The Burlesque starlet must seduce this new sophisticated film-savvy audience. 1,845 words. Part One. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1937
One hour till open. I stretch out my arms, brace myself on the wall and find my center of gravity. Then I wiggle a little and take a deep breath, sucking in the tummy. I give the signal. A few tugs, and I re-adjust by wiggling again. Breathe, suck, signal. Another round. Another.
“Harder,” I tell my new maid. On the signal, she gives a sad little tug. Nothing can be sad today. Nothing can be little. This is Hollywood and, after a month of focus, late night rehearsals and a sleepless tech run, costume fittings and interviews, the audience will rush for their seats and I’ll be in front of them. But, for now, there’s still work to be done.
“Better, dearie,” I say, biting my tongue. I can’t have her bawling; that would throw off the whole schedule. “But this time, put more oomph into it. They’re not apron strings, if you catch my drift.”
A slight lift of my chin, giving the signal. I brace myself, and… nothing. I glance over my shoulder, and she’s just standing there like a dumb hick, mouth gaping open, limp laces hanging from each hand.
“What’s the problem?” I ask, trying not to blow my lid.
“I don’t want to hurt you!” she squeaks. “Isn’t it painful?”
“Don’t worry about that,” I soothe. “You gotta wear your pain like high heels, understand? That’s how it is in this biz. Besides, no one was ever corseted to death.”
So I turn around and take my stance on the wall once again. She clenches her teeth and grips the laces hard this time. Breathe, suck, signal. My spine snaps to attention, breasts popping upwards like white orbs. One more ferocious tug and, like the final cymbal crash on the very last bump, I shoot to a standing position. My hands automatically slide from breasts to hips and come to rest around my middle. I can nearly circle my waist with my palms. Everything is falling into place.
The maid stands there, bug-eyed, but this is a different kind of look, one I know well. Utter adoration. I’m a sucker for the expression, so what can I do but allow her a moment to fully take me in?
“You’re so tiny,” she says, finally mustering the nerve to speak. “I’ve never seen a waist so…”
“Twenty-one inches,” I interrupt breezily, as though those years of waist training never happened when I moved through life in a cage of steel bone. But it was worth every lost quarter inch. Now I’m the stuff dreams are made of.
I’ve been caked in Stage White and buffed to a high sheen, g-stringed and gartered, my Cuban-heeled seams perfectly aligned. My nipples were rouged pink by by my maid, whose own face turned an even deeper shade as she did it. I also have delicate threads of hair glued to each eyelid, the lashes from a shady Chinatown joint and costing a pretty penny but worth every cent. After that, my hair was put into a wet set, then hood dried and brushed to a sheen. Finally, curls were sculpted and finger-waved. The result now is a reckless tumble of glossy blonde waves.
When I hear the opening act start, I put on my face. Eyebrows thinned and redrawn. Rose cream applied to the apples of cheeks, eyeshadow mixed with spit and eyeliner applied with a razor sharp brush. Smudge, reapply and repeat. Lips lined in Carmine, filled with Crimson Glory and highlighted in Orchid Dream. Looking fresh as a flower takes a lotta goddamn work.
My assistant clears her throat. Where she comes from, people like me are as foreign as a full fridge, as unique as a father with a job instead of in the relief line. I know the type. Still, seeing her blank face, I can’t help but feel a rush of giddy pride. She’s mine. I’ve seen her eying the comics, those eternal annoyances down the hall. She might even have designs on one as a potential boyfriend. She and the audience eat up those stale ole wisecracks like mama’s casserole. Mick Deloose is the best straight man in the biz, without question, and Roger Klout a great wingman and King Of Second Bananas. Klout proclaimed himself done with the circuit for good. Guess he made an exception because no one turns down a Millsap show.
The chorus girls are next door knee deep in petty dramas and filched compacts, parading around pleased as punch in their new costumes and sparkling hats. They’re debuting a fan routine to boot. Sure, there’s not a Sally Rand in the bunch but, with their lilac plumes, Millsap’s chorus will sure look the part.
On the other side are the specialty acts, those colored hoofers everyone’s keen for, and that Soubrette with a voice so buttery it’s no wonder she’s fat. There’s a magician, too, and some pig-tailed singing girls. I refuse to get attached, none of them may last.
And then there are the other strippers. Exotic Lala La’Rou, Queen of the Bumps, with her cymbals and fans. In truth, she grew up churning cheese on a farm in Wisconsin, though she never lets on. The Dee-lightful Delanore twins, barely 5’2” and cute as buttons, known for simultaneously stripping in perfect harmony. I always thought it was a little pervy myself but never fails to impress the crowd. And the master of all gimmicks, Rosita Bloom, Woman Of The Wild. I’ve never been one for the animal acts, but it’s a pretty neat trick when that parrot plucks off Rosie’s top.
Some strippers wink and tease, others pounce like tigers. Some are flouncy little things who prance across the stage like overbred show ponies, others are glamour girls who go from one awkward pose to another. There also are the gimmick broads, like Miss Gypsy Rose herself, with the endless babble and jokes. Entertaining, I suppose – but with looks like hers, there’s really no other choice. Girls who tried to become prima ballerinas and now pirouette across the boards before they whip out the milk jugs. Some can actually dance, not that it really matters. All these girls are every shape, size and sentiment, flirting and vibrating, giving shimmies and shakes. Girls who look at the crowd with heavy lids or open their eyes wide in innocent surprise. Desperate, hopeful, wanting to make a buck, they always end their acts the same way: the clothes come off and they blend together into one mass of sweat-shiny flesh.
I’m not like them. That was the promise I made to myself from the very beginning. I always did have a big imagination, which is what everyone said, from my mother to the nuns at the local school. Who was I, after all, to walk even back then like I had clouds on my feet?
A knock on the door. “Thirty!” barks the stage manager.
“Don’t worry, we’re right on schedule.”
I watch as my maid carefully slides the last pin in place on my dress. Come the trumpet solo and drum crescendo, just a few flicks of my hand, off each one goes. Along with my gown. Four snaps later, the corset, too. For as long as it takes putting on, taking it off is a flash. The audience never sees it coming or fails to hoot and gasp. My nimble fingers and there I am in two filmy panels, g-string and net bra.
By the end, I’ll take off even more. In the end, there is skin. That’s the dessert part; good boys eat their dinner first.
Fully dressed, I rise to my dainty size-five heels and I save the mirror for one very last close inspection. I see what the audience will when the spotlight rises; the version of me that will drive them wild.
Contemplating myself and my reflection, I note every last fold and detail. My eye is sharp, my discernment sublime. I live and die by that mantra. Now I am faced with a remarkably rare occurrence. For the first time, everything is perfect. As in, without fault. Could it be? I’ve had more fittings than anyone would ever consider, fretting over each detail, from fabric to texture to drape. I hired and replaced several seamstresses, A few left on their own, exhausted after spending too many sleepless nights over a sewing machine. But that is their art, as I am my own, and perfection requires perseverance in both.
A mere forty hours earlier, I finally deemed the ensemble satisfactory. Layers of tulle, embroidered lace, flounces and ribbons. Frothy train of organza rippling out behind me. The elbow length opera gloves commissioned in Paris, the ivory heels clasp with a buckle of real diamonds. Nothing is in need of adjustment. My waist a flower stem in the bodice, my breasts a hint of white rising from the sweetheart neck. And the dress itself a wonder of white satin, fabric inlayed with microscopic crystals and rhinestones. Just like the Los Angeles sky at dawn when everything is veiled in a fine glittery mist, droplets of water sparkling in the palm fronds. That’s what I’ve seen through a Cadillac window, and all in flashes, but I have no problem filling in the blanks.
The girl staring back at me is pure as a debutante, each movement the epitome of refined grace. But also a woman who, in a literal snap, becomes every man’s hot grinding fantasy. I’m determined to accomplish what so many others have tried and failed: to go from stripper to starlet, bump and grind Queen to Academy Award Actress. I’ll take over Hollywood, just you wait and see. And this time I won’t even have to claw my way there.
At the top of the stairs, I wait for my cue. Moments until curtain, and everything is bathed in darkness. Beneath me, the chorus girls shuffle to their spots. The audience murmurs in excitement.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” booms a voice, and I take a deep breath. “Millsap’s Revue is proud to present the legendary, world-famous…” On my name, the crowd explodes.
The first wafts of music rise, the curtains part, and I begin my achingly slow descent. With each step down the spiral staircase, the audience practically sighs. Above me, a single diffused spotlight, and behind, an endless train of floating chiffon. I am a shimmery white apparition, a virginal cream puff, a crystal-encrusted dream they once had. They watch, enthralled, as I grow closer and closer.
I reach the bottom of the stairs to my mark; cue the lights, and the stage floods bright as the sun. Just like that, the audience bursts to life. My signature move is a deep curtsy. Painstakingly slow as my arm skims the stage below. I take my time because it’s no easy task in a corset, but worth ever shooting pain. Before I’m halfway down, the audience goes wild. A slow rise. I lift my chin and look them dead on.
I offer the audience the tiniest of smiles. And begin.