Bombshells Away!

The New Burlesque Hits Gotham

*BOB* could just as easily be talking about herself. At Fez, she slips out of a shiny gold lamé gown and then makes a martini using her breasts—which, it should be noted, are considerable. (They are an F cup.) She tops off the confection by producing two olives from the depths of her underpants, before offering it to a red-faced customer in the front row.

The buxom 5-10 blonde with the kewpie doll face, Marilyn Monroe 'do, and winning Vaseline smile got her start seven years ago as a "female-female impersonator" in the gay nightclub scene, where she was mentored by local drag queen Jackie Beat. One of her foremost acts was break dancing in high heels. "I accidentally started doing burlesque because my costumes got fancier and were coming off to music in a conceptual way," she says.

She thought she was alone until she met Linda Martini, a/k/a Dirty Martini. In the tight-knit burlesque community, Dirty Martini is considered one of the best: She conjures an overdone '50s housewife with a blonde flip, heavy blue eye makeup, and sassy yet naive smile. Martini has a classic burlesque body, too. Before Ziegfield Follies made the slender figure popular, the women were much more curvy than the ones featured in today's laddie mags. "I realized the difference in body types of the women and what a statement that makes in this day and age, when you can only be Pam Anderson without getting ridiculed," says Martini.

Pretty n pink: *BOB* goes nightie-night
photo: Amy Pierce
Pretty n pink: *BOB* goes nightie-night

A modern dancer and actor, Martini's routines are creative and often intricate. For a Valentine's Day skit, she played a distraught woman stood up on a date who ends the night by committing suicide. For the climax, Dirty tore off her red dress, her body sheathed in Saran Wrap, and with Julie London's "Cry Me a River" playing, she cut herself out of the plastic. The scarlet slip underneath transformed into "blood" as she fell to the floor in undies and pasties.

"Classic burlesque is the definition of Dirty Martini," says *BOB*. "The spirit that Dirty creates onstage, there's a spookiness to it, it's so real."

Burlesque's first home was New York. In 1868, Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes invaded New York City and subsequently took the country by storm. They performed travesties—send-ups of popular plays with the women taking all the male parts. They were funny and bold, inverting female stereotypes and threatening the social order. The Bowery, the Lower East Side, and Broadway were the epicenters for burlesque, and still are. Back then burlesque wasn't about the striptease, but by the time Mayor LaGuardia was in office during the 1930s, it was viewed as obscene. Generally speaking, the more clothes shed, the lower the class.

The new burlesque revival started with the early-'90s Blue Angel parties, held in Tribeca. Founder Uta Hanna wanted the Blue Angel to be a comfort zone for strippers. "They actually had lap dances," says Bonnie Dunn, who took over the show a little over a year ago and renamed it Le Scandal. Over the years it evolved to include variety performers—sword swallowers, magicians, and belly dancers—as well as girls taking off their clothes in kitschy repose. Dunn, who includes the Sally Rand Fan Dance and other traditional burlesque motifs in her act, points to New York's performance-art-rich history as just one of the many reasons why burlesque and its cousins—vaudeville and variety—have thrived here.

Sheer energy: the Pontani Sisters' gorgeous gams
(photo: Amy Pierce)
At the Va Va Voom Room, Kate Valentine holds court as Miss Astrid, a faux German dominatrix with a severe eye patch and black pageboy hairdo, who taunts the audience: "Only five more minutes until nudity!" A parade of performers take the stage: a female impersonator wearing a slinky black cocktail gown melodramatically plays the theremin; a pretentious wannabe Parisian does a dance mocking pretentious Parisians; and the girls—Julie Atlas Muz, *BOB*, and Dirty Martini—serve as buffers in the buff.

The five-year-old show started in L.A. and is the closest to the original burlesque model, putting comedians, singers, and striptease performers together on one stage. Burlesque was called "the poor man's vaudeville," and it's still not entirely clear how the two forms differ. Giunta, of the New York Museum of Sex, says even she's confused. "It's mostly a class issue. Vaudeville was perceived as highbrow." And even though the Ziegfield Follies at the turn of the 20th century featured topless showgirls, they were considered classy because the women wore fancy, elaborate costumes.

Today, class distinctions still exist. "Downtown is low-end titillation," says Show's Norman Gosney. "I'm high-end titillation.

"By downtown, I mean when you've got some fat girl who takes off her clothes and shows her stuff. Number one, you don't take off all your clothes. That's stripping. I operate by true burlesque rules. You never see real t&a in my shows, but they are very sexy," he says.

Gosney, who hails from Bristol, England, imagines himself as a burlesque purist—he peppers his conversation with "darling"s and recalls vintage burlesque in at least one way. "I'm a straight male and I'm also the creative director. Some of the people who put these shows on are gay and I think you can see the difference in my work," he chuckles. "It's not that I want to be one of those women, but I want to shag them, and you can see that in my act."

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