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Painted Babes: Contemporary Art within Miss Burlesque Australia.

May 30, 2011

Last night I had the entertaining occasion of attending the “Miss Burlesque NSW” pageant: a heat in the second-ever “Miss Burlesque Australia” competition, hosted by the Bijou Entertainment Group. Burlesque competition is not new, with the title of Burlesque Hall of Fame “Miss Exotic World” being awarded to a single burlesque performer, recognised for their excellence and contribution to burlesque community each year in Las Vegas, in a tradition that spans names from Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Josephine Baker, Bettie Page and Tempest Storm to modern-day burlesque heroes such as  Julie Atlas Muz, Angie Pontani and Dirty Martini. The Miss Exotic World competition has sprung up from within the heart of the worldwide burlesque community to honour its best since 1990 and is judged by judged by performers and leaders of the worldwide burlesque culture.

The new title “Miss Burlesque” by its name would seem to suggest a figurehead or representative for the burlesque community or standard.  In reality, I found this claim to be wildly distant from the truth as the majority of the competitors on this particular night had less than a couple of years of burlesque experiences under their belt, one with a performance history of as few as 2 burlesque shows in total. There was a notable lack of community stalwarts who were entered in the competition, (with the exception of the deserved winner Danica Lee, who has many years of experience and is an accomplished burlesque performer and producer in her own right.)

The format of the Miss Burlesque Australia pageant includes an evening gown parade, a classic routine, a neo-burlesque routine and a unique routine for the top five entrants who are selected to go through to the last round.

Watching the well-run format and chugging wine in my comfortable seat, far up the back of the packed-out Factory Theatre, I sat pondering all of these things… wondering and trying to articulate why I was not personally drawn to entering, why so few of my peers had considered it. I found myself ruminating that if Miss Exotic World could be likened to an inside industry awards night (like the Grammys are to music) then perhaps Miss Burlesque’s dash to the top is a little bit like Australian Idol. I wondered how it was that at these big events (not specific to this event) that there were always such a high percentage of audience members who were being exposed to burlesque for the first time. I also spent time with amazing burlesque babes and cheered on my feet, as loud as possible for these performers who were giving it their all on stage. I too, tweeted my two cents worth as the popular event rose to the local trend for the evening. I wondered how the trajectory is to pan out for the competition and its entrants. I also wondered who some of them are, as there were quite a few who I had never seen round the traps before. I found myself wishing them well, but was not in any way attracted to putting myself through that process.

And from within this competition structure came something unexpected… a performer who damn near blew my socks off.

Betty Grumble entered the competition in character. Yes, I hear you say, we all are in character on the stage… but I mean she was IN A CHARACTER for every part of the competition. She entered this pageant AS a pageant entrant and didn’t let the act drop for a second. She was a high glitz pageant princess, replete with blonde southern-style permed wig, spray tan, exaggerated candy coloured makeup, brilliant false teeth veneers and Lolita ankle socks. In the evening gown section, she wore a cupcake-style child’s pageant dress and white patent mary-jane shoes and walked with all of the awkward stiffness of a child pageant star. She employed the stylised cutie-patootie saccharine charm and confronting sexuality of the over-trussed dolly girl, Eden Wood.

For her “traditional” routine, she interpreted this as a horrific, patriotic flag-waving nationalist child-beast with reference to the blonde Midwestern little girls who are vehicles for their parents’ racist political agenda. Here, she was the perfect white Cronulla spawn of Pauline Hanson, keeping it ‘traditional’ and in no way ‘exotic.’ Amusingly, she incorporated golden age bump’ n ’grind moves into this routine, alongside her crude and preposterous and completely entertaining stripping.

Betty Grumble performed the ‘neo’ section of the competition as though it was the ‘talent’ section of a beauty pageant. She entered the stage as a child pageant pig in a private school uniform. Her tap dancing routine was actually quite skilled and sped up to a comical track as she imbibed (nay, skolled) Bacardi Breezers from her schoolbag and eventually vomited glitter all over her bare torso and six piggy nipples.

I loved the conviction that Betty Grumble took into this pageant, fulfilling the criteria on her own terms. Makeup is good, therefore more makeup must be better. You want a pageant gown? Tick. You want tradition? Talent? Tick. She was ticking those boxes so hard she tore a hole right through that judging paper. Around me, the crowd were going wild. A massive response – wild cheering, horror, revulsion, choking and raucous laughter. Miss Burlesque Sydney had turned into Toddlers and Tiaras on meth and we had one more interval to go before the final round.

Needless to say, the controversial Ms Grumble didn’t make it through to the top five. Regrettably so, as I was gagging to see her “unique” routine. The mind boggles at where she would have gone to from there. I had never met the girl but I instantly felt like I could be her stage mum.  I had to tone my excitement down a notch because I was just buzzing with the realisation of what I had witnessed.

I consider her entry in this pageant as an amazing conceptual art intervention. She made burlesque of the pageant. I felt it was one of those brilliant moments that lifted the roof and shone a light on the construction of one’s value of “appropriate” performance, the arbitrary nature of imposing criteria from the outside, the amazing range of physical performance that can share the name “burlesque” and the power of the audience’s response to persuasive and unsettling performance, even if they don’t know what to make of it.

Betty Grumble (AKA Emma Maye Gibson) is a compelling performer — a consummate in her own right. A quick google-stalk reveals that she has performed burlesque at major music and performance festivals, amongst other places, supporting radical artists such as Peaches and creating and directing burlesque and performance art with her group What Makes Men Blush (O yes, NOW I remember…) and has graduated with honours from Sydney’s COFA. She has an evident lifelong background in dance and has trained in physical theatre at Siti Theatre Company in NYC. I am looking forward to seeing more of her dazzling performance, intelligent ideas and powerful, hot physicality on stage in the future.

And on a closing note… if I were in the jury, I would have handed out the awards as thus:

Miss Burlesque NSW – Danica Lee

High-Glitz Grand Supreme Fucked-Up Pageant Princess – Betty Grumble

Anddddd… (though she was not in the competition, nor should she need to be)… Up at the top through nothin’ but hard work, experience, creativity and brilliant talent…

Australia’s QUEEN of Burlesque, (long live) Imogen Kelly. May she perform outstandingly at her first ever attempt at the Miss Exotic World title in Las Vegas this week.    Salut.

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