February 14, 2018 Arts » Cover story

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Charlotte's Burlesque Scene Remains on the Cusp of a Breakthrough 

Such a tease

Sitting at Ru San's on a recent night, Laura Mullaney is hardly recognizable from the time I had met her before.

Her short-cropped hair forms a wave where I thought I remembered shiny black bangs framed by a bouncy bob hairdo. As she has just left her day job in the beauty industry, her outfit and jewelry are also noticeably toned down compared to the time we met at Creative Loafing's 2017 Best of Charlotte party.

This all makes sense, however, because I had never really met Mullaney — I had met Hellcat Harlowe.

Mullaney is a burlesque performer, and Hellcat Harlowe is her stage name; although alter ego would also be a fitting word.

I'm sitting in a booth in the back of the Japanese sushi and cuisine spot with Mullaney as we try to escape the noise on a night that's surprisingly busy for 9:30 on a Wednesday. Mullaney is describing the paradox of misconceptions that she faces as a burlesque performer in Charlotte, both from the population at large and from within her own small community.

While burlesque can be seen as taboo among Charlotte's more basic crowds — a show filled with smut, carried out by freaks on the fringe of the city's nightlife — some burlesque performers try to overcorrect on that stereotype, she says, which isn't right to her, either.

click to enlarge Hellcat Harlowe. (Photo by Kenny Kivett)
  • Hellcat Harlowe. (Photo by Kenny Kivett)

"It's twofold. There's the misconception that it's this rampant sex show, but there's also this [other] misconception — and part of that is just that some people market themselves that way — that it's not the strip club. And I'm like, if our show is what you came to as a safe alternative, you're in the wrong place," she says.

"You shouldn't think while you're there," she goes on. "You should maybe be a little out of your comfort zone while you're there, but nobody wants to see The Lawrence Welk Show with tits."

I'm meeting with Mullaney as she prepares for her bi-monthly burlesque show at Hattie's Tap & Tavern on February 16. To be clear, the show doesn't include nudity, but it certainly includes its share of undressing.

She says she's bothered by the readiness of some burlesque performers to try to distance themselves from other performers who take their clothes off for a living.

"I feel like there's been this misconception nationwide, but also locally, that burlesque is somehow very separate from what happens at a gentlemen's club and that it's somehow classier, and that's kind of a shitty misnomer," she says. "Because if we're all about feminine power and body parts, why are we looking down on these people working at a gentlemen's club? We're all taking our clothes off. We're strippers. People say, 'Well at least I'm not a stripper.' Yeah, you are. You're taking your clothes off. By definition, you're a stripper."

Annie Vereen, founder and dance instructor at AFV Exotic Arts, will be performing alongside Hellcat Harlowe as Veritas Veridien on Friday night. Vereen teaches everything from "classic burlesque to stripper style," as she puts it, but considers all of it an art.

Whatever side of the classiness spectrum you see yourself on, Vereen says, it's important to own it. Too many of her clients tell her that they lie about attending her classes, telling their significant others or friends that they're attending a yoga class when they're actually learning burlesque or pole dancing.

Veritas Veridien. (Photo by Christopher Donald)
  • Veritas Veridien. (Photo by Christopher Donald)

Until burlesque performers — experienced or up-and-coming — truly value themselves as artists, Vereen says, it will be hard to find people outside of the community who value them.

"As artists, we're very technical strippers," she says. "We have to know how the costume is going to come off and we have to rehearse. People do need to view us as artists. This is our art form and we deserve to be compensated what we deserve."

Vereen says she's too often found herself taking offers far below what she's worth because it's so rare to get an offer at all that she feels the need to accept.

"They want you to show up and perform for two hours but they really don't want to pay you anything," she says. "They don't consider the time, the money you're putting into the costume, the time to rehearse, the time to travel, all the gas. So yeah, its hard. You want to get the gig, you want to get the experience and the networking, but people really don't want to pay you."

In recent years, the closing of small and mid-level venues have hit burlesque performers and others on the fringe of the local arts scene especially hard. Places like UpStage in NoDa and Amos' Southend hosted burlesque shows and different types of fringe arts performances before shutting down.

Of the remaining venues, many don't want to get involved with burlesque. Vereen says she regularly approaches the manager of a venue where she's hanging out if she thinks it would be great for a burlesque show. She recalls that multiple times the response has been a nervous laugh or defensive justifications for why it wouldn't be a good fit.

Mullaney, who spent nine years performing burlesque at high-end events in Knoxville, Tennessee, before moving to Charlotte, says she's been perplexed by the cold reaction of Charlotte's more well-known venues.

"I have sent out press kits to just about every charity, every kind of museum, hotels that have charity balls, themed events, all of it," she says, sounding exasperated. "Nothing. I've gotten nothing. I never hear back, or I get, 'Thank you for your interest, we'll keep you informed.'"

In fact, the difficulty in booking shows has led one of Charlotte's most well-known burlesque acts to hit the road.

Deana Pendragon, known by most as Big Mamma D of Big Mamma's house of Burlesque, has been performing in Charlotte for 12 years, ever since establishing the first regular burlesque show in North Carolina. On Saturday, February 10, she hosted the 11th annual Valentease Burlesque Show with her company at Visulite Theatre. Despite her long history with Visulite, she's been heartbroken to see other venues friendly to the fringe arts scene shut down.

Big Mamma’s House of Burlesque at Visulite Theatre on Feb. 10. (Photo courtesy of Deana Pendragon)
  • Big Mamma’s House of Burlesque at Visulite Theatre on Feb. 10. (Photo courtesy of Deana Pendragon)

Pendragon remembers being hung up on multiple times when she first began trying to book shows in Charlotte. Things eventually picked up, as she was able to host regular shows at venues like UpStage in NoDa.

However, now as she believes Charlotte residents have slowly warmed to the idea of burlesque and she's seen attendance grow, the lack of space for her to perform has created a different type of obstacle. "When we first started it was a moral wall, but now there just aren't enough theaters," Pendragon said. "People who are even wanting to do plays — who are just wanting to do musicals or comedy stuff — even those people are having to find breweries or warehouses or empty spaces where they can kind of move in until people show up. We just have so many breweries now, and that's fine if you're OK with performing in a corner."

Not one to be put in a corner, Pendragon is taking her talents elsewhere (at least for the time being). She and her troupe will be leaving soon to tour up and down the east coast until August, creating the longest span that Charlotte will have gone without a Big Mamma's House of Burlesque show in 12 years.

"It's surprising that my show made it this long when most nightclubs in Charlotte don't make it 10 years," she said. "It's a pretty impressive feat but it's also sad. It's a little bit of a heartbreak when you see what's happening with the theaters."

During her dozen years in Charlotte's burlesque scene, Pendragon has worked to showcase the work of others, bringing in seasoned performers from around the country or cultivating those who had never thought about burlesque.

"One of my greatest joys is having spent the last 12 years being an incubator for performers," she says. "I don't just hire someone who already knows what they're doing. I bring in somebody who's never been on a stage and I give them training in dance, training in stagecraft, training in makeup and hair and costuming. Most of the time I teach them how to sew and give them their first machine."

One such performer was Devin Adams, known on stage as Rebel. In the summer of 2014, Adams was looking to get back into performing. He had been a dancer but was looking for something new, and one of his friends told him about an audition for Big Mamma's House of Burlesque.

"I went in to audition and the rest is history," Adams says when I catch with him just a day before the big Valentease show.

click to enlarge Devin Adams, aka Rebel, performs his ‘I Love Me’ act. (Photo by Jeni Walden Lawson)
  • Devin Adams, aka Rebel, performs his ‘I Love Me’ act. (Photo by Jeni Walden Lawson)

Adams calls himself a "boylesque" performer, which simply means that he's performing burlesque as a man. When I catch up with him over the phone on the day before the big Valentease show, he's putting the finishing touches on his costume. He tells me that in the weeks and days leading up to a show, he cuts himself off from his family and friends, immersing himself in preparation so as to perfect his routine.

It's an art that's he's clearly become passionate about over the last four years.

"There's some people that don't know what it is and automatically assume that I'm a regular stripper in a strip club, and I'm like, 'Yes I am a stripper, but I'm a theatrical stripper,'" he says. "I put time and work into my costume and my choreography. We actually sit down and we read about the theme of the show. We actually come up with a concept. We actually come up with certain punchlines and things like that. It's a legit theatrical show."

And Adams is a legit theatrical performer. In 2016, he was awarded Prince of the Great Southern Exposure, a national burlesque and variety show. Then in 2017, he was crowned King of GSE. He hopes to compete in this year's Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend in Las Vegas.

Adams credits Pendragon with all his success.

"It's been an amazing journey. I see myself growing as a performer. Deana has guided me amazingly throughout the world of burlesque," Adams says. "She's the reason why I'm now traveling to other cities and states to perform my art. If it weren't for her, I would be in the dark right now. She's the reason why I've been growing more."

The reason Pendragon herself is ratcheting up her own tour schedule this year, however, is not such a positive one. She says that when she returns from her upcoming tour in August, she'll be looking for potential partners to help her open a new venue dedicated to burlesque and other theatrical or fringe art performers or troupes in the Charlotte area.

She says that attendance at her shows has been steady, if not improving, for years, and the fact that she can't find venues beyond Visulite to showcase her troupe only proves why the need for a new venue is fresh.

"Having been this incubator locally, working and working at getting something continuous going has been artistically fulfilling for me," she says. "But knowing that there's just no place to make my art anymore has been a big heartbreak."

In the meantime, Mullaney has found herself a comfortable home at Hattie's, where Friday's show, titled "Cabaret de Cooch," will mix burlesque performers like Hellcat Harlowe and Veritas Veridien with sideshow performer Saturos and drag performer Jack Dahlia. The show's theme is a "dark jazz age revue," and will range from the comedic to the uplifting. The show will open with Hellcat Harlowe performing a Black Bottom dance, taught to Mullaney by her grandmother Anna Barker, who died at 100 earlier this month.

click to enlarge Jack Dahlia. (Photo by Jack Dahlia)
  • Jack Dahlia. (Photo by Jack Dahlia)

The set of speakeasy-themed acts will be followed by a set of Depression-era tent carnival acts, which just might include some glass walking, needle play or even light bulb eating from Sarturo. Mimi Benfield will co-host as the drag king character Creepy Creeperton, a riff on the #MeToo movement.

For Mullaney, her events provide an answer to a question that's not being asked: Where do the fringe performers go? She says that even when her Hellcat Harlowe act is hired out for the rare gig here and there, she's had fun but always felt tokenized and like an oddity.

"There seems to be an arts community of people who want to put things together and they want to do art, but not that art," Mullaney says.

"I see a lot of these places that are like, 'We welcome artists.' Well, you welcome some artists. You really don't want the fringe art," she ays. "You want people doing live painting or spoken word, or maybe if you get really risqué, some people doing aerial stilts. There seems to be this divide over what is art in Charlotte. So I think that's a big part of the problem.

"Burlesque is sort of the last taboo. People that do aerial and lyra and even pole dancing and these different things, a lot of times that's a little more socially acceptable," Mullaney continues. "But then when it comes to, 'Oh, you're taking your clothes off,' burlesque becomes the odd man out. So that's kind of what I want to do at Hattie's — give a little more of a stage for people that are on the fringe of the fringe, that are doing something really unique."

Dahlia, a drag performer in the bearded lady vein, says she'd like to see more collaboration among the different arts communities, like Harlowe is doing with her how on Friday.

Dahlia started performing at 19 after entering a talent contest at Bar at 316, and now 22, already performs drag full time.

As a relatively new performer, Dahlia says she is optimistic about the future of the fringe arts in Charlotte, and feels as though she's witnessing the beginning of a bigger movement.

"The thing that's really exciting about being in Charlotte is that it's a growing city," Dahlia says. "New York or Chicago —those are already established. But Charlotte is getting bigger and bigger every month, so ridiculously fast that there's always new people looking for new stuff to do.

"A lot of those people are people who watch RuPaul's Drag Race, or people who are fans of Dita Von Teese, or people who are fans of the fringe arts already. We just have to get to them, and show them that, 'Hey, we're here.' Because up until now, it hasn't really been supported like other, more mainstream art forms in Charlotte."

Up until now, that looks to be true, but the future is in the hands of a couple of capable women.

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