Nerdlesque Will Make Your Geek Heart Dance: an Interview with Jo Jo Stiletto and Sailor St. Claire

When I caught wind of Emerald City Comicon’s special event, “Guardians of the Sexy: a Geeky Celebration in Burlesque,” my heart soared. Geeky burlesque, aka “nerdlesque”? Yes! I am so there! And then I tried to buy tickets and discovered they were sold out, and I was sad. When I heard how awesome the show was, I wept salty salty tears. There was a Morpheus act (I’m a huge Sandman fan edit: I mean “Matrix” fan in this case, but I do love both); there was a Saga act (D’oh! I love that too); there was a Rat Queens act (ditto, huge fan); there was even Dobby from Harry Potter (omg, you’re killin’ me here). Did I mention salty tears because I missed this? Are you crying now too?

Dry your tears! Fortunately for both of us, geeky burlesque—aka “nerdlesque” aka “awesome”—is a thing, and it is not just a thing that happens one time per year at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle.

It does happen in Seattle a lot, though, and for that I feel really lucky. After ECCC, I got on a mailing list, and when I heard about “Goblins and Glitter: a Nerdlesque Tribute to ‘The Labyrinth,'” I squealed and bought tickets immediately. I was not disappointed. I was transported back to one of my most beloved childhood movies, albeit a grown-up, almost naked version. I love burlesque. (Not familiar with burlesque? Don’t worry, read on! Also, check out “A Wink and a Smile.”) I find it both fun and empowering to watch, and the performers I know feel similarly. It’s moving, powerful, critical, sassy, playful, beautiful, intellectual … I could go on.

Therefore, I’m excited to bring you an interview with two of Seattle’s nerdlesque stars: Jo Jo Stiletto, burlesque producer and Professor of Nerdlesque, and Sailor St. Claire, burlesque performer and producer. Sailor just finished her latest production of “Accio Burlesque! A Burlesque Tribute to Harry Potter,” and Jo Jo and Sailor are currently working on an October reprisal performance of their 2013 show “Bechdel Test Burlesque” in conjunction with GeekGirlCon.

(Fair warning: some of the visual content and links below may be considered NSFW.)

First, why nerdlesque? Where did this genre of burlesque come from?

JO JO:  Nerdlesque was a term that was coined probably sometime in 2010 or 2011 to respond to the growing number of “nerdy” themed burlesque shows. It sure is a catchy term. It really describes burlesque that is rooted in geeky or nerdy subjects or themes. To some, that means pop culture, video games, comics and the like. Others might include math and science or really anything they are deeply obsessed with, like reading or steampunk. Example of shows I’d consider Nerdlesque: “Whedonesque Burlesque” or “A Nude Hope: A Star Trek Themed Burlesque” or “Accio Burlesque,” a Harry Potter themed show.

Nerdlesque explores and critiques our relationship with pop culture at a time when women’s voices are often excluded from creating those same pop culture properties.

I like to think that burlesque is often slightly ahead of cultural trends. Thus, the boom in nerd culture in general was and is being reflected in burlesque. Instead of finding inspiration from classic pin up girls to create acts, modern burlesque performers are finding inspiration in a wider range of icons and ideas. Burlesque is beyond the Bettie Page retro revival now. There is room on stages for the performers who connect more with, maybe, Agent Scully as an icon. Pop culture is influencing burlesque in a more visible and significant way than what was happening from 1995-2010. Some have called this the second wave of neo-burlesque.

Jo Jo Stiletto
Jo Jo Stiletto

Nerdlesque explores and critiques our relationship with pop culture at a time when women’s voices are often excluded from creating those same pop culture properties. It’s often sexually charged but also can explore a wider range of emotions. For example, performer Sin d la Rosa created an act for Whedonesque Burlesque that explored the exploitation of Asian culture in “Firefly” while keeping Asian bodies invisible to the watcher. Burlesque uses the body to tell a story and I can think of no better way than to illustrate that powerful message Sin was trying to relate to the audience.

To be clear, though, burlesque has always been influenced by pop culture, both historically and in the modern expression. I think mainstream media reads burlesque as “classic lady with fans.” Think of the the movie “Burlesque.” But, really, it’s always been a very politically, sexually charged reaction to politics and pop culture. I’m sure Sailor can elaborate on what was happening in early era of American burlesque and how we are echoing that today. See Lydia Thompson and Her British Blondes and their burlesque “plays”. I loved a button I saw on another performer that said “Nerdlesque: taking burlesque back to its pop culture roots.”

ALSO: read this!

Sailor St. Claire, image (c)MeneldorPhotography
Sailor St. Claire

SAILOR: Nerdlesque is really just a useful term to describe the recent proliferation of pop-culture centric burlesque acts, but acts that reference popular culture have existed on some level in every form of burlesque. Burlesque as a genre comes to America in 1868 when a female theatre troupe called Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes came to the US to perform parodies of classical dramas in drag. The most scandalous thing about their shows was that the audience could see the shape of women’s legs when they performed the “breeches” roles in the show. Given that pop culture in the mid-19th century was classical drama, as the US had only been producing its own cultural products for just under 100 years at the time, these shows were doing what contemporary nerdlesque essentially does: using pop culture properties to comment on the current cultural climate. Thompson’s shows poked fun at government, gender roles, etc.

In the 1950s and 1960s, what we consider to be the “golden age” of burlesque, performers like Dixie Evans and April March performed celebrity impersonation acts. Dixie performed as Marilyn Monroe, and did acts that satirized how she became a star by manipulating the “casting couch” and even a kind of slash fiction act where a young Norma Jean fantasized about Elvis.

What Lydia Thomson and Dixie Evans were doing isn’t quite the same as doing a striptease as a Ninja Turtle (which my friend Katie Angel does), but the roots are similar. Nerdlesque seems to be the natural evolution of burlesque’s historical ties to pop culture: if our genre is about using our bodies to write new stories, to satirize and critique our culture, then pop culture properties are the way to do that. Many of us performing burlesque today, and especially those interested in Nerdlesque, grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Our whole lives are mediated by our experiences with pop culture in ways that previous generations have not been, so it seems only natural to me that the kinds of stories we find ourselves drawn to are less about classical archetypes and more about making ourselves into the heroes and characters we grew up with, either because we love them and want to narrate ourselves through them, or because we don’t think Black Widow gets enough credit and we need to show how powerful she really is—and how that power is tied to her femininity.

What drew you to nerdlesque, personally?

JO JO: In 2005, the second burlesque act I ever created was about math and calculators. I was exploring, at that time, what I found “extremely sexy” and my answer was: Math. Mostly because I’m quite terrible at math. But brainy has always been “sexy,” right? Back then, that act just added to the variety in a show. Now, you’ll see entire shows with math or sciences themes. I think the difference now is that audiences are responding. We’ve become a culture that understands that nerdy can be sexy. We’ve also become a culture that accepts fan art and fan expressions as having value. Example: in 2006 you didn’t talk about how you read X-Files fanfiction. But, today, you make an entire burlesque show about the X-Files, or the Burl-X-Files, and you sell out many nights AND uses X-Files fanfiction tropes in that show. There is less stigma around waving your geek flag. I’m in love with nerdlesque because it allowed me to come out of my self-impossed nerd closet.

Plus, while cosplay is a very valuable aspect of fan culture, burlesque allows performers to explore new territory. We are going beyond creating carbon copies of characters and diving deep into what makes those characters tick. Sometimes we are giving our own take, changing how they character is written to comment or critique. Example: I’m not interested in seeing someone strip as Buffy the Vampire Slayer to her theme song. She means too much to me and my audience. They want to see her and have fun but they are also strongly emotionally tied to her. What does the performance tell us about Buffy and our own fandom? I was much happier to work with a performer exploring the idea of “what happened when Buffy jumped into the rift at the end of season 5?” or “what would Buffy do if she slayed all the vampires and got to go to…Disneyland?”

To me, nerdlesque is a giddy, exhilarating, emotional exploration of our relationship with our pop culture obsessions and we get to use our entire body to tell that story to an audience.

SAILOR:  My first nerdlesque number was a Star Trek number based on “The Trouble with Tribbles.” The theme of the show my troupe was doing was “Sci-Fi.” Each of us interpreted it differently, but a number of us thought of specific pop culture characters rather than abstract concepts. That number is somewhere in between. I wasn’t a character, but I was doing a riff off of something I saw on a TV show. But what drew me to it is that I really loved that episode, and I thought it was a clever way to make a joke about pubic hair (since Tribbles really do get everywhere). I grew up in a Trek household, and that episode was referenced a lot in my house. Since then, I’ve done nerdlesque numbers as Black Widow, Willow Rosenberg, Phillip J. Fry, Beverly Crusher, Mallory Archer/Lucille Bluth, and the spaceship Serenity from Firefly.

Most of my burlesque numbers are what I like to call conceptual classic, in that they are parade and peels in the mid-century style guided by some sort of structuring concept other than “pretty girl takes off her clothes.” So when I perform nerdlesque, it’s because I really love the character or because I want to tell a story about that person that hasn’t been told. For Beverly [Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation], it was really important for me to tell a story where she got to be feminine because she spent so much of TNG being denied romance, placed in the position of a mother, a widow, and a scientist. I wanted to do something that showed her feminine side that we so rarely got to see. I just love Phillip J. Fry [from Futurama] because he’s very much the opposite of me, but he’s also very sweet and genuine, so I wanted to do a number about him that took his genuine sweetness to an extreme level . . . where he ends up taking a shower in Slurm. I really want to do a Jane Jetson number someday, but that hasn’t happened yet!

As performers, we bond with each other backstage over these fandoms. And we bond with our audiences online and at the show just by making these little pieces of fan art for them.

As a producer, nerdlesque sells tickets. It is much easier to market a nerdlesque show because you already have a built-in audience, and as a result, I can often pay people in my nerdy shows more than in my less nerdy shows. Fan studies guru Henry Jenkins argues that fannish products like fan fiction, vids, etc. are inherently anti-capitalist because they’re based on the pleasures of sharing and community-building. That’s where I think nerdlesque differs from other fannish products a little bit. It is sharing and community-building, that’s for sure. As performers, we bond with each other backstage over these fandoms. And we bond with our audiences online and at the show just by making these little pieces of fan art for them. But because it involves nudity to a degree and it is made with our names attached to it (as opposed to anonymity), we have to be compensated for it, and therefore we have to sell it as a product. But as a fringe artform, it’s still sticking it to the man in its own small way by operating on a business model of sustainability, rather than profit.

JO JO: I love your discussion of the bond between performer to performer and performers to fans. Fandom is a great connector. I’ve been involved in burlesque for ten years and I definitely feel what Sailor describes above about themed shows. Instead of just showing up and performing in a review, I am part of a mini family, brought together by our shared love of a silly TV show. Just this morning I was reminiscing while looking up at the taped X I put in my apartment window for our very first X-Files meeting, as tribute to how Mulder used to signal his informant. It’s permantly stuck to my window by now. That meeting helped forge great friendships both onstage and off. I learned Sailor was as crazy an X-Files fan as I was. I ended up meeting a super fan, Erica Fraga from LA, who flew up for the show. It was her first burlesue show. She’s since flown up to see other shows and we forged a fast friendship.

SAILOR: I’ll also add that Jo Jo is such a crazy X-Files fan that last Christmas, she made me an X-Files Nativity Scene with my Mulder & Scully action figures she had borrowed during the Burl-X-Files in 2013.

Incidentally, I also let her borrow my creepy gold plaster cast of David Duchovny’s face . . . which she gave right back after the show was over. It now hangs in my basement, which is David Duchovny’s natural habitat.

I actually met Jo Jo at the very first GeekGirlCon in 2011. I was speaking on a panel with a couple of my colleagues from UW about the fan studies work we were doing. I happened to be writing about burlesque and fandom, and I saw that Jo Jo was doing a panel on that very subject! So I Twitter stalked her until she invited me to be on the panel. And we’ve been friends ever since.

JO JO: You also happen to be a very talented performer. So it works our for all of us.

X-Files Nativity by Jo Jo Stiletto from Sailor St. Claire
X-Files Nativity by Jo Jo Stiletto, gifted to Sailor St. Claire

This discussion brings up so much of my own nerdy fan excitement, and it made me realize how much more engaged I’ve been with nerdlesque performances than with other shows I’ve been to. I’ve not been to a burlesque performance I didn’t enjoy, but with nerdlesque I feel like part of the conversation rather than simply an enraptured observer. Because of my own fan interests, the performers and I have a common vocabulary that I use to get deeper into the show. Have you found that the nerdlesque show audiences are unique or different in any ways from more “standard” (if you can call them that!) burlesque shows?

JO JO: Well, I’m completely biased. I’ve seen all types of shows excel in engaging audiences but I’m particularly fond of how easy it is for a nerd audience to feel “part of the family.” This is probably why I’ve gone so far down the nerdlesque rabbit hole. I love making a family backstage and connecting that same feeling to an audience. Let me explain.

The very first review of my nerdlesque work included this statement from the writer, “the production value of Whedonesque Burlesque exceeded quantitative measure.” I was very proud of that moment. She shared in her review the feeling of sitting with like-minded strangers and striking up conversation. She also talked about reading words in the program about how much watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer had helped my friend Ed understand his own PTSD. It was the audience that helped our show succeed. This was not the best burlesque show. It was the one made for JUST THIS AUDIENCE and no one else. It was ours, the performers and the audience. Burlesque audiences often respond with “that show was so much fun” but nerdlesque audiences tend to say things like “thank you so much for understanding me” or “I actually cried!” In burlesque we often talk about how to make an act that is accessible to all audiences. That’s wonderful. In nerdlesque, I only care about the 150 people who love that fandom as much as I do. To quote Joss Whedon “I’d rather make a show 100 people need to see, than a show that 1000 people want to see.”

Shanghai Pearl - Saga - ECCC - Jules Doyle, Type2BPhoto
The Shanghai Pearl performing an act based on Saga. [Image courtesy Jo Jo Stiletto.]
Plus, when you have a foundation to play with it’s often much easier for an artist to get their message across in less than 5 minutes. At Emerald City Comicon we had a performer do an act inspired by Saga. She used the song “Elastic Heart.” She shed her wings and her horns on the stage. And there is a bit of a twist on the end that can be read as either very beautiful or very horrible (or both). If you know that comic, it’s all a bit of a gut punch. Like, I was openly weeping in rehearsal. I read the act as being about the price of war, about the things we must give up of ourselves, and about standing triumphant in the end. For those who aren’t familiar with the comic, it still works but perhaps they read what I saw or perhaps they just saw a very unique, artful expression of power and loss. But, man, those Saga fans were exceptionally, positively vocal on Twitter afterwards.

When coaching brand new performers I often say that performing burlesque is like jumping off a cliff and hoping the ohhs and ahhs of the audience will lift you up. In nerdlesque, I feel like that audience is right there waiting to help make the show a success. It’s our job to work very hard to earn it.

Other random things we’ve yet to touch on: Rat Queens burlesque exists and is awesome.

Also, a group of burlesque performers in Seattle started a “Female Focused (but not female exclusive) comic book brunch club” called Nobody Puts Baby in a Refrigerator. It’s a hoot.

SAILOR: Nerdlesque audiences are already primed to love something, so when you’re performing for an audience that’s just excited to hear a favorite (or hated!) character’s name announced by the host, you as a performer are automatically set up for a really responsive crowd. They want to love you because you are embodying the thing they love, and that’s a really great feeling. Nerdlesque crowds are some of my favorite as a performer because they’re so much fun to perform for. I mean, each year at “Accio,” people are excited to see me walk onstage as JK Rowling. If they’re that excited to meet Jo, imagine how excited they are for Harry or Ron or the Whomping Willow.

Fans like that are the best part of doing this. They allow us to entertain them, to bring their fandom to life. And it’s so cool to be a facilitator in the creation of connections like that.

On opening night this year, we had two young women in the front row who practically cried with excitement over each act. You could hear them excitedly whisper to each other during my intros when they guessed what would be next. “Oh my god! Bellatrix!” “It’s Lee Jordan! We get to see Lee Jordan!” After the show, they went around and asked for photos with the entire cast. One of the women, Jazz, told me that last year was her first “Accio” and it was on her birthday. She loved the show because she felt like it was a birthday gift for her, and she was just as thrilled this year even though it wasn’t her birthday.

Fans like that are the best part of doing this. They allow us to entertain them, to bring their fandom to life. And it’s so cool to be a facilitator in the creation of connections like that.

I’ve also had some Nerdlesque fans who have started going to other burlesque shows because they enjoy Nerdlesque so much. For whatever detractors might say about nerdlesque’s value in the greater burlesque community, I had guys who saw me in Whedonesque come to see my troupe’s feminist performance art burlesque show later that year and enjoy it. Last night, a fan I’ve only seen at nerdy shows came to a monthly revue that had no Nerdlesque at all. Nerdlesque fans are becoming burlesque fans. It’s a gateway drug.

JO JO:  Those ladies sat right in front of me at the Harry Potter show. They made me feel like I was at a boy band concert. Their glee was absolutely infectious. The audience’s love is as much a part of the show as the performances.

Do you get many detractors of nerdlesque? (I find that hard to believe!)

SAILOR: There are some big names in burlesque who have characterized nerdlesque as either derivative or amateurish. And it certainly can be both of those things — but so can any burlesque. I don’t hear many detractors locally, but some folks worry that an abundance of theme shows means performers are creating acts that aren’t bookable anywhere else, which makes them appear to be both a waste of time and money. But I don’t think nerdlesque performers necessarily care about that, because they get the opportunity to make something that’s meaningful to them. And to be honest, my Serenity fan dance is my most booked act. I’ve made about 4x my investment on that act at this point. Still, while a good act of any stripe can and will be booked again, we are trying to find ways to stretch the booking ability of nerdlesque acts by creating shows like Bechdel Test or the ECCC show that Jo Jo produced this year.

JO JO: Yes, there is a stigma for some of the more established performers to think that nerdlesque is changing the definition of burlesque they worked hard to establish. In one interview I found it interesting that in the same conversation a performer spoke about how nerdy burlesque, or pop culture inspired burlesque, was erasing her hard work. But then she also talked about performing Knight Rider burleque on national televison while using one of the actual KIT cars in front of David Hasselhoff. So I really think it’s just a complete lack of understanding of WHAT exactly nerdlesque is. It’s a genre term. A word that helps us find an audience. It’s a word that says “this is for you, nerds”. Nothing more. Some shows are inpsired by the history of classic burlesque and pin up culture. Some shows are inspired by Doctor Who. Both require the same skill and affection for the subject to entertain the audience.

Bechdel Test Burlesque, interestingly, was named that because we wanted it to read as shorthand to geeky feminists as a “this is for you” show. If you don’t even know what the Bechdel Test is, that’s okay. Maybe this show isn’t for you. But, you know, if you read The Mary Sue on a regular basis, you are our target audience.

Sounds like WWAC readers are your target audience, too! So, what one or two things about nerdlesque do you wish I’d ask but haven’t yet?

JO JO: I generally want people to have access to information on how to learn about performing or see a show. So I’d want people to check out the Academy of Burlesque or various other schools on burlesque. It’s not for everyone but if you are curious there are generally “taster” style classes for people to dip their toes in, even if not explicitely about nerdlesque. And I want people to see burlesque and generally each city has a good resource to find shows, like Seattle has the Emerald City Burlesque Calendar.

Also, I also just found out I’ll be presenting at GeekGirlCon on the subject of nerdlesque. Here is the description:

Nerdlesque: Baring your Fandom

How can booty shaking, tassel twirlin’, booby jiggling change the world? The Professor of Nerdlesque presents a unique take on how burlesque is activism that promotes body positivity, self-authorship, exploration of identity, and feminist critique of both geek and pop culture. Unlike fanfiction written on the page, burlesque has the power to use the body and performance to elicit emotional response, both positive and negative, from live audiences. This presentation has material that is not appropriate for all ages.

Amanda Vail

Amanda Vail

Amanda is a staff writer for WWAC. She is also a developmental editor and copywriter in less-than-sunny Seattle. She likes to poke her nose into things, mainly manga, graphic novels, sci-fi & fantasy books, and art galleries. Then she writes about them. She also drinks a lot of coffee. Tweet her @amandamvail.