Russian Elle

2009

Costume design and construction.

Modeling. 

Collaborative work with photographer Alexo Wandel.

 

OUR TEAM

 
2010

Italian Vogue

Costume design and construction, comisioned for photoshoot with Alexo Wandel for the bridal Issue of Italian Vogue.

OUR TEAM

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Vanity Fair

2008

Costume design ,Construction

Model for photographer Tony Notarberardino

 

PERFORMING THE BURLESQUE BODY: 

TTHE EXPLICIT FEMALE BODY AS PALIMPSEST

Academic monograph for an academic press (Lexington Books) 

Author:  Dr. Lynn Sally, Associate Professor, University of the Arts (Philadelphia, USA)

 

 

.( EXERT )...

Reading to Read:  Layers as/of “Uncovering” in MsTickle’s Performance

MsTickle is an NY-based performer and designer who began performing in the late 1990s in New York City’s underground nightclub scene as a solo performer, go-go dancer, and member of the “Bombshell Girls,” a troupe she formed with a former burlesque performer and producer Lady Ace.  Through the years, MsTickle has gained a reputation as one of the most respected and innovative neo-burlesque performers, known for her stunning costuming and props (which she designs and fabricates herself) and cutting-edge, conceptual acts.  The description of the act here comes from a video recording of a performance at the 2011 Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHOF) competition for the title of “Reigning Queen of Burlesque,” though the author witnessed this act dozens of times in venues large and small over the last decade.

MsTickle enters the stage wearing an extravagant red velvet cape, her left arm extending in front of her, fingers reaching for the light.  As she walks slowly across the stage, a long red fabric unfolds behind her, her own runway carpet attached to her body, literally (and figuratively) creating the space for her own celebrity.  A strobe light flickers on and off, mimicking light bulb flashes of the paparazzi.  A woeful moan can be heard over the electric, bass-heavy music. Right before the lyrics begin, MsTickle removes her red cloak and carpet runway and presents herself as an iconic Hollywood starlet—replete with a blond Marilyn Monroe-esque wig and a plastered smile—as she struts around the stage waving and blowing kisses to her hypothetical fans.  She wears a gold, sequined “wiggle” gown—a form-fitting design with fishtail curved bottom that exaggerates a woman’s curves—opera-length red satin gloves, and a red bolero jacket.  The back of the dress features a large bow covered with rhinestones that glitter in the stage lights.

MsTickle’s movement gains meaning when juxtaposed against the song’s longing lyrics.  MsTickle removes one glove slowly, and then her bejeweled necklace as the lyrics lament mortality and what it takes to achieve celebrity:  “If I could live forever/I wouldn’t ask what price: fame” (Kinzie, 2004).   MsTickle struts for a few beats, and then removes her other glove to the chorus:  “I want to be a superstar/I want to have a house on sunset/you’ll only see me afar” (Kinzie, 2004).  She wraps the gloves around her wrists and lifts her arms in pseudo-bondage, wiggling her body in mock seduction as she faces the audience, front, and center.  Her face is expressionless, fixed on a one-night smile that hints at the frivolity of celebrity culture.

As the song takes an instrumental break, MsTickle leans forward and lets the red bolero jacket fall off of her body.  While stooped over at the waist, she unzips her gold gown, steps out of it, removes her blond wig, and peels off the mask featuring the fixed-smile painted face.  MsTickle stands upright again, pausing in mid-pose, her arms bent at her sides, hands reaching towards the audience.  Here the audience sees that underneath the Hollywood starlet mask is another mask and another iconic figure: a blow up doll.  Wearing a full body, plastic blow-up doll suit with exaggerated lips sculpted into a permanent phallus-receptive “O,” MsTickle’s movement changes from the beautiful, fluid gestures of the Hollywood starlet greeting her fans to the mechanical, stilted, and explicit gestures of the blow-up doll come to life.  MsTickle teeters around the stage with unstable physicality, pausing numerous times to execute a number of obscene gestures, including fellatio, fisting, and exaggerated mechanical masturbation.  The lyrics contribute to her message:  “I’m public property sacrifice me/let there be no mystery you have made me/I am the main attraction kept in a gilded cage” (Kinzie, 2004).  

Next MsTickle literally peels herself out of the blow-up-doll suit and mask to reveal a woman wearing thigh-high boots, a tiny thong, and pasties fabricated from baby bottle nipples making her real breasts appear exaggerated and cartoonish.  She celebrates her liberation from the confining artifice by rubbing her hands seductively on her body, flipping her (natural) hair around, and luxuriating in her own body.  She digs into her tiny g-string, removes a lipstick which she uses to touch up her makeup before turning it onto her own body as she writes on her exposed midriff:  “For Sale.”  She waves to the audience, blowing kisses, returning to the physicality of the Hollywood starlet image from which she began the act.  

MsTickle’s performance is very much a commentary of mainstream culture’s obsession with celebrity culture as well as a startling reminder of the continued commodification of women’s bodies in our society.  MsTickle (2013) has identified the ‘layers” in this act as a process of “uncovering”.  Underneath the masks and beneath the layers are more layers—shocking, unexpected, explicit—suggesting that a core might never be reached.  MsTickle (2013) added the runway for the Burlesque Hall of Fame competition partially to “take up more space” but also to help “set up the narrative,” a narrative that plays with the image and “icon of glamour and vanity, all the stuff we are taught to admire and aspire to.”  MsTickle (2013) specifically used the “blow-up doll as sex object” to suggest that “underneath all that glamour begs the question: how much are we selling ourselves for?”  Underneath the female body as sex object is another layer “that is a real body but it’s still stripperesque” (MsTickle, 2013).  MsTickle consciously choose to continue this theme of sexual display as a commentary on objectification, and ultimately identity, by asking: “When we strip down the layers, what’s underneath?” (MsTickle, 2013)  She answers this question, to some degree, in the final moments of the act by writing her message, literally, on her bare body:  “For Sale.”  In the context of the narrative of this act, this simple message has, like the layers removed, layers itself.  

This description of MsTickle’s act comes from a performance at the Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHOF) competition, a large-scale, “high stakes” show that occurs once a year in Las Vegas, Nevada.  MsTickle’s act represents, par excellence, the radical type of performance that has come to represent much of the neo-burlesque movement.  Radical burlesque is often located in small-scale venues, performances that provide the potential to circumvent traditional narratives of desire and sexuality.  In venues like the Slipper Room described at the beginning of this articles, the “anything goes,” in-the-moment liveness encourages performer experimentation.  Performers use the active participation from the audience to help develop their acts and ideas – what the audience responds to becomes part of the act; what “doesn’t work” gets nixed.  In this way, the live performance is also a rehearsal of sorts, a duality evident in much popular performance.

In Dodds’ (2011]) discussion of burlesque as popular performance, she offers that more “commercially” successful burlesque performers put forth a more “conservative image” while artists in “smaller” scale venues “prove far more radical.”  I agree with Dodds that radical burlesque performance often bubbles up in unassuming places and that commercially driven performances often, on the surface, pushes less boundaries.  (A quick survey of fringe and underground art throughout the decades clearly suggests that art tends to lose its edge when it becomes commodified and packaged for a mainstream audience.)  As Dodds (2011 , p. 113) sums it up:  “the less the performance disturbs, the wider the audience it attracts.”

MsTickle’s act on the BHOF stage simultaneously proves and complicates Dodds’ argument.  Although this type of act is, for many, what’s compelling about and representative of neo-burlesque, it is unlikely that MsTickle’s act would normally be accepted to compete in the “Reigning Queen of Burlesque” category at BHOF.  MsTickle was guaranteed a highly coveted performance spot in 2011 because the prior year she had won the “Best Newbie” category at the competition.  Upon winning, MsTickle (2013) says she “knew instantly” she wanted to do her blow-up doll act the next year: “I wanted to represent my work, and represent people doing interesting, conceptual stuff.”  At BHOF, if an act diverges from classic burlesque, it tends to be in the realm of variety acts, which celebrate skill-set diversity more so than body, race, age, and performance-style diversity.  MsTickle (2013) specifically picked a number that “was not classic” and “not just trying to be beautiful”.  “especially coming from New York City where [burlesque] used to be commentary, political, cutting edge,” MsTickle (2013) considered it her “duty” to represent the performance art side of burlesque.  

Taken out of the context of a small-scale venue and placed on the stage of the BHOF competition, MsTickle’s act gains new meaning as a direct commentary about the beauty ideal embedded within the beauty pageant structure of the competition.  Dodds understandably aligns radical performance with small-scale venues, and that’s likely where MsTickle’s act was born.  But maintaining this strict division between commercial and small-scale burlesque seems to limit rather than expand its radical potential and opportunities for gender expression.  By removing the possibility of political efficacy in commercial burlesque, or by containing radical burlesque to small-stage cabaret venues, we lose some of burlesque’s radical potential.  We lose the playful juxtaposition of serious issues with trivial theatrics.  We lose the pleasure in the delightful absurdity of competing for the “Reigning Queen of Burlesque” as a giant blow-up doll.  And we lose burlesque’s celebration of frivolity as central to its creative spirit.  

The burlesque stage offers a place where radical reconfiguring of social inequalities can get performed.  MsTickle’s act, then, becomes both a protest and a celebration of the explicit female body; one that gains new meaning in the more “commercial” context of the BHOF stage.  MsTickle’s performance specifically, and neo-burlesque more broadly, represents par excellence the new kind of gender expression that Jack Halberstam celebrates as “Gaga feminism”.  Gaga feminism is a “symbol of a new kind of feminism” embodied in (but not reducible to) the pop figure Lady Gaga that has opened up a space for reinvented representations of gender.  Halberstam (2013, p. xii) suggests that Lady Gaga is a “loud voice for different arrangements of gender, sexuality, visibility, and desire,” arrangements which similarly play themselves out on the neo-burlesque stage in challenging and provocative ways  As Halberstam puts it:

these feminists are ‘becoming women’ in the sense of coming to consciousness, they are unbecoming women in every sense—they undo the category rather than rounding it out, they dress it up and down, take it apart like a car engine and then rebuild it so that it is louder and faster (2013, p. xiii). 

 

This metaphor of “undoing” the category of “women”, “dressing it up,” and “rebuilding” it so that it is “louder and faster” as an apt way to think about the performance of gender politics and the politics of gender performance on the neo burlesque stage.  

I want to suggest that gender—and more specifically hyper-stylized representations of gender—can be used to destabilize rather than simply reinscribe gender norms.  As Halberstam (2013, p. xi) puts it, Gaga feminism “strives to wrap itself around performances of excess, crazy, unreadable appearances of wild genders; and gender experimentation.”  This presentation of self manipulates preexisting iconography, but it is through that decontextualization and reconfiguration that gender representations become self-authored.  In the case of MsTickle’s multi-layered performance, she uses starling gender stereotypes to make a bold commentary about the continued oppression of women while telling a narrative of self-transformation and liberation from that oppression.  It may seem like an oxymoron that the body—and specifically explicit or extreme representations of the female body—can be used to destabilize gender norms.  But that’s exactly what I’m suggesting here:  the exploitation of sexuality via the signifiers of gender normally ascribed to patriarchy can be used as a tool to unpack that same system.  

Through her “excessive performance,” Ms. Tickle “dismantles the character of woman”:  the female body is “taken apart” quite literally through “layers” and put back together and it is in and through that body that traditional gender stereotypes are simultaneously reinscribed and challenged.  MsTickle as performer is able to use her characters to make poignant social commentary.  It is this blending of performer and character, one of the four qualities of popular performance explicated here, which allows the burlesque performer the space and place to invent her own narratives of gender and desire.  The layers in this performance—both literal and figurative—expose the fallacy that one is ever able to transcend what the female body signifies in our patriarchal culture while simultaneously suggesting transformation is possible.  MsTickle’s bare body serves as a canvas – a palimpsest – on which she writes a message of both political protest and artistic provocation:  “For Sale”.  The audience is forced to think about this provocative message all while consuming MsTickle’s bare body in its power, beauty, and sexual allure.  

The bare body in burlesque can be read as a type of palimpsest.  A palimpsest is a writing surface on which the original writing has been erased to make room for new writing; despite erasure, remnants the original writing remain and become part of the canvas of the new text.  

In this final scene, and in burlesque more broadly, the explicit female body serves as a palimpsest.  A palimpsest is a manuscript or 

Ultimately, MsTickle’s performance suggests that the remnants of patriarchy are still legible, even in self-authored contexts such as this one.  By acknowledging those traces of patriarchy are always already subtexts of public performance of gender, both staged and real, the explicit female body on stage as palimpsest offers a counter-narrative that flaunts, teases, and throws those very same assumptions to the wind.  This helps us understand the transgressive and libratory potential of striptease in burlesque which, on the surface, may appear counter to feminist ideology.  The productive quality here, according to Willson, comes from the burlesque performer who intentionally makes a spectacle of her desirable body:  “By looking at the spectator in the eye and smiling she is mocking, teasing, and challenging the spectator as well as pleasurably and actively affirming, ‘making a spectacle’ out of her desiring/desirable sexual self.”   In making a spectacle of her desiring/desirable body, MsTickle gains—as is true of many burlesque performers—delight in her body.  That final liberation from her blow-up doll artifice unleashes a physical and psychic release.  The performer gaining pleasure in her displayed body similarly invites spectators to consume the unveiled female form, a pleasurable delight.  And yet the story told with that explicit body, especially in MsTickle’s narrative, forces the spectators to think about the message.  The bare female body can be a tool for provocation, for politics, for powerful reimaginings of gender expression.  Femininity is heightened, exaggerated, and put on display—so actively, vividly, completely—performances that do not reduce women to one singular gender expression but rather open up the possibility that self-expression comes in many forms, and the limitlessness of burlesque represents this boundless possibility. 

Carolee Schneeman famously said “I am both image-maker and image. The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, but it is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture discovered by my creative female will.”  Halberstam (2013, p. xii) similarly argues that Gaga is a “media product and a media manipulator,” that she represents “both an erotics of the surface and an erotics of flaws and flows.”  Put quite simply, the female artist can be both subject and object; the creator of the image is author and product.  The explicit female body serves as a palimpsest, and when those reimagined images get “written over in a text of stroke and gesture”, as Schneeman puts it, or “rebuilding the car engine” as Halberstam puts it, we still see the marks from that which has been erased.  It is impossible to remove the explicit female body from what it represents, from what it signifies.  And yet, if we think about the explicit female body on stage as a palimpsest, that remainder is a necessary possibility for its very being.

 

 

In my study, the “manuscript” is the body on stage – fully possessed, extravagant, loud, excessive, teasing, alluring – expressing “shaped behavior” that transcends social norms of acceptable public behavior.  The body strips down and lays bare not only skin but politics and ideas and, quite literally, the psyche of the performer.  Constructing “a reading” of that body as manuscript requires reading the “incoherencies,” the “ellipses”, the “faded” text, and even full erasures.  Elsewhere I’ve argued that the explicit body on stage in burlesque serves as a palimpsest on which traces of “historic renderings of the [female] body remain, but the burlesque performer is able to ‘rewrite’ her own image on top of those remnants, a reinscription that has the potential to cream volumes in its transgression of social norms” (forthcoming).  

That metaphor serves us well here, as it suggests that all readings of that performance require a “thick description” not only of what the body does on stage but the “background information” that makes that performance meaningful.  When the female body is using striptease as a performance strategy and a political tool, that “background information” includes historical antecedents of the exploitation of the female body for material gain.    In my thick description, the exaggerated wink and the invisible wink operate  tandom to produce meaning in burlesque.  Central to understanding that invisible wink is unpacking that simultaneity, that even the “serious” sensuality on stage is also a rehearsed version, an unintentional parody of sexual excess. 

 

 

 

 

 

Staple Street Project 

Costume Design and modeling for a photographic project. NYC gallery