The Ass That Goes Pow lives in Chicago. Her name is Michelle "Toots" L'Amour. She is our fair city's premier burlesque performer. Miss Exotic World 2005. A University of Illinois graduate — and a feminist.
The Neo-Burlesque Scene
Burlesque is not stripping. It's far more complicated. Instead of writhing on a pole, performers (who come in all colors, sizes and backgrounds) manufacture mystery in order to heighten their sexuality. Most burlesque performers' acts have plots and messages. For instance, one of Michelle's numbers starts off with a clip from Snow White. Michelle bites the poisoned apple, and then the clothes come off. You can see it as a commentary on the idea of female as innocent, as victim. Or that it's just plain, dead sexy.
In addition to Michelle and her Lavender Cabaret, Chicago is home to a thriving neo-burlesque (or "striptease" scene. There are several troupes and performers in our fair city who tease their audiences with lustful aplomb: Belmont Burlesque, which performs regularly at the Playground Theatre; Flirt Cabaret, a Parisian-style burlesque revue; Girlie-Q Cabaret, a collective of queer performers; the Hellcat Hussies, a plus-sized troupe that "puts the ass back in sass" and many others.
But the grand dame of the Chicago neo-burlesque is Miss Exotic World 2005 Michelle.
A few years ago, her boyfriend, partner and now fiancé Franky Vivid introduced Michelle to burlesque. "He brought me some music, and I started to move. It was just natural," she says. Quickly, she put together an act with a troupe of dancers. Together, they have performed as the Lavender Cabaret at venues all over town, included a lengthy stint at the Lakeshore Theatre last winter. Michelle, who's also a dance instructor, started teaching classes in burlesque at Arabesque on Elston and at Chicago sex shop G Boutique.
Michelle L'amour (which is certainly not her real name) captured the title at this year's burlesque pageant at Exotic World, a burlesque museum and retirement home of sorts in Helendale, CA. It's home to the former "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," Dixie Evans.
At Exotic World, Michelle competed against burlesque heavy-hitters from all around the world. Her dance-heavy, highly polished burlesque style is reminiscent of old school burlesque. With the title under her belt, Michelle becomes a more bankable, respected star. In fact, burlesque legends like Satan's Angel — Michelle's role model — give her serious props for keeping the retro, slick style alive.
But even as Michelle's star rises, her life as a burlesque diva isn't always so glamorous and gay. She and the Lavender Cabaret often times have to change in the back rooms or kitchens of clubs and restaurants. "Once, a guy came in the back to clean a bucket of fish heads. Wasn't good for us, but I'm sure he liked it." And there was the time when they were performing a can-can and the stage nearly came apart mid-kick. But one of the most offensive experiences Michelle has had was when a club owner asked her for a lap dance. That's the trouble with burlesque — that people don't understand the difference between it and stripping. It's complicated, but once you see a burlesque performance, the difference is clear. "I'm trying to educate as many people as possible thru workshops and classes," says Michelle. Hopefully, she won't be asked to appear at any bachelor parties.
Michelle Does What She Wants.
Burlesque has caused a permanent rift between Michelle and her family. Michelle, raised in south suburban Orland Park in a born-again Christian home, "... grew up thinking that everyone that wasn't born again was wrong," she says. "I later grew a brain and realized this wasn't true." This was the first, but not the last, rift between Michelle and her family.
The Sun-Times wrote an article about Michelle and her G Boutique classes. Out of pride — and in an effort to educate them — Michelle showed the article to her parents. They lost it. "They just brought out their Bibles and read scripture to me. It was horrible," she remembers. What's more, her parents were doubly angry that Franky would "allow" her to do such a thing. They have not spoken since.
Michelle has not reformed. She has not seen the light and returned to the bosom of Jesus. She considers herself a modern feminist who isn't bound by tradition and convention. She's made her choice and is pursuing a dream. And what's more fulfilling than an activity that makes you feel empowered?
Through teaching and performing, Michelle is spreading the gospel of burlesque. She's educating, inspiring and challenging her audiences and her students to reconsider what is sexy, what is sensual. In her classes, "people come in not exactly knowing what they're going to get, but they end up blown away," she says. "They're also surprised at how much fun burlesque is and it's not as easy as one might think." Each month, her students perform carefully assembled pieces for a live audience. "Seeing my burlesque students perform for the first time [makes me feel] like a proud mama."
When asked how she devises her own artful performances, Michelle reveals her burlesque recipe. "I really listen to the music. I try and figure out when it's right to take off the glove or whatever I'm doing. And when it comes to taking things off, I try to do it in a way that's unexpected. I like to keep the audience guessing. I think of striptease like a magic trick. All of a sudden, you don't have any clothes on. I think it should be seamless."