Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New York's Jo Weldon is a Strip Tease Expert and Vegas Burlesque Component - An In-Depth Interview

Jo Weldon photo by Scott Shuster
This article was originally published in 
Best of Frankie Tease Magazine Vol.2, July 2013

My first chance to interview Jo Weldon was long awaited. When she announced a January trip to Vegas 2013, I knew I better pounce. Jo Weldon is busy. With a career spanning almost a couple decades in the art of strip tease and burlesque, Weldon has garnered peer respect, audience respect, and industry respect for what she does. She's been involved in the Burlesque Hall of Fame here in Vegas for many years, which is where I first met her in 2012. I remember thinking how down-to-earth she was, which was a pleasant surprise. Weldon is the first to ever write a book about how to do strip tease and burlesque called "The Burlesque Handbook". It was published in 2010 and covers everything from backstage etiquette, to crafting your own pasties. She was just voted number two on the annual "Top 50" in Burlesque at 21st Century Magazine, number three in 2011, and number three in 2010, you get the idea.

Weldon is most knowledgeable about the genre in question and is a working performer and instructor spreading the gospel all over the world. When not travelling she's at home in New York, where her School of Burlesque is located. She is the founder of the school, which she told me is a collective. I escorted Weldon from Cha Cha Velour's School of Burlesque in Las Vegas January 13, 2013 where she conducted two classes. We went to the Mirage and sat down at a Deli to chat over Borscht. Jo had a lot to say about a lot of things, and it is one of the most intense interviews I've ever had on the subject of burlesque. It might be a long one, but it's worth the read. I give you Jo Weldon.

FT: So you just traveled to Italy for burlesque, can you tell us about that?
JW: Yes. I performed in Rome at the Burlesque Festival, and then I went to teach in Milan. Italy was amazing. Lake Como. It's my first visit to Italy and my second to Europe.

FT: How many places have you performed around the world?
JW: Italy, London, Liverpool, New Zealand, Sydney and Melborne, Australia, and Canada.

FT: Is there a favorite?
JW: Melbourne has an amazing club called Red Bennies. It's just a great burlesque club. In New Zealand they have a very passionate new burlesque scene that's a lot of fun. In Italy they have a high regard for the artistry and also the history of burlesque. Of course, Italy is just gorgeous. London I didn't get to know that well but I know there is a lot of rowdy stuff because my room mate Mat Fraser (Julie Atlas Muz's husband) is there and he's a very subversive performer. And then in Liverpool, I was teaching disabled performers, including people in wheelchairs, how to perform. I also performed in a show at DaDaFest with Millie Dollar, Gina Hollywood and Anna Fur Laxis as well as Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser and Jonny Porkpie.
The Deaf and Disabled Festival wanted to bring me in because it is international and Jo King had worked with some of the people. It was not intended to be specifically a wheelchair class, but there were three people in wheelchairs in the class of five. I love all kinds of burlesque performance, but I'm really fascinated with innovative performance, of course. Disabled performers are very innovative. They bring their own very distinct physicality that you don't see anywhere else. It's beautiful. There's a lot of disabled performers and I've always been fascinated by disabled performers. I think you can go on YouTube and there is a video of these two guys doing a dance off. One can't use his legs, and the other only has one leg and they're so fierce. It's so good [watch video]. This class I taught was in the UK which is also an international community and at DaDaFest there is kind of a punk rock attitude.

FT: Can you tell me about your involvement with the "Sex Workers' Art Show" during this visit to Las Vegas, NV? JW: I came to Vegas because I used to tour with the Sex Workers' Art Show. It has a really long colorful history and has had a huge influence in the way sex workers are viewed, both socially and academically. A lot of people aren't even aware of the influence but it's very clear when you get to know it better. The Sex Workers' Art Show toured for about ten years. I had toured with them and they were doing a reunion. So we were all invited to come, by Tara Perkins who originally created it. She brought us all here to stay at the Bellagio, and we spent two nights in this suite just hanging out and talking to each other. So we didn't do a reunion show, we just had a reunion.

FT: What role are you playing - are you a speaker? 
JW: When I do it, I do spoken word and live teaching. Live teaching is one of my favorite forms of performance.

FT: Please expound on that.
JW: Live teaching is when I either use other people from the show or take a person from the audience and show them how to do some kind of gimmick like tassel twirling. Or I play a game called the living glove where they give the glove characteristics and they have to interact with it. Like there's a glove that's a horror glove. We play the music from Halloween and the audience member has to perform. I love that. I was not doing burlesque in the Sex Workers' Art Show. That's a conscious decision. I didn't want to forget all the kinds of performance I used to do before I joined the burlesque community in New York.

FT: What was your previous performance like?JW: Readings and performance art, plus I had always done things that pretty much looked like burlesque as we know it. I was also working in strip joints. For my whole life.

FT: You turn your props into characters all the time?
JW: Yeah.

FT: That's cool. Do you have a theater background or did you study as you went?
JW: My performance background is pretty varied. Partly as a musician, but I'm not a good musician. I was a poet. When I was young I was a poet. My format of poetry was mostly to present a one page poem. So, that sense of beginning, middle and end and internal rhyme and looking for meter and the art of it influenced the way that I performed strip tease. But, I was also originally influenced by images and loops of burlesque performers from the 50's and 60's.

FT: Loops?
JW: Performances where they're doing a burlesque number, but the music on it is not the original music, and it repeats. I had a friend Gerald Casale, he's in Devo. He found this whole archive of them and put them in a lot of Devo videos. It was Cramps videos and pin-up videos and there was a lot of Bettie Page imagery, and punk rock. So, a lot of my vision of burlesque actually came from this punk rock thing, and not as much from contemporary pin-up or rockabilly. My sense of burlesque is that it was dirty and subversive, and sexual and insane and not all of it very formally constructed. I didn't become aware until much later of high perfectionist burlesque like Lily St. Cyr, which I think is wonderful, but it's not my greatest ... it's inspiring to me, but it's not my greatest passion.

FT: Who inspired you to start doing burlesque?
JW: Bambi the Mermaid. And my performances could not be more different. You'd never think that we were people who work together a lot. I always have my own agenda. It's about being sexual and shameless. I like doing that with elaborate costumes and that sort of thing, but overall the kind of glamour I like is that which comes from drag, which is not intended to attract but to entertain.

FT: A lot of people have said burlesque is drag, do you agree?
JW: Everything is drag. I've been around drag all my life, and I've been around neo-circus people and trans people all my life. So to me drag is just dressing yourself for a part. When we worked in strip joints we called our stuff drag. Even though it was just fake tan and a Lycra outfit, we called it drag.

FT: Is drag an alter ego?
JW: It's one of the things. But, I don't have an alter ego on stage. I am the same all the time. I don't have a stage name, I don't have a persona, I'm the same all the time.

FT: Is your shamelessness because you've looked at sexuality so plainly, as far as its place in society maybe how you'd view it, your own sexuality? It's not like you're working it out on stage anew, this is stuff you've already dealt with.
JW: I am working it out on stage. Everybody on stage, every second, is working something out. I hate it when people say "Don't work out your issues on stage" because that's all anybody ever does.
In the 70's when I was in high school I was around these incredibly fucking conservative people. I was a little hyper-sexual. Even though I wasn't actively sexual, I was mentally and emotionally actively sexual. They picked up on it and gave me a very hard time. I was bullied a lot early on. And then after I got over that first year of being bullied I felt like saying "Now I'm an outcast I can do whatever the hell I want. I was like all bets are off".
And then I became really aggressive about what Theodore Sturgeon called being the green monkey. Every place that I went, I was that character, that weirdo, and I was like "Alright, this is my shtick man". It still would hurt my feelings sometimes when people were rude because I was weird. Because I was thinking "Why are you being ugly about me being weird? What's your investment in normalcy that you have to try to make me feel bad? I don't understand why you're so unhappy that you can't leave me alone".

FT: I was odd as a red headed twin, so I know that feeling. It's deep. So did performing poetry lead to stripping then to burlesque for you?
JW: No, stripping is its own thing, that was my job. So even though I expressed myself a lot there, I also did my job. I didn't go into the strip joints and do things that weren't my job. I did that stuff outside. I started out doing performance art and burlesque, and by burlesque I mean classic strip tease and dirty poetry readings at Rocky Horror. There was a pre-show and we had circus and drag in there. I said "I want to do something" and they said "What do you do?" and I said "I'll do a strip tease". They didn't know I was 15.

FT: That's so Gypsy Rose Lee. She started when she was like 14.
JW: It was an experimental space and I wasn't being paid, the purpose of it was different.

FT: You've taught thousands of people at this point.JW: More than that. I don't have a number though.

FT: What's exciting about teaching for you? What's it do for you? Obviously I hope it's financially rewarding.
JW: Well I mean, I'm in the arts so I'm not gonna get rich. I think that what I like about burlesque is that it's an entirely self-generated performance if you want it to be. People do it other ways, but it can be a number where you make up the choreography, you make up the costume, you choose the music, you choose the styling. Seeing people get into that is great. And also explaining theatricality to people and giving them little tips and having it click in their mind and go "Oh my God, that actually does work", is really satisfying. Helping people find out what they already know and how to put it into play.

FT: You're balanced as an artist. It seems you've turned poetry into speaking without speaking (which is acting) on stage as you dance. It seems like that's the skill people really want.
JW: I'm not a formal dancer. I am dancing but I'm not thinking about the dancing. I'm thinking about journey from the beginning to the end and the way that it has to feel for that to be a satisfying experience for the audience. For me too, but if I had to choose between me being satisfied and the audience being satisfied, a lot of times I'll choose the audience. Because there's no way I can ever be satisfied anyway. I do please myself, I do what I want to do but if someone comes up to me afterwards and I just had a horrible performance and they go "That was great!". I'll say "Good, I'm glad you enjoyed it". I'm not going to contradict them I'm not going to insult them. The audience had a good time so it's fine.

FT: You've been involved with the Burlesque Hall of Fame for some time. In what capacity are you serving?
JW: I'm an Ambassador for the legends. I help coordinate segments of the pageant and I work with the judges. I have been a Coordinator, basically an assistant, for the judges for the past seven or eight years. And I'm the Co-Executive Director of Education, that's my title. I coordinate the classes with the legends.

FT: How has the BHOF changed in the last few years? 
JW: Well it's been changing every year that I've ever gone. Every year is different. The organization changes. They're always trying to negotiate difficult territory of the non-profit. They want their own space, and there have been changes, a lot has gone on, not all according to plan. But the beautiful thing is that the message about the legends and the history and potential of burlesque is getting out.

FT: Today you taught people how to apply for festivals and deal with the press. How did this come about?
JW: It's a class I put together because everybody freaks out when they have to deal with the press or fill out an application. Basically it's helping them prepare a kit to have on hand whenever they have a press request or have to fill out an application, or start marketing.

FT: So the second class you taught was Strip Tease Expertise. Is this class considered advanced?
JW: Yes and no. A beginner could take this class and enjoy it but I actually think of this one as an advanced class that a beginner could handle. It covers a lot of theatricality and detail and we cover a huge amount of information in a very short amount of time. I don't think advanced burlesque is learning more complicated dance combinations, I think it's learning to understand the principles of relating to the audience. So I think of what I was teaching today as both the core and the finish of burlesque which is strip tease.

FT: Is strip tease burlesque?
JW: Right now strip tease is the unique element of a burlesque show. Not all strip tease is burlesque and not all burlesque is strip tease, but it's a defining element of a burlesque show.

FT: So you're kind of teaching two different arts with strip tease and burlesque?
JW: Um, they're different aspects of the same art. Strip tease is about individual acts of clothing removal and making it exciting. So strip tease is about making taking off your clothes in front of people exciting. The act of removing the clothes. Not the state of nudity, but the process of nudity, making that exciting. Burlesque is a routine. Not all burlesque is strip tease. This gets very complicated, and I don't know why it's complicated because it's taking off your clothes in bars. I don't know why it gets so complicated. Because burlesque is a variety show so strip tease is an element of it. But if someone is an MC and 98% of the work that they do is as a burlesque MC at burlesque shows, then they're a burlesque performer. They're not a strip tease performer.

FT: Why has the element of nudity been the main thing that's made a comeback when people use the show burlesque, without juggling or variety acts? Some people think burlesque is strip tease.
JW: I think that's okay too.

FT: Why do you think only that portion of burlesque (nudity) has made such a comeback without the variety being as strong?
JW: Because the variety was never gone. There's always been jugglers, comedians, singers. When the burlesque venues died out, the strip teasers were the only ones that didn't have any where to go. So they were either stuck in the sex industry - which, burlesque can be sex work, I'm not going to debate that, because I don't frankly care about that argument - but they would either be going into the sex industry with no theatricality (which they weren't used to and didn't know what to do with, and didn't like it, it wasn't their thing), or nothing. The strip teasers didn't have any place to go. The jugglers, comedians, singers had tons of places to go. Sometimes I get a little surprised by people who are complaining that the variety element isn't represented enough in burlesque. I'm think "Well that's because it has the whole rest of the world and always has, and strip tease has always been quarantined". Strip tease was the lost art, satire's always been there. There was never a law passed against comedians. The strip tease is the thing that was lost and missing and misunderstood and misappropriated and ghettoized and all that other stuff. It didn't happen to trapeze.

FT: So it doesn't bother you if it's a show of 20 strippers?
JW: No it doesn't bother me at all. This is the art form that has no other venue.

FT: How many years have you been in this? Over a decade?
JW: World Famous B.O.B. and I were standing together the other day and someone asked us "How long have you guys known each other?" and she turned around and said "16 years".

FT: Where did you meet World Famous B.O.B.? 
JW: At a rock and roll performance art night called Trailer Park that took place at Coney Island High. It was a punk rock bar in Saint Mark's Place.

FT: What is your activism?
JW: I used to be a full-time activist. I started out in high school as an anti-censorship activist. Then, when I was working in strip joints. I had the background of studying the first amendment, media ethics and all that at collage and as a teenager doing independent study. And then I studied business in college. When you know that there is a structure to business and you know that there is a structure to law, you don't have to invent it all the time. You can look at the ways that it exists legally and also look at the ways that people implemented it and find things that work for you. You'll always add your own stuff and it'll be your own thing - because business is very creative as well - but you don't have to invent all this stuff. I know people who say "I'm a great business person" and they haven't studied any business law whatsoever. I'm shocked by it. People who argue about copyright as though it were a moral issue not a legal issue. I tell them "Copyright isn't a fantasy; it's a legal fact. You can look it up".
So as an activist I was studying a lot of legal stuff as well. I would help strip joints sometimes as an activist. When I came into the sex worker activist realm, there were a lot of people arguing first amendment, which is really interesting to me. If you watch the movie about Larry Flynt [The People vs. Larry Flynt] - now, Larry Flynt is much more complicated than that, and there were some things about him that were not in the movie, they glamorized him a good bit - but his lawyer is one of my heroes. I know some of these people. I had dinner with Larry Flynt one night which was interesting. If you watch the arguments about pornography and the first amendment the speech in there, it's very interesting. Also there was a thing that Ricky Gervais said recently. He said "You have the right to be offended and I have the right to offend you". And I was like, Yeah!
There were certain societal expectations on strippers, and this is where a lot of the shamelessness in me came out. Something bad would happen to us and because of the stigma people would say "Well, what do you expect?" Just because it's to be expected doesn't mean I have to take it without a complaint. Someone would commit a crime against a stripper or something and they'd go "Well, what do you expect? You're a stripper". I'd say, "I don't have to take this". Or, they'd feel like they have the right to talk down to me. You know, I don't have to take your shit. I don't have to take it. And they would feel very entitled. That can come from anywhere. It can come from the art world where someone gets arrogant about being an artist and they talk down to you. I don't have to take your shit. It doesn't matter where it comes from, but when you're a stripper it comes from the stigma against your sexual behavior.
I would say "You can disapprove of me. You can dislike me. You can say anything you want about me, but you can't shame me in submission and make me doubt my worth. You don't have that right". I was always working on that kind of thing. Eventually I got involved in activism around some trafficking issues. Working on the language of trafficking legislation, treaties at the United Nations. I was actually in over my head there because the amount of research that you have to do to stay current is a full-time job, and I had no funding. So, I couldn't really keep up with it. So I didn't want to do it and not do it well.
I've written a few things when we were working on the first amendment model. I talked to a lot of the lawyers and I told them that I think part of what we have is a discrimination issue. Sometimes it isn't even a prejudice, sometimes it's a property value thing. They're not entitled to have their property value go up, it's not a constitutional right.
When I would talk to legislators they would talk about two things, family values and property values. One: you're threatening our family. I'd say "I have a family, I am part of a family. I'm not this alien creature that doesn't have a family, that comes from outside of your community. I am your community I live in your community. I have family in your community. I am one of you mother fuckers. I'm not dropped from a spaceship before work and picked up again after".
The discrimination would be framed to say "Oh, this strip club had negative secondary effects". And they would present these weird flimsy facts, or they might be concrete facts about property values. I'm like "Rising property values is not a constitutional right". That's like saying "There goes the neighborhood". It's illegal, "There goes the neighborhood" is discrimination. You don't have that right. Even if it was accurately true to say (of course it's not accurate but for argument's sake) to say that if a gay family moves in across the street, all the property values would go down. You still don't have the right to say they can't move in, even if your property values do go down. So, they would say "But this happens, and this crime, and that thing". Their evidence was really flimsy or it was fallacious. Sometimes the truth was that the strip club was only able to get a space in this area because it was already a rough and undesirable area when they got there. All this bullshit stuff. I would say "People believe what you say because they're prejudiced against us. You use their prejudice to discriminate against us." Just because you don't like something doesn't mean you have the right to avoid it at other people's expense.

FT: You are well-versed in these laws and attitudes. So when you encounter it as a teacher and a performer, in burlesque, you've been there, and been grappling with these ideas for a while.
JW: Yeah. But I know what I think. I don't feel shame and I don't feel doubt about whether or not I'm considered a sex worker. I am not invested in being superior to anybody. I'm not worried about it.

FT: But in my opinion in that way you are superior.
JW: No. I'm just shameless. I'm ashamed if I hurt someone of course, but not about who I am. In New York there's not a lot of stigma about being a former sex worker, or current sex worker. It's a huge part of my life. It isn't just a couple years of my life where I was hard up. I was a sex worker from 1980 to at least 1997, maybe longer. That's how I paid my rent, month after month, year after year. I didn't dabble I wasn't expressing myself. I wasn't exploring my sexuality. There were things that appealed to my sensibility and my artistic side, and my sexuality, but I was there to pay my rent. I had to conform to a certain extent which I think helped me as a performer having to pay attention to the audience.

FT: You are Head Mistress of New York School of Burlesque, you've written the first handbook on Burlesque, what are you working on now that we can look forward to?
JW: Recently this festival circuit has developed. So, I'm travelling, performing and teaching the festival circuit. I would like to lecture at more universities. I would like to lecture on some of the subjects that I talk about in classes that aren't performing. But also about performing, about theater, about female theater.

FT: Can you explain what female theater means?
JW: I mean the gender female not the sex female. Gender as the portrayal, sex as the actual chromosome.

FT: So that includes drag?
JW: Yes. But I'm interested in talking about these aspects like shamelessness, just communication and the ways the people communicate through theater. I really want to teach strip tease in theater schools. Because I think even if they never want to do it, they really need to understand it.

FT: Today you were speaking about romancing the button. It is its own theatrics. There is strip tease in everything: movies, our daily lives, it's everywhere.
JW: Yeah, and it's also a really good way of studying what the audience can see, and thinking about it in terms of whether or not you want to break that fourth wall and play out or in. Like when you are studying an art form, you're not going to do all of it. You might study cubism and never do it. But you know about cubism. I feel like all theater people should understand strip tease.
In our society - the western world and maybe more - we're all very informed by Aristotle's Poetics. That sense of what constitutes a story. I don't know if we're influenced by Aristotle, or he discovered some core thing, it's hard to know at this point. If you're a screen writer, you study Poetics whether or not you're going to use poetry. And you study Greek drama whether or not you're going to use it. You study these things. The more that you know, the more dimension your choices have because you've chosen them from among many things.

FT: Would you consider yourself a life-long student of these things?
JW: Yeah. But you have to be a life-long student no matter what you do. I am at a point right now where I'm learning a lot from students and their responses and their questions. I'm learning a lot about communication. I'm seeing what they take away. Students are just people that want to have a guided experience. You're not even necessarily telling them something that they don't know. The purpose of the class isn't always to leave doing something you couldn't do before. It could be to give it a different context, to make something you know more available to you. Or to be in a room full of people who are also learning it, which is different then learning it on your own. It's just different.
I find my mistakes. I'm working with them and if I tell students to do something I like I'll say "Oh, that works for me. That's not a general principle. That's a personal thing."

FT: I hope you write another book. How long did the first one take?
JW: We'll see. I have to stop travelling a while to do that. It came out of class hand-outs. I started writing them in 2004. I got the book deal in 2008. So it took a year and a half to take it from a 60 page handout to the book that it is now. I had the most amazing team, with my agent Brandi Bowles, my eitor Rakesh Satyal, and my publisher Carrie Kania and my designer Paula The book's designer, Paula Szafranski at HarperCollins, won an award from the Book Industry Guild of New York for the design of The Burlesque Handbook. My editor actually hired me to do a step-by-step how to burlesque dance type of thing, and I wanted it to be about the community I know, and they let me bring that into the book. Because, it was the first book ever published on how to do a burlesque routine. It's never happened before. No matter what, there's going to be this one per center burlesque that isn't quite what we do. I mean we're not entirely unconnected to the Pussycat Dolls, but we're not close in commercialism But we have represented ourselves as a community in the media and I wanted to make sure we were represented in this book. I wanted the book to reflect what first inspired me at Coney Island, at The Blue Angel, at The VaVaVoom Room, as well as what inspired me in images of the legends of burlesque when I was very young.

Learn much more about Jo Weldon and get her book in print or digital edition at
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Jo Weldon is visiting the Pacific North West to teach and perform during Jan/Feb. 2014 Don't miss her. More at about Star Theater Show in Portland Oregon.

This interview was conducted live by Frankie Tease at the Mirage Hotel Las Vegas, and transcribed for your reading pleasure.