Size is an issue that often comes up with regards to burlesque. It’s a common view that the world of burlesque is accepting of women (and men) of all shapes and sizes but, other than the one and only Dirty Martini, are there really that many plus size performers who have successful careers in the industry? Nanny Dora is the self proclaimed Grandmother of Burlesque and came Third Runner Up in tone of Burlesque Idol competition run by House of Burlesque. Here, with refreshing honesty and humour, she explores the issue of plus size.
I competed in the August 2011 round of Burlesque Idol and I was quite shocked when I was accepted to compete and even more surprised when I won third runner up! The competition is based on audience votes so it was a real accolade both times to place in the competition and it was a good reassurance that I’m doing something right. I was terribly nervous on the night as the other girls are well known performers in London and perform regularly on the circuit down there and I’m a relative unknown…coming from Birmingham its very difficult to get your foot in the door and even harder when you look and perform as I do! I’ve been knocked back on a few big name London shows as they prefer the glamour acts or comedy acts that are more glamorous looking and I must admit I’ve asked myself if I didn’t perform as Nanny would I be turned down because of my size but that’s a whole other debate!
I was really pleased to be given this opportunity by Tempest Rose to perform on the stage at Madame JoJo’s and get my name out there. The other girls were fantastically talented and the night was a great piece of entertainment, to come third in a line up of ten was a great achievement for me and I’m very proud, especially knowing that it was purely the audience reaction to my act that got me the title. The reaction when I finished the performance was mind-blowing!
I do feel that other than Dirty Martini, the plus size performer isn’t as represented in the burlesque community as they should be. So I have to stop and ask myself, what does it mean to be a plus size performer? In an age where the debate is fuelled with so much clout from both sides of the salad bowl I’m wondering if it helps or hinders the career of a performer who is deemed to be plus sized? Aye, well there’s the first rub! What is plus sized?
There was a time that yes, a size 14/16 was plus size but does that still hold now – I seriously doubt it! I did my own little research, I asked on Facebook (very scientific I know!) for women’s dress sizes, hoping to get an average. You’re always told the average UK size is a size 16 and I’m bloody sure they are a little bit more factual than my Facebook survey but i didn’t see an average – just many women and many different sizes. I started to think about my own size – and here’s the science bit – I’m a size 20! I’d love to say im an 18 in some shops but realistically if I wanna breathe when I sit down then i’m a 20…my bust on the other hand is a GG, and my hips have been referred to as childbearing on more than one occasion! So, which part of me is plus size? In truth, it’s the shape of the woman I think that defines plus size? In my case, yes I’m a big dress size and naked you can openly see that my boobs have dropped a few feet, my thighs are chunky, I have bingo wings and a flabby bit on my stomach that I refer to as ‘the overhang’. I have more chins than I can count and my feet are one size too big to balance in heels…overall, I look plus sized…oh to hell with it, I look fat! Am I happy with all that? Would I take my clothes off if I wasn’t? Do I have days where I long to be Kate Winslet plus size? Of course! Do I down a tub of ice cream and half a pack of nachos when I’m low? Hell, who doesn’t! But ultimately, my body is the story of who I am and how I got where I am now, if I wasn’t this size, I wouldn’t have found burlesque and I wouldn't be performing at all.
There are many so-called plus size performers, both professional and pro-am, all with their own cellulite and saggy bits and these woman are being heralded as ‘real women’ representing for the Bridget Jones generation with many people bemoaning seeing the ‘skinnies’ on stage, sick of seeing these thin svelte and rather bendy ladies flaunting their near perfect bodies and yet it always saddens me to hear this in some way. If it was the other way round and people were complaining about the fatties we’d soon be up in arms beating them with our politically correct pasties! I have uttered similar words, I’ll admit, but only because of the assumption that goes behind the image of a smaller sized performer, and this is what I’m getting to.
Does a smaller performer appear more sensual, more seductive and therefore better at the art of strip tease than those of a plus size stature? I wanted to shake the stereotype, I wanted to cause a stir in the burlesque world by daring to twirl my fat stomach and I have used my size to great comedy gold at moments (theres nothing funnier than a fat fuelled thrust!). For the most part burlesque advertises itself as being accepting and open to any size lady but I often find a lack of the plus size ladies on the bill at events that look more towards the glamorous image of burlesque. Actually, is this more because plus size ladies tend to opt for comedy portrayals? I did, mainly because I didn’t believe I could pull off sexy. Not that I don’t feel sexy but I didn’t think anyone would want to pay money to see me remove my clothing in a bid to entertain and perhaps arouse them. I tell people, I had to play to my strengths and I’m predominantly a comedy actress. That, in essence, is the true meaning of burlesque anyway – parody. That’s where my experience and training lies and that’s what I would feel most confident doing. Confidence is the key. Confidence is what makes Dirty Martini who she is, confidence is what makes Dita Von Teese who she is – not the size but the impact of the stage presence. In some ways it’s a shame that her size is the first thing to define Dirty Martini instead of her being a fantastic performer. People were almost astounded that she could ooze the sex appeal she does because she is plus size and that, I think, is what hinders us larger ladies. Our presence on stage is not expected, so our size will always be the first thing the audience notice, something which I should think rarely happens with smaller performers. Our size defines us before anything else has a chance.
I recently had an audience member say it was great to see a big fat bird like me on stage. I wasn’t offended, it’s what I am and it’s great that she could relate to me but I wanted her to see the performance before she saw the size. I wanted her to notice the detail in the character, the hard work that went into the creation of the act, the endless hours fine tuning to make it slick, the storytelling and the acting out of the story cleverly interwoven into burlesque – and I’m sure she did – after she noticed I was a big fat bird! I suppose I will always get that because its only recently becoming more acceptable to be big so it’s perceived as a new thing that bigger ladies are finding the confidence to embrace their image and perform to others, a thing to be applauded. I was a performer when i was a size 14 too, and yes, my body has changed but my performance skills have always remained the same!
So, in an ideal world I hope that this idea of categories plus size and ‘normal’ size performers disappears, im hoping that the definition soon becomes about who is confident on stage, who has the ability to entertain regardless of the size. At first I entered the burlesque world (and I’m sure other plus size ladies did too) to ‘represent!’ To do it for the big girls and in some way I do hope that helps people relate to my persona on stage better but the more I perform the more, ultimately, I hope to be thought of as a talented comedy performer not just as a big fat bird!