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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tempest Storm: 80 year old Burlesque Performer

tempest stormTempest Storm is fuming. Her fingers tremble with frustration. They are aged, knotted by arthritis and speckled with purple spots under paper skin.

She brushes orange curls out of her face as she explains how she’s been slighted.

She is the headliner, you know. She is a star. She is classy.

“I don’t just get up there and rip my clothes off,” she says.

Indeed, the 80-year-old burlesque queen takes her clothes off very slowly.

More than 50 years ago, she was dubbed the “Girl with the Fabulous Front.” Since then, Storm has seen the art that made her famous go to the brink of extinction. Her contemporaries — Blaze Starr, Bettie Page, Lili St. Cyr — have died or hung up the pasties.

But not Storm. She has kept performing. Las Vegas, Reno, Palm Springs, Miami, Carnegie Hall.

Her act is a time capsule. She knows nothing of poles. She would never put her derriere in some man’s face. Her prop of choice is a boa, perhaps the occasional divan.

It takes four numbers to get it all off. To do it classy.

But the producers of tonight’s show want her to go faster. She gets just seven minutes.

There may not be a next time for this show, she says. The threat lasts just minutes.

“No, no. I’m not ready to hang up my G-string yet. I’ve got too many fans that would be disappointed.”

Stardom and fandom feature prominently in Tempest Storm’s life — and in her Las Vegas apartment.

Visitors are greeted by photos of a young Elvis, her favorite rock ’n’ roller and, she says, a former lover.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Nat King Cole.

She dated some, just danced for others.

She danced in Kansas City, too. The stage of the Folly Theater was home to classic bump-and-grinders, including Tempest Storm. And striptease artists performed at the Folly from 1941 until the early 1970s.

That next photo is of Storm and Vic Damone. Storm and her fourth and last husband, Herb Jefferies, a star of black cowboy films who swept her off her feet in 1957, when such unions were instant scandals. They divorced in 1970.

Storm is rarely wistful. She has no doubt she still is what she once was.

Although she performs just handful of times a year, she would do more, if asked. She chides those who think age takes a toll on sex appeal.

“Ridiculous,” she says.

On Sundays, Storm tunes in to a televangelist who tells her anyone can overcome odds. It’s the only religion she’s ever taken to.

She believes this is the lesson of her life. Be a survivor. Never stop doing what you love; it makes you who you are.

“If you want to get old, you’ll get old,” she says.

If some might see all this as chasing after lost youth, she says she cares little. Younger dancers tell her she is an inspiration to them, and she has no reason not to believe them.

“I feel good about myself. And I enjoy it,” she says. “I have fun when I’m onstage, and the audience loves it. Nobody ever said it’s time to give it up. Why stop?”
By Kathleen Hennessey

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