When I first discovered the Perth burlesque community, it was 2009 – I didn’t realise that at the same time, a brave young woman working for a bank was deciding that she was ready to start the ‘side gig’ she’d always dreamt of but always been told was not an acceptable career path. As I was enjoying my first burly performances at roller derby bouts and Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, Stella Hui was developing a business plan.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I’d never be a talented burlesque dancer, but I soon found my own ways to celebrate and engage with burlesque. I produced burlesque-inspired artworks for my art degree, and hosted my very first burlesque show (for International Women’s Week, at the UWA Tav no less, and on the same night as ‘Sombrero Night’ – boy did those worlds collide in a unique way). All the while, Stella was taking the plunge, defying the expectations of her family, and forging a new path for herself as a businesswoman and artist.
By the time I joined the ranks of LVC, the troupe had been going strong for around three years already. After my first gig as a guest host, I was surprised and happy to be invited to the annual LVC Christmas party. I remember sitting at the table in a Northbridge restaurant surrounded by all these gorgeous girls I had worked with only once or maybe twice, working very hard to memorise not only their stage names but their real names too. I remember Stella turning to me at that first Christmas party and asking if there was any chance I could teach music, and drama? I remember later my job interview, where Stella may-or-may-not-have finished reading my resume, and her complete surprise a few months later when she found out I’m an accomplished violinist (“But it was on my resume!” “It was waaaay too long, I stopped reading”). I remember feeling over the moon after my very first gig with LVC as a guest host, when Stella asked me to MC the next show too, and then the one after that, until eventually she didn’t need to ask anymore, we all just assumed. Most of all, at that first Christmas party I remember feeling stupidly happy. After a couple of years hanging around on the fringes of the burlesque scene, knowing people’s names and faces but mostly keeping to myself, I had found this bunch of friendly, humble, passionate girls who welcomed me with open arms.
By the time I became the manager of the troupe, Stella had already done something absolutely incredible. She’d started a side-hustle, but she’d approached it using the skills and knowledge from her degree in commerce. She’d poured everything into it and it had already expanded to the point where she now owned and operated multiple businesses, including a bricks-and-mortar dance studio from which she could permanently base her operations. She epitomised both Burlesque Babe and Businesswoman, in her tireless approach to running the studio, and in her amazing performances as a dancer and fire performer (if you ever get the chance to watch her onstage ever again, you must take it).
Now this isn’t just one long-winded post about Stella (she’ll be relieved at that actually), but I’m also planning to ramble about what she’s created, so strap yourselves in. As someone with well-documented problems recognising and differentiating people’s faces (I’m SO sorry if I’ve ever blanked you or re-introduced myself to you for the fourth time), one thing that struck me about this new troupe I’d joined was that everyone was so different. My LVC sisters were women of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. There were no rules about who could or couldn’t perform – what you needed was passion, a desire to constantly improve, and pride in your work. It literally never occurred to me at one single point since joining LVC in 2012 that my size or looks may affect my position in the troupe or their willingness to have me host their shows. Instead, I got to focus on improving my skills and gaining more experience. As manager of the business, at no point did I ever need to even consider excluding a student from enrolling in LVC classes due to a disability, their size, their gender or sexuality. If anything, we spent our energy finding ways to make sure all of our wonderful and diverse students found our classes and performances comfortable, welcoming and accessible.
Diversity was and is also a big part of LVC’s professional shows, featuring performers of all genders and backgrounds as well as all disciplines – this was truly a Cabaret Troupe, not just for burlesque. LVC shows featured (and still feature) singers, dancers, acrobats, circus artists, comedians, actors, fire performers, musicians, and yes, even masked Luchadore wrestling. As an artist who still doesn’t quite know which category I fit into, what better place could there be for me to perform, learn, and make friends? The troupe was never afraid of a collaboration, or bringing in external performers to help a show or entertainment booking be the absolute best it could be – no politics or rivalries here! Over the years working for LVC, I personally have worked alongside artists from all sorts of backgrounds, from Kung Fu to stand up comedy to aerial circus. This has helped me build connections outside of the burlesque community, and really shaped my experience working in the entertainment and performing arts industries in WA – plus it’s exposed our audiences and clients to such a diverse range of performers from many different companies, not just LVC.
Our professionalism and diversity make me proud of LVC – and I’m proud that the achievements of this troupe have been recognised. There have been Eros award nominations, the Fringe World 2012 People’s Choice Award, Miss Burlesque state and national titles, international festival gigs, Stella being named in the Top 50 Australian Small Business Leaders, and then of course the Optus Australian Businesswoman of the Year. In 2016 we all exploded with pride when we heard that on the other side of the country, Stella had won the award and was having to make an acceptance speech (ha, ha). With the advent of the Australian Burlesque Museum, with which I’m involved as a WA research team member, I started to really look back at how Perth’s burlesque community had grown since the neo-burlesque revival. I was so proud that LVC was recognised by the Museum as one of Perth’s core burlesque troupes (and boy are we in good company). After so many years of working so damn hard, it was wonderful to step back and take in just how much that work had been seen, supported and appreciated by the Perth community. It was something I hadn’t really thought much about while I was in the thick of it, instead focusing more on the next show, the next course, next year’s Fringe festival, the next corporate booking, on shipping the next LVC performer off to take over the world one new city at a time.
This is my second year working full-time for Azure Entertainment, the parent company of Lady Velvet Cabaret and our dance studio and hens party businesses. What started for me as a side-hustle, to get me through my early years as a graduate high school teacher, ended up completely taking over my life, and boy am I grateful for it every single day. Since 2012, I’ve developed real, true, powerful friendships with my troupe sisters. I’ve seen people go from casual LVC dance students to card-carrying LVC troupe members (just joking we don’t have cards) and absolute professionals. Never in a million years would I have thought that I’d end up cutting my school teaching career short to work full-time in the performing arts, but here I am. It’s not the easiest job in the world, and I have a lot more grey hairs than I think I’m meant to at this age.
No, I’m just kidding.
All the things that this strange, busy, quirky career has taught me would never fit in this one post, but I reckon I can fit one more paragraph in before you all switch off (hopefully). Lady Velvet Cabaret has let me grow in my own time. When this was just a side-gig for me, that’s all it needed to be, I was never pressured to do or give more than I could. When I was ready to push and grow and develop my character, LVC supported me, gave me feedback, told me what I needed to do to improve. When I let myself believe that all my prior experience as a visual and performing artist was “irrelevant” to my work as Lucinda Panties, LVC set me straight. Performing is performing. Experience is experience. Whether it’s as a public speaker, a musician, a teen playing the violin on tour in Europe, a roving character actor, it’s industry work and that’s what we are – an industry, not just a ‘scene’. LVC taught me that I don’t have to fit in a box, that my career doesn’t have to have the same shape as someone else’s, and that all those weird “irrelevant” parts of my background as an artist are core to what makes me different and what makes me special. LVC taught me I don’t need to fit a mould, I need to break it. I need to embrace what makes me unique and work to my strengths. LVC freed me from my own weird self-imposed restrictions and impostor syndrome, and put me in a position where I was able to help others do the same. How bloody good is that?
I’m writing this just over a week out from our 10th Birthday Burly Bash (I like alliteration, and I’m in charge of the show names now, okay?). Organising this celebration, right after our last 2019 grad show and right before our huge end of year studio showcase, has been a wild ride, but I’m grateful for the opportunity at reflection and goal-setting it’s given me. I’m excited to look back on the past decade and celebrate with friends, family and fans whether old or new. I’m excited to show off some of our artists’ “old favourite” acts as well as many brand-new ones. I’m excited to showcase the ‘next generation’ of LVC. I’m excited for LVC to return to our roots, having first produced regular showcases at Deville’s Bar 10 years ago, and now celebrating our birthday at the same venue, reimagined as Badlands Bar. I’m excited to give out prizes from my favourite sponsors ever, who have supported either LVC or my own personal cabaret journey right from the start. I am excited for a good show, interspersed with the occasional speech, poem, song, award presentation, and perhaps some interpretive dance. After all, how can I accurately express my deep love for this company and all the people in/around/adjacent/and even semi-involved in it, if not for interpretive dance?