on choosing when to work for free

“I’m pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing. Yeah, I’m going straight to the poor house.”

I used that line every time I was on a first date, because apparently, having an MFA degree, no wait, two MFA degrees in creative writing doesn’t mean I’m creative. The men I went out with would generally respond by saying, “Oh, that’s not true,” or, “At least you’re following your dreams.”

Yes. I always dream to be poor.

Back when I was in school, though, my cohorts and I would commiserate on the writers job market. Right now, I’m used to hearing things like journalism is dead (thanks, Huffington Post), the job market sucks (it always has and always will be), and a degree in fine arts is a total waste of time (it definitely is not).

Yet here I am, scouring website after website for job ads that are related to my official training (writing) and unofficial training (photography). 90% of the ads are always non-paying internships, non-paying writing gigs, or non-paying photography gigs, all promising exposure and a possible career in the company. Six percent of the ads offer minimum wage ($9 for California). Two percent of the ads are spam. One percent of the ads offer almost reasonable compensation. Only one percent of the ads are legitimate and obviously I never hear from them after applying.

Free work! Free work for everybody (in the arts industry)!

I saw an ad on Craigslist for a photographer for a party hosted by an organization. The poster wanted experienced/student photographer, and promised a chance to network. The ad included the organization’s website, and I learned that the organization was founded by big names in the medical/pharmaceutical industries.

They earn millions and millions of dollars and they don’t want to spare some to pay the photographers? Even student photographers?

That’s how terrible it is for those in the arts industry. And I understand if the reason is because art is subjective. There are some movie directors whose work I don’t get (Apatow, Anderson, and Tarantino). There are some writers whose work I don’t get (D’Agata and David Foster Wallace… and Stephenie Meyer). There are some musicians whose work I don’t get (Marley, Dylan, Gaga). And don’t start with painters and sculpturers and poets. Poets are the worst. I’m sorry. I have many poet friends, but seriously, poets are the worst.

“Jelly Beans” by Cosimo Cavallaro. Photo by LA Weekly. I totally don’t understand why this is art.

What I don’t understand is when people think that writing (or photography or painting or singing or sculpting) is easy and therefore justifies the nonexistent or meager stipend. This is where the arts become nothing more than just a hobby industry. It’s never going to be taken seriously. It’s always going to be something on the side. No one’s life (except for the artist’s) depends on art.

I mean, have you ever heard a medical doctor or a nurse or a pilot being offered a job but there’s no payment but a guarantee of exposure, networking opportunities, and potential employment?

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

The thing that most people don’t get time and again is that art is not cheap. First of all, there are the basic needs that have to be met: food, shelter, clothes, and in some cases, student loans. A lot of new people in the profession struggle to stay alive and offer something extra in the competition, even if it means undercutting the standard price.

Then there are the tools and equipment. For a writer or a journalist, this means the Internet, a laptop, electricity, books and other research sources. For a make-up artist, this means hundreds of dollars worth of face paint and high-quality brushes. For a photographer, this means expensive DSLR camera(s), expensive lenses, lighting equipment, and a computer with photo processing software. Adobe no longer sells its programs. Everything is now subscription-based with $10 a month for Photoshop and LightRoom in the Photography bundle and $20 a month for individual software such as Illustrator. I can’t even afford to Photoshop the hideous bruises on my arm.

Good writers, good photographers, good art workers of any kind invest in training. They may be talented, but they also need some sort of schooling to sharpen their skills. This training may come in workshops or certification programs or community college or two-year programs or books, but it won’t be free.

You may have read, heard, or even written this kind of complaint before, but here’s another side of the story.

Like millions of other people, especially in Los Angeles, I’m a budding photographer. I have a Nikon DSLR, lenses that are made for low-light conditions because I’m focusing more on performance and social events photography, and photography equipment. I started photographing inanimate objects like my doll and flowers. Then I moved on to animals. Then I started taking pictures of performances and people on the streets. Then I began experimenting with artificial lighting and I had no one to photograph except myself. And that was time consuming, what with setting up the lights, putting on make-up, framing, setting up the timer, posing, then running back to the camera to check if everything was in order, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I realized that I needed a model so I could focus on just being a photographer. So I asked around. I asked my classmates, I asked my dance friends, and some of them were gracious enough to lend their beauty in exchange for the photos that they can use however, whenever, and whichever way the want.

The gorgeous Christine Honer of Whittier Tribal Belly Dance. Click on the photo to see more portraits I’ve done.

Some of my friends declined for whatever reason, which was also not a big deal.

Meanwhile, I’m also teaching English writing skills to immigrants. This is a weekly volunteer job at the Adult Literacy Center at LA Central Library. I don’t get paid for it, but it feels great to share whatever knowledge I have about writing (and English) to these people and of course to hear their stories and give them a chance to write (and speak).

So, here’s the thing: if you want to do free work, it’s totally up to you, but (as a photographer or writer) you have to remember these things:

  1. Undercutting (be it offering free work or for a significantly lower amount of money than competitors) hurts the industry. That’s right. If you want to make money, you have to remember that art is an industry.
  2. Find free work that gives you something else besides money. Volunteer for a local charity group or for a local animal shelter. Take photos of people whom you trust and love. But don’t bully them into giving you work. If they decline, move on.
  3. Know who’s giving the work. Is it a reputable company or organization? Find out why they’re not paying. If you’re sure that “working” there may increase your chance of having a career, go for it. But remember that, again, you’re also hurting the industry. I once did a free work as a copy editor for a start-up online publication that folded after three months. I didn’t get new connections, and the website went offline and took my writing portfolio with it.
  4. Decline if you think it’s not worth it. Maybe the gig is way out there and gas and travel expenses are just not worth it. Maybe the hours are inhumane. Maybe you have something better to do that day. Like sleeping.

I know. You have to start somewhere. We have to start somewhere. That doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat to a company or organization or a person who obviously has the means to pay you but is too cheap to do that, right?

Choose your battles wisely, and remember, we’re in this together.

lambda literary reading

It was an absolute honor to be selected as one of the Fellowship recipients at this year’s Lambda Literary Foundations Writers Retreat. Here’s a piece about why we need gay clubs in Indonesia. 

 

boylesque

The stage is drenched in red light. An aerial hoop hangs in the middle of the stage. Bobbie Burlesque has his back to the audience. He’s a steampunk devil, complete with black feathered collar. The snake-tongue end of his black sleeveless tuxedo coat swishes as he swings his hips. Jim Bianco croons in the background, singing about dirty mouths, dirty minds, dirty martini, and sucking on a boy’s thumb. 

Bobbie commands the stage. He knows when to look at the audience through those dark, kohl-lined eyes and when to break eye contact. The tuxedo tails are the first to go. He snatches them and throws one to the left, one to the right. The vest is next. He pops it open and reveals a white shirt and a huge red rose attached to the black suspender. It doesn’t take long before the suspender comes undone. Bobbie runs his palms on his torso. He untucks the white shirt and proceeds to peel off his black elbow-length gloves. He takes off the black feathered collar, fans himself with it, and tosses it away before walking to the aerial hoop. With one graceful leap, he hooks his leg and begins to swing upside down from the hoop. His back is to the audience. He unzips the white sleeveless shirt and off it goes. He has one more piece of clothing left, but Bobbie takes his time. And when the moment finally comes, he hooks the cuffs of his striped pants to the top of the aerial hoop and slides down like a serpent sheds his skin. Bobbie poses defiantly. Arms up, legs apart. He grins at his audience. His bedazzled jockstrap sparkles as it catches the light. 

bobbieburlesqueedbarnas

Photo by Ed Barnas.

“It is stripping,” Bobbie says. “Burlesque tends to be a bit more dramatic and theatrical with more of a story and character development, but i am still taking off my clothes. I am still stripping. I don’t have any negative feelings with the word or title of stripper. And those who do, need to look up the definition of the word again, and come to terms with their inner demons.”

Bobbie hasn’t only come to terms with his inner demons, he’s made friends with them and adopt their various monikers that range from artist, dancer, performer, entertainer, to stripper, sex worker, peeler, burlesquer, and boylesquer. “All titles are beautiful to me,” he says. 

The last term, boylesque, is a play on the word burlesque. It was coined in the ’90s by a New York male burlesque performer Tigger! as a way to promote his work, but it caught on. Some male burlesque performers dislike the word, saying that it separates the art form from burlesque, as if burlesque belonged to women only. However, it is, by and large, a woman’s world. Men have been involved in burlesque, but always as a producer, musician, or host. 

When Bobbie started performing burlesque in 2006, six years after he’d been producing burlesque shows as well as managing his burlesque troupe, he was the first solo boylesque dancer in Los Angeles. That year, the Burlesque Hall of Fame began allowing men to perform and compete in their annual show. 

Bobbie admits to not knowing the exact ratio of female to male burlesque performers, but says there are a few of the mainstream boylesque dancers currently based in Los Angeles. There’s Tito Bonito (originally from Chicago), Vyper Synville (who’s also a belly dancer), and Mr. Snapper (who’s married to the burlesque star Red Snapper). “There are other boylesquers as well, but these performers have actually branched out of performing in only local shows and have been seen in major events, festivals, and shows across the world.”

BobbieBurlesqueTo some, being a man in female-dominated profession is enough to get attention, but when that novelty ends, it’s going to be difficult to have a sustained career. This is exactly why before he decided to become a professional burlesque performer, he did extensive research that went into all of his performance pieces.

“I truly believe these key factors and guidelines I have developed [through research] and follow, have made me successful in the industry and have allowed me to last as long as I have,” Bobbie says. He admits to have seen male performers come and gone. “They haven’t analyzed the scene and their performance pieces. They just perform what they want to and don’t take into consideration the audience they’re performing for. Yes, perform from your heart and do what you want, but if the audience is unhappy, they won’t come back to see you.” 

It’s this dedication and meticulousness that have won him awards, such as Mr. Hollywood Burlesque at the inaugural Hollywood Burlesque Festival and Best Novelty Act at the Texas Burlesque Festival in Austin. His first performance with his aerial hoop (his favorite prop – he always gives him a kiss before their performance) won the Best Novelty/Best Use of a Prop category at the 2013 Texas Burlesque Festival.

“Each piece I create, I will continue to perform it throughout my career. I don’t believe in creating a new act for every show. My performance pieces mean something to me and I spend a lot of time, money, and effort into each one,” Bobbie says. 

Burlesque isn’t cheap. There are the tangible items like make-up and costumes (Bobbie only uses Swarovski crystals) and one-of-a-kind props. Then there are various expenses like choreographers, musicians, make-up artists, costumers, and classes. “I think classes and workshops are good to expand your knowledge about the industry and to get different perspectives on the art and learn more ideas, but I believe being a performer is something that goes beyond taking a class. I believe it is something you are born with and a passion you possess all on your own.”

He feels that performers who create acts quickly with little to no rehearsal time, no original or innovative ideas, cheap-looking costumes will produce an act that isn’t polished, and that cheapens the art of burlesque. 

Bobbie usually spends up to a year working on an act before debuting it and continues to grow and improve it. His inspiration comes from many aspects in his life: music, art, film, television, theater, mass media, friends, other performers, and even from his dreams. The bottom line of burlesque is stripping down to whatever’s legal in the place, but Bobbie likes to create different personas in each performance. 

ditaopiumden“I love Dita Von Teese,” Bobbie says. “I’m a lover of classic burlesque, and she definitely embodies the classic style I love as well as being beautiful and glamorous on stage! To me, burlesque is about all the things she does so wonderfully: entertainment, sex appeal, costume, make-up, music, and glamour!” 

Dita’s Opium Den performance caused a stir. Other burlesque dancers called her racially insensitive and appropriating a culture, but Bobbie sees this as the beauty of burlesque and stage performance. When it comes to the beauty of different cultures, religions, and backgrounds, with all the various costumes, make-up, and music, he advises to take something and make it larger than life. “As long as your presentation is done to appreciate and honor the culture you are representing in a respectful and beautiful way,” he adds. 

One of the main differences between burlesque and gogo-style stripping is the idea of beauty. To many performers, the all-inclusive nature of burlesque gives them confidence, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to not take care of one’s appearance. 

“I used to be a lot heavier and have more curves with a softer, pudgier stomach when I first started stripping,” Bobbie says, but he’s slimmed down a bit, not only because he joined the circus and became an aerialist, but also because he wanted to have a sexier, more defined body for stage performance. “I was happy and welcomed in the industry with my old body, but I have noticed my audience demographic open up to more people with my change in body type.” Although he believes that a true performer can captivate and seduce an audience with their confidence and stage presence alone, regardless of their body type.

tease_BobbieBurlesque2

Performing burlesque isn’t Bobbie’s main source of income. Thankfully, he loves every minute of it, from the first budding spark of inspiration for a new act, to the post-performance shower to wash off the glitter. To him, designing and bringing an idea to life is a remarkable feeling. 

Each performer has his own guidelines and rules, but Bobbie cheekily declines to answer. “Lots of performers have approached me and asked me about this, but like a prostitute, a magician never reveals his tricks.” He does reveal some of his pet peeves, though.

“I will never have tags sticking out of my costumes, and I will never beg the audience to cheer for me by beckoning them with my fingers. If you have a store-bought costume piece, remove the tags. I don’t need to see the washing instructions. And if you have to ask the audience for a verbal response, you aren’t doing your job.”

For more information on future performances, go to BobbieBurlesque.com, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

new business ventures (jewelry & belly dance classes)

It never occurred to me that I’d be making jewelry AND selling it. I always make my own necklaces and wear them myself, but I think it’s time for me to start selling them. 

So it’s with great honor that I give you Sarasvati Jewelry & Adornments.

sarasvati

I’m also teaching American Tribal Style® belly dance level 1 classes on Saturdays at 2-3 pm (starting August 16) and Thursdays at 6-7 pm (starting August 21) at Live Arts Los Angeles

Please refer to this flier for more information, or click here to download the PDF flier.LALAYuskaATSFlier-01

 

theandrogynous.net

I am so excited to be joining a team of wonderful people over at TheAndrogynous.net. Not only did the website’s name capture my attention, but I was also thrilled to put my degree to use.

I’m now the resident Assistant Copy Editor of the website, and my first (approved) post is about Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. So head over there and tell me what you think.

Here’s a sizzling picture of Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites) to motivate you:

gay men and body image

Matthew Dempsey, you talking about gay body image is just like people with no cancer telling people with cancer to deal with it and you know damn well why: because you’re not mainstream ugly and you can pretty much have and do anyone you want.

Let’s start with the list:

Thick hair: Check.
Good teeth: Check.
Good skin: Check.
Good body: Check. (Everyone can tell that you have sculpted arms under that shirt).

And believe me, when your mouth is open like that and you still look good, you don’t have the fucking right to say anything about body image.

Don’t you get it? You’re like the 1%.

I don’t know how ugly you think you are. Or how much of a struggle you have to go through every fucking day, every fucking time you take a look at your own reflection in the fucking mirror. Or how much you hate yourself for looking like you are, how much you want to kill yourself for looking like you are, how terrified you are of outside the world, how much you think everyone who looks at you funny judges you and laughs at you.

You don’t have the fucking right.

You are not one of us. You are not one of the ugly people. And now I know why people who never have to deal with cancer can’t say, “It’s going to be all right,” to people who have cancer.

Do you want to know what ugly is?

Ugly is that person with genetically bad, genetically yellow teeth, a huge scar along the leg, pockmarked skin, large pores, weird hairline, sucky nail bed, paunchy belly, bat ears, flat butt, eczema spots, and a small dick.

Ugly is that person who turns the lights off not only when he’s having sex with someone else, which is quite rare and often doesn’t end well, but also when he’s jerking off. Alone.

Ugly is that person who depends so much on the darkness and the sparse and playful lights of gay clubs that he curses when it’s last call and the lights go on. And of course, he’s still alone.

Ugly is that person who makes Jonah Hill look like James Dean.

So don’t tell me to suck it up. Don’t tell me to accept the fact that I’m ugly, because hearing that from guys like you make it even worse. I mean, come on. I’ll bet that you don’t ever want to fuck me, not even with a sack of cloth over my head.

Oh, that’s right. I’m not ugly. I’m just not your type. Or maybe we’re both bottoms. Regardless, my niche market is still smaller than my Asian dick.

Look. I don’t know why you’re doing this. Maybe it’s for the money. Maybe it’s good for business. For exposure. Or you’re fulfilling your HuffPo video quota. Whatever the reason is, find something else to talk about. I mean, if Gwyneth Paltrow can do it, so can you, because right now, you’re the bully who tells the smaller kids that they shouldn’t be afraid.

You’re the mean girl, Matthew, and I’m taking my business to Lizzie Velásquez, someone I can actually relate to.

mean-girls-movie-quotes-19

 

a little hello

I dreamed about you.

I don’t quite remember what it was. I just remembered you, in bed, in your grey brown shorts, in your olive green shirt, you wore a hat, a cap, the cap I knew so well.

You looked at me and your smile just said everything you’d wanted to say, everything you’d been trying to say, all those years, all those years.

I dreamed about you.

Months after months after months without even a little hello, a little acknowledgement of existence, but I know you’re still there, still alive, still surviving.

I don’t blame you. How can I. I was the one who left. I was the villain. The poison. The bitch. I took everything away from you. Everything everything everything.

Delete me. Eliminate me. Annihilate me. I don’t blame you. I won’t blame you.

You’re a better person than I am.

You’ll always be a better person than I will ever be.

The sun kissed my skin when I woke up and for a moment I wondered why I was so happy.

Canggu Beach, Bali