What’s in a Title? – Competing in Burlesque

There are many blogs that are written on competitions…. Why people compete, why they don’t, arguments for and against the “pay-to-play” mentality, how to be a gracious winner/loser/competitor and the like. As someone who has competed in multiple competitions, won national novice and experienced burlesque titles, organises NZ’s only international burlesque competition and has judged several other burlesque competitions, I’m not here to re-write those blogs… it’s been done.. I’m here to tell you what I see a title meaning as a producer, as a performer and as a paying customer.

Within New Zealand Burlesque scene we are have an influx of competitions. From competing against international performers in the King & Queen of NZ Burlesque Festival Competition to multifaceted national competitions like the Grand Tease NZ, DIY Burleskiwi, duo and group competitions, improv competitions, novice competitions and random ones that crop up at the local pub every now and then, it seems that competing and gaining a title is all the rage. But what does a title actually mean?

As an audience member: “Oooo they have a title!” To a muggle audience member a title creates excitement, expectation, and anticipation, hopefully spurring them to buy a ticket to the show. Even if you know jack-shit about burlesque, most people have the understanding that a title means that this person is good, and is worth watching. So as an audience member, I want my moneys worth. I want to see what “good” looks like. And you have a title, so I expect that you better bloody bring it.

As a producer: What I commonly see is the thought that a title means something quite auspicious. Don’t get me wrong…. as a producer a title is great for marketing, in the hope that having a title holder adds more weight to your show and so you’ll pull in more of an audience. But a title mostly means, on that occasion, the performer did well. Note I said, “on this occasion” as when competiting you are only as good as the performance you did at that particular time. Winning a title does not make you the “best”, as a title is the subjective awarding of points by the judges of the criteria that is required, and you just happened to meet that criteria better than the other contestants on that night. There is no guarantee that putting a titled performer into your show, that that performer is going to give the best performance of that show, so do your research. Who else were they up against in the competition? Any performers you know, of what level experience and who you can rate? Have you seen them perform before? Was it recently or was it 4 years ago when they first started? What feedback can you get from other producers on how they perform and help gain ticket sales for the event? Pretty much the same questions you ask yourself before hiring a title holding performer is no different from any other performer you’d have in your show. How do I know this? I have had supporting performers outshine my headliners before, and some of those have been big names in world burlesque. It happens that sometimes the reputation and titles can’t always be lived up to.

The only bonus to a producer of having a title holder as part of a show is the slight marketing pull that the title potentially might bring to the show – that is provided the audience understands that a title means something good (see above), or have any understanding of the burlesque world in the first place

As a performer: Now…. It’s no secret I am a competitive person. I do use competitions to challenge myself and test how well I can do. I confess that I do like to win though (who doesn’t?) and there is nothing quite like that feeling of having your named called to say you’ve gained that sparkly crown/trophy/title. It’s so bloody satisfying and for me helps to justify to myself, that I am capable of doing great things. But competing is not for everyone. It has its highs and with it some serious lows. Self-doubt can creep in and you must always, ALWAYS remember, that the competition is a subjective result. You’re never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and no matter how awesome you are at what you do, it may just not sit well with a judge.

As a performer, if you are competing for your own satisfaction, it is thrilling and worthwhile for personal development. Winning a title can mean self-vindication, but keep grounded and keep perspective. There are always others who can do it better, different, more technical, more funny, more sexy… more, more, more; and those people may never have the desire to compete. However if you do win a title, do expect to get more gigs and open a few doors for you (not a lot, but a few), expect to get a bit further up the running order in a show, and use that title to justify your rates to the corporate world – it’s proof that you are capable (notice I said corporate world… that shit don’t fly in industry shows, you all know what we are actually like!). It’s wonderful to be able to quote that title as part of your artistic cv, biography and introductions, especially to the muggle world. Milk the title for all it’s worth; Just like anything you achieve, it’s all about spin.

A title does come with the expectation though that you will be good every single time. So be good every time, live up to the expectation and reputation of the title. As a performer, you need to make sure you correctly represent the title for what it is, both in reputation and in name. Don’t add on extra bits like (my personal favourite I see) “New Zealand’s premier burlesque competition” (who the fuck judges it as such and what criteria is it judged on?), calling yourself “Queen/King” because of a review when you’ve never won a queen title and call the title what it actually is i.e. “King of the NZ Burlesque Festival” not “King of Male Burlesque NZ”. Be honest of the title you have earned, and do yourself, the producers and other performers a respect by representing it fairly and completely.

The last word: Titles are both a privilege, a burden, a great thing for self-development, inspiration, self-justification, networking and marketing. But see them as just those things. Don’t let them go to your head. Keep working harder, keep pushing and raising your own bar. Stay humble. And certainly, don’t use it to rate yourself above others. Nobody like elitists.

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