When this beautiful, intelligent Shakespearean actress first studied burlesque as a way to explore her “Sexy,” she soon found herself as a major figure in the scene and in NYC nightlife. Now hosting an all women-of-color revue called Shades of Burlesque and the sexy fetish party Safeword, she has positively given the world of tassels and pasties a much needed new flavor. Life is a little bit sweeter with Sweet Lorraine!
Thotyssey: Hi Lorraine, thanks for talking to us! So, we are in some wild times right now. Have you been out protesting, or seeing the action at all?
Sweet Lorraine: I didn’t march, but I have definitely been tuning in. I followed CNN’s coverage of the Women’s March on Washington, and a few of my friends were performing and speaking there: Ganessa James, an incredible musician, and Ericka Hart, sex educator and breast cancer survivor.
I’ve also continued to protest in my own way: continuing to create spaces/ shows that are welcoming, safe, and positive, and that celebrate Black and Brown women, POCs & LGBTQ folk. We’ll need as many loving spaces as possible over the next four years.
Do you look to anyone in particular for inspiration at times like this?
I pull inspiration from all over, especially during difficult times. The arts have always been a place of healing and peace for me, so going to see other artists that I enjoy and admire is truly important. It’s a form of self-care that reminds me that there is beauty and creativity in the world despite the negativity.
I also look to the elders: James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. Their writings ground me, give me hope, encourage me to continue creating even when things look bleak.
Let’s talk about you! Where’s your hometown, and what were some of your early interests, struggles, dreams, etc?
I’m originally from Jacksonville, FL. I’ve always been interested in the performing arts from very early on. I can remember memorizing complete bodies of work by Maya Angelou as an adolescent. Reciting them at church, school, for my high school English teacher… which is where I fell in love with classical theatre, especially Shakespeare. The language was so beautiful and grand! When my teacher Mrs. Janet Hall realized I had a knack for performing the Bard’s tales, she insisted I audition to be in these local Shakespeare competitions.
I actually experienced my first real heartbreak after I came in as a runner-up in one of the competitions. It had a lot to do with race, unfortunately–being down south and all, and them never having a Black person enter the competition. Turns out the student who won the first place prize (a trip to NYC to perform in the National Shakespeare Competition at Juilliard) didn’t even use a Shakespearean monologue, and was eventually disqualified.
I ended up winning the following year, and performing at Juilliard, which is pretty cool for a kid who’s dream it was to be a classical actress. My dream still is to perform at the Globe Theatre in London.
When did you officially become a New Yorker?
I came to NYC in February 2007 to audition for NYU and become an actor, of course!
When did you discover burlesque, and what appealed to you about the genre?
I happened upon burlesque in 2009… I was in California for work and I decided that I wanted to start pinup modeling when I returned to New York. I started researching Black pinups for inspiration, and happened upon vintage burlesque videos. I was attracted to the glamour of it all, the storytelling, the sheer beauty! I also felt it was time for me to embrace my Sexy, and burlesque seemed like a safe, fun way to tap into that part of myself.
What was your first gig?
My first gig was at the Slipper Room for a student showcase. I was a nervous wreck! I had on a slinky dress, wildly overpriced and even more outrageously basic red sequin pasties, black gloves… and I danced to Beyoncé’s “Speechless.” I still can’t listen to that song now without remembering myself shakily removing my gloves with a showgirl smile!
The rise of burlesque in today’s nightlife is interesting to me, because so much of its aesthetic is so old-fashioned: the strip tease, the feathers and fans and long gloves, tassels and pasties, etc. What do you attribute its modern success to?
I think that everyone is fascinated with sex/ sex appeal and glamour. However, in our very puritanical society, anything sexual is frowned upon. But magically, when you put a vintage, pinup spin on “sexy,” it’s accepted!
Think of a woman recording artist that went a little too far over the “sexy” edge. Their persona is cleaned up with the pinup/burlesque look. Christina Aguilera, Rhianna… hell, Beyoncé’s entire style is fashioned after the pinup motif. She can sing about giving her husband blowjobs on the way to the club (fun times!) if she does it in a corset, fishnet stockings with a back seam, and a classic red lip. It’s brilliant, selling “acceptable sex!”
What are you generally trying to portray in your own performances?
Well, I like to celebrate my Sexy as a Black woman, which took me a long time to accept. I was so afraid of being labeled a ho or a jezebel or any of the number of negative stereotypes that are automatically associated with Black women or WOC’s sexuality.
After a long journey of releasing and redefining my sexuality on my own terms, my main goal when I’m performing burlesque is to be completely uninhibited. To own and celebrate everything anyone has ever tried to shame me for (”your breasts are too big, you’re too dark to be attractive, Black women can’t wear red lipstick…” The list goes on and on).
My performances are acts of self-love, and giving permission to the next Black or Brown woman who might be interested in the art form, but has the same or similar hangups that I did about it all.
When did you create Shades of Burlesque? The revue performs last Wednesdays at C’Mon Everybody in Brooklyn, and entirely features women of color.
I created Shades in 2012, when I was producing The Goddess Festival: Oshun Returns. It was a year long festival I created that celebrated Black women in the arts, especially in the realm of sexuality.
By this point, I was performing burlesque a few nights a week in NYC. I knew that there were Black burlesque dancers, but we were rarely booked in the same show. I just figured what a great experience it would be to have a show with all Black burlesque performers, so I came up with a name and added Shades of Burlesque to the list of monthly events for the festival.
The first Shades show at WOW Cafe Theatre sold out! I knew I had to keep producing the event. The audience was mostly all POCs who told me point blank that they didn’t go to burlesque shows because they never saw themselves represented on stage.
The first Black burlesque dancer I ever saw on stage was Lux LaCroix, I was in awe! I was going to 3-4 burlesque shows a week a week for about two years before I saw a POC burlesque performer!
I can not stress the importance and necessity of visibility in all art forms!
When does Shades return to C’Mon Everybody?
Wednesday, February 22nd! Since it is Black History month, I decided to go way over budget and add a few more phenomenal burlesque performers to the lineup!
There will also be live music by Storm Marerro, an incredible duo. The Harlem Strutters (CeCe Brown Sugah and Shana Weaver) will bring a few Jazz Age dance performances and more! I am beyond thrilled about this show!
You’ll also be making an appearance at Branded Saloon on January 28th for Miss Malice of Switch-N-Play’s birthday show.
Yes, I’ll be at Branded Saloon this Saturday to celebrate the brilliant and beautiful Miss Malice! Love her! We’ve known each other for at least four years now, and she’s just the bee’s knees! It’s a vampire themed show, and I’ll be performing my tribute to Grace Jones’ VAMP!
In general, there seems to be a really strong bond between burlesque performers, in this city and even globally. How does everybody know each other?
The burlesque community is relatively small in NYC, so it doesn’t take too long to meet everyone at least once! Also, we have multiple burlesque boards on the interwebs/FB where we can connect. Most performers are pretty open about sharing their connections and information when they travel abroad for shows, tours and festivals. It’s a pretty dope community to be a part of, most days!
Back to the gigs: You’re bringing your brand to the Cobra Club on February 1st for “Sweet Fantasy Burlesque!” Is that gonna be your first time performing there?
I’ve performed at the venue numerous times over the years, but this will be my first time producing there!
And a monthly party/show of yours that started in Bizarre, but has since moved to C’Mon Everybody: Safeword (next one is February 14th)! This is a bit different from your burlesque shows; it emphasizes fetish and BDSM and kink. What are you trying to accomplish with this popular party, and does it bring out a different side of you than your traditional burlesque performances?
Like so much of the work I produce, I want safe spaces where folks can be themselves! I also noticed that there weren’t many spaces for POCs who were into the Kink, BDSM, fetish scene to connect, so I created a space for it because I too desired it.
The first Safeword show had a wonderful turnout! And to see people show up in their “femme daddy” t-shirts, with their own floggers, folks asking to be a part of the tickle torture demos that MiscAllaneous DomTop performed… I knew that there was a need. After three years of putting this show on hold because I was busy trying to make Shades a solid production, I was finally able to share it with NYC!
I actually haven’t performed in Safeword since its started back in September 2016. I wanted to be the Madame of the evening… and now I host the event, which is new and quite fun for me! I missed talking on stage, so this transition into hosting feels extremely organic for me!
Anything else coming up?
Well, Shades of Burlesque will be in back in the LES Wednesday, March 8th at Parkside Lounge. As far as future projects, I plan on doing more burlesque shows that benefit non-profits and causes that I believe in. There is so much good we can do when folks come together, so burlesque and activism is my next endeavor.
In closing, what advice would you give to someone who was considering a go at burlesque for the first time?
Go see as many shows as you can! There are so many fantastic performers out there, and styles of burlesque (classic, neo, nerdlesque, kinklesque, etc.!) Seemingly more burlesque styles than when I first began.
I started off as only wanting to do classic because I wanted to be “acceptable,” But my freest moments on stage in burlesque were not when I was dancing to big band music. These moments of freedom happened when I was being every ounce of my weird, kinky, Sexy-AF, nasty woman facet of myself! Don’t censor yourself.
Do your research. Seriously, study the history of burlesque… because the Burlesque Legends were Bad Ass women who made it possible for us to do what we love. Take chances and go for it!
Thank you, Lorraine!
Sweet Lorraine hosts two monthlies–Shades of Burlesque (last Wednesdays at 8:30pm) and Safeword (usually second Tuesdays at 10pm) at C’Mon Everybody. Check here for a full list of upcoming scheduled appearances. She can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her website.