This veteran burlesquer and body positivity icon made headlines a few months ago when Jersey City threatened her with an obscenity citation. Rather than cave, she worked the system and found some powerful allies, and as a result the city is reworking its laughably antiquated laws… and her show returns this week! Thotyssey is living for Lillian Bustle.
Thotyssey: Lillian, hello! Thanks so much for chatting with us today! So, um, did you follow the royal wedding?
Lillian Bustle: Oh gosh, I know it makes me sound like a party poop but I don’t care at all. I love British TV and a lot of British culture, but I’m not into the royals. I’ll tune in to see what everyone’s wearing, though! Also, I’ve noticed an uptick in posts about Corgis lately, which is a pretty great byproduct of the wedding!
I’m all about the royal Corgis. Well, you’ve been getting some media attention yourself these days, thanks to That Thing That Happened in Jersey City. How have you been handling your fame?
Ha! Oh gosh, it’s been a wild ride. I know a lot of people in Jersey City already, but lately I’ll introduce myself and the person will say “I know who you are!” Or like last night, I met a guy who asked “are you that girl who got arrested for doing Burlesque?” Which made me laaaaaugh (I wasn’t arrested) because it seems my scandal is growing its own urban legends.
Everyone in Jersey City has been overwhelmingly supportive; I’ve even had a couple of people honk and wave and yell nice things when I’m just walking on the sidewalk. Which is hella refreshing, considering what people usually holler at women out of cars.
You’re a folk hero! I’m so glad the culture of JC is so much cooler than the bureaucracy. Are you a Jersey native?
I’ve lived in Jersey for about 13 years, and lived in Jersey City for 10. I was born in NYC, grew up in Yorktown, VA, went to college in St Augustine, FL, and moved back to NY in 2000. My folks were both New Yorkers, and we didn’t assimilate very well in Virginia; Jersey City is really the first place that’s felt like home.
It’s so funny, when I moved back up here I was staying with my Grandma in Manhattan, but she moved to Jersey shortly after I got here. I was very snotty when I moved here, and was very “I didn’t move to New York to live in New Jersey!” I’ve lived in two different places in Harlem, two different places in Hoboken, and two different places in Jersey City. I hope to be here for a long freakin’ time because I haaaate moving.
What’s your background as a performer?
I moved to NYC to pursue acting. I had a gig with a children’s theater company right out of college, and I went to tons of auditions and did a lot of workshops and off-off-off Broadway. I joined AFTRA before I really had any experience, and I kinda regret that… because now I’m SAG-AFTRA and don’t have much in the way of credits other than doing background on SNL one time!
What was the SNL skit you were in?
It’s a Debbie Downer sketch in a strip club… Lindsay Lohan was the host. Everybody breaks character, it was a blast!
Fun! And what about theater?
I got my Actor’s Equity card and started auditioning for better-paying gigs, but didn’t get anywhere, and soon I wasn’t acting at all, which was a huge drag. I wound up giving up my Equity card and doing small community productions again
I was reallllly frustrated with theater because I felt like I had to wait around for someone to tell me I was good enough to practice my art. I felt like I had to wait around to be cast in something, or else scrape together a bunch of money and produce something myself… and frankly, I have trust issues. The idea of managing a production team and booking a space, doing all the marketing, rehearsing, for a play or musical was too much. So when I took a class at the New York School of Burlesque, I realized that this was a way that I could do whatever I wanted.
Also, I had been stockpiling wigs and boas and costume pieces for years. I’d see something at Ricky’s and think, “well dang, I should get this beehive wig because it’s on sale and I bet I’ll need it someday.” And I was right!
Burlesque is like a totally different performing universe. How did you make that mental leap to doing striptease in front of an audience?
I felt like I had to do it. I had never had a stage role where I felt like I could celebrate my body or be glamorous. I was always cast as dorky or self-conscious or dumpy, or as a character who’s 20-50 years older. I didn’t feel like I had ever been able to claim my femininity on stage, and I saw burlesque as a way to tap into so many layers of my identity that I had been hiding, or didn’t feel I had the right to claim.
I was shy at first about the actual taking your clothes off part, but I got over that! I would have never described myself as an exhibitionist. I went skinny dipping a couple of times in college, but it was on a dark beach with my drunk best friends. I would go in a stall to change clothes at the gym. I didn’t even wear tank tops until I was about 20 because I was ashamed of my upper arms. And I went to college in Florida!!
So actually performing burlesque was partly a Fuck You to the people and constructs who had made me feel shitty about my body, and partly a celebration of my skin. And to be honest, I was pretty good at children’s theater, and burlesque and theater for young audiences have a LOT in common. Archetypes, clowning, short-form storytelling, exaggerated makeup, crazy costumes! So I was able to tap into those transferable skills.
You gave a great TEDx Talk a few years ago on the subject of how burlesque improved your body self-image. Many performers of all shapes and sizes have said the same about the genre.
Absolutely. Seeing women who had bodies I could relate to, up on stage completely owning their bodies, was a revelation. I wasted years apologizing for my body, worried that I was taking up too much space. Seeing people outside the Hollywood Thin White Ideal tearing up the stage woke something up inside me. And also, thankfully, quieted down a lot of the negative voices that had been holding me back
In fact, I’m INCREDIBLY excited to be part of this year’s inaugural Buxom Blaze Festival in Austin TX. It’s the first all-plus-size-performer Burly festival in the U.S., and I’m finally going to meet some folks in person who’ve been inspiring me from afar for years. Ginger Snaps is a kickass performer, and she’s heading it up. I’m bringing my YES act, which has become my signature number. The concept is kinda simple; I reveal that I have the word NO written all over my body, then I wipe it off, write YES, and invite the audience to write YES on me too. It’s my favorite act, and I wish I could perform it every day. I am thrilled to be doing it surrounded by other larger-bodied performers. It’ll have a unique gravity. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
Who have been some other important burlesquers who have influenced you in your own work as a performer and producer?
World Famous BOB helped me get over a lot of baggage, and is such an effervescent joy to watch on stage. Fancy Feast was one of the first performers I met who self-identified as fat, and she was so blissfully unapologetic both onstage and off.
Jo Boobs Weldon was my very first teacher, and she is so full of knowledge but she’s also so nurturing. I was crazy nervous, and being around her focused energy was transformative. She was calming and exhilarating at the same time. I’ve studied lots of different arts with many different instructors, and I have never had a teacher who was so generous.
When I decided I wanted to produce shows, I reached out to Fem Appeal. She had been producing Kitty Nights, which was a long-running weekly show, and I asked her if I could pick her brain (which is a phrase I encourage everyone to get out of their mouths. Offer to compensate people for their time and expertise, don’t just buy someone a coffee. I didn’t go about it the right way).
She met with me, and admitted that she had asked around about me before she agreed to meet up, and people apparently said good things about me. She answered my basic questions about producing and gave me some tips that I still use all the time. She gave me the confidence to start producing shows, and was really frank about the whole experience. She’s also an absolute revelation on the stage. She boldly goes everywhere and anywhere, taking on any genre, playing with the concept of sexiness and gender, and she’s so creative and refreshing.
Legends all! What do you, and maybe the burlesque community in general, think of Dita Von Teese, who just performed at the Beacon? Is she considered an icon, or did she “spoil” the coolness of burlesque by helping to popularize it for the masses?
I just saw Dita for the first time! She’s so sparkly and glamorous. I don’t think anything can be ruined by becoming popular! She’s the epitome of a specific kind of classic-inspired burlesque, which is only a small slice of what the art form has become. When I was at her show, I found myself wondering if her fans know how deeply weird and subversive burlesque can be. Not that one style of burlesque is better than any other! There’s room for all of the glitz and all of the bizarre, and everything in between.
I was drawn into burlesque because I wanted to perform femininity. I still do, but I don’t stay within the confines of what’s considered classic burlesque. And it’s been so freeing to find out how many layers there are in this art form.
It is interesting, all the messaging and themes that you can find in a modern burlesque revue. Performers can get very political or very fan geeky. There have been entire revues dedicated to Bojak Horseman!
Yes! That’s the beauty of it. I just hope people know that there’s more to it than the fancy stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
You sing sometimes while you perform. That must be challenging, to navigate all that activity and timing onstage: voice, striptease, choreo, etc.
Oh gosh, yes. I had a lot of vocal problems a few years ago, and took a long time to feel comfortable with my singing voice again. I was struggling to find the right placement, blowing out my voice trying to belt incorrectly, clenching the muscles in my neck. I worked with Shelly Watson, who hosts lots of burlesque shows and is a vocal star in her own right, and when I started to stabilize I created some sing/strip acts. Interestingly enough, because it’s so much to think about, I don’t have time to get into my head when I’m doing a sing/strip. I don’t have time to get nervous! But it’s definitely combining two things that used to scare the hell out of me.
So let’s talk about this insane thing that happened A little over a month ago, when your much anticipated show at the Jersey City venue FM was shut down due to claims of public indecency, before it even began. Walk us through how you discovered this was happening, and how you reacted!
I’ve been producing burlesque shows in Jersey City for three years, in lots of different venues, under the umbrella of JC Burlesque. I’ve even posted the shows on our city’s Cultural Affairs calendar! We lost our regular venue about a year ago, and Jersey City doesn’t have many bars that also have a stage and capacity for more than 50 people. But FM had just re-opened under new management, and they can fit over 100 people and built a real honest- to-God 12 x 8 stage and a sound system–so when they asked me to bring a show there, I jumped at the chance!
The day before the show, FM got a letter from the head lawyer of Jersey City saying that they heard about the show, citing a piece of city obscenity code: “…any display of a specified anatomical area contained in a live performance which by means of posing emits sensuality with sufficient impact to concentrate prurient interest on the area or activity…”
The letter went on to say that contemporary community standards would interpret a burlesque event as obscene entertainment, and if the venue went on to host the event, that the Division of Commerce would be notified, and they could be fined $2500 and have their liquor license revoked.
I found out later that there had been a complaint. So the venue is called FM, and it has a 70’s music vibe, evokes vinyl records and maybe radio stations. So I called my show Flipside Burlesque. It’s my understanding that the complaint was about a Filipino Burlesque show. “Flip” was a racial slur that came out of World War II (but many members of the Filipino community have reclaimed it), so it’s not entirely sideways that someone would think that from “flipside” But it is quite a stretch, and it makes it even weirder: did they think we were making fun of Filipino people? If so, why didn’t they investigate to make sure this wasn’t some elaborate hate crime? Why just cite old obscenity code?
That is truly bizarre.
Either way, the people who issued the letter didn’t know nuttin about nuttin. They didn’t know who I was, they didn’t know anything about the show. They clearly don’t know anything about burlesque. Can you imagine any other art form being written off wholesale as obscene?
So without any research, they issue this letter, and then my life is upside down for a month. So we moved the show, and a lot of people caught wind of what happened. James Solomon, who’s the city council member for Ward E where the show took place, actually came to the show at Grassroots and has been our biggest, loudest supporter. His assistant, Sarah Ligon, met with me the next day and we started brainstorming. Someone connected me with the NJ ACLU. Someone else introduced me to people at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Eventually I was issued a letter from the city stating that they’re confident that my show, when scrutinized under the Miller test (having serious scientific, literary, artistic, or political merit) that my show would not be considered obscene.
So as far as the city is concerned, we’d be fine to proceed as usual in a place without a liquor license. But NJ ABC (alcoholic beverage control) has a line item under Go-Go dancing about female breasts:
WHAT ARE THE RESTRICTIONS ON GO-GO DANCING?
Go-Go dancing, just as other live entertainment, cannot involve persons under the age of 18 years (see “Age Limits”) and cannot involve “lewd or immoral activity.” (N.J.A.C. 13:2-23.6.) Such lewd or immoral activity generally involves the lack of attire or covering on genitals or “private parts,” as well as female breasts. See-through garments and the use of “pasties” are not considered sufficient covering. Simulation of sexual activity, even if clothed, is also prohibited. Dancers are not permitted to touch or be touched by patrons, and this includes the placing of tips in the costume of the dancer. A dancer also cannot solicit drinks from patrons.
“See through garments and the use of pasties are not considered sufficient covering.” but it doesn’t say what is; I’ve performed in other venues in NJ that have asked us to wear a harness or open cup bra, and that is technically something more than pasties.
So in the interest of not screwing things up for this venue, now that people are paying closer attention, I reached out to the ABC board for clarification. I had to send in pictures and describe our shows in detail. I’m waiting to hear back. BUT, the city council is changing the obscenity laws for Jersey City!
The first reading will be on Monday. The old code was chock full of archaic language that you’d think was from the ‘20s but in fact it was written in the early ‘80s to run the strip clubs out of town. Part of the ordinance also prohibited selling “obscene devices” (sex toys) but also prohibited owning five or more obscene devices. Why? “Intent to distribute!” So all of that nonsense will be gone from the code. I sneaked a peek at the language they’re going to propose, and it looks like it’ll be incredibly progressive. I’m really proud to have been a part of that.
Oh my goodness! You’ve (likely) changed the law! Btw, how weird is it to send a picture of boobs to a government office of the State of New Jersey?
A buncha folks in Newark going “open cup … bra? What is… harness?” Originally the guy I talked to told me to MAIL IN THE PICTURES, so I”m guessing this doesn’t happen too often. I called back and got someone’s email address.
Crazy! And it seems you’ve learned learned a great deal about civics and ordinances and legal stuff during this whole process, probably more than you’d ever imagined you would.
So much of it is outdated. In Bayonne, if you’re performing in a bar you have to be covered from two inches above the conical protuberance of the breast to the crotch! They’re on their own though, I don’t wanna mess with Bayonne. That’s some old school Jersey there.
I found a line in Hoboken’s code prohibiting “female impersonators” from bars… in the same paragraph as pickpockets and confidence men (con men). I was just about to raise hell about that one, but got a tweet back from Hoboken’s mayor saying they’re working to remove that and other old discriminatory wording from the code. They just passed a law in Hoboken where if you have single-room bathrooms that they have to be gender neutral, which is awesome. Mayor Bhalla seems very progressive, and Hoboken is having its first PRIDE event this year!
Awesome! Do you think you might be participating?
I dont know about the Hoboken celebrations, but JC Burlesque has been asked back to this year’s Jersey City Pride for a burlesque show! We’ll be setting the date soon.
In the meantime, the show must go on at FM!
We now have a residency: JC Burlesque will be there every 4th Wednesday.
FM had us back last month at the end of April, and it was a huge celebration. We had a whole crew of folks from the ACLU there! I did a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, but about Jersey City and Boobs instead of River City and Pool!
But we are still being conservative with costuming for boobs, which is a drag. Until I hear back from the ABC board, I don’t want to cause any trouble for the venue when they’ve been so great to us. If someone complained about us once, they’ll do it again. I don’t want to put someone’s liquor license in jeopardy.
I’m keeping “LiberTease” as the name of the show! I thought “Flipside” was a great name, but now it feels tainted
Well it’s certainly fitting! We’ll see you there at FM this Wednesday!
And when all is said and done, you have quite a story to tell now.
It’s been a weird ride!
And the road continues! So okay, on final, truly important question: Laurel or Yanny?
Laurel! I played it for my husband this morning and he goes “What’s everyone talking about? It says Yanny.” And I was all “I ONLY HEAR LAUREL!”
But I saw the dress as gold and white, too.
A country divided! Lol, thank you Lillian, and have a great show!
Lillian Bustle hosts JC Burlesque’s “Libertease” revue every fourth Wednesday at FM in Jersey City. Check Thotyssey’s calendar for all scheduled appearances, and follow Lillian on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.