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Confessions of a Burlesque Performer - “We Do It For the Love”

(and the gin, glitter and good times, but mostly the love).

Lady May Den-Voyage

The next time you watch a cabaret performer and comment on their costume, their body shape, or their performance, there are some things you should know.

Love us or hate us, we do it for the love.

We might look absorbed in our performance, soaking up the spotlight and delighting in our diva-delivery, but if you make a loud comment about the chunkiness of our thighs, we hear you. We take your daggers. We have looked at our bodies a thousand times in dingy backstage mirrors, in unflattering lights, and we’ve quietened the demons to strut to that stage. We’ve dealt with the sting of a thousand rejections from producers, and seen the parts of ourselves we would rather not face through the lens of a hundred ill-timed and angled images.

We’ve packed up the car with our cases, and loaded in our huge props.

We’ve driven for hours through the rain, and will do it all again at an ungodly hour heading home when you’re safe and warm and gin-filled, safely tucked up in bed. We’ve dealt with the lonely long journeys and those with 4 showgals and boys, 8 costumes and a plethora of boas crammed in a Corsa.

We’ve got looks at 4pm in full show make-up on public transport and heard the whispered comments (compliments) calling us a drag queen.

We’ve been up early curling our hair, setting our wigs, shaving everywhere, packing our costumes and finding our contour kit –prepping for 4 hours for 4 minutes on stage.

We’ve built muscles dragging 3 suitcases of costume up and down the steep stairs of train stations, pondering our decisions to take the journey with 3 changes to save £6 each way, and keep some of our fee.

We’ve found glitter in unspeakable have our lovers and loved ones. And pets.

We’ve spent hours, nay weeks, scouring books, movies, Pinterest and old photographs of Old Hollywood, sewing, making and briefing new designs to costume makers, posted pictures of the triumphant new decadent dress, only to see a cheap copy posted by another within weeks.

We’ve discussed the merits of moon cups for hours on Facebook, or the most effective affordable crystal.

We’ve hustled for gigs, to be beaten down on our fee, to be asked to do 2 acts for £20 and bring our best acts, biggest props, most beautiful costume and travel 6 hours for the pleasure.

We’ve dragged ourselves on stage, smouldering on the outside, simmering symptoms of sickness on the inside – Sudafed, Berocca and Ibuprofen coursing through our veins, “vamp” showing on our face. Sickness is not the friend of the self-employed.

We’ve changed in low-ceilinged pub basements, balancing our brassieres on barrels, avoiding the gaze of the barman that chooses just the moment you drop your robe to have to change that lager barrel. Not to mention the glamour of the toilet cubicle with people snorting next door, or squeezed by a urinal with 4 other performers and their cases, or in the bathroom of a sex party with guests “relaxing” in the bedroom next door, nor the chip-fat smelling corridor or the freezing cold shed a cold run from the venue with nowt but glitter and a boa to cover one’s dignity.

We’ve spent hours honing our craft – attending workshops, researching, paying for tuition and 1 on 1 lessons. Hours pouring over Spotify for just the right, most obscure version of the track that revs your motor and showcases your shimmies – only to see a video of someone a month later with just that obscure track and concept.

We’ve taken hideous, soul-destroying day jobs to pay for our craft, to buy costumes and photoshoots – look carefully for glitter on your waitress!

We’ve missed the birthdays and key events of loved ones, and watched you kiss your Beau or Belle at midnight on NYE, from up on a stage, alone.

We’ve gone stir crazy rhinestoning with just our 4 walls, Netflix and Jeremy Kyle for company, as our friends have water cooler chat, and company, in normal day jobs that give them evenings to enjoy.

We’ve dodged the questions from crazy Aunty Nora about what “we do exactly with ourselves”, and watched as friends flounder and try to use Ant & Dec’s descriptions of burlesque being “posh strippers” at dinner parties or a niece’s christening.

We’ve spent dates wondering the best time to announce what we do – fearing rejection, overt fascination, the date that googles images of you when you pop to the bathroom, and the one that expects your character in the bedroom. Fear the cabaret-collector even more!

We’ve dodged the dodgy chaps hanging by the backstage door, running away with our full cases – running to make the puke-smelling night bus, or the last train home from Timbuctoo.

But we love our craft. We adore the warm sensation of a wave of applause. We love the creation of something new into the world from our own hands – sometimes political – sometimes funny – sometimes sexy – always brave.

We love the camaraderie of backstage – the amazing shows, venues and line-ups that push us to work harder and keep creating. The amazing audience that understand us and our message, and are moved, inspired or admire, and make it all worth while.

So the next time the person in front hollers “look at the t*ts on that” at a show, feel free to hit them with your shoe. We do this for the love.

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