How to be a Headliner

As Owner and Co-Producer of NZ Burlesque Festival, I’m constantly looking at performers and wondering if they have the ability to be a headliner. As a performer, I am constantly looking at myself and wondering if I have the qualities to headline. Having engaged some of the biggest names in world burlesque and also been engaged to headline events both nationally and internationally, I thought it would be good to look at the qualities that I believe make a great headliner. Many people, I suspect, believe it is being good at your craft. I don’t entirely disagree. However, there is so much more to it that just being good and I will often pick a headliner based on other traits before their level of talent. Here’s a few of my top things that I look at when booking a performer:

Attitude: A headliner needs to have a great attitude, not just to those who are engaging them but to those around them. They take the time regardless of how tired they are to say thank you and they are willing to share their stories, take another photo and answer one more question despite often wanting to curl up and have alone time. And if they do need alone time, they are at the very least, polite about it. They are gracious when accepting compliments, and they don’t feel they need to turn it into an ego-wank fest, nor expect a compliment in return. They reach out to you and show genuine interest. They certainly don’t expect anything beyond what is formalised in a performer agreement and they do not believe they “deserve” to be in that position, because of time-served, talent, previous engagements or otherwise. Most of all, they are genuine. They genuinely want to be involved, they want to help, are often non-judgemental and very supportive, and as I’ve found, they are some of the most beautiful souls you’ll ever meet both on stage and off stage. Added bonus if they have a great sense of humour and are fun to hang with.

Backstage Etiquette: Every great headliner I have had perform at one of my major events has gone out of their way to be pleasant to everyone involved in the production and to say “Thank You”. They have been polite to performers and crew alike, and treat everyone as equals and don’t assume that people should know who they are. They respect other people’s space, clean up after themselves, and the word’s Diva, Elite or Snob could never be used to describe them.

Online Etiquette: Let’s face it, in a world of social media everyone has something to say Guess what? Everyone is watching what you say and how you behave on social media. If you are constantly bagging people seemingly without justification, getting constantly involved in the commentary in a speak-first-think-later manner, and posting your personal dramas over your public pages, then yeah… it’s going to make me wonder if you’re bookable. I’ve had people in mind for events and once I’ve seen how they have consistently behaved online (or in person), it has made me wonder whether it would be worth the effort to have to deal with that on the ground. Short answer… it’s not.
(NB: It should be said that this is over a longer term, not the occasional Brittany Spears moment that we sometimes get) (NB part 2: We all need to vent at some point, but know that ears and eyes are everywhere. Pick who you trust carefully and how you do it – screenshots may do you no favours.)

Willingness to Teach: Often headlining means you have some bit of knowledge to pass on. Being able and willing to teach as part of your engagement as a headliner is very important. It shows that you are wanting to help develop a group, and that you understand that sharing knowledge is important to the survival of burlesque. If you’re not willing to teach your craft, then how will your craft survive? Or are you scared that someone might use that information to become better that you? Reality check: there is always someone better than you at something, but nobody does what you do as well as you. Oh… and you could always do you better too. Everyone needs to develop and you shouldn’t forget to give back, just as someone at some point gave you a help up. You’ll also find that as a teacher, you will learn something from your students (see my previous blog). Have at least a workshop you can teach, or be willing to do one-on-ones. Teaching isn’t for everyone, but I’m sure there is something you can share that people want to learn.

Let’s Talk Money: A difficult topic and often one that is hard to quantify when financial information is often confidential between parties. But in my experience, headliners have been open to negotiation, they have been reasonable and realistic about the size of the event, the marketing pull they have and their self-worth. You don’t want to undercut yourself for sure, but flexibility and understanding sometimes goes a long way. Often there are greater benefits of headlining that is beyond just cold hard cash – I’ve traveled around the world to headline shows for a couple of hundred dollars at a cost of thousands to me. But I got to see a new place, have a little holiday and built a new fan base. I mean c’mon….. people spend ten ‘s of thousands of dollars playing golf for heavens sake!  Think about the short term loss and gain vs long term benefit.

Talent: Okay so I said it, and ask many producers, or even performers, what they think is needed in a headliner, and it is rare that you will find talent is at the top of the list, myself included. But let’s face it.. talent (or something like it) does have to count for something. The thing to know about it though, is that there is a difference between being talented, performing and entertaining. I always, before and above considering someones talent or if they are a good performer, I look for a good entertainer. Anyone can perform – “dance monkey dance” – but you may not capture the right energy. To have talent might be something you may have naturally or may be is something that you have worked at to gain and I believe, it is very much to do with technical skill and ability. However, to entertain, is to capture an entire audience, regardless of skill, engage them, take them on a journey then release them leaving them to ask where they can get more. Unfortunately, some wonderful entertainers that I would love to have, would not appeal to the inexperienced NZ Burlesque audience so I can’t go there because the audience would not find them entertaining like I do…  at least not just yet.  How long you have been doing something does not necessary equate to being a good entertainer either… I’ve seen highly experienced and talented performers who I thought were not very entertaining and I’ve also had newbies leave me screaming for more. Guess which one I am more likely to book? If you’re going to be a headliner, you need to be entertaining. Talent is only a portion of that.


So that list being said, there are two other things I will mention on the side. I very rarely hire anyone who I haven’t seen perform or met personally, or without seeking the opinion of someone I trust who has met them or seen them perform. Youtube is great but you don’t always capture the atmosphere of the event or the audience in videos so there is something to be said for experiencing a performance first hand. As well, by meeting someone directly, you get a feel for their personality. If I haven’t met them personally, I make enquiries. Lastly, often when meeting someone they could have the traits of the qualities of above, but something niggles in the back of your mind about it. In those cases, I usually like to give the benefit of the doubt, but experience has shown me that I should have trusted my instinct and just moved on by, as the genuine front is just that… a front. It’s hard to pick and it’ll surprise you where you find it sometimes. But if you’re looking for a headliner for an event, experience will eventually teach you to see it earlier. And if you are wanting to be a headliner, here’s an idea… just be real. It’s easier for everyone. You won’t be right for every one or every gig, but at least you don’t have to juggle a split personality. Well… more of a split personality that the stage life and muggle life already offer anyway!

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