While a casual observer might not recognize the difference, to enthusiasts, burlesque and "normal" stripping couldn't be further apart. Burlesque is an art form all its own, with performers competing to craft the most entertaining ways of getting (almost) naked onstage. But how did New Orleans, a famous den of debauchery, come to be a haven for the comedic, raunchy and unique art form called burlesque?
In the early 19th century, bawdy variety shows, with irreverent comedy and musical performances, became popular throughout the United States. The term for these shows was burlesque. Many of them featured striptease as the main attraction, and, due in no small part to the irrepressible horniness of the American people, soon "burlesque" became synonymous with a particularly theatrical combo of striptease and dance. At the end of the century, New Orleans became home to one of the world's most famous red light districts, Storyville. It was there that many visitors to the city experienced two art forms that would soon spread across the nation like wildfire: jazz music and burlesque.
Today, burlesque continues to flourish and grow in New Orleans. The Big Easy has developed what many believe to be the nation's most vibrant and active burlesque scene. The city's most prominent promoter of burlesque is Trixie Minx, a performer and producer. I spoke with her about how she fell in love with burlesque and why it's so perfectly suited to the culture of our fair city.
"I kind of became a burlesque dancer by accident. I like to think that burlesque chose me. I started as a professional ballet dancer," Minx said. "While many people may dismiss it as just stripping, to me, it's an art like anything else. Jazz is art. Food is art. And burlesque is the art of tease."
Minx is emphatic about the way in which the culture of the Big Easy created the perfect environment for burlesque. "In New Orleans, there's so much music that it allows the dancers to really pair up with musicians," Minx added. "There aren't many places aside from New Orleans where dancers get to really collaborate with live bands."
"There's an entire spectrum of stuff, from traditional burlesque, to more gender-bending or politically-themed shows," she explained. Challenging typical gender roles, boylesque & draglesque are styles of dance where men perform a theatrical striptease. Draglesque, in particular, has become so popular that recent RuPaul's Drag Race winner Violet Chachki is now touring with burlesque icon Dita Von Teese. Locally, Trixie suggests seeing draglesque performer Ariana Amour. She also shouts out Madame Mystere, a female dancer who stole the show at a recent performance by dressing as Barb from the Netflix series Stranger Things (proving that burlesque need not be old-fashioned to be entertaining.)
Minx has seen her fair share of burlesque outside the city limits. In fact, it was a trip to Paris that helped her decide to seriously pursue the art of tease, after several friends encouraged her to try it out. "That's where I fell in love with burlesque," Minx recalled. "In Paris, I saw an actual, theater-style show. Beautiful costuming, incredible lighting. Not just a dancer alone on a stage. It made me realize that burlesque could be like a ballet."
Minx brought that spirit with her back to New Orleans. "My monthly show at One Eyed Jacks has been running for 11 years, and even on a shoestring budget, this group of 12 dancers come together to create these unique themed shows every month." In 2016, she created two performances at the Orpheum that replicated the full, vaudevillian experience of burlesque. "I always love to incorporate comedy in my act," Minx said. "So I wanted to create something that wasn't just sexy ladies but really a full-on, theatrical performance."
Minx recommends that people interested in performing start off by seeing as many shows as possible. "There's a lot of facets, a lot of nuanced movements and themes. When you see the right one, you'll know." Inspired by funny females like Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, she began producing shows in New Orleans because she wanted to incorporate comedic aspects of the performance, rather than just the sensuality: "I wanted to highlight the inherent ridiculousness of taking off your clothes in front of an audience." She eventually quit her day job to focus on producing shows. "It was the worst business plan ever, but I love every minute of it."
What is Trixie Wearing on Our Mardi Gras 2017 Cover?
Trixie Minx and costume designer Jenny Campbell
The stunning outfit Trixie Minx wears on our cover was crafted by Jenny Campbell, an artist who's earned a reputation as an innovative and capable designer of costumes for performers of all kinds.
Campbell moved to New Orleans after catching the costuming bug in Maryland. "In Baltimore, I worked in art museums," she says. She started making outfits on the side for the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. "After that, I kind of moved down here and re-invented myself." The aesthetic she learned at parades in Baltimore transferred to her work here; she's designed costumes for several krewes.
"Most of this was actually created at my parents' house, because I was home for the holidays," she says, talking about Minx's outfit. Working off the concept of doubloons, she decided she wanted to build a bikini incorporating the ubiquitous Mardi Gras coins. "I hand-drilled all the doubloons and wired them onto the frame. Luckily, I already had an abundance of purple, green and gold stuff in my studio."
This all seems to be well within Campbell's wheelhouse; she's worked with burlesque dancers before. "The challenge of the layers and the ease of putting on or taking them off is really interesting. The last one I worked on had five layers." She also emphasizes the innovation she's seen in the burlesque scene: "The outfits keep getting better, incorporating projectors and other technology. It's crazy."
The biggest challenge with this costume, though, was getting it home to the Big Easy: "I carried it on the plane, and it wouldn't fit under the seat! All those individual pieces put together ended up taking up a lot of space." Campbell is available for all types of costume creations. You can see her work at instagram.com/nolacostumes and can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.