Male burlesque pays homage with glamour and glitter
By Andrea Kennedy
They take the stage in full costume and makeup to gyrate for a raucous audience. Tantalizingly, they take off one article of clothing after the other, departing their crowd with little left to the imagination. If this sounds a lot like the scene under the bright lights of the burly-q, it should. The talent, however, may surprise, considering these performers are guys.
More precisely, they’re the stripteasing stallions of male burlesque, or boylesque, as it’s also termed. The talent goes by names like Hot Toddy and Mr. Gorgeous, and they’re growing in number – even launching the annual New York Boylesque Festival last year. One of the fresh faces on the New York circuit is performer-producer Matt Knife, who debuted the city’s first monthly male burlesque show at Greenwich Village’s historic Stonewall Inn last April.
“Five years ago, we would’ve been a once-a-season show,” he says. “Now there’s so many people who want to perform, I might have to make the show twice a month.”
Stimulating the male burlesque world for more than 15 years is Tigger! – exclamation point and all. Fearless at 47, the gender bender is widely credited with pioneering boylesque, even coining the term and taking the crown in the first Mr. Exotic World competition in 2006.
“When I started, there was no boylesque scene,” he says. “There was nowhere to go but up.”
Though male burlesque did precede him – Paris saw artists as early as the 1920s and Vegas as early as the ’40s – Tigger! says it’s such a “hidden history” that even he had no knowledge of his predecessors before he brought his male spin to the scene. Equipped with circus and theater skills plus models like neo-burlesquer Dirty Martini, he shocked the striptease status quo with a revolutionary sexual agenda.
“There is a whole different response to seeing a man do burlesque, to put himself on a theater stage in this sexually objectified role that men never take on,” Tigger! says. “But if one of the important missions of burlesque is to explode gender stereotypes, it just makes sense that you hear from all the genders.”
Male burlesque rips pages from both the classic and modern female art forms, with acts ranging from ’40s fan dances to satirical twists on social archetypes, from exhibitionist self-expression to sexual parodies of pop culture characters.
“We do not play by a different set of rules, we just have a different set of equipment,” Tigger! explains. “Beyond that, we rehearse every bit as much, dance every bit as gorgeously, work as hard on our costumes and acts and we get every bit as naked.”
Just expect fewer shaking pasties and glove peels and more dressing in drag, though Tigger! reminds us that even drag is “for a limited time only.”
Performers enter the stage in full costume, and by the end of the show strut in an adorned G-string or bedazzled codpiece. (Yes, it’s just what you think it is.)
“I do a rhinestone cowboy number where I ride a miniature pony around stage, and I’m working on a giant clamshell where I play a leather daddy mermaid,” says Go-Go Harder, a staple of the striptease circuit. “It’s not just police uniforms and firefighter outfits. It’s way more fun to take an archetype like a policeman and flip it on its head.”
Since performers don’t stick to machismo and oiled-up scripts, their body types don’t either. Instead of the sculpted, straight-faced strippers of “Magic Mike,” imagine a sliding scale between the “Saturday Night Live” Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley Chippendale characters.
“Not everyone wants to look at a six-packed guy with huge pecs and biceps,” Matt says. “There are plenty of places in New York to go see that. I feel that all of us have bodies that are attainable, which makes us that much sexier.”
As the niche gains performers – predominantly gay but also straight men – audiences follow. Tigger! says the best crowds are a mixed bag of genders and orientations that include women, whom he calls “the animals,” and straight men, who are shifting in their seats.
And though straight guys aren’t the stereotypical spectators for Matt’s monthly show, “Homo Erectus,” he says by the end of the act, “they enjoy it for the humor and ballsiness of it.”
Ballsiness is obvious, but humor? Matt says it’s critical.
“Humor is the ultimate diffuser,” Matt says. “Men taking off their clothes and willingly objectifying themselves is still an uncomfortable subject for people, so I like to make someone who’s unsure about our shows laugh and challenge them to change their viewpoint.”
Tigger! says that by the end of the show, those same men shifting in their seats are offering to buy him drinks.
Though playful raunch abounds, the art of performance reigns supreme. To achieve the quality of costuming, technique and storytelling that discerning audiences respect, amateurs can enlist in Boylesque 101, Go-Go’s six-week intensive for any self-identified male 18 or over. The school is similar to the ladies’ version at The New York School of Burlesque where students glean inspiration from the masters. Students call Go-Go their “burlesque daddy” and Tigger! “the godfather.”
Classes are selling out. Students practice in a studio lined with mirrors, spending significant time pared down to their skivvies. The empowering experience for them may recall a nightmare game of strip poker for others, but Go-Go stresses that embracing their bodies as women have been encouraged to do for years is key to the performance process.
Matt, one of the first grads, says the class propels students along an emotional and physical arc of self-confidence and awareness that “accomplishes more than years of therapy would have.”
Rhinestone demos, towel-tease tutorials and lessons on linear narrative, choreography and costuming prepare pupils for their performance showcase – otherwise known as graduation.
“It’s about finding a balance between keeping things sexy and edgy while keeping things funny,” Go-Go says. “You don’t want to come across too oversexed, but you have to remember it is a striptease. I think it’s important to honor that.”