Revering the goddess: Striptease legend Elizabeth Burton
- Published: 27 May 2012
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27 May 2012
In the 1970s Elizabeth Burton was arrested for “conspiracy to demoralise the people of Philadelphia”. Her crime? “Taking my clothes off in a theatre where people had paid to come in to see me shaking my booty!” she laughs during our telephone interview.
The incident was one of many memorable times in a career that spans almost 50 years, beginning as a Go Go dancer in 1966 in North Sydney. She made her debut as a stripper in New York’s Psychedelic Funhouse in 1971 and embarked on a tour of old burlesque halls across the US before returning to Sydney in 1979 and making her mark on the stripping circuit. As well as other arrests for nudity, she’s had feminists throw fruit at her and was asked by American authorities to leave Vietnam for fear she would incite a race riot by talking to black servicemen.
I remember the first time I saw Liz perform in 2001 at Gurlesque, Australia’s legendary lesbian striptease and burlesque club. Here was a woman, then in her 50s, performing an old-school strip tease (with a lot of emphasis on the ‘tease’). As she removed the final item of clothing, danced confidently around the stage naked, bent over and popped the lips of her vagina in time to the music, the crowd went wild. We were mesmerised and overjoyed to witness an older woman totally in tune with and in celebration of her body and sexuality. For many people – performers and audiences alike – it was a transformative moment.
It wasn’t always that way though. In the 1980s some feminists were against stripping, even in a lesbian club. “They hated me. They said I encouraged rape,” she tells me. “I’ve lived through a lot of women’s lib but the thing is, people should be allowed to do what they want to do and I loved being a striptease dancer. Women threw fruit at me in a cabaret show in Canberra and some performers didn’t want to work in the show because it had a stripper in it. They’ve come a long way from those attitudes now. They’ve learned to like themselves better and started to accept that being a girl is good.”
It’s fair to say that Liz, the eldest of eight children from a Catholic family in Sydney, plays a big part in making women feel good about themselves, not only through her stage performances but in her interactions with them, calling each of them ‘Goddess’.
“When I call them this, it has nothing to do with religion, it’s just I think women are fantastic creatures and they need to be reminded of it and they are not reminded often enough,” says Liz. “I call all women Goddess. It brings me joy and I get big smiles from them. It’s a positive energy I put out. You put a smile on a girl’s face and it may remind her that she is a goddess.”
From her early days she has celebrated the female form. “When I started stripping, if people gave me a hard time, I’d say, ‘We are created in the image of God – how bad can your body be?’”
Her trademark ‘popping’ or “pucker power” as she puts it was often considered “too rude” in an otherwise elegant show – something Liz has always disputed. “It’s ok to show every other part of your body but don’t bend over and show your anus or lips of your vagina because that’s too rude – I don’t think so,” she asserts. “I always said that it’s a part of my beautiful body and I’m not ashamed of any part of it. It’s like my toe or my nose – they’re all beautiful parts or we wouldn’t have them.”
And ageing hasn’t changed her sense of body positivity. Although she acknowledges she is now “saggier and baggier”, she stresses how important it is to love your body at any age. “I love my body as it is. If you live all your life not liking what you live in, it’s a tragic situation. Every human being needs to find some place where they can say, ‘I love this body’, whether it’s roly poly or skinny minny, or whatever the fuck you are, it’s your only chance – the only thing you’ve got that’s yours.
“I could pick my body to pieces but I always say I love me and I don’t think I’m being narcissistic when I say I’m a fabulous-looking woman; it’s not about that. It’s about that little girl who has had a broken heart, that little girl who was raped. I love all those girls and if I don’t reinforce that person who is inside me, I’d be very, very sad,” she says.
And Liz is far from sad. She radiates a positive and caring energy, which she says comes naturally to her although “getting Buddhism at the same time as I started stripping” may have helped. In addition to influencing and encouraging generations of performers, she gives back to local communities by providing free haircuts to Aboriginal people, the homeless and those living with HIV, as well as spending two weeks out of every month taking care of her elderly parents at a nursing home in Coffs Harbour.
Recognition in Las Vegas
Imogen Kelly is a seasoned burlesque performer who’s performed across Australia and internationally. Liz Burton is one of the first people she met when she started out performing in the ’80s and she’s determined to raise funds to send to the US to have Liz recognised in the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
“I’ve always believed Elizabeth Burton is one of the best striptease artists in the world – even still she is unsurpassable,” Imogen tells The Scavenger. “To me she is iconic as an Australian live performer, a ground-breaker and although she is always a lady, Liz is confrontational and controversial. She is a very important figure in Australian performance history.”
Liz responds to such admiration with her typical sense of humour. “People are only interested me because I’m the only old stripper who still says she’s a stripper – all the others say, ‘Don’t bring me undone, Burton!’ she laughs, before revealing why, despite now having arthritis, she still loves to engage in her art.
“I love being on stage,” she says. “It’s not a sexual experience, it’s just something comes over me and I feel like I’m at home.”
Why we love Elizabeth Burton
Some of the stars of Australia’s queer burlesque scene reveal the impact Liz Burton has had on them:
Liz Burton is one of the most honest and open-hearted performers I have ever seen.
When she moves I am captivated by her beauty and grace and we can all learn a lot about performance and how to engage your audience from her. She is the true embodiment of the goddess and what striptease is. She is beautiful but with an edge and rawness that is the feminine spirit.
I can’t remember the first time I met Liz but I do remember the first time we had her on the billing at Gurlesque. She absolutely brought the house down, and she got a standing ovation that went on for an eternity. It was really emotional for all of us because we at Gurlesque were breaking down all the preconceptions around our bodies, gender, sexuality and art forms and Liz was our fairy godmother who showed us all we still have sexuality, power and beauty after our supposed used-by date that is put on us by society.
- Glitta Supernova, co-founder of Gurlesque and producer of Pretty Peepers Cabaret.
Elizabeth Burton is a slayer of audiences. She doesn’t do it using shock and awe, she does it with elegance and sublime control. We can’t do what she does; we may never be able to do what she does. All we can do is stand and applaud and cheer and thank her for every gift she has given and every lesson she has taught.
- Holly Bennett and Simone Craswell (Fancy Piece)
I first encountered Liz on stage at Gurlesque around 2003 when she performed her famous ‘Reverse Strip’, where she enters the stage, elegantly nude, then proceeds to get dressed, tantalisingly and gracefully. It's extraordinary to see someone raise the anticipation with the putting on of layers, rather than peeling them off! Her stage presence is generous, inviting and brazen. She moves fluidly and sensuously, with her long natural hair swinging around her waist.
I was intimidated to meet her at this time, as she had left such an impression on me! But she exudes the same warmth backstage as on stage. She is quick to include green performers in her heartfelt encouragement. There is no hesitation in her openness. She speaks to inexperienced and old-hat performers the same way, calling us ‘Goddesses’ and making us all feel welcome.
She is an inspiration to me: her performances show the beautiful and disarming power of the body and a living link to Sydney's performance history.
- Lillian Starr
I can’t remember when I first met Liz, as I feel like I've always known her. Liz worked with Gurlesque since its birth in 2000 – we always had her on our roster. I remember being backstage with Liz at the Imperial Hotel. The dressing room was always where most of the fun of the night happened for me, back in the earlier days, and when Liz would walk into the room, all elegant and smiling, that old-glamour-world smile of hers – genuine, classy, and full of charm – the entire room would light up, and I’d never seen a whole room of budding starlets come to attention so fast, to forget their own reflections and acknowledge that a true lady of strip had entered the space.
Liz was not only famous for that smile of hers, but also for her popping vagina. She would saunter across the stage like she was dancing on air, dropping layers of clothing. She would always have a sheer piece of shimmering fabric that would be her last reveal, which she would slink down her back while bending over, and then by surprise she would part her thighs and begin to pop her vagina to the beat of the music playing. I’ll never forget the first time the audience at Gurlesque witnessed this and the reaction of a collective gasp.
I think it’s a shame that in this neo burlesque movement that is focused primarily on taut, tight and 20- somethings, that Liz is seen as a legend of her time and not as an equal of a movement that is happening now. The lady ain’t dead yet! Long live Elizabeth Burton.
- Sex Intents, co founder/performer and host of Gurlesque and producer of Pirate Jenny’s Strip Club.
Images: Courtesy of Imogen Kelly, and the Piccolo Bar.