Early into my burlesque career I became fixated on the idea of taking a staple of burlesque parody, the reverse strip, and doing something different with it. Simultaneously I was indulging in some of my pop culture interests; horror movies and Marilyn Monroe.
Why Marilyn Monroe? I suspect it has something to do with my dad, who rates her as one of the best actresses of the twentieth century. Some Like It Hot was one of the first DVDs we bought back in the 90s, and dad INSISTED that I sit down and watch it with him because it would change my life.
He was right (a recurring theme in my career regarding my father's recommendations). It's one of my top ten films to watch. It is a damn near perfect film.
I have sinced watched a lot of her movies, some of which I have loved, some I have appreciated in a more detached way. Nothing quite matches the exhilaration of Sugar Kowalski drinking bourbon on a train with Josephine and Daphne.
Why the reverse strip?
I was still finding my feet in burlesque. I had developed a handful of acts, some better than others, all of which explored an aspect of the building blocks of burlesque. I had a balloon pop, a sexy act, a funny act, and I had started to question who I was as a performer, and what stories I wanted to tell through performance.
I felt a strong connection to performers who did not conform to notions of burlesque that were, at the time, widely accepted and expected at shows. I felt the need to both do something quintessentially burlesque, and to reject the burlesque norm within the act itself. I came upon my concept through questioning how to make a reverse strip unique.
For Halloween 2010 I dressed up as dead Marilyn Monroe. I was working at the best nightclub in my town as the door attendant, so every single person who entered the club that night saw me dragged up in a cheap blonde wig with blue veins popping on my neck and face and a smear of eyeliner down my tear stained cheek.
I was fairly well known at the club for being a moody bitch on the door but that night I got overwhelmingly positive comments about the costume, even though some people were a bit confused by the concept. At this point I started to piece together the fragments of ideas I had been formulating for months already. My next act would be a reverse strip featuring my glamour idol, Marilyn Monroe. And she will be dead.
Monroe emerges from the bag.
This picture was taken by a local photographer and burlesque enthusiast Colin. He's been a regular at our shows since I was a newbie and he knows our acts almost as well as we do.
Developing a reverse strip is a different process to a standard striptease, in part because putting clothes on does not look or feel as titillating as taking them off. Instead of focusing of what my Monroe would wear, I developed a narrative that necessitated her getting dressed.
The gag of the act is in the opening moment, when a cadaver bag appears onstage.
As the music starts we see the zip of the bag slowly pull down and a chalky white hand with blue fingernails slither out to tease the audience. A leg follows, stiff in the air at an angle that is trying to shrug off rigor mortis and failing miserably. Finally, as the chorus blares Monroe rises from the bag, bewildered to discover herself naked in front of a crowd, and dead as a doornail.
The Material Girl video is so rich in detail and pays spectacular tribute to Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". I was so pleased with my final edit of the track and how I blended the two songs together. It's as much a reveal as anything I do with my costume and I'm very proud of it.
When selecting music to use I wanted to evoke a sense not necessarily of Marilyn Monroe, but of the consumption of Monroe's image. I thought back to my posters of her adorning my student dorm walls, and the memorabilia t-shirts, key rings and clocks you could buy in Virgin Megastores (if you don't understand the reference ask your Nan).
My interest in Monroe was shaped first and foremost by the images we are fed, from Warhol's acid bright portraits, to the iconic scene of her standing over the grate in The Seven Year Itch. So my desire to explore her as the subject of this act was informed by media representations of her, rather than the woman herself (of whom I knew very little).
I selected two tracks, by artists who have used Monroe imagery to craft their stage looks and personas.
Just a Girl by No Doubt is a pop punk classic, and the lyrics reflect with astounding accuracy the tone of the act I wanted to create. I could not have used a more perfect track if I had written one myself. When people talk to me about the act, they always comment on how apt the music is.
I also include a break of Madonna's Material Girl. When the break kicks in the crowd goes wild. I strut up and down the stage in a pink ballgown vogueing and sashaying like a queen, and the story of how we the public perceive and consume the image of Monroe begins to form in the mind of my audience. By the end of the track Monroe is dressed and ready to face the world again, though we should by now question whether or not this is a good thing.
Gwen Stefani's vocal on the track riffs on Monroe's vocal style, using similar mouth shaping to produce her now signature style. Gwen Stefani at the beginning of her career doesn't overtly scream "Marilyn Monroe" but once you start looking you can see all the influences literally painted on her face, from the mole to the eyebrows, to the exquisitely coiffed platinum blonde hair.
The end of the act is a strange comedown for me as a performer. I've achieved my goal for the act the moment I stretch myself out of the body bag; I've surpassed the audiences expectations of a burlesque act, of a reverse strip, and of a tribute act, and I've done it in the first 30 seconds of the show. Maintaining the energy and pace of the act for the next four minutes is hard work and it doesn't always happen. Putting the clothes on in the correct way so that I can continue to surprise the audience is complicated. I have dresses hidden in dresses, and if I show even an inch of the wrong dress too soon the illusion is ruined.
I love the act but I also feel the weight of it. In the ten years that have passed since I debuted it, I have come offstage feeling satisfied with my performance once. I have high standards certainly, but I've also created an act that is almost impossible to get right. I have changed the costume items multiple times. I've updated the wigs, the makeup and the autopsy scar to enhance the visuals, but it never feels good enough.
I suspect that I will never feel completely equal to the act. In developing the piece I questioned my own place in the burlesque world and what my work said about me as a performer. To this day I don't take compliments about my work seriously, unless it's about this act. Because if someone 'gets' this act, then they get me. Anything else is just filler.