Michelle Baldwin

Author of, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind , Founder of Burlesque As It Was

Michelle Baldwin, aka Vivienne Va-Voom

Thank God for the neo-burlesque movement! What can be more fun than watching girls taking their clothes off? How about when girls are actually having FUN taking their clothes off?

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with Michelle Baldwin in July to talk about her experiences with creating the neo-burlesque troupe, Burlesque As It Was, and her new book, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind.

What is your definition of burlesque?
The base, the kernel of burlesque, is that it's all female driven, sexy satire. That's about the only thing that holds together every generation of burlesque.

How did you become involved in it?
There was a show at the Mercury cafe in 1997 and Evangeline The Oyster Girl, who is a performer from New Orleans, was there. [As the story goes, the role of the Oyster Girl began in the 40s and the original Oyster Girl started taking other girls under her wing to train them to be the new Oyster Girl. The first one was Jane Blevins.] I've talked to Jane since that time and her goal was to take this across the country and show people what it was; a very dead art. I saw that and was just completely bowled over. It was gorgeous, it was sexy... The next day I went to the library and checked out every single book on it and started researching to find out where it came from, who started it, why does it exist, and why doesn't it exist anymore in our popular culture.

Burlesque is funny, because even though it's gone underground, it's still always been there; The Carol Burnette Show, and for a while in the 70s there was a show called, Danny Thomas' World of Burlesque. So, it's always been there, and as soon as I found out about it, I started hearing about it in The Simpsons' jokes...it's funny, it's still very much a part of the culture...

It's just the not first place you go if you want to see naked girls.
Yeah. So, that's how I became interested in it, and I saw another show in New York and I just really became fascinated with the idea of trying to recreate what really was a dead art.

So, the seed was planted...how did Burlesque As it Was start?
I came back from New York after the show I saw there and I started building it in my head. I wanted to create something like what I had seen in the books, with the really big back drops, the choruses of girls, and basically I just personally wanted to see the show. I just wanted to see this and I didn't know any one else doing it. I started talking to a lot of people and seemingly everyone I talked to was like, "I want to do this, I want to do this," and soon I kept saying it enough that friends started sending people to me that were interested in doing it. It just built from there because I wouldn't stop talking about it or stop thinking about it.

We put our first show on at the Bluebird. The first show was extremely difficult because I hadn't ever done anything like that. We had to rent the Bluebird and I spent way too much money on costumes and backdrops. Once it was done I thought, "OK, I did it and I don't need to do that again." Soon after that Jason Stoval, who was a friend of a friend of mine, contacted me and told me, "I can't believe you're not doing that again, it's an amazing show, it has to happen again," and I told him, "no, I'm totally in debt, I'm not going to do it again," and he said, "well, what if I get you money?" So I told him OK. He called me about a month later and said that he had these sponsors on board that have this much money up front and, " will you do it?" About that time I had a few girls who loved the idea of what they had seen, and they had started contacting me saying, "hey, I would love to do an actual choreographed act." So it really just came together. The next show was February 14th at the Bluebird, and we actually got to book it and it went really, really well so I just kept doing it from there

I read somewhere in the book that you train girls who are interested.
Yeah, pretty much everyone who's come to the troupe I've always kind of worked with because burlesque is not really something that anyone is teaching classes on. A lot of new burlesque is combining what you know with the old school style, and so I'd lend them my little library of videos and tell them hey, "study this, and take what you want from it." I do teach "lessons" but it's kind of goofball bachelorette parties, which is actually really fun.

Like "How to Strip for Your Husband"...
Yeah, there's an old record by Ann Corio

I HAD that!

How's your relationship with your mother? I love that quote.. [From her book: "I'm so proud of my naked daughter!"]
My parents are actually really, really supportive. They're the most amazing parents on the planet. I was going to school forever because I have three degrees: photography, sculpture and writing and they never once told me anything. They're just really good people. The first show that my mom came to, though, she definitely got drunk because she was so nervous, "Oh my god, my daughter's gonna get naked!" My dad is really funny; he's always joking that he wants a back stage job. But they're really into it and now that I have the book my mom is telling me, "C'mon, we've got to get you on Oprah now!"

How did you fall into writing the book?
Derek, the publisher from Speck Press, and I used to work at Tattered Cover [super great book store in Denver] years ago and he came to a show that I DJ'ed. He came up to me afterwards and we were chatting about it and he told me, " Yeah, so we were thinking of doing a book on this, do you know of anyone who's writing a book?" And I said, "I'd like to!" So, we met a few times and I showed them writing samples and we talked about both of our ideas about what a burlesque book should look like. At first they were pushing for more history, but there are tons of history books out, so I wanted to do something that was more on the "new." It helped a lot that I've been in the scene for so long and I know so many people all across the U.S. and Canada and I know a few photographers who have been photographing the scene since it started.

Do you feel like it connected you even more with those people?
It did, which was neat because I am definitely a fan as well as being part of the community. I am little bit shy, especially when I am in awe of people, so it was great to have an excuse to call them and ask them all of the questions that have been in my head.

I can relate.
Yeah, it was really cool being able to pick their brains. It's also been fun taking the book back to them. I went to the New York Burlesque Festival right when the book came out and I went to Miss. Exotic World which is West Coast. So, I hit both coasts and talked to a lot of the people who were in the book and it was great to show it to them. My friend, Laura, who did a lot of the photos (and she's also in a couple of the photos) started using it as a kind of year book and was walking around to the other performers and having them sign their pictures. There have been tons of articles and tons of people who have been talking about burlesque, and this is the first time that it's in a solid form. It's a book, so it has longevity to it.

It seems like there's a lot more love going on in the burlesque world than the strip club world. The women seem to be loving it and doing it for the fun of it. What are your comments on that?
I think because there isn't much of a monetary reward in burlesque; because we put so much money into props and costumes and getting ourselves across the country. Because there isn't a whole lot of money in it, at least not right now, we're all doing it for the love of it. We're not competing for jobs someplace. San Francisco right now is, unfortunately, getting it little less lovey. Which is crazy because there's still NOT money in it there, but there's been a lot of people stepping on toes. I don't know what it is. In New York, there's a burlesque show every single night, but still, everyone invites everyone else to their shows. It's like everybody there is a performer and a producer. They all invite each other, they all support each other, they all come out to each other's shows and there's just a good balance. Maybe because there's such a performance community there and a lot of people are from either the dance community or the acting community. Or it's like the same night they're doing a show, they know there's going to be four other shows, so maybe they're used to that kind of saturation.

What about the different factions here in Denver? How is the dynamic with that? I know there's Burlesque As It Was, Ooh La La, and isn't there one more?
Oracle Dance. They do some burlesque, but they do mostly aerial stuff.
It's pretty good. Oracle Dance does a lot of shows with us and they do a lot of stuff on their own. Because they do burlesque and aerial, they can go between the two worlds. And Ooh La La; the two girls who founded it used to be in my troupe and so there's a little bit of animosity just because of old bad feelings, but it's not really about the scene. There are three troupes and none of us are performing every night. It's also kind of nice, because they do a very different form of burlesque.

You have different niches.
Yeah, so we're not running over each others' toes that way.

How are you funding your shows now? Is it from the door?..
It's just kind of "as it goes." The larger shows...NIPP (Nobody In Particular Presents) has kind of taken that over. They book us, and then we just show up and do it. It's awesome. I still do a lot of the orchestration behind the scenes, though.

Do you get to perform in the midst of all of that?
The first couple of shows, I didn't perform, and then now I usually perform at least once.

So, what's your day job? [my favorite question]
[She laughs]

What do you want to do in the future? Where do you see the burlesque show going and what would you like to do, as an individual?
I don't know. I'm at a weird cross-roads, trying to decide if I really want to push the burlesque and primarily pursue performance, or if I want to try and do more writing, or I also design my own costumes and do a lot of costumes for the other girls. I've been doing a lot of costumes for the local theater, so I may want to do that...I don't know.

Something I'm curious about: In the face of feminism, there are these very strong women taking their clothes of for men..
We're not really taking our clothes of for men. We're taking our clothes off for ourselves. If you look at our audience, it's made up of more than 50% women. It's everyone from people in their early 20s to people in their 80s and it's a huge, diverse crowd. I love that about our shows. I love looking out there and seeing this oldster sitting next to these hipsters. It's great and I love that it has that kind of appreciation. The best feedback that I have received from our shows are the women who tell me days later things like, "I went home and did a strip-tease for my lover" or "I did a strip-tease in front of my mirror." These are just your average women, who going to a strip club would never inspire that. A lot of that is because we are all different shapes, sizes, and ages. The median age of a burlesque girl is 30. Dita Von Teese is 32. I think there's something about sitting in an audience and seeing a woman up on stage that looks like you, taking her clothes off and hearing everyone around you hooting and hollering and freaking out and loving what they're seeing; that association of, "I look like that when I take my clothes off, and these people think that she's sexy; therefore, I must be sexy!"

A friend, Niko, aka Bella Beretta , (she's a big girl, like 6'2" or 6'3") has come off the stage before and had a lot of other big girls come up and say, "Thank you so much for representing us; it's so great to see a big girl up there." For her, it was a little hard to go, "Big girl? What?" After a while it sunk in. It's totally inspirational to these girls. She could see the change in the other girls who were her shape and size when they were walking through the room; they had a new confidence. I love that.

I don't know if it has the power to change things. I think at least there's got to be some people, just because of the way society thinks, that may be standing in the corner thinking, "I should be repulsed by this, because of everything that this society has told me. I should not find this sexy." But the reinforcement of every one around who's going, "This is HOT;" I think that has the power, at least on the individual level, to change that.

Have you gotten any negative feedback from that?
There are people who... It's usually things that are just kind of passed on... But yeah, there are going to be negative comments because that's how it is. People are hurtful and there are going to be people who don't understand, but hopefully there's more people who do.

Have you toured outside of Denver much?
A little bit. We did a couple of our performances in Las Vegas, part of the Las Vegas Grind.. those were really wonderful. And Teas-o-Rama happens once a year; it's been in San Francisco, L.A. and New Orleans; and then the New York Burlesque Festival which has happened the last two years.

My first performance was actually Las Vegas Grind and that a total accident. We had shown up to see Dames in Distress and Memphis Confidential who were supposed to be performing. We were in the room drinking [and there was nothing happening] and we were like, "Did we miss it?" One of our girls kind of romanced one of the organizers and she asked him what happened to the burlesque and I guess they had never shown up. She told the organizer, "Hey, there are like eight of us and we've got costumes. " So, we just came up with something (and I had never done an act before), and I just got up there and it was amazing. I think that was the moment of addiction: walking up there and just lifting up my skirt and having a room full of a thousand people go "woo!"

Years later there was a girl, she's a photographer who saw me do that performance, and she said that inspired her to do burlesque.

So, who inspires you?
Hmm. I love Kitten on the Keys, personally because I could never do that. And people like World Famous Bob; she's really smart about the things that she does. It's very fun and frivolous and people love watching it, but at the same time, every time she gets up there, it's such a statement.

What's your advice to a girl who wants to start doing burlesque?
MB: Just do it. Go see a show, see what it's about. Pick up my book! [laughs], go get books, get inspired, create a character, pick a name, get up on stage and take your clothes off.

Check out the Burlesque As It Was website.

Get her book at Speck Press