Photos: Saverio Truglia
“I had no idea what burlesque was,” L’amour says. “I just wanted to dance.”
When Michelle “Toots” L’amour glides onstage at The Black Orchid, an intimate North Side club, she’s aglow with a sense of bemused wonder. Dressed like Snow White, wearing elbow-length white gloves and carrying a basket of ripe red apples, L’amour pirouettes and turns with a dancer’s assurance and moves with innocent allure to a Disneyesque musical accompaniment. Then she takes a bite of an apple and the fairy tale takes a twist. L’amour’s poise quickly morphs into something a bit darker and a lot sexier. She peels off the gloves, one at a time, teased from her arms with coquettish tugs. As the tempo picks up, L’amour’s eyes sparkle and her hips begin to move in ways Snow White never dreamed of. Soon enough she’s down to a blue satin bustier and a pair of short silk panties. The bustier drops to the stage as L’amour picks out two apples from her basket and holds them in front of her breasts, inviting the admiration of the audience, whose temperature has been rising steadily.
A crescendo of wolf whistles and hollers ensues.
A few days later L’amour looked positively demure while dining on grilled cheese and fries at Jack’s Diner in Skokie. She mused on the problem of pasties. “They do fall off sometimes,” she says between bites. “I use spirit gum and if it’s really hot onstage it melts and they just slide off . . . but nobody seems to mind.”
It’s been a wild three years since the 25-year-old Orland Park native graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in finance. She was happily living the hand-to-mouth life of an aspiring dancer-choreographer when a chance meeting at a talent show led her to Franky Vivid, a former rock musician and theatrical entrepreneur who had an idea for an updated burlesque-style cabaret revue. “I had no idea what burlesque was,” L’amour says. “I just wanted to dance.” Vivid, now her fiancé, gave her some of his “Burlectro” mixes-vintage striptease music that he had retooled with contemporary beats. She immediately felt a connection and started putting together routines that combined her years of dance training with an exuberant sensuality and a wry sense of humor.
L’amour and Vivid eventually created the Lavender Cabaret, a free-floating neo-burlesque variety show featuring improv comedy, variety acts, and L’amour’s choreography and striptease routines. The show quickly garnered an enthusiastic local following playing late-night hipster joints like the Funky Buddha Lounge and the Subterranean. L’amour’s local reputation as the reigning queen of bump-and-grind began to spread to other cities on the circuit.
“I was just doing my own thing here in Chicago and I became aware that there was a national scene, with conventions and festivals and competitions,” L’amour says. So in 2003 she traveled to Tease-O-Rama in Los Angeles. “There had never been an act from Chicago before. I did seven numbers in 15 minutes and blew them all away.”
The neo-burlesque scene has been gaining ground around the country for nearly a decade. It’s been creeping toward Chicago from both coasts since the mid-nineties, when performance artists and jaded club kids began rediscovering the campy joys of old-fashioned striptease. Though it pays homage to the days of Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand, the modern revival differs in some crucial ways-the main one being that today’s burlesque is entertainment as much for women as for men, and the women onstage don’t cater to male fantasy. Performers are just as likely to be ample as lean, and their commitment to their performance is far more important to the audience than their looks.
And it’s not just stripping-L’amour says she loves the theatrical quality of old-style burlesque because it allows the dancer to tell a story using personality, style, and wit to re-create the sense of entertaining sexiness that typified the glory days of the Ziegfeld extravaganzas. “What we’re told is sexy these days is just too much of too much,” she says. “The standards are ridiculous and there’s a smart, funny kind of innocence in what I do that’s intelligent as well as sexy. I think that’s why it appeals to people.”
Rachel Shteir, a DePaul University theatre professor, says the roots of the contemporary burlesque revival derive from the feminism of the 1960s and ’70s. “The first wave of feminism was not about sex, but it set the stage,” says Shteir, whose book on burlesque, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, was published last year by Oxford University Press. “Once women had established certain social and political rights, feminism could celebrate the sensual aspects. The new burlesque gives a lot of women a feeling of control over the expression and inspiration of sexual desire.” She also notes that the upswing in pornography in pop culture has contributed to the revival. “People want their imaginations to be engaged, and they have a nostalgia for prefeminist gender roles,” she says. “Historically this sort of entertainment flourishes in times of economic stress and a conservative political environment.”
It’s hard to say how much people are thinking about politics while watching her act, but Michelle L’amour is definitely catching a wave. Earlier this year she won the “Miss Exotic World 2005” pageant with her Snow White routine, and her star is rising on a growing national scene. The pageant, held annually in the desert near Helendale, California, brings together retired burlesque queens, fans, and newcomers.
L’amour’s parents are not as thrilled with her choice of careers; hence her reluctance to share her real name. They learned about her act from a newspaper article. Born-again Christians, her mother and father were incensed. “We had a huge blowout,” L’amour recalls. “I explained that I’m not doing lap dances, I’m not doing drugs, that there’s an art to this, but they didn’t get it. Then the Bibles came out and they read scripture to me. It was just a total disconnect.” They remain estranged.
Her college classmates and high-school pals, though, are intrigued by her newfound fame. “Some even take my classes,” says L’amour, who is gaining a widening circle of students. Cheryl Sloane, a former Second City producer and the owner of G Boutique, a lingerie and erotica shop for women, has been hosting L’amour’s monthly beginners’ burlesque workshop for the past couple of years. “We get women literally from 18 to 80, from every conceivable background, and they’re all having the greatest time,” Sloane says. “Michelle’s great gift to these women is helping them feel comfortable with their bodies and teaching them how they can use their bodies to flirt and feel sexy. It’s really empowering.”
Holly Alcorn, a 27-year-old maker of architectural models, recently started taking L’amour’s beginners’ class at Arabesque, a dance studio on North Elston Avenue. “That first lesson was weird-the class takes place in front of a wall of mirrors-and it was almost embarrassing. I was very self-conscious,” Alcorn says. “But Michelle was so much fun.” After a couple of months, Alcorn entered an amateur contest at the Funky Buddha-and took second place. She soon joined J. T. Newman’s Girlie-Q Variety Hour, and then landed a spot in the Sissy Butch Brother’s Gurlesque Burlesque.
“When I look at the audience,” L’amour says, “I see them looking back at me and I see their lust, their excitement. There’s nothing else like it. You can’t get this feeling doing anything else.”
Go to http://www.lavendercabaret.com/ for a schedule of L’amour’s upcoming performances and classes.