Once upon a time, naked photos could end careers. “Compromising positions” were the stuff of blackmail. Up and coming performers knew better than to risk their integrity by allowing less-than-wholesome images of themselves to surface in public. So as a young, hopeful comedian in the 1980s, I believed my future would be over if anyone saw my boobs.
My first bra was a B-cup. And while I thought I was average, I rapidly grew to a bra size available only in specialty lingerie stores (which I learned after years of squishing them into D-cups). I knew my boobs had an effect on people, but I swore I would succeed in showbiz without using my body to gain professional favors. I wore vests or blazers onstage to minimize their appearance and never referred to them in my act.
After 12 years in standup and another 5 or so in improv comedy, it became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to achieve the kind of success that could be destroyed by a few dirty pictures. So I loosened up a little. I still shied away from roles that required nudity. But when I was cast in a bizarre original musical as a dominatrix running a women’s prison, I became more interested in this kind of performance.
My theater company helped start the burlesque revival in Chicago around 2003. I went along as an occasional novelty act, still in the dominatrix arena—sexy and funny but no nudity. As more of my friends went burlesque, I remained an ardent supporter but never had the guts to be exposed onstage. The closest I came was a short-form improv show called “Underpants Improv.” It was a troupe of eight women of all shapes and sizes performing improv games with burlesque themes. We were clad only in bra, panties, and a variety of fascinating stockings.
Watching my friends’ shows, I came to appreciate the intersection of burlesque and comedy. I realized I was missing performance opportunities. I could rationalize my nudity if it were funny. And at the age of 45, how could my nudity be anything but funny?
My first act was a satire on the ubiquitous, unruly bachelorette parties at burlesque and boylesque shows. I played a drunk bachelorette in a giant pink tutu who demands a chance to “give it a try.” I give the DJ a cassette and perform a clumsy tease to that classic girls’ party anthem, “Man, I Feel Like A Woman.” After a few stumbling dance moves to cover my actual inability to dance, I tear my t-shirt open to reveal a big pink jewel-encrusted bra. I was exposing the fact that I wasn’t a real drunk bachelorette but an audience plant. From there the dance gets a little more intense, and the final peel ends with my arms above my head for maximum boob lift.
To say it was liberating would be an understatement. There’s a reason burlesque ladies look like they’re having fun. The stage lights are hot, and the costumes can be complicated and precarious. With each peel, another successful wardrobe gimmick has worked. And there’s less to worry about, culminating in a breezy celebration of skin, and woots and applause from the audience. Here’s this thing I thought I had to hide for audience approval, and now I get to reveal it on my terms and in my tasteful way, and the crowd goes nuts.
I went on to create a few more burlesque acts, including a singing strip to my version of Bette Midler’s “Fat As I Am.” It’s a take on a sexy Mrs. Claus getting ready for hubby’s return on Christmas Eve. I produced an all-Devo burlesque show and wrote a scripted parody of Doctor Who for a company that performed nerdlesque shows, which were like musicals except instead of singing there was stripping. It ran for 11 months.
In the past two years, I’ve narrowed my focus back to standup comedy. I’ve had bookers offer gigs in exchange for a look at my boobs, but I refused. Because there are plenty of other bookers, who will hire me based on skill. Knowing I can feel comfortable onstage in my skin (and not much more) gives me the confidence to expose as much as I want in my comedy.