Since the early ‘90s, burlesque has seen resurgence in American nightlife. The Johnny Depp owned Viper Room in Los Angeles housed one of the first major burlesque troupes to gain national prominence: the Pussycat Dolls. Founded in 1995 by dancer Robin Antin, with the help of actress Christina Applegate (Married With Children, Samantha Who?), the group went on to spawn a hit making music group and a Las Vegas revue at Caesars Palace. Clubs like Forty Deuce have sprung up across the country and burly stars like Dita Von Teese and the New York City eatery, The Box, have gained mainstream appeal (the latter has been featured on the CW’s teen soap Gossip Girl as the fictional burlesque club, Victrola).
Philly was another city that cashed in on what would be called the “neo-burlesque” scene. Groups like the Hellcat Girls and Von Foxies became local staples. But one group, the Peek-A-Boo Revue, a World Café Live staple, has risen above the tide to become the city’s premiere source of burlyq entertainment. In 2008 the ensemble was awarded the title of “Best Troupe” at the Miss Exotic World Competition. While other local company’s have recently called it quits (the aforementioned Hellcat Girls being one of them), Peek-A-Boo is gearing up to shimmy into their 12th year of existence. Led by the talented dancer and artistic director, Lulu Lollipop, the troupe consists of two comic emcees, showgirls, a live band called “The Striptease Orchestra,” singing and comedic strip artists, and up-and-coming guest performers in the area.
I sat down with Lulu and Key, a dancer in the company, one-on-one back in June to talk a little about burlesque’s international reemergence as a legitimate form of entertainment. Key, a petite stunner that’s tatted up and pierced to look like someone out of a fantasy novel, was soft-spoken and sweet, belying her edgy appearance. Lulu, with her slight resemblance to Betty Boop, was extremely open and charismatic, possessing the kind of approachability that can make you feel like you’ve known her for years even though you just met. The following Q & A took place at the Jeanne Ruddy dance studio at 1515 Brandywine St.
AT: Where were you born?
Key: New Jersey. I’ve moved like 22 times my whole life, like once for every year.
LL: Well, I grew up in Doylestown. I grew up in New Britain Borough but nobody knows New Britain Borough so it was Doylestown. I was born at home at a place that my parents and the other families who lived there called Flutterfly Farm and it was like a commune type…and my parents are still hippies.
AT: Do you think that had any affect on you getting into burlesque in the first place?
LL: No. My mother thinks I’m conservative. She asked me once how I got so conservative because she didn’t raise me that way. But then in the same breath she tells me there’s a seedy underbelly to my life [laughs].
AT: Key, why did you move around a lot?
Key: My family was just always bumping around and it was stationary for awhile…living out of my car and friend’s houses. I’ve lived in Philly for about five or six years now.
AT: Why’d you move to Philly?
Key: I used to hang out in Philly down on South Street when it used to be all punk rock and punk rock shows. And my friends were out here or moved out here. And it was also modeling – a lot of my work is out here. It would’ve been New York if I could afford it.
AT: Lulu, what was your childhood like growing up in the commune?
LL: I don’t even remember living there. My childhood…Jesus. It was actually relatively strict in the sense that I was brought up macrobiotic: no meat, no dairy, no fruit or vegetables out of season, everything freshly prepared. I was allowed a half an hour of television a week, but I was allowed to watch as many Disney movies and musicals as I wanted to. And I could recite Disney movies, all the songs. I was introduced to musicals very early. I started dancing at four. My parents were bluegrass musicians so there was always music. I don’t know if that has any bearing on my life, I mean, I’m sure it has some bearing because everybody’s childhood does, but it was fun. I had fun.
AT: Key, what was your childhood like? Were you always fascinated with burlesque?
Key: No, I never really knew what it was. My great-grandparents pretty much raised me and they would always put on the radio and old music and I liked that, jazz and stuff, but I always just wanted to be a model. Kate Moss was my inspiration ‘cause she’s short and you know, not typical, but I was always very shy and introverted. I would always read books and just be myself, but I wanted to be something different but I didn’t know how. And then when I started catching on to showgirl stuff and not being tall enough and kind of never thought I was pretty enough, I kind of found things like burlesque where you don’t necessarily have to be attractive, you can be funny and theater was a big part of that. I took theater classes and I started with writing plays and things like that because I never wanted to be in front of the camera or things like that. I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden, here I am [laughs]. It’s helped a lot, but when I was a kid, I’d breed butterflies and make mud pies.
AT: How did you get into burlesque to begin with?
Key: Melissa Bang-Bang – she used to be a member and I danced with her and Courtney [Lulu’s real name] actually at some events and she really wanted me to try out and stuff so I came in, tried out around the same time as [dancer Ginger Leigh], but before that I was in Hellcat Girls. I was their Pick-up Artist so that’s sort of how I got into it. I started going to the shows and I was like, “I want to do that. That seems like me.”
AT: Now what is a “Pick-up Artist”?
Key: They pick up the clothes, props, and that’s pretty much it, but there is a skill that you need. You need to be able to work the audience, work with the hosts, you don’t really get to do much otherwise, but you just have to have your own personality whether it be like a bitchy or just super cute [personality].
AT: Lulu, why did you join the Peek-A-Boo Revue?
LL: Fate. After I left dance school [North Carolina School of the Arts], due to a back injury, I fell into a really deep depression because that was all I knew how to do – dance. I went to see my grandmother in California. My friend called and said “I got us a great job for New Years – come home early, it’ll be worth it.” She got me a job as a coat check girl at a club that the director and the original producer of Peek-A-Boo owned. I worked there a couple months, they found out I was a trained dancer and she came up and she said, “I heard you’re a trained dancer. I want you to join our show.” I said no, I have no interest in being onstage. She said, “Well, I’m gonna put your name on the list. I want you to come see the show on Saturday.” I said fine. So she reserved us a table, and I went, and I saw…Peek-A-Boo is no longer this, but this is still like the core of Peek-A-Boo, I saw what was the core of Peek-A-Boo. What we’ve created is the much more polished version of that. It was probably between eight and 11 people doing this hysterical comedy and fun and bringing in the classics while taking off their clothes, while being sexual and being titillating. I went, “Oh my God, this show is great. This is brilliant.” Like, I just saw potential in this show. So I ran and found the director that night and said, “Okay, I want to do it.” So she said, “Great, come to rehearsal on Monday.” Rehearsals have always been Monday and Wednesday. Okay, so I showed up and there was also a girl in it I had seen a couple weeks before go-go dancing and I was like, “Oh my God – I must have that girl.” So turns out she was in the show, right? So I’m completely intimidated and I can’t talk to her. So I don’t talk to her for months, but anyway, I join the show and my first rehearsal they were working on this number and I just got really inspired to create costumes. And I’d always dabbled in costumes and I learned how to sew so I said, “I really wanna make costumes, can I do it?” And she [the director] said, “We have no budget, can you do it really cheap?” I made the cheapest costumes out of, like, coat lining and each costume I think had five ostrich plumes. Now we’re using half a pound of ostrich plumes, but five ostrich plumes each costume had and then we added tulle and plastic rhinestone, I mean, I’m talking cheap, like, hot glue gun all the way. So they were working on this number and she said, “Hey, you said you could tap dance. Get onstage with Melissa and tap dance. Make a number for this section of the music. So we did and, meanwhile, I’m making these costumes not really thinking, “Holy shit, I have to wear this.” Now, I’ve still never shown my skin. And the night the show comes, my mother and my stepfather came, the night the show comes, I realize that I have to wear this thing I made. And I did. And I’ll still never forget my first pair of pasties were round, fuchsia appliqués. They weren’t even real pasties; they were appliqués, probably just glued to my nipples. I was scared to death before I went onstage and as soon as I got onstage, it was like, [voice lowers] I was dancing again. And I never went back. I really never looked back.
AT: Key, let’s talk about what you do outside of Peek-A-Boo.
Key: I’ve been an alternative model for almost four years now and I just did a modeling competition fashion show and I won “Miss Catwalk Tragedy 2009.” It’s been a big part of my life. I’ve even done New York Fashion Week regardless of my look and my height. I mean, just throw on eight inch heels and I’m fine. But, I do that, and I’m a go-go dancer at dive bars and events and parties. I do that and little odd and end jobs, but Peek-A-Boo is my life.
AT: What kind of music do you like and does that influence your choices –
LL: Show tunes! And yes, it does influence my choices. And classic big band, old swing.
Key: Old rock and roll. That’s like my main thing – rock and roll. Jazz. I mean, yeah, I love punk and I love metal and stuff like that too, but I’m just a huge mix of everything. I listen to some rap music, I deal with everything. I mean, go-go dancing I have to cater to whatever.
AT: So do you find that your taste in music kind of drives your performance, like how you set up your themes?
Key: Yeah, I try not to stick with a punk rock theme. Just because I have tattoos doesn’t mean I have to do a number like that, but, like one of my last numbers is a Cramps song, like they’re very punk/rock and roll. Yeah, I can use a punk song, but the band played it so it’s very jazzy sounding or still upbeat and fast, but it’s not that thrashing, you know…whatever. And I’ve done numbers to very random, obscure songs that nobody knows off of old jazz soundtracks and things like that. I can cover up my tattoos and no one would notice, but it’s kind of hard to do with burlesque. I’ll take out my piercings and stuff sometimes. Some people just don’t even see that. Just ‘cause I have weird hair and tattoos doesn’t mean I can’t do a Britney Spears song. Especially with group numbers, I mean, we’re all doing the same motions but we all look different so I kind of use my image to bring that attitude forward, but not to over saturate it with something that doesn’t fit in the show.
AT: Is that your primary place to get inspiration for your routines, the music, or do you have other ways?
Key: Usually, we all sit down and think up random ideas, especially if we’re drinking or anything like that. It’s just, like, inspiration from random events in our life. It sometimes comes from a song, a very basic idea and then you run with it and we just let our imaginations go. Sometimes we go too far [laughs].We all have visions of being robots in a number. One day. But it’s usually, it starts with a song, just listening to random songs. Find a favorite and try to work with it or start with an idea and try to find the perfect song to go with it. It’s not the easiest thing to do.
LL: Personally, I get very inspired by costuming. Very inspired by, “Yeah, I want to make this costume. I want to create this look.” And I mean, that’s my personal look.
LT: Key, did you have heavy dance training as a kid?
Key: No. I did take dance classes, I took hip hop, jazz, ballet, Pointe, everything, but never really stuck with it and didn’t go to school for it, which does show, but I always did dance team, cheerleading, stuff like that for awhile until I got kicked off for looking weird. I have that kind of training, but I’m more of the theater kind of comedy, but I can still do most of the dance stuff. I can’t do the hardcore, all kinds of splits and things like that, but I make it work for me. Burlesque isn’t necessarily about the dancing. With us, it’s become a large part of that, but when it started, that wasn’t the main thing. It was comedy mixed with sexy and then the dancing was kind of just thrown in there.
AT: What was your experience like at the 2008 Miss Exotic World Competition?
Key: It was less stressful than the first year, that’s for sure. [The group went in 2007] It was a lot of fun. We all kind of knew that we were gonna win anyway and it was just good vibes all around and since we knew what to expect, like don’t over pack and just bring what you need, and know what everybody’s going to be wearing. Don’t go out in your sweatpants unless you’re doing pajama bowling and that’s it. But the event itself, it was chaotic ‘cause it was outside in a new venue and the venue was kind of … I don’t know. It was a lot of fun, I’ll say that much. We lost a couple of costume pieces.
LL: I was so scared. I don’t know why I was so scared, it was just another show, but…[it] was awesome. We performed for burlesque legends. We performed for the burlesque society that is now. It was cool to make ourselves seen and recognized. We’re such a large show that we don’t get to travel like a lot of shows, they get to travel, they can make a name for themselves. We’re really stuck in Philadelphia because we’re just too big and we don’t have the budget. It’s very hard to get financing or sponsorship, for someone to go, “Yeah, I’ll sponsor 20 people to go on a tour.” Honestly, now I don’t even know if I would even try to do 20 people on a tour. Four days in Las Vegas with 16 people was, for me…I imagine it’d be like having 10 children. Not all of them act like children [laughs]. For me, and like I said, I take things too seriously, this show, because it was like sort of a talent-y show, it wasn’t really a respected show like it is now, and we really had to build up a reputation. Vegas is particularly stressful for me. I always wind up crying.
AT: Who are some of your burlesque role models and why?
Key: That’s a tough question. I can’t really pinpoint anything specific. You know everybody’s gonna say Bettie Page and all of those girls. Everyday I find somebody new that intrigues me too and I definitely look up to Courtney. She’s been doing it forever and she’s such a strong presence and she holds her own and she’s the director of the show. She knows what she’s doing. She’s a good idol. But, as for superstar people, I can’t really specify one because there’s so many influences.
LL: I’m not sure I can answer that because when I came in, I knew nothing about burlesque. I knew nothing about the history; I knew nothing about what we were doing here. I really had no idea. I performed as a dancer for years, and we get a lot of dancers that come in here, and a lot of it is about breaking some of their training and helping them keep their movement so that they just aren’t onstage performing with the wall. That they are entertainers. Now, I really understand the history, I understand what we’re doing. I understand that we’re preserving an art and I feel like by preserving that art, we’re honoring all of these women that were not seen as, you know, high society. I mean, they were making a killing. I asked my grandmother one time, “What were your thoughts about women who did burlesque?” and she said, “A woman with any class or a woman with any social standing wouldn’t associate with a woman of burlesque.” And that said it. So I feel like, we’re honoring what they did. They did pave the way for the sexual revolution in the sixties. They did pave the way for women to be able to own their sexuality instead of just being this objectified sexual object.
When I brought up the debate that rages within the burlesque community between performers and from outside of it about whether or not burlesque dancers are strippers, this is what Lulu had to say:
I don’t care if someone calls me a stripper. I mean, that is what I do. Really, yes, I take my clothes off onstage. It’s a different type of entertainment that we’re doing. This is the way I always think of it, and I could be totally blowing it out my ass, but this is what I think of it. That we perform in a show. We’re giving people an hour and a half of entertainment, of titillation, of laughter, of…we give them permission to look at a woman of every shape and size and, yes, sexualize them a little bit, but giving them permission and we’re having fun and it’s almost safe. I don’t believe that anybody in the audience has this idea that they’re gonna go home with a dancer. I believe that we give them permission to have a good time, to laugh at sex, to feel sexual. We are human, that is what we do. But then they go home with their partner, their girlfriend, their boyfriend, their lover, whoever who came and saw the show with them, and all titillated and excited, they go and have sex with each other knowing that they both had this great time at this show. Instead of, and I’m not knocking strippers because they work their asses off, but instead of…I’m not giving a lap-dance and not making someone need to release. We’re there for men and women and old people and all of this stuff. It’s just a different style of entertainment. So I’ll never say, “I’m not a stripper”, but what I will do when someone says, “Oh, you’re a stripper,” I’ll try and educate them on what burlesque is so that they understand and…and it’s not about understanding the differences, it’s about, “this is what our show is, this is the history that we’re preserving, this is the statement we’re making.”
AT: What would you tell someone who was interested in getting into burlesque? How would they go about doing that?
Key: I’d say go online, go on Google, and start searching “burlesque.” One thing will lead you to another and another and it’s a great way to figure out what exactly you want to do and find people to look up to and get ideas. Just searching anything about burlesque can really help, and cabaret, and then watching old movies about burlesque and cabaret and then listening to old CDs and records of artists that did the music for the burlesque stars. Then once you actually search images you can find outfits, and it’s pretty easy to do, and then just try it. Right in front of your mirror.
LL: In order to compete in this art world, I feel like you really need to be at the top of your game. And so, come with training, come with an understanding of your body, come with something. Bring something to the table. Come with some ideas. And I also think that there are many beautiful classic striptease artists who have no dance training at all. They are just very beautiful classic striptease artists. They’re the exception. I’ve seen a lot of women onstage in a lot of different shows and I think, “You don’t belong up there. You don’t.” And it frustrates me, I’m probably going to sound like a huge asshole, but, it frustrates me because it’s like, “Stop giving what we do a bad name.” Because I consider us a classic vaudevillian neo-burlesque troupe. We stick with those vaudeville roots of variety theater. We do classic burlesque, but we’re bringing it into this age now. But we’re still using the word “burlesque.” So many people use the word “burlesque” and they get onstage and you’re like, “Oh my God. I can go home and see my partner get undressed like this.” Without, like, the rhinestones. And I’d probably enjoy it more because I’m going home with the dancer that night [laughs]. If you don’t have any of that, come with a willingness [to learn].
AT: What are your plans after Peek-A-Boo? How long do you see yourself in this group and what are your plans for the future?
Key: I think I’m going on three years now and I didn’t even know if I was gonna make it this long, but I’ve really become part of the family and as Scott [one of the emcees] would say, “Once you’re in, you can’t leave the island” unless you’re, like, killed maybe [laughs]. I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon for anything. Courtney’s been doing it for nine years and everybody else is between, like Scott and Joe [the other host] they’ve been here the whole 10-11 years so I don’t know. I don’t plan on leaving ever, but we’ll see what happens.
Peek-A-Boo Revue’s next show, their annual Holiday Spectacular, was postponed to Jan.1, 2010. All Dec.19 tickets will be honored. Go to www.peekaboorevue.com and www.myspace.com/peekaboorevue for information on upcoming shows and booking the troupe for an event.