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Burlesque and the LGBTQIA+ Community

Donna che regge un ventaglio con tessuto mentre si esibisce ad uno spettacolo
Ella Bottomrouge by ©Clotilde Petrosino all rights reserved

Tell us a little about yourself...

I’m Daniela, aka Ella Bottom Rouge. I’m an actress, performer, art director and burlesque teacher. I’m a lesbian CIS woman and I’m proudly part of the LGBTQIA + community.

What about Ella Bottom Rouge?

Ella is the enhanced version of Daniela, a Daniela ++: over the years she has managed to do things that Daniela would not be able to do, and vice versa. She protected Daniela, and on the one hand she was a refuge, on the other hand she was clearly an incredible creative outlet. Satisfaction, tears, and struggles: this is why Ella and Daniela are part of each other. Ella is a real tangible person, she has her own rights, and she is a woman with her feet on the ground.

Daniela comes from the world of performing arts and dance theater, she approached that world when she was a teenager and never left it, except for a short period of her life. Everything has always led her towards art, and when she had to stay away from it, she suffered.

Ella arrived at a specific moment, when Daniela was older and therefore she had already acquired that necessary awareness, considering that burlesque is an expression of the body from a point of view which is not only physical but also erotic. You can understand and develop this art of sensuality only with a certain maturity that also allows you to really value who you are. Daniela met Ella when she had understood many things about human life, and she was therefore able to transform them into artistic awareness.

Ella and Daniela are the same person, and that’s why just a few people - friends who know me since childhood, or my family, on those typical occasions when, you know, you do something wrong – call me Daniela.

Ella is very strong and she manages to accomplish all her goals; Daniela is a little softer in some aspects. Both, however, are sincere, and this sincerity is also brought to the stage.

How was your passion for Burlesque born?

I saw a burlesque show in London and I fell in love with tassel twirling, the art of turning nipple covers, those little things that we put on just to cover the breasts. In that show there was a tassel twirling battle: two performers challenged each other, and even if one was faster than the other, they were in perfect synchrony, both on the right, then on the left. The two artists were Londoners, which means their physicality is very different from us Italians. I immediately thought: "This is fucking awesome!”, and when I came back I enrolled in a burlesque course. Having studied theater, I knew the dynamics of the stage well, so shortly thereafter I started doing my first performances at school, then I became more and more independent, until I was able to have my own show, creating my own way of burlesque. Ella became then not only a performer, but also a teacher, she took care of production and art direction, thus managing to express that part of organization and creation that is not always possible to show on stage.

Burlesque was born in England in the eighteenth century as a satirical show targeting the existing theatrical genres and, sometimes, also the social and political issues. Are your performances political?

I show my most comic part to the stage. I am not one of those beautiful faces and I am quite particular: for being Mediterranean, my skin is darker, I have a fairly pronounced nose and large, ball-shaped eyes. In theater, as you know, either you have a talent for tragedy or for comedy, and this performative part of me can also be seen on stage. In my burlesque performances there is of course sensuality, but also the self-deprecating, very mocking aspect, which I also use as a presenter. It should also be considered that in Italy we have a different eye for aesthetics than they have abroad. There they are certainly more inclined to a more political version, considered as something against the stereotype.

We often think the world of art and entertainment is more open and avant-garde than our society in terms of stereotypes, to prejudices. Is burlesque also like that?

The world of burlesque is a niche within the niche of the world of art, within a niche within another niche. We work with the naked body, and abroad the burlesque performers are considered to all intents and purposes sex workers, because some of them have an OnlyFans account or sell nude photos. In Italy we are not considered like that. For me, the important thing is to do burlesque in the way that I consider most correct, even if I know that I always have to explain what my job is, which is the same thing any other actor, dancer, performer does: as we know, in Italy art isn’t recognized for what it is. When you say you do this job, people always ask you: "Cool… but what’s your real job?".

Performer con corsetto che urla su un palco
Ella Bottomrouge by ©Clotilde Petrosino all rights reserved

Since burlesque was born, from England to France, from the United States to Italy, it has undergone great changes, it has been transformed several times. It's satire, sensuality, variety and a versatile genre. How do you take advantage of these features when staging your performances?

In 2017 I debuted with a show which is still one of my top performances, but in Italy I don't propose it very much, because it’s very strong and it concerns sensuality and eroticism expressed even beyond gender, so I can't manage to take it everywhere. It’s always important to know the audience that is watching you: as an artist, you need to know what can or can’t work and how to relate to whoever is in front of you. This is why I have more commercial and therefore more usable shows. Am I ok with it? I always use this example to let people better understand. Think about a greengrocer: they have different clients, from the loyal friendly customer who always orders specific products, so they know exactly her tastes to the fussy customer… You always have to consider the context: performing at a private event is never the same as doing it during a queer night.

Unfortunately, by doing burlesque, you can receive wrong messages, but after years you immediately recognize when someone texts to you because her or she is interested in hiring you for a show, and when someone tries to ask you for information but they are interested on something else. When I started it wasn’t easy for me to recognize the two cases. I always try to give tips to those who study with me and approach the burlesque world. Keep also in mind that you can find yourself in some uncomfortable situations not only with clients but also with photographers, for example. The most important thing is to know how to deal with it.

One of the difficulties that you can face when you come out is related to your job, especially if you work with your own image. Assuming that coming out is a personal choice, what would you recommend to those who find themselves in a similar situation? What would you tell Ella if she hadn't done it yet now?

When you decide to come out, safety is important, because there is a world inside you, in addition to the one outside. You must do it for yourself, even if you do it in the family context. One advice I would give to the youngsters is not to give a damn, because there will always be people who will have something to say about it. There is nothing wrong with saying who you are and letting people know what you have inside. I’d like to highlight that nobody will ever define you. And I'll tell you more: I don't give a f*** about being accepted, I don't want people to accept me, I want to be exactly like all the other people. Talking about my public coming out, at first I wondered whether to do it or not. My co-workers and my students had long known that I was a lesbian and they knew about my relationship, but I feared that by doing it publicly I could lose part of the audience, and that the students would stop coming to class. Actually, it did not happen, but there was a ghettoization within the world of burlesque. They accused me of exploiting not only my life, but also my "sexual preferences". Just like that, in quotation marks, in an ignorant way. Burlesque is an art that celebrates diversity, bodies and storytelling, so it's paradoxical as well as stupid to hear such talk. Obviously, you are disappointed, you feel ghettoized inside. I made up my mind and I go forth with my head held high, but let's think of an underage lesbian girl: how can she live such a situation?

When you perform, your body is one of the key players on stage. What role can burlesque play in defining the relationship with the body and oneself in general?

At the end of each class I always ask my students for feedback to know how they felt and if they were comfortable. It’s very important for me, I like it and I think it’s necessary to discuss with them, because as a teacher I learn a lot from my students. Last October, for example, one of them started the medicalized transition, and it’s exciting for me to see her rebirth. Burlesque helps you work on yourself, and thinks about the effect it can have on people who have always considered themselves "different" or "wrong": it allows you to find your own space, so you know what? Enjoy your own space as much as you can!

Getting naked in front of an audience, fascinating and seducing it, means playing a role of great power. What do you think about it?

I often hear people say: “Oh wow, you're an artist, you're brave”, or “You're brave to do this job that isn't safe”, or “Aren't you ashamed?”. I tried to do something different, I also succeeded, because I have a lot of willpower and I am also a very strong and combative woman, but I wasn’t happy. It’s not about courage, it’s more a matter of willpower. Wanting to do this work means understanding that your body, even if it’s not compliant, even if it has undergone operations or bears the signs or consequences of some disease, it’s an important body. A body that has power. A body that is your body.

Even if you don’t fit the classic stereotype perfectly, you still have a body, your body, and you don't have to be afraid to hide it. You must get into your head that with that body you are easily able to do a burlesque number well, to communicate an important message: this art form is not only elegant and sensual, but it can lead to a real revolution.

Burlesque is for everyone, I think I heard it from the first times you talked about your work. Tell us more…

My burlesque courses are inclusive, they are open to everyone. My students are trans people, non-binary people, 50-year-old women, mothers with C-section, women who can’t have children and cancer survivors.

There are schools similar to mine abroad. I simply looked around and I saw the audience changing, as well as the attention. The world is changing, the concept of inclusion is changing. I remember a beautiful show, queer couples pairing up on stage as well, and it was enlightening. It's all a matter of culture: years ago, we would never have thought of using the pronoun “they” to address all subjectivities. The great thing about culture is that it grows with us.

How useful can burlesque be to talk about consent and also to teach those who attend a show its meaning? Is it still necessary to talk about it in 2022?

It’s essential. You always need consent, and it helps, both personally and professionally.

To achieve this level of awareness of your time and spaces, it’s necessary that the audience and the new clients know how to behave. When I approach a new client, I always make it clear that the place must have a dressing room where I or the artists can change. You know, I always try to protect myself.

Even before setting boundaries, you must be able to accept yourself for who you are, and the fact that your body changes over time. You need to have awareness. If a gesture or a movement no longer goes well and doesn’t correspond to what I want anymore, because Daniela can’t no longer do it, Ella changes it. I became reborn after a very, very difficult year on a personal level. I am regaining my body confidence by embracing it and accepting all its changes.

You mentioned the fact that you always give tips to the artists who approach the burlesque world. Do you think this niche, as you called it, can also become a way of activism?

Several times people told me: "There was no need to say this or to underline that". Instead, there is a need, because it’s part of your personality, and when you expose yourself as an artist, you tell your truth and you can also help many people. There are many things an artist can do. For example, I really care about breast cancer prevention. Unfortunately, my family was affected by cancer, and I’ve raised funds for years to donate to the Italian League for the Fight Against Cancer.

Speaking of Pride, instead, the godmothers should be members of the community, such as a lesbian woman or a trans man. All the letters of the LGBTQIA acronym. You know, people who actually do something all year round.

In your opinion, how much and how should the world of burlesque in Italy change? Keeping of course in mind that, like any other form of art, it’s a mirror of the society in which we live.

In Italy, sometimes it seems that the audience only looks at the aesthetic side of the person who is on stage. I love classic burlesque, it's wonderful, but I prefer a format that also has content, which can tell a beautiful story of love and celebration with your body. Also considering the fact that behind those 5 minutes in which we try to thrill the audience there’s a work of months and months of rehearsal and study.

Project and photos by Clotilde Petrosino

Interview and translation by Krizia Ribotta Giraudo


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