Burlesque: The job that gets you disowned, dumped and fired

"My fiance's parents disowned me because of it," says one rainbow-haired performer. She bends forward and shakes more glitter into her hair, despite the fact that she already resembles a disco ball.

She's talking about being a burlesque performer. That's why we're both in this room, stuck to the floor by industrial strength hairspray. We are behind the scenes at the Hollywood Burlesque Festival in Los Angeles. "Yeah…." she stops glittering herself for a moment. She looks in the mirror and sighs heavily. "Yeah…."

Not to be outdone, a San Fran girl with eyebrows thinner than spaghetti chips in: "Because I take my clothes off I can’t work with children." She used to be a drama teacher, but can’t do that anymore because of her burlesque dancing. Others chime in with stories of parents who have banned them, bosses who have harassed them, friends who have judged them. It's ridiculous, but then again we do forget how ridiculous America is.

Backstage at the festival
Backstage at the festival Photo credit: Verity Johnson

"They’re afraid of being tainted by association," spaghetti brows concludes. Yet they're not afraid of buying VIP tickets to the shows for a sexy night out with their partners. (Even in New Zealand, conservative, middle class communities pack out burlesque shows.) They're just not willing to personally be associated with something 'scandalous.'

We're at the festival because, for the first time ever, there's a Kiwi performing here. Lily Loca, an Auckland burlesque performer and teacher, is the festival’s first NZ representative, competing with others from as far afield as Japan, Germany, Italy and Australia. More than 60 performers have all descended in LA for the festival, backed by celebrities such as Richard Simmons, in one of the biggest events of the burlesque calendar.

There are hundreds of people in the crowd, ranging from those in silk pyjamas to gold spandex. There's even a man in a full Scottish bagpiper outfit. Only in 'Murica. The room is throbbing with a wild, eccentric energy. They’re begging to be whisked away from the burnt out, toxic orange of Trump’s America.

Despite its popularity, many of the general public don't really know what burlesque is. That’s where a lot of the stigma arises from. The general perception, especially in America, is that burlesque performers are just snobby strippers.


Hollywood showgirl
Hollywood showgirl Photo credit: Verity Johnson

Ask your average person and they'll say, "uhhhhhh is it strippers calling themselves something fancy?" No, no it’s not.

Firstly, burlesque is a theatre show. It's in a theatre, the audience buys tickets, there's no tipping, and there are stagehands, lighting guys, sound riggers, ushers, promo girls….The stage managers are deployed with military efficiency, barrelling around barking orders. This festival, the only one of its kind in Hollywood, is executed with the timing of the Germans, the precision of surgeons and the interior design style of My Little Pony. (There’s a whole, whole ton of glitter.)

Secondly, yes these guys take off their clothes, but they're not selling sex. Burlesque is grounded in satire and theatre, but does incorporate elements of strip tease. It ranges from the classic style popular in the US, which is more sexy, to the character style common in NZ, which is more theatre and comedy based.

Kiwi Lily Loca’s persona Gary "is a fully formed 3D character. I can perform as him, I can MC as him….he has a proper personality." She has his whole backstory sorted, right down to telling the audience which PhD he’s studying. She does a comedy-based routine where Gary gets overly enthusiastic in an America's Got Talent audition and takes off his clothes.

And besides, even when it comes to the strip tease elements, burlesque isn't about getting naked. "It's about what we don't reveal," says Lily, "rather than what we do."


Burlesque artists perform acts to elevate you, they don’t just get naked to make you buy a lap dance. "I take the stage and shed my clothing, hang ups, inhibitions, societies' pressures," says festival organiser Lili Von Schupp. "I make people laugh, [get] excited and feel the beauty of naked humanity...it's pure love and acceptance presented with a story and a smile."

The performers themselves reflect that. They certainly aren't all pneumatic, plastic blondes people imagine showgirls to be. They’re everywhere from 20 to 60, chubby and skinny, male and female.

Lily Loca gets a standing ovation from the crowd. "Gary! Gary! Gary!" they chant. After the show, she's mobbed by Americans requesting Gary everywhere from Las Vegas to Arizona.

"Gary took a piece of my heart home to New Zealand," says Ms Von Schupp, "I can't wait to see him again." Everyone is high, exhilarated, exhausted and enthralled by Gary's exotic hilarity. It’s exactly what they need right now.


Verity Johnson is a Newshub columnist. She flew to LA courtesy of Air New Zealand. Air New Zealand offers double daily non-stop flights to Los Angeles from Auckland. A variety of inflight product choices are available including Economy, Economy Skycouch, Premium Economy and Business Premier. One-way Economy fares start from $909 (inclusive of taxes). Visit airnewzealand.co.nz for more details and to book.