Real women do burlesque

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  February 17, 2007

“I think our style is humor and entertainment based,” says founding member Tallulah Starlight. “We try not to force-feed theory to anybody. We focus a lot on quirky songs, funny music, over-the-top funny costumes. It’s like burlesque meets John Waters. We do use traditional elements, but it’s more over the top.”

Tallulah Starlight’s butter-colored Bettie Page–style bangs and Technicolor lipstick are reminiscent of a post-war pinup girl, as painted by Roy Lichtenstein. As chipper and bubbly as her burlesque cohorts are cool and mysterious, Tallulah is a bundle of Southern–style charm. She’s actually a Michigan native, but spent four years at the Savannah College of Art and Design before moving to Boston to attend grad school at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Now an “office eccentric,” wife, and mother, she’s made Thru the Keyhole a family affair.

“My husband is involved with some of the props building. My son is there when we practice. He loves it — all the feathers and stuff. He does all the kick lines. He’s our mascot. There really aren’t that many moms doing burlesque. It seems to be a community of people who aren’t into the traditional husband-and-kids thing. Sometimes I do wonder what the other moms at daycare would think if they knew.”

Her fellow Thru the Keyhole performers are on par with the Babydolls for professional achievement. As far as day jobs go, the roster includes a crime-victim’s advocate and a speech therapist. Still think that burlesque is just about empty-headed women shaking their tits and asses?

Tallulah founded Thru the Keyhole with two other women, one of whom branched off to start Black Cat Burlesque, a tribute to all things B-movie. Devilicia, previously known as Miss Firecracker, sees burlesque as the perfect outlet for her oddball creativity. Eager to push the artistic boundaries of burlesque beyond cutesy into the realm of creepy, Devilicia and the Black Cat crew recreate classic horror movies on stage. “We’re all feminists, and we love the positivity of women in burlesque,” she says, “A great deal of horror movies are misogynist. We’re going to do horror, but in our stuff, the girl always wins. It’s not about a woman being a victim. It’s from a position of power and as an equal.”

Devilicia herself is the opposite of a victim. She’s practically a fucking superhero, one of the badass bitches behind La Gata Negra: League of Masked Lady Wrestlers, New England’s only masked, female wrestling league. During the day, the former mortician’s assistant works in IT and lives in Newton, a pretty tame existence for a woman whose artistic alter ego is a “demon from the thirteenth circle of hell.” Meow.

Fingers free of satin restraints, she turns her attention to the laces of her corset. The cord is long and skinny, puckered into a lazy bow, which yields almost immediately to a gentle tug.

Despite the assortment of eager burlesque performers in the Boston area, there’s no tangible burlesque community, no sense of camaraderie. There’s no competitive vibe either, just a hopeful sort of indifference. Everyone seems to think that their respective troupe is doing the greatest justice to the performing art, but most admit that they’ve never actually seen other troupes perform. “I think the community is still trying to define itself,” says Babydoll Betty Blaize. “There’s enough people doing it that one could exist, but I think we’re all feeling each other out a bit.”

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