Challenging traditional burlesque – plus-size Asian punk style
- Published: 10 July 2010
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What was a political, feminist, minority performance artist doing vying for the crown of Miss Burlesque Australia 2010 among more classically-inclined and classically-looking white girls? Tiara the Merch Girl spills the beans on her bid to shake up the traditional burlesque scene.
Being an outspoken feminist and open critic of societal issues highlighted within the burlesque scene I participate in meant that my entry into this year's Miss Burlesque Australia competition was more fraught than usual.
The competition – this year being the first ever – was organised by a commercial agency known for its taste for high glamour and von-Teese-esque epic vintage. It was part talent show, showcasing traditional and neo burlesque, and part beauty pageant, with parades for eveningwear and lingerie.
What was an indie, political, rabble-rousing performance artist like me doing in a pageant like this?
Why was I supporting a mainstream outfit rather than groups that developed edgier, more challenging burlesque?
Why would I put myself – already a standout for being South Asian, plus-size, and the Definition of Ugly – through a beauty pageant, among a bevy of other contestants who more closely resembled the aspirations of the white, lithe beauty of the Gibson or Vargas Girl?
I had originally entered on a whim. I had resolved a few New Years ago to apply for anything that looked interesting, even – or especially – if it was a longshot. This has led to a few rejections, but also to surprising acceptances into creative projects that have given my artistic skills and I a major boost.
I thought that my style was obviously too unlike Miss Burlesque Australia's focus to even stand a chance. It would be like a punk rocker or a jazz pianist auditioning for Australian Idol: not an indication of their talent, just a mismatch of styles and expectations.
Also, I had built enough of a reputation for being an occasional ‘troublemaker’, mainly due to my often-political (but never personally nasty) blog posts and essays; I figured they'd take one look at the name and go “naaaah”.
So when I received the acceptance email, I actually did email the organisers back asking if it wasn't a technical error.
“No, Tiara, it's not an error, you did get accepted!”
The acceptance email was the first of a series of events that marked a very tumultuous and roller-coaster-like couple of months.
I was asked at the very last minute to participate in the writing program for a Melbourne arts festival, Next Wave, to ponder risk-taking in art.
I took a major risk with a budding love affair that ended as suddenly and surprisingly as it begun.
I made whirlwind trips across Sydney and Melbourne to participate in and support various cabarets and performances demonstrating the different, experimental, sometimes shocking ways people use burlesque and performance art to assert their own gender and sexual identity – from the very daring acts at the Pussycat Club that made Brisbane's burlesque look absolutely prudish, to the latest batch of Vixen Noir's graduates, beaming with pure natural talent even though they were new to the stage, to the motley crew of slam poets, filmmakers, musicians, and this burlesquer brought together by the Ladies of Colour Agency to fill the stage with anti-racist passion and sentiment.
Heartbreaks, deadlines, and clowning classes made it difficult for me to concentrate on the competition at first – but it all came crashing down on me when the rules were added and the date got brought up two weeks early.
How was I going to create a Traditional Burlesque piece when my work, when I am anything BUT traditional?
How was I going to afford new eveningwear AND new lingerie just for the pageant, when my bank account was already getting depleted just trying to fix up the material I do have?
How brilliant do I have to be with all my other acts and parades so that I have a shot at getting into Top Four and presenting my piece de resistance, an act both highly political and deeply personal that created a tremendous emotional impact on its debut a year ago, for the Unique category?
Why did I even bother entering this competition, when there's a friendship to try and mend and money to try and earn?
The potential for the title became more of a burden than an opportunity. Well-meaning friends were taking this more seriously than I was, claiming that I had a real good shot at winning as long as I played my cards right.
I was so stressed out by the demands that I considered declining the crown if by some miracle I made the Top Two and qualified for the Grand Finals. The other contestants, and our fellow burlesque friends, were just as stressed but also eager and excited; I was just frazzled.
Then there were the debates, mostly from people in the alternative pockets of burlesque, who found the whole concept of Miss Burlesque Australia problematic:
Competition just encourages bitchiness! There’s no provision for edgy experimental acts! It's all a money-making exercise! You're not going to shake things up; you're just reinforcing conventional ideals, making it harder for other emerging performers with deviant styles to get noticed.
Was I betraying the very ethics and culture I had spent over a year promoting?
I put out calls for help – to my friends, to fellow contestants, to my blog readers, to people whose work I respected and liked. I asked intellectual fashion blogs I adored, like ThreadBared and a l'allure garcionne, to put out a callout for emerging designers who wanted a chance to get their work on a major stage.
I asked for help with Traditional choreography, offering my skills in Neo and Unique burlesque in exchange. I asked for donations – of money, of time, of kind words. I requested people to Join Team MerchGirl – and support the punk kid with sneakers prancing around a beauty pageant.
And to my amazement, the help came in droves.
One of the other contestants graciously gave me a primer in Traditional burlesque, critiqued my choreography, and helped me feel better about myself by playing videos of old burlesque clips from the days of the Boom Boom Room, where the dancers didn't seem to do very much at all except walk around, peel off clothing, and shake a hip or two.
A loyal reader offered to sponsor the entry fee (he contributed enough to cover a much-needed massage too!) and some monetary donations came from other friends and readers.
A fellow Malaysian burlesquer mailed me a gorgeous pink bustier; a fashion-reconstruction friend is recreating the outfit from an iconic photograph of Rose Chan, Malaysia's legendary Queen of Striptease in the 1950s, who I am paying tribute to for my Traditional piece. Friends, lovers, contestants, and fans sent in messages of support, some coming to the show purely for me.
Opportunities to showcase diverse ideas of burlesque came up too – a news article interviewing the Queensland contestants dedicated half the article to me speaking on how burlesque in Australia is quite white-washed but has plenty of scope to be daring and experimental.
My email blast asking for support and help was shared by the organisers to the other contestants nationwide as an example of great personal marketing.
I turned my semi-regular co-hosting slot on a community radio's feminist show into a platform to discuss burlesque, sexualization, and women's empowement – with the views of performers from traditional and alternative backgrounds, as well as non-performers.
And even though I still had a million concerns and still openly spoke up about potential issues, my contribution was still welcomed, and the co-ordinators were gracious enough to answer every silly question I had.
I started to see my role and potential in the Miss Burlesque Australia competition not as a traitor of indie punk-rock burlesque ethics, but as a platform for a different sensibility and concept of burlesque to be shared to possibly the most mainstream audience that I will ever have.
An audience made up of enthusiasts who do know a little more about burlesque than the average person (no, it's not just “fancy stripping”), but tend to go for high production values and great entertainment, rather than potentially confronting and thought-provoking content.
I have a rare and golden opportunity to actually represent a very different ideal, not just of burlesque, but also of womanhood, sexiness, and femininity – the woman I wished I could see in magazines or fashion shows or cabaret stages. A woman like me.
I then came to a place of greater peace and acceptance with the competition and I know that I have done the best I can with the resources I have.
This experience, and the other experiences surrounding this in time and space, have greatly challenged me and forced me to reconsider a lot of my beliefs and expectations – not just of performance, but of many things from boundaries to love to emotional health.
It has also shown me the generous spirit of humanity, of how beautiful and surprising it can be when the people you don't expect to care step in and give you a hand, believing in you and your ability to pull it off.
On Saturday 10 July I went on stage at the Old Museum, facing some of my harshest critics and also my biggest fans, performing my heart out, showing how I put a personal stamp on everything I do no matter the category.
I brought a number of different performance worlds that don't usually intersect together. In the words of one of my inspirations, Vixen Noir, I fucked shit up.
I did not make it to the final four of Miss Burlesque Australia (QLD), so unless I somehow become the burly equivalent of the Idol auditionees that get invited back to the final, my pageant journey ends here.
I did do what I wanted - I presented an updated version of the Islamic Burlesque routine, last performed a year ago as my first ever public burlesque solo. This time, instead of the prayer outfit, I went with a proper Afghani burqa. Like last year, the response was immense. Which was what I wanted – to create an impact and be memorable with a piece that was truly mine.
I think a lot of us did the same thing - presented our strongest, most interesting acts in the Neo Burlesque section because at least you were guaranteed stage time for them! So the Unique pieces, while good, seemed a little underwhelming - I was hoping for a magic act or more spoken word, like my own planned Unique piece would have had. Everyone was really, really good, and I bet there were only a few points dividing all of us. It was a hard race.
So that's one adventure done and dusted. While I had not even expected to be accepted, and at one stage desperately did not want to win, I am still a little disappointed that I did not get to present everything I had or go far enough to present to more people.
I am sure that weeks of pent-up emotions will now be released – especially since this was also the night I patched things up with people I had fallen out with before.
There are still other projects in the works, other adventures similarly unexpected – and I do hope that I created enough of a ripple effect through my participation and my routines to be fondly remembered.
Now where did my fame and fortune go?
Tiara the Merch Girl is an associate editor at The Scavenger.