Frequently hailed as ‘the Queen of British Burlesque’, 25-year-old Kittie Klaw is at the forefront of the international burlesque renaissance. She is a founder of the Ministry of Burlesque which this month presents High Tease in Glasgow. She tells her story.
The Kittie Klaw story is rather strange. While studying at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities as a psychologist specialising in parapsychology I accidentally became one of the highest-earning and most sought after burlesque artistes in the world.
My career has taken me from the sun baked beaches of Jamaica through to the ice-cold, vodka-fuelled clubs of Moscow. As the public demand for burlesque has increased in the last few years, the media interest has soared. I’ve just finished filming with ITV on the reality show WAGS Boutique and work with a diverse range of clients from the BBC and Channel 4 to drinks companies and fashion events. I’ve shared stages with the likes of Ms Dynamite, Embrace and Texas and performed for Bryan Ferry, Tracey Emin, Callum Best and Stephen Webster as well as the aristocracy and a host of foreign dignitaries.
Burlesque started out as a student hobby and took over my life. Disappointed in what pop culture had to offer I set up the Ministry of Burlesque (MoB) six years ago in Glasgow. In 2004, my academic mentor died and I decided then to completely quit my life in the lab. I moved to London to embark on global domination in a pair of seven inch heels and a 19 inch corset. Now MoB is firmly established in London too, operating as a full time event production and talent management business.
In Scotland there are plenty of reminders of burlesque history. Glaswegians should be especially proud of their burlesque heritage - the city still has the glorious Britannia Panopticon Music Hall which, at 150 years young, is the UK’s oldest surviving Victorian music hall. It hosted many burlesquers in its time but is now sadly in need of restoration, which is a project we at MoB are heavily involved in. On 22 April, MoB are putting on a specially inspired High Tease revue to raise funds for the restoration. The night features a host of acts based on the Victorian and Edwardian music hall spanning the 1850s to the 1930s.
The recent surge of interest in all things burlesque has seen every club promoter, artist, fashion designer and performer jumping on the burlesque bandwagon giving rise to a variety of misconceptions. But the real sex appeal of burlesque theatre lies in its juxtaposition of bawdiness and subtlety.
Burlesque plays on the fact that clever people are sexy. The skill of a true burlesque performer lies in wit and suggestion, the saucy wink and knowing smile - not in the actual removal of clothes.
There are many reasons why the burlesque scene has become so popular. People are more affluent today than ever before and are opting for live entertainment over the predictable and over-priced culture of bars and discos. Burlesque entertainment has an intimate, interactive feel and it allows audiences to feel theatrical and sexy themselves.
The roots of burlesque go back as far as ancient Greece but its theatrical heyday was in the Victorian music hall. Burlesque literally means ‘to satirise’ and traditionally it incorporated bawdy jokes and provocative antics, relying heavily on costumes and props. Each routine was designed to entertain the masses and show a delicately gloved finger to the establishment. The movement was exported from Britain to America in the 1860s and gradually reinterpreted as ‘striptease’. Performed by men and women from all specialities, these same traditions live on today.
Burlesque and striptease go hand in hand like a good pair of opera gloves, but they aren’t interchangeable. Burlesque acts must have theatrical values. To burlesque is to make a point, regardless of whether anything comes off or not. Sexiness should be incidental and any striptease should be contextually relevant.
Burlesque theatre is live, interactive and upbeat. It provides access to a non threatening world of the risqué, seductively wrapped in intellect and humour. The active scene provides a focus for socialising and creative exploration and the burlesque ethos allows both men and women to enjoy each other’s ideas and experiment with personal style and latent desires to perform.
Burlesque is now more accessible than ever and celebrated by everyone. The new burlesque renaissance has generated a dedicated industry, a vast hobbyist circuit and a tiny professional set complete with its own emerging stars and celebrity culture. If nurtured now, burlesque theatre will reclaim its rightful place at the top of the bill.
Show & Tell
Diana Kiernander gives us a brief history of burlesque
The burgeoning burlesque scene has its roots in circus sideshows and vaudeville. Originally an unsophisticated routine of comedy and music, the shows ridiculed the upper classes. In the early years, the suggestive stagecraft amounted to little more than women appearing on stage in tights.
Burlesque was exported to America in the 1960s when British starlet Lydia Thompson took a Burlesque troupe to the New York stage. Performing a mythological spoof, entitled Ixion, the show soon moved to Broadway’s most prestigious music hall.
All male troupes debuted stateside in the 1880s, led by native burlesque queen, Mabel Saintley. Influenced by the Minstrel tradition, Saintley’s initiative brought a smile to the faces of even the well-to-do ladies in the audience.
Rose Louise Hovick, aka Gypsy Rose Lee, is regarded as the most famous burlesque entertainer of all time. A child star in the 1930s, she went on to appear in 12 films, received an Oscar nomination and secured her own television show before her death in 1970.
In the early years, burlesque dancers were a bit like a Victorian version of footballers’ wives. Offstage, they had an ornamental presence, cavorting with well-known socialites and even royalty, thereby transgressing their working class origins. Lavishly adorned, they were perfect arm candy for writers like Jean Cocteau and Oscar Wilde.
In the 1950s, burlesque offered a real opportunity for many young women. In an independent shimmy forward for America’s first career girls, former chorus girl Jennie Lee stood up with eight other dancers and threatened to strike in LA over pay. They wanted $125 a week for their routine.
While she was famed primarily as a pin-up model rather than a burlesque performer, Bettie Page has retrospectively become a style icon for the contemporary burlesque movement. She became the first renowned fetish model, though she was relatively innocent for the 1950s, and her sweetly suggestive poses, were just that. The 2004 biopic on Bettie cast her as an innocent but the bangs, poses and sense of fun still chime with fans today.
The popularity of burlesque dipped in the 1960s. With rising hemlines halting the high street in its tracks, there was no place for cheap shot theatre that parodied promiscuity. But historians reckon that burlesque’s brand of strip spoofery appeals best to audiences living in times of political unrest, as it challenges society’s status quo.
Today, burlesque’s brightest star is Dita Von Teese. Commanding fees upwards of £50,000 for a five-minute performance, her shows are a carefully crafted homage to the movement’s glory days. Von Teese has been known to base entire shows on props, from a powder compact to a martini glass.
Clubland has lapped up the burlesque renaissance which started in New York and London and quickly spread across the globe. As well as MoB events, Glasgow boasts one of the hottest burlesque tickets anywhere, with 1700 spilling through the doors at Club Noir each month. It just goes to show: girls and guys can never get enough glamour.