With the 2017 Como Lake Burlesque Festival starting tomorrow, we wanted to catch with last year's winner Grace Gotham, burlesque performer, singer and producer who you may recognise from one of Dove's advert.
A year ago, you were crowned Queen of the Lake at The 2016 Como Lake Burlesque Festival. Can you remember the event as if it was yesterday?
Absolutely. When I first applied to the festival, I honestly didn't even realise that there was a Queen competition. I was just very excited about returning to Italy to perform (I had performed in 2014 in Rome's Caput-Mundi Burlesque Festival) and to visit Como for the first time. I learned about the festival when the festival's producer, Miss Sophie Champagne, performed in my monthly show during her U.S. tour. Being Crowned Queen of the Lake was the highlight of 2016 for me. Although I felt that the performance I gave that night was one of the best I had ever given, I was still truly shocked and delighted when they called my name. I think the pictures of those moments speak for themselves.
This year, you will appear as the headliner. Whilst it is the same event, in the same city, you must feel completely different?
I feel both different and the same. On one hand, I feel the same gratitude and excitement as I did last year when I was new to the festival and a contestant in the Queen's competition. On the other hand, it feels different because I have now been to Como (which is one of my favorite places on the planet), have met the great people who work very hard to make the festival so successful (and who made Mr. Gotham and I feel like family when we were in Como last year).
I get to join a great line-up of esteemed co-headliners to perform and to help select the next Queen. Serving as a judge is totally new to me. While I have headlined shows before in the States, this will be my first time headlining an international show and the first time I have headlined a festival, both of which have been among my goals.
Which routine did you perform last year at Como Lake Burlesque Festival and why do you think it was the big winner?
Last year, I performed an all-dance burlesque act that I call "Stairway to the Exotic" because it blends two unlikely songs, a dreamy instrumental version of "Stairway to the Stars," accented with lots of dramatic cymbal percussion and "Malambo No. 1" by Yma Sumac, an almost tropical, upbeat mambo song with a wild variety of vocal sounds that you have to hear to believe. The dance to the song was a delight to choreograph and is such fun to dance to, I don't think I will ever tire of performing it. It gives me life.
I think my act blends the perfect amount of the expected and the unexpected; the glamorous with the hilarious; the dreamy and sophisticated with the sultry and absurd. And the sum of all of those vastly differing parts are what make me who I am. I believe that the audience (judges included) got a glimpse of the real Grace Gotham in those 5 minutes that I was on stage. There is a special intimate connection that occurs when a performer and audience experience that together, live, in that moment, in one room. That is what makes live performance so magical.
Has The Como Lake Burlesque Festival helped boost your career?
The most important way that it boosted my career was that it helped me truly appreciate and further tap into my own unique performance style. There were times in the past when I would get annoyed that my style and act ideas were unusual and on the lighter and funnier side. I felt (and to some extent I still do) that funny acts, particularly when performed by women, don't get the same recognition as full-blown, sex-drenched numbers. With very few exceptions, festival headliners and winners of festival competitions are awarded to performances that are on the more sultry side. And that's not to say that those performances aren't spectacular and worthy of winning. Many of them are! I am a huge fan of any excellent burlesque performance of any style. But, the comedic style is often sidelined as its own title (i.e. "Most Comedic") instead of being thought of as the main attraction. Winning this title made me realize that there is room at the top for my zany, cheeky, witty, funny style, too. And just that self realization alone has improved my performances because I truly believe in (and am proud of) what I'm putting out there. I don't think there is a better career booster than confidence.
On Facebook, you mentioned that when you were little, you used to put on shows and your sister would be at the door, charging 25 cents to your friends. Is wanting to be on the stage in your blood?
Yes! Haha! I used to be a competitive figure skater as a child and, in my downtime when I was home in my room, I used to make my own music mixes of different classical music songs by blending them together on a cassette tape. I would take these musical "masterpieces" and choreograph dance routines to them (usually forcing my little sister to participate) and charge my friends to come to my "shows." Hardly anything has changed -- except that I don't make my little sister work anymore. I now have a dream team of excellent fellow performers (Karina Libido, Holly Honeypot, and pianist Chris Johnson) who I have hired as residents to assist me in running my show. My sister is grateful for that! My monthly show is called "Grace Gotham's Peel Me A Glove," which occurs at Sid Gold's Request Room in NYC every 4th Tuesday of the month. In each show, I sing a full set of various songs of my choosing (ranging from Sex Pistols to Moody Blues to Cole Porter songs) with my pianist; I do one Sing-and-Strip number; and have 2 different burlesque guests. So, I'm still charging my friends to come see my show. Thankfully, they are able to pay more for a ticket than 25 cents! ;)
As well as being the headliner of the show, you will be part of the panel of judges. What will you be looking for?
One of the main things that I look for in any performance is authenticity. When a performer is really true to themselves, you can see it radiating out of them in their performance. Beyond the rhinestones and the feathers and the perfectly beveled showgirl (or showboy) foot (which do all matter as well), is what makes an act a transformative experience for the audience. Whether it be serious, ultra sexy, thought provoking, dark, slightly disturbing, or hilarious, the common denominator underlying all great acts is authenticity -- in that the performer, through their performance, is tapping into, and expressing, some piece of who they are on the inside. And that takes courage.
If you had one piece of advice to give to this year's contestants, what would it be ?
Let the audience experience the true you.