Star of her own weekly show, Miss Polly Rae has risen through the ranks to become one of the capital’s premiere burlesque performers.
Originally from Preston, Lancashire, Rae fronted her own West End production The Hurly Burly Show before going on to create the Soho Burlesque Show. Recently she has built on the success of that weekly Wednesday show by expanding into darker territory with a new “Late” edition on Saturday nights.
I caught up with Ms Rae at a recent gig in aid of Cutty Sark whisky. Appearing alongside singer Jessie Ware and DJ Duke Dumont, she treated the crowd to a special version of one of her classic strips.
In your opinion, has the perception of burlesque changed in the cabaret and theatre scene since you started out?
I started around eight years ago and yes the perception has changed greatly. Back then it was still very underground and commercially very few knew what burlesque was, it was extremely niche. I guess it still is alternative and niche in many ways, but I’d say that now most people know what burlesque is, even if it’s just the word. The movie Burlesque helped put the name on the map even if it didn’t represent the art form in the strictest sense. I never thought that was a massively bad thing, I thought it allowed a loose introduction for those who were really interested to research the history and discover its roots and traditions.
It’s funny though, some people say that burlesque is “old hat” but others consider it “up and coming”. Some have been seeing it for years and consider the scene to be oversaturated while there are still others being introduced to it for the first time recently like the audience tonight.
Back then it was called a fad; “it won’t last long” people would say. I still have a career in it eight years on, so I guess they were wrong!
Has anything in particular changed more recently?
The biggest evolution that I have seen is that now burlesque is fused much more with cabaret and circus. It is very rare now that you go and see an out-and-out burlesque show, even my show The Soho Burlesque Club is not purely burlesque. Back in the day you’d easily get ten women on the bill taking off their clothes in ten different ways but audiences want more variety now.
How does it feel for you not only to be a successful performer but also a mentor?
I feel so excited about it! It is a privilege to be able to spot, guide, develop and mentor new talents. I have enough experience to know exactly what makes a good burlesque dancer and what makes a bad burlesque dancer. I want to use my knowledge and ability to teach and allow other people to be inspired the way I have been inspired and help other artists to create phenomenal careers out of this wonderful art form.
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing that person on stage killing it in front of an audience. Most recently I have been working with Phil Ingud and Madame de Voila’. Both of them have both been very successful in the West End – I met Madame aka Sophie Zucchini at The Garrick Theatre doing The Hurly Burly Show) but just because you are a great musical theatre dancer that doesn’t mean that you are going to be a great burlesque dancer by default. But in them I saw potential; for me, it is about character, personality, individuality and the ability to connect with an audience.
Just as importantly, not only do they have insane talent but they have the enthusiasm to work their butts off. They have both worked very hard to create their acts. I like to be on hand at the development stage helping to tweak, guide and perfect but they have their own ideas and do most of the work. It would be pointless to have a bunch of Polly Rae clones up there! It has to be about individuals expressing themselves and I think that this is the very important thing about burlesque. It is the element of being genuine on stage: don’t be contrived, don’t try too hard, be natural and be yourself or a character that comes very naturally to you.
Did you always want to a burlesque dancer or did you discover it along the way and find your own voice?
Definitely the latter! When I was a kid I wanted to be a pop star. I wanted to be Madonna (I still do actually). I grew up absolutely adoring her, she has been my biggest inspiration. When I discovered burlesque, I finally found an outlet for that inspiration. Her creativity, her innovation and her ability to entertain, surprise and excite people is what I love the most. I was a beauty therapist and a make-up artist working in Selfridges before going into burlesque. One day I just decided that life is too short and I wanted to try to achieve my dream so I quit my job, started doing promo work, auditions, dance classes and singing classes.
How did you feel at the beginning? It can take a tremendous willpower and strength to change your life.
Scared! You never know what is going to happen. But I guess fear of the unknown is natural and I never let it stop me. I’d always wanted to do something with my life. It wasn’t until I met Jo King on one of her courses that I knew it was going to be burlesque. Her enthusiasm for it blew me away and I knew I had found my calling.
You have been asked to perform alongside the most upcoming creative talents in London, such as Duke Dumont and Jessie Ware, how do you think burlesque fits into this? Is it a big achievement that burlesque has mainstream recognition?
It is phenomenal. As I said earlier, it is wonderful that burlesque is still part of the entertainment scene and it is fantastic that it continues to be acknowledged. We have a huge place in the creative culture of London. Cabaret, variety, circus, burlesque all come under the same umbrella and that kind of alternative entertainment is growing and growing, so Cutty Cargo obviously know what is cool! I am honoured and very flattered that they have asked me personally to be involved in this.
Last word: what would your message be to all the showgirls and boys looking to make their way in burlesque?
There is a lot more competition these days. To be innovative is key and burlesque is getting more creative and more innovative because of that competition, a change which is leading to a greater quality overall which is fantastic. So learn your history, create something unique and in the most recent words of pop princess Britney, “Work Bitch“.
Details of Miss Polly Rae’s shows at Hippodrome Casino can be seen on the venue’s official site.
All images: Juliet Labdien