One of Australia’s most celebrated burlesque performers, Imogen Kelly has toured her shows throughout Australia and overseas, winning a bevy of awards along the way. Her theatrical, narrative style of burlesque has been part of the revival of the form, and one that Imogen is bringing to the Factory theatre in June for her show Herstory – Leading Ladies. We had a chat about burlesque, the media’s treatment of women in power and creating a space for performance in Sydney.
BYO: How do you keep working on a performance like Herstory and updating it after more than ten years of performing it? What's that process like?
Imogen: It is quite organic. I start by reading something about an amazing woman in history or I hear a great piece of music and think wouldn't that be great for Hillary Clinton, [for example]. Margaret Thatcher is my favourite at the moment because she's quite awful and it's amazing to be an awful character on stage, to play these tyrannical women but to also give them their humanity and not degrade them to the point where it's ridiculous. It's more about ridiculing the way the press has treated them or the way they've had to manage their sexuality to stay in power. It's always fun and it is quite slapstick as well vaudeville.
BYO: What do you think that burlesque or vaudeville captures that maybe other representations of women haven't been able to?
Imogen: Well you can send it up for a start, and you can endow them with a sexuality that might not have occurred to people. So we get to sort of start thinking about people, Lady Diana is a great one. How did she really feel about the day [Prince] Charles said that he wanted to be Camilla Parker Bowles's tampon? Burlesque you can take it the full gamut; you can be really really wrong with some of the things you do on stage but in doing that you're also being really right because you're like ‘I'm just going to poke fun at us as people who look up to these women or despise these women.’
BYO: As a performer and artist, what initially drew you to burlesque?
Imogen: I started in the very late eighties, early nineties and there weren't many platforms for women to perform on. There were plenty of roles being written by men for women or you could play those sorts of roles in cabarets where you were squeaky clean, but I always wanted to be like Bette Midler or Liza Minelli, these outspoken, huger than life characters who were unapologestic and there didn't seem to be the landscape for that in Sydney or any allowance for it. Men had drag but there were very few shows in the queer scene that would allow women to perform so we just started creating our own world. We were all working as strip tease artists at the time, doing this new thing of taking strip tease and subverting it and making it into art.
BYO: You were crowned World Queen of Burlesque in 2012. What did that recognition in the states mean for coming back to Australia and performing in Australia?
Imogen: There's always that thing about America and performing in America, [like] the Americas Cup Win, it always helps your fellow Australians sit up and go ‘Oh right, we're good at something.’ We have this terrible habit of thinking we're not as good as what's happening overseas but the more you travel the more you realise that a lot of the king hitters in the cabaret scene or vaudeville or circus are Australians. It's something to do with our joy of life that comes through in performance and our level of satire is very, very strong and people really respond to that.
BYO: You also do what might be called performance art. How do you see that form fitting together with burlesque?
Imogen: Well they sort of don't. [In] the burlesque world, you become very Swarovski driven. People spend all their money on their costumes and nothing on their concept and that distances me from burlesque because I always think there should be content but there are different demographics of people who are performing burlesque. There are a few that I would say have a lot of knowledge about performance art but most people they just want to have a go. They want to get up there, they really love the art form, they love the big dresses, they love the faux glamour of it all, and I don't discourage that but it doesn't give me any feel and inspiration. But then the performance art stuff, it's still always burlesque; it always involves the removal of layers and reveals of what's underneath but it's very political. Usually I find space for it on the queer scene and it's sad, Sydney with its lockout laws, we have so few platforms now, so it's quite hard to get that work out there. But I think it's really important work because it is subversive and it does inspire people to let go and not be afraid and not be controlled by society and just make their own choices.
BYO: You have a show, Dark Matter, in June. Are those ideas part of that routine?
Imogen: Dark Matter is a difficult show to tell because it's about familial cancer. It is walking that hard line of, I'm going to talk about cancer, I'm going to talk about having Aboriginal genetics, I'm going to talk about being exposed to Maralinga [nuclear tests in South Australia in the 1950s] because these are Australian stories and they're really important but it doesn't belong in the burlesque circuit at all. It's the sort of thing that belongs in the art circuit. So when I'm creating work, I'm already picturing where it can play, which is maybe a bit sad but you've got to be a bit business savvy and just go, this is the sort of thing that the Opera House studio might pick up whereas they would probably not pick up some of my bawdy burlesque acts.
BYO: Where do you hope that this performance scene that you're a part of develops to next?
Imogen: I hope it just continues in some way for burlesque. It had a real hit again with the lockout laws in Sydney, that really affected our ability to access audiences and for audiences to access us. I hope it just continues to blossom and be safe and be wonderful like it is. My big dream is to ultimately create more opportunity for wonderful artists who have ability, who have skill, who have talent, who have ideas and try and get them out into the world. Whether that's creating or continuing to generate a circuit in Australia or getting them overseas places like New York.
Herstory - Leading Ladies runs for two nights only at the Factory Theatre on June 14 and 15. Tickets are here: http://www.factorytheatre.com.au/events/2019/06/14/herstory-leading-ladies