Why is the art of removing cool home-made outfits to retro music so rarely performed by men? Burlesque writer Claire Doble investigates the emerging male burlesque scene, and examines the issues it faces.
After a brief spell on stage removing my own clothes, I decided I was better off behind a notepad and launched myself into the voluptuous world of burlesque writing. In my travels I have inevitably pitched up upon the shores of male burlesque – the art form that many regard as a bizarre concept, if not a complete anomaly.
To find out more about why men performing burlesque is so rare, I attended the 2009 final of the Male Tournament of Tease in London and spoke to some of the men who do it and the women who love it.
Boys on stage
It’s a common misconception that male heterosexuality and sensuality do not lie comfortably in the same bed, according to Chris Davey (pictured left), aka British Heart Boylesque, who performs boylesque and is writing his PhD on the topic.
‘It’s still hard for people – men and women – to see a guy on stage being deliberately sensual, without assuming he is gay.’
‘I’m revealing a historiography of men who have stripped from the Victorian era to the present and highlight how and why I, and other boylesquers, have reinvented these histories. I’m demonstrating alternative models for male striptease, offering diverse ‘sexual males’ and positioning myself in a political location from which I experience what is at stake in these extreme performances as a male.’
He says that the most common assumption is that he must be gay. The happily married man is neither bothered nor particularly surprised by the assumption, but he is intrigued. ‘It’s still hard for people – men and women – to see a guy on stage being deliberately sensual, without assuming he is gay. We have unwritten rules of sexual presentation which hark back to the 19th century that still condition our social norms,’ says Davey.
It turns out many of the Male Tournament of Teasers are straight, but they’re not going to be mistaken for Chippendales any time soon either. Should this matter?
Burlesque, at its best, is cheeky, entertaining and in an increasingly airbrushed world, real. The wobbling thigh, the dodgy tattoo, the home-made costume – something we can each identify with as human beings. Nude human bodies are both beautiful and fascinating, and it seems about time that both women and men are becoming increasingly bored with the cliché that the male form is silly-looking and awkward compared with the female form.
‘Both women and men are becoming increasingly bored with the cliché that the male form is silly-looking and awkward compared with the female form.’
As Davey explains, the portrayal of male sensuality on stage is fraught with issues, but despite, or perhaps because of this, it is becoming increasing popular. Cabaret performer and veteran burlesque host Dusty Limits agrees, ‘A lot of women get a kick out of seeing men making fun of masculinity, which is normally such a difficult area. I also think they enjoy seeing a man putting his body on display, which in our culture is normally thought of as feminine. It’s a role reversal, and that’s refreshing. Plus it’s always nice to get to perve on hot blokes.’
The male tournament of tease
The third annual Male tournament of tease was held in London at the Bethnal Green working men’s club, with its glorious heart-shaped stage motif, in front of which Tom Jones was famously photographed. The winners of several previous heats battled it out for top spot, representing la-crème-de-la-crème of UK boylesque talent. The crowd was a mix of laid-back and dressed-up men and women, gay, straight and in between. Host Fred Bear directed proceedings dressed like a traditional circus ringmaster.
The acts were a deliciously mixed bag. Traditional types included an ‘English gentlemen’-styled duo with bowler hats and umbrellas, who got down to their glittery codpieces then shared a titillating snog, and the tailed and top-hatted ballet-trained Lord Ritz (pictured right and above), who began his performance with tea and cakes and ended it in a corset and fishnet stockings. One performer used the simple but clever idea of going through an airport security gate to get his kit off. Feline-styled Berry Lee Lewis also raided the prop cupboard, playing with his great ball… of yarn. A lithe, tattooed man stripped down to his nipple tassles while riding a unicycle.
The winner, Dr Brown, performed a surreal, spoken-word take on ‘a day at the beach’, including the brilliantly homoerotic retrieving of a male audience member and having him help apply sunscreen.
The full monty
Some male burlesque artists strip off completely, others don’t. The audience clearly held mixed opinions on the fully monty – every time the host or judges mentioned it, much of the audience cheered, but dissent could also be heard.
Dusty Limits (pictured left) says one of the most enjoyable things about male burlesque is that it makes sexuality fun as opposed to seedy. ‘This is much more the case with boylesque than with a straight strip club I once had the misfortune of attending, but the dynamics involved there are obviously very different.’
‘The male approach to burlesque differs from the ladies. It has the same scope of inventiveness and personality, but definitely with a heavier lean toward comedy.’
London’s Whoopee agency runs both the male and female tournaments of tease. Whoopee’s Jayne Hardy, who features some of the finest specimens at her regular night Dame Jayne’s den of men, says that with burlesque’s predominantly female audiences, ‘it’s about time we got some further titillation in the form of man flesh!’ Hardy continues, ‘It’s interesting how the male approach to burlesque differs from the ladies. It has the same scope of inventiveness and personality, but definitely with a heavier lean toward comedy.’
Sexy versus funny
‘A lot of people find someone who makes them laugh more attractive. The key is to strike a balance. If you clown around too much, the sexuality of the act is derailed. On the other hand, there’s nothing less erotic than a man who takes himself totally seriously,’ says Dusty Limits.
Talking to Chris Davey about what makes acts sexy, and indeed, what is sexy, I felt myself blush. Here I was, a seasoned burlesque journalist, going rosy talking about what turns me on. As difficult as it is for the blokes to place their act at the right place on the funny/sexy continuum, perhaps it’s equally tough for women to express what we really like. There’s the laddish ‘phwoar’ that many women are more than comfortable expressing, especially if they’ve knocked back a few vinos. But with this, we stray into male strip revue territory. For many of us this type of stripping, like its female equivalent, represents a tawdry, mainstream sexiness that is largely without nuance and creativity. Women screeching and grabbing for buff blokes at a strip night is a mob mentality, and while there’s safety in that stereotype and many of us have seen it being acted out with our own eyes, genuine female desire is still elusive and rarely expressed with the candor it warrants.
‘Male burlesque celebrates the unique appeal of every performer, rather than demanding one tedious, standardised image of masculinity.’
Male burlesque is largely an art form created with a female audience in mind, and one that celebrates the unique appeal of every performer, rather than demanding one tedious, standardised image of masculinity. Both these qualities seem like incredibly positive innovations that it must be hoped will be further embraced by women as audiences and men as performers. Dusty says of his boylesque shows, ‘The women in the audience seem to take delight in the beautiful male bodies on display. They are certainly vociferous. I think it’s refreshing for women to get to admire beautiful men without feeling that in doing so they are somehow demeaning them.’
This article appeared in Filament magazine Issue 3 – December 2009. Photo credits: Chris Davey by Rebecca Herbert, Lord Ritz by Ara Maye McBay, Dusty Limits by Tas Kyprianou, Cherry Loco by Andrea Heins.