I’ve always been on the fringe of groups. Even within my closest circles I felt like the one on the edge, not always quite fitting in, not always quite being a part of it. Whether that is something that I only perceived or not, I guess I never really know. I remember primary school and high school being the same. I had lots of friends, across different “cliques” and the occasional best friend, but never really was accepted by the entire “gang”. When I found burlesque, that started to change. I felt like I had joined a group of outcasts and that this was my people. That was until I started doing well for myself, landing international gigs, bringing over international performers, teaching and producing regularly, and then I guess I began being seen as competition. I then started to become aware that some within the scene that I was actively helping, hiring, and worse, trusting as friends, were actually only serving their own interests. That feeling has grown since then and more and more I have become aware of the cliques that exist in burlesque, not only in New Zealand, but also worldwide.
Now before I go on, I’m not saying that this is the norm. I still for the most part do feel very much accepted and “part of the group” with many burlesque people, both here and overseas. I support them and they support me. There is mutual respect and love and it is very genuine. But as always it is easier to focus on the negative experiences. And as always, the negative never really gets discussed either as we hope to portray Burlesque as an inclusive, mutual-ego-masturbation, happy-family environment. In fact, it is not always.
This is another episode in the continuation of the series of the DARK SIDE OF BURLESQUE. It is not to discourage those who wish to create their own Burlesque journey, but is to shine a light on the realities of a group that is not always rhinestones and sparkles; A group that often refers to itself as a community, while competing for work (nothing wrong with that), but at times doing so in an undermining, political, and demeaning fashion.
Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed a divide in the New Zealand Burlesque scene. There has been another boom in performers, with more classes being offered, more competitions and titles on offer, although mostly the same people are producing so of course there is a huge supply with less demand. It also means that the perception of who is affordable and who is not is a growing gap. The significance of achievements is being measured against others, often compared for superiority in disrespectful fashion instead of being celebrated together. And with that, there are behaviours that would show people to be less than genuine, and consider themselves “Elite”.
Now before you say “oh that doesn’t exist, you must be mad”, I’m sorry but I am calling it as I have seen it, as I have heard it, and writing down what people have said. Elitism in NZ Burlesque is rife. It is once personable people who were considered kind and supportive, who now from all accounts, have outgrown that and appear to have a sense of entitlement, exclusivity and authoritarianism. Whether they believe it or not, this is a feeling that is heavy in the air when they are around. But here’s the thing…. Maybe it is a case of people who trust each other simply sticking together, not letting in outsiders. Maybe it’s just another clique, another learned behaviour carried from High School. Maybe we’re just in the reality-supposedly-adult version of “Mean Girls”.
New Zealand is certainly not unique in this situation (nor burlesque in general for that matter). I have seen it in my international travels, and the most apparent would have been my experience at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in 2017. It was there that there were only a few people I met who I felt were actually genuine. I went with a hope I would re-engage with people I had met before, met new people to connect with; enjoy a community vibe by the pool. But honestly there were definite cliques, groups of people who stuck together, definite separatism was apparent and what I felt was a sense of elitism in some areas. Trying to engage with many as a lowly Kiwi performer was intimidating at the best of times, let alone with my history. I was grateful for the conversations I did have, the people I did connect with, but overall my experience there did not live up to the expectation. I felt like an outsider again, not wanting to kiss ass to be accepted. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I’ve ever belonged. Because I won’t kiss ass to do it. And maybe that’s why I hear there is so much malicious talk about me – because I won’t stroke people’s egos.
This week I probably didn’t help myself in my feeling of being an outsider. I removed myself from The New Zealand Cabaret and Burlesque Artists group. A group that I had belonged to for close to 8 years, back when there was only about 130 odd people in the group, of which there is now above 1200. I also removed myself from the two NZ Burlesque Producers Group. In all of these groups, I have seen hypocrisy, contradiction, bullying, members talked down to, open negative discussion about the business of others and more. But as before, these incidents are fewer in comparison to the positivity I often see, but off course the negativity never gets openly discussed, just gossiped about. No longer could I stay in good conscious while I felt that placing a comment or post would come to be misread, judged, questioned, or would get a demeaning response, which over the last few months has occurred regularly for me and, sadly, I have seen happen to others both publicly and privately. The actions of a few has made me feel like I am an outsider again.
I am not an outsider though. I still have a massive burlesque family I love and adore. It’s important we remind ourselves of this especially outside of social media and to remember that you cannot control other’s actions towards you, but only your reaction to them. My reaction is that I stood up and moved away from the negativity. I wrote this to make sure people are aware that Burlesque Life is not perfect and often high school antics still exist in adulthood. The positive is that my reaction will allow me to focus on my future ACTIONS and not having to temper my RE-actions. It has not broken my resolve, but changed it to strengthen the community, for which I have previously felt a strong sense of belonging to, through other means.