwid Inc Photography
Photo: Skwid Inc Photography

You say that you’ve been “every size” and that even at 98 pounds when you were 18, you still thought you were overweight. You’ve also stated, “In no other entertainment medium is it really encouraged or accepted for women to embrace their figure and their shape.” Many other performers I’ve interviewed feel that burlesque was the biggest help to their body acceptance. Is that the case with you as well?

Definitely. Being involved in burlesque has been the most empowering and liberating experience for me. I never felt that I represented the ideal model of what was socially accepted as beautiful. I always thought there was something wrong with me, my hair was curly, I had freckles, I was chubby, whatever and no matter what size I was there was always something negative that I focused on. After I began doing burlesque, it was like I had unleashed a force within me that just took over. I wasn’t going to let anyone else dictate what I considered or accepted as beautiful, I took responsibility for that definition!

I started focusing on the things I did like about myself and then I began appreciating the things I previously looked at as downfalls. I realized that my strengths lied in my differences. I didn’t want to look like everybody else.; just because something is popular doesn’t make it better. A gem is precious because it’s rare. There’s nothing you can do about facts, but the great thing is you can change your outlook and beliefs then you begin to realize facts are few and far between, there’s not much that can’t evolve or change.

I highly recommend burlesque to anyone who is struggling with body image even though it may sound like the most intimidating thing you could possibly do if you are feeling insecure, but there is something magical about the transformation that happens when a woman is in tune with herself and tap into that natural sensuality that is within all of us. Some have to dig a little deeper because they’ve denied it or been afraid of it for so long that it’s buried deep down but it’s there. You may not be twirling tassels at your desk or maybe you will but you will hold your head higher, and appreciate yourself more.

Not everyone has to perform in front of an audience; taking classes can provide you with all the tools you need to coerce that inner burlesque bombshell. I recently watched a phenomenal documentary film that is a *must see* for everyone interested in burlesque it’s called A Wink and a Smile. There are many elements that make this film so special but one being that it takes you on the journey of women from all walks of life who have enrolled in the incredibly talented Miss Indigo Blue’s burlesque workshop. Regardless if you have been performing for 100 years or if it’s still just a twinkle in your eye, I guarantee there is part of you that will relate to each and every one of them. I laughed, I cried, I LOVED it. It was such a raw, authentic representation of how diverse women are, and that should be celebrated.

What’s next for La Cholita?

My primary focus is my band The Kreeps. We’re having so much fun, and I’m learning so much about myself in a whole new capacity. I feel really lucky we found each other and are embarking on this adventure together; I’m really looking forward to returning to Europe with them and seeing where our music takes us. Then again there is so much I want to do! I’ve been hustling and working so hard for so long that up until recently I never took the time to appreciate the things and goals I was accomplishing along the way.

If you put your mind, heart and soul into it you really can achieve anything and your imagination is your only limitation. Sometimes the way you get there isn’t the way you expected it to happen, and sometimes you are achieving goals without recognizing them or without even remembering you set them. It’s been such a crazy journey to get to this point in my life and I still feel like I’m just beginning. Now it’s just figuring out which direction to go next.

It’s awesome to be constantly be exploring new avenues and making my dreams my reality and I don’t want to ever stop doing that. I go back to being that little girl, spending hours bedazzling my clothes, putting on my mom’s rhinestone jewelry, singing, dancing and performing shows in my living room imagining that one day I would be traveling and performing for sold out crowds on big stages. I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer and sing and dance around the world, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

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