As women continue to fight for equal pay and the right to make choices about our bodies, the art form of burlesque boldly spotlights self-expression, providing a forum for owning and celebrating sexuality on our own terms. It did so centuries ago as performers incorporated striptease into a myriad of theatrical presentations, and of course, during its heyday in the ’40s and ’50s, when pin-ups and movie stars were celebrated for their unbridled sensuality and presence, and the cabaret and vaudeville worlds exposed a slightly naughtier kind of stage seduction.

Velvet Hammer’s head vixen with a vision in ’90s. (Courtesy Michelle Carr)

But when it comes to true empowerment, we must point to the ’90s and the “neo-burlesque” movement in L.A., which reclaimed the “stripper” motif, shattered stereotypes about what kinds of women might want to do it (and what kinds of women audiences would like to see do it) and provided a feminist subtext and punk rock spirit to the proceedings.

Having covered this world pretty much since it started, I still marvel at burlesque’s enduring popularity and feel grateful for the vixenish visionaries who continue to strip away sex shame, spread body positivity and entertain us all with their inimitable essences. Here, I take a look at the people, places and groups that first made it happen and those are still doing so in Los Angeles.

Those who’ve followed the evolution of neo-burlesque in L.A. know who the queen is, and that is Michelle Carr. Creator of the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, Carr (who also pioneered the punk coffeehouse scene with her riotous hang Jabberjaw) gathered a mix of women — at the time, no actual strippers or surgically-enhanced gals were allowed — for a homage to retro grind-au-go-go around 1995, featuring a mix of badass tattooed, often curvy, cool alternative babes in thematic vignettes. The first show was at Little Pedro’s (now gone) on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz, but it went on to take over several venues across  L.A. Lasting about 10 years, the Hammer inspired a documentary, a book and arguably every burlesque gal in L.A. who followed.

Dita Von Teese performing at Clifton's

Dita Von Teese performing at Clifton’s (Levan TK)

Many ladies who were part of the group went on to produce and co-produce other shows too, some still doing it to this day, including Rita D’Albert (Lucha Va Voom- a few times a year at the Mayan) and Pleasant Gehman (Belle Book & Candle- one Wednesday a month at El Cid), as well as Annie Sperling (Rock & Roll Strip Show), Selene Luna (Dog & Pony Show) and actress Margaret Cho (Sensuous Woman), to name a few well-known figures.

Penny Starr, Jr. and her granny Penny Starr, Sr. (Courtesy subjects)

A little after V.H. staked its sexy claim, dancer Bella Beretta started doing burlesque shows at the Derby, with the swing scene and fashion flair of the moment (Bettie Page–red lipstick, etc.) providing a fitting old school backdrop. A duo by the name of The Fishnet Floozies also made a splash at venues such as The Garage, The Knitting Factory and M Bar.

L.A. burlesque was exploding and the ladies making their mark (Carr, Kitten DeVille, Penny Starr Jr., Kari French and a little lady from Orange County by the name of Dita Von Teese) were starting to get noticed by the mainstream and music worlds, garnering parts in videos and TV.

The Miss Exotic World Pageant curated by the legendary Dixie Evans was created in 1990, but it really started to build steam thanks to burlesque’s growth in L.A. and New York in the mid- and late-’90s, bringing dancers from across the country and the globe together in Las Vegas, including big names like NYC’s Dirty Martini and Catherine D’Lish (who trained Dita).

Speaking of “training” and teaching, burlesque is a lot like drag in this regard — most every performer has a “burlesque mama” who showed them the ropes in terms of stage moves, costume and themes. There is an unspoken rule about acts and music and not using another gal’s idea, but, of course, these have been broken. (Yes, this has led to drama among some performers.) Healthy competition fuels the scene to this day, but it pales in comparison to the camaraderie and sense of community that women who do burlesque share. In fact, most of the dancers mentioned here and in this  “Best Burlesque” list have shared bills at some point. Burlesque in L.A. is incestuous in the best possible way.

Audrey Deluxe in Devil’s Playground’s “Star Girls” (Nanette Gonzalez)

Gatherings such as Vaginal Davis’ Bricktops in West Hollywood, The Toledo Show (which featured incredible live jazz music embellished with burlesque and still does in Santa Monica), Kitty DigginsDandy, Penny Starr Jr.’s Victory Variety Hour, Lili Von Schtup’s Monday Night Tease at Three Clubs and Courtney Cruz’s Devil’s Playground at Dragonfly, took the spectacle and attitude of Velvet Hammer and infused their own unique ideas into the mix in the 2000s, adding modern touches like diverse music styles and niche themes — shows devoted to Star Wars, glam rock or horror, for example.

The phenom went truly mainstream with Robin Antin’s Pussycat Dolls shows at the Viper Room (pre-pop group) making the gossip columns thanks to celebrity guest spots, which in turn saw burlesque hit the big screen via Drew Barrymore’s Charlie’s Angels movie and later, the Cher and Christina Aguilera flick Burlesque, a movie that couldn’t have misrepresented the real scene worse if it tried. The homogenization of burlesque by Hollywood might have killed a lesser movement, but there was still plenty of skin to bare and creativity to share in this city.

Ms. Burgundy gives L.A. Weekly a behind-the-scenes look at burlesque.; Credit: Michelle Niellose

Vanessa Burgundy (Michelle Niellose)

Glitter, glamour and moxie made burlesque a force in L.A. clubs but as it grew, new ideas came into play too. From choreography and story-telling to fetishism and comedy, burlesque could not (and still can’t) be pigeon-holed. Dita became a superstar (even making the cover of Playboy) while similarly beguiling models like Mosh won hearts and continued to book appearances in L.A. and around the world. In the social media age, these two ladies in particular have proven themselves to be savvy businesswomen who’ve used their platforms to secure not only success and respect for themselves but for burlesque in general via partnerships, products and their own productions. This is something that today’s other top performers are doing on a local level as well.

JessaBelle Thunder (Dany Lofgren)

Bodacious beauties such Audrey Deluxe (Burlesque Bingo, Viva Las Vegas), Lulu Mon Dieu (Bootleg Bombshells), Vanessa Burgundy (tributes to Angelyne, John Waters and the Rolling Stones), Donna Hood (Tease If You Please) and Bobbie Burlesque (Seduction) have built loyal fanbases for themselves, as well as provided showcases for other dancers to put their unique stamp on the scene.

Also like drag, the city’s top performers reflect L.A.’s cultural mix, with an array of ethnicities, ages, body types, gender identities, personal styles and varied artistic visions represented by the likes of Jessabelle Thunder, Tito Bonito, Diamondback Annie, Ruby Champagne, April Showers, Lux La Croix, Danielle G., Michelle L’amour, Natasha Estrada aka “La Cholita,” Coco Ono, Kira Von Sutra, Miss Spent Youth, Tas Al Ghul, Molly DeMure, Daphne Von Rey and Egypt Blacknile, to name just a few. There are many, many more of course, and I wish I could list them all because anyone with the goods and guts to get on stage and do this deserves it. But these performers as well as the aforementioned deserve praise for bringing a strong point of view to their shows and for their frequency on L.A. stages.

Speaking of which, venues who showcase burlesque deserve thanks as well. Many of the performers mentioned here (and from our best troupes list) can also be seen at The Edison, Harvard & Stone, Three Clubs, El Cid, Eastside Luv, La Descarga, The Mayan and Jumbo’s Clown Room, to name a few. Support these locales and the gals (and guys) who do shows at them.

Tease if you Please (Samuel Hernandez).

Prude types will never enjoy burlesque, but the “wanton” wave of the ’90s as seen in Los Angeles has manifested into something more accessible than ever, with themes for everyone and a vibe that’s less about lust and more about love and support for the beauty of every body (which is why to this day you’ll often see more females than males at the shows). Burlesque can be glitzy, campy or vampy, but the best performers — and I’ll argue our city has the best — provide more than eye candy; they strip away pretense and channel power, layer by removed layer, so that the fantasy becomes real and the moment does too.

“A Taste of the Tease,” a burlesque costume exhibit opens this Thurs., July 25, at Burgundy Room Gallery, 1621 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Hollywood.

See our list of Best Burlesque troupes and shows here.

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