“Is this… are these your regular clothes?” Or are you in costume already?”
I stop short of asking the question, but apparently it’s all over my face—and everybody laughs. Right now, I’m looking at the girls—Joey Satana, Lucky Rapscallion, Antoinette Noir, and Maria Tisha (because that’s what they’re called today)—and they all look like they’ve just filmed a movie or starred on television or were written into a book. Different ones, of course—Bladerunner, Mad Men, a romcom, something about royals—but each one fantastic all the same.
They tell me “This is how we always look!” and I have no trouble believing that. Then they turn back to their bags, full of wigs, feather boas, fluffy things, shiny things, whips, headdresses, fans, and they get ready to put their actual costumes on.
Outside, the sun hangs bright and cheery, if a little fierce on the people walking across the streets. But here, among the leather-clad furniture and brass-trimmed lamps of the Makati Diamond Residences’ private theater, the mood is decidedly less harsh. Like the day’s been toned down, but no less cheery for all that. The girls move to the prep room to put on their pasties and costumes, hair and makeup. Giselle, their Burlesque PH Business Director and Co-Founder, is fussing over them, making sure they have what they need. They chatter and giggle and gesture, and even when they’re off-stage, it seems as if they’re still performing, still putting on a show, spinning a tale. When they’re onstage—like many performers—they dance, maybe sing, put on airs and frills. Only, throughout all of that, they’re taking their clothes off.
I’d seen Burlesque PH before, alongside other acts deemed too “alternative” for mainstream audiences. They’d been part of the Fringe festival, and performed with other “scandalous” groups like Deus Sex Machina. I’d seen a variety of acts, and I was frequently surprised–and entertained–by how creatively someone could undress.
In an age where people talk freely about sex and gender, freedom of expression, and creativity, why is burlesque still considered “alternative” and “scandalous”? Why is the sight of human bodies in varying states of undress still met with malice, violence, disgust, shame? Always, there’s a sense of the taboo at shows. Burlesque is naughty, kinky, something you giggle nervously about, eyes bulging, hand covering a mouth that’s hanging open.
“I tell people, burlesque is about power play, empowerment. It’s not sleazy! Come to a show, see it for yourself,” is what Giselle says.
And right now, just for today, just for everyone here, that’s exactly what we’re about to see. But what we’re here for is what’s behind all of that: the person, the philosophy, the reason. And what we learn is that each of them has a different thing to say.
She fiddles with her phone. She chats with the other girls, and jokes with the crew. She exchanges quips with everyone, pausing now and then to adjust her wig, her props, a strap.
Long gray hair frames her face. She has a tall hat on, rather like the Mad Hatter. Contacts. Heels, of course. Leather. And butterfly sleeves–yes, the Filipiniana kind. It really shouldn’t work, this hodgepodge of things thrown together, but it does. It’s a terrible description, but imagine Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but female and alluring. That’s how Joyen looks.
“I didn’t know that my aesthetics were strange in the Philippines. I was just looking at these things on the Internet. I thought, wow I love the changing hair colour, I love the tattoos, I love the fetish outfits. I’m very nontraditional when it comes to the research of it, you know. I followed a lot of people even when I was a lot younger, a lot of alternative models who got into burlesque, who got into kink. And it just rubbed off. It was more like, ‘Oh, I like the way this person looks, I like the aesthetics of this model,’ and put them all together.”
And it works.
“Everyone has a story to tell, and we’re not in a position to judge which story you should tell.”
She recognizes that burlesque is tied to striptease, “but it’s a theatrical form of striptease, reclaiming sexuality, and sharing it. Maybe showing our conservative little country that it can be done.”
She thinks about it some more. “It’s a highly personal form of storytelling,” she says. “Everyone has a story to tell, and we’re not in a position to judge which story you should tell.”
She’s the Burlesque PH Artistic Director and Co-Founder. Sometimes she goes by Joey Satana. Other times it’s Mistress Joyen. ‘“All of us wear different hats. The person remains the same. It’s my task that changes.”
I ask a few more questions, and she’s pensive, as if she’s collecting her thoughts. She speaks slowly, even reluctantly sometimes. The ribald quips, the naughty giggles are gone. Eventually she gives up. “I can’t really tell you! But give me five minutes, and I’ll show you.” I half-expect her to jump out of her seat, to perform right there. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised.
In front of an audience, though, she’s a rock star, feeding off the energy of the crowd, spurred by cheers and shouts. Her long limbs wave in the air, her legs made longer by heels or boots or fishnet stockings. She may crack a whip, don horns or a mask, before taking pieces off one by one. It’s a spectacle, a tall tale, the kind of story enriched by every retelling.
Soft-spoken, even timid, definitely not what you would expect of a burlesque performer. She smiles a lot, a sweet, shy smile that brightens her entire face when she talks about theater, dance, performance.
“I met Joyen in 2015,” she recalls. She, Joyen, and Giselle, along with some other friends, staged the first show then. It was just something we all wanted to do.”
She goes by Lucky Rapscallion. “I was supposed to be Lucky Rascal. It was the name of my favorite bar back in LA. Then I saw the word ‘rapscallion,’ and I thought, hey that fits. I’d say Lucky Rapscallion is very playful, mischievous, but also glamorous and silly.”
"I’d say Lucky Rapscallion is very playful, mischievous, but also glamorous and silly.”
Of the four performers at today’s shoot, it’s she who evokes classic Hollywood glamor, from her ‘casual’ Mad Men outfit to her burlesque costume: a red two-piece with shiny things and tassels, worn under a shimmery red dress. Her props are matching feathery fans, almost comically large for her extremely slender frame. When she poses for the photographer, she drapes herself across the wingback chair, fans and feet in the air, lashes fluttering, eyes laughing. She looks like a pin-up model, like the ones on those posters that might have graced the inside of a fighter plane or a tank in the forties.
Besides being a co-founder, Lucky is the Creative Consultant of Burlesque PH. That means that she, along with Joyen, watches over auditions when new people want to join their troupe. “We’re looking for commitment to learning. We want people who are competitive, who might want to represent burlesque locally or internationally. We’re looking for expression, creativity.”
That said, how do you judge? “Each performance is very individual,” Lucky concedes. “From the costume to the makeup and choreography. But I think what’s really important is connecting with the audience.”
It started with one show. Now she’s Burlesque PH’s newest headliner.
“You know, you think of burlesque, and you think of people with perfect bodies. But you see them, and you see people who are, you know, not typical. Not your Victoria’s Secret model type of body. But they manage to come off as sexy. You know they have different body types. You know, there’s men, there’s women, and it just looks good.”
Marie is definitely not a Victoria’s Secret model. The other girls call her ‘the really curvy one.’ ‘Rubenesque’ would be an appropriate word.
"When people think of burlesque, they think traditional burlesque, Dita Von Teese kind of thing, but we want showcase other sides of burlesque. We have comedians, acrobats, drag performers, traditional performers, fetish-leaning performers."
She tells me, “It wasn’t like, ‘I want to be a burlesque performer.’ I thought, yeah we’re here, why not? I thought, this is something I can explore creatively. And it went from there.”
‘Why not’ gets people into trouble, I tease. But ‘why not’ also opens doors. It certainly has, for Marie. Burlesque has become a journey of self-discovery.
Transforming herself into Antoinette Noir, she joined Burlesque PH classes. “I went to the audition. Then I got the email that says, ‘By the way we want you to perform next week. Just do your audition piece to completely different music.’ I didn’t have a lot of time to let that sink in. At that point it was like, ‘OK, let’s just do it.’”
I remember seeing one of Antoinette Noir’s earlier performances. I remember her intricate wig, her long dress. There may have been a fake mole too, just to remind you of the frivolous French queen. I remember wondering, how is she going to take all of that off?
It’s probably not overly dramatic to say Antoinette Noir has changed Marie’s life. “You know, I didn’t go on stage because I was confident. I became confident because I was able to go onstage. I think burlesque has definitely helped me with that. I know, that’s kind of cliche. But it gets to the point where you go out and it’s okay that people stare. It’s okay that you don’t follow the rules. It’s okay that you stick out. It’s okay that you overdress. I think that being Antoinette Noir helped me get to that point.”
I ask Marie about the show she’s producing, Bodabil, and suddenly it’s the most animated I’ve seen her all day. “We’re collaborating with other performers, musicians, DJs. We tried to keep to the spirit not just of burlesque but of bodabil. When people think of burlesque, they think traditional burlesque, Dita Von Teese kind of thing, but we want showcase other sides of burlesque. We have comedians, acrobats, drag performers, traditional performers, fetish-leaning performers. We like to be able to showcase that, and let people see you know burlesque is more than just what you think it is. There’s many facets to burlesque.”
You know how some people just don’t stop talking and goofing around? That’s Maria Tisha, half-Filipina, half-British funny girl.
“When I first moved to Manila [from the UK], I was seeking creatives like myself. Someone put me in touch with Lucky, and when I met her, I was like, “Someone who’s like me!” She’s also in hair and makeup, she also has a theatrical background, we’re very similar. She said she’d founded Burlesque PH, and they asked me to come in and take care of the makeup for the first show. And I remember thinking, my God, what a discovery. I mean, who would have thought that from a typically conservative country, that there would be these sort of underground subcultures.”
She makes googly eyes and funny faces as she talks, hands waving about, her voice going down to a whisper as she says something cheeky, her eyebrows wiggling. She could be talking about the weather, and she’d be entertaining. Perhaps that’s why they invited her to be a madame.
A madame is a sort of host, getting up onstage before the actual performers do. The madame tells the audience how to behave, lays down the ground rules, and reminds everyone that there are boundaries.
“That was actually the first time I had ever held a microphone in my hands. I’d never been up on stage in front of people. They were like, you know you’ve got the British accent, and you’re kind of funny, and you’re a bit of a weird person too, so why don’t you come and join us, do shows for us.”
So to go from dangling my sexuality in front a room of people, to someone just snatching it away from me like that, that’s definitely an issue that I would like to talk about one day.
From makeup to madame to performer she went. “When I would madame, a lot of people in the audience were like, ‘We want you to take your clothes off!’ And I’m like, ‘No I’m not!’ Last year, I was hosting a gig. And Giselle was like, ‘Hey Joyen and Lucky aren’t available to perform next week in Taiwan, do you want to go?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah I’ll do it, and then we’ll figure it out along the way.’ I say this all the time, I don’t think I would have taken myself there had I not been pushed. I needed to be pushed. I have them to thank for it.”
I suppose funny isn’t so terribly far-fetched for burlesque. But for her, it isn’t so much an act as simply the way she is, even when taking her clothes off.
“Well I can’t do bad girl!” she laughs. “I can be a bit goofy, and that just found its way into taking my clothes off. There is nothing funnier than taking your clothes off! It can be also excruciating at times! But for me it just happened naturally. There was just no other way it could have happened. I can do funny girl burlesque. It’s like, whoopsie taking my clothes off but secretly loving it and you’re loving it too!”
It kind of sounds like Maria Tisha isn’t even really a stage persona, just an extension of her off-stage self. “I like to be a bit cocky. I’ll flip them off and I’ll be like, ‘You’re not even shouting so I’m not taking my clothes off!” I think I get away with it because of a face like this and this accent.”
I ask what she thinks burlesque can do for women, for men, for sexuality in general. “We haven’t really spoken about it a lot, but for instance, things like assault. I was sexually assaulted last year. Actually, ironically, after I hosted a show. So to go from dangling my sexuality in front a room of people, to someone just snatching it away from me like that, that’s definitely an issue that I would like to talk about one day. Because people don’t seem to understand what the boundaries are, and I think sometimes people get a little bit confused. You are getting naked essentially in front of a room of people. But that doesn’t mean it’s an invitation. And it’s that thing where ‘I want you, but I can’t touch you,’ because you cannot touch our performers. So this is fun, and I’m loving that. But I think I would like to have the opportunity to talk about these issues.”
It’s ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that the funny girl is the one talking about these issues, conscious of how they dance around a performance. But as with all art, what happens onstage is a mirror, reflective of or reversing, whatever is happening elsewhere in the world. We throw things together to form our own personalities and narratives. We long for times past. And we laugh when we take our clothes off.