By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On display in the punishing Mojave heat last Saturday, alongside re-purposed Disney ingénues, Scheherazades, Audrey Hepburns, Theda Baras and Carmen Mirandas, the sweat pouring off them in rivulets, were tattooed leather girls, dominatrixes, carnival performers, performance artists and at least one conceptualist in a giant chicken costume. This was the 13th annual Miss Exotic World Pageant, a spectrum of competing interpretations of sex, danger, desire and the female form. So there were classic hourglass figures, but also a surfeit of tanajuras, as the Brazilians call them — demure young women who grow proportionately “Crumbesque” over the length of their bodies and are named for the petite honey ant that drags a burdensome abdomen along behind it.
The audience was no less variegated: punks in monster boots, cowboys in square-dance couture, bikers, local asbestos-plant workers, desert rats still waiting for Manson’s Helter Skelter, Elvis impersonators, fashionistas with designer boas, hipsters with their hipster molls, and entire families. Above it all, oblivious, were the aging perennials — original burlesque queens and survivors of the sex wars, now labeled specialty acts, who flitted from video camera to video camera like great papery butterflies, or basked in the attention of the professional makeup man, provided on-site for touchups to the face or ego.
Exotic World, located on an abandoned goat farm off Route 66, halfway between Barstow and Victorville, is literally where burlesque came to die. Jennie Lee, known in her heyday during the ’50s as the Bazoom Girl, came to Helendale in the high desert, not long after she was diagnosed with cancer in the late ’80s, with plans for a combination museum, burlesque school and bed-and-breakfast. As founder of the League of Exotic Dancers, the first Los Angeles–area strippers union, in 1954, and owner of San Pedro’s Sassy Lassy bar, which became a watering hole, mail drop and storage shed for itinerant peelers, Lee had become a de facto repository of burlesque memorabilia and caretaker of its legacy.
“I came out to change bandages a couple of times before she died,” said Dixie Evans, the former Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque (named so by no less than Billy Minsky, as in The Night They Raided Minsky’s), who stayed on to establish the Miss Exotic World contest. “I sent a press release out, and it said, ‘Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr and 30 other alumni of burlesque will all be invited to attend this reunion.’ When the press showed up in droves, I said, ‘They were invited; I didn’t say they were coming.’ And then it started from there.”
What started was a decadelong burlesque revival, which stretches from troupes like the Velvet Hammer, Burly-Q and the Pussycat Dolls to the Tease-o-Rama convention, Moulin Rouge and Chicago in the movies, and Gypsy back on Broadway. And presiding over it all, as a flashpoint for the movement and a pilgrimage for its emerging avatars, not to mention a trailhead for the many intellectual disciplines that now appropriate burlesque as a glittering touchstone, were Dixie and Exotic World.
“There’s something motherly about strippers,” noted Memphis exploitation filmmaker J. Michael McCarthy, better known as JMM (Superstarlet A.D.), one of the contest judges, but also here shooting “stag loops” — three-minute teases set outdoors against a punk rock soundtrack — for a DVD project called Broad Daylight (“Penis enlargement — the old-fashioned way!”). “It’s interesting to note that strippers are possibly the last class of women who know how to sew; it’s like they’re single-handedly keeping alive one of the dying domestic arts.”
In the end, the judges’ tabulations seemed to align proportionately with Frequent Flyer miles: Dirty Martini and Bambi, the Chicken Girl (who, it turns out, is the daughter of author and performance artist Joe Coleman, also in attendance), both from New York, were named first and second runners-up, respectively, and this year’s crown went to Erochica Bamboo, who traveled at her own expense from Tokyo (and whose big reveal was a rising-sun flag across her crotch). Jumbo’s Clown Room’s own Far Less Than Ladylike Tendencies was named best troupe.
Tara Vaughan-Tremmel, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate who goes by the name “Red,” was here for her second year shooting the documentary Gurlesque, an “academic lesbian trans-whatever critique,” as she puts it, of the tease as gender politics.
“Courage is really hot,” she observed. “I think it takes a lot just to get through girlhood, much less to get up there and say, I’m worthwhile, you should pay attention to me; I’m going to take up three minutes of your time. And for boy types like me, where we’re always dealing with gender, and people are always dealing with our gender in a particular way, there’s all different types of people playing with femininity, and working it, and, uh . . .” Her voice trailed off as she studied a tattooed siren with an ice-cream-scoop figure and silver-dollar pasties still occupying the stage.