Now in its third edition, Burlesque Idol has attracted participants from New York, Amsterdam and all over the UK. Producer and resident judge Tempest Rose reveals the work that goes on behind the scenes of the famous talent contest.

Burlesque Idol is one of my favourite shows: it’s completely different every time, and gives you a chance to see the up-and-coming talent of the scene and hang out with those who have helped shape and run it. For contestants, the work begins in the afternoon before the show. For us, it begins earlier.

We screen all the participants before they are invited to perform. With burlesque being so popular, we get applications from people who just want to have a go and haven’t actually put the work into creating a routine properly. I’d never want a lady to feel humiliated onstage as she realises 180 people are watching her, and perhaps it wasn’t as easy as she’d thought it was going to be. So we ask for video footage of all acts upon application, unless they have a reasonable amount of performance experience, in which case live photos with full descriptions will do. What I look for is a full act, with attention paid to costuming, concept, narrative and structure.


Worth a shot: Burlesque Idol host Barnaby Slater cuddles up with September winner Violet Blaze

Once screened, invited contestants arrive at Madame Jojo’s at 5 PM to start getting ready. Some arrive pretty much made up. Others come to prepare in the dressing room. It’s not unusual for me to arrive and find a performer who has been there for about an hour already, looking slightly terrified.

By 5:30, House of Burlesque stage kitten Amazing Gracie is confirming stage set-ups and tech details with the artists, whilst I bring order to the front of house. We have adopted quite strict rules about messy routines, after learning a lesson a couple of years ago with an act that ended up with cake absolutely everywhere: floor, lights and curtains. I think Gracie has only just recovered from the cleanup. Wanting to create a lot of mess onstage is definitely a love of newer burlesquers. We try to keep a lid on it as much as possible without stunting someone’s creativity, otherwise the show would go on forever.


All three judges of every Burlesque Idol round perform at the end of the show, including House of Burlesque director Tempest Rose

At 6:30, the doors open and I talk the contestants through the format of the evening. We want them to have a good experience, so I always let them watch the sections of the bill they are not in. If they are not interested in the judges’ feedback, that is totally fine, too. We don’t make people stand onstage for it. It’s up to them whether they want to listen to it from the wings or not.

The show begins at 7:30. Each participant performs one routine to a crowd that’s been whipped into a frenzy by our host, comedian Barnaby Slater. After each act, Barnaby asks for feedback from me, Volupté entertainment manager Delores Deluxe and our guest judge. We have had some awesome guest judges, from Des O’Connor and Polly Rae to Sarina del Fuego and Lady Alex from Wam Bam Club. Feedback will always try to be positive and helpful.

One issue that comes up time and time again, which Barnaby finds hilarious, is shoes. It’s a bugbear of mine. A bad pair of shoes, or no shoes at all, can ruin a good act. A good rule is that if you can’t walk in a pair then you certainly won’t be able to dance in them. If you can’t walk in heels at all, then learn: start low and work up. Another regular feedback note is “bigger…more!” If you are going to be happy, be ecstatic on stage. If you are playing shy, really go for it. If you’re playing sexy and passionate, then pull out all the stops.

The contestants present their entries in two segments, followed by a third in which all the judges perform while the votes are counted. Performing at Burlesque Idol is definitely one of the most nerve-racking experiences, every single month. If you are going to sit in judgement of newer acts, then you need to bring it onto the stage and prove to the public that you know what you are talking about.


Guest judges at monthly contest show Burlesque Idol include clown burlesquer Audacity Chutzpah

After the judges, Barnaby announces the result. The winner is decided by audience vote, and we guard the vote cards zealously, after a couple of times when overexcited friends tried to cast multiple votes for the artist they were supporting. Fillie J’Adore and Gracie are very good at clocking anything suspicious, and they don’t stand for any nonsense.

Seeing the winner announcement is always exciting. For some artists it’s very emotional, especially if doing burlesque has a strong personal history for them. Then the show is over, the dancing begins and we get another month closer to the grand final.

The 2012 season of Burlesque Idol has two more dates: October 26th and the year’s grand final on November 30th, in which the ten winners from the previous rounds will compete for the title of Burlesque Idol. See for tickets, contestant names and other details.


Photo credits: Gui O’Connor, exclusively for This Is Cabaret