When Heather wakes up in the morning and gets ready for work, she is like many women. She dons a pair of heels, a nice dress and a spot of make up. Unlike many women, there’s something unmistakeably party girl about her get up. It’s not the tattoos or the brightly coloured eye make up – it’s the neon pink hair that is part of the persona Heather is better known as. She’s the inimitable Miss Phloss.
Phloss started cropping up on the GLBT scene in Auckland in her late teens, where her giant pink dreadlocks wig and enormous platform boots made her stand literally head and shoulders above the other ravers. Whether bopping around at gigs like Kiss Bar’s Fluffy or dancing on stage at big international dance parties, Phloss became a highly recognisable face on the scene. But after a few years of taking the stage as a go-go dancer, Phloss started re-evaluating her life and began to make a few changes. One such change came after a very special show at Auckland’s 2006 Fringe Festival; it was a show that would change her life dramatically and almost instantly.
“I went along to see this show called Heavenly Burlesque and thought to myself, ‘I have to do that’,” says Phloss. “I did my first show at Flirt that year and I’ve been doing it ever since. “Go-go dancing and dance parties are much a straight world and the girls were just part of the show; dancing along to the DJ’s music. Go-go dancers are just eye candy, whereas burlesque seemed classier and people appeared to have more respect for it.
“I look back on my years of go-go dancing in clubs and take it as a real marker of the amount of respect I had for myself back then. Since I took up burlesque, there’s been a real change in the amount of self-respect I have; I’m much happier than I was.”
Burlesque is indeed a far cry from the disc-spinning, modern club world Phloss got her start in. Burlesque shows we see these days are reclamations of 1930s-style shows where the comedy was ribald and the undressing women were cute and coy. Modern burlesque performers still use many of the traditional elements of burlesque – feathers, tassels and scarves; it’s extremely rare to see a burlesque performer’s ‘naughty bits’.
In another homage to the burlesque of old, many performers these days are body positive, curvy women. Phloss says this is the reason why more and more women are seeing the appeal in burlesque dancing.
“I started teaching last year – I’ve done workshops in Wellington and Rotorua, as well as regular classes in Auckland,” she says. “I teach them a routine – it’s not necessarily a clothes-off burlesque routine but they can make it that way if they want. Then, at the end of class, people can stick around for a bit of a tutorial on spinning nipple tassels.”
But what kind of women want to learn how to twizzle a tassel? Plenty, it would seem.
“The classes attract a real mixture of women from all walks of life, but what I’ve found is that a lot of older women come and take the classes as a way to reclaim their bodies and their sexiness, particularly after childbirth,” says Phloss. “It’s lovely to see these women get really excited about what they can do – some go home and perform for their partners, others just gain a bit of confidence, but everyone leaves the classes feeling better about their bodies and about themselves as women.”
Phloss has a real belief that burlesque challenges modern ideas of what the female body is supposed to look like.
“Everywhere you look, women are being told that they’re too fat or too ugly or not good enough. Burlesque celebrates the female form and says that it’s okay to love the skin you’re in.
“One of the things that upsets me is to have a young girl come to a burlesque class who doesn’t believe in her own beauty – these are really stunning girls who have just had bad body images engrained in themselves. They come in with low self confidence or body dysmorphia, and you start to notice a change – they’ll start out very body conscious and very worried about how they look, but soon enough it will become more about the routine, the costumes and how the person feels.
“I know not every woman is going to find expression through burlesque, but it’s plain to see the women who do really start to feel confident and empowered after a few classes.”
Phloss says she has recently had to come out in defence of burlesque, after hearing a number of disparaging comments from the community. After years of performing in GLBT clubs for GLBT audiences, the voices of dissent started to creep in, calling burlesque “anti-feminist”, “entertainment for the straight male gaze” and “glorified stripping”.
“There was one instance where someone came into a gay bar I was doing a show. The owner told them I was doing a show later and they decided to leave, saying they couldn’t get behind the idea that someone would be stripping in the bar.”
So has Phloss’ message of female strength and empowerment become lost on audiences, particularly GLBT audiences?
“I don’t think the message has been lost on people – I think people just don’t understand burlesque at all. There’s a really rich history and culture around burlesque that I’m sure a lot of people would enjoy, but there’s a stigma there that says it’s just stripping. There’s so much more to it. People’s beliefs are based on ignorance, but that’s okay – people just need a bit ofeducation on burlesque as an art form.”
Phloss admits that there is “a fine line” between burlesque and stripping – in that women take their clothes off in both – but the similarities end there. The biggest difference between the two is the nature of the performance and who is in charge.
“Strippers are there to make the proprietor money and to make themselves money during the performance,” says Phloss. “Burlesque performers aren’t effectively begging for money – they’re there to perform in a cheeky way and often have a message attached to their performance. You tell a story and tell jokes – there’s a real comedy and satire element to burlesque. When was the last time you saw a satirical strip show?
“With burlesque, it’s less about objectifying women and more about empowering them. If the performer wasn’t proud and comfortable in their bodies, they wouldn’t be up there performing.
“One of my heroes is Dirty Martini – she’s one of the most famous burlesque stars in the world. She’s a big girl with big boobs, a big belly and big legs – she’s not what today’s society would consider sexy. But she gets on stage and she’s just amazing – she’s sexy, she’s confident and she knows how to rock her body. She challenges what it means to be sexy in a modern world. If that isn’t a feminist act, I don’t know what is.”
It’s not just adult empowerment Phloss is interested in – she wants to give the gift of body confidence to younger audiences too.
“I recently took a burlesque-style class at the Kazam! Youth Hui with Rainbow Youth. Obviously it’s not okay to teach minors to take their clothes off, but through the art of burlesque, there’s an opportunity to teach people about positive body images. I taught them to invent a character and told them that Miss Phloss is my character. Whenever I get up on stage, I get scared and nervous, but I let my character take over and leave my scaredy-self behind the curtain. I got them to tell me a situation where they were uncomfortable or scared. From there, I got them to invent a character and get that
character to confront that situation. Their confidence grew over the course of the session, which was really amazing to see.”
After her Kazam! success, Phloss started toying with the idea of getting more people into performance – burlesque or otherwise. Queerlesque – a GLBT variety show – was born.
“Queerlesque is a burlesque night, with acts from the GLBT community,” she says. “It’s fun and sexy, but still has that message of acceptance, confidence and self love.
“With this show, I want things to be different than your average burlesque performance. For one, there are very few burlesque performers in New Zealand who are not feminine. Very few are masculine, regardless of their gender identity. Sometimes performers play with drag a little with an obviously fake moustache but never truly taking on a masculine role. Nor are there many masculine women or trans-masculine performers taking the stage. Burlesque performers who are in drag, genderfucked, masculine, identifying as butch, boi or other identities are few and far between. I want to bring this element to the stage with Queerlesque and am recruiting performers now.
“Queerlesque will be a show that is made by the community, about the community and for the community. It will be a space where performers will feel comfortable performing for their own, and the crowd will be in a space they can call their own, rather than heading along to the very straight shows you see elsewhere.”
Phloss is recruiting performers for the show now. She’s already taken on a couple of drag kings – including her girlfriend – but others are most welcome.
“They could be drag kings or singers or have some other skill – we don’t mind, so long as there’s that theatrical, carnival, burlesque feel to it. But if there are people who are interested in doing burlesque, I can teach you at one of my classes!”
For more information on Queerlesque, email Phloss and the team at email@example.com. Shows are planned for Auckland’s DNA Bar
on 17 November, 15 December and 19 January.
Article | Hannah JV
Photos | Talia Stephens of misstpinups
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