“Flattered,” she said. She “would be flattered” were I to write about her, were I to paraphrase her sentiment, and to quote her words. This is the kind of enthusiastic yes that feels like real consent. With her blessing, she is the representative figure of a series of women who’ve sent me similar messages over the years.
She started with hello, wondered how I was, stated how I don’t know her. She knew my body, though, and that’s what she was writing about. She’s 32, and has been following my work since 2013. She’s from Brazil.
“I was never a very confident woman with my body. I was always very thin, with small boobs and a small ass, and it was because of you that I started to feel sexy. You were very important to me, so I could discover myself and love myself exactly as I am. This isn’t something recent, in fact it’s been a few years. I never thought of writing to you, but today I felt like it. It’s strange for a woman to say that a porn star made her love herself, but that’s exactly what you did for me.
I just wanted to say thank you.”
I’ve been receiving these messages since before I entered mainstream pornography. I’ve been receiving these messages since I first started working as an alternative pin-up, for the now defunct websites GodsGirls and RazorDolls. My peers have been receiving these messages for most of their careers, as well. Whether it’s what Jiz Lee represents to queer and trans humans—explored in their collaboration ‘Dear Jiz’ with Ms. Naughty—what GoAskAlex represents to people with visible disabilities, or what I represent to women with slight figures, we hear, over and over, from people who look like us, and feel more confident about the way they look, because they’ve seen us successfully present ourselves as sex symbols.
For me, it was Melissa Bang-Bang, go-go dancing at Psydde Delicious’s party Fast, Cheap, & Out Of Control. I saw her body, and it looked like mine—lean, lithe, and muscled. She was wrapped in a classical dancer’s warm-ups. They were pastel, I think lavender, and fit both the 80s theme of the weekly event and her clearly ballet-informed movements. I thought she was the sexiest human I’d ever seen. And the crowd did too—dollars were proffered, the appropriate show of appreciation when applause cannot be heard. I was honoured to be one of the people proffering, to be allowed to be so close she could take the money from my hand.
Later, we’d develop the kind of acquaintanceship that sometimes occurs between an established artist and a quirky still half-kid who just crash landed in a city. I’d find out that she’d had training and education. I’d cheered her on as she continued to help revive the medium of burlesque in Philadelphia, and been too shy to audition for her company myself. I’d been inspired by her as she landed gigs on TV, and kept practicing her craft. I’d learned from her as she showed me how she organised the masses of costumes, props, and materials she’d collected in her tiny apartment, and explained how to make pieces for next to nothing other than time and care. She encouraged me to keep working, keep creating, and keep doing something with myself—as she did a kindness that the best of us will do for anyone who is new to our scene but shows the love for it. I’d been shown the importance of being in the world, being myself in the world, being as I wanted to be in the world. And it all started from seeing her confidence.
Every time I receive a message about how my body gave someone else confidence, I think of Melissa. I think of how she gave that to me, in so many regards. And I think of how, despite the dearth of thin, sharp women with intense presence and burning souls in the media at the time, the archetype continued to circulate. Bone creatures on runways, sure, but as whole people there was a paucity. And yet, there she was. I never sent her an email articulating my gratitude, but I did gush it at her over thumping nightclub music more than once.
Maria Krugovaya is friends with Masha, who I e-knew from sexuality events which took place online during lockdown. Maria had just moved to Belgrade. I’d immediately loved her work. There was depiction of innocence, yes, and an apparent ethos of inherent good of the body, and also a raw quality that wasn’t afraid of the rough spots—no, that glorified the rough spots. I was drawn to her.
We met for coffee. She was nervous when she arrived, partially because the GPS had gone haywire and taken her in circles, making her late, which she thought would sound like an excuse. I knew from my own phones over the years, and from friends who’d visited, that this was a phenomenon. We started getting to know each other. Some of her work involves helping women to find their own sexualized presentations, to tap into the vast array of archetypes in the world—looking for the less well-circulated and less well-worn—to find what speaks to who they are, and to manifest that in visual choices and projection of energy. To break out of the girl next door, manic pixie dream girl, MILF, and dominatrix grid.
I asked if she knew The Showgirl.
She seemed to know, but we both value communication. If art is about humanity, to make art together we must communicate ourselves and our thoughts and our… humanities. I’ve come to understand that the purpose of these tentative meetings is to see whether we see each other—what do they see of myself, and do I see their vision?
I said, “Well, the first thing is a lot of glue and tape—glue on lashes, tape on pasties, glue or tape the nails or have them semi-permanently installed.” We’re like Voltron-esque machines of glamour, but our reassembled parts come out of a tool kit called a makeup box. I continued, “We’re often found taking the subway home between 3 and 7 am, makeup cracked in all the creases, and maybe with a greasy “breakfast” (which is really our third meal of the previous day) in our hands.” Like an utterly normal work commute, but in reverse, with a breadcrumb trail of glitter and dropped rhinestones tracing our paths.
I retold a memory for Maria, of one of the dearest Showgirls in my life being herself.
The winter between 2021 and 2022, I was with Olive (TuPartie), drinking frosé in one of those post lockdown plastic boxes on the street. Since we were practically outside, I was smoking. Despite smoking in outdoor sidewalk seating being banned in New York City for years before the pandemic, I am spoiled by Serbia—from which I had recently arrived and to which I was about to move. The waiter agreed with me that smoking was perfectly reasonable. When he returned with our next round, he even brought a makeshift ashtray. Having handled our important business—Olive was passing three pearl gusset thongs and a rhinestoned lab coat off to me—we began trading stories.
The topic of talking was talons. I press mine on, so I can pry them off at a moment’s notice. Olive prefers the salon, but she had a favorite polish of her own, and something unfortunate had just occurred to make her possession of that polish past tense. She’d picked up the bottle to paint her nails before going out one night, dropped it, and gravity… well… smash. Her beloved, perfectly sparkly, gold nail lacquer began to ooze over the floor. She—and oh how I love her for it—used the brush to paint her nails one last time from the puddle. She then couldn’t clean up the congealing polish without smudging her very last manicure, so she left the mess to fate. If I recall correctly, her boyfriend handled it in the end.
Queen’s The Show Must Go On plays in my head. My make-up may be flaking/But my nail polish went on/Whatever happens/I’ll leave it all to chance. People who do live performance do tend to obsessively prepare, but there’s an element of chaos inherent to the real-time, in-person audience, and embracement of that chaos often permeates the rest of our lives.
Maria not only got the concept, she saw exactly how it fit with thoughts she’d been thinking. She asked “Where did you come from?” and I said “The United States,” proud of us, for our contributions to this template of sparkling humanhood—larger than life, but fueled entirely by it. We agreed on our concept; layers of makeup, layers of wardrobe, and many many bits of glamour glued and taped on. I showed her a couple of options off the top of my head and she was thrilled. I stopped on my way home at the drug store for foundation to replace my tube that dried out, bronzer, stage blush, and an obligatory egg sponge. I went to the China shop and found lace hosiery and tights with rainbow rhinestones which can be cut into stockings. Of course they had both. And of course the cost was about $7.50 total. That’s what these shops are for—and this is one of the first showgirl tricks I learned; a pair of cheap tights can become so many garments.
(Nasty Canasta would be the burlesque scene’s leading example of dollar store decadence.)
A former colleague from the porn business said I should read The Women who Run with the Wolves, and 2022 Eurovision contestant Konstrakta’s new release Evo, obećavam! reminds me of the psychological suffering Estés lays out in her introduction as emblematic of separation from full access to our archetypal facets. My co-writer on a large text project reminded me of Sexual Personae. I’m a few percent into reading both. In the meantime, though, I went to the source that neither Estés or Paglia could have called at the times their books were written—the performers who began and perpetuated the neoburlesque form of stage work, which Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque dates as beginning in the mid-1990s—for some definitions.
Miss Frankie Eleanor, Miss Coney Island 2022, says the definition of showgirl is “A mirror of what is and what could be,” qualifying that this depends on the beholder. To Sydni Devereaux, “a showgirl is power—a performer that pours their unique sexual power into the framework of a stage, a song, a costume and movement. A showgirl conjures up their unique flavor of power for the audience to drink from, like a fine liquor.” Fancy Feast thinks “of a showgirl as being a living archetype, the embodiment of our culture’s most performed, exaggerated, and ornate aspects of femininity.”
Veronica Viper considers herself a showgirl “because I’m literally a girl who makes her bag by doing shows”—including sexual performances—but fancies herself “more of the vaudevillian 42nd Street kinda gal” as opposed to the “Vegas, Ziegfeld, feathers and head pieces a mile high, legs longer than Harlem” type. I can say that I’ve seen Viper’s custom content and it very much is a whole show. Headmistress Jo’s definition is “a person whose visual embodiment is a work of art.” Miss Rose Wood nodded to the feminine implications of the word the way it “would bias one’s expectations f this artist as having a feminine slant on these skills—more dancer than martial artist, more glamorous than rugged, and probably a sexualized attire [and] presentation rather than utilitarian. Her best attributes are her wit and charm, and a constant awareness of her body and talents as a commodity.”
Speaking of commodities, Diety Delgado sent me a perfect peak carny chic press release for her body cream: “Once upon a time, there was a showgirl named Deity Delgado. She knew that what makes a showgirl, a showgirl is not just her beauty and grace, but also her strength and endurance. After long nights of performing on stage, Deity Delgado used I, Delgado Skincare’s magnesium chloride body cream to soothe her tired muscles. Magnesium chloride is known to help with muscle recovery and relaxation. It can also help reduce inflammation and pain in the muscles. With Delgado Skincare’s magnesium chloride body cream, Deity Delgado was able to keep performing with energy and grace night after night.” According to the NIH, magnesium chloride is used to reduce symptoms of multiple conditions. Here, Diety showed—as opposed to told—the art of the hustle, while referencing the ways in which showgirls must keep their bodies in top condition.
To me, the Showgirl is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in maturity—as an adult.
In the end, a little bit of glamour can be true self-care, and can bring joy to others. The Showgirl is a door to the kind of magic that makes the world just a smidge less insufferable, a bit more bearable, and, in the hands of the best inhabiters of this archetype, allows us to glimpse reality in the rare light reflecting off the facets of a plate of rhinestones. None of us can live in this cocoon full time, but we all carry to capacity to create a little wonder and surprise in our lives. To use our power to shape the stories we tell about our bodies—whether we’re talking to the world or to ourselves. To alleviate our own emotional distress, to the extent of our abilities. To be in our own bodies, to be as we want to be in the world, when and where we can. Sometimes it takes a spark from outside ourselves to get there. Sometimes we’re what sets someone else alight. Whether that spark comes from a person who looks like us, or thinks like us, or simply thrills us is a matter of fate. But when it comes to owning our sexual expression, seeing people who look like us seems to go a long way.