Every Woman Can: Backstage with Velvet Hammer | A Considerable Town | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Every Woman Can: Backstage with Velvet Hammer 

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Photo by Ted Soqui

“Do you have a bobby pin?”

“I do, but I can’t give it to you now. I’m in a crucial Derma-blend moment.”

“Oh, now that’s a quotable quote. That’s almost as good as ‘Can I use your tweezers? Mind if I pluck my tit-hair with them?’”

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The women backstage at Velvet Hammer, director/creator Michelle Carr’s cult-popular homage to the lost art of burlesque, are showing off. Kitten De Ville introduces herself around with a saucy wink; Pleasant Gehman, a.k.a. Farhanna, lead belly dancer in the “Flowers of the Desert,” announces several times that a cat fight (between her real, domestic cats) has transformed her kitchen into a crime scene. “It looks like the Manson-family house,” she declares dryly, drifting aimlessly among her primping cohorts (she glittered her eyes and shellacked her hair at home). Kitten and Ming Dynatease tell the story of how Kitten’s car broke down on the street. “There we were, two big, blond Velvet Hammer girls pushing a pink Cadillac, and no one would help us!”

The women are not, however, playing it up for me, the decidedly drab writer standing in the corner scribbling in her notebook. In fact, they keep forgetting I’m here.

“With the 30 grand I make from the show,” cracks one girl sarcastically (performers barely break even), “I’m going to Cuba with . . .” She finishes the sentence with a name of a local producer known for his scams. Three women shoot me a look. “You can’t print that,” says one. “Oh, right,” says another. “Should I be watching what I say?”

Onstage, the show might be for the screaming, adoring fans who fight for sightlines at the El Rey, but their performance in the dressing room is for each other. “The gals who make it into the show,” says associate producer Rita D’Albert, “are gals’ gals.”

Such Dixie Evans solidarity is a telling difference between these women and the originals they admire: While Evans so loved her fellow burlesque legends she created a shrine in the desert to honor them, Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm could afford only fleeting moments of camaraderie. Stories of burlesque dancers blacking each other’s eyes over stolen gimmicks are legion. “If you didn’t cut somebody’s throat,” burlesque dancer Flame Fury once said, “they’d cut yours.”

“There was a sense of sadness about them that we don’t have,” says Melissa Duke, who performs a cowgirl number as Bubbles La Rue. “They were doing it to make a living, and their lives were hard.” Dancing next-to-naked wasn’t much of a living then — even burlesque’s stars didn’t get rich — and it isn’t now: Strip.- pers in present-day clubs typically hand over half a night’s take to the club, and the price of a lap dance has not exact..ly risen with inflation. Yet there are no career strippers here. “Velvet Hammer,” says Duke, “is a great excuse to dress up and be sexy.”

But can burlesque thus reduced and fossilized — or elevated to religion — still be sexy? Blaze Starr may have danced with more nuance and artistry than the average girl in the pussy pit at Star Strip, but her moves were without question calculated to, frankly, make men wish they could fuck her. Her shadowy desperation was part of her currency in the burlesque world, however much she left to the imagination. By contrast, a significant majority of Velvet Hammer’s fans are heterosexual women who arrive more elaborately jeuged or gussied up than the dancers, and sashay about the lobby like objets d’art. The scene in the public bathroom at the El Rey on Friday night looked remarkably similar to the one I’d just left backstage — except that the women’s can was even more saturated with hairspray.

Lately, women in the developed industrial world have decided that glamour and titillation are liberating — it’s considered tragic, remember, that the Taliban prohibited women from wearing high heels. And if we can be sex objects without being skinny, all the better: The women of Velvet Hammer have bellies, stretch marks and flab; their breasts hang silicone-free, and they are not all under 30. One of them, Starlet O’Hara, stands somewhere under 4 feet tall; another, World Famous Bob, is clearly not within the insurance company’s weight charts. But her raunchy little number, in which her large and pendulous breasts fly, thrillingly, up and down in opposition, has her audience howling.

“You know you’re on to something when the girls in the crowd are just as excited as the men,” says D’Albert. “They’re like, ‘The girls are beautiful, and they’re great dancers. But it makes me feel like I could do this.’” Yeah, I tell her. Me too.

—Judith Lewis

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