Miss Dirty Martini is a burlesque superhero and leader of the feminist burlesque revolution. She’s currently at home in New York rehearsing for Jack and the Beanstalk, written by Mat Fraser and directed by burlesque star Julie Atlas Muz. She’s touring with Dita Von Teese next year, visiting Australia in February and March and then hopefully Europe and the USA in spring. The duo will also be performing at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in LA this New Year’s Eve.
Tell me about your stage look.
I’ve always been a curvy lady and I actively sought out a style that would put those extreme curves into context for people. The 1950s bombshell silhouette of Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg were perfect for me to emulate. When I started performing burlesque in the early ’90s, fashion magazines only featured images of fabulous glamorous women that were tiny. The buxom look was very much buried and gone. Onstage, I present a very over-the-top image at a time when most burlesque performers want to look “sexy” like a Vargas painting. I’ve always wanted to be more like a cartoon woman, similar to the Bill Ward drawings of impossibly buxom women in their boudoirs. When I started going to New York nightclubs, it was at the tail-end of the Club Kid era. I loved their over-the-top and creative fashion… I loved drag and I wanted to be a part of that world. My first blonde wig was a Marilyn Monroe flip and it looked just right on me. It was the artificial atomic blonde look that I wanted. I made my own costumes in the beginning and I poured over ’50s men’s magazines and old burlesque reels to get inspiration for the designs. No one was making those kinds of costumes at that time, so I learned a ton sewing them myself. I then met my saving grace, costume genius, David Quinn. He started coming to my show at the VaVaVoom Room and would tell me that my dresses were a mess and I needed to have him make me a costume. Our first costume together was a beautiful gold/olive gown built like a brick house. A review of that show likened my image to that of a 1956 Buick. I’ve been called many things in the press. They really get out their thesauruses when it comes to describing my body. That one is still my favourite. Also beloved is ‘an odalisque of operatic proportions’! What a way to call a girl fat! I insisted on a side zipper in that fabulous gown because Lili St. Cyr used side zippers. I adored Lily and originally wanted to revive her routines as she performed them, but very shortly realised that wasn’t realistic. I had to change my act for a more modern audience. I still pride myself in being able to transport an audience back in time.
Are you as glamorous when you’re not performing?
Oh my, I wish I could be that glamorous all the time, but living in New York has actualities that prevent daily time travel! I try to look hip when I leave the house, but I have to take the subway to the gym sometimes. New York has its own wonderful street style and our level of glamour is always tempered by street harassment and subway riding. That said, when I go to a show, I often look very glamorous on the way there. When I put on my ‘walking to the show’ outfit, I wear it like armour, ready to engage in quick street exchanges which inevitably happen. I think that the dream of burlesque starts when you walk in the venue door. I love to hang out after the show in costume and relate to fans that way. Having a drink with the guests and taking photos with the audience after a show is just as important as the show for me.
Who are your greatest influencers?
I remain inspired by New York club icon Susanne Bartsch, fashion sculptor Machine Dazzle and some of the wonderful humans in the New York burlesque scene. Bambi the Mermaid has a great sense of style and the photographer Steven Menendez is very inspiring to me. I’m also very influenced by the generations of glamorous women who have come before me. Although I learned to put on cat-eye liner from fashion magazine editorials of Linda Evangelista, I’ve always been more drawn to old Hollywood. I watched Hammer horror films and Mae West and Marlene Dietrich when I was a little girl and that’s what I wanted to look like. I plucked my eyebrows to have a high thin 1930s brow and wore vintage clothes that I found in my attic. My favourite skirt was navy, long and straight made from fine wool. I’d wear it with a draped peau de soie blouse or my father’s navy uniform pants from the ’50s. I loved watching Martha Graham and other modern dance stars on PBS – I loved that era of costuming. The greatest compliments that I ever had in high school was that I looked like Linda Carter, who was playing Wonder Woman on TV at the time… and that I looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor. Though, I was probably going for Lana Turner playing a Gibson Girl. Looking back, I never thought I was beautiful. What a shame! I really was. That said, I still glance at the major fashion magazines and try to use them to pick my seasonal wardrobe pieces.
How has your style changed over the years?
I suppose I know my body now and what looks good and what shapes work for me. I wear less actual vintage now. I hate the idea that a garment made it all the way to me and I wear it to shreds. I do keep vintage clothing for the patterns. It helps me learn to sew. The silhouette of my clothes stays pretty much the same. I love to wear Trashy Diva, a clothing company from New Orleans. I like to buy one or two of their pieces a year. I often wear a swing dress with a fitted top or a pencil skirt and tee during the day. I used to show off my midriff quite a bit, but as my body and tastes change, I’m less interested in showing a lot of skin and cleavage. I prefer to look a little rock and roll and a little pin-up with a dash of art school student thrown in. I used to wear high heels all the time, but that’s the main thing that’s changed. Having been a dancer since I was 8 years old, my body can’t handle high heels off stage now. I’m sad about it, but that’s a fact! Now I have a major fetish for a glamorous walking shoe which is extremely hard to find! I think I’m a hat person again. I’ve found a few vintage hats that I’m wearing in autumn and winter now. There’s always that unattainable item though. There’s a hat I didn’t buy in Venice ten years ago that I still yearn for. It was a straw sun hat and had an orange scarf that tied it on. I’m always looking for a tartan pencil skirt and a reversible leopard cape. Or a leopard pencil skirt and a tartan cape! I promise I won’t wear them all together.
How does your personal style relate to notions of femininity?
I’m not comfortable unless my femininity is fully expressed. Women of my size and shape are often seen in unflattering clothing and it’s mostly not their fault. It’s so difficult to find flattering clothes in a 16 and 18. The fashions just do not go up that high and if they do, the shape is wrong. It’s very hard to find palatable colours and good tailoring at my size. I tend to hang on to pieces because they work. Especially when the weather gets cold. It’s important to me to wear bright colours and feminine clothing so that I can feel beautiful. I’ve had short hair in the past, but I am always happier when my hair is long and flowing and I have jewellery on, tights and a hip-hugging pencil skirt. I love my hair flower fascinators from Tahiti and I’m always on the search for a flattering warm winter coat in a bright colour that accentuates my waist.
Your performances are sensual and powerful. Have you always been body confident?
Quite the opposite, I had a long process of self-acceptance that started when I was almost kicked out of college for not looking like a dancer. I went to a dance conservatory. It was one of the best contemporary dance colleges in the US, but because my teachers thought I was too big to be a professional dancer, they put me on academic probation. On my school academic record, it would look like I wasn’t attending classes or trying hard. I was, in fact, one of the hardest working, most focused dancers in my school. In my sophomore evaluation, I had to defend my position at the school and it felt to me like the culmination of all the years of my ballet teachers from age 9 to 20 telling me that I would never be a dancer. I wanted to dance for my whole life and I was determined. That meeting was when I not only told them that they were wrong but also when I told myself that they were. I’ve been on diets since I was ten years old. My ballet teacher told me that I couldn’t get pointe shoes until I lost 10 pounds. Every young ballet dancer dreams of dancing on pointe, so from that moment on I was on fad diets, crash diets and calorie counting. Becoming confident about my body took 10 years or so of re-conditioning my mind that started at 20 and keeps going. Yesterday, I was relaying a story to a friend about a time when I was scared to show my thighs without tights on stage. It finally occurred to me how crazy that was after all of these years. I still have rough days like any other woman in this world, but I can honestly say that I can show my body with pride now even as it is constantly changing with the years.
Do you have days when you don’t feel like being glamorous?
Everyone has days when they don’t want to go to work or they feel bad about themselves, but in my line of work, an audience can sense all of those feelings! I’ve thankfully not had many of those days on a show night, but I’ve had a few. I feel mostly grateful that I live the life I live and have had the opportunities that I’ve had. When I’m down or tired or feeling gross, I just pick up my most beautiful feather fans and remember how lucky I am to have found burlesque when I did. There are so many great burlesque performers now and I’m so happy that they are my colleagues and friends. Being inspired by all that talent, and working with artists on a daily basis is truly a pleasure. When I’m feeling sorry for myself I go through all my publicity photos and think about all the great burlesque dances I’ve made and it makes me feel so much better. I also imagine one of the inspirational figures in my life saying to themselves the things I beat myself up about. It’s a way to instantly put my fears and limitations in perspective. WWLBD: What would Lady Bunny Do? WWDD: What Would Dita Do?
Do you think social media pressures society to look a certain way?
Absolutely. I think social media is wonderful and great and inspiring, but it’s also a facade that isn’t a full picture of people’s lives. My generation created that facade for marketing a lifestyle and the following generations came into that world and expanded on it and took it way more seriously than we ever did. When I started performing, it was an era where we made punk rock flyers at the copy store and we looked at popular culture as tacky. I think newer performers don’t have the same distrust of marketing that we did. They tend to eat it up and build on it. Our generation is behind the scenes making the pop culture for this generation now. Artists that were performing on the drag scene and ‘finding themselves’ when I moved to New York are now the people who are styling, doing makeup and creating programming on television, films and fashion magazines. I think that social media makes it so that we can’t ever relax. We’re always hustling and making it look like we are hustling. Everyone is supposed to have a million followers and a project in the works and that’s what notoriety is built on. I can also see how hard it is for people to get started or to change their focus once they are established. I do think that there needs to be some privacy and some room to fail a little. I’ll never forget the young New Yorker that I talked to one night at a Susanne Bartsch party. He had just moved here and we had a lovely 20-minute chat after which we exchanged social media details. He looked at my Instagram and was shocked at the number of my followers. He looked up at me and said, “You’re famous!” It was the first time I had ever been shown how important that was for people. I said to him “If you stick around NYC long enough, you’ll be famous too!”.
Where is your favourite place to shop?
I tend to stay in my own neighbourhood if I can afford to. There’s a rockabilly pin-up store on 2nd Avenue in the East Village called Enz’s that I love to stop by and get pieces from. I like the jewellery store here called The Shape of Lies and when I’m not trolling the jewellery wholesalers, I like a sparkly little shop on Avenue A called Galleria J. Antonio. I’m an Etsy and eBay troller for my specific vintage yearnings, but I also like No Relation Vintage on 1st Avenue. All my friends know that I’m addicted to TJ Maxx and Marshalls though, especially when I’m in smaller cities where it’s easier to find unusual and interesting clothing. Nordstrom Rack has been creeping into New York and I like that too. It’s my secret bra stop! I go into Nordstrom Rack and some of my favourite Paris lingerie stores and fall into what I call my lingerie K Hole. I’ll look for matching panties for hours! I am truly addicted to brightly coloured lacy things!
Do you have a favourite designer?
My costume designer David Quinn is my favourite designer! He makes everything possible and knows how to highlight my curves and show my body to its best advantage. Most designers don’t make clothing in my dimensions, so that question is a bit abstract to me. I shop for fabrics all over the world and hoard them until Quinn will make something unique for me. David Quinn makes both streetwear and stage wear for me and it’s such a relief to know that I can be inspired by fashion magazines but wear Quinndustry! I also like fashion exhibitions and magazine editorials. The Jean Paul Gaultier touring museum exhibition was so inspiring and the shows at FIT gallery are great to see workmanship and design.
What is your go-to outfit?
My Mode Merr pencil skirt paired with my own customised tees are favourites. I always have a cardigan on hand from Wheels and Dollbaby or Vixen to dress that up. I love my dangling coral earrings and my necklaces gifted to me by my BFFs. One is a gold anchor from Naples, one of my favorite cities, and the other is a World War I mother of pearl keepsake from the US Navy. My boyfriend often gifts me with beautiful jewellery on my birthday and he has great taste! I’m very lucky!
And finally, what’s your favourite restaurant?
My favourite restaurant was WD50, Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant on Clinton Street in the LES. I was so lucky to dine there a few times before it closed. It was so innovative and fun especially with the wine paring. I love a tasting menu! I really love surprises. I frequent the Ukranian restaurant, Veselka, not just for the Borscht and butternut squash pirogi, but because it’s a great place to meet with friends. It’s relaxed, friendly and strangely, I’ve had a ton of celebrity sitings there. Nowadays, though, my favorite place is my own kitchen. I’ve been cooking a lot and I love the creativity that it affords. I’ve always loved cooking and eating!
Miss Dirty Martini will be appearing in Jack and the Beanstalk at Abrons Art Center in New York next month. You can support this ingenious new work by going to the Fractured Atlas fundraising site. For more information on Miss Dirty Martini and tour dates, visit missdirtymartini.com
Main image: Bettina May