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The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: My Life as a Plus-Size Burlesque Performer

Posted by Diva Darling | Posted in burlesque | Posted on 07-04-2015

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I’ve been staring at a bright blue Post-It note for the last five minutes as I thought about how to start this piece. My intern last summer at my muggle job liked to write little inspirational quotes on them and leave them for me to find, and I keep them lined up along the bottom of my monitor. This particular one says, “Why fit in when YOU were born to stand out?”

Turns out that’s a pretty good mantra for thinking about how to deal with doubts about being a fat girl in burlesque.

Diva Darling Portrait

[photo credit: Kristina De Santis Photography]

A newer performer in our community, herself a curvy woman, inspired this piece when she wanted to hear from other performers of size about our experiences onstage and off. Who could blame her for wondering how she’d be received? The world isn’t exactly kind to women who take up more than a single-digit dress size of space, and that’s when we’re keeping our clothes on. To have the audacity to get in front of a roomful of people and reveal every jiggle and curve seems like it would be an exercise in pathological masochism.

And yet, being a plus-size performer in burlesque is like visiting another world where the usual rules don’t quite apply.

I’m Schroedinger’s showgirl. Inside the black box theater, I identify as a performer of size and I also don’t. My first priority is to be the best entertainer I’m capable of being; my audience paid to see a great show and have a good time, not to be educated in the body-pos politic. At the same time, though, I’m not blind to how I look nor ashamed of who I am. I know that the simple act of stepping on stage, of refusing to hide myself and asking an audience to look at me and cheer me on, is a radical political act in this society. I would be wasting an opportunity to try to create positive change if I were naïve enough to pretend otherwise.

Since the uproar over New Orleans performer Ruby Rage’s firing from Lucky Pierre’s due to her size, there’s been a lot more open debate about what it’s like to be a curvy girl in the burly world. Many other burlesquers broke their silence about the frustrations, humiliations, and prejudices they’ve endured over the size and shape of their bodies. Like all communities, this one is a very small world, and it seems like we needed that kind of inciting incident for it to feel safe enough to talk about venues that only cast conventionally-beautiful dancers, or producers who make arguments that shows have to cater to “audience expectations” (read: no fatties).

For my part, I feel pretty fortunate. My experience in the burlesque world so far (being a baby burlesquer still after two years actively in the scene) has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve never worked with a producer or cast who made me feel anything but welcomed and appreciated, and the DC-Baltimore community is both alternative and progressive—we embrace other-ness, and when we see a lack of representation, eventually someone steps up to address it.

I come from a very classical performance background—ballet, opera, Shakespeare—where inclusivity is not at all the norm, and it was a revelation to me when I discovered burlesque and realized that it had a place for someone like me. The first show I ever saw featured a beautiful plus-size femme of color, Coco Monroe, who is a fantastic dancer and a great entertainer. She was hands-down the hit of the show, bringing the house down in a blaze of raw sexy power with a packed audience screaming her name. My head promptly exploded. I had literally never imagined that such a thing could happen, and I wanted to be part of it. It took me several years, but finally, here I am.

That’s not to say that it’s been all starry eyes and rose-colored glasses. Burlesque isn’t literally taking place on some faraway, completely enlightened planet, and even someone like me who has had an overall great experience isn’t immune to the challenges of being a plus-size performer.

I’m not gonna lie– it’s work to build and keep up the resilience to believe that I have as much right to be on that stage as the thinner women. I’m always very aware that I am usually the only fat girl in whatever show I’m in, and it can be hard not to feel like the “designated fat friend” even though everyone else is being absolutely warm and lovely towards me. When I’ve needed to take time off from gigs, I have to re-convince myself to get back in the game, to push through the fear that everything that came before was just a fluke and that I don’t really belong. Every. Single. Time.

Diva Darling with British Guards in Ugly American burlesque act

A typical neo moment from the debut of my “Ugly American” act [photo credit: King Swinge]

Because I’m also a *very* neo performer who does a lot of goofy humor, I sometimes find myself questioning whether I do that just because that’s where my creativity goes, or whether I’m avoiding doing more overtly sexy/pretty acts because I feel like I have to use humor to earn my right to the audience’s attention. On the one hand, I truly enjoy being a big weirdo onstage and making people laugh. On the other, it’s a way to give an audience a Get Out of ‘Being Asked to Find a Fat Body Sexual’ Free card so they can comfortably cheer for my antics if they’re uncomfortable looking at my anatomy.

(Speaking of which, I think a performer of size has to decide how much she’s using her work to make commentary about her body. I’ve seen some incredibly powerful, radically political acts that are about being a plus-sized performer; I’ve also seen some “fat girl acts” that made me cringe because they played up tropes like “ha ha fat girls eat everything in sight” or “fat girls hate to exercise” in a way that in my opinion was uncritical and simply reinforced those negative ideas. For my part, I tend not to do acts about my size because I feel like it’s thought-provoking enough for people to see someone like me stripping in the spotlight. I’m also very careful, despite my humor, not to use my size for laughs.)

I am definitely very cautious about vetting potential venues before I play them– I want to know what the audience is like and whether another performer of size had a good experience there. We’ll ask each other flat-out if a venue is fat-friendly, because even if the producer wildly adores us, if she’s thin, she might not be able to say whether it’s a safe space for a large dancer. (Although sometimes you get surprised– I took a chance on an un-vetted venue and there were some young frat guys in the front row. I thought, Oh baby Jesus, all I need is some drunken douchebros mocking me the whole time, but it turned out that they actually loved the hell out of the show and went crazy for my act, so you never know.)

And I will say that there are calls for performers that have gone out that, based on how they’re worded or sometimes just by the name of the venue, it’s pretty clear that “no fat chicks” is one of the between-the-lines messages. Plus-size burlesquers are economically limited, with few exceptions. We can do pretty well in the indie/DIY sector of shows, but if we’re looking for a professional career, there are even fewer opportunities for us than there are for burlesque performers in general (and those are already so few and far between). The more a job pays and/or the more long-term it is, the more likely it is to be restricted only to performers with traditional dancer’s bodies and to be advertised with dog-whistle language like “designer clientele” or “height-weight proportionate”. The glass ceiling between us and corporate, casino/elite nightclub, or big stage shows is only rated up to a certain weight.

Diva Darling fake internet meme reading "Guilty of being a woman on the internet"

[photo credit: David Meyer of Carpe DM Photo, courtesy of the 2013 Cherry Blossom Burlesque Festival]

The biggest roadblock, for me at least, is online publicity. Let’s face it, it’s just about impossible for a burlesque performer to become known and cultivate a following without having a strong presence online. No woman has it easy on the internet, gods know. But perhaps in no other aspect of the burly life is thin privilege as vast a divide as it is in this one. For one, there are often very few photos of larger performers in any given show. Of any pictures of me, there are even fewer that I find flattering (they often have to be taken from difficult angles that are hard on big people). I’m also less likely to have a picture of me appear in an article about a show, which is a mixed bag. It’s less PR for me, but at least I don’t have some terrible weird-face-late-in-the-strip photo for people to mock in the comments.

And that’s where the online-presence thing goes from kinda unfair to downright traumatizing. I’m aware that building a very public presence means that it’s only a matter of time before I have to moderate eight thousand comments from people telling me I’m too fat to rape to death and that I should just kill myself to spare the world having to look at me, or calling me “disgusting”, or saying “I can’t unsee that”, or concern-trolling about how I’m promoting an unhealthy lifestyle or whatever bullshit people trot out when they want to be an asshole without owning it. That’s not just conjecture on my part; that’s pretty much guaranteed to happen unless I want to labor in obscurity forever. Honestly, even being a strong and confident person, I think about that and I really don’t know how I’m going to keep from being crushed under that onslaught. My nightmare is that some iPhone video of me in pasties is going to end up on Tosh.0, or that a photo of me is going to become the next cruel internet meme. I think a lot about how to deal with that and how other women of size, like the fabulous model Tess Munster, deal with it, how clearly exhausted they become by it. I can really only hope that if/when that does happen, that I have the strength to stick it out and that it becomes one of the paving stones on the path towards a day when that kind of sizeism is considered unacceptable.

But all that said…

The up sides of taking my place in this community are so, so worth it. I feel like doing burlesque has made me more able to talk very frankly about even the most difficult or ugliest parts of things like body image, body-positivity, concern trolling, and sizeism and to think about them like an activist. It’s given me enough of a platform for me to have been invited to speak on panels and lead groups and discussions about developing a healthy body image, times when I’m able to reach out to anyone who feels othered or invisible or ashamed because of their bodies and to talk honestly about it. It’s an offshoot of my work as a performer that I love and embrace and that lets me work towards real change.

For myself, burlesque has made me feel more powerful and confident and positive than I ever did in other forms of performance. When you are a fat girl who has experienced invisibility– especially sexual invisibility– because of your weight (and I say this as someone who already had a much more in-your-face high femme sexuality that was far less invisible than many girls my size), there are few more revolutionary, radically anarchistic, amazing experiences than having a whole bar full of people screaming and cheering for you because you’re taking your clothes off. That’s an enormous high and it’s something you just don’t get anywhere else. Every time I second-guess myself, every time I resist going on stage because one of my brain weasels is telling me I’m going to just get booed off, I am able to remind myself that I can trust my audiences to be vocal and loving. Every time I actually get on stage, they still manage to surprise me and reinforce my belief that people are basically good and that there really is hope for the world!

It sounds weird to say it, but I actually relish the artistic challenge of being a plus-size stripteaser. Most of the curvy performers I know share my belief that we have to be especially good at what we do in order to be considered on par with those who more closely fit the mainstream ideals. And as much as I want to be resentful of that, the truth is that the pressure makes me a better performer than I might otherwise be. It pushes me to ignore the low-hanging fruit, to think more creatively, to take more risks, to adopt characters that are deliberately not pretty or sexy in order to see if I can bring their sexuality to life in a humanizing way. I got into burlesque because I was dazzled by the glitter and sequins and feathers and all the trappings that make my high-femme heart flutter, and I often joke about “Dammit, why can’t I ever come up with a pretty act??”, but I have to admit that if I’d started burlesque at age 22 instead of size 22, I might have gotten hung up on the pretty* and never veered off into the wild world of genderqueering or slapstick or pathos where I’ve found some of my favorite and most popular acts.

(*This is not meant in any way as a dig at classical burlesque, of which I’m still a huge fan—simply that I might never have personally tried to go neo if I’d gotten into burlesque back when I was still really anxious about not looking “weird” and trying to always be pretty enough for the mainstream.)

I also discovered that relating to audiences one-on-one was much richer than I expected. There are those who see me after a show and will say, “Wow, you’re so hot!” and that feels great and I love those folks for making me feel like a star! But there are a lot more—especially straight women, I found to my surprise—who have pretty profound experiences at burlesque shows and really want to share that with me. They may not be plus-size themselves, but they are seeing me be cheered and celebrated, they are seeing me centered in my power and enjoying the hell out of it, and it’s creating a space of acceptance for themselves that they might not have expected to find that night. Something drops away, and they feel freer than they did before. The energy of the room is electrifying them, and maybe for the first time they’re thinking that their own dreams don’t have to wait for “someday”. And I get to be part of that. Wow. Just…wow.

One of the most moving experiences I’ve had since I started was the night I met a young gay man at a show who had become a die-hard fan of my troupe, and who told me that he’d brought a transgender friend to the last show I’d been in. The friend, he told me, had actually cried during the show because they were seeing diversity and body love being embraced and celebrated in that cast in a way they had never experienced before.

Honestly, that’s what really drives me, outside of my general love of being an idiot woman-child in front of a bunch of strangers for their entertainment. People– not just estrogen-based ones– come to burlesque and let go of a piece of their shame, and I get to be up there saying, Baby, come lay that down on this glittery altar. Let’s set that fucker on fire and dance while it burns.

It might not be perfect, the burly world, but together we work hard to make a place for everyone at the table. We talk, we listen, we fight, we try. Burlesque is a home for all us wayward children, a place where we have progressive audiences, producers who really care about promoting and defending (if need be) their performers, and peers who will be your sisters/brothers and friends, your best cheerleaders, and the people who will show up for you. Together we’re glitter-bombing the haters, flipping off the wagging fingers, and stripping away the shame. We fit in because we stand out.

And that, my brand-new burly sister who prompted my response, is what it’s like to be a fat girl in burlesque.


 

A classically trained triple threat who ran away to join the burlesque, Diva Darling is une femme vitale, a force of nature who’s the perfect storm of high femme and lowbrow. This curvy, queer Beltway bombshell lobbies the audiences of the nation’s capital for radical expansions to existing beauty standards, and advocates for entertainment reform to ensure equal access to variety on all the public stages of America. You can find her at http://divamojo.com, look her up on Facebook, or shout out to her on Twitter at @Diva_Mojo.

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