The rise in popularity of burlesque, pole-dancing as a competitive sport, the dramatic drop in pay in life-modeling due to over-saturation of the naked lady market….
Put aside the constant barrage of girl-flesh used to sell everything from cars to cereal and we’re still living in a world where the aesthetic and the female are top commodities in entertainment, culture and the sex industry.
While a hundred articles exist on the subject of exploitation of women in the pornography industry, and striptease workshops are sold as a key to ‘female empowerment’, the voices of the women being objectified are less-heard, by even those who argue against their objectification.
The assumption that women working in display professions do so because they ‘have to’ or because they are un-educated in gender politics is rife, and while the terrifying sex trafficking of unwilling men and women that occurs across the globe is an awful violation of human rights, it is short-sighted to consider every sex-worker a ‘victim’.
Peekaboo Pointe, 31, started out as a classically trained modern dancer studying under Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris Dance Group, and a host of other notable choreographers. With an early background in ballet and tap, she eventually ventured off on a rare and unusual tour of Cuba studying Afro-Cuban Dance with the group Cutumba. Since then, Peekaboo has applied her extensive knowledge of dance to the nightlife of New York City and turned it into striptease gold.
Peekaboo works as a burlesque dancer and stripper. She lives with her husband in New York City and likes Dolly Parton, tattoos and cooking extremely complicated French cuisine.
She talks to Ophelia Bitz about the semantics of striptease performance and the thrill of earning a living “shaking it for a dollar”
Can you describe your career to date and why you chose to perform both as a stripper and burlesque performer?
I have been doing burlesque for about 8 years, and I was a classically trained modern dancer with a degree in Dance and Choreography. I always thought I would be dancing with a company and thats’s where my goals lead me, but when I got there I realised that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy the work that I was doing; I enjoyed the dancing part but it just wasn’t satisfying.
I’d always been fascinated with the underbelly of dance, the lowbrow artform and stripping was just that.
I discovered burlesque in New York and once I did I was like “Oh, I get it, this is where I’m supposed to be” and I just thought I would do it every now and then and it turned into my full time job about five years ago when I quit my day job
What were you doing as your day job?
I was working in retail for Agent Provocateur. Nice high-end retail, selling panties to rich people.
But I quit that about five years ago and took the plunge into burlesque and have been able to pay my rent and bills on it.
This year I’ve been travelling a lot more, touring and doing bigger things, and about a year and a half ago I turned 30 and I had always been fascinated with strippers and strip-clubs so I decided to go and see what it was all about. I started researching strippers and tried to find a place to work. I started stripping about a year and a half ago and loved it for different reasons; I’d say it’s very different from burlesque but it’s still so similar, and the performances I do in the strip-club are pretty similar to my burlesque shows, just slightly less theatrical.
Can you describe what it’s like to watch you on stage? How do you see yourself as a performer?
My shows are sexy! I think I’m a very sensual, sexy performer and my goal is to make the audience feel like they’ve just had sex with me. I think burlesque should be sexy; I love comic burlesque and performance art but for me personally it should be sexy. If you’re to be taking your clothes off it should be enticing and alluring. You should feel a personal connection. I want my audience to be horny. It’s all about entertaining and being sexy and playful.
What differentiates a ‘burlesque’ performance and a ‘strip’ performance in your repertoire?
The way that I interact with the audience is the same; I like to make eye-contact with the audience. One of the main things I love about burlesque is that it feels like a conversation with the audience and that I couldn’t exist without them. It’s an even give and take; its about the connection that you have with them. I feel that’s the same in stripping; you can’t be on stage for the sake of being on stage, you have to have a connection with the audience because that is what will eventually make you more money. But of course in a strip club you’re going up to songs you’ve never heard before, there’s no choreography and you’re just dancing. There’s no production value. I think that the work I’ve done in the strip-club has made me a stronger burlesque performer.
Do you consider what you do (either burlesque or trad. stripping) to be sex work?
I know that technically working in a strip club is sex work but it doesn’t feel like that for me. There’s no contact, it’s basically sales, it’s really just that same as retail. You’re selling a dance with somebody and yeah they’re looking at you, objectifying you, but not in a bad way. It feels honest. I think stripping is really honest; people go to strip clubs knowing exactly what they want, and you get it. Both parties get what they agree to. It’s all on the table.
Is it hypocritical to delineate between one style of strip-tease and another? Is there a kind of squeamishness amongst burlesque performers with regards to stripping?
I think a lot of burlesque artists don’t want to admit that what they’re doing is stripping, but for me you can’t be a burlesque performer without stripping. It’s an attitude of ‘I’m better than those people’.
Have you ever felt judged negatively amongst one performance community because of your involvement in another?
I’ve only recently started to come out about my stripping work; I was really nervous about it because I didn’t want people to think that my work was changing because of it. And I didn’t want people to say “Oh well, that’s why she’s so filthy onstage” when I was just as filthy before I started stripping! It hasn’t really changed much, apart from the way I feel stronger on a burlesque stage now because of the control I have over my movements and the audience. My acts are still the same though, but I didn’t want people to think less of me or to judge me, and I feel like a lot of burlesque performers would. Because they’re “better than that”, and they don’t “have to work in a strip club”
It’s mean; there are so many negative connotations but for me it’s not filthy work at all. I really enjoy it.
Apart from make-up and costume, do you have any disguise or character that you step into before you go on stage, either in burlesque shows or strip clubs?
No, I go out as myself. I feel like I’m more my honest self when I’m on stage. I’m a pretty shy person in my daily life and I feel like I can express my true self when I’m on stage. There’s no character; I have a couple of acts that could be seen as character acts but it’s just another facet of my personality.
I think a lot of strippers will tell people what they think they want to hear but I don’t, and I actually think it’s better that way. I want my strip club work to be honest like my burlesque work. The minute I stop enjoying it, that’s when I stop working. I don’t tell lies in the strip club; when people ask me if I’m married I say “Yes”, or “How old are you?” “31; you believe it?”, “Why are you working here?” “Because I love it!”
I find that it’s more fun for both parties when you’re honest and upfront.
Would you recommend stripping as a career?
No. Not unless like me there was something inside you burning for years and years and years wanting to try it out. You can always just work a day and try it out and never go back. I wouldn’t recommend burlesque as a career either; I think you have to be slightly crazy to venture into a career in any performing arts and it’s not an easy way to make a living. It’s really satisfying if that’s your passion but I wouldn’t recommend it!
I think I know the answer to this one anyway but…What do you get more out of; the confidence and strength to go and take your clothes off and dance for an audience, or being a self-employed business woman?
Self-employed business woman! Taking your clothes off is easy, I don’t even find it necessarily ’empowering’, it’s just the medium I’ve chosen to work in.
This is a conversation I have with people a lot, about ‘Oh you’re so brave to get up on stage!’, but actually it’s doing my own accounts that makes me feel like I’m kicking ass. Performance is a compulsion! It’s an illness!
It is an illness! You have to be really fucking nuts to try it. The most empowering part of it is that I make my living from it, I don’t have an agent, I do my own bookings, I’ve been able to travel the world. That’s what is empowering. I could be performing anything, clothed or unclothed, and it wouldn’t matter if I was making my living from it. It’s pretty cool.
What plans do you have for the future as a performer and/or sex worker?
I’d like to travel more, I want to start working on doing burlesque in a different way and I have been working on an evening-length performance with no MC where the evening just flows, in the style of contemporary dance but with burlesque movements. Hopefully I can get some funding and do it as a theatre show. I want to see where else burlesque can go artistically outside of the format of the host, the girls, the four minute acts.
With my sex work I just want to do it until I stop, to try out new styles; I’ve been working in a club in Brooklyn which I really really love. It’s like mom and pop’s strip-club! There are beautiful people that own it, and I find it comforting there, but I want to try out clubs in other parts of the world. Every club is so different.
What was it like working in London?
The club I worked had one English girl and me, and everyone else was an international worker. Stripping can be a great avenue for travel, because nobody cares if you have papers and you can work anywhere. It’s interesting that way.
Have you ever seen any cases where working illegally has caused problems or danger for women?
I haven’t personally seen it, but we’ve all heard stories.
There’s one sad strip club discovery that I made in New York, which is The Rush. There are a lot of Polish and Russian immigrants who get brought in with the promise of work, and they are pretty much sex slaves. I was working in a club in Queens and they said “Oh, The Rush is here”, and I asked what they were talking about, and saw a bus full of Russian women come in. They never know really where they’re going or where they’re working, they just get put on a bus, dropped off and picked up again. It was a little disturbing; I quit the day after that. The women obviously didn’t have any control over where they were going and that was upsetting to me. Not good at all.