Dilate Magazine (Portland Oregon)
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Dilate Magazine: When did you discover Burlesque, and what was it that drew you into it?
MMJ: I began as a go-go dancer for Ground Zero nightclub in Northeast Minneapolis, eleven years ago. As I danced high on a catwalk, they would play vintage burlesque flicks on several large movie screens throughout the crowded, noisy club. When I wasn’t deep in the zone dancing, I was watching a myriad of vintage, burlesque classics. I loved the old school style, the elaborate costumes, the talent, and the twirling, glittering pasties. I was most enchanted by Bettie Page. I loved her playfulness and her free spirit. I also loved her classic look. Sometimes I would get the chance to act on Ground Zero’s large stage, with the lovely and talented Jean Bardot. Sometimes our acts were very burlesque in style, only I didn’t really know the name for it at the time. The revival of burlesque was still very new. I thought it was performance art where in the end I generally stripped down to sexy panties and pasties. I didn’t know that the proper name for it was burlesque.
That I learned when I attended and performed at an erotic writers conference in New Orleans in May, 2002 – Eroticon, hosted by erotic author Jamie Joy Gatto of MindCaviar.com – when I met this very beautiful woman, Miss Bonnie Dunn. We were introduced to each other at Jamie Joy’s home the night before the event. It was a pre-party, crowded with erotic authors and entertainers from all around New Orleans and the U.S. Miss Bonnie Dunn was a New York City burlesque star, owner of Le Scandal. She had to be the most stunning woman I had ever seen! She held herself at this party with such beauty, finesse and grace - a true, classic beauty. She had a warm presence and was very easy to converse with.
The following evening, during our event in the French Quarter, I saw her perform on stage with two beautiful, turquoise blue, ostrich feather fans as she sang a sultry song. She lost a pastie during her performance, but that didn’t stop her act. She just continued on, nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened. It was during this visit to NOLA that I learned what burlesque was and that I had a deep urge within to perform it on stage. I dreamed about having ostrich feather fans, like Miss Bonnie Dunn had, the entire way home, which was a slow ride by Greyhound bus.
I received 25 dollars a night to go-go dance at Ground Zero, two nights per week. It took me almost two months to save for my first, black, ostrich feather fan. Shortly after Eroticon, I was using my feather fan on Ground Zero’s stage. Soon thereafter, the first Minneapolis burlesque show opened, Le Cirque Rouge de Gus, and I was performing burlesque two nights a week. One of my acts was with my feather fan and the other was a classic balloon costume/popping act. The entire cast was amazing! It was exciting times for all of us, because burlesque was so new in the Twin Cities.
It was also a time where I had many challenges to face just to get to a show. It was the beginning of the recession. It took me many days and hours to sew my costumes and make my pasties. I had a low budget. We had no gas to heat our home or water heater. I had to boil four large pots of water on the stove, four times, just to take a bath before a show. I hated living life like that then. Yet, it makes me appreciate my roots as a burlesque performer. I did whatever it took just to perform on stage. My creativity thrived back then! I was determined to spit in the recession’s face. I lived through dark times, yet felt rich because of being able to do what I love - burlesque!
Months after Le Cirque Rouge opened, which is a show dedicated to the past (1920’s-1950’s) I started my own show, Dr. Farrago’s Burlesque Theatre, the first modern, 21rst Century burlesque show in the Twin Cities. We pushed boundaries and explored new ways to present burlesque. We began our adventure at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis.
Dilate Magazine: A lot of people dismiss burlesque as just "being a stripper". For our readers that don't know the difference, how would you differentiate the two?
MMJ: If I was a stripper, I would be getting paid a substantial amount of money, instead of putting every penny I have into a burlesque production. I have been both a stripper and a burlesque performer. My time as a stripper wasn’t as glamorous. I had a few songs to strip to and dance to and a few more songs to bump and grind, pleading for tips. I didn’t last long as a stripper.
When I do burlesque, I am onstage, loving what I do! I put every ounce of energy into my imagination, my costumes, my props, my productions. Sometimes it takes me a few weeks to sew a costume and rehearse a number until I get it right. Sometimes I use many choreographed dance moves in my number, which take time to rehearse. Sometimes I use an adorable monkey puppet, who I named Henry Miller, to perform with. It takes a lot of time rehearsing with mirrors to get both of our reactions and moves right. Sometimes I use magic, which takes hours of practice. Sometimes I do an elaborate Geisha number, where I unveil many beautiful robes. This number requires a lot of my time and attention. I perform with an array of colorful fans and Japanese swords, mixing this number with some magic as well. If it wasn’t a passion for me, I wouldn’t spend my every second of my day, living the life of a burlesque performer. I also get much more recognition as a burlesque performer in the art community and the Twin Cities area. Because it’s an art form, I feel that I’m treated differently. I receive a lot of respect for what I do. I feel proud of who I am and what I create on and off the stage. To me, burlesque is liberating. It completes me as a woman. It’s a passion into which I’m so happy to have invested so much of my life.
Dilate Magazine: Do you think Burlesque is feminist in nature, and if so, why?
MMJ: Yes, Burlesque can be feminist in nature. It brings out the little girl in me. I get to play big girl dress-up with shiny, sparkly, and sometimes frilly costumes. I get to use interesting props, my imagination, sometimes puppetry and magic. It’s hard for a girl to ignore the spotlight, glittering rhinestones, and beautiful costumes. But it also brings out the male as well. I have an amazing drag king/burlesque performer, Fox Smoulder, and many boylesque acts like Johnny M in my show. I even have a drag queen, Melora Moxie, who likes to do stripteases in my show, shocking the crowd when she reveals her true identity.
If it wasn’t for drag queens, who are generally male, I don’t believe that I would’ve been as prepared as a burlesque performer. It was several drag queens from the Gay 90’s, who taught me how to act, to perform as a glamorous woman, to put on makeup, etc. They knew just how to be confident divas!
As a female-driven enterprise, what kind of impact do you think Burlesque has (or could have) on the amount of women-owned businesses in the U.S.?
It has a huge impact. Every minute there is a new burlesque show being produced by female producers, all over the world. If a show isn’t being produced, burlesque classes are being taught by more experienced female burlesque performers. There are a multitude of females authoring books on burlesque, or doing videos like Yoga Tease (burlesque). There are female-owned vintage and costume stores, and female vintage clothing and corset designers are profiting as well. So are the female pin-up artists and photographers. And there are even females who profit off the manufacturing of glittering pasties. I’m sure there are a million other ways women have profited from the revival of burlesque.
Dilate Magazine: What kind of effect (if any) does being a Burlesque performer have on body image and self-acceptance, both for the dancer and the audience members?
MMJ: I think burlesque advocates for every type of woman to celebrate her body, regardless of its appearance, shape or size. With my show, Dr. Farrago’s Burlesque Theater, I have the sexy, intellectual girl in glasses, I have the voluptuous vixens, and I have the slim, tall and shapely beauties. I think when you showcase a variety of women in this way it makes it easier for other women to come see your show. They don’t mind coming to the show with their date, husband, or significant other. They appreciate the eclectic cast of performers and maybe think that if someone with their body type can do that, they can too. They don’t have to fit into a certain body type. They just need the passion, the talent, imagination, and the tenacity to perform.
I don’t have the perfect body. I have had two children. Burlesque has taught me to accept myself as I am, imperfections and all. I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be comfortable and confident being me. I have also learned tricks of the trade to accentuate my positives and downplay what I think are flaws with costumes, lingerie, props, etc.
Dilate Magazine: How has working in the Burlesque industry made you feel about the women you work with, and/or women in general?
MMJ: It has made me realize everyone has their place in life. Not every kind of woman will suit my personality. Nor will mine suit theirs. However, I’ve learned to appreciate everyone’s role and try not to find fault in their character. I like to allow each performer to grow, develop and evolve without interference, to let them be themselves, as they are. I have learned to just observe and appreciate the roles each one plays, which is an integral part of the show. Each part is necessary to the whole. We don’t all have to agree. We just need to thrive and work well together to create a great show.
I’ve also learned that if I want order in my show, instead of chaos, I have to assert myself as the matriarch figure, and not put up with any unnecessary drama or bullshit. However, I’d do anything to protect each of my performers, who I regard as family, from any kind of harm much like a tigress would with her cubs.
I take care of these girls/performers like family, helping burlesque girls along the way with costuming, props, etc. I find pleasure, passing on dresses, costumes, props, etc…
And, if and when I can, I like to help the new female performers who are starting out and who don’t have much of a budget to work with. Its fun to see some of the costumes I’ve made, or saved months to purchase in the past, continuing to be used by beautiful performers today. I find ways to work with performers from all over, instead of treating them with vindictiveness and competition.
Dilate Magazine: If you could, please describe what you think the state of women's empowerment is in this country.
MMJ: I think the state of women’s empowerment is strong! It’s okay for me to feel okay with who I am and what I do for a living, without any shame. Today, there are so many strong willed, confident, passionate, outspoken women who don’t let anything get in their way! I think we’ve come a long ways. I still think we have a long ways to go!
I am proud to be a free spirited woman! I’m a strong confident woman, because I have had many role models to look up to. My mother’s family escaped from North Korea into South Korea, when she was very young. She didn’t have all the freedoms I had growing up. When my mother was barely in her twenties, she risked everything coming to America. Today, because I am an American citizen, I can live my life freely. I don’t have to live in fear or shame for being a woman. I can be confident with my body, my sexuality and with who I am.