It's after midnight on the opening night of the 4th annual New York Burlesque Festival, and New Orleans' Storyville Starlettes are nowhere to be found. The evening's host, Scotty the Blue Bunny, wearing blue spandex and Lucite heels, tells me they've got some traffic problems and will go on during the last set. The crowd, a dense mix of red-lipsticked glamour girls and bespectacled hipsters, presses the stage as a performer named Bunny Love strips down to a wet American flag and drop kicks a rubber mask of George W. into their waiting arms. Finally, after nearly all of the night's 25 performers have stripped and shimmied, the Starlettes take the stage in a flurry of tasseled umbrellas. In a dark club in Brooklyn, the unmistakable sound of the Rebirth Brass Band suddenly fills the space, scoring a second-line striptease that leaves the six Starlettes in glittering pasties and feather boa bustles.
The Storyville Starlettes, who describe themselves as New Orleans' longest continuously performing troupe, have been on the scene in their current incarnation for about three years. The Reverend Spooky LeStrange, (aka Angela O'Neil), began dancing six years ago, after running the sound board for the Steamin' Mimis, a fairly tame troupe that performed at a Magazine Street club.
"I told the director I'd do it if they got me a costume," LeStrange laughs. Her first performance was a "bad cop" number set to NWA's "F*** Tha Police." "Nobody went down to their pasties, just bras. It was kind of like an elementary school talent show; the costumes were bad, the singing wasn't great. I went up there and cuffed the MC and pretended to beat the s*** out of him." Her second number was a slow, sultry piece set to Billie Holiday, "From the start, I've been all over the map, and I love it. I love it."
She's not alone. Burlesque -- the art of striptease -- has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last 10 years, both locally and nationally, as young women have reclaimed and re-imagined the form. Despite hipster proclamations that it's a passing fad, as roller derby and scooter gangs become the new indie girl extracurriculars, more than 50 eye-popping performers took the stage at the New York festival to packed audiences, dancing to everything from classic swing to the grating whoop whoop of a car alarm. The performers represented a wide range, falling loosely under two overarching categories of retro versus neo-burlesque. With the Storyville Starletts and Bustout Burlesque putting on regular shows, New Orleans is about to welcome another troupe, Fleur de Tease, under the direction of Alexis Graber, who performs as Trixie Minx.
Several approaches are alive and well in the New Orleans scene. The Starlettes, a group of women whose ranks include a classically trained ballerina, a fetish performer and a few tattooed novices, emphasize creative freedom and a do-it-yourself aesthetic over a consistent retro style. According to Le Strange, there can be "an old-school exclusivity in New Orleans burlesque, which is kind of why we started doing what we do. We allow tattoos and piercings, but we do perform a lot of classic burlesque. We just have the freedom of having numbers that fit each girls' personality."
Rick DeLaup is a local documentary filmmaker and producer behind the most recently successful retro-style show, Bustout Burlesque, which features a live band, a magician, and burlesque dances modeled after the old showgirl numbers in Bourbon Street theaters. DeLaup says the evening "is a re-creation of a 1950s-style burlesque show, plain and simple." Intended to draw locals and tourists alike, the performances play homage to a classic era and style of burlesque -- a far cry from Bunny Love's campy dissent or Rev. Spooky's voodoo-inspired shimmy number. "My main interest is old-style burlesque," says DeLaup, "not new burlesque. But, I do think there is room for all kinds of shows."
Different groups have pursued different visions.
"There have always essentially been two troupes in New Orleans," muses LeStrange. "We're the punk-rock people who have creative freedom but no budget, and we take everyone. It's like, 'hey, you want to dance, take your clothes off, tell a story? Come join us.'"
At the New York Burlesque Festival this year, the Storyville Starlettes told a very New Orleans story, representing both the local scene and their city. "It was a really appropriate time for it: the week of the Aug. 29 anniversary," says LeStrange. "We decided we wanted to do something very traditional. What's more New Orleans than second lining to Rebirth?"
"While Katrina cost the Starlettes two members who left and decided to stay away for good, they've added new performers to the line-up, some of whom are new to the burlesque scene entirely, but are picking up the art of tease. "It's fun, we love it, we have a passion for it, and we're damn good at it!" laughs LeStrange.
The Storyville Starlettes will perform next at the Big Top Gallery in October, before LeStrange's solo tour with Chaz Royal Burlesque throughout Western Canada. Bustout Burlesque continues their weekly Saturday show at Tipitina's French Quarter. The new Fleur de Tease show will debut at One Eyed Jacks on Sept. 17.
As DeLaup puts it, for a town that once had the highest concentration of burlesque clubs anywhere in the country, "the more burlesque shows in New Orleans, the better."
- Meghan Arlinghaus
- The Storyville Starlettes perform at the New York Burlesque Festival.