Is there a doctor in the house? There is when Lola The Vamp performs.
The only Australian Tease-o-rama headliner and the first Australian to perform at Miss Exotic World (now known as the Burlesque Hall of Fame) began her career in 2002. Read on to see how and why she took her love of burlesque into the peaks of academia.
It was in the late American summer of 2002 that I travelled to San Francisco to attend the second Tease-o-rama burlesque festival. Aside from the then Miss Exotic World Pageant (when that was still on the ranch), there were no other burlesque festivals. I entered that intoxicating den of workshops, presentations and powerhouse performances with some ambivalence. I was there because I had commenced my PhD in, well some obscure performance art thingy. I was planning to use maybe an element of burlesque here and there in my arty vaugeness. But first I had to find out what it was.
The decision to travel from Australia had occurred in a split second – as part of the festival, Dita Von Teese was auditioning for the reprisal of the famous Evangeline The Oyster Girl act, a genuine 1940s Bourbon Street New Orleans show. The audition panel comprised of Dita, Catherine D’Lish and the original Oyster Girl herself, Kitty West. I could not think of a better apprenticeship, so off I flew.
By the time I returned several weeks later, my PhD was in my practice of burlesque. What on earth persuaded me to do a PhD where I submitted the very act of my own striptease for assessment? I was young, with that fervour of innocent stupidity. At that time, no one else was putting their own burlesque shows in their submissions. I believe I am the first to submit such a curiosity.
There had been at least one burlesque PhD before I commenced – in the history of the Baggy Pants comics. I soon met a girl who submitted hers through UCLA in 2004 on the subculture of burlesque. The number of those seeking burlesque-related doctorates has steadily grown and now includes Dr Lucky at NYU, Allie Carr, and British Heart who is also pursuing boylesque. Not only was a creative-product PhD a relatively new thing, but to do it in burlesque? Needless to say, I invoked more than my share of furrowed eyebrows.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that my PhD crystallised into a project about my burlesque. It was certainly during the festival. It might have been when Evangeline The Oyster Girl gave me the stage direction of “You know when you’ve just had an orgasm?” Perhaps it was when Dita asked me, “Are you naughty?” leaving it to hang in the air a moment, before qualifying it with, “I think that’s what Kitty is looking for, someone who can be naughty”.
Lola The Vamp in action performing in burlesque show Milonga Del Angel. The video was part of her PhD submission.
It might have been a profound feeling of fearlessness and purpose I found in the audition, it might have been the approval and welcome I received from the burlesque community. I do know that by the time the audition was over, I’d been highly praised by the top performers in the world. I’d met and had praise from living legends and become au fait with the manner in which the American performers described their founding mothers as legends and stars. Maybe it was the small man with the small voice, standing beside a sign bearing the words “Tease-o-rama”, who implored to us as we left a pastie-making workshop, “You can tease me if you want to.” But then, no-one wanted to.
Pursuing this rather odd ambition allowed me – in a roundabout way – to be a fulltime performer very early in my career. I was able to perform as much as possible and it all counted towards my research. I could legitimately spend hours reading on burlesque and talking to anyone and everyone about it. From the very start, burlesque was not just my research interest, not my hobby, but my job as well.
Fortunate as I was to begin during the start of the burlesque revival in Australia, and to a certain extent, internationally, my PhD bought me the time to focus on it entirely. That said, I don’t recommend everyone go about getting PhDs in burlesque, or anything else really. It is beyond demanding, frustrating, but thrilling at times. I was often keenly aware of the tension between the PhD allowing me to be a professional performer and the time it was taking away from me being so.
What I do think is important is that we each find our own way of disseminating our strange, beautiful selves into environments that we do not usually dwell in. Whether that is into the mainstream media, into academia, or into a town that has never seen burlesque revival, our inroads do more than just advertise our glamorous personas. They change the way people think. Classic burlesque shocked me, enchanted me, delighted me and forever made my attitude to femininity more open-minded.
From here, I am looking to publish my PhD. I expect I’ll have my share of criticism, even outrage. I hope there will also be celebration and understanding too. From there, I want to undertake post-doctoral research into the forgotten showgirls of the past – especially the ones who performed in obscure countries like my own – Australia. I want to continue my lifestyle as a performer and writer, I’m waiting for my next big thing. But first, I need time to reflect. And a drink.
The further adventures of Lola The Vamp can be followed here.