Eight coolest burlesque artists of all time
(Photo by Craig VanDerSchaegen)
Tonight marks the debut of Bryant Lake Bowl's naughtiest (we hope) cabaret, the Grand Ole Orgy, organized and hosted by the Dirty Curls, the nation's leading naughtybilly band. This is for two reasons: a) they're a pretty sweet naughtybilly band and b) they are, as far as we know, the only naughtybilly band in the country.
Alongside musical performances will be comedians telling dirty jokes and burlesque dancers to tickle your other funny bone. To help celebrate the newborn revue in all its glory, here's our list of the coolest (and hottest) burlesque performers ever.
Gypsy Rose Lee
There aren't a lot of people of Gypsy Rose Lee's caliber in this cold cold world. Her act was known for its intellectual banter as well as for its prurient surprises. So entranced was skeptic and intellectual H.L. Mencken that he was driven to invent a new word to describe her: ecdysiast (meaning, more or less, "high-class stripper"). Moreover, she was an author, the host of a morning talk show, and the subject of her very own musical, Gypsy.
Dita Von Teese
For some people, Dita Von Teese comes to mind first and foremost as the ex-wife of notable rocker and professional weirdo, Marilyn Manson. But the mental images that association implies aside, Von Teese isn't just one of the most influential members of the burlesque revival movement. She's an actress, a guest on many TV shows, a model, and does all her own styling, from makeup to wardrobe to hair. Oh, did we mention she once attended a party wearing nothing but $5 million in diamonds? She's got our vote for bad-ass of the burlesque circuit.
Josephine Baker was a pretty face on the burlesque scene, an African-American flapper who defected to France around the time of WWII. But she was far more: she was a civil rights supporter who refused to perform for single-race audiences, and she became so beloved amongst the French that the Nazis were loathe to harm her for fear of the consequences. Oh, and instead of sitting back on her pretty heels, she used that popularity to spy for the French against the Nazis, schmoozing with Italian, German, and Japanese VIPs and reporting back all the juicy details of their gossip.
Lola the Vamp
Some burlesque performers are content to practice their art as a hobby, or a mere career path. Shake your groove thang, cover your naughty bits with some feathers, collect a check. But few people have the giant brass lady-balls to turn their love of burlesque into an academic pursuit. But that's just what Lola the Vamp has done, earning her Ph.D. in burlesque. That means in all her correspondence, she gets to sign of "Lola the Vamp, Doctor of Burlesque." And that, friends, is totally friggin' cool.
In 1933, Sally Rand appeared at the Chicago World's Fair riding a horse and apparently wearing nothing. It turns out she wasn't really nude--it was just costuming tricks--but that didn't keep the fair from chucking her out on her shapely behind four times over the course of the fair. That's dedication to titillation. She made her name, not only by crashing public spaces, but by inventing the now-famous fan dance and bubble dance, in which the performer uses the titular props to conceal and reveal her body. Somehow in there, she also got around to acting in 26 feature films. Impressive!
Lili St. Cyr
Lili St. Cyr started as a chorus-line girl and clawed her way slowly up the ranks until she was a solo performer considered on the same level of fame and accomplishment as Gypsy Rose Lee. Although she never had quite the level of personal drama as that other diva of burlesque, her name is dropped affectionately in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and allegedly had a lesbian affair with Marilyn Monroe. Hawt. Also after she retired from burlesque, she started her own lingerie company, responsible for creating the plunging cleavage of horror/burlesque sensation Elvira.
Ann Corio grew up one of 14 kids, so it's no surprise she looked for something a little different in her professional life to set her apart. But her parents probably never expected to see her billed in movies with titles like Swamp Woman and Sarong Girl. But in her later years, she turned reflective, penning and performing in a Broadway show called This Was Burlesque, which racily traced the history of the movement and served as Corio's memoir.
No name is as well-known in the burlesque movement as Bettie Page. The icon of naughty fashion has influenced designers, models, stylists, and photographers up 'til the present day, and there's a good reason: bringing burlesque sensibilities in general, and the world of fetish in specific, to the national consciousness took beauty, wit, and courage. It's too bad that later in her life she turned her back on her small spot in the sexual revolution in favor of conservative Christianity, but the liberating damage was done: fetish play was forever burned into the consciousness of America, along with Page's black bangs and red, red lipstick.
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