Sometimes at my theatre shows, I take a photo or two from the wings or other unseen persepctives in a theatre. Here are some …
What does an average mind or body look like? Where would we find one?
All our notions of ‘normal’ and ideal are illusions – in many cases ones we all collaborate in! Averages are concepts that only exist because of human VARIETY – how ironic!
Statistics are a great tool to understand populations or groups – but they do not define any one person in any way! This is where we often get ourselves all wound up.
Thinking we should tend toward any ‘average’ or ‘mean’ leads us in fear and to think unkindly about ourselves (and sometimes others too). The mean or average of any set is more like a numerically derived guesstimate of what’s there – and actually is less likely to apply to anyone involved!
When we ‘deviate’ in some way from the typical, or average… we are simply demonstrating that we are all individuals that can not be accurately charted.
So celebrate being a deviant! It’s natural and ideal!
Every Body, Mind, Beautiful.
Beauty norms are an illusion. Every cell that makes up every body is a unique expression of the universe, creating – and seeing – itself.
Regardless of height, weight and other measurable things, immeasurable beauty lives in the whole-ness and joy of every living being. Love your body and know that it is astonishingly exquisite – as this is exactly how it has been made.
Every body, Every mind… beautiful.
If we want to pursue individual happiness and a fair society, we all need to be allies to those whose voices are diminished beneath the roar of controversy. When I took part in a panel discussion on trans for the Church of England last year, I decided to interview as many transpeeps as I could – so as to represent their voices and not just my own. These were read out and a video shown of UK gender-non binary artist Mark Anthony, in addition to my address, which I have blogged over here.
In order to share perspective and gain insight from those who feel they go unheard, here are my contributors, in their own words.
1. What does it mean to be trans?
DH: Being trans, is just who I am, it basically means that I dont have to pretend to be something I am not any more, forcing myself to hide away.
JP: To be trans means to me that I can just be who/what I want to be. I don’t feel like a different person just in my eyes, an enhanced version of myself.
JM: Being a criminal, hiding, lying, being not what you are, having to be two characters not one. Separated from society, shunned.
MA: In its most basic sense being trans means to not identify as the gender you were assigned at birth based on your body. Ie, how you feel about your gender doesn’t match with the way others see you and try to teach you to be and act.
RR: To be trans is to not identify with the gender you are assigned at birth. This includes people who medically transition (male to female or female to male), but medical intervention is not essential. People who are non-binary, and don’t identify as either gender, also fall under the trans umbrella.
RJ: In simple terms it’s knowing that the gender people thought you were isn’t right for you, but in practice being trans is being brave and choosing to remake yourself to match what you really are, rather than what you are presumed to be.
- How would you define differences (if any) between transgender and transsexual? Is this a useful distinction?
DH: I dont, I’m not hung up on labels but the difference is due to generations more than anything. Most Trans people are just themselves and not sum of their labels.
JP: Transgender is the umbrella term, I do sort of disagree with the wording because in my eyes a crossdresser isn’t the same thing , although for many it does lead to becoming a transsexual. I just feel that it’s unfair to group us when they just dress for example for sex or …. sex while people like me go through daily life how we are. Job interviews, busses , Morrison’s, where they might only have the happy time. Transsexual is the final destination I guess.
JM: Transsexuals are disphoric, they require surgery to make them what they think they are, think limb disphoria here. Trans have a choice and choose to feminise or be masculine.
MA: As far as I know transsexual is just an outdated term for transgender, and it carries the weight of trans people being seen as freakish or mentally ill. In my experience most trans people find the word very insulting. Apart from the associations, it’s just an incorrect way of describing trans people – it’s about gender not sex. Sex is body parts, gender is the way you feel and the way you are socialised to behave.
RR: Transsexual describes someone who has had gender reassignment surgery, although not all people who have had the procedure may identify as transsexual. Many people find this term outdated, but it is important to note that many, notably a lot of the older generation of trans people, identify as transsexual, making it as valid as any other term. Transgender is more of an open ended term, describing people who fall anywhere within the trans umbrella.
RJ: Transsexual implies a person who is trans and who has undergone surgery to change their physical sex. Transgender encompasses trans people who haven’t, can’t, or don’t want to surgically transition, and is more inclusive for non-binary and gender fluid identities for that reason.
- If any, what misconceptions annoy/upset you the most?
DH: That we are all perverts, abominations or some how an affront to humanity.
JP: That we are these sexual beings just gagging always and wanting to dress like tarts . I always cringe when I see trans in media that are overtly sexual. I don’t mind sexy but I like decorum and cheeky rather then full on. I’d love to be known and to show different.
JM: Pre-judging, thinking it’s just sexual.
MA: That trans people are somehow just trying to get special treatment, like the bathroom ‘debates’. This mainly applies to trans women but the media uses a very small number of cases of sexual violence to create a climate of fear and associations of deviancy around trans people, when the absolute vast majority of us just want to pee!
It also upsets me that as a result of the high levels of very negative attention given to trans women, the existence of trans men is often ignored completely. In some ways it’s better to be ignored, however we’re very underrepresented and therefore things that we need specifically are often overlooked. For example, healthcare such as hormone treatments and surgeries is much more advanced, varied and well-tested for trans women.
That being trans is easy/people do it on a whim. I’ve been waiting for two years, with possibly another one to go, to even get a first appointment at a Gender Identity Clinic. That’s before any hormone treatments or surgeries which have both lengthy waiting times and long recoveries. So if I wanted to transition fully it would take me in total the best part of seven years. When you’re on hormones or other treatments there’s little to no support – you can have appointments max once every three months and even phone calls are limited because the clinics are so overwhelmed. GPs are not trained in trans healthcare so a lot of it is trial and error, and they have been known to refuse to treat trans people based on their own prejudices.
RR: Perhaps not a misconception, but the fetishisation of trans people is still a huge problem, as we are still seen as a taboo and some sort of sex object to so many.
RJ: I hate that people think trans people are confused or mentally ill for not fitting neatly into the socially constructed box that is gender. I also get very upset when someone suggests that trans people, particularly nonbinary people, are doing it for attention.
4. When you were growing up did you feel that you wanted to be a different gender or did you always know you were the gender you are now?
DH: Since i was able to articulate this. Which was about the age of 4. DH
JP: I always knew I was different just didn’t know how or what it was full about 4 years ago and then it all just clicked.
JM: Wanting to be a different gender.
MA: I always knew something wasn’t right, and that I felt extremely uncomfortable in my body, but I wasn’t able to fully understand or accept what that meant until I was in University.
RR: Since coming out, my mother told me that as a young child I had told her I felt like a girl inside. Growing up, although I felt different and certainly more feminine than my male peers, growing up in the North East of England, these feelings were somewhat pushed down, perhaps for my safety.
RJ: I have always been in a grey area and been enamoured with the idea of androgyny. I didn’t necessarily want to be a boy, but I really didn’t like being a girl either. If I had known about gender fluidity, nonbinary identities when I was younger I think it would have saved a lot of confusion.
5. What do you want see change or improve in your local community?
DH: More acceptance and tolerance of everyone no matter what religious or trans or race or whatever.
JP: Especially alot of trans seem to be focussed on just trans, I like to mix with all people , if we get along we get along and we can work together, but there’s so much hate and jealously, jealousy is such an ugly colour of lipstick.
JM: Freedom to be myself, dress however, be able to express who I am, not pre judged all the time. Acceptance. Eg in hospital, be who I am not catagorised.
MA: I would like to see changes to assumptions of who or what people are. More asking of pronouns, more respecting of pronouns, more standard use of gender-neutral titles and pronouns. Also more inclusive services that recognise the differing needs of trans people.
RR: Living in Brighton, my community is pretty great and I feel very happy and safe here.
RJ: Gender neutral toilets as standard, a general move towards gender neutral language (e.g. not using ladies and gentlemen etc)
6. What do you want to see change or improve in the wider world?
DH: End of Homelessness, Peace and tolerance, rather than hate.
JP: Understanding and kindness.
JM: Better education. Be able to integrate, we are capable people, just let us be useful as we are. The way we dress – and behave, should be an individuals decision not imposed! Don’t bring genders up separately and throw them back together later in life. Grow up together whoever you are. Less lonely and more productive.
MA: Much the same as the previous question, but also to end the media scapegoating of trans people, the general persecution and oppression of trans people in many places (see the changes happening in the USA where Trump is trying to write trans people out of existence).
RR: The media as a whole needs to change its damaging attitude to trans people. The last few months have been pretty horrific in response to the reformation of the GRA 2004, with even publications like The Guardian posting transphobic nonsense. I would like to see us normalised, just another member of society. So many see us as a threat, which is quite frankly ridiculous.
RJ: Same as in my community, as well as removing gender divisions in clothing and accessories, generally shaking off the misconceptions we have about what defines woman, man, masculine and feminine, and also better education about gender neutral identities and language.
7. Can you share any insightful or funny stories or anecdotes about your experiences?
DH: Being a stand out means that you become a beacon for advice. Not all trans people are as confident or self assured about the way they are and who they want to be. This leads to people to seek those who do stand out for a myriad of reasons but doesn’t always mean that they are the greatest of all people to be ‘leaders’.
RR: I’m not sure this is exactly what you mean, but this film really helped me come to terms with my gender identity.
RJ: As I am not the only member of my family that has come out as trans, my mum has had to learn a lot about pronouns and language in a short amount of time. I’ve started making the family fortunes “not an answer” buzzer noise (“errrk”) whenever she misgenders someone. My boyfriend has picked up on this so now we use it regularly, and out of habit sometimes buzz other people when they misgender someone, even if they have no clue about any of this. It definitely makes people careful not to misgender.
- Can you supply images and/or video that expresses how you think and feel about being transgender? How easy/difficult is it to express?
DH: Pretty sums everything up around transition.
JM: It should be easier with the technology, use it, you can have all of mine! ?
RR: My message is to stay strong, positive and putting good energy into the world. To those who are not in the trans community, know that we exist, that we are valid, we are not a threat, and we have always been here.
RJ: https://youtu.be/JacrjnVP7gI This is an act I perform under my drag king alter ego, Roddy Jodphurs. It summarizes how I feel as a gender fluid person and how harmful and limiting the socially enforced binary can be, but also how unique and liberating it is to be happily, proudly trans. It can be difficult to explain how it feels to be trans, especially non-binary, to cisgender people because it’s like trying to describe a flavour to someone who’s never tasted it.
- Tell me about your message to the trans community and also to those who are’t involved? Is it the same message or different? How?
DH: Be you, dont hide, and dont believe all you read and hear. Your life, your rules and not everyone elses expectations.
JM: Be who you are, we don’t live forever, and that’s everyone, do it now, don’t hold off for later.
MA: To the trans community I have a message of solidarity and respect. We’ve all struggled to make it this far (a quick look at the statistics on suicide in young trans people shows quite how much of an achievement it is) and things happening in the world are making it seem like things are going backwards, and what we’ve fought for might actually be taken away.
To cis people my message is a plea to educate themselves and to be allies. Trans people aren’t rare but we are a minority, and unfortunately our voices aren’t enough – we need cis people to speak up and fight for us. All of our systems and institutions are based on the assumption that everyone is cis and straight and in order for that to change, the people in charge of the systems and who benefit from them need to choose to let other people in.
RJ: My message to everyone is that we see everything as a set of opposites because it helps us make sense of the world. On and off, night and day, men and women. Sometimes people are on one side but they should really be on the other – they are the moon you see in the daytime, the standby light. But this idea of everything being one or the other is something we made up, at the cost of ignoring the beautiful figures who don’t fit in those boxes. Some of us are dawn and dusk. If we really want to make the world a better place, we have to stop blinkering ourselves and others and see what is outside those boxes.
10. Anything you would like to add?
JM: Only that it is stereotypical, and people’s behaviour is predictable depending on how you present yourself, don’t assume. It’s all forgivable given the ‘brain washing’ we receive from birth.
I would like to think everyone who got involved for their time and input. Please do share this and encourage more to take part and add to the bank of answers or suggest more questions too! Let’s ensure that nothing is ever lost in translation! It is all our responsibility, regardless of gender, politics or gender-politics…
Why do we all worry about perfection and presentation? Because we think everyone else is achieving it? Or that despite not being perfect themselves, they will judge imperfection?
Well… if they do, let them. If they are seeking perfection in you… it’s because they lack so much more in themselves.
Focus on being REAL. On being exactly who you ARE. This is TRUTH. Being authentic doesn’t require competition or validation! I for one am excited to be a continual work in progress and would shudder at being considered ‘finished’ – and up for consumption like a Barbie doll!
Real women aren’t immaculately presented in boxes, tied in place by the shackles of consumer demand and waiting on the shelf for false liberation.
Last Winter I was invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on the topic of transgender, hosted by Rev. Michael Hampson of the Church of England, at St. Margaret’s Church in Hornby. My contributions were drawn from my long experience in both burlesque theatre and in advocating psychological wellbeing.
My ‘angle’ overall was on the positive lineage of gender satire in theatre and my aim was to advocate the burlesque world being an ally to those trans people whose voices are often diminished beneath controversy and misunderstanding.
Here are some thoughts from my address. Parallels between church and theatre are drawn with a call to all to practice what they preach.
Gender-blending in Burlesque:
Like gender itself, burlesque is subject to a lot of myths.
Burlesque theatre is not a recent trend (although there is a resurgence of enthusiasm) and it is not an American form per se. It is also not equivalent to striptease nor even ‘posh stripping’ as some lazy newspapers (and even producers!) have expounded over the years. In fact, in equivocating burlesque to ‘stripping off’ for the sake of stripping off, they misrepresent a joyful sparkling jewel of historic satirical theatre. Besides, striptease is an artform in its own right, too!
Historically and in its contemporary form, burlesque is a multi-faceted genre of diversity one that includes and challenges societally perceived gender and body norms – although I feel today it has more room to grow than ever. Burlesque actually has a 2500 year history going back to Aristophanes in 500BC and just as it was then, true burlesque theatre still rocks the status quo through the very powerful medium of satirical humour. Essentially, performers work in detail to set up, present and then subvert perceptions of propriety/normality. It most often targets gender norms and seeks to question notions of acceptable behaviour e.g. how we ought to conduct ourselves according to our assigned gender identities.
In particular over the millennia, burlesque has dealt with how WOMEN ought to behave, in any given era, often throwing out anachronistic absurdities and double standards that still dictate today. Here is where stripping does fit perfectly – both historically and with modern relevance – because any amount of public nudity is still taboo for women, but not for men.
Double Double Toil and Trouble:
There is a prevailing, undeniable double standard that shames women’s bodies. E.g. On a hot day men can be publicly topless (regarded as distasteful at worst) yet women quietly and even discretely breastfeeding their babies, remains controversial and an ‘outrage’ to many resulting in women having to actually determine official ‘breast feeding friendly zones’. There’s an app for that.
Women are subject to staggering expectations of grooming, weight and genetically determined body proportions that men are not. There is an automatic sexualisation of women’s bodies that encourages shaming – both for the nature of being sexual and for their ‘adequacy’ of sexual attractiveness, whatever that means at any one given moment. Furthermore for the trans community, they also have to contest with a new form of critique – that of being regarded as ‘passable’ (whether or not they could, would or do ‘pass’ as a believable man or woman), which kind of be implies a default status of ‘failure’ as an identifiable being. The fear ignited by the ambiguity of such subjective impressions is where anxiety and self-loathing blossom. In theatre, the three graces (of the classical era) became a trio of ugly and necessarily ‘evil’ witches – an idea that prevails in our modern ‘culture’ where women are admonished over the unattractiveness of ageing or wisdom. There is too, an increasing concern for young men today who are also being emotionally targeted over body shame (typically for commercial financial gain, e.g. grooming, weight and muscle building products and services) in a similar way, but the long term prevalence of women’s oppression is undeniable.
As the Western marketplace for health and beauty has been directed by white straight male privilege for as far back as advertising has existed, the resulting notions of ‘appropriate’ gender roles and bodily ideals have been perpetuated by a communal participation – to the point of perceived ‘fact?’. Of course, like many ‘facts’, gender and body norms are entirely subjective and are in-fact subject to a changing landscape of belief.
As liberal as the world of arts is considered to be, it too is not without such biases of its own or as enforced by the status quo; there are often venue rules that only apply to female anatomy e.g. no nipples to be seen on stage (but male nips are fine). An irony is now raised in asking whether such rules apply to women or only to those with assumed XX chromosome pairings, per se. What of transgender women’s nipples? What of transgender men’s nipples? Or are these nips in some sort of policy limbo? As a producer I have yet to get a straight answer on this from venues.
Gaze, Gays and a new Craze:
Our cultur’s backdrop too, has the eponymous ‘male gaze’ in paintings, the arrests of Victorian music hall performers, the imprisonment of homosexual writers and the selective recording of history that has relegated herstory to bit-parts and supporting roles at best. The theatre was also constrained by male privilege for so very long (arguably still is), yet interestingly at the same time it was a relatively safe place to be subversive. Such subverting artists gradually affected change because there was a costume department and stage with a fourth-wall that permitted the suspension of belief and a sense of separation from audience participation. Here there were thinkers and risk-takers ready to write or perform and to sneak their ‘dangerous’ ideas in the stage-door (which is usually the back-door) and on to the public platform for consumption.
Burlesque theatre in itself is actually where we see the first women take up lead roles on stage – but they did so, in the male lead roles (let’s face it, all lead parts were male parts and you needed well, male parts to be allowed to play any part even if you were pretending to have female parts). Crucially however, these male roles came with an almighty opportunity for women to be heard and not just seen – for the first time, women had speaking parts with which to address a captive and willing audience. Dressed as feminised male icons, villains and heroes (e.g. Don Giovanni, Henry VIII, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard…), led the shows mocking the patriarchy of their day with their ribald speech, song and gender-blending figure-hugging modus-operandi. See Eliza Vestries and Lydia Thompson for some 19th Century gender-blending fun.
Burlesque was (and when authentic) still is essentially, a kind of adult pantomime with a socio-political undertone. In my opinion, what was really shocking about burlesque in Victorian Britain was not the fact that ladies had ankles (two by Jove!) and were in fact bipedal like their male counterparts, but more so that they were literally wearing the trousers and these garments symbolised power. They had for the first time, a public voice and they used it for derision. Whatever would be next? Opinions on things? Financial independence? The vote?
Not a far cry of “he’s (or perhaps she’s?) behind you!?” or even a gender neutral? “they’re behind you!!?” that we still see in pantomime today where young women play feminised lead males known as the principle boy (think Buttons, Peter Pan or Prince Charming) and in contrast to everyone’s favourite the outrageous Panto Dame – usually the local vicar or policeman. Again the subversion of gender and societal norms is clear: On stage we are allowed, permitted, to empower those without male privilege whilst we emasculate those who traditionally hold all the male-dominated community power. Underneath all the twinkling tat and titillation, lies a rather potent inverted power-dynamic.
Burlesque was and is a playful form of exploring transitions – often we see performers transition in character and/or costume as their backing music and lighting jump dramatically between styles – from fully clothed to nude, from male to female and vice versa, from timid to bold, from repressed to liberated. Always in the positive direction of freedom.
Now more than ever, we see the same stages hold space for transgender expression but the stage is an oasis of relative safety amidst the real world of gender-driven power dynamics, fear and redundant social conventions. Through performance art we begin to really appreciate that our notion of ‘male or female’ gender itself is arguably a complex performance with no one defining aspect – a performance that each and every one of us is playing out, right now. We do it every day, from the moment of birth, as we learn and play, at home, school, work, and online. Whether ever on stage or off, it is one life-long personal interpretative dance sequence.
The trick is in learning to play and perform together, not as segregated by conceptual differences. We must share our props and costumes – and to not only allow all people to move and adapt the roles they were randomly assigned as babies, to encourage play, develop and perhaps even to move to an entirely new role that is more suited to their unique being. In the school play of life, some of us get the part of the prince and others the princess but most of us are cast as generic genderless, mute townspeople or background trees. The roles assigned may seem important at the time – but in reality they are all equal starting points for our individual progress because they don’t ever define us as people.
In Other Frocks:
When I first received Rev. Hampson round for tea and cake as a new resident of his parish, I was concerned that he might not embrace some of my ideals as exemplified in my decor choices; namely the multitude of pagan icons on the walls, the pet pythons, the morbid collections of Victoriana and our Holy Toilet of Wonder. This is the tiniest room in the house – a downstairs loo festooned with rosary beads, crosses, reclaimed church apparel, dancing 3D religious images, Buddy Christ (from the film Dogma) resting on the toilet brush, choral music playing from a light up nativity scene and portraits of myself as “Mary Dragdalen”, my other half as “Jon the Baptist” and our friend smoking a roll-up as the “The Virgin”. I was delighted to hear him laugh heartily from the confines of this unusual confessional and I knew I was on to a different breed of cleric. After much discussion about art, humour, comparative religion, gender, metaphor and the power of provocation, I was excited to become involved in his Peace and Justice Week of panel events and to learn of his own story of controversy within the CofE itself – where he has tirelessly championed for the inclusion of gay marriage services.
From having participated in the Peace and Justice Week it is a breath of fresh air to be able to see that there are many such enlightened clergy today challenging their own institutional status quo, their direct contemporaries and congregants in order to support the inclusion of all, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. This is no mean feat considering the staggering history of church-led persecution and its mercurial (often ironic) interpretation of scripture to exclude, punish and create a culture of fear and intolerance of various groups of people. Colossal mistakes of the past are to be learned from and clerics today have more autonomy to lead effectively and in line with the core message of their faith – one of universal love. For example, Rev. Chris Newlands (Lancaster Priory) went all the way to the General Synod to pose a motion for services to recognise gender transition. The result was that the Church of England has created new liturgy meaning that trans people (who had been baptised or Christened in their former gender and name), are able to ‘re-introduce themselves’ to their community and to God.
Regardless of how absurd it may seem to some (in either camp) to draw parallels between burlesque theatre and the Church, if we can all put our trendy or moralistic prejudices aside and see the people, there is hope for ever more celebration of our collective and individual being, regardless of whether you believe in creation or cabaret.
In in the spirit of moving forward together, we need direction. We must let go of misdirected anger, grudges and prejudices that we often levy at aspects of the perceived patriarchy – perhaps the church, the government or even society itself. Yes, there is history (and herstory) and it is to be learned from. We all could practice what we preach and it seems that burlesque theatre and the church might just be singing from the same sheets – albeit if it’s in a cat’s choir.
A further theatrical parallel is clear when contemplating the whole point of the church is in being a host to and also representative of Jesus, often described as ‘the Host’ that ministers to the community. Successful variety shows rely on a great host – one with commanding skills of influence, through grace of wit they offer the audience ‘the way’ to engage on both sides of that invisible 4th wall or ‘realm’ .
Hosts with the Most:
As In the variety show that is the church (it’s not always a media shit-show), some churches have ditched the dogma and where Jesus is referred to as ‘the Host’ – he is still regarded as a renegade going against the status quo of his society… and from what I’ve read in wider terms, he seems to be all for pan-sexuality and gender equality. Perhaps now, the church, can introduce people to one other as souls beyond gender and encourage more gracious support for each other, applauding each other’s performances, however uncertain, and with however much room still to improve; both there in the theatre of the church, and out here in the world.
Our burlesque show hosts always encourage the audience to give in to rapturous applause and to make as much noise as they can – to whoop, cheer, encourage and ultimately to show Love. We often joke that we need the applause because performers are rather needy people.
Big laugh… but there is truth in this.
Keeping the Faith:
It is important to recognise that needing a show of support is not a sign of weakness. It is in fact a request for solidarity because to get on stage in front of strangers (especially those who have paid hard earned money) takes guts. In fact, it takes more than guts – it takes a special kind of Faith. Faith in others to understand or at least, to listen. Like all people secretly do, performers openly crave acceptance and praise – but they know the risks and are willing to take them to be heard. Even in acts who do not use their audible voice, being heard is about the sharing of ideas, a fundamental truth about the self – an encoded message sent out in to the dark in the hope of some kind of response.
Extending the theatre as a metaphor for life, by virtue of their own courage, transgender people are exposed on the world stage. Every day in the media, at their workplaces and schools, at home and in play. They cannot escape to the green room – because they are not actors. They have emerged beyond performance, the masks are off and they are the authentic jewels.
It’s time that burlesque theatre reminded itself of where it came from, so that it might continue toward a more inclusive future. One without the body and gender shame for all. Striptease, pinup glamour and political whimsy are entertaining but hardly addresses the patriarchy, the pound or the potential for change with any power. It is time to revel once again in the taboo and play dangerously with those matches and mismatches – that just might ignite a revolution.
The Church of England are, rather ironically, making like an ecdysiast – the serpent and the stripper. They are shedding their skins. Peeling off their once oppressive robes and stepping out into the light. We can all take inspiration to lose our dogmas and be bold in the simplicity of individual freedom. As ecdysiasts with a sense of humour, we need to scale up our operation.
Whether we go to church in the morning or cabarets at night, we all stand together in our vulnerability. Just as a performer can be naked and fierce in public they are yet gently bathed under a lighting rig’s colours to flatter or augment their realities. Stained glass images can be beautiful to behold, we must not forget to go outside and see the source that makes them possible – that one true light that shines on all of us equally.
As a producer I am calling for more trans performers to get in touch – for both stage and/or for coaching. Visit or apply to join the Ministry of Burlesque mission here.
Ambition is rather IFFY….
It is often seen as something to be proud of – or a personal quality that would ensure ?success?, whatever that is… but it?s all so hypothetical and future-dwelling.
I say it?s time to put ambition on hold and be inspired in the moment.
Ambition involves competition and therefore comparison to others, with that comes fear of not being ?first?, resentment, envy and self critique hammering on self esteem the success of ambition is measured through unhelpful comparison to the perceived superiority or inferiority of others and their achievements.
Contrastingly, aspiration dispenses with the external yardsticks and focussed inwardly on personal potential and the realisation of growth.
In moments of mindfulness, we can uncover how we really feel, now in the present and see what we want. The answer will likely be far less complicated than that ambitious road or destination fraught with limits set by others. It might look simply like ?I want to feel I contribute to a better community? or ?I want to express my creative ideas? or ?I want to be a dedicated parent? or ?I want to provoke change in my area of interest? and so on. It is a place of harmony within yourself and not some convoluted series of comparisons with others.
How much time do we spend in comparison – driven by ambition – when we could already be breathing in our inspiration and breathing out as we aspire?
Breathe in, Breathe out… is literally to inspire, aspire…
I was a child model but…. (butt) as soon as puberty hit no-one wanted to know. I experienced much anxiety and shame over my height and body shape as a young teenager. I eventually reached the mighty height of 5′ and a bit of an inch and with fully blooming curves but of course was totally ‘unfit’ for ‘off the peg’ garments and ‘fashionable’ things…. Ho Hum. Whether it was the height or my curves or the combination… I don’t know.
So, I went about testing a theory. My theory was that the status quo on ‘acceptable’ female bodies was always changing and probably quite easy to subvert, if I was willing to be risky (risk rejection, dissent, criticism…) and persist. So, I did.
As an adult, I have appeared on many magazine covers, billboards and advertising campaigns. I somehow managed this by being fastidiously present at events and amusing/interesting/eccentric enough to publishers, producers and designers for them to take a punt on a differently shaped, pint-sized model with something to say.
I have a lot of insight to share now with others – emotionally, practically and artistically on these illusory ideas of beauty and gender norms.
I landed (cat-like) in the world of fetish and alternative fashion, modelling internationally for latex and corsetry designer, appearing in print and on many global catwalks. My subversive appeal led to some very interesting achievements including being on the cover of prestigious art publication 125 magazine (thanks to the the wonderfully creative Finlay MacKay, photographer), appearing on the walls of London Fashion Week 2007 (TOWERING in print over the fashionable folk! lol) and with my image hanging in the Paul Smith Gallery in Tokyo.
I was also the face and body of a variety of advertising campaigns for skin care, corsets, BDSM apparel (why not?), luxury goods and events. My image has become useful to artists in a variety of mediums, from digital to acrylic as, chalks and even music. I’ve even been manifested as an oil painting here and there too. I keep a special one in my attic.
Often working with those experiencing emotional difficulties over body image, I offer workshops to enhance body confidence drawing on my skills and experience complete with personal photoshoot. Click here!
Coming Out of The Closet
Victorian Spiritualism and the Vaudeville Striptease
(First Published:?Erotic Review. Issue 66, 2004.)
A grand parlour room bathed in the dim and eerie glow of phosphorus and magnesium lamps hosts an arrangement of ladies and gentlemen, seated on edge. They eagerly await the emergence of the fine figure of the scantily clad, nubile maiden anticipate (but not billed) to appear before them.?
Through some mysterious ritual, the audience witness a noble girl of teenage form fall in to a helpless trance as she is led amongst the shadows and shapes of the room, to the dark enclosure intended for her alone.? Parted lips are licked in anticipation of an unknown known and to quell the dry speechless mouths of anxiety as she is willingly bound by her wrists, ankles and neck and secured in a seated position in a cabinet just big enough for one body. A heavy curtain is slowly drawn across the front, obscuring this vision of blind submission from the onlookers who squirm and stretch their limbs in sympathy or frustration.?
A gentleman of note stands near the girl, please with his bondage and set but he too now awaits the phenomenal ?emergence? and her big reveal.?
She is the perfect picture of innocence, a tableaux of substitution as she sits in silence, patiently bound to an era of scandal.?
The chanting and gentle, nervous singing of psalms masks the true emotion of the group while the master of ceremonies begins to perspire in anticipation of the climax of this absurd eroticism.
Then, it happens.
The onlookers and in awe and dare not move, nor speak so loud as to disturb Her.
She is coming.
Perfect, snow white feminine hands with long tapered fingers peel their way through the motionless folds of the curtains where they adjoin so seamlessly. She begins to emerge from one world in to the next and inch by ivory inch, the silky figure of Katie King materialises as from the fabric itself.
This apparition, the 23 year old daughter of legendary 17th century pirate John King has arrived. No one moves.? This petty criminal, adulteress, murderess, long since dead and now repentant visitor at this moral class gathering, is now the ironic guest of honour.
The audience gasp in disbelief, some in fear, others in awe or ecstasy as they each realise their long coveted spiritualist dreams.
?By God, it?s true!?
?It cannot be so!?
?It is. It is.?
The corsetry of some of the ladies is suddenly too tight by too many inches of truth and learned men struggle? and grapple with language as they each flounder and grasp at any rationale for their own embarrassing social delirium.? However,? no one takes their eyes of Katie and the gesture is reciprocated as she commands the audience with silent stares which whisper echos of the other side.
?Suddenly she moves and appears to draw a young man out from the audience with her ghostly fingers, now parted lips and spellbinding stare. She beckons him away from the safety and sobriety of his seat and like a skilful puppeteer, she pulls his ethereal strings and follows her, both gliding toward the other side, of the curtain.
Within inches of touch, exotic lips pass a gentle breeze of warmth on his burning cheeks as they travel to whisper secrets to his throbbing temples and recumbent ears, deaf from the din of his own pulse inside.
The atmosphere is charged to its limit and catharsis is imminent. One man cracks with desperation and lunges forward through the quaking voyeurs.? His lust for the truth has overcome his dutiful sense of propriety and he lunges forward in a clumsy grope for knowledge. He grabs at the Spectral Beauty in seconds as shrieks of horror and gasps of panic rip the meditative concentration of the room to shreds in even less time.
But it is too late. The ghastly crime of such a wanton individual has already been committed exposing his real motives for bearing witness to the proceedings and exposing hers for her ill thought out parlour trick.
The women faint, pass judgment (but on whom they are not sure) and other feign a faint to avoid making such a decision. The men lung at the lunger but stop dead and flummoxed until they realise the big reveal before them; ?she lies gripped in the arms of her exposer, semi clad in semi opaque cloth that is slipping off as she struggle to free her limbs and dignity.
Everyone is silent, staring and no-one says a word. The young medium is aflush with the heat of vexation and her round eyes stare up accusingly as her shallow rapid breathing grows slower and louder.
There is no applause – no hero to cheer for, no victim to cry for and no conclusion that anyone wishes to draw, except the curtains on the empty cabinet in the dark.
If you had been privy to a mediumistic session of the 19th century, the above scenario is a likely interpretation of what you might have seen.?To commune with the dead was the ultimate Victorian parlour game, many a scientist?s line of enquiry and a window to God and the sociable Dead to those of varying societal class and rank.
These s?ances were at the forefront of Spiritualism and Psychical Research and an emotional outlet of the mere mortals who obsessed over the macabre to the ironic point of fetishising death, perhaps in lieu of any direct sexual relief, a topic that was most abhorred. Modern critics have scoffed at these gatherings declaring them to be born of sleaze and not soul, but for a deeply sexually repressed and often confused society, this pseudo science of the day embraced all the taboo of sex and transformed it in to it?s polar twin and thus justified the sexual curiosities as more akin to religion than the erotic and the as the sessions were conducted by men of science, the meetings could be accepted as legitimate gatherings in the name of science and exploration.
By the 1870s, the stereotype of the medium had changed. The image of the withered old crone teetering on the brink of death herself was replaced by a much more palatable model medium. Young women of puberty were generally accepted to be ideal mediums; young women and girls often under the age of consent were often selected from ?respectable? families were capital stock.
?We anxious investigators can scarcely complain of the change which brings us face to face with fair young maidens in their teens?
Rev. C.M Davies, 1875
The famous physicist and chemist, William Crookes made his mark on Spiritualism when he dedicated himself to testing such young mediums under scientific scrutiny such as Mary Rosina Showers and more infamously, Florence Cook.
Florence Cook was born around 1850 and between 1872 and 1874, she is credited with manifesting the spirit of Katie King on a regular basis. Florence willingly participated in Crookes? experiments where he endeavoured to study both the medium and the materialisation, Katie King.
In order to observe Florence?s behaviour, watch for trickery and to witness any spontaneous appearances of Katie King, Crookes had the young medium move in to his home to live with him.? Many people scoffed at this arrangement seeing it as a scandal; one critic (Trevor hall) even claimed that at one point that Florence ‘shared his bed as his mistress’.
To add to scandal, it was reported that Florence was only fifteen and had lied about her age but the most peculiar aspect of the reporting of this affair of science, is that Florence declared that at times she was also sharing the bed with Katie King who had promised that she would make a ?full bodily materialisation? within a ?year of development?.
It is perhaps of great interest to those who prefer the ?scandal hypothesis? to that of ?legitimate research? that Katie King was known to be a long dead daughter of pirate and was a notorious whore among other illicit things. This aspect of the dubious nature of the arrangement was explained (or perhaps justified) in that she was making her post mortem materialisation so that she might repent for the sins of her life.
During her materialisations, Katie King ? like many other apparent spirit forms ? emerged from behind a curtain or from within a purpose build ?spirit cabinet? where the mediums sat bound by strings and ribbons in an attempt to prevent a fraudulent apparition.? However, not all displays such as these were intended to be evidential of the spirit world; they intended quite the opposite in fact.
Ana Eva Fay was famous in teh late 19th century for her ?phenomenal? act in which she was tied by her hands, neck and ankles to a pole, sat on a chair and secreted in a closet.
Various musical instruments were placed on her lap and after the cabinet was closed, the audience would hear various instruments being played. Within minutes, the audience would then see garments of her clothing (i.e. her hat and hoop) being cast from the cabinet.
Although this was a deliberate show piece, as the popularity of Spiritualism grew, Ana began to be billed as a ?talented medium?. Naturally, more people began to question the general integrity of mediumship, wondering if it was all trickery ? a mere vaudeville side show often peppered with a strip tease. Mediumship became a lucrative part of showbusiness as people still came in droves. The curiosity of the debate still maintained a grip but more and more people were attending shows in the hope of catching the medium out and exposing their illusions.
Many of the young mediums were indeed exposed. Many were found to be playing both the medium and the spirit and had ?spirit costumes? stuffed in their knickers and petticoats for a quick change, whereas other were found to use an accomplice to act as the spirit ? often a sister or personal maid.
What is more difficult to explain, however are the eye witness accounts of other phenomena such as levitation; unfortunately the accounts of Florence Cook levitating off a table and ?flying? around a room vary so much from one another as to make them questionably accurate. The account none the less are entertaining and perhaps suggestive of witness seeing and recalling according to their desires ? one account states that Florence floated on and off a table while another states that her ?clothes floated off? before levitating on to? table, naked before her audience. Excited gossip and rumours are likely impossible to disentangle from any truth, especially when sexual fantasy was courting the fantastic.
For a bit of burlesque fun, we produced a silly little sketch based upon this very scenario: ‘Seance and Sensibility’ debuted at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London:
First Published:?Erotic Review. Issue 66, 2004.
Why burlesque could be good for you.
In the face of ever-evolving social and artistic controversy over burlesque as a form of entertainment, I?d like to volunteer my tuppence-worth on an overlooked aspect of participation. ?As someone who has meaningful experience in both the promotion of burlesque theatre and mental health interventions, I believe that burlesque can be more than just good fun ? it can be good for your mental health.
As any wellbeing practitioner and therapy-frequent flyer will know, most of our statutory and established practices for overcoming and managing ?common mental health problems? (including depression and anxiety) are based on a ?CBT approach? – that is an approach that is rooted in evidenced-based ?cognitive-behavioural therapy?. As the name suggests CBT focusses on the relationship between a person?s cognition (their thoughts and thinking styles) and their behaviours (what they do and equally what they are not doing).
Many people experiencing low moods and worry tend to get stuck in vicious cycles where negative and intrusive thoughts collude with harmful habits (or inactivity) ? to form a symbiotic relationship of emotional distress and psychological turmoil.
Note: For the purpose of this blog, I?m taking a simplified CBT model as the basis of good self-help practice and is intended for reader relevance i.e. those a) experiencing lower levels of anxiety or depression and b) those who might be interested in the celebration and exploration of gender and body confidence. It is not aimed at those currently in?crisis or experiencing severe psychological distress or psychosis. Please consult your mental health professional or?approach your GP for advice, if you suspect you are in need of help. This is an article of personal experience and not based on any official advice or guideline.
In the case of anxiety, there is an underlying unyielding intolerance to uncertainty ? a desperation to feel in control of that which we can?t even predict. This leads to ?checking behaviour? all the time ? checking things are safe, checking how many ?Likes? we have on a FB post or Instagram image, checking that we haven?t upset our friends (by repeatedly asking obscure questions to the point of irritation), checking our email has sent and was word perfect, checking that our multiple alarm clocks are correctly set, our doors are locked, and so on? I?m sure I am not the only one to have had the very modern compulsive need to check the on/off switch of a suspect pair of hair straighteners – ?that are sure to explode killing everyone, when you least suspect it?. (If you want to know my solution to this? just ask, it?s ridiculously simple.)
Experiencers of depression and anxiety typically hold a low opinion of themselves and of their personal ?worth? as a member of their wider community (often by unhelpful comparison with others). Consequently, they experience excessive worry (or even obsessions) about what others think of them. These emotional states and negative thoughts are often confounded further by feelings of guilt about self-care and doing anything ?just for me?. Ironically, in not doing anything for themselves they have no way to gain a positive self-appraisal or consider their worth as a contributing member of their community.
They feel that their worth is defined by others ? either in comparison to (?I?ll never be as a good as Jeannie McTwinkletits??) or, in service to the needs of others (family, work, village hall and so on). As a result they find themselves avoiding self-care and cease any investment in the self. They stop going out socially and, where their mood ultimately takes a nose dive, they also disengage with their own hobbies and interests taking on a sense of general pointlessness (and worthlessness).
In theatrical terms it?s a lighting cue for a fadeout to black.
Exit: The leading lady?
Enter: The shitty understudy.
Unlike most theatrical practices, burlesque ?breaks the fourth wall? and in a beautiful metaphor for mental health awareness, it allows the protagonist to call out directly to the audience and tell it like it is – as the hero(ine). This is what burlesque is supposed to do ? give a voice to the voiceless, the repressed and the misunderstood through the medium of satire.
Well, I can lend testimony to this as my personal motivation to perform was born of a desire to challenge my own body anxiety. Of course, most would not think that turning oneself in to a public spectacle of ironic nudity would be a natural solution to this issue, but here is why I say it is so…
Over 15 years ago I started a performance company (Ministry of Burlesque) on this very same wellbeing hunch ? of directly challenging negative self-perceptions with ?positive risk-taking?. This (then considered bewildering) mission of mine helped at least in some small part, to launch a beautiful movement. Now looking back I can clearly see that my intuition on this was not just personal recklessness, wishful thinking nor a spurious justification to ?dance? around Glasgow in my oversized frilly pants.?Nor was it part of my ?secret sex-worker agenda to pay my University tuition fees? as The Sun* unhelpfully misinformed the public at the time. Oh the anxiety that caused.
So? in briefs, here is a quick outline of what I have observed. I hope it is interesting and perhaps it might fuel a bit of discussion, debate or even experimentation?
Performing (or even attending as a purveyor) burlesque hits all the marks for a good piece of CBT homework, if done with positive intentions and sensible judgement. Doing so challenges your thoughts, prompts you to do something different or, to do or look at something familiar, differently.?After all, it is in our differences that our individual beauty is reflected.
Performing burlesque involves the following:
- Positive risk-taking.
Not reckless risk taking! But intentionally taking positive ones calculated with reason – which can be scary and new to us all the same. In taking risks, we create opportunity to reap rewards and expand our own boundaries. When we don?t push ourselves out of our comfort zones, we don?t learn anything new about ourselves. It is ok to try burlesque and decide ?it?s not for me?, in fact this is just as good an outcome as deciding that you love it. Either way, you grow.
- Challenging your own preconceptions.
Challenging your own long held ?NATs? (negative automatic thoughts) about body shaming, gender roles, nudity and social propriety is essential to growth. These are the miserable or nasty thoughts that seem to just pop up and plague you, as though they come from somewhere outside yourself like ?women shouldn?t wear so much make up it looks tarty?. They often come with ?should? and ?ought to? statements in them?)
- Accepting uncertainty.
On stage and off stage. Will it be all right on the night? From Costume malfunctions to tumbleweed responses, you will build resilience to the uncertain nature of the world in which you live. The onstage is reflected offstage too and not just preparation, backstage and online but in your regular life aspects too, what once seemed like uncertain terrors might now be put in to perspective. What’s the worst that can happen? Really? Is that likely? Find out what is the best that can happen?
- Social Engagement and Acceptance.
You can make friends within a bustling community that celebrates body and gender differences, at a pace you can manage. You can take dainty toe-steps or you can wade in both on the ?scene? in clubs, expos and meetups or, online. These people too share something in common with you and are happy to accept you as you want to be – yourself or even as an ?avatar? or stage-persona, allowing you some breathing room behind a costume or alter-ego. The caveat to this though is to remember that you are doing so and that others may be doing the same. You may not be making genuine authentic friends with anyone, as you are still in many respects ?performing? in a fantasy world. Taking to extremes, this can be an issue ? but that is for another blog.
- You will be an outlier, a heroine, a pioneer!
You are part of a movement that challenges the status quo. Being an outlier with a purpose means that you are making a massive contribution to the community ? be at the arts, social or political. You will in tandem become more resilient to criticism and, can better deal with the world?s jerks and trolls.
- Quick gains.
Burlesque as a performance form is very inclusive and accessible that doesn?t have prerequisite skills or training to start.
- Physical exercise.
Exercise like dancing helps to tackle body confidence issues with toning the muscles and of course benefits your body and mind from improved cardiovascular function to endorphin release. You get those happy hormones and lasting feel good effects 🙂
- Enhanced Creativity.
Flexing your creative muscles in creating an act involves as much or as little time and effort as you want to put in. Having this purpose gives you permission to take time out to do the following:
Listen to music to be inspired?
Watch old movies?
Go to the theatre?
Design and make costumes
Dance, sing, play etc
Learn new skills – clowning? Aerial? Singing? Make something disappear somewhere interesting?
Research beautiful, weird and wonderful things – all guilt free!
Of course, there are always risky-risks involved in any risqu? risk-taking and so here are some practical guidelines to make it as positive as possible.
Your issues laid bare?
I?m sure we have all heard someone comment on /scoff at a performer who appears to be ?working out their issues on stage?. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact the process may be cathartic or experimental for them. Just like all other areas of artistic expression, mental health is a huge motivation, inspiration and influence. However, this needs to be considered with some caution as laying bare your soul can make you very vulnerable to the interpretations and criticisms of others – others who do not know you, your story nor understand your intended sentiments (which let’s face it, might not be as clearly expressed in dramatic form, as you intended). We all grow and refine our expression over time whether it’s burlesque, writing or painting, so be kind to yourself and keep your stage message simple and clear.
If you are in professional therapy, then it?s important to discuss your interest in burlesque/ intention to perform with this professional and what might be involved for you to participate. For example… you may need to consider gradual adaption to new behaviours or gradual exposure to triggers is advisable, e.g. If there are body issues then nudity might not be the best first port-of-call. If there are social anxiety problems then a crowded backstage might not be good for you to dive in to.
As therapeutic as performing burlesque might be, that doesn?t make burlesque teachers ?therapists? in any way. It is important to have good guidance not only to maximise your personal potential in performing but in gaining wider opportunities for personal development. Therefore it is crucial that you do your homework on teachers. As a fairly new and largely nonspecifc genre interns of skill sets, many teachers are riding the bandwagon and have made up their accolades. I am aware of two who have built up seemingly credible businesses based on careers they have fabricated and awards that don?t exist/were never given to them. Good teachers don?t need/or want to do this. They will be honest with you about their own experience and limitations – it?s about what they can and can?t do for you. Be wary of those who talk a lot about their amazing careers. If it?s genuine, and exists why do they need to tell you? Also be wary of those who talk about ?empowerment? and self-esteem. Very rarely are dance teachers also qualified therapists. Good teachers won?t waste your time talking about themselves nor try to recruit you in to newcomer showcases /contests (how could they possibly know what?s right for you before you even begin?) Sadly I?ve seen women damaged by so-called teachers (who had no business selling burlesque never mind burlesque as some sort of therapy), bullied them in to tassel twirling and stripping at their ?graduation shows?.
Often these performances are filmed without consent and put online (this is not ethical but many don?t or won?t see the problem). Such videos can go on to create more anxiety e.g. With work colleagues and family members seeing it. Public comments can be cruel and often those who were bullied might draw their persecutors attention again… relationship problems etc
These talent contest format events are generally not healthy. For a number of reasons but most obviously that in taking part, you are permitting strangers to judge you. Why would you give anyone that power? On what authority is ANYONE to judge you? Is this fun?
- Bullies and trolls.
I?ve been on the hot and pointy end of this stick many times, especially in the first 10 years. The rumours spread have been astonishing ? from my use of ?mind control powers? over the best performers and my ?manifesting? myself as a ?dark spirit? in to the bedroom of a detractor, to my ?hiring assassins? to wipe out other promoters?. You wouldn?t believe it, although incredibly, some people did!
My experience was on the extreme end of things. I had death threats, harassment and have been stalked ? even by my own customers who have since set up as teachers and promoters of burlesque (caveat emptor). But then, I was a visible figure at the forefront of something interesting creating something (MoB) that others desired to be part of. I couldn?t please or include everyone and those I didn?t please felt justified in bullying me and copying my work to the point of direct imitation. That?s life – life through a jealous lens. ?Don?t be scared by the trolls ? if I can find this hilarious in hindsight, you can tread the boards already laid out for you, any bumps underfoot just remind you to keep it real.?This was the calculated risk I took – and for me it was worth it as I have also met amazing people who have inspired me and have been privileged to have been part of others? journeys; and I continue to meet people today with whom I?m honoured to coach.
Here is my advice in another blog post, on dealing with dafty trolls and bitches:
In conclusion, I think it is fair to reiterate that it is important to recognise that burlesque is not in itself any form of therapy and its proponents are not therapists, however, embarking on your own burly adventure has all the capacity for therapeutic self-help.
A good example of what I term ‘creative wellbeing’, burlesque is an opportunity for personal development. ?Positive Risk and Reward? are positively correlated and that where reason and sense should be employed in safeguarding yourself against the pitfalls, the same sense and reason should equally be used to encourage a sense of derring-do. The key to wellbeing success in burlesque is to find creative ways to peel back the layers of self-doubt, to let your mind dance freely without restraint and your authentic spirit shine in the spotlight of your unfolding life.
*I refer to such publications as ?noise-papers? rather than newspapers as they scream out unintelligible obscenities from the gutter shelf, rather than communicate news.
Please note that help is available through the NHS to tackle issues of mood and anxiety, don’t suffer – start your progress today by talking to your GP. Many of us have been there already, you are not alone.
For anyone experience crisis please know that there is help available on many resources helplines and services including in presenting yourself to A&E: