8pm. Raging headache. I am glaring at the clock with one hand pressed over my eye, dreading my 10, 11 and 12 shows.
“Do you have to go?” asks J., glancing up from his computer. I nod. It’s way too late to cancel, and I know that once I get there, I won’t have time to worry about my head anyway.
I fret over what acts to pack. The Slipper Room crowd is notoriously distracted, but I still want to give them a good show. My headachey displeasure oozes over my perception of everything, and tonight, none of my acts seem any good at all. After I’ve worked myself halfway to tears rejecting everything in my repertoire, J. calls helpfully from the living room “Take the bug! Everyone loves the bug!”.
He’s right. The lightning bug act is consistently a crowd favorite. I’ve been waffling on because the costume is heavy and awkward to carry. But It’s one of my favorite acts to perform, and I decide to bring it, hoping it’ll lift my mood. Factoring in the blazing head pain and the fact that I only have one set of arms, my Caravan number is the obvious choice for my second act. One big, sparkly number with a pain-in-the-ass costume and one pretty, classic number with a sheer, sexy costume I could carry in a lunch box.
9:30pm. I shuffle into the Slip, a prop-laden sherpa, to find a respectable crowd. They’re buzzy, a little chilly but warming up. There’s a crackle of naughtiness in the air… everyone’s come out to booze in spite of the Snowpocalypse we’ve been warned against. Twenty-five “excuse me”s later, I’m stageside. I smile up at the go-go girl and push the red curtain aside to slip backstage.
Per usual, it’s hot and a little crowded. Backstage is warm and familiar, and full of people I love. Everyone air kisses hello so as not to ruin our drag. The stage lights are on, shooting colour-gel beams of heat into the space. There is a fine mist of glitter drifting through the rays of coloured light. Backstage feels magical, beautiful. Like being in a snow globe, but with more tits and swearing. The air smells like hairspray and girl.
“We’re not starting RIGHT at ten, are we?” I ask the host. He shakes his curly head of hair affably. “Have I told you you look FANTASTIC lately? Because you do.”
I shrug. “I’m in love.” He smiles. “I can tell.”
I am starting to feel better already.
10:35pm. I’m onstage, behind the curtain, waiting to close the first set. The audience is attentive tonight, enjoying the show and their secret hideaway away from the storm. They’re warm and happy, co-conspiratorial. I think, from the way they’ve been cheering, that they’re going to like the lightning bug act.
I turn to face the mirror for one last look-see. My right wing flops behind me annoyingly, and I make (yet another) mental note to replace the wings. The act allows for a sort of silly, discombobulated feel, but it’s still not fun to turn around to face the audience, smiling seductively, and then get whapped in the face with a giant fake bug wing.
Out front, I can hear the host lightly heckling a bald guy sitting in the front row, and he’s getting the laughs he wants. I fidget with the straps attaching the wings to my back, trying to secure them. In a fit of genius or insanity, I loop the loose wing strap into the heavy necklace I’m wearing. This prevents the wing from flopping around, but it pulls the necklace slightly tighter than is comfortable. I look back into the mirror. The overall effect is an improvement. I test it, moving around quickly. Every time the wing would have whapped me before, it now chokes me a little. Great.
I can hear the host ramping up to my introduction, so I get into position, swallowing hard against the pressure of the necklace against my neck. I will not, I think, forget to replace the bug wings after THIS. Onstage, the host stretches my name into seventeen syllables, and little sparkles of excitement electrify my skin. I forget all about my headache and my broken wing and the choking necklace. All that matters is right now, and the curtain is opening, and there are so many people, and all of their expectant energy comes right at me like a wave of heat, and I try to mirror it, to reflect it, to give them back everything they’re giving me, and then I hear them start to laugh at the silly opening image of my piece, and I know they’re with me, and it feels good, and I dance.
12:25am. One last glance in the mirror before my go-go set. I am wearing a sparkling befringed bra and booty shorts to match. The getup is lipstick pink, with spotlight sequins and zillions of layers of four-inch fringe. If someone made a Muppet version of Britney spears, this particular trim might be involved. Three sets in, my hair is sagging, and I feel like a bit of a mess, but the mirror tells me that the glamour is holding up okay from the outside. I tuck a peeking pastie back into my sparkling pink bra, unhook a stray sequin on my booty shorts from my fishnets, stick a few more bobby pins in my wig and pat another layer of glitter around my eye area. (When all else fails, apply more glitter.)
Some nights I love these go-go sets, and other nights I struggle with them. Go-go can make you feel vulnerable, strange, a bit helpless. It is different from doing an act, because it’s so much more about being LOOKED at than dazzling the crowd. There’s no plot, no prop, no clever costume to keep you occupied. It’s not about being a smart stripper, or a personality. It’s just you, in your underwear, giving the wandering eye something to rest on between sets. And at the Slipper Room, like so many other venues in New York, the quarters are so tight that you can see the audience looking at you.
Most of the time, people don’t look very hard. They understand that you’re a distraction, something to look at, so they smile up vaguely between grabbing drinks, texting friends, flirting. Occasionally, the front rows are populated by besuited bachelors or giggly bachelorettes who’ve wandered in with only the vaguest sense what ‘burlesque’ might entail, and they’re desperate to engage the performers, to leave with glitter on their collars, to be part of the show. Sometimes, they are so kind and enthusiastic it surprises even me. They go out of their way to tip the go-go girls and the bartenders, they avoid touching you inappropriately, they say “Hey, great job!” when you come around with the tip bucket.
Of course, there are good bachelors and bad ones. The bad ones poke one another with sharp elbows all night, ask you your cup size to get a laugh from their friends, or have loud, blustering conversation about whether or not they’d fuck the girls onstage or not. (This is a problem presented by burlesque clubs that men in packs sometimes seem unprepared to deal with – I think they assume it’ll be like a strip club, where most to all of the girls performing can be counted upon to exist inside a culturally proscribed bubble of attractiveness. When they see girls that are ‘unusual’ in any way, they scramble like puppies toppling over one another to let their fellow Brads know whether or not they consider the girl onstage worthy of their sexual attention, or their (crushing, boys, truly crushing!) rejection.)
I have heard, from the go-go box: ‘What the fuck, dude? We paid money for this?”, “That chick is SIGNIFICANTLY overweight,” and (most eloquently) “NO FATTIES. DO NOT WANT.” I’ve seen guys make puke motions to their friends sitting literally three feet away from me.
I’ve also had the alpha male of the boy pack come up, tip me respectfully, and lean in to say “You are fucking gorgeous.” Once, a guy in a jersey came up to me with tears in his eyes and said “You look so much like my wife and she won’t let me see her naked anymore because she hates her body, and you have to tell me when you’re dancing again so I can bring her back here and show her how beautiful she is.” All this, on the go-go box, with sixties soul tunes blaring and people spilling cocktails and fucking around with their iPhones right next to the stage.
And then there are the girls. Like the guys, there are well-behaved and nasty ones. It can be amazing to watch women watching women… you get everything from the eye-rolling, superior “I could do THAT, and I’m skinnier” girls to the goofy-grinning nerdcore girls who GET it, who sparkle right along with you. You get the gorgeous, magazine-glossy girls with immaculate hair who tell you, either condescendingly or kindly, that you’re “Really great. Seriously.” (I can’t tell if they’re defensive and super-emphatic because they think I need extra encouragement, or because they presume that I have a petty fat girl’s dislike for beautiful, skinny women. In either case, I think they’re being supportive the best way they know how.) You get the big-chested girls who come up to you and say “Where do you buy your bras?”, and you get the girls who whisper behind their hands and point, as though it’s somehow more polite to tear a girl apart if you cover your mouth while doing so.
Really, it’s a crapshoot when it comes right down to it.
The host finishes up his post-set schtick, one of the girls grabs the tip bucket, and I position myself behind the curtain. I hear a jangling, infectious beat rev up. God Bless Momotaro. I whip the curtains apart dramatically, and I’m onstage.
A few girls from the bachelorette party in the corner recognize me, and raise their drinks and yell “Woooo!” in vague salute. There’s a group of bachelors in the audience, too. From my earlier tip bucket encounter with them, they seem benevolent – totally stoked to be here and totally comfortable with my fat nudity. Right now, they’re crowding the bar, and I can see Scottie moving a bottle over a row of shot glasses. Hangovers for all.
For some reason, there are also a lot of big girls in the audience tonight. I watch them watch me with a mix of expressions. One looks mischevious… like she, too, might shake it in her underwear if dared. Another looks uncomfortable… is she comparing her body to mine, and deciding that she doesn’t like how either looks naked (or is she just thinking that last G&T wasn’t such a great idea? Impossible to tell.) Still another looks sheepishly pleased. She’s obviously out of her element… she’s practically blushing FOR me, but every time I catch her eye, she shimmies along with me slightly, doing a miniature chair dance in solidarity.
I get into my groove, and pretty soon it’s pure love. I can’t help smiling, and I’m sweating like a fiend, patting my forehead with my opera gloves to prevent the sweat from running down to my eyes, where it will not only sting like a bitch, but also unstick my fake lashes. Momo segues seamlessly into something slower, and then I’m teasing, moving languid, biting the fingertips of the gloves and tasting the slight salt of my sweat. Half the crowd’s watching and half the crowd isn’t, but I’m totally engaged, I’m totally here in this moment, and my headache is forgotten and those earlier feelings of fear and vulnerability… I’ve shaken them off like a dog in from the rain.
I look down at the sparkly pink bra, the thick sheen of glitter on my skin, and then back up at the crowd, the smiling faces and heads bobbing along to the beat, and I’m thinking that I’m just about the luckiest girl in the world, that I have the best life I could possibly have, that things just could not get any better than they are right now.
And then the big girl who’s been grooving along with me in her chair finally stands up, and she doesn’t seem embarrassed anymore… actually, she seems as proud and happy as I feel, and she boogies up to me, shaking her butt in a ridiculously cute way, and she sticks a twenty in my underwear, and then she leans in and says “You are AWESOME”.
And, once again, I’m proven wrong.