~ Written by Sailor St. Claire, Special Guest Contributor
On Thanksgiving night, I drank too much brandy and ate too many starches and hopped on a red eye to Charlotte, NC to attend The Great Southern Exposure Burlesque & Variety Pageant. I woke up in Detroit for a three hour layover, but made it to Charlotte by noon on Friday.
Because there were no festival activities scheduled until 9pm, I checked into my hotel and caught a Lyft to Charlotte’s uptown arts district in search of lunch and a sizeable cup of coffee. It was a beautiful day to wander around a new city: sunny, and not too cold. Charlotte’s uptown area is anchored by two sizeable art museums and a theatre complex, and surrounded by some truly beautiful art deco buildings. I got coffee and lunch at Amelie’s, a small French bakery which is widely regarded as the best bakery in Charlotte (or so I gathered after hearing people recommend it the remainder of the weekend). I doubt everyone gets the treatment I received, though, as I am pretty sure I only got free croissants for complimenting the barista’s Serenity t-shirt. With a purse full of croissants, I dedicated the next few hours to visiting the collection at Charlotte’s Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and The Mint, the latter of which had a collection of decorative artifacts exhibited at various World’s Fairs. Though there was nothing from Seattle, there was a lovely leatherbound program book from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that I had a pretty big nerd moment over.
When I returned to my hotel, I got dressed for the evening’s festivities and met up with Austin’s Ginger Snaps and San Diego’s Eva Mae Garnet to head over to the venue and get some dinner. Eva Mae was performing in that evening’s showcase, so she left Ginger and I to our own devices for a couple of hours before the late night show began. This is how Ginger and I found The Dog Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like: a bar in which humans can hang out with their dogs, both indoors and outdoors. Although we’re both cat people, we’re pretty convinced that The Dog Bar is the greatest bar concept we’ve ever seen. There were roughly 15 dogs just roaming around the place being dogs. Some of the smaller dogs sat on top of the bar, snuggled together on a bed under a blanket, while the bigger dogs socialized with everyone and everydog they encountered. Eventually, we had to say goodbye to our dog friends and head across the street to The Upstage, where Friday Night Flash would take place.
GSE is a two day festival composed of a Friday night showcase designed to entertain Saturday night’s competitors. (In fact, several performers doubled up with a showcase act on Friday night and a competition act on Saturday.) Friday Night Flash featured roughly 14 acts housed in a restaurant-bar-blackbox theatre space in Charlotte’s NoDa district, which looks a lot like Portland’s Mississippi Ave (if Mississippi Ave had a dog bar). The show kicked off around 10pm, so until it began, we hit the bar, visited with other performers, and shopped the merchandise provided by bling purveyors C.O.C.A. Fashions and Glorious Pasties. I’d been drooling over Cheeky Cheetah’s work with Glorious Pasties for some time now thanks to the magic of Facebook, so I purchased a pair of purple and black rhinestoned pasties from her. Ginger couldn’t resist a gigantic rhinestoned alligator necklace at the C.O.C.A. booth, and I bought a necklace and earring set to wear in Saturday night’s competition that matched my costume.
That evening’s showcase was introduced by the producer, Mamma D, and hosted by her partner, Johnny Anonymous, whose hosting persona is blend of nightclub crooner and nerd and whose wardrobe is a rhinestoned purple suit reminiscent of Cesar Romero’s Joker. Every act in the showcase was a strong, but some numbers stood out to me more than others. Unfortunately, due to the layout of the space, half of the audience couldn’t see Bethany Summersizzle’s contortion striptease to “Razzle Dazzle,” which otherwise was notable because it was the only variety-infused act of the night. My favorites from the evening included Bella La Blanc’s sensual cape work to Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful”, Ginger Leah’s lovely footwork in her nightgown number, and Silver Kitsune’s reverse strip. At the end of the night, Mamma D announced that we’d choose the order for Saturday’s competition. This is always done by random draw, and each year Mamma tries to do it creatively. Last year, performers found their number in the lineup inside fortune cookies. This year, our names were stored inside balloons attached to Pepper L’Rouge and the order in which they were popped determined the order of the show. I’m a fan of balloon numbers myself, but let me tell you: it’s really fun to pop someone else’s balloons.
The next morning, I had breakfast at the hotel with Eva Mae and her family (her husband, young daughter, and mother joined her at the festival) before heading out to go vintage shopping with Bethany, Ginger, and Vince V. Vice. We got lunch at Zada Jane’s, and were seated coincidentally next to a painting of the Visulite Theater, where we’d be performing that night. The waitress obligingly took our picture with the painting, and then excitedly told all her coworkers that we were performers and tried to convince them to come to the show with her that night. After lunch, Bethany and I scored some great finds at Hong Kong Vintage, which has a pristine, well-curated collection of midcentury objects at shockingly reasonable prices. Bethany scored a 1980s formal gown for $40, and I got a 1960s maxi dress with a green and orange floral overlay for $45. (I realized later that I might have a problem as this is now the 3rd green and orange floral maxi dress I own.) We all returned to the hotel and took some time getting ready and rehearsing before our 5pm call, and then caught a Lyft to the Visulite.
The Visulite is a beautiful old vaudeville hall with a small but mighty proscenium stage. Because backstage space is limited, Mamma D and her crew came up with a great solution which allowed everyone enough time to get intro costume and still be able to watch about 90% of the show. Each performer was allowed backstage 3 numbers before their own and had to leave the backstage area 3 numbers after. Everyone followed the rules and kept backstage uncrowded and tidy. Plus, we all got to watch most of the show, which is an added bonus. At many festivals, it’s difficult for one reason or another for performers to watch the shows they’re performing in, and part of the reason I go to festivals is to watch what other people are doing! So anytime I get to see the show, that’s a good festival in my book.
I performed 13th in the show, which is not only my lucky number, but was right in the center of our lineup. The number I took to competition this year, “The Tattooed Lady,” is one that’s had various incarnations over time. I created it in 2011 for a Tempting Tarts circus show, and performed it in the Newcomer’s Showcase in my first ever festival appearance at the Great Burlesque Exposition in Boston in 2012. Paco Fish had given me some good conceptual feedback on the act that year, but I’d had so few opportunities to perform it after the festival that I put it in a box for a long time and didn’t touch it. I even thought about scrapping it entirely, except I really love the concept and the hand painted tattooed skin that Fleur Du Mal made me. When Sinner Saint Burlesque was putting together Vaudessey, I took this number out of the box for them and had some new costume pieces commissioned from Scarlett O’Hairdye. I’m so much happier with the number now at this stage than I was nearly two years ago. It finally feels right. And though I’m sure the number will still evolve some more, I felt comfortable, confident, and grounded before I stepped onstage at the Visulite to peel off my skin. I can’t wait to see the video of this one, because if Ron Tencati’s photos are any indication, it’s going to be stellar.
At nearly 1am, the competition had wrapped up and it was time to announce the winners. All 26 acts gathered onstage with Mamma D and co-hosts Johnny Anonymous and Lefty LaBlue as names were called:
• QUEEN of Southern Exposure Iris Le’Mour
• PRINCESS of Southern Exposure Deb Au Nare
• KING of Southern Exposure Max Bacchus
• PRINCE of Southern Exposure(4TIMES!) Stache
• Most Glamorous Southern Exposure April Showers
• Most Classic Southern Exposure April Showers
• Best Duet Southern Exposure Ginger Leigh & Cherry Bomb
• Best Group Southern Exposure Greater Atlanta Goddess Society
• Funniest Southern Exposure Dahlia D’Luxe
• Edgiest Southern Exposure Iris Le’Mour
• Best Variety Southern Exposure Macabre Noir
• Mammas Choice Southern Exposure Talloolah Love
Iris Le’Mour was absolutely the right person to take home the crown with her fusion of neo and classic burlesque set to “Cry Me a River,” in which she stripped out of a sparkly black suit and peeled her stockings off in the splits on top of a table. Ginger Leigh & Cherry Bomb’s jazzy duet to “Why Don’t You Do Right?” was also spot on, sexy, and slinky. Max Bacchus’s winning number was actually his boylesque debut, and it told the story of a gambler who just can’t put down his cards long enough to keep his lover interested. Greater Atlanta Goddess Society took home best group for their Mardi Gras inspired strip which utilized some simple but effective choreography, colorful costuming, and innovative makeup in lieu of masks (which I watched them meticulously apply before the show). Macabre Noir stripped while walking on glass (which I couldn’t really see from my vantage point in the back of the house). Dahlia D’Luxe was an adorable stripping box of popcorn which earned her the trophy for comedy. The other numbers all fell in the 3 acts slotted before mine or the 3 acts slotted after mine, so I unfortunately missed out on some of the night’s winners! However, some other favorites from throughout the evening included Jim Dandy, a Ringling Bros. trained clown who did a striptease and juggling number as a British punk rocker that utilized his clowning skills perfectly; Bella Sin, who performed a beautiful classic striptease in baby blue and gold that ended with some high-energy tassel twirling on the floor; and Kubrilesque, Crystal Swarovski’s fully scripted and choreographed burlesque musical tribute to the works of Stanley Kubrick, which was pretty epic.
I boarded an early flight home on Sunday, tired and happy. Every time I go to a festival, I get to explore a new city and make new connections with strippers and audiences across the country. It’s appropriate that this festival coincides with Thanksgiving weekend, because the experience made me extremely thankful that I am even able to do things like this at all. So thank you, Mamma D, for inviting me to your neck of the woods and for putting on such well-produced events. And I look forward to having a similarly thankful experience at the Great Burlesque Exposition in Boston this February where I’ll be competing alongside Olatsa Assassin, Maggie McMuffin, and Whisper De Corvo in The Main Event.