With his troupe White Elephant Burlesque Society about to celebrate it’s 10th year of existence (and in a few months, its second year of weekly shows at Rockbar) and with Halloween upon us, October is a busy month for this dynamic performer. Let’s break it all down with Viktor Devonne, the Clown Prince of Burlesque!
Viktor Devonne: Hexwork was wonderful. It’s my second time working with them–and I’m glad they make a stop at Roxy and Dukes as part of their Halloween tour so I can join them.
What’s your history with that venue? It seems like an interesting location for burlesque, way out there in central Jersey.
It’s probably the most prominent burlesque location in New Jersey. They have live bands, sideshow, variety, and is one of the few venues with a long-standing history of booking burlesque. They also have a wonderful design and decor. I am there every month with Le Vaudeville Noir, Vivi Noir’s vaudeville/burlesque revue. I play the hapless clownboy, always after the showgirls, but usually collapsed on the floor. Sort of Harpo Marx meets Wile E Coyote.
Also, did you do anything for the New York Burlesque Festival last week, or at least see any part of it?
So, I’ve seen you perform several time before, and there’s so much physical comedy and gags in your act. Plus, you’re always in trademark clown white facepaint. Are you inspired by clowns at all? Well, pre-2016 clowns, that is.
Heh, actually the clown part of my physical appearance is not directly inspired by most real life clowns. I started painting my face white in Rocky Horror back in 2002. I don’t know exactly why I decided my Frank-N-Furter was so clown-white. He’s really not, although many performers make that mistake and overdo it with the foundation. I was inspired to slather even more on as Riff Raff. None of that makes sense, of course.
My face is more reminiscent of European stage clowns than French or American clowns, but it definitely has gotten my grouped in with them. That’s quite alright; clowns are talented people.
The fear of clowns is a relatively new phenomenon. If you look at classic horror, from Twilight Zone or old movies, clowns are not totems of evil; they almost never appear. Poltergeist and Stephen King used them because they were symbols of innocence, and are garish and can be unnerving. I’ve learned to use the clown face I have and remix it accordingly, but there’s always a general signature look. I owe a lot that initial inspiration from Joel Grey in Cabaret and Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls.
Initially, much of my act work was Chaplin-style vaudeville, so the face made a lot of sense. When I delved into sadder, darker, or more dramatic works of burlesque, I found it even more effective.
Where’s your hometown?
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. I have a large family made up of children from several marriages. In 1992, we (my father, adopted mother, sister and I) moved to central New Jersey. I moved to Passaic County, more northern Jersey, in 2003. I travel from there to wherever I need to be.
How did you discover burlesque, and what about it appealed to to you?
I knew of burlesque as a child, although I don’t know if I knew what it was. I would watch old Hollywood films, I Love Lucy, and other media that included it as side elements. Cabaret and Gypsy put it at the forefront, and I was able to really see, at least somewhat, what people think of as classic burlesque. By the time I got to Rocky Horror, which has an entire last quarter of the film dedicated to a burlesque-of-burlesque, I was enchanted. I love the makeup, the costumes, the scenery– the audience that lifts you when you’re down.
Classic Burlesque has certainly made a comeback in recent years. Or maybe it never went away? How would you describe its appeal to people over, say, gogo boys or strippers?
I think burlesque is both a relic of itself and an emerging contemporary beast. I don’t know if there’s a real line between burlesque and strippers or gogo boys. Certainly there’s a cornucopia of Venn diagrams in New York of performers who qualify as both, or all three.
As a burlesque performer, I am a stripper. But definitely, those who work at strip clubs work a lot harder than I do. I get to express myself for four and a half minutes, and I think most strippers have extended sets where they may get to present themselves as a they wish, but also what they know the audience wants to see. It’s really different skill sets that borrow from each other all the time.
Burlesque audiences are such a mixed bag of expectations, tastes, and curiosities, so it’s hard to nail down exactly what they’re after. That’s why it’s wonderful there are so many shows that cater to a variety of interests, and producers who bring out a variety of performers to be seen. New York burlesque has classic, neo, weirdos, performance art. I love seeing performers that I myself have imagined, in one way, throw a curveball and play against type at a show. It’s exciting.
One thing that interests me about burlesque in LGBT venues is that it’s not uncommon for men and women to be performing together on stage. Why do you think that is? Is it because it’s not just about sex?
I love shows that’s are mixed genders. White Elephant Burlesque is all genders. I think successful burlesque shows include diversity because the performers are a reflection of the audience. There’s a lot of different types of sexy, so I like shows that embrace a lot of them.
Queer shows, especially run by queer people, seem to embrace that, so that’s probably why you see more of that. It’s inclusive because we already spent our lives being excluded.
That’s a good point! So, 10 years of White Elephant Burlesque, congratulations! You must have been a fetus when you started! How did the troupe come into existence?
I started burlesque at 23. I was part of a Rocky Horror cast and some of us were asked to do a twenty minute amateur burlesque, since it was expected that we would be comfortable on stage in our underwear. I developed a host persona, gave myself a name, and a look that has remained fairy consistent (although a bit more early 2000s Hot Topic than at present).
My then co-director Femme Fae la Butche and I were then asked to do another show after that was a hit, and it spiraled thereafter. We did a lot of conventions in New Jersey, a few spots in Philadelphia, and regularly made ourselves available for fetish and private events. I knew very early that it was my favorite thing to do: performing, planning shows, correspondence, booking; I love it all.
And when did you officially start calling yourselves White Elephant?
The first show, we didn’t have a name yet. None of us knew we would do it again. We named ourselves after we got the second show offer. We said, “oh wow, this may be a thing. Let’s name ourselves!” Fae and I spent an entire afternoon pitching names. We chose White Elephant Burlesque Society, which is the full length name for the troupe.
Over the years, I discontinued Society as a regular usage to distinguish the production colony name and the core group. But really, there’s no difference. You’re a society member if just for the night. It made a good acronym. A white elephant is an expense of love, more often than not.
How many original members are still in the troupe?
Many original performers performed exclusively with the troupe, because we sort of fell into burlesque, without a club or venue structure. We ran it very community theatre-style. At the anniversary show, there will be four of us who were in the first show we ever did, one of who (Anyanka) who will be doing her farewell performance. Over the years, we’ve had quite a few performers work with us who have gone onto really great things, in and out of the arts.
That’s awesome. Do you now take on new people with little or no burlesque experience in a mentorship fashion, or are you only looking for experienced people when you recruit?
WEBurlesque grew out of first timers, so I try to be as supportive as I can to folk who have just started out. I work with performers new and experienced. I just want a lot charisma, a lot of entertainment value, and someone who is totally and unapologetically themselves. And on time!
I think it definitely invites all kinds. That’s what I want. Jason is the master of Rockbar Wednesdays. It is through him that we have such a diverse night. Petra has been on Wednesday nights since almost the beginning of White Elephant shows at RockBar. WE came in after I saw [the viewing party for] American Horror Story: Freakshow there. I saw they had a stage, and said Hmmm. I am extremely lucky we have such a supportive bar and staff–and audience that has come in over the last two years to share it with us.
It’s a great, fun show, lots of spectacle and personality, sexy and funny.
The last time I saw you perform was at Stonewall for Homo Erectus’ show, when Kevin Aviance was guest hosting. It was a very funny number depicting an old dial-up modem and AOL chat rooms, and it took me back.
Hah, that act has been a runaway hit. I love that it is so universal for performers and audience members of a, shall we say, certain age. I do not do that act without at least two people coming up to me saying that they identify hard with it.
Was that autobiographical for you at all?
Yes, I am an adolescent of the late 90s so I was a chatroom and Instant Messenger enthusiast. Particularly, I was a queer kid in a Catholic school, so it was an early outlet for my sexuality. I never used a webcam then, so it’s more “inspired by actual events” than full reality.
But I have been so happy to bring that act to the Philadelphia Burlesque Festival, Fierce Queer Burlesque Festival, the Alternatease Burlesque Festival in Boston, the New Jersey Burlesque Festival and to many burlesque shows. It came to be because I hosted a boy band show with Lucky Charming as part of his Dirty Pop annual show. I had idea it would be one of my most requested acts. But it won me a title; I won Too Fucking Funny at Anja Keister’s Fucking Burlesque Awards via the audience vote. That was wonderful.
It was hilariously, and painfully, relatable.
Thank you – yeah, I’m very lucky to have performed it for audiences who know the struggle.
Let’s talk about October shows at Rockbar, where you’re doing Halloween themes each week. Halloween & burlesque go together really well, don’t they?
October at Rockbar has been great so far. We had our masquerade ball, which kicked off the show. Essence Revealed rocked our faces off, as she is prone to do. Broody Valentino did a new act with such beautiful feather wings.
Halloween for burlesque people is sort of redundant, but it makes a flier a whole easier to put together. We just did a Universal Monsters show, where we had acts like Faux Pas as the Bride of Frankenstein and Fem
Appeal as the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fem Appeal and Holly Ween are sort of our patron saints of the season.
This Wednesday, we have 80s and 90s horror icons. Regina Stargazer is going full Misery. Esmerelda May is representing the Craft. Holly is going full Freddy and Jason. After that, I’m going full circle with Rocky Horror night. Petra Fried will be Frank.
We’re closing out October with an everything-else spooky affair, with an extended edition including several performers from Switch n’ Play. After that, Halloween isn’t really going anywhere. We’re always going to spooky and naked. It goes hand in hand.
But those shows should be amazing, because they’re like the boxed-set editions of those burlesque acts. I look at my upcoming setlists on spread and pinch myself. So many amazing performers.
I think it will will be a phantasmagoric revue as usual. The Bizarre space in Bushwick is a really great one, with good sight lines. It means I can do a few more things on my knees… there’s a couple spaces in New York where floorwork is difficult for sight lines! I’ll be bringing my Emperor Palpatine, and probably at least another goofy silly act.
Working with Lee, Switch n’Play, Matt Knife, Fem Appeal – they’ve all helped encourage me to take more risks and be a goofball. I think sometimes I can confuse taking things seriously with taking myself too seriously. That’s a detriment for a boy in clown whiteface and jockstrap with grapes dangling from them.
It must be easy to get caught up in the moment, when you’re giving a particularly dramatic, or funny, or erotic performance though.
It’s very unusual for a host to also perform, and just jump on stage during the night. I’ve definitely had to get my head in the game with only a few minutes to prepare. I’m hard on myself!
I’ve learned a lot about myself, doing a weekly show about how easily I can segue into my own acts. I have a lot of fun with trying new things out, which again Fem has helped me focus on; take advantage of a weekly spotlight.
I struggle a bit with my own sense of attractiveness, so erotic performances are a little newer to me. I’m very lucky to have a supportive boyfriend who encourages me, and that helps me feel sexy on stage. Sexy men in burlesque are sometimes pigeonholed into different camps of “masc” or genderfuck. I think a man in whiteface and a garter is a new surprise, if they find themselves attracted to that.
Do you think there’s something about burlesque that promotes body positivity more than other nightlife performance genres?
There’s still miles to go. Burlesque is not impervious to shitty behavior or opinions. But we have a lot of wonderful people out there, fighting the good fight. Lillian Bustle and Matt Knife both have shows that have a wide range of body types, and WEBurlesque has been recognized for the same, which is wonderful. Burlesque is a reflection on society. Burlesque performers must then look like society.
I think one thing about burlesque is the accessibility of watching people who look like a million bucks in all different kinds of denominations. It’s something aspirational, but attainable. The New York School of Burlesque has made a great strides at encouraging people to explore their potential in an academic setting. I have had a number of people come up to me after the show to tell me that they have ideas or are inspired. Not everyone can perform; but everyone should feel good about themselves.
Inherently, burlesque is a celebration of the body, on the terms of the person displaying it. I think it definitely goes hand in hand.
Can you see a burlesquer performing and be like, “that’s San Francisco burlesque, that’s New Orleans burlesque, etc…” are there regional traits, like with drag?
I have been fortunate to include performers from outside of the tristate area in WEBurlesque. I know regionally, there are different styles that are appreciated but I’m not as sure it’s as obvious to me. I’m sure some folk can. I can see a difference regionally in audiences, though, from the way they tip and how some shows are run and they treat performers. I’m still just starting to travel to see it in person. I will say there are some fantastic audiences in Boston and Philadelphia.
You’re making a Philly trip soon, right?
Let’s talk about the WEBurlesque 10th Anniversary show at Roxy & Dukes on Saturday! That’s gonna be huge, right?
It’s a marathon show! Basically a White Elephant Burlesque Festival of some of my favorite folk, some who’ve been around all along or are still new to the fold. It’s also a party; it’s a celebration for the ten years of madness we’ve all been a part of.
Congratulations. And I see you campaigning for a GLAM, good luck with that! Burlesque doesn’t get enough love from the NY nightlife awards shows, does it?
Burlesque is a little behind on promo outside of a concentrated market. Drag performers are definitely more present in their marketing. Drag is more mainstream than burlesque. It may be because burlesque is more sexualized, and drag is sometimes viewed (incorrectly) as safer, or a more palatable, clownish version of a “gay male” where sexuality is more played for laughs, if at all.
Burlesque performers are definitely more guarded about their personal lives, and while I know both are subject to harassment, I think it stems from misogyny and anti-sex work. Drag is very smart to take as much opportunity to promote itself on all social media, and I do know a number of burlesque artists who are masters of Instagram and Facebook, but there’s certainly a lot of them without that privilege.
So for the GLAMs, I think its second nature for the drag artists to promote themselves to their peers; for some burlesquers, hopefully we’ll feel as encouraged to do so.
For me, it’s to celebrate the show. If I get any nominations, it’s all for the show. If we don’t, that’s ok, too. The show has a strong support system in its audience and venue, and from its cast members.
Do you have any plans for the near or distant future of WE?
We’ll be keeping on at Rockbar NYC every Wednesday. I’m open to other shows, potentially in New Jersey, as well. This January, we celebrate two years at Rockbar. I’m hosting a red carpet event, and we’re giving away a few awards/honors for some fun categories. Like sexy superlatives you’d see in a burlesque high school yearbook. The nominees will be culled from performers who have performed twice or more at Rockbar, and voting will be online and public. Categories include things like Saddest Stripper of Them All (most dramatic), Most Woke (social justice burlesquer), Best Mug (greatest makeup). It should be a blast. It’ll all be posted on our website.
As usual, I like to work. I’ll be wherever they need a dancing, stripping clownboy.
Got it. Okay… lastly, what do you think is the absolute worst song to burlesque/strip to?
I think whatever works, works. I know a lot of folk are over “I Put A Spell on You” and “Feeling Good.” They’re burlesque classics that are done by so many performers; it’s hard to put a personal stamp on a song so many have done before. I like them,
but even I have a moratorium on then at WEBurlesque shows after three performers submitted variations on them in four months time!
The worst song is a song that the performer has no feeing for. If it doesn’t make you want to move your hips, it’s just not going to work out. You need to feel it. I have seen some great burlesque to some otherwise unprepossessing songs. Hell, Fancy Feast does a whole show about those!
I’m totally up for being wrong about a song choice. There’s certainly a lot of songs I have no interest in performing to, but I have questionable taste.
I do know I am absolutely over burlesque acts to the song “Firework” by Katy Perry. No disrespect to anyone who has one, but I’ve seen enough of them and think that’s all we need. Fancy Feast’s mix is all we’ll ever need again.
Oh god, I hear THAT. Thanks Viktor, and happy anniversary!
Viktor Devonne’s troupe White Elephant Burlesque Society performs every Wednesday night at Rockbar (8pm). Their 10th Anniversary show will be at Roxy & Duke’s Roadhouse in Dunellen, NJ on October 15th (8pm). Viktor also performs at Roxy & Dukes monthly with the La Vaudeville Noir troupe (first Thursdays at 8:30pm), and this month he’ll be teaching a seminar at the Philadelphia Burlesque Academy (October 16th at 1pm) and performing for Lee VaLone’s Evil Beef show at Bizarre Bushwick (October 25th at 10pm). Viktor can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter & YouTube, and on WEBurlesque’s website.