Culture //

Raven: the black prince of burlesque

“I’ve been called a “faggot”, a “whore”, a “bitch”. I’ve been told to “take it off you slut”. Some guy even tried to push me off the stage. That incident was actually quite entertaining though because I pushed him right back! He fell off the stage and was escorted out.”
Honi Soit editor Bebe D’Souza meets Melbourne-born burlesque performer Raven.

Raven, the black price of burlesque
Raven, the black prince of burlesque

HS: How did you begin working in the burlesque industry?

R: Unfortunately, I don’t have an amazing story like being chased by Mafia Bosses or something. I come from a contemporary dance background and have always loved the pin-up revival of Betty Page and Pepper Stallman. When I was 18, I went to see a show at burlesque bar in Melbourne. There were no boys in the show, they were only behind that bar and I thought well let’s give this a go. From there I did two classes in fan dancing and spent a lot of time in front of the mirror learning to look seductive. About two months later, I was performing at venues. I guess it was quite a natural progression.

HS: Did you find it hard entering such a female-dominated industry?

R: Not at all. I’m from a classical dance background so I’m used to there being a five-to-one ratio of girls to boys.  When I first started performing burlesque professionally, though I’m not a hundred percent sure, there was about seven or eight boys in the whole of Australia.  That number has probably jumped up to about 30 to 40 boys now. It’s crazy.

HS: Was it hard to book agents at first when there were so few males performing?

R: No, not at all. A lot of the female burlesque venues were like “bring it on”, they loved the fact that they could say that they had one of Melbourne’s only male burlesque performers. There were more issues with audience members.
I mean, while four-fifths of the audience love it, you’ve got those close-minded homophobic wankers that feel the need to voice their opinion. Yes, I am stripping. And yes, I’m a strip tease artist. And yes, it can be confronting – but it’s also artistic. There is always a real mix of people in the audience. I guess it’s because while there are regulars who love it, there are some who go in to the shows unsure of what they’re going to see and are shocked when they are presented with a man in front of them, stripping.

HS: Are people very vocal about their opinions?

R: I’ve been called a “faggot”, a “whore”, a “bitch”. I’ve been told to “take it off you slut”. Some guy even tried to push me off the stage. That incident was actually quite entertaining though because I pushed him right back! He fell off the stage and was escorted out. That’s another thing I guess, their behaviour is always handled so well by the MCs and security guards. There are also a lot of people who think they’re coming to King street (Melbourne’s Kings Cross equivalent – Eds) to see ‘regular’ stripping.  It’s all part of the package.

HS: What do you see as the main difference between ‘stripping’ and ‘burlesque’?

R: I respect strippers and don’t want to say anything ill of them but burlesque has a distinct focus on the art of tease and the art of stripping. Whereas I find with stripping it’s more vulgar. For me, stripping is not so much about how you take your clothes off, it’s just simply about getting the clothes off. In burlesque you have to constantly ask yourself – how can I remove this item creatively and still look glamorous and attractive?

HS: How do you go about creating your acts?

R: I start with a concept or a costume concept then I find music to suit and a costume and go from there.

HS: Which part of the country has the best burlesque ‘scene’?

R: It’s really interesting. Melbourne has the most venues that dedicate themselves to burlesque; there are four venues that specialise purely in burlesque entertainment. So for the Victorian standard of performing, you really have to be quite well trained and have a really good, solid routine. I guess I’d like to say that Melbourne is the home to the highest standard of burlesque in the country. By comparison, in Sydney there are less opportunities to book venues because there is so few specialising in burlesque. To get booked at a non-burlesque venue in Sydney, the girls and boys really have to spend a lot of money on costuming to even get noticed. So yeah, performance wise, Victoria is the best. In Sydney it’s more of a visual spectacle of costumes and props.

HS: I hear congratulations are in order, tell us about your recent win in the Mr Boylesque Australia competition.

R: This year was the first year that the popular ‘Ms Burlesque Australia’ competition introduced a category for male performers, ‘Mr Boylesque’. I was lucky enough to win. One of the most exciting things was that I was being judged and awarded my prize from Mark Windmill, the current King of Boylesque in the world. He’s actually from Queensland originally. Aussies really are making it in boylesque I guess! I’m looking forward though; I’m actually just about to perform in my first international show at the Berlin Burlesque Festival.

HS: Do you think Dita Von Teese holds an unfair monopoly over the industry’s portrayal of burlesque in mainstream media?

R: Not at all. Dita has worked so hard; it has taken her 13 to 14 years to get to where she is now. She didn’t get anything on a silver platter. She completely deserves the coverage she gets. We’re all just a bit jealous of her to be honest, you always hear “damn it that Dita von Teese again”. The issue with commercialisation of the art is actually the Cher and Christina Aguilera movie Burlesque. While it calls itself ‘burlesque’, there is no burlesque in that movie.

HS: What effect did the movie Burlesque actually have?

R: The movie created a lot of issues for the industry. In Australia it caused a surge in the number of people wanting to go to burlesque shows, but of those people many only wanted to see what was in the movie; singing, dancing, and amazing shining glittering short dresses. When the performer started the strip tease they freaked. One lady berated me after a show claiming she’d “seen the movie four times” so she knew what burlesque was, “this isn’t burlesque…it’s stripping”. I told her “Darling, burlesque started in the 1800s, it is and always will be the art of tease”.
See Raven performing in:
Harry Potter and the Curse of the Tassle Twirl
July 22, 7pm, $25
The Standard, Surry Hills