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.
“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.”
To 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.
“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.
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.”