For as long as Queenie O’Hart can remember, she’s been taking off her clothes.
“Just ask my mom,” she says wryly. “I have always been an exhibitionist … I have no problem being naked in front of 200 people.”
O’Hart has been performing burlesque for the past two years in stage acts she calls “musical theater with tits.”
“You have your foundations, your blushes, your eyeshadows and your fake lashes,” she says, rifling through a makeup box flecked with glitter. “It’s insane what you have to do [to get ready].”
O’Hart got her start in burlesque in August of 2012. She had done plays in high school and, after graduating, worked for a Boston theater company called Big Colony Productions. But O’Hart took a break from the stage when she finished massage school. She found her heavier, Rubenesque figure kept her from getting cast in certain roles.
It was sheer curiosity that led her to enroll in Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque, in Seattle’s Central District. Burlesque allowed her to play characters theater never offered. And as she learned the various elements of the genre — tassel twirling, walking in heels and overcoming stage fright — she became hooked.
“There is a serious high [from performing on stage],” O’Hart says. “There’s nothing as exciting as getting up there and getting to do something you really love. It’s like everything else goes away. You go completely blank.”
Burlesque is commonly mistaken for little more than another form of strip tease. But the art form has deep roots in vaudeville, a satirical genre of theater that often poked fun at high society. Early burlesque leveled its sights on upper class culture, parodying hoity-toity literature, fine art and theater with performances that were silly, bawdy and often set to music. Performer Lydia Thompson and her troupe of British Blondes, popularized the performance art in the U.S. in the late 1800s. By the early 20th century burlesque acts began to adhere to a certain structure and convention built up over the years — a showcase emceed by a master of ceremonies and adopting elements of the striptease.
“Some people will say it’s just ‘low art,’” says Tootsie Spangles (her stage name), who has been performing burlesque for the last two years in and around Seattle. “‘Low art’ or not, burlesque can be sexy, weird, political, emotional [and] sad … In the end, we’re all adults playing pretend in some capacity.”
The performers Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr in the 1950s, introduced the headdresses and big costume glamour that burlesque is best known for today. It has since splintered off into genres as diverse as clowning and “nerdlesque,” full of pop culture references.
And it’s making its way onto stages across Seattle and the Eastside. Seattle’s Re-Bar, the Can Can and Theater Off — to name a few — regularly host shows.
But O’Hart, who lives in Bothell, says most venues are still concentrated in Seattle because strict regulations — designed to curb strip clubs or bikini barista stands — make it difficult to secure performance venues outside the city. What little exists of Eastside nightlife is centered around DJs and dance clubs, she explains.
Seattle’s community of burlesque, on the other hand, is incredibly diverse.
“The greatest thing about burlesque is that there’s no body type or age limit,” says O’Hart. “I’ve seen shows with performers who are 84 and in wheelchairs or walkers.”
Two years ago, when Spangles was first introduced to burlesque, she had just moved to Seattle. Dance classes offered her a window of opportunity to meet new people. Spangles had already been performing for about a decade in children’s musicals and circus acts.
Burlesque may seem worlds apart from her earlier productions, but Spangles found that many of her lessons in clowning could be applied to this new performance genre. The big, exaggerated movements served her well on stage.
“It totally changed the trajectory of my performing career,” she says.
Like many dancers, Spangles performs in the evenings but works full-time as well: “Just like actors or musicians, many burlesque artists hold day jobs. We work as lawyers … nannies, accountants, stay-at-home parents, doctors and hair stylists.”
Spangles is a teacher by day and likes to think of her stage persona as an exaggerated version of herself. Most people overlook the fact that burlesque acts are full productions, she says. Makeup alone can take more than an hour and a half to apply.
Lights, costumes, props and music all have a role to play. And, like many art forms, its practitioners draw inspiration from other arenas — as Steve Jobs said, misquoting Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” O’Hart regularly takes ballet classes, which teach her discipline, precision and poise.
A single show can run the gamut of performing arts, from dance to narrative theater. O’Hart crafts her performances around an ever-evolving storyline.
“When I started, I came up with this backstory full of reincarnations and all this crazy stuff. Each time I perform, I narrow it down a little,” she says. “I like to think of myself as [a performer of] musical theater … I’m jumping, I’m happy and I’m really emotive.”
Sometimes everything will crystallize around a catchy song that has been stuck in O’Hart’s head. She’ll then build a storyline around that tune. Her first performance was as an adaptation of the character of Ophelia, the tragically insane noblewoman from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
“The sweetest, most soft-spoken people can be really loud and crazy on stage,” says Spangles. “The persona depends on the individual.”
O’Hart and Spangles still get stage jitters. But that’s part of the appeal of performing, they say.
“I forget all my lyrics. I forget all my moves. I forget what I’m wearing,” O’Hart says, laughing. “[It happens] every single time and I’ve been performing since I was seven.”
She and Spangles are currently touring across the region on their maiden voyage of the Fine Frenzy Tour and O’Hart is also experimenting with production. She recently launched a monthly revue at the Bal-Mar in Bellevue.
As for the future, both performers would like to see burlesque assume mainstream popularity.
“Like any artistic venture, there’s no end goal,” says O’Hart, “I just hope in five years I’m still doing the same stuff and touring as much as I can.”
This feature originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Eastside Scene. Click here to read the digital Green Edition.