"Burlesque is my way of reclaiming my own sexuality and celebrating it on my terms."
Perle Noire, "The Mahogany Queen of Burlesque," performs headline shows and teaches classes around the world. She grew up poor and never received formal dance or theater training, but she was drawn to ballet and ballroom programs on TV at a young age.
Two months after her graduation ceremony at her Dallas high school, Noire hopped on a Greyhound bus to Las Vegas with $200 in her pocket. She wanted to become a showgirl, but as a 5-foot-2-inch "very-dark-skinned" black woman, she couldn't secure an agent and found it difficult to book jobs.
In 1999, after months of scouring bulletin boards and classified ads for gigs, Noire booked a job as a backup singer and dancer at a show at the Excalibur and began to settle into life in Vegas. But the city's economy collapsed three years later, after the tragedy of Sept. 11 brought tourism to a halt. Noire researched her options and found herself drawn to the energy, artistry, and rich performing history of New Orleans, where she then relocated. In New Orleans, her career and performance style were born, thanks to the help of her two mentors, burlesque legends Wild Cherry and Rita Alexander, whom she met when she joined the show "Bustout Burlesque." "To have mentors who were popular — or even alive — during the heyday of the '50s is like being a basketball player and going to Michael Jordan's house to learn from him," Noire says. They helped her become Perle Noire, a name inspired by burlesque star Josephine Baker, who was called "The Black Pearl." Here, she explains how much time, work, and emotional energy goes into being a burlesque dancer.
Burlesque, to me, is the epitome of artistry. There's comedy, there's people dancing, there's opulence. Growing up, I loved ballet, I loved ballroom, I loved opera — and burlesque was all of that in one. I was enthralled by Josephine Baker [who in 1934 became the first black woman to star in a major movie]. I know most people think of burlesque as a woman stripping, but it comes from vaudeville — a series of different types of performers putting on shows and telling jokes and singing songs. The burlesque performance is a spectacle: We dance to live music, we joke, we flirt, we tease, we delight.
I do a lot of cartwheels and back walkovers, and it's a very fast, intense, high-energy act. At my first "Bustout Burlesque" show, I received a standing ovation. It turned out to be the first of many. It was such a cathartic, therapeutic moment. To be the only black woman in the show — in the room — it was so healing for me that I knew it could heal other people.
The seeds of an act start with the inspiration. Maybe it's a beautiful photo online, a piece of vintage art, a movie, or another dancer. Then I need to find the absolute perfect music, which could take months. Next comes the idea for the costume — and I can't sketch, so I print out photos and make a vision board and take it to costume designers. We go back and forth until it's perfect for my vision. The cheapest one I have cost $3,000, and the most expensive was more than $7,000. You have to invest in yourself to get the big gigs.
Then you have to research and test different choreography. It sounds corny, but the music really speaks to me; it tells my body what to do. Every step has to answer the question: What story am I telling the audience with every movement? It's fun and exciting, but it's intense and takes a long time to perfect. So before you see me perform on stage, I've been practicing that act for two to three years. I currently have five signature acts that I rotate internationally.
Most performers have created a stage persona that is the complete opposite of the person family and friends interact with. But I'm an oddity, because I don't have an alter ego. I'm the same person on and off stage. I wear gowns in my daily life. This is the woman people connect with whether I'm performing in a theater or speaking with them at a restaurant.
The performance schedule varies from contract to contract, but on an average day, I'm awake from noon to about 7 a.m. because I usually perform every night. I make ginger or green tea as soon as I wake up, stretch for a few hours — that's a huge part of my prep — and research an act I'm working on or respond to emails about bookings. Then it's time to start getting ready for the show. That takes three to six hours: about 2.5 hours or more for intricate makeup, plus about 45 minutes if I do a wig or up to two hours if I do my own hair. Then four hours at the theater going through the routine on stage and preparing mentally for a show that starts at 9 or 10 p.m.
A routine might be 10 minutes — you're one of possibly a dozen performers including musicians and dancers — but it's exhausting. I'm giving my energy in an extremely intimate sense; I could just collapse afterward. But it's important to me to connect with people off stage too. I have to pick myself up, take a minute or two to get my makeup freshened up, maybe take a quick sip of water, and head into the crowd.
I think Perle Noire would die if she didn't make that connection with the audience after performing. People want to tell me how I've healed them. I've had more than one person tell me I stopped them from committing suicide. One woman told me she had suffered several miscarriages and had lost the will to live — then one day she was on YouTube and she stumbled across one of my videos. She watched me and fell in love with the joy and the passion. So when I went to her city, she said, "I want you to know you saved my life."
Not every audience member is so kind. To some people, all burlesque is is a woman taking off her clothes. They say, "Oh, I could do that." Would you tell a surgeon you could take the scalpel and just start operating on someone? Other people will say loudly over the music, "She has cellulite — she's ugly." We can hear you! It's such a lack of respect.
Other people quite literally see you as a whore. Last month, a woman just grabbed my breast with her hand and wouldn't let go. Security had to come remove her. Then you get the men who ask, "How much for the night?" People like that believe that because you showed a part of your body, you were asking for any type of attention. We have to prove that we're not for sale, that you don't own our bodies.
Some burlesque dancers don't mind being called a stripper, but I personally do think there's a difference between what I do and what is done in a strip club. I think of burlesque as healing work, more coquettish. I think a strip club routine is more overt. I don't think one is better than the other, but they are different. If you're interested in receiving a sensual lap dance, you should have a night out at a strip club. If you're in the mood to pay for a sexual fantasy, you should visit a brothel. Burlesque is indeed an art form of striptease; however, burlesque is deeply rooted in the theater, which makes it a different experience. Yes, the dancers are taking off their clothes, so it is a form of stripping. But these people are artists and they should have your respect. They're doing it for you: for you to escape, for you to forget about your troubles and woes.
Society has always had a negative attitude about women who are free, whether they're free with their bodies or free with their minds. Strong, outspoken, unapologetic women are not celebrated. And burlesque is the epitome of a bold and uninhibited woman. I've had to overcome sexual trauma, and burlesque is my way of reclaiming my own sexuality and celebrating it on my terms. Someone is looking at my body because I chose for it to happen, not the other way around.
Perle Noire is all me: You have to be a promoter, a marketing executive, a bookkeeper, a CEO. I work hard to connect off stage — I teach dance classes called Perlesque, and I'm working on a "Perles of wisdom" affirmation book — so I'm focused on several outlets beyond the onstage performance.
My finances vary from year to year, as they probably do for any self-employed artist. My income depends on contracts, dance workshops, photo shoots, and other gigs. I spend between $5,000 to $8,000 a year on costumes, promotion, hair. It took about five years to support my family comfortably. I'm truly proud of that.
Once when I headlined in the U.S. — which I don't really do anymore — I was fronting a show that received a standing ovation every night. But when it came to promoting it, they used on the poster a white woman who had been in the show before me. I wasn't shocked. I don't even blame the producers. I live in America and we're all taught here that beautiful means a thin white woman. I'm more desirable overseas because their patrons are more open to various types of beauty, and I've embraced that.
My mission is to help women in burlesque who don't have traditional bodies or conventional beauty. I want to help heal the audience member who feels like she's alone. Burlesque makes me feel powerful instead of powerless, and I want to make the audience feel that way too. I'm making a choice with my body, embodying strength and happiness with the beauty of my imperfections, and sharing that with the world.
By Heather Wood Rudulph | Cosmopolitan