When I first saw Lola van Ella perform on one of Bill Chott's ImprovTrick cards, all I had to say was, "Wow!"
If she were only that beautiful with the guts to strip down to her so-called "derriere beyond compare" in a cabaret setting, I would have been impressed. But Lola is much more than a pretty derriere. She can dance, sing, and otherwise entertain with a moxy that is nothing but pro. It also turns out she is a producing director, teacher and entrepreneur: the whole burlesque package.
I knew I wanted to get to know her and find out where she is coming from, why she does what she does. A couple of weeks later, we met for lunch at Mangia. I asked, Lola talked, I scrawled. It went something like this.
First, I don't have any coworkers who are not also burlesque workers - this is what I do, full-time. I'm not ashamed or embarassed of what I do. Who I perform is Lola van Ella. As a performer, that's who I am. It's all about the glamor of the character: That's how it is in the burlesque world.
I started as a ham of a kid, performing constantly, in local plays and talent shows. I was a very happy, crazy child. There was a lot of posing, a lot of acting like a goofball. I was always a singer, then I did voiceovers, jingles, commercials. As I got older, I realized there was nothing else I wanted to do in life. If I worked in an office, I'd probably want to kill myself.
I did a lot of plays, musicals, jazz cabaret. I found out about the Alley Cat Revue at Rue 13. When I went that first night, they did a barebones show, nobody paid attention, but still, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I started the next week, and I now have been doing this for three years.
I've been really aggressive. The fact that the Alley Cat Revue still has a weekly show is very rare - for St. Louis, it's amazing. I have done a show every week for three years, plus other gigs on top of that - I'd say I've done at least 300 shows.
Then I started teaching a year ago - that market is completely not tapped. People ask me, "Teach me" after shows, all the time. I knew there are fabulous burlesque instructors, all across the country. I thought, "Well, no one else will do it if I don't."
Burlesque has grown a lot in the last five years. People are wanting more alternative entertainment, more things to do than just being there at a club, and burlesque is interactive. Burlesque is like crazy fun. There's a big party - and you're invited!
At my showcase at Off Broadway, I'll have twenty to thirty performers. I'll have aerial acts, fire acts, clowns, lasso artists. People feel licensed to scream their heads off. They get drunk, jump up and down - men and women do that together. The crowd is so diverse. It's not just the upper crust. We get rockabilly kids, a gay crowd, punk kids - St. Louis at its finest.
The producing director side is a huge part of me. I like to see something from start to finish. The burlesque scene here was nothing; we did it ourselves. It was the same when I started teaching classes and doing the showcase - it was a leap of blind faith that people would show up.
It's so empowering to women. We have changed so many women's minds. They say, "That can't be classy, that's degrading" - that somehow it's not feminist. But it is! I'm completely in control of my own sex and how much or little I choose to reveal. It's all about the performance. It's not a sales job. People are there to scream and yell for you. My mom comes to see me all the time. She hoots and hollers with the loudest of them.
It's like a geeky subculture. I talk about burlesque all the time. We have message groups - we've come a long way. Women have fought so hard for equal rights. But by the time we're not stuck washing men's britches anymore, we go to the other extreme - to be a woman you have to wear giant shoulder pads and business suits. But it's just as feminist to be ultrafeminine - it's just as feminist to wear fake lashes, rhinestones and sexy, sexy, sexy lingerie. But we're owning it, the tons of makeup and all that stuff. I'm a strong, independent woman who knows how to use my own sex. It's not a man who is telling me to be this way.
I always take off my clothes, in my act. I love it! There's an art to it - that's why I teach it. It's all about timing. There's a big difference between what we do and stripping. I have nothing against commercial stripping, but that's not about the art. It's essentially a sales job - you're a salesperson. You're there for the money, and it doesn't really matter what you wear or how you take it off.
I always do a traditional strip tease, down to tassels on my nipples, show my buns at the end - that happens in all my acts. Strip tease is exactly that - it's a tease. You can do a strip tease and take off nothing but your gloves, and that could be the sexiest thing if she knows how to do it.
Guys, especially, sometimes get a preconceived notion of a burlesque girl and expect certain things. In a show, I am very flirtatatious. There is this kind of glamor around me. But I'm not like that all the time, thank God. I can go home and put on sweat pants and be lazy.
Lola van Ella teaches burlesque at Floored on Grand on Tuesdays (8:30 p.m. advanced, 9:30 p.m. open/beginners) and Thursdays (8 p.m. open/beginners). Keep track of her through her MySpace page, where I borrowed this artful photo by Stan Trampe.