Brew City Bombshells Interview
Burlesque has a bad rep. What started in the 1840s as a rebellious blend of comedy, song, and sexuality that liberated female performers on stage and screen eventually devolved into nothing more challenging than exploitation. However since this century began, a new generation has rediscovered burlesque and an art that was thought to have died a sleazy, scandalous death has shambled back to life, covered in tattoos, middle fingers outstretched high in the air informing the world otherwise. In Milwaukee, a troupe called the Brew City Bombshells wants the world to know they are a helluva lot more than strippers wearing a vintage aesthetic. I recently interviewed seven of the ladies: performers Jezabella Darling, Trixie Tang, Sugar St. Clair, singer Aurora A’Leur, Emcee/Comedian Kandi Kickass, and Bombshell co-managers/founding members Raven McCaw and Vee Valentine.
JNC: This type of performance is about as underground as it gets. Exactly how did each of you become a Bombshell?
Raven: I was actually one of the founding members of the Brew City Bombshells Burlesque, along with Vee Valentine and a couple of others that are no longer with us. I had already been performing for about 6 months when the group (about 5 or 6 of us at the time) established its identity.
Jezabella: I’ve been a sex/body-positive individual for as long as I can remember. I’d been working at the Tool Shed as a sexual health educator for a couple of years, and we had sponsored the troupe. It just made sense in the natural progression of my self evolution to push myself to be a more visually empowered individual and to use performance art as another medium for activism.
Aurora: I joined a community choir in the spring of 2011 where I met the photographer for the Bombshells, and he knew they were looking for a singer! Secretly, I had ALWAYS wanted to get into burlesque, so long story short, I auditioned and I am now a Bombshell!
Trixie: …I auditioned? I think they thought I was another Milwaukee performer’s cousin or something.
Sugar: I have been friends with members of the Dead Man’s Carnival for a few years now, and I was introduced to burlesque via one of their shows. From then on, I was hooked! Actually, I was living with a lady who also became a WI burlesque performer, Lady Ambrosia. She and I just went crazy with movies, costume ideas, and history books. When I heard that the troupe (then Alley Cat Revue) was having auditions, I put together a number and jumped right in.
JNC: For those who know better, burlesque is very different than exotic dancing. However many people hear the term “burlesque” and think “stripper.” What happens when someone makes this mistake with a Bombshell?
Vee: Ass kicking time! Just kidding. I politely explain that Burlesque is more about the tease than the strip. Also, burlesque does not equate clothing removal. If I’m not feeling the audience’s love, I can choose to stop removing clothes whenever I want – that’s the fun!
Trixie: Haha!! Nobody thinks I’m a stripper, or refers to me as a stripper… anymore. [winking]. But seriously, I have been treated with respect about [my] being a burlesque dancer.
Raven: I simply explain and invite them to see a show for themselves. Yes, there are similarities, like the fact that both disrobe. Generally. To me the difference is that we have a bit more creative freedom. Some of our costumes are quite lavish, and some of our performances involve skits or extensive stage props. There is definitely a theatrical element to what we do. Some burlesque performers do not even go down to pasties, and some don’t take anything off at all. Some start in panties and pasties and dress themselves on stage, often referred to as “reverse burlesque.” I do not get upset if someone mistakenly calls me a stripper; it’s not necessarily their fault that they don’t know or understand. Perhaps they were never exposed to burlesque. Perhaps they were misinformed. Usually after we explain the difference, or after they see a show, most people are pretty supportive.
Jezabella: I’m a supporter of sex work and the sex industry. While what I do is very different than stripping, I also don’t find it “insulting” to be mistaken as such. Strippers are hard workers and often brilliant, talented people – I just think that my idea of burlesque is more art than sex work. While yes, being a sexual being and tantalizing the crowd with undressing is seen as a sexual act, I have a message in what I do, and often that takes more of an importance than the revelation of my tits.
Sugar: You know what, I would face this problem quite frequently when I was living in France, actually. To tell someone you do strip-tease is to basically say you’re a stripper in a club. I usually just explain the historical aspect of my performances to people but without a doubt, what I do is meant to be sexy. Plus, even the great stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was okay with the term “stripper.” There are far worse insults, in my opinion.
JNC: What is it about burlesque that you find so attractive?
Kandi: Burlesque is a celebration of beauty and sexuality. It’s playful, not dirty. It’ fun and exciting and when you watch it, you feel like part of a community.
Raven: On a basic level, I love the colors, the boas, the glitter, etc. I love that I can take those basic elements and create awesome costumes and props. It’s really satisfying when I put my idea on stage, knowing that I made everything. To me it’s like breathing life into my ideas. I love that I can do a traditional, sexy striptease, but have enough creative freedom to do silly or grotesque numbers. I love that I have control over the audience; if they are not into it, I shimmy a little more. And if they still aren’t, I simply do not take an article of clothing off. I think most of all I love how much burlesque has changed me. It put me in touch with my womanhood, and really helped with my self-esteem.
Jezabella: Sexual inequality is still so prevalent in today’s society, so getting a chance to be the one in control of the sexuality I want to project onto the crowd gives me such a sense of empowerment, and also healing. I can project my spirit into my dancing. My feminism believes that women are strong, women are sisters, women are lovers.
JNC: Do you have any personal goal you hope to achieve when you walk out on stage? What makes a performance successful for you?
Raven: Haha! To not freak out! Seriously, I’ve been doing this for almost 4 years and STILL, every time I get on stage I tremble, I have to pee, I get nauseous, I break out in a cold sweat, I think I’m forgetting costume pieces, I’m afraid of tripping over my feet and looking like a drunk. It’s why I will rarely choreograph anything. I get so nervous that I forget everything and end up doing improv anyways. I absolutely love doing this, but I get nervous every single time. So I guess my personal goal for every show is to get through each number without the audience knowing how freaked out I actually am.
Jezabella: If I inspire even one woman to love her body more, or feel sexy – then I’ve achieved my goal.
Trixie: My personal goals are realized and made, usually when they are about to happen. I don’t really set goals for myself but rather think about how friggin sweet something is as it’s about to happen. For instance, I have a bird number I do to the Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower”. I had the chance to perform it at the old Circus Club in a birdcage. When I was about to go on, I was holding my bird wings and wearing this ridiculous mask listening to this uber professional drag queen announce me thinking, “Holy shit, I am actually in a bird cage right now being announced to do my weird ass bird dance in this out-of-control, awesome club. This can be written on and checked off the ‘Goals in Life” list.
Kandi: Burlesque started in vaudeville, so I try to bring that feeling back. Every time I walk on stage I have 3 goals: Keep the show high energy, keep the crowd entertained, and introduce each performer with the respect they deserve.
JNC: Crowds at these types of shows can be pretty rowdy, and to some extent, it’s even encouraged to get the crowd excited. What’s the strangest, wildest thing that’s happened while you were dancing?Trixie: Weird and wild are a natural occurrence in my personal performance. I’ll replace “weird” with “awkward”. I’d say something awkward happens almost every time… maybe Jesus interrupts my number to give me a high five. But if there is one thing that has stuck out in my head as for what NOT to do, its getting drunk before going on stage… especially if I’m going to be using a hula hoop.
Jezabella: Someone once yelled, during a very intense and emotional number, “Yeah girl! You get that armpit!”
Vee: Besides “pasty malfunctions”… I’ve gotten a lot of unconventional cat calls, such as “I want to pay your bills” and “Will you marry me?”
Sugar: Honestly, our audiences have always been very kind and respectful towards me. I’ve had my flubs, for sure, but the best thing they could possibly do is cheer! My very first fire eating act, I couldn’t light my torch. I lucked out however, that someone was nice enough to light my torch with a better lighter, I just couldn’t have asked for a better crowd!
JNC: Where do you get the costumes you wear? Is there a particular shop you frequent, or is a lot of it do-it-yourself?
Raven: I do a lot of DIY costuming. Usually I get basic bras and panties and sequin the hell out of them. I get a lot of pieces at thrift stores and estate sales as well. Even if we buy something ready-made, it usually needs to be rigged with velcro or snaps to make removal easier. (like button-down shirts and tear-away pants) Antique shops are good for vintage accessories such as jewelry, hats, and gloves.
Sugar: I’ve always sewn the vast majority of my own costumes. Even if I buy a “base” bra, it always comes out as a far more fabulous, unrecognizable incarnation of its former self! I’ve been expanding my sewing lately, however, and really doing most of it by hand. I’ve always sequined my own pasties by hand, but now I’m learning how to make my own lingerie. It’s tough but extremely rewarding. My craft space right now is nothing but feathers, sequins, rhinestones and satin. It’s crazy!
Trixie: My costumes are partially store bought, and by store bought I mean Ebay. Then I jazz it up. Or get in a fight with a bedazzler… whatever comes first. But for monstrous projects I usually get by with a little help from my friends. As of lately, Sugar St. Clair has been so gracious to create a mermaid fin for me. It looks so good; it brings a tear to my eye. So, I am extremely lucky to have such awesome friends who are passionate about burlesque and costume making!
JNC: I feel obligated to ask a cheesy personal question for all those office chair lotharios out there, but I don’t really want to because it’s so cliché. I’ll just ask this: Is there anything you want the guys (or gals) out there know about you personally?
Sugar: Hmm…well, I’m bilingual in French so when I’ve had a drink, I suddenly have a certain je ne sais quoi and am compelled to parle français with practically tout le monde!
JNC: Is there anything in particular you want the world to know about the Bombshells?
Kandi: This group has exceptionally high standards and ideals. This is an incredibly talented, accepting group of women who promote the ideals that all women are beautiful, and that it is ok to celebrate your feminity. It is an honor to be part of this troupe.
Raven: One thing that is really important in our group is that we have a strict no-diva policy. In any area of performance it can be really easy to develop an inflated ego but we keep each other in check.
Sugar: The Bombshells are an amazing group of women. We’re all so diverse in our personas and talents that as a whole, I feel we’re a really well-rounded group.
Vee: I mostly want people to really know how much love, care, time, and heart goes into each of our shows. Burlesque pretty much consumes all of our lives, and most of our extra cash, too. Each of our numbers are meticulously planned, we put so much of ourselves into them. This isn’t just ladies taking their clothes off, this is women pouring themselves out to you. Appreciate every shimmy.
Aurora: The Bombshells are the GREATEST group of women I know! Every single one of them is sweet, genuine, and excepting of everyone. A group without a solid core won’t last. The Bombshells will be around a LONG TIME!
Vee: It isn’t a hobby – it’s a way of life.
Follow the Brew City Bombshells on Facebook for upcoming performances and other events right here.