When Bay Area burlesque performer Viva LaFever was in sixth grade, she beat up the biggest kid in school—because she could. Six years later he was her prom date.
“I never had a problem putting men in their place,” says LaFever, 67, erupting with laughter as she describes her younger self: a tough-as-nails kid who learned her fighting chops from her Italian father. As an adult stepping onto the burlesque stage of the New Follies Action Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1971, (now the Victoria Theatre), that same pluck served her well—especially on the nights she volunteered to spend in a Seattle jail, working her way up to manage the Follies within just a few months of starting out, and that one time she performed solo in a bowling alley in Sparta, Wisconsin near an air force base. Or the night when two men demanded to know if she had once been a stripper: “I said, ‘No, I was the stripper.’”
Now a retired newspaper delivery woman for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, with a brain aneurysm and a knee in need of replacing, LaFever does an average of 250 sit-ups every day (more on game days—she’s a Steelers fan) to prepare for this year’s annual Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHOF) performance in Las Vegas, the mecca of burlesque. LaFever is one of their coveted “Living Legends,” and she hasn’t missed a single show since returning to the stage in 2005.
“It makes me want to work really hard. I want to impress these kids and show them that getting old doesn’t mean you’re dead,” says LaFever.
Back in the ’70s, audiences were mainly comprised of males “looking to get their rocks off” and performers were hyper-focused on maintaining a “perfect” figure, says LaFever. But neither the sleazeballs nor any feminist critique could make LaFever doubt herself, she says.
“It was a different kind of feminine power. It wasn’t like I was there for their pleasure, I was there having a good time, making good money, and they had to pay to see me,” says LaFever. “I viewed that as my own little women’s movement.”
Local performer Cyanide Cyn says that when she’s under the bright lights and layers of glitter wearing only a G-string and pasties, debates over feminist theory don’t matter.
“I am choosing to be a powerful, beautiful, sexual being in the way that I choose, and not in the way that somebody else perceives me when I walk down the street or pump gas in my car or grocery shop. That’s when they seem to think it’s OK to make me feel sexualized, and that’s not when I feel sexy,” says Cyn. “There’s a lot to be said about taking the power to stand there and be on stage in a place that I feel very powerful. That’s who I am and what I have to offer—and it is an art form.”
MISCHIEF & MAGIC
Cyn, 38, is co-producer of the local burlesque group, Sin Sisters, that performs every month at the Catalyst. Cyn produces the shows with her blood-sister, Balla Fire, who founded the troupe with another performer in 2011.
Cyn says that the Sisters’ success as the longest-running show at the Catalyst has a lot to do with attitudes in Santa Cruz.
“We live in a town that’s really open to it. There are other areas where I’d be more concerned with my daughter’s friends’ parents knowing about it, but there have been times where I’ve looked out and seen other PTA moms standing out there,” says Cyn. “The look of shock when they realize ‘Oh, you’re one of them,’ and they are having just as much fun as I am.”
Santa Cruz’s burlesque scene is small enough that locals are excited to come out, says Cyn—unlike in the wider Bay Area, where there are so many options, audiences are waiting for a “big moment” instead of enjoying the whole experience.
“Not everything is just about taking off a piece of clothing. You can’t just be waiting to see my butt every time—my butt is pretty amazing, but it’s not just about my butt or someone’s boobs,” says Cyn. “Anytime somebody yells ‘show me your boobs’ I’m like ‘That’s it, performance done.’ That’s not why I’m here. If I choose to show you, then lucky you. And if I don’t, that’s still not why I was here.”
It’s a sexy experience, says Cyn, but it’s also a lesson in consent.
“MC Honeypenny starts the show every month by asking, ‘What does consent look like?’ which I think is really powerful because so many people don’t have that conversation,” says Cyn. “We are not a petting zoo.”
“Look, but don’t touch” is the rule, and anyone who violates it will swiftly be shown the door, although they’ve never had any problems, says Cyn. As an art form, she says, burlesque is funny, it’s sexy, it’s shocking, it’s glittery. But ultimately it’s fun—and that means fun for the person on stage, as well.
HISTORY OF FRINGE
Burlesque was born of society’s pent-up desire for guilty pleasures and the grey area of the law. Unlike stripping, it has always included a comedic element; the Italian word burlesco is derived from burla, meaning “joke, ridicule or mockery.” Some say ancient comedy like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was the earliest burlesque, but most historians credit Lydia Thompson, a British dancer, with creating the more modern form. Growing up alongside vaudeville, burlesque started as a ribald variety show that included “leg” shows, parody, comedy, minstrel, and minimal costuming—which in 1868, when Thompson brought her British Blondes group to New York, exposed wrists, ankles, and maybe even shoulders. It was political satire and sex, precisely what repressed high society of the late Victorian era needed.
The prohibition era created a need for escape, which burlesque fulfilled. Once striptease became a staple of the art form and crossed over to film, a parallel Hollywood emerged with performers like Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans at the fore.
The new burlesque pays homage to the performers who pushed the envelope during a stricter era, which is why Burlesque Hall of Fame features two separate events for the “Burlesque Living Legends,” like LaFever and Ellion Ness, who are both revered among Bay Area performers, says Cyn.
Modern burlesquers like Cyn say that the only real differences between stripping and burlesque are the amount of glitter and the height of the heels. But Jacki Wilson writes in The Happy Stripper that the real contrast is in burlesque’s showgirl, who adds an element of “witty, parodic, erotic ‘tongue-in-chic’ irony. The burlesque performer looks back, smiles and questions her audience, as well as her own performance, a performance that is comic, outlandish and saucy—a highly camp, mostly vintage spectacle.”
Toward the late ’70s and early ’80s, laws surrounding nudity were being challenged all over the West Coast, says LaFever, who remembers that in Seattle the price was higher if they stripped all the way, knowing they’d be arrested. LaFever was always an activist, later becoming president for the Teamsters Union, so trying to change the nudity laws by getting arrested never seemed like a big deal to her, she says.
The more lax the laws became, however, the more “risqué” started being replaced by downright dirty: “There was a girl in the show that was inserting fruit and stuff into herself, feeding it to the audience,” remembers LaFever, chuckling. “I said ‘I am not going to follow that, I quit.’ That’s why I dropped out. What it had devolved into, to me, really was not burlesque.”
ART OF THE TEASE
When burlesque made its comeback in the early ’90s as “neo-burlesque,” with Dita von Teese leading the way, it evolved to emphasize empowerment.
“I’m a curvy woman and a woman of color, so I’m not the standard mold of beauty that society often bombards us with,” says 33-year-old Vyxen Monroe, who performs with the Sin Sisters and also heads her own troupe, the Wily Minxes. “The burlesque community in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area is a really safe space and has always been a very welcoming all-inclusive scene. There’s no body shaming. It’s all about celebrating if you’re petite and tiny or flat-chested or big and beautiful. It’s all gorgeous, it’s all applauded, and it’s all amazing.”
For Cyn, that’s the kind of model she wants for her 13-year-old daughter.
“She sees each of these women who other people could probably pick apart, and they exude confidence at all times. They’re not airbrushed. We have cellulite. We’re real women with real bodies,” says Cyn. “As much as other people can pick out our flaws, we know how powerful we are, we know how beautiful it is what we do. Even if everything fell apart tomorrow and I wasn’t performing, it’s all been worth it because of the confidence that she’s gained from it.”
Neo-burlesque has also opened the doors to the LGBTQ community—which makes sense, says Monroe, since communities considered “fringe” by societies often band together, especially in the arts.
“There’s a wide range of gender fluidity that you can play with in a show,” says Monroe. “As a queer woman myself, it’s cool to have a piece of myself reflected back to me and to have like-minded people, people like me, around me heightens my sense of safety. You have ‘boylesque’ performers, gay men, you get straight men, you get transgender men and women—it’s another way for them to get really empowered about their bodies.”
It’s all about performance, says Cyn.
“It all counts. There really is no line; I won’t allow anything on my stage that is misogynistic. I won’t allow anything that is racially motivated. I don’t do cultural appropriation on my stage,” says Cyn. “But other than that, if you feel like it’s art and you can stand up for what you’ve created, bring it.”
LaFever fell into burlesque when she “accidentally” moved from Pennsylvania to San Francisco in 1971. A friend said she knew where LaFever could get a job paying $1.50 an hour.
“At the time secretaries were making 90 cents a week, so I said, well, I can do that,” says LaFever. “I drank half a bottle of wine before [going onstage]. I was just not really girly. I was a tomboy but I knew I could do it, having a music and athletic background. My music that week was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’ and Janis Joplin’s ‘Turtle Blues.’”
Unlike in LaFever’s day, when she’d do six shows a day, six days a week, burlesque is a passionate hobby for most and therefore attracts people from all different backgrounds with all different day jobs.
It’s why Monroe wanted to bring classically trained dancers together to form the Wily Minxes—a combination of technique and tassel.
“I like to think of the way we present choreography as a group as being a bit ribald and mischievous and frisky—and a little cheeky with how we’re going to wow ya,” says Monroe. “Like how we choreograph how we take off the clothing: We try to go for the extra oomph in unclasping our bras while we’re chaîné-ing around, or taking our undies off in a somersault. It makes it more fun for the audience.”
A classically trained dancer herself, Monroe has seen performers come from gymnastics, theater, even ballet backgrounds, with some performing burlesque en pointe. Monroe was picked to perform at this year’s Burlesque Hall of Fame in the highly selective “Movers, Shakers, and Innovators” showcase with her fellow Sin Sister, Valerie Veils, who brings her contortionist background to their duet.
BHOF is, as Cyn puts it, “the biggest glitter-fest ever,” and being asked to perform is a huge honor.
After spending hours sewing their own costumes, gluing on their own rhinestones, and driving endless miles to shows across the country in between daytime jobs, they don’t just do it to feel sexy (although it’s a plus), Monroe and Cyn agree. It’s about the sisterhood.
“We aren’t just a crew that performs together. We are family,” says Cyn. “I’ve been there for the birth of some of my sisters’ children. We’re the first people we tell when we get engaged or divorced, when shit is falling apart. They’re really my sisters.”