Jo “Boobs” Weldon is the founder of the New York School of Burlesque, the author of The Burlesque Handbook, and an all-around fascinating lady… we’ve been talking about doing a reciprocal Q&A for months (probably since the last time I got around to updating this blog). Mine can be found here.
And here is Jo’s:
Q: You were a stripper before you made it big in burlesque. What was that transition like? How would you describe the distinction between the two?
A: There wasn’t a huge transition for me! I had been performing at shows and at the Rocky Horror preshow before I ever started working in strip clubs, and kept doing it while I worked in them. I was a feature dancer on the strip joint circuit in the 1990s and was doing some very elaborate shows there. I actually did my first ostrich feather fan dance on stage at the Cheetah III in Atlanta in 1993. However, when I moved to New York I eased out of strip joints and into fetish work and through performing in fetish clubs found the New York burlesque scene.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your activism on the behalf of sex workers, especially your lobbying efforts at the United Nations?
I started out as an anti-censorship activist in high school when some books were banned from our library (notably, Rabelais). Later I became interested in the application of the First Amendment to adult entertainment and became involved in lobbying for strip joints on that basis. I moved to New York to live with my friend Judith Bradford, who got me to apply to speak at conferences, and I became acquainted with other people who felt, as I did, that both the government’s patriarchal view of the sex industry as harmful, and the interpretation of the sex industry via MacKinnon and Dworkin, were not the right bases for the development of legislative approaches to the problems around sex work. I also became involved with working on the language describing the definition of sex work at Beijing+5 (http://www.post-gazette.com/newslinks/beijingplusfive.asp).
Q: What made you decide to open the New York School of Burlesque, and why do you think you’ve enjoyed such success? What is it about burlesque that makes “ordinary” (read: non-performing) women respond to it?
I was asked to teach because I had a website called G-Strings Forever! that I started about ten years ago. This was originally a site based on strip joint strippers, but it expanded to show the burlesque scene. There was no such thing as Flickr at the time, and I was posting tons of photos I’d taken at shows and events, including photos from Tease-O-Rama and Exotic World. I posted links to articles about burlesque and wrote about the performers and shows. I also reviewed books and movies about burlesque, and some of my academic work was posted there. I guess people saw the site and thought of me as an instructor or something! The school developed over time as I wanted other people to teach with me. Some of them I had to really nag! Burlesque is kind of an outlaw, punk rock, outsider thing, and a lot of people didn’t want to see it codified and made academic. But I knew that if we didn’t do it, someone would. Plus, it’s as much fun to teach as it is to perform.
I’ve been successful because I’m passionate about burlesque. I’ve had no financing, no administrative help until I brought in Weirdee Girl a couple of years ago, and no space of my own–it’s been HARD. I had to just really love it–and I do!
I think non-performing women like it because they see themselves and each other doing it and enjoy that the techniques we teach really work. They can see that they’re doing it immediately, in a way that’s satisfying to experience, even if they’re not doing it at the level they’d be doing it if they studied to perform. They can see that they can amuse and titillate and delight each other, and they can see in the mirror that they look confident and glamorous and fierce. They just love it, and I love watching it happen!
Q: You’re a writer, as well. Do you enjoy writing as much as you do performing? Can you talk about your next book?
I love writing! Since the book came out I’ve been touring and promoting and haven’t yet had time to do proper work on my next project, which is a fictional story based on my experiences as a groupie in Los Angeles in the 1990s. I wrote a version of it several years ago, but I found a new way to present it that seems to me to be much more fun.
Q: In the movie and musical versions of Gypsy, the burlesque performers have a bit of an antagonistic relationship with one another. Is there any truth to that portrayal? Did you find more camaraderie in stripping or in burlesque?
There are always a few nutters, and each region tends to have its factions, but essentially, the burlesque community members all love to get into a hot tub together and flirt. In strip joints it depends on the type of club–in some they’re very friendly, and in some they’re very competitive. I’ve written a lot about this as well–what it’s like to be friends in a situation in which you’re essentially in competition for the means of survival. It’s pretty intense. But there can be a lot of camaraderie there. In burlesque I think we get more out of collaborating than the workers do in strip joints, so we tend to bond more.
Q: Some of your acts are very intricate and elaborate, both in concept and in execution; it’s amazing to watch you pull it off (no cheesy pun intended). Have you ever had a performance where everything went wrong?
Ha! To me it feels like everything goes wrong more often than not! I suppose having to have been cut out of a corset while singing was my least favorite moment. Most of us have a costume catastrophe every now and then. But losing a pastie is kind of fun.
Q: What’s next for burlesque? Does it continue to evolve as an artform?
I think burlesque has gotten big enough that many of the artists who began fifteen years ago have room to reexamine their roots. I also think that there is now room for many different styles, and there are a lot of different kinds of shows, from ones that basically serve a social function for a small number of performers and their friends and fans, to the huge festivals. I think burlesque is now better understood as an element of contemporary culture and performance. It will definitely evolve, though it may go by other names. I have been a fan of burlesque since before I knew what it was called, when I was a little kid and saw images of those fierce dancers of the 30s-60s, and I’ll still be a fan of burlesque as it’s being reinvented for new generations of performers and audiences.