Weekly Burlesque: Interview with Immodesty Blaize

If you’ve ever seen Immodesty Blaize perform, you don’t have to ask what burlesque is; she’s it. With a larger-than-life stage presence and a smoldering charm offstage, Immodesty leaves a warm, curvy, sensual impression wherever she goes, and leaves every person she encounters with a happy yearning. Without further ado, I present the neo-legend that is the UK’s gift to modern burlesque, Miss Immodesty Blaize.

When did you first see burlesque?
I blame my mother. We watched Gypsy [Lee Rose] together when I was very young, 5 or 6, I think. Obviously, Natalie Wood was beautiful, but I thought Mazeppah was the coolest lady I had ever seen. I liked her humor and even then I knew she was HOT.

Were you a performer before you began doing burlesque?

I never went to stage school; however, I used to travel the country as a little girl doing national dance competitions with modern, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll styles. It was all very “solid gold,” but I loved the sequins, spandex, and the smell of hairspray!

I racked up an impressive shelf of trophies, but it was tough doing the elimination rounds. Once you had experienced being knocked out of the competition and having to leave the dance floor with your tail between your legs, you quickly found more inventive ways of really sparkling for the judges and letting your personality shine — along with ratting a bigger bouffant.

During my late teens, I took up both Latin and Arabic dance. I often find even now that I incorporate some of my Arabic shimmies, or a salsa step into my acts.

When I first performed burlesque circa ’98, there was no great awareness of the genre in London, or any kind of performance community yet. I had to literally bang down doors for stage space, and explain every five minutes what burlesque was and what my act was.

There wasn’t that much footage of the legendary performers readily available at that time either, just books mostly. I used to be inspired as much by Hollywood movies and actresses, Busby Berkeley musicals, and kitsch icons like Liberace, Divine, Grace Jones, Betty Page, and Dalida.

I also remember studying the “great effect” scene in The Graduate for hours, hoping I’d somehow master the dynamics of twirling a tassel by osmosis.

I don’t like to look at other performers’ acts for ideas unless I am consciously creating a tribute like my reverse striptease bath-time tribute to Lili St Cyr. Even then, I’ll add my own interpretation and choreography. Instead, I find ideas on my travels — maybe a new piece of music, or a piece of amazing fabric for a costume, or a scene in a book — anything, really.

My act with the six-foot vintage telephone came from listening to Blondie’s “Hangin’ on the Telephone” in my dressing room. I had a brainwave, then dismissed it as ridiculous.

After my show, I realized I had been sitting, staring at my autographed picture of Betty Page talking on a small black telephone and decided that it was a sign. I scribbled some drawings on the back of a napkin and sent it straight to my propmaker to see if my idea was possible.

Then came the fun part of watching every film noir movie I owned to distill the ultimate femme fatale. It took about a year to complete the act through concept, research, design, construction, and choreography before it was ready to unveil.

Where did you learn classic moves?

I owe that to my mentor, Basil –- a true show boy with a pedigree par excellence. He’s the real deal. He was on the road from the age of 14, performing with all the European burlesque greats from the ’50s onward, in notorious theatres such as The Windmill, the Leeds City (“Titty”) Varieties, the Talk of The Town, the Friedrichstadtpalast, etc.

He even performed with Liberace for three months when he came to UK to do The Palladium.

Basil tracked me down at one of my shows. His stories were amazing and we just clicked right away. He cracks the whip over me if he sees me holding my hands in the wrong way.

He even gave me special tips that he learned from Marlene Dietrich. He can parade as well as any model on the catwalk and fan dance as well as Faith Bacon, but with ten times more camp. He’s a gem.

I also really pay attention to the movement styles of legends like Lili and Blaze. They all had such different, diverse, and unique ways of moving. And whilst it’s good to learn tricks of the trade from them, I also think it’s absolutely essential to develop your own unique body language, style, and “isms” -– little moves special to you. That’s what makes you individual and is part of your unique persona.

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