In the winter of 2017, I had the honor of creating a custom lingerie bodypaint for “The Most Naked Woman” of burlesque – Michelle L’amour, on a visit she took from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Three years later, I am thrilled she is now moving to Vegas with her husband – writer, videographer and “recovering poet” Franky Vivid. If any city is prepared to absorb these two risqué creatives, it’s this one!
The day of the bodypainting was a special one filled with laughter and fun. What I did not know then, however, is that Michelle was hiding a secret from all but her closest friends. As a glamorous icon recognizable as much for her shining black locks as her “Ass That Goes POW!”, I didn’t know that Michelle had also been dealing with the autoimmune disease alopecia since childhood. This condition causes extreme and unexpected hair loss and can be very traumatic for those who have it.
After she recently “came out” with alopecia, she wrote this to me: “I was so scared to work with you. I was hiding my alopecia then and I didn’t want you to see me. I kept my turban on the whole time. I had this intense diet I was doing to help with autoimmune disease. I wasn’t myself. I wanted you to think that I was who you thought I was. I felt embarrassed and apologetic because I couldn’t be that person. I cannot wait to work with you again under these new circumstances!” I was shocked by this admission, because in true “the show must go on” fashion, she was nothing but friendly, fun and professional on set. Together we have decided to do a new bodypaint design celebrating her natural look, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, here is an interview with Michelle. If you live in Vegas, consider this a chance to get to know your new neighbor!
What initially attracted you to Burlesque?
I think burlesque attracted me. I had always been interested in the sexy side of life and I would spend hours in front of the mirror trying to hit ‘sexy’ poses. The idea of what was sexy and beautiful was very intriguing to me. It still is!
How did you get started in Burlesque?
I started doing burlesque in 2003 (pausing for gasps). Well, truly, 2003 was my first solo striptease, but I actually choreographed a burlesque show in 2002 and I made a striptease for someone else to perform. Then there was one show she couldn’t do and I stepped in for her. That was the end of that. Once you do a striptease for strangers, there’s no going back. I began studying dance when I was 15, which is very late for a girl to start dancing. I took to it immediately and was obsessed. Little did I know that all the ‘bedroom’ moves I developed in high school would come in handy now. Once I began dancing, that was all I wanted to do for my career, but I was encouraged to get a ‘real’ job. (I assure you that what I do is very REAL.) I ended up believing my family and a bad boyfriend I had at the time, that I would not be able to be a dancer. So, I went to school for finance but I still danced on the side. As I was nearing graduation, Sept 11 happened. I was on my way to class early that morning and once I got there, the teacher sent us home. I got home and just stared at the TV and cried. It was then that I realized that I better do something I was passionate about because life is just way too short. Two weeks after that, I left my boyfriend. A few months after that, I went on an audition for a dance/modeling agency. My now husband was there (with his ex-wife!) and he asked me to dance for his band. I said yes. It was a fun band. Glam, punk, industrial. He wore more makeup than I did. After a show, he said he wanted to open the rock show with a burlesque show and I said yes. The rest is history. Oh, and I did finish my degree in finance!
Any memorable early experiences you want to share?
There are SO many good things that have happened, it’s hard for me to remember them all. I guess that’s a good problem to have, right? I suppose I can give you some career highlights. I won the title of Miss Exotic World in 2005 from the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Vegas. I did my Snow White act, which I later performed on the first season of America’s Got Talent. I followed that act with a Knight Rider number in order to appeal to one of the judges…Sir David Hasselhoff. Brandy, another judge HATED me and completely degraded my talent. It’s fine. I expected that. Burlesque is a really misunderstood art form. After that, I went on to open a burlesque school in Chicago called Studio L’amour, which I ran for 10 years, along with my group, The Chicago Starlets. I also ran a club called the Everleigh Social Club. It was a beautiful space that catered to sexy events. Some of my best NYEs were spent in that club. Nudity and champagne go quite well together. I’ve gotten to travel the world performing and teaching. I am incredibly grateful for these experiences.
I remember seeing you on America’s Got Talent! This was back when Neo-Burlesque was in the early stages of its revival. Did you feel a lot of responsibility representing the art form to a country who might not know a lot about it?
YES! I absolutely knew that I was put on that show to be controversial. I knew that no one would understand what I did and I knew that I was going to be set up to be a stooge. But I took it on. I made sure to speak well in all of my interviews and conduct myself well on set. Even though I did all of this, I knew that they could take liberties and make me out to be the ‘dumb stripper’. The editors have all the power on shows like this. It was stressful because it was TV and it’s so ‘hurry up and wait’. But overall, my experience was good. I thought they treated me well in the edit but I knew I wasn’t a real contender. I was VERY happy to meet Regis Philban. He was one of the last great showmen. I will tell you though, that I did their sister shows in Paris and in Germany. Paris was wonderful. Germany can suck it. That was a HORRIBLE experience. Do not recommend! Nein!
Any advice you can give someone just starting out in Burlesque?
Do. The. Work. Yes, anyone can take off their clothes, but we do it in a way that is artful. Learn the basics and learn them well. Work on your craft before you work on your social media presence. Respect those that came before you. Avoid drama at all costs. Do not engage with it on any social media. Do NOT copy other performers. There are enough ideas to go around. Can’t think of any? Try harder. Do not get into burlesque to make money. The economics of burlesque are topsy turvy. You will spend thousands on a costume and you will not make your money back for quite some time. Your off-stage presence is just as important as your on-stage presence. And finally, T&A is the icing on the cake, but first you need to make a damn good cake.
Where did you grow up and what cities have you lived in? How would you compare the burlesque scenes in those cities?
I grew up in Chicago. I spent all my life there. From 2012 to 2015, I split my time between Chicago and New Orleans. New Orleans is a mystical, magical city. It sucked me in and gave me what I thought I needed at the time. I loved my time there but, in the end, the city wasn’t right for me. Chicago is very grounded in its nature. There is no time for bullshit. It’s cold. There’s pizza to eat. Very meat and potatoes. Ultimately, I committed more to Chicago. Chicago is a tough city. A hard sell. They are conservative so you have to REALLY use baby steps with them. When I started doing burlesque there, there wasn’t anything going on. Now (or there used to be before Corona), there are multiple shows a night. It’s getting to a New York City level. Chicago’s scene tends to be more dance based. By contrast, New Orleans is NOT conservative at all. You have to work really hard to engage them because they’ve seen and done everything. The scene there tends to be a little more DIY. The general public in New Orleans is all about DIY costumes. You’ve heard of Mardi Gras right? So, burlesque is a natural extension of that. Next, I moved to Los Angeles. The weather is AMAZING! I put my time in freezing my booty off in Chicago. I thought, I deserve this! The scene in LA is interesting. You have the ultra-glamour girls, the professional dancers, and your tried and true burlesque performers. It’s all over the map. The pay is not great there because there are SO many people who are in the ‘industry’ so it’s not so easy to jump on a show. I advise performers not to travel to LA for gigs because it’s just not that kind of town. Not like Chicago, New Orleans or NYC. Now, I am coming to Las Vegas in the middle of a pandemic, so there’s not much of a ‘scene’ for anything but I really look forward to coming out to play with all my friends soon! I want to know all the good spots!
Some people might view Burlesque as objectifying women. How do you respond to that?
I cannot control how others perceive me, but I can control the kind of art I put into the world. I am mindful of my responsibility to present sexuality and sensuality in a way that is intelligent and healthy. There is too much manufactured sexuality in this world and I want to be the antidote to that. I strive to bring vulnerability, authenticity and innovation to the stage. If someone just wants to see me for T&A, that’s fine. But, if someone wants to appreciate the art in a different way, that’s available to them too.
How is Burlesque feminist?
Burlesque has traditionally been an art form that showcases the woman, but now, we’re in an age where gender doesn’t matter. There are performers who are men, trans, non-binary, etc. Burlesque welcomes all that come to it. It is a place to safely own your sexuality and present it in a positive environment. For me personally, I enjoyed the times when I have felt very feminine but I’m now enjoying time feeling very androgynous. Glamdrogynous, really.
Can you tell us about your experience going viral with “Butthoven”?
Butthoven has over 11 million views! This was a silly little idea I had for so long. I’ve always had the ability to do butt cheek isolations and I just thought it would be hilarious if I did it to Beethoven’s 5th symphony while my butt wore a bow tie. I did it in my Chicago club for a Halloween show. Then, one day a few months after that, I was bored and thought I would post it on the internet. Little did I know it would go viral! You just can’t plan for these things. It actually went viral twice. The first was on its own and then the second time was when Miley Cyrus ‘twerked’ with Robin Thicke on an award show. I’ve gotten to travel the world because of my bouncing butt cheeks. I will tell you, it’s annoying it’s not on YouTube because that’s where the money is, but I couldn’t post it up there because of the age restriction. That… and I have been BANNED on YouTube. Yes, banned.
Why were you banned on YouTube??
I’m not quite sure why I was banned on YouTube. There was no warning. I just got an email that I committed SEVERE violations. There was no explanation beyond that. My videos were not beyond what anyone else does. If I had to guess, it was because of a video I posted called ‘Pleasure is Power’. It was a tribute to Andy Warhol’s short film, Blow Job, and to Hedy Lamaar in Ecstasy. In Warhol’s video, a man is receiving pleasure and all you see is his face. I thought I would do the same thing. All you see is my face while I am being pleased. It’s black and white. No sound. I was making a statement when I put it up but I figured if they didn’t like it, they would just take down the video, not take down me! I was wrong. Warhol’s video is still up there though….So, now I am solely on Vimeo.
Based on your public persona, your life looks very glamorous! What does a typical day like for you?
No day is typical, but I am trying for more structure. I start my days by walking my ridiculously cute dogs. Then I come back and make their breakfast. I prepare tea for myself and I sit down and journal. I write down 3 things I’d like to do in the day (answering this interview was on my list today), and I write 3 things that I am grateful for and then I write down an intention. After that, I meditate and breathe. And then, I study. I read from a book and take notes. Right now, I’m reading Pleasure Activism. It discusses Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. READ IT. Every sentence is a gem of revelation. I try to do this ritual when no one else is awake. It’s just me and the dogs and it’s brilliant. It has changed my life. After all of that, I’ll work, dance, workout, practice my violin, take meetings, etc. As long as I have my quiet time, I’m good the rest of the day. And, also… I wear leggings almost every day. They are glamorous leggings, of course.
Tell us about your experience teaching burlesque.
I have been teaching burlesque for almost as long as I’ve been performing it. I ran a school for 10 years, but I was teaching for 5 years before that. And before I taught burlesque, I taught dance to kids. I had to stop doing that because ‘Miss Michelle’ started getting press for burlesque and it wasn’t sitting well with the parents! Teaching burlesque is very gratifying. I would take people from their first class to the stage. I would get to watch their transformation. Burlesque isn’t just about peeling off the layers of clothing, but it is about revealing yourself. It is about meeting yourself in the mirror. Where I am now with teaching, is that I’m more interested in the ‘why’ of it all rather than the ‘how’. I’m more interested in teaching people how to love themselves rather than teaching them the proper way to do a shimmy. The two can definitely go hand in hand, but I suppose I’m feeling a bit more spiritual these days. My newest class is called Pussy Confidence: Plug into Power. It is an 8 week online movement and lecture course designed to encourage those that identify as women to connect to their innate power and sexuality. Class begins Aug 29th.
Aside from teaching the skills of Burlesque, what life lessons or philosophy do you try to teach your students?
Beauty is truth. Vulnerability is strength. Those are my mantras. I am a beauty warrior and I will fight for the truth in myself and in others all day and every day.
You are the founder of the intriguing stage show, “Naked Girls Reading”? What is it?
Naked Girls Reading is simply, naked. girls. reading. It is a live literary salon where readers come out and read aloud to audience selections based on a theme.
You recently rebranded NGR as “Bare Book Club”. What inspired that change?
After 11 years of Naked Girls Reading, we decided to change the name to Bare Book Club. We felt that we had to respond to our current cultural climate on the issues of gender and we also had to address the fact that social media silences women. We had to remove the word ‘naked’ and ‘girls’ from our promo because we were being disabled and shadow banned. Our events were not being promoted effectively and things just got to a fever pitch where we had to change. New rules. New game.
You recently came out as someone who has alopecia, and have become one of the more glamorous faces for this condition. What inspired you to go public?
I simply could not handle the burden any more. Alopecia is an autoimmune disease that causes your hair to fall out. I’ve had this condition since I was 6. I’ve had periods with very little hair and I’ve had periods with amazing, beautiful hair. As I was at the height of my career, my hair started falling out quickly. I was in full panic. It is terrible to lose your hair as a woman, but even more terrible to lose it as a woman who is seen as ‘sexy’ and ‘glamorous’. I began going to the doctor and getting steroid shots in my head every month. I kept this a secret from everyone except my hair dresser and my husband. I did this for about 2 years before I finally opened up to friends. I began wearing turbans and my hair got shorter and shorter. I began wearing wigs, something that I never did before. Wigs are very common in burlesque and no one faults you for wearing a wig, but I had a major issue with wigs. I wore one when I was in first grade and it flew off during a game of duck duck goose. I came home with my wig askew and I told my mom that I was never wearing it again. This is where my obsession with truth began. I can’t even wear push up bras without feeling like a fraud! Anyway, I would do shows and sneak off to the bathroom to put on my wig so no one could see what I was dealing with. I was completely losing myself. Everything that I had taught and everything that I had believed was being tested and I was losing. I had to be my own teacher and I had to take my own advice. I went into my hair dresser’s salon and I told her today was the day we were going to shave it. I couldn’t deal with the trauma of seeing my hair in my comb, on my pillow, in the drain, in the garbage. Everywhere but my head. If my hair was shorter then I could remove that stress from the equation. (The ironic thing about autoimmune disease is that stress triggers it, but the disease causes stress. It’s just a sick cycle.) After I cut my hair (November of 2017), I went to all the venues I worked in and told them what was going on. I told them that I was going to come out about this and I wanted them to know ahead of time. I was very afraid of losing my jobs. Who would hire the bald girl? To my surprise, they were all very supportive. I was stunned and also relieved. The love and support I received from people was amazing. I was free. In January of 2018, I came out about my alopecia in a YouTube video (before I was banned). I couldn’t believe how many people I had reached and how many people needed to hear this message. For the past 2 years, I have continued to work on myself and to ground myself further in my truth. I am more me now than I have ever been.
Do you have any advice to anyone reading who might have the same condition?
You are not alone. I know it feels like you are, but you are not. There are people that understand. There are people that are going through it or have gone through it. This advice isn’t limited to those with alopecia. If we can learn anything from this Covid quarantine, it’s that we are not alone. We are all struggling. All of us. Not just our households. Not just our cities, our states, our country, but the world. The sooner we can surrender to this current situation, the better chance we have of surviving and thriving from it. We need to cultivate our compassion for ourselves and for others. It’s important to meet yourself in the mirror and to work in the shadows. If you can do that, you give others permission to do that too. That’s the real virus that I wish would spread. Love for yourself and love for others.