Weekly Burlesque: Interview with Kelly DiNardo

Lili St. CyrLili St. Cyr, a pioneering burlesque performer known for on-stage bubble baths, has her life chronicled in the forthcoming biography Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique. Jo Weldon, our resident burlesque expert, spoke with its author, Kelly DiNardo, in anticipation of its release on October 16.

How did you get interested in burlesque?
I was working for Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan on their biography of Frank Sinatra. One of their research requests for me involved Lili St. Cyr. I became fascinated and started reading a lot about her and the other women of burlesque. I was surprised to learn how the men of burlesque were still well-known names — Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason — but that for the most part the general public didn’t know much about the women of burlesque.

What does burlesque mean to you?
There’s so much to it. It can be campy and kitschy. It’s funny and saucy. It can be downright sexy. But it’s always about the tease, whether it’s the comedians giving a verbal tease or the dancers with a visual one.

What was your first experience with live burlesque?
I believe my first live burlesque show was one of the Miss Exotic World (MEW) competitions. Or it might just have been such a spectacle that it’s the first one that really stands out in my mind. It was when MEW was still in Helendale and it was a blast. I’ve since been to Burlesque-A-Pades several times. I’ve seen Trixie Little and Evil Hate Monkey a few times. And I’ve been back to Miss Exotic World. Each show has been a lot of fun for very different reasons.

What is one of your favorite experiences so far?
I really have loved them all. The first time I went to MEW was such a treat because it was still new to me. I got to meet a lot of the performers I’d spoken to over e-mail or the phone. And I got to see the Lili St. Cyr memorabilia in the museum. This year’s MEW had such a mix of performers playing to every element of burlesque — from the hilarious to the classic — that it really stands out.

Do you travel to attend shows?
I travel to watch different shows. I’ve been to MEW both in Helendale and Vegas. And I’ve seen shows in LA, Vegas, NY, and of course, DC. And when I was working on my book, I traveled to LA, Vegas, NY, and Montreal to do research and interviews. I’ve taken burlesque workshops because I wanted to get a feel for what it would be like even at the most basic level, but I’ve never performed.

Who inspires you most, and why?
Lili St. Cyr. She’s the reason I know about burlesque and got involved with it. Writing the book has been an amazing experience and I’ve gotten to know a lot of really fun, interesting people.

What is your favorite aspect of burlesque as it is now?
I love that the performers are putting the tease back into the strip. Lili believed that the imagination was more powerful, more titillating than the actual reveal. Performances like Vivian Velvet’s fan number at MEW was really wonderful for just that reason. At the same time, I love the humor in a lot of the new burlesque. And I like that there’s room for all of it.

Can you show me one of your favorite photos of Lili?
I have a couple of favorites in the book that I don’t believe I can send yet. They’re ones that haven’t been seen or haven’t been seen much. One of them is actually a contact sheet from a photo shoot of Bernard of Hollywood. Lili is dancing around a swan. Since they were nice enough to let us publish the whole contact sheet, you really get a visual sense of her movement.

I also have a picture of one of her mug shots. She looks unbelievably beautiful and glamorous, especially considering what our celebrities today seem to look like when they get “mugged.” And there are also some fun personal, private photos of her in the book from when she was child and then throughout her adult life.

There’s also a photo, which sometimes pops up on Ebay, of Lili performing on a swing. Ronald Regan is in the crowd. It’s not in the book, but I do love it. That one and another one of Lili with Eleanor Roosevelt are great.

So, all of that is not answering your question about my favorite photo in terms of one you could use … I love this one:
Lili St. Cyr

She looks so beautiful and glamorous. There’s something so private about her being on the bed, but she looks so untouchable. It definitely captures that look-but-don’t-touch aspect of burlesque. She’s exuding sexuality and it’s easy to see why Marilyn Monroe would have been inspired by her.

I also love this one:
Lili St. Cyr

– Jo Weldon

Jo Weldon is Headmistress of the award-winning New York School of Burlesque and is a regular burlesque performer. Visit burlesquedaily.blogspot.com to read her daily blog.

Kelly DiNardo: thecandypitch.blogspot.com