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.
We agreed to take the matter up at a later time.
Stars Among Us: A Sighting
Near dark last Thursday, I was heading west down Santa Monica Boulevard (Route 66 back in the day) when parked construction equipment in the right lane forced me to stop. Sitting there, waiting for traffic to clear so I could swing into the left lane, I saw a baby-blue GTO convertible, manufactured in some ancient year I’m not manly enough to identify, edging out of the side street just to my right. The driver of the beautiful car, with white trim and its top down, was a rugged, handsome, clean-shaven guy whom I instantly identified as the actor Val Kilmer. He half-waved as he swept out in front of me and turned right into traffic. It was slightly rude to whip out in front of me, some might say a sign of impatience. But I thought, “Well, he’s Val Kilmer and I’m not.” (The city likes to remind you of your place in its hierarchy.)
There was a pretty, blond woman in the passenger seat; not famous. The driver who looked like Val Kilmer appeared animated, very jazzed, as souped-up as his car, while she looked terribly relaxed, her head thrown back, watching the day’s light fade from the sky maybe, her body sunk with apparent contentment into the white seats. They were both wearing white button-down shirts, his a kind of cowboy shirt, I want to say, and hers something dressier, the shirtsleeves rolled up tight, both her hands clutching a water bottle to her chest. (I thought: She’s wearing one of his shirts.) As they straightened out onto the boulevard, she sidled over next to him and rested her head against his right shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her. By then I was two cars behind them, once again in the right lane, watching as they pulled up to a stoplight just past La Brea. (How can you resist taking mental notes on a rolling advertisement for a life so much sexier — so much blonder — than yours happens to be on this day, or, let’s face it, any other day?)
Waiting for the green light, Kilmer was grinning. Suddenly he turned and took the woman’s face in his hands and kissed her, hard. Then, with both his hands gripping her head tightly, fingers buried in her messy, just-got-out-of-bed hair, he swept an impressively long tongue up her face, from her nose up to her forehead, a move that struck me as both playful and full of intent. This man, I suddenly recalled, just finished playing the porn star John Holmes. Then he laughed, said something I wish I could have heard, and they drove on — happy people. Blue convertible. Movie star. As I continued on, I thought — nothing profound — Well, someone’s having a more interesting day than I am. Nice to know that after 22 years of living here, there’s still such a thing as an L.A. moment.
Neighbors: Love and Loss at the Taqueria
My wife and I are fairly new to our neighborhood, just south of Sunset in the Rampart division of Silver Lake. But our next-door neighbor Manuel, who came to Los Angeles after leaving Guadalajara, has lived in these parts for 20-some years. He’s done his best to make us feel welcome, greeting us from the get-go with hellos and small talk in his broken English. I always try to reciprocate in my tortured Spanglish. On the occasions when my wife, Candy, is home — she’s a dancer who lives in Vegas — Manuel jokes with her about my perpetually scowling face. (“Is it true?” I ask her. “Well, if someone didn’t know you, they’d think you’re mean,” she insists.)
When Manuel isn’t at one of his two full-time jobs, he’s with his cars. He’s proud of his early ’80s Cadillac and mid-’70s Ford LTD. Often when I come home he’s monkeying around under the hood of one or the other, or else he’s sitting in one of them listening to music. Sometimes he’ll roll down the window to say hi as I walk by, but then he stays in the car listening to the music on the radio long after I’ve gone into the house.
Recently, my wife was home for a longer visit than usual, and Manuel must have noticed a change in my countenance.
“Oh, you smile today,” he said, poking more fun at me by animatedly turning a mock frown into a grin. He laughed heartily at this. “See what a pretty lady can do.”
Candy and I were headed to El 7 Mares, our favorite taco stand, just a few blocks away on Sunset Boulevard, so I invited Manuel to come with us. He seemed slightly taken aback, but quickly agreed.
“Give me two minutes to clean my hands,” he said.
It took more than two minutes.
“Sorry, Joe. I had to call Angela to tell her. She’s in Mexico right now.”
It was cold out and I insisted on driving the short distance. My wife insisted that Manuel sit up front with me. Manuel insisted that he sit in back, but he eventually, embarrassedly, gave in.
In a minute we were at the taqueria. I ordered two fish tacos, one chicken taco, a chicken tamale and rice and beans. I guess I was hungry. My wife ordered shrimp tacos and a chicken tamale. Manuel stepped up to the window and it was immediately clear that he and the young lady behind the counter knew each other. They spoke in Spanish, too rapidly for me to follow.
When he reached for his wallet, I told Manuel to put his money away. This too embarrassed him, but it seemed to delight the young lady behind the counter.
We sat down to wait for the food and started talking. Well, my wife and Manuel started talking. I’m like a shark; I have to be constantly moving or eating, and it was late enough that I was hungry to the point of distraction. Soon, though, matters turned to life and love. What else would it be, when food is on the way, the day is ending and the lights are shining on the boulevard?
Between impatient glances toward the pickup window, I gleaned that Manuel was inquiring about how long Candy and I had been married, how we met, the back story to our arrival in the neighborhood.
While she filled him in, I pulled off my wedding ring, handed it to Manuel and told him to read the inscription. He reached for the glasses resting on his forehead and brought them down over his eyes in the manner of an appraiser conducting important business. He held the ring close and then far and then up in the air and down in front of his chest, squinting as if trying to decipher something inscrutable. That puzzled me, since the inscription was in Spanish.
He was apologetic. “Sorry, Joe, I cannot see too well. It’s too small for me. My glasses are not so good, eh?” He chuckled.
“No worries,” I said. “It reads: Siempre mi amor. June 16, 2002. That’s when we got married. On Father’s Day.”
“Ah, siempre mi amor. Yes, I see.” He turned the ring around between his large fingers, still regarding it like an appraiser. “Siempre mi amor, yes, yes.”
As I slipped the ring back on, the young lady behind the counter called our number and I picked up our food.
“I was married for many years, many years. I was with the same woman for 23 years,” Manuel said as I handed out the food.
Candy and I thought Angela, the woman he lived with, was his wife and the mother of his three kids: two sons and a daughter. The kids were grown and on to exciting lives that Manuel loves to talk about. One son lives in Seattle, the daughter in Boston, and the youngest son, 26, lives a few blocks away. They are in movies and hospital administration and one is a writer. Stuff like that.
“No, no, Angela is not my wife. I’m going to marry her, though. She’s a good woman. We are good friends, good friends. Always laughing. She likes my jokes. But it’s different, you see. It’s not the same as with my wife.”
Manuel is one of those people who can’t eat and talk at the same time. I can eat, talk and mop floors at the same time. There was nothing left on my plate but one small chicken taco, and Manuel had barely taken the first bite of his ceviche tostadas. I hesitated to ask, realizing that doing so could keep us out there in the increasing chill for god knows how much longer. But I asked anyway.
“What happened with your wife?”
He didn’t look at either of us when he said it. “She died. Seven years ago.”
Again, I asked the question, even though, somehow, I already knew.
“Oh, it was bad, Joe. Very bad. Someone was drunk and he killed her with his car.”
It was what I had expected. But that didn’t stop the pain and shame from traveling the great distance of years and miles and settling in a place inside that made my eyes burn with sadness. I told him about my grandfather who had killed someone while driving drunk. My father escaped the same fate by sheer luck.
“It’s practically a way of life where I came from,” I said. Manuel looked at me and nodded.
“How did you deal with that pain and anger?” I asked.
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“It took a long time, man. A long time. There were a lot of things I wanted to do. I thought very much about doing some things that were bad. But I had our kids and I had to think of them. She loved music. We had our melodies. I still listen to those melodies on the radio all the time. Sometimes I just sit in the car. You see me. I’m listening and she’s with me.”
We finished dinner, slowly now, talking all the time about everything people talk about. The gaps between Manuel’s bites on his tacos were long, but not painful. I was no longer in a hurry to get back.
“I love my food, Joe. I like to eat it slowly,” he said, then he winked and laughed out loud. “Why be in a hurry all the time?”