Striptease on the Strip
A Weekend at Las Vegas' Exotic World
It started, auspiciously enough, with pink feathers floating down Fremont Street. The Exotic World Weekend in Las Vegas kicked off (literally) with over 200 exotic dancers performing the world's biggest bump and grind while wearing the world's longest feather boa, a mile-long, shocking pink monstrosity constructed by Ostriches On Line. While the speakers over Fremont blared a selection of classic boom-tsiss-boom-tsiss music, the gals (and a couple of guys) gave convention attendees and curious onlookers a taste of what was to come—three days worth of classic, retro-style Burlesque action.
The annual Exotic World Weekend is an offshoot of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (formerly known as the Exotic World Burlesque Museum and formerly located in arid, isolated Helendale, California). Exotic World was founded by retired exotic dancer Dixie Evans, known in her professional days as "the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque." Every spring since 1990, Dixie held a talent contest, gathering together the best dancers, old and new, around the sun-baked Grecian swimming pool of her home/tourist attraction and bestowing the title "Miss Exotic World" on one lucky winner. Unable to keep up the museum in her 80s, Dixie decided to move it lock stock and barrel to Las Vegas, Nevada. While the Burlesque Hall of Fame is still searching for a permanent place to call home, the annual Miss Exotic World Pageant has flourished in its new digs.
This year marked the second in a row that the Miss Exotic World Pageant has taken place in Vegas, a location of the most suitable spiritual kinship. From Friday, June 8, through Sunday, June 10, a massive collection of performers and spectators descended upon Sin City for a weekend of corsets and chorus lines, of pasties and pink feather boas. Stripteasers of all shapes and sizes—from 6-foot-tall, 300-pound Candy "Baby" Caramelo ("The World's Largest Showgirl") to 3'10" Selene Luna [www.seleneluna.com] ("The Pocket Venus")—commandeered stages up and down the Las Vegas strip to share their talents with burlesque dancers from around the world.
I was lucky enough to attended this year's shindig, accompanying a cross-section of Albuquerque's finest burlesque performers, including Kittie Irreverent, Holly Rebelle from Burlesque Noir and Henrietta LeCoup, Cookie Fortune and Cherry Jubilee from BellaDonna Burlesque Revue.
Following the World's Longest Feather Boa display, the 50th Anniversary Burlesque Reunion took place at the showroom inside the Plaza Hotel and Casino. Organization was in somewhat short supply (wristbands? guest lists? programs?), but the seedy, neon-lit spectacle of downtown Vegas provided the perfect backdrop for this unforgettable gathering of classic Burlesque performers. The once-in-a-lifetime list was too long to detail, but old school performers like Dee Milo, Satan's Angel and the legendary Tempest Storm performed some mind-blowing examples of the ecdysiast's art. Stockings were stripped, gloves were peeled and tassels were twirled. While watching women in their 70s perform striptease acts they pioneered a half-century ago seems like a dicey prospect, I can only insist that it was one of the finest stage shows I've ever seen. These gals have still got it, and were more than happy to show it off. Even performing with the assist of a wheelchair (as Holiday O'Hara did), these ladies demonstrated the talent, humor, class and good old-fashioned sex appeal that is the backbone of Burlesque entertainment. Those who could no longer shake a tail feather were asked up on stage to share stories of the Golden Age, when Burlesque houses spanned the country from Hollywood to Broadway.
Pool parties, cocktail gatherings, poker tournaments, atomic architecture tours and a burlesque-themed shopping bazzar kept revelers busy throughout the long, hot weekend.
Come Saturday night, it was time for the neo-Burlesque performers to show off their skills at the 18th annual Miss Exotic World Pageant. Shuttle buses trucked participants from the now horseshoeless Binion's to Krave nightclub, located up the Strip next door to the classy new Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. I had the privilege of sitting next to Tura Satana, who performed for years on the Burlesque circuit before becoming a cult icon thanks to Russ Meyer's buxotic action flick Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Satana told tales about working at Vegas' storied Silver Slipper, including one in which she leapt off the stage to catfight a woman who had thrown a lead crystal ashtray at her head. Apparently, the women did so because her boyfriend was looking at the dancer. Security eventually intervened—but, hey, sometimes you've just got to explain things to people with your fists.
More disorganization greeted spectators at Krave (club owners changed the start time abruptly, seating was non-existent), but the club proved a fine venue for the evening's festivities, presided over by the one and only "Mexican Elvis" himself, El Vez and the provocative Miss Astrid. The hosts were hilarious and kept the looooong show from becoming a chore. (In the end, it did clock in slightly under Friday night's five-hour extravaganza.) Hell, just eyeballing the crowd was high entertainment. This was one well-dressed audience, with vintage '50s dresses, sharkskin suits, elaborate corsets and acres of sequins an absolute must.
More than 40 performers rose to the exotic occasion, competing in categories like "Best Debut," "Best Duo," "Best Troupe" and "Best Boylesque" (a new category that's starting to gain steam). To a fault, the performances were witty, creative and absolutely dazzling. Kissing Cousins from New York performed a very funny tribute to Titanic, complete with iceberg and ocean liner costumes. Albert Cadabra battled a Rubik's Cube (you read that right) in his Rocky-inspired boylesque number. Violet Eva of the Tokyo-based Murasaki Babydolls rocked the house with her energetic neon-colored performance.
It was a testament to the evening's skills that hometown Vegas gal Kalani Kokonuts, who offered up a jaw-dropping Japanese-inspired number complete with seven live Taiko drummers and a simulated snowstorm, didn't even place in the top three competitors for Miss Exotic World 2007. Then again, the judges could have pulled the winner's name out of a hat and no one would have complained—the competition was that tight. Certainly, no one could argue at the end of the night when statuesque British bombshell Immodesty Blaize captured the Miss Exotic World crown with her faultless, glamorous, Gypsy Rose Lee-style performance. After all, it was Blaize who captured what the old school performers from the night before were dreaming about: the return of Burlesque in all it glittering glory—classic, classy and sporting one hell of a wardrobe.