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Monday, April 21, 2008

Immodesty Blaize: Tassle Twirling Queen

Immodesty BlaizeMany stars seem smaller than life when you meet them in the flesh. Not Miss Immodesty Blaize, 28-year-old tassle-twirling queen of the new British burlesque scene.

She sashays into the Arts Theatre, a tightly wrapped bundle of voluptuousness, all big boobs, big lips and shapely calves. The look is classic Fifties American bombshell, with a bit of wry British wit thrown in, the make-up and jewellery veering on the cartoonish. And this is her in civvies, not the stage outfits that embrace fans - corsets, pom-poms and an 8ft rocking horse.

'So,' I stammer, 'your real name is Kelly Fletcher...' 'I could confirm that,' coos Miss Blaize in an immaculate Home Counties accent, 'but then I would have to kill you.' Hmmm. I can think of worse ways to go.

We have met because burlesque, which has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years, is about to go mainstream in a show at the Arts featuring Miss Blaize and her male co-star, Walter, produced by advertising guru Trevor (Hello Boys) Beattie of ad agency TBWA.

'Last year the Immodesty crew did a one-off show for a group of our clients, and people still talk about what a great night they had,' says Beattie. 'So when I was given the chance to take it into the West End, I said "where do I sign?"

Immodesty is a woman of stature in a Britain that seems increasingly in the thrall of bulimia and a national treasure in the making. The show itself is intelligent and knowing - a right royal, ginsipping, bodice-ripping night out like they used to have.'

Mention of bodice-ripping prompts Miss Blaize to clear up some misconceptions. 'The show is cheeky, but there is a lot of substance to it too,' she says.

'It is much more than people removing their clothes.' Burlesque, as she points out, began in London's music halls in the 1860s as a sort of prototype cabaret, its primary purpose to send up the social conventions of the day. But the term was annexed in the Forties and Fifties by American theatre owners who hired strippers to stop audiences defecting to the cinema.

Today there is an overlapping transatlantic scene, but while American burlesque focuses on Playboy perfection, the British strand is, according to Miss Blaize, 'more eccentric and ironic'. The show at the Arts, which also includes five showgirls and the enticingly named Spike Loons and Magic Wanda, will reference the full history of burlesque, but with a modern spin.

'Although we draw on the traditions of the past, burlesque has always reflected the society of the time,' says Miss Blaize. 'In our show there is a scene where I come on as a beautiful bird and turn myself into a horse, which is a parody of the bootylicious, butt-shaking female.'

Miss Blaize is 'famous for my contra-rotating nipple tassles', but neither she, nor Walter, is ever fully nude on stage. 'Everyone has their boundaries,' she says. 'Nipple tassles and panties are mine.'

Miss Blaize says burlesque restores a sense of glamour and mystique to showbiz. 'The world is also a f***ing depressing place at the moment,' she says, 'and our show is a place of absolute escapism, a velvety, decadent cocoon from reality.'

She also thinks that people 'are keen for a chance to dress up and show off again'. At the peripatetic Whoopee Club burlesque nights - where she and Walter honed their act - audience members often outdid and out-(un)dressed the performers. What's more, around 60 per cent of them were female.

'The audience is very mixed - from 18 to 80, men, women and everything in-between,' says Miss Blaize. 'And though I think it would be odd to call myself some sort of third-way feminist, every woman who sees and enjoys the show walks out visibly two inches taller.

Many come up to me afterwards and ask if I can teach them tassling or fan-dancing. I'm not selfish with my skills: it took me months of feeling stupid in front of my bedroom mirror before I learned how to tassle, so I'm happy to pass on the short-cut.'

She also feels she's doing her bit to combat body fascism. 'I myself am not stick thin,' she says, indicating her 36DD-26-36 curves, 'and I think it's important to show that you can be confident, sexy and beautiful without being a size six.'

The only child of an electrician father and a dog-breeder mother, Miss Blaize's exotic looks spring from her 'mongrel' refugee heritage - a mixture of Irish, Polish, French and Serbian. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she was sent to boarding school at a Hertfordshire convent.

She claims she wasn't a rebel, but throughout her teens and early twenties - when she took a degree in advertising at Brunel University - she immersed herself in the imagery, the feminine icons, the music and the fashions of the Forties.

After graduating, she spent a couple of months as a (clothed) pole dancer in a London club 'to pay the rent'. She then joined a film company as a PA, working her way up to become an awardwinning commercials director.

She also made paintings and sculptures about female sexuality but knew there was 'some other form of self-expression bursting to get out'. She created Immodesty Blaize in 1997 (the name came from a gas meter-reader who said she looked like the Standard's comic-strip heroine Modesty Blaise) for a performance-art night in Brick Lane.

For three years her two careers ran in tandem, but her big break came when she was picked by art-rock outfit Goldfrapp to appear in the video for their single 'Train', and on their national tour.

'I had to decide whether to become Immodesty Blaize full-time and I went for it,' she says. Other high-profile appearances followed, culminating in her stint as Queen Of The Whoopee Club, and now her turn at the Arts Theatre. 'It's a calling, dammit,' she insists.

Her fiance, Andrew Sutton, is thoroughly supportive. A former hedge-fund manager with the Mann Group, he's co-producing the show and hopes to take it on to Broadway. 'We met when he saw me dancing at the Hammersmith Apollo with Goldfrapp and said: "Who is this woman, I've got to meet her."' says Miss Blaize.

They will marry later this year, in the Cotswolds. 'It's going to be very Immodesty,' she says, 'with flamingoes and topiary hedges and costumes from Alice In Wonderland.' She smiles. 'It's going to be a wonderful opportunity for me to actually wear a dress, rather than a corset.'

Heres a recent video of Immodesty in action:

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