I adore the vast, alien landscape that is public-access television. Flashing from channel to channel on the upper end of the dial presents one with a barrage of unfamiliar images. Click: A smiling Somali woman singing East African pop music. Click: Two doctors in surgical scrubs taking chisels to a bent knee, from which they have cut away the skin and muscle, in order to shave away chunks of the exposed bone, sending fragments flying across the operating theater like ice chips. Click: Grainy, murky images from the Phoenix Playhouse production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show--specifically, an all but inaudible rendition of "The Time Warp." So little of what fills the public-access airwaves seems intended for an audience. Instead, with its garish lighting, flattened perspective, muddy sounds, and incomprehensible story lines, public-access programming often provides its viewers with the peculiar sense that they are peering into the dreams of a stranger.
In this landscape, we probably shouldn't be surprised to stumble across a naked abdomen gyrating to the striptease bassline from Davenport and Cooley's "Fever." After all, public access in Manhattan includes a weekly show from Screw magazine editor Al Goldstein in which he regularly disrobes his corpulent body and does perfectly horrible things to far-more-shapely coquettes. But cable in the Twin Cities is not like cable in Manhattan, where such things hardly raise an eyebrow. Instead, our public-access television is usually bone-dry, consisting of well-intentioned (although often impenetrable) political jeremiads, little comic skits from unfunny sketch-comedy troupes, and an amazing quantity of polka music. The oddly named Thomasina.com (Thursdays at 11:00 p.m. on MTN's channel 33) is the exception to Minnesota's usual decency; flesh is bared here. One notable episode, titled "Beyond Burlesque," consisted entirely of stripteases.
In a segment from that episode, three scantily clad women perform a complex bump-and-grind routine on a darkened set, surrounded by velvet curtains. They eventually congregate around a balding man dealing blackjack at a card table. Two of the women--now dressed in two-piece suits, suspenders, and wide-brimmed hats--battle each other for the affections of the third, their dapper outfits flying from them. The balding man looks on, a hint of a smirk playing around the corners of his mouth.
As the song ends, applause erupts from off-camera--apparently this performance had an audience, and from the enthusiastic, vocal response (including a sustained "whoooo!"), that audience must have been sizable. An animated spaceship flashes across the screen, taking the striptease away with it and revealing a plush sofa containing one of the dancers. This is the host of the show, as well as its namesake: Thomasina Kundalini. She smiles--a broad, Cheshire-cat grin that seems to take up much of her face--and addresses the camera. "Hi," she says in an enthusiastic, girlish voice. "Welcome back to Thomasina.com. We're in the studio interviewing Mr. Quigley and Maya."
She then turns and asks, "Is it all right if I call you Mr. Quigley?" On two soft-looking chairs to her right sit another of the dancers and the balding man. The dancer sports a massive purple hairdo and a fluffy blue boa, while the balding man wears a leopard-spotted smoking jacket and holds a martini in his left hand. "Please do," he says, still smirking. The scene is rather incredible: For some reason, somebody has let strippers take over the television, and they happily use their time to show videos of themselves peeling off their clothes, then interview each other about the experience. "You have some shows coming up, don't you?" Thomasina asks her purple-haired guest, who looks at the ground and responds haltingly. "Well," she answers, "there's Erotic City Resurrection."
"There are two Thomasinas"--this according to Thomasina, who by crowning herself with this stage name hints at the presence of still other personas inhabiting the body of the woman across the room from me. "My friends can't figure it out," she continues. "Because there is the part of me that is very outgoing and dresses up in costumes to go out dancing. But then there is another side to me that is completely different." And she is right, to an extent: In person, Thomasina scarcely resembles her televised image. She has the same high, enthusiastic voice and the same broad, surprising smile. Those aspects remain the same.
But two-dimensional images necessarily flatten out her features, and garish lights and low-resolution videotape further blur her face. On her television show, with her shock of short red hair, smallish nose, wide eyes, and a wider smile, Thomasina looks to be an image from hentai, the erotic cartoons of Japan. Every time she turns to the camera and flashes her teeth, it seems likely that she'll girlishly declare, "Tokyo de himo no seikatsu o shite'ru," and then cover her mouth with her hand and giggle delicately. Meanwhile, bright-yellow subtitles would translate: "He's working as a pimp in Tokyo."
So that's the first Thomasina--but what of the second? There is, as you might imagine, a Web page to go with Thomasina.com. But viewers who turn to their computers--perhaps hoping for more explicit evidence of her pulchritude--will be surprised. While Thomasina has filled her Web page with photographs of herself in feather boas and spacegirl outfits, the images are pure cheesecake, and surprisingly tame for someone who televises self-choreographed burlesque revues--there's not a nipple among them. Instead of frank sexual talk (in Japanese or otherwise), the site hosts dozens of samples of earnest poetry. "My ancestors dealt with fine fabrics in Ireland," she writes. "I weave threads of binary strings into glorious tapestries of me."