So, it turns out that my previous article on book covers was the first time many of you had heard that I used to perform burlesque. (And that I used to work in investment banking, but let’s gloss over that for now…!)
As much as the article was a pretty popular one on the curse of gender when it comes to book covers for female writers, it did also lead to a flurry of questions on burlesque such as, did I enjoy it? And – crucially – how come I don’t do it anymore?
The last one is an interesting question. I had largely stopped by the time Banking on Burlesque was published in 2013, which led to similar questions from journalists at the time. I managed to side-step those questions, largely because it didn’t seem a great promo for the book – that it was about burlesque but I had stopped – but also because I thought I wanted to return to the stage.
It turns out I didn’t. I hung up my tassels for good not long after publication. Quietly, without any fanfare. I did draft an article at the time on why I stopped, but on reading it back it seemed confused so I chose not to publish it.
My decision not to talk about it then reflected the shame I felt – shame about my decision, not about the art form – and also because I feared a backlash for speaking out, both from my day job and from other burlesquers. So I stayed quiet.
So, why now? Well, simply because it has been asked of me. Quite a few times. And also because I am working hard (internally) to shrug off the shame that people have been trying to force on me for performing. I no longer want to gloss over it or hide my love for it away.
I started burlesque out of a blissful naivety to do something fun. I saw it as a wonderfully glorious outlet for my sensuality and my creative spirit. And I wanted to dance, I wanted to be a showgirl. It was a life and an experience a million miles away from my job in the Square Mile. And I eventually stopped because simply doing this wonderful hobby not only destroyed my career, my employers were so appalled by this and so vicious in their attack on me that it very nearly destroyed me too.
But additionally, on a personal level, burlesque itself exacerbated my anxiety to crippling levels, and forced me to confront the menace of the male gaze and its intrusion into any space where women try to define and exhibit their bodies and their sensual expression on their own terms.
The anxiety is my own issue, not burlesque’s, and this article will be long enough without my going off on a tangent on anxiety here. Perhaps another time. But though I loved striptease immensely, adored the emotional connection with my body and the expression through movement, the bawdiness of burlesque was tricky for me. I am an introvert, not an extrovert – and that’s a challenging personality trait when you’re about to go on stage in front of 300 people.
For a while I thought I just had the usual stage nerves – this was over ten years ago when I started and though mental illness was becoming more openly discussed (slowly) anxiety wasn’t really part of that discussion. What I had was far worse than nerves; it was crippling. Performing to an empty room was easy; performing in front of an audience became a significant challenge. I had panic attacks, periods of extreme mental self-flagellation, and bursts of uncontrollable fear and tears.
But anyway, though that was hard, that wasn’t the primary reason for me stopping. – I stopped performing because of the distress caused by my employers and the incursion of the male gaze.
So let’s get any preamble out the way: I love burlesque. I am in awe of all who perform and still today attend many shows. I have never and will never buy into the shame that many still try to conspire to force upon this community.
Nor will I buy into the scorn and derision coming from notable feminists towards the women who perform – to these who are appalled at burlesque performers, who consider that in some way they have ‘let the side down’ I say, these are your problems, not ours. A feminism that judges female behaviour as appropriate or otherwise means nothing to me.
And nor do I support the division many seem to try to define between burlesque and stripping. As if burlesque is OK, it’s ‘safe’, and that stripping is, well, sleazy and distasteful. Not in my name. Burlesque is striptease; striptease is burlesque. You got a problem with women wanting to connect with sexuality and sensuality in whatever way they see fit? You ain’t part of my gang.
Instead, what this (quite long) essay is about is the price I paid for performing – and how that became too heavy to bear.
For someone who is smart, I can be really naive at times. I’m far more academic than streetwise. In the book, I talk about how I stumbled into burlesque but it never really clicked that this could be a tricky hobby. I hadn’t been exposed to prejudice like that before, that female behaviour was still something to hold against women, and so I waded into performing at weekends without a second thought.
You should remember this was a time before social media took off – there was no Twitter back then – so it was possible to be closed off from immediate scorn and criticism. The spectre of ‘shame’ was nowhere to be found in my life. I had a couple of friendly warnings from my mother and a colleague at work but they didn’t seem to land, to ‘click’. I didn’t think that my career could be in jeopardy for having a burlesque hobby.
It feels so naive in retrospect but why would any employer care what their employees do in their spare time, provided it’s legal etc., and especially given the industry I worked in where the male bankers were quite happy flaunting appalling behaviour both in and out the office? (And not all of it legal, either.)
But they did care. They took a massive issue with my burlesque hobby, so much so that they threatened to fire me for it.
Again, it’s all in the book – how I was reported by a jealous colleague (female, of course), and the bruising battle I had with the Bank – so I don’t want to replicate it here but suffice to say, when investment banks hit, they hit hard.
Again and again in all the disciplinary meetings (which took the best part of a year) they kept coming back to ‘why aren’t you ashamed?’; weren’t you ashamed?’. They would point to pictures of me in shows they had found online (under a pseudonym) and say, ‘don’t you feel ashamed for dancing like that?’ or ‘for dressing like that?’
Shame, shame, shame… The word I remember most of all. ‘Victoria, you should feel ashamed!’ ‘Smart women don’t do this, Victoria.’ ‘Career women don’t do this, Victoria.’ Implicit of course is their judgment of women generally here – women must be buttons up; men, of course, can be flies undone – but there is also something very specific about condemning female bankers for doing burlesque when I don’t think we really need to go over the behaviour of male bankers again, do we?
Side-stepping that mess, what I want to focus on is the shame. Because eventually if you are pummelled into the ground often enough with a single mantra, you start to fear it. Not believe it – I don’t feel ashamed, even now. Bemused, yes but ashamed of burlesque? No. But what you feel, what you fear, is that the world will continue to make that same judgment on you.
And they still do, to this day. Job interviews I have had since have been anxious and nerve-wracking. And the vetting that takes place after a job offer… Well, you only need stick my name into Google and things start getting tricky. Even now – years after the events in the book – I still hear office whispers and have to sit through difficult meetings with HR.
Banking on Burlesque ends on a high – a cup half-full rather than half-empty – but, in truth, I was in pieces after I left the Bank. I was very bruised and picking up the pieces of my life and my confidence made it hard to return to burlesque with a heart filled with joy.
But as much as I had changed, burlesque was changing too.
When I started, it was still in the margins – a demi-monde thriving in its irreverence and subversive attitude. But in the years I was performing it became more and more mainstream. Shows went from ramshackle clubs to the West End, from rooms above pubs to five-star entertainment.
And with that came a change in the audience too.
Audiences not inclined to the rough and tumble of cabaret expected swan-like elegance and perfect hourglass figured showgirls. And promoters wisely clued up to the profits that could be made from flaunting the female body to men without the need for a licence for topless entertainment. And wherever there is a chance to see partial nudity, well, the men weren’t far behind…
Before, burlesque audiences had been largely female, and more forgiving, even excited by, the homemade nature of the outfits and the performances. And more embracing of the full scope of the female form in all its variety and beauty.
But now the outfits I was pulling together in my bedroom on weekends would no longer cut it. Costumes had to be huge, theatrical and, inevitably, expensive. And the wider, more commercial audiences – and especially the suits who flooded in – brought with them an interest only in any possible nudity – and for that nudity to meet their expectations, nay demands, on an acceptable female form…
Dita Von Teese was the leading light by now and her petite waist and surgically-enhanced breasts made her the perfect showgirl for this audience – and therefore created problems for me. I am not a size eight. Nor am I a size ten. Or a twelve. And the ordeal with the Bank had seen me retreat into food and mired in depression and that took a heavy toll on my appearance.
On my return, nobody ever explicitly said I was overweight, but I felt that. I felt that was being thought. When I had first started, performers were known to eat burgers and chips in the dressing room, but now many of the new performers were gym bunnies and/or diet obsessed.
And I felt that in the audience too. Before, my soft tummy was cute. It was part of me, part of my joy. But now my curves felt a bit too wobbly, and I was obviously larger than other performers.
I am ashamed of myself that I must sit here and type this, but I was ashamed of being fat. I know this is the patriarchal standard of beauty and I should reject it but that is easier said than done. That standard is pervasive and it is difficult to beat. I am ashamed that such a strong feminist as myself has to write that, but it is the truth.
I couldn’t cope with my lack of physical ‘perfection’, and I couldn’t cope with being judged by the (increasingly male) audience for failure to live up to that standard. I am ashamed of my complicity to that beauty standard in every way conceivable. But that is the truth. And so I left because I refused to be reduced to my body parts and their adherence to a pernicious and dangerous standard of beauty,
There are some phenomenal performers out there in burlesque who do not meet this standard. Indeed burlesque itself flourishes when it is going against the mainstream. But at this point, burlesque was all getting a bit generic, playing to the new audience and not preserving the old spirit. It was shaping itself to confirm to what these new audiences wanted – and I did not, and could not, be a part of that.
You see, when the suits arrived, for me, everything changed.
Men wanted burlesque showgirls that met their expectations – and burlesque bended itself to meet those demands. To me, when men moved into burlesque audiences in high numbers, they took over the safe space that I had created for myself and made it about them. Before, I saw burlesque as a place where I could be cherished and accepted, even celebrated, for who I am. When the men flooded in, I felt under forensic physical examination. You’d be hard pushed to argue these men were arriving in their droves to appreciate the art form.
Now there is an element of the Eleanor Roosevelt in all this – nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent etc etc – but, for me, there is a world of difference between taking off your top in front of an audience excited to embrace diversity, and doing the same in front of an audience of mostly straight men who are there to see naked women. Others can disagree, others may thrive in those situations – and I wish them well – but this was my experience and i could not stay.
The last performance I ever gave was at Volupté, a cabaret restaurant at the edge of the City. Even recalling it now I get chills.
After my showgirl name was called out by the emcee, I strode out into the centre of the stage. Then, just as the thumps of Kylie’s Two Hearts started, I clocked a table of suits right in the front row. All men. All City Boys. My heart and stomach just dropped. Their dribbling faces, their eager grins… I thought, shit. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to take my top off in front of them.
I carried on, a little unsure, knowing that I had to do the full routine. I mean, the top had to come off as I was supposed to finish with tassel-twirling. And that’s quite hard to do with your corset still on.
But when it got to the moment when the top came off, I went cold. I could see them smiling and I felt sick. I thought, I’m not doing this for you motherfuckers, I’m doing it for me. But you’ve taken that away from me. I finished the performance, though not with any great enthusiasm I might add. And at the end, when the music ended and I made my exit, I knew. I knew that I would never perform again.
And that message was still being reinforced to me off-stage as well.
The book was finished but its publication was a terrible experience for me. It should have been a happy, proud moment. I had been so adamant that I would defiantly publish this exposé despite the spectre of libel that loomed large but by the time the book came out (publishing can be a long process) I was largely broke and in desperate need of another job.
And no investment bank – no employer – wants to see a potential employee dressed in a pink showgirl outfit on a giant two-page spread in The Mail on Sunday.
Slow hand clap to myself there for arranging that one. It didn’t help that I was screwed over by The Mail on Sunday as well (of course I was. How naive of me to think they would be supportive?) but I was stuck between doing the right thing for the book, and the right thing for me.
And with the publication of the book and the article in The Mail, the hope of any new job was gone. Evaporated. The culture of silence is frightening in investment banking. A true omerta. You speak out, you’re out.
The book came out and I withdrew from all publicity, all of it, thinking that I could somehow stem the tide, pour a bit of water on the flames, play it all down. And I stopped performing completely. I had to because even though I had loved it, the price had been too high. Just too too high. And you don’t have the luxury of choice when you’re making mortgage payments on your credit card.
So, that is why I stopped performing – I stood up to the sexism, the discrimination and the judgment for a long time, but I wasn’t quite strong enough to keep going. True, you’ll be hard pushed to find any burlesque performer in recent times that has had to ensure what I have, but there we have it.
I get pangs occasionally, but even if I could steel myself to address my concerns about the challenge in getting a permanent job, and issues with the audience and my self-esteem, I’m still left with my anxiety, and I sense that will always be a step too far now.
Burlesque is not for everyone. I know this. I am not advocating it as a one-size-fits-all suggestion for all women. But it brought me pleasure and joy. And it brings me pleasure and joy to go to shows and lessons today. But the women who perform continue to be harshly judged and put through hell just to do what they love. And many of them too are harbouring their performances as a secret from somebody. So know that if you judge them adversely, that reflects far more on you then them.
I love all the showgirls of the world. I applaud and celebrate them. They are to be admired not criticised. But I know – and accept – that I will never be in their ranks again. And, for me, that’s the greatest shame of all.