Lula Houp Garou, an ingenue with ingenuity, talks Chicago vs. Dallas, the pros and cons of the festival circuit, therapy, and why “Life is the ultimate DIY project”.
Q: You recently relocated from Chicago to Dallas. What are the differences in the two communities? Have you notices a regional tastes issues (IE I’m booked more for _____ in the South than I was in Chicago)? What is your advice to gals who relocate and have to start at square one establishing themselves as professionals in the industry?
It was a rather wonderful coincidence that my partner’s job just happened to relocate us to a city where I was already somewhat familiar with the local burlesque community. I had actually just made my DFW [Dallas/Ft.Worth] debut earlier in the year, when I had the honor of performing as a Feature at the 2011 Dallas Burlesque Festival! Also, I was already “festie-besties” with a few local burlesqueteers, who helped me out enormously by answering all of my nervous queries about the city, performance opportunities, neighborhoods to look into while househunting, the best spots to shop for essential “stripper supplies”, etc. (“Festie-Besties: the glittery, booze-soaked version of summer camp romances, which slowly blossom from mutual crushes into genuine friendships as you spend more and more time together backstage and/or after-partying in various cities.)
So when I found out that I would be moving, I was really fortunate not to be starting back at square one. If anything, moving to Dallas has actually helped to jumpstart my career. I equate it to moving out of your childhood home or hometown – it’s scary to leave the safety and familiarity of your comfort zone, but you have to do it in order to find the space and autonomy to grow into the person that you’re meant to be. It’s been a bittersweet transition – I really do miss my Chicago burlesque family, but it feels so very liberating to be able to spread my wings (no Hitchcock pun intended) in a new city as an established professional performer. Since moving to Dallas, I feel like I have finally started to come into my own, and I think it’s because I’ve finally given myself permission to. After 4 years of burrowing into my designated role as the token variety ingénue, I’m finally starting to take more risks, experiment with new aesthetics, and explore my identity as an artist. So many exciting irons in the fire!
All that being said, it might have been a very different story if I had moved to a city where I wasn’t already connected with the local performers and producers. My advice for performers attempting to establish themselves as professionals in the industry – regardless of whether they are planning to relocate – would be to focus on establishing yourself as a member of the national (or even international) burlesque and vaudeville communities. Start from a place of humility and respect. First, do your homework – familiarize yourself with the other members of the national and regional burlesque communities, so that you know what’s already out there and can focus on what else you can bring to the table. Watch performance videos on Youtube and Stripcheez, connect with other performers on Facebook, read Pin Curl, 21st Century Burlesque, historical burlesque biographies, and anything else that you can get your hands on. When you do start to put yourself out there, take it easy on the gratuitous self-promotion. When do you promote, do so with grace and self-awareness. Don’t try to market yourself as a phenomenal professional performer if you’re really more of an ambitious local player with loads of potential. (False advertising is annoying and disrespectful, and furthermore, it doesn’t actually work in the long run. You may be able to trick people into believing your inflated hype for a little while, but eventually it will catch up with you when you don’t deliver the mind-blowing experience that you promised.) Once you have an act that you really believe is deserving of being showcased in a larger market, then start applying to festivals. Go to Burlycon. Go to BHOF. No one owes you a spot in their festival, show, or community – you have to earn it with your talent, professionalism, and demonstrated ability to act like a decent human being. But once you do find your place in the national burlesque community, it really does feel like a big family. That’s a reward in itself, and it’s just a bonus that if you do happen to relocate, you’ve already got friends in other cities who can help you access the resources that you’ll need to get established in your new home.
As for regional tastes, I’ve found that Chicago and Dallas have a pretty similar ratio of classic and neo-burlesque. I do find it easier to pitch more mainstream acts in the South, while Chicago has more of a market for niche acts. One of my most well-received acts, “The Birds”, was originally created as a one-off for Hot & Heavy’s Classic Horror Films show, and I believe that Ray Gunn’s “Morpheus” act and Bazuka Joe’s “Thundercats” were both first developed for Hot & Heavy’s Sci Fi Striptacular. (My contribution to that show was a schoolgirl-ninja hooptease to “Yoshimi battles the Pink Robots”, in which I defeated actual cardboard robots with my LED hoop. I still plan to resurrect that one sometime and revamp it with a bladed hoop and other surprises.) Dallas is home to the annual burlesque show at All Con, and I know that the Lollie Bombs have been producing edgy, creative work for years, but in general, DFW seems to skew a little more towards the mainstream. I’ve actually been trying to debut my new Tardis act (Doctor Who) for months, but the reference seems to be a little too obscure to play in most of the local shows. I thought that I might have to wait until All Con next yet, but am so excited to get the opportunity to share it with the Viva Dallas Burlesque audience at the September Red Carpet show.
One rather notable difference between the two communities is that Dallas producers are lucky enough to have access to gorgeous historic theatre venues for ticketed shows with budgets that can accommodate fair wages for the performers, while for whatever reason, the majority of Chicago shows tend to be free bar shows or smaller budget shows in storefront theatres. It’s been such a treat to tread the boards of The Lakewood Theatre and The House of Blues, and I’m really looking forward to making my debut at The Kessler in a few weeks. It’s been so gratifying to finally get to perform my larger prop acts on a regular basis, and to be able to start planning even grander new acts! And it’s been heavenly to get to change in real dressing rooms with proper lighting, mirrors, and space to stretch out! (Although I do think that it builds character to pay your dues by changing in greasy kitchens, tiny restrooms, musty basements, poorly lit changing nooks, etc., when you’re just starting out.)
I’ve also been delighted to discover that DFW burlesque fans are incredibly friendly, supportive, active members of the burlesque community. We even have our own honorary “Mayor of Burlesque!” Chicago does have a few devoted “superfans”, but in general it’s a very different fanbase culture. I suspect that this is due largely in part to the fact that most of the shows are so much smaller in scale. Larger productions in lavish theatres are simply more likely to attract a dedicated following, because the audience can consider their ticket purchase an investment in a fabulous personal experience. They can get dressed up, go out to dinner, then enjoy a top-notch show and a fancy cocktail from their comfortable seat. Basically, they can really make a night of it, like people used to in the heydays of showbiz. It’s far more to ask of a fan that they come out and stand for several hours in the back of a crowded bar or nightclub. You can’t really do that in your most fabulous heels or cutest vintage wiggle dress, so there’s simply not as much opportunity to participate in the collective experience of glamorous escapism.
As for similarities between the cities – okay, let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that bedazzled pink elephant in the room: it’s no secret that Dallas seems to be experiencing a bit of a social rift that directly parallels the one that exists in Chicago. Elaborating further would be tantamount to airing dirty laundry, which I won’t do, but I will offer this advice to all members of any community that’s experiencing a division: please try to resist the temptation to jump on bandwagons or pick sides. Unless the conflict in question directly affects you personally, there is no reason why it should affect your ability to work with both sides in a neutral, professional manner. You should seek out opportunities to work with anyone whose work you respect, and then form your own educated opinions, based on your personal experience. We’re not in middle school anymore – you don’t have an obligation to shun total strangers out of loyalty to friends. (Especially if that total stranger happens to be a well-respected industry figure whom you could stand to learn a thing or two from!) Doing so only hurts you as a performer, and the community as a whole.
Q: You recently spoke online about your experiences with the festival circuit. You have performed in several U.S. burlesque festivals- have you received a return on the investment? What are the pros/cons of this approach to “getting your name out there”?
I have performed in 17 North American burlesque festivals (16 in the U.S., 1 in Canada) in the past 4 years. (To put that in perspective, I did this while holding down a full-time job and also performing in an average of 5-8 local shows per month!)
Here’s how most of my early festival trips worked: I would dole out my vacation time festival by festival. (I haven’t taken an actual vacation in the past 4 years, because I never had any vacation days or money left over. I chose to make that personal sacrifice in order to be able to attend festivals.)
I would usually take that Friday off work so that I could drive to the festival and save a little money. On Thursday night I’d Tetris my oversized props into my beat-up little car and drive anywhere from 5 – 15 hours across the country, fueled by sugar-free Red Bull and whimsy. I would arrive in my destination city at some unholy hour, strung out and sleep-deprived. Since I was broke (and growing even more so with each festival acceptance e-mail), I would check into a youth hostel instead of a hotel. These were often grand old mansions that had been converted into colorful bohemian refuges for travelers who were traipsing the world on a shoestring budget, and therefore not particularly fussy about amenities. I once stayed in what was originally the servants’ quarters – read: attic – of a drafty Victorian house in Minneapolis in the dead of sub-zero January. I was excited to discover that the glass chandeliers matched my Jellyfish pasties. I also romanticized my way through a stint in an un-air-conditioned shack in New Orleans during hot, swampy September, because it stood in the courtyard of a wonderful French Quarter mansion. I had to walk across the courtyard to use the communal showers and toilets, which were often graced with puddles of vomit by young backpackers who were drinking their way across America. (Ah, the glamorous life of the jet-setting burlesque festival performer!) Still, it was worth it. I’d spend the festival weekend exploring the new city, performing, watching shows, getting absolutely drunk on inspiration, taking as many workshops (and notes!) as I could, and forcing myself to step outside my introverted comfort zone to chat with other performers. (Please note that sleeping and eating did not occur frequently enough to merit inclusion on that list.) On Sunday, I’d pack everything back into my little car and drive home to Chicago. I’d go in to work on Monday morning, completely wrecked and running on about 3 hours of sleep, but still basking in the glittery afterglow.
It was wonderful, and terrible. I wouldn’t change of minute of it, but I can’t really recommend it as the healthiest approach – for your sanity, your body, your personal relationships, or your bank account.
The benefits of this approach were that I saw a great deal of burlesque, in a wide variety of styles, by performers from communities all over the world. I learned so much and was inspired each time to take that knowledge home and work harder to raise my own bar higher. I also got to share stages, dressing rooms, and conversation with hundreds of other performers, and some of those acquaintances became friends. (See above re: “festie-besties.”) As time went on, some aspects of festival-hopping became easier. Instead of roughing it alone in a cheap motel or hostel, I piled into a decent hotel room with 4 or 5 other performers to keep costs down, or accepted the generous offers from local performer friends to crash on their couches or air mattresses. This not only helped out financially, but also allowed us to spend more time together and develop real, lasting relationships. Most of my dearest friends actually live in different cities scattered across the country. So in that regard, I can definitely say that I have received a return on my investment in festivals, in the form of wonderful friendships and a truly fantastic artistic support network of people that I would never have met otherwise.
In terms of seeing more business-related results, I can absolutely say that I have seen a direct return on my investment, in the form of out-of-town bookings, higher profile bookings, and eventually, higher pay rates. I do have concrete evidence of this, because producers of shows, burlesque festivals, and corporate events have mentioned in their booking inquiries that I caught their interest when they saw me perform a specific act at a specific festival.
Have I recouped all the money that I have spent on festivals? Not at all. Do I still consider the investment to be worth it? Absolutely.
However, festivals don’t run on love and magic. One major drawback is how expensive they can be. Even if you do it as cheaply as possible and have friends to crash with, you still have to factor in airfare (or gas, plus mileage and general wear and tear on your car), food (it adds up, especially if you don’t have access to a fridge and have to eat most of your meals in restaurants), drinks (let’s face it, in our community, networking = after-partying), tickets to the shows (if the festival does not comp performers in, which is sometimes the case), and unexpected incidentals. (It’s easy to get swept up in the moment and splurge on sparkly “investments.”)
The other dark side of festivals is that you can get sucked into what I call the “glitter validation illusion.” We are in the business of selling fantasy, and it can be a slippery slope into believing your own hype. It’s very tempting to buy into the self-perpetuated illusion that we’re all very fancy people and that our burlesque idols truly live and breathe the effortless glamour that they are so adept at portraying on stage. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that even the Queens of Burlesque still have to hustle performance gigs, teach classes, model, make costumes, etc., to pay for their swarovskis. I’m not trying to discredit them – quite the opposite. I personally believe that we should honor them by recognizing their hard work and life-long dedication to their craft. I also believe that it can only help our entire community to set the record straight, because then newer performers will be applying to festivals for the right reasons. I’m not proud to admit that I have personally experienced (and witnessed fellow performers experience) the phenomenon of “festival validation” and “title addiction” – the misguided notion that the road to success is paved with festival acceptance letters and titles. While these honors are certainly not without merit, I think it’s important to keep in mind that a festival application selection committee is composed of regular people with their own personal tastes, and so is the panel of judges who decides whether you or your competition most deserves the title of Grand Sparkly Empress of the Anywhere, USA. Also, your landlord doesn’t really care if you’re the Grand Sparkly Empress of Anywhere, USA if you still can’t pay your rent. Meanwhile, your landlord might be the Grand Groovy Emperor of the Bowling Lanes – does that impress you? Probably not, but I bet he’s a demigod in the national bowling community. Again, I’m not discrediting the value of anyone’s titles or festivals, I’m just suggesting that we all try to keep one stiletto planted firmly in the real world, so as not to lose perspective.
Q: Who are your burlesque/vaudeville role models and why?
The Ziegfield Follies, for their whimsical costumes and larger-than-life spectacle.
Follies Bergere, for their opulent pageantry.
Mata Hari for having the moxie to reinvent herself as an exotic Javanese court dancer and essentially build an entire career on a foundation of the illusion of glamour.
Vicky Butterfly, for her ethereal elegance, innovative vision, and refined sensuality.
Medianoche and Lady Jack for their specificity on stage – every single moment is fraught with intention.
Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann, for their imaginative, theatrical burlesque productions.
Annie Cherry & Damian Blake, for their commitment to honoring the history of vaudeville while fostering a revival in their community.
Sammich the Tramp, Lola Van Ella & the cast and crew of The Beggars Carnivale for devoting their lives to creating f*cking magic and sharing it with the rest of us.
The Stage Door Johnnies, for their commitment to excellence in all aspects of their work, and for being some of the sweetest guys you’ll ever meet.
Spiffy Kins/Mae the Bellydancer, one of the unsung heroes of the Chicago burlesque community, for being one of the most creative, talented, passionate, kind-hearted, generous, humble, wise people I have ever met. I owe more to her than I can ever repay.
As far as role models slightly outside of the burlesque and vaudeville communities, I am endlessly inspired by The Yard Dogs Road Show, Lucent Dossier, The Vau de Vire Society, Zen Arts, The Indigo, Beats Antique, The Neo-Futurists, Sarah Ruhl, the designers at Gibbous fashions, Christina Mocillo of Black Lotus, Lana Guerra of Crude Things, Allyson Garro of Coco Coquette, Amelia Foxtrot and Angeliska Polacheck of Vintant Vivant, and the producers and performers of decadent events like The Poetry Brothel and Dances of Vice.
Q: We spoke not to long about the “performance plateau”. That place you get to a few years in where you’re a little jaded, anxious, and confused about your burlesque career. What is your advice for performers who are struggling with the plateau? How do you break the funk?
Honestly? If you can afford it, therapy. (I don’t understand the stigma against mental and emotional health care in this country. We take our cars in for oil changes and tune-ups, we go to our primary care physicians and dentists for routine check-ups and teeth cleanings, yet we are somehow expected to maintain optimal mental and emotional health entirely on our own.) Unfortunately, my personal “artistic existential crisis” occurred after I moved to Texas and made the leap to being a full-time performer and model, with no health insurance and a starving artist’s bank account balance. So in lieu of professional help, I took a lot of long, hot baths, did a lot of soul-searching, and compiled an angsty ipod playlist that I entitled “Growing Pains.” (Billy Joel’s “Vienna” is an auditory balm for your soul. Apply liberally and repeat as necessary.) I also took advantage of the opportunities that festivals provided to spend time with trusted peers and mentors from the national community, confessing my concerns to them and asking for their advice.
In the end, the answer that I arrived at was incredibly simple – and overwhelmingly daunting: Just do what you love. Work from a place of authenticity and create acts that are personally fulfilling, rather than trying to cater to other people’s preferences. (E.g. “I need a heavily classic act if I want to get into this festival”, “I need a neo act if I want to get into this festival”, “I need to win titles if I want to get higher profile bookings and quit my day job”, “I need to lose 20 pounds and conceal my tattoos if I want this producer to book me”, etc.) That kind of skewed thinking is so toxic, and what makes it even more dangerous is that it’s actually very difficult to recognize when you’re doing it. You’re so busy patting yourself on the back for being a savvy businessperson that you forget to check in and ask yourself whether you’re actually happy.
Q: If you could have dinner with any 5 people living or dead, who would they be and why?
I was going to stay Anais Nin, Diane DiPrima, J. D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, but then I realized that I have no idea whether they would actually make charming and delightful dinner companions. So I’m going with some of my absolute loveliest friends in the burlesque community: Musette, Lady Jack, Viva La Muerte, Spiffy Kins/Mae the Bellydancer, and Naughty Natanya.
Q: If there’s a Lula Houp Garou legacy 30 years from now, what would you want it to be?
That it is possible to blaze your own trail in order to manifest your dreams. Your life is the ultimate DIY project.
Four years ago, I was treading water. I was disenchanted with the theatre community and couldn’t seem to find my true path. I was struggling with a never-ending battery of mysterious ailments (that would later turn out to be due to undiagnosed food allergies) and was overweight, unhealthy, and depressed as a result. I was stuck in a soul-sucking cubicle job that made me want to bludgeon myself with office supplies, but allowed me to surreptitiously spend my days surfing the internet and living vicariously through the blogs of other artists who had the type of bohemian, adventurous, whimsical lifestyles that I craved. So I started taking bellydance classes as a way to try to get in shape and get back in touch with my own body, and proceeded to fall down the rabbit hole. Everyone associates Chicago with it’s impressive theatre and improv scene, but it’s actually also home to an amazing underground world of interconnected “fringe” arts communities. Through bellydance, I found the secret door into the labyrinth of the burlesque, circus, cabaret, fetish, steampunk, and burner communities. One of my bellydancer friends asked me to take a 2 hour “Intro to Hoopdance” workshop with her, and I agreed to, just for fun. I was surprised to discover that I could keep the hoop going, despite not having picked one up since I was twelve. I took a few more beginner-level classes, and have occasionally received pointers from friend and hoop artiste extraordinaire Dizzy Lizzy Delicious, but mostly I taught myself by watching youtube video tutorials and practicing over and over until something clicked. I never intended to become a burlesque performer, but then somehow I found myself pushed out on to the stage of a Chicago gay bar, entirely encased in a homemade full-body foam Iron Man suit. After ripping off the burlesque band-aid, I decided to try to develop my own style of burlesque-circus fusion, and the rest is history. This year, I had the unbelievable honor of making my BHOF debut in the Movers, Shakers and Innovators Showcase. … and I’m still broke. I’m still paying my dues, and trying to learn as much as I can from whomever is willing to teach me. I’m still figuring it out. But now I spend my days making magic, or posing as a muse for other artists intent on bringing their own enchantments to life. I count so many creative, talented, inspiring people as friends and peers, I get to experience all manner of wonder on a regular basis, and I can honestly say that I love my life.