Catherine D'Lish has had one of the most impressive careers in the show-it-all business. She's bumped and grinded her way to more than 30 titles in the more glamorous end of the striptease industry, including Miss Nude USA, Showgirl of the Year and Miss Nude International. She also pioneered a throwback-style of performance that spawned a new burlesque movement. Largely due to the high profiles of D'Lish and her friend and performance partner Dita von Teese, burlesque catapulted from the old-fashioned pasties-and-G-string strut in the sex industry into the culture at large.
D'Lish also is a two-time winner of the Miss Exotic World title, making her a unique bridge between burlesque's historic tradition and its youthful re-enactors. Long before punk rockers and performance artists embraced feather fans and rhinestone underwear as an expression of "take-back-sexy" feminism, the stripper Dixie Evans — a former marquee dancer known as the Marilyn Monroe Girl — had been keeping the flame burning at Exotic World, a ramshackle museum outside Las Vegas.
"I absolutely adore Dixie," says D'Lish. "To me, she is the fairy godmother of the neo-burlesque world."
At her dusty ranch, Evans hosted pageants and reunions for veteran showgirls and young strippers with a taste for vintage glamour. She also displayed costumes, props and playbills from striptease's golden age. The museum relocated to Vegas proper, and since the beginning of burlesque's hipster revival in the late '90s, most attendees at the annual Miss Exotic World pageant are latter-day enthusiasts.
Evans likes to tell the story of their first meeting, when a damp and bedraggled stripper — not yet known as Catherine D'Lish — stumbled out of a late-night rainstorm into the Exotic World ranch. It was in part through Evans' tutelage that D'Lish crafted her classic-burlesque image. D'Lish, along with von Teese, came into the elite world of feature dancing: traveling striptease artists whose routines are elaborate and virtuosic pieces of theater, but are performed at gentlemen's clubs to bona fide sex-industry audiences. When she first began visiting Exotic World and won her titles ('92 and '94), the women congregating at the ranch were veteran strippers. It was years before retro burlesque troupes took to stages in cities across the country.
"There are many people that will stand on their soapbox and sanctimoniously proclaim that the neo-burlesque performers are superior to modern strippers headlining in strip clubs and more true to the burlesque performers of the past. I have been privy to the secrets of both worlds," D'Lish says, avoiding comparisons between the two.
Wherever she stands, her powerful stage presence and breathtaking set and costume design (think acres of rhinestones, enough feathers to make a Mardi Gras Indian jealous and, once, a fully operational waterfall) are unparalleled in the world of exotic dance. Her show may not be your grandma's burlesque, but it's not your roommate's burlesque, either.
Catherine D'Lish with Bustout Burlesque
7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Fri., Jan. 30
House of Blues, 225 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.hob.com
Catherine D'Lish Striptease Workshop
3 p.m. Sat., Jan. 31
Ann Burr Dance Studio, 1122 Dublin St., call 975-7425 to register