Lady Aye is a bodacious dish in full control of her gag reflex. Rather, all three of them; in her act, she indicates the areas by slicing a stainless steel sword across her throat, chest and diaphragm before opening wide and swallowing it to the hilt.
She admits that, for many, watching her access her entrails is a visceral experience. But gripping an audience is how she defines showmanship. To that end, she also drives nails up her nose, lies on a bed of the 10-in. variety in the shape of a corset, walks on broken beer bottles and eats fire. “This is not a passive form of theatre—it’s an engaging one. ‘Turning the Tip’ was a vaudevillian expression that meant pulling people in, building up the tension, the anticipation. That’s the skill.”
It is also the allure of the variety arts, of vaudeville and of Burlesque, which are becoming more popular as audiences dig more interaction in their entertainment. By virtue of their artisan origins, these arts share that esthetic—which is why they also frequently share the stage. They have also made sideshow entertainment—and its tendency to test sensibilities -- the main factor in Coney Island’s reclaiming a reputation worthy of its hipster-days moniker: “Sodom by the Sea.” It is a distinction that developers, in their mad dash for cash, currently are threatening to crumble like its biblical namesake.
As we waited for her photo session, Lady Aye reveals how she fell in love with the carny tradition watching a Penn & Teller show at age twelve (she laments that there are “no county fairs in Manhattan”). She has been swallowing swords for about a year, a skill that she says took some time to develop.
“It took four months to get it down all the way. I started with a toothbrush, then a corset stay, then a spoon, and eventually a sword.”
Along the way are those that inspired her in the sideshow tradition. She counts among them Vince Hall and C.M. Christ, out of Gibsonton, Florida. “Gibtown, as they call it, the carny capital of the world.” Out of Coney Island, there were Todd Robbins, Heather Holiday, Tyler Fyre and Diamond Donnie V., performers that impart a traditional elegance to a seemingly indelicate style of entertainment.
Aye also revealed her soft-spot for vintage culture and retro dress-up. As our conversation spilled from old-school fashion into feminism and comedy, Lady Aye somehow found a way to address the dichotomy of the ‘good old days,’ when post-war prosperity and killer fashions co-existed with good old female repression.
“I always loved the fashions of the 50’s,” she says. “They were more curvy, which I find more flattering. After the depression and war, fashion became indulgent: full skirts with lots of fabric; a corseted dress with an atomic bullet bra bodice … it was Victorian values, but interpreted in a modern way.”
One could make a similar observation about burlesque—a traditional art form, filtered through modern values. A good many women in the arts have returned to the recalcitrance of pre-war, pre-movie code days, when subversion and challenging the status quo through performance made it in some ways a more liberating time for women. As far back as before the turn of the century, artists like Lydia Thompson were producing writing and performing in burlesque shows that poked fun at social mores in costumes that, while considered tame today, were risqué at the time.
And in an age when a wardrobe malfunction can derail a pop star’s career, make a network hiccup, and offend the puritanical sensibilities of an audience seemingly desensitized to commercials popping with bikini-clad beer babes and sexual innuendo, we can probably do with an adjustment of just where a woman’s body fits into all of this.
But I digress. Lady’s feminist awareness came when, after graduating Columbia with a degree in American Film History, she realized while trying her hand at screenwriting that the industry wasn’t interested in films about women, written by women. “It was around the time of ‘Swingers’, a film about guys being guys”-- written by guys. She did some PA work for Todd Hayne’s indie film, Poison, then fell into promoting.
She hosted the running rockabilly party “Big City After Dark,” that gave vent to her childhood love of sideshow and vaudeville. She combined variety acts, fortune tellers, comedy and burlesque, met fire-eater Tyler Fyre and burlesque dancer Nasty Canasta and found as she continued to book acts that “these burlesque people were really having a lot of fun. But what pushed me over the edge into the genre was when my friend’s mom died of breast cancer.” Although she is not a burlesque dancer herself, she and her friend promoted the event, “Burlesque Against Breast Cancer,” raised money for the cause—then found they had difficulty finding charities that would take the money. “It was like, 'We don’t mind fighting breast cancer; we just don’t want to see breasts.’”
She was looking for a creative outlet, and found it in “Bump & Grindhouse,” an ongoing show that she started with burlesque dancer Clams Casino that pays homage to the pulp novels and soft-porn exploitation flicks of the 50’s & 60’s. The kitch/comic factor is high.
“Burlesque is pertinent. It can be funny and sexy. It’s difficult in mainstream entertainment for women to combine beauty & comedy.” Wit signifies intelligence, which implies a brain along with a body.
She says, “The combination can be very threatening to some.”
That observation led to a issue that gets hashed out periodically in the burlesque community: the difference between burlesque and modern strip-club stripping. While both, in essence, are defined by a woman taking off her clothes, there are nuances that reinforce the divide.
Foremost is probably neo-burlesque’s playful, nostalgic ode to a traditional performance art that emphasized the “tease” above all else. It was never a full strip; it was a tantalizing act that left more to the imagination.
“I see it as the difference between McDonalds and fine dining—food you just want to gobble down, and food you want to savor,” she observes.
There is also economic consideration: for strip-club dancers, it is a means to make a living; burlesque artists, on the other hand, do not get rich. Most do it for the love of the craft. In fact, after doling out for opulent costumes and props, many artists find themselves in the hole to support their habit.
But she adds that making the distinction is still buying into a cultural mindset that “demonizes women for taking their clothes off” (even if those making the lion’s share of profits--the owners and promoters of today’s mainstream stripping establishments--are men.) One will find, though, that burlesque shows are created and produced primarily (and attended slight more) by women, so the emphasis is on the creative, playful aspect, rather than on “getting anyone off.”
Some dancers see no difference in the genres: Dita Von Teese, the most commercially successful of today’s burlesque movement, started as a pin-up & fetish model, and feels stripping is stripping, no matter what one calls it. Dita’s influence on the neo-burlesque scene is undeniable, not only with raising its profile but also its glamour factor, with sumptuous costuming and props and an entrepreneurial approach that has led to fashion and cosmetic endorsements. For all her attributes, a few burlesque legends have made the observation that, in performance Dita lacks that very element that distinguishes burlesque: connection with the audience. Tempest Storm noted, “It’s not only in the body, it’s in the eyes, the face. Dita’s a beautiful woman and has a gorgeous wardrobe, but no personality onstage. It’s like a singer—you can have the greatest voice, but the audience wants to feel where it’s coming from.”
That personal energy is perhaps what is so empowering to women, in a performance art that addresses the rather restricting definition of female beauty that prevails. Mainstream media tells women exactly what they should look like; burlesque deconstructs that standard. Every woman has a sensual exquisiteness, and burlesque gives it emphasis: a persuasive enough reason to be inspired by it.
“There are very few areas in life where you get to decide who you are and tell the world that,” says Lady Aye.