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Rachael Reckless Oral History Interview, January 17, 2020

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is January 17th, 2020. My name is Laurie Kurutz. Would you please introduce yourself? Say your pronouns if you care to and tell us all the things you do.

RACHAEL RECKLESS: I'm Rachael Reckless, she/her, and I do a lot of things. I've been a nude pin-up model, a strip club stripper, a strip club bartender, I do Burlesque performance art, and costume design.

LK: Awesome. So, let's start off with a big question: What is Burlesque?

RR: I think it could be a little bit different for everyone, but for me I think Burlesque is like telling a story or portraying an emotion through the art of striptease in very subtle movements.


LK: Great. And so then, what's the difference between stripping in a club and Burlesque stripping?

RR: I think that really has a lot to do with the hustle. Strip club stripping is a lot more involved with talking to customers and getting people to buy lap dances or to buy your drinks. There are a lot of different cities that will have... You make money on the drinks that you have bought for you, so much, I guess. But in Burlesque, I like that all of my preparation is getting ready for that and I do a good show and all the effort that I put into the costume and the choreography. And then if I am feeling antisocial that day, I don't have to talk to anyone. I can go backstage and not feel bad about it. And if I'm feeling 00:02:00social, then I can absolutely go and have a drink and hang out with the people that are in the audience.

LK: Great. And how do you describe the style of Burlesque that you do?

RR: I would say punk rock, Satanic showgirl [laughs]. I guess you could put me in the Neo-Burlesque category because I like to dance to a lot of old punk rock, metal, just weird stuff. I have an act where I do a Donnie Darko-themed act. So, I like characters and weird stuff. I used to work with the trauma teams doing movie props stuff with Lloyd Kaufman. So, I learned how to do a lot of cool gore effects. So, a lot of the time I like to do bloody, weird stuff. Yeah, I like to get weird with it.

LK: How did you get started... Well, where were you born and where did you grow up?


RR: I was born in Astoria, Oregon, Goonie town! But I moved around a lot, so I lived in Alaska and then did a lot of my growing up in Hawaii. And ended up moving back here in my early teens, I was probably 12 or 13. I was a little street kid. I did not have good family time so I came back to Oregon where it's actually, back then, it was not as crazy to be a homeless little girl as it is these days and age.

LK: Yeah. About what year was that?

RR: Gosh. Let's see, I was born in '81, so I was 13-ish. Math!

LK: That's okay. And when you say "crazy" now versus then, what do you mean?


RR: In the political climate these days and with everyone's mental health, everything is up in the air and things are just wild these days. I would not... I mean, my partner has an 11-year-old daughter and I cannot imagine her at 12 or 13 taking care of herself on the streets downtown or anything like that these days. It's way different now.

LK: What kind of skill set do you think you had? Because you did that.

RR: Well, it definitely made me tough. Setting boundaries and whatnot, and also it forced me to really want to be good at something and to do something. I got 00:05:00my face tattooed when I was a 14-year-old street kid because everyone would ask me what am I going to do with my life and how am I going to get anywhere with that. And basically I was like, "Well, I'm never going to work at McDonald's and I'm never going to have an office job or anything." So, I pretty much have to be good at something or I have to work for somebody that appreciates my skills.

LK: So, what did you do in those formative years that led you to performance?

RR: I couldn't work legally until I was about 18 because I was a street kid and I was still not emancipated or anything. So, I couldn't work legally because I might get in trouble or get sent back to foster care or get into the system 00:06:00somehow. So, I did the street kid thing and pan-handled and all that sort of thing up until about 18 when I started getting call center jobs and found nude modeling on the Internet. I started doing a lot of pin-up stuff and I was starting to get a lot of tattoos at the time, so I was doing a lot of tattoo magazines and just pin-up stuff. And that led me down the path to working in strip clubs where, you know, "I'm pretty comfortable with being up on stage," because I used play in some punk rock bands and stuff. So, I'm good at being on stage and I'm naked on the Internet already and that's totally fine, so why wouldn't I take it to the next level and dance? And it was fun!

LK: What did you play in the punk rock bands?

RR: I was a singer, or I was a screamer, I guess. I made noise with my face, 00:07:00basically. I wouldn't say I was so much a "singer." But yes punk rock is a lot of barking and yelling.

LK: And so what kind of, if any, formal education? High school? College? Anything?

RR: I didn't really go to much school, but I went and did the GED placement test. When I was in school I was almost a straight "A" student. So, without going to high school at all, all my placement tests said I'd pretty much pass the test if I just go take it. So not a lot. And since then I've done some online training workshops and stuff. But as far as Burlesque is concerned, I went to the All That Glitters School of Burlesque here. I take a lot of lessons 00:08:00from Asteria Atombomb. She's amazing with choreography. Also, just random classes and stuff like that. Just whatever I can find that fits in at the time.

LK: And I've seen you at BurlyCon. That's educational.

RR: Yes, that was my first time at BurlyCon. I was wearing my [BurlyCon] hoodie when I came in. That was amazing. I didn't really take very many of the movement classes because I was so interested in all the history classes, the costuming, but next year I plan to do more movement stuff, too.

LK: And just for people who don't know, what is BurlyCon?

RR: BurlyCon is a convention that happens in Seattle, Washington, and it is a conference of all things Burlesque related. Except for there's not really any 00:09:00shows. It's all classes. What I just loved is everyone supporting each other and people trying to teach other people things that they're good at: their costuming skills, or how to use your sewing machine, or like stage presence, or making press kits. You could find a class there for anyone that you want, I think.

LK: So, back in your formative years when you were beginning, who was an influence or an inspiration to you?

RR: You know, to be honest, a lot of my inspiration came from local strippers in the clubs in Portland because it was just amazing to me that a lot of them were doing Cirque du Soleil style acts. Or even having worked for them and then working for the strip clubs on the weeknights. But that was more personal... 00:10:00Where was I?

LK: That's okay.

RR: As far as more popular or pop-culture references, when I was doing my pin-up stuff it was always Bettie Page and things like that. One of my favorites is a scene in a movie from Elvira when she does her little Burlesque act. She's got the bat costume, she does like a tassel-twirling thing, but on the outside of her bra. I was really young when I first saw that and I was just like, "I want to be her. I want that hair, I want that costume," I just loved everything about it. And I think that got my little performance fetish going when I was young. 00:11:00Thanks, Elvira!

LK: So what year and how did you get started in Burlesque performance?

RR: Let's see, [consults her notes] it was probably 1999, I was 18. So, that's when I started doing the online modeling. And then I didn't really start working in the bars until I was 21. And then after working the strip club scene for a couple years, I got invited to do Sinferno Cabaret as a go-go dancer. Watching those performers and stuff, I started realizing, I was like, "This is what I want to do." I love the costumes and I want to do like more extravagant shows. So much more attitude to it. Like I said my antisocial tendencies: I tend to want to run away and hide after I do an act.

LK: So then, so how did you start developing that Burlesque career?


RR: I started, after go-going for a while there, they invited me to do, I started to do the amateur hour stuff afterwards. Then they had me on as the Mistress of the Evening, which meant I would, every other week, I would open the show and then I would close it. So, I would do the first act and the last act. And that's what really got me started because I was doing so many performances, I had to constantly be coming up with different ideas: I have to have a costume that matches my song that has a theme that has a story, or something. And I have to do it on the fly, really. Back then I didn't work as much on my choreography as I do now. It was all about, you know, the theater of it.


LK: So just as a sidebar, what do you do outside of Burlesque performance?

RR: Outside of Burlesque performance... Well, a lot of costuming and I spend a lot of time on YouTube and Reddit and all the costuming websites just looking at ideas and techniques and stuff. I bought myself a new sewing machine. I have always done everything by hand. I put glitter and rhinestones on everything. Besides my regular night job bartending, but doing special events and stuff like that. I've been trying to do more vending. I've had a lot of merch from my fundraisers and stuff they threw me when I was going through my cancer 00:14:00treatments and stuff. And so, I've been raising money to donate to OHSU for more cancer research and stuff.

LK: I guess I should ask you about your rhinestone eyepatch and we've talked privately about your cancer. So, is there anything you'd like to say about that?

RR: Yeah, let's see. Almost a year ago today... I guess February 4 [2019] would be the date of my surgery. Around this time last year, I got diagnosed with Biphenotypic sinonasal sarcoma, which to make a long story short and a very long mouthful of words shorter, it's basically there was a tumor about the size of my fist that was living behind my eye. They had to reconstruct all of my orbital sockets and the bridge of my nose and all the little bones all the way from my 00:15:00brain to the front of my head because it basically just ate everything in my face. So now I wear an eyepatch even though I still have my eye. I still have a couple more surgeries to go before I will, I don't know, be back to somewhat of a normal thing.

LK: Whatever normal is.

RR: Yeah, whatever normal is at this point. It's a reoccurring thing, so it's something I'm going to be dealing with for, probably, the rest of my life. That's why I'm trying to give back a little bit of what people gave to me because if it wasn't for the Burlesque community throwing me fundraisers and raising money for me and stuff, being that I work day-to-day. I get paychecks and I live off tips. So, if I don't work I don't have money. So, when they say 00:16:00they're basically going to melon ball your face and rebuild it from the inside out and you're going to be down for a year it's like, well, it's a good thing I have a partner that really loves me and a community that really... I'm going to cry now.

LK: That's okay. I wonder if OHSU knows that they're getting donations from the Burlesque community?

RR: I've told my surgeon that I was and he actually... From the very beginning I was very open about what I do for a living because he was trying to let me know that after the surgery my face might not, you know, be the same and what to expect. And I was like, well, my life is kind of my face and what I'm doing, even as a bartender, I work as a bartender in a strip club and I still put 00:17:00makeup on and I still present myself that way. Or wearing makeup for a costume and when I'm doing acts, if I'm doing full costume I can't... So, that was a little weird to get used to, but I'm kind of digging the eyepatch now.

LK: It can be your trademark. So, you talked about the Burlesque community in Oregon, in Portland. Can you describe in general what that community is like?

RR: They are probably the most supportive, most inclusive group that I have ever known. They are always constantly trying to do better, be better, help more. There's a lot of charity events that Burlesque people are constantly raising 00:18:00money for, to donate to their charities or whatever it is they're trying to do.

LK: That's amazing because do Burlesque people earn a lot of money doing their Burlesque?

RR: I would say on average, maybe, I would get $50 to $100 because I'm not a headliner. Headliners might get more, especially traveling performers. But as a local performing artist, $50 to $100. You have to think about the hours I spent renting a studio to practice in, or the lessons that I take for choreography, or the sometimes hundreds of dollars I put into rhinestones and fixings and costumes, and hours I put into doing a four or five minute act for 50 bucks. So 00:19:00really, it's a labor of love and you can't do Burlesque and want to do it for money, I think. I think that's why there's so many charity events because it's like, "Yeah, my $50 pay? Let's give it to someone who needs it more than I do."

LK: So, describe a week in the life of being a creative industry entrepreneur, which is fancy talk for: just tell us about the arc of what you do each week and all the gigs that you do to put together a living or a life or a whatever.

RR: Oh, man. My partner would say that I have a very stressful process, I guess, because I stress out on every little detail of things forever. It's like when I 00:20:00used to dance in a club five nights a week, I wouldn't really, you know, it's like, "Oh, I'm getting on stage, this is fine." Now that I only perform once or twice a month or so, it's like I want to make sure I'm extra. So, every detail down to my nail polish on my toes wants to match the rhinestones on my shoes. And my boyfriend, he'll remind me sometimes what the Burlesque school taught me of the five-foot rule. If it looks good from five feet away, even if something's held on by a safety pin sometimes, it's fine. But I kind of enjoy that part of it because, even though it seems like it's stressful. All the other shit that's going on in my head about everything else and all of the tragedies I've dealt with in my life, when I'm focused on tediously rhinestoning a costume or tearing 00:21:00apart tulle and garbage bags to make an eight-foot boa, I'm not thinking about all the crap that is painful to me in my life. And I can get kind of excited about what I'm going to do. So, it's very therapeutic for me.

LK: Do you travel to perform?

RR: I have and I'm trying to more. I've been kind of grounded for a while. So, I've actually just started applying for more festivals and more out-of-town shows for this upcoming year. I'm stepping outside of my comfort zone for that because that's a little nerve-racking for me because as a Portland-based performer, I have a lot of regular gigs here. So, it seems like I perform a lot but I want to branch out and go play more places. Now that I have got the mostly 00:22:00clean bill of health that means that I can go... play. I want to get out there and show my stuff off.

LK: What's that application process like? What do you need to do?

RR: Usually some of them will have a fee that you have to pay for. That always depends on what it is. And some don't, but a lot of it has to do with either sending a link to a previously recorded act, which they like to have the full act so they see. I have promo reels, but a lot of people don't want to see those because those show all the highlights. They want to see your stage presence throughout an entire act. So, sending in the proper links and videos that are good enough sound quality and all that. That's sometimes hard to get when you're 00:23:00just getting the recordings from a bar [performance] situation. Also, your press kit, your headshot, promo photos, sending in all those kinds of things. For me, always writing my own bio is hard because it's hard to talk about myself when half the time I'm in that downward swing where it's like sometimes it takes me a minute to realize how freaking awesome I am. But when I'm put on the spot I'm like, "Oh! What do I...:" I've done all these things in so many years, but when it comes to writing three sentences I can't figure out what to put in them.

LK: So shifting to more artistic aspects, what's your process for creating a new piece of Burlesque?

RR: I usually obsess on a song. A lot of times when I'm doing my crafts or doing 00:24:00projects, I'll play whatever music streaming stuff and listen for things that are new or listen to like-minded bands or something like that. Some of those streaming services will be like, "Oh, you like this artist? Well let's play you all this other stuff that sounds kind of like her." So, sometimes I'll find a song and I'm like, "Ugh. This has to be something." And then it goes from there, but sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes I start working on a costume and I have no idea where it's going and as I'm working on it, I start thinking of a character in my head that would be wearing this costume and what they would be doing and kind of try to put the music and the costume together.

LK: How do you do your choreography?

RR: I've been having help lately. Like I said, I've been taking some lessons for 00:25:00more musicality and stuff, but a lot of the times I try my stuff at home. And I try not to choreograph too much because I always get down on myself if I don't hit my marks or if I don't do this or I don't do that. So, I try to leave it pretty open to where it's like, "Oh, I should have this glove off by this part of the song or if I don't have my bra off at this point then I'm not going to be to get the rest of my stuff off by the time the song ends." So, I have a couple key points of where I should be in my routine and then I've been on stage so much that the in-between parts are pretty, you know, I can put those together. But I have been finding the value in doing really choreographed pieces where it's like down to the second it's this and that. That's where it's difficult for 00:26:00me. It's the learning. That's what I'm working on now, I guess.

LK: There's a good deal of conversation about cultural appropriation, and what are the things that you consider when you are putting together an act?

RR: I think when you're building your own costume pieces it's one thing, but if you're purchasing other pieces it doesn't take a lot of time to do just a little bit of research to see the origins of this kind of stuff. Or I always say when in doubt, just ask, because there have been a few things that have come to my attention. Like I didn't think about it for when I was thinking of a 1920s kind 00:27:00of flapper costume, a lot of the feathery turban hairpieces are appropriated, as well. But it's been a part of that history for so long that it's... There's a lot of room for discussion there. I do my best and I'm always trying to be better, as I think most people in this community are and that's why I think we have so many discussions about it. I'm in a Facebook group for costumers, Burlesque costumers, and that subject comes up a lot. I've actually learned a lot from other people's point of views, just discussing it and just reading everybody else's things. Like what things are really problematic and what things are what they are.

LK: And around the topic of diversity in Burlesque and then diversity in 00:28:00Portland Burlesque, what have you observed? How do you define diversity?

RR: Diversity: every body, every shape, every gender, every walk of life I think is what it should be. I would like to see more of it, but I know that Portland is getting better about it, and I like seeing that in applications and submissions they open submissions for different groups free of application fees and things like that. I think people are getting better about it.

LK: In terms of stripping versus Burlesque versus "respectability politics" is a 00:29:00term that I've heard, what are your thoughts about that?

RR: That is annoying, to say the least, where I think... One of my notes here when you were writing. "Who does society allow to take their clothes off," was one of the questions you sent me. And I thought a lot about it and I was like, well, Victoria's Secret models, our First Lady [Melania Trump] right now, but it's not okay for me to post a photo on social media wearing pasties. I have to edit my pasties sometimes. Or even wearing a thong where it's too much cheek can get you kicked off your Instagram or something like that. And also, you know, in classical art there's lots of nudity in classic art. There's lots of weird stuff 00:30:00going on in classical art, almost pornographic masterpieces and stuff. I don't understand the difference between the artists that many centuries ago and a real awesome artist in this day and age. Also, it comes back to equal rights for all genders. If boys can show off their nipples all day, why can't I? I don't have a uterus anymore, I'm not having babies, it's not like, you know, I feel like they're just... It's funny, a few friends and I a few times when posting "suggestive" photos online is to Photoshop a man's nipple over your own nipples so that it's "appropriate." I think that's hilarious, but it's just the world we 00:31:00live in right now.

LK: So, people in Burlesque say that it empowers them. What's your take on that?

RR: Absolutely. To be honest, I casually mentioned I have no uterus, but after I had that surgery and the hysterectomy and I went through a lot of other pretty traumatic experiences with losing some babies at a rough point. I was about 4 ½ months along. It was very traumatic and very bloody and I almost died from it. And then nothing got better, so it really drained me of my mojo and I just for a 00:32:00while, the postpartum depression and everything, it was hard to look in the mirror some days. And that's why I actually decided to go to the Burlesque Academy, even though I'd been a performer for so many years, for over a decade of performing. A lot of people asked me, "Why are you taking this Burlesque 101 class?" And I was like, "Well, I need to reconnect with myself and like remember how to do this." And it was honestly... The other women in the class, some of them had never taken their top off it in front of a stranger or in public their entire lives and seeing how anxious and nervous they were about it and how some 00:33:00of them were very excited. And just seeing these other women's reactions, and then me being like, "I used to do this all the goddamn time. I'm good at this." It kinda helped get my mojo back and not give up. I wanted to for a while there. I was thinking that this was something I wasn't going to continue pursuing. I was just in a spot where I was thinking if I can't find myself attractive right now, I don't think anyone else is going to. So, if it wasn't for my friends in the Burlesque community coming in and helping me and going to these classes, yeah, I don't know where I'd be right now. I'm in definitely a much better headspace because of this community.

LK: So, people talk about how Burlesque can be a force for social change. What 00:34:00do you see?

RR: Well, yeah, as far as trying to be more inclusive that we were already talking about, I think that Burlesque definitely has a role in that, especially with raising money for different charities and events. Just trying to make people more aware of it or even just mentioning a charity or something and getting people involved.

LK: Are there any challenges facing Burlesque today do you think?

RR: Yeah, there is. As far as not just Burlesque, there is a war on sex workers 00:35:00and "free the nipple," that kind of stuff. A lot of people get shadow banned [on social media] for trying to promote their shows where anything that has anything to do with Burlesque, strippers, performance, the algorithms are getting pushed aside so that you don't see it as much. Really, there's just... Sorry, I was trailing off there. Where was I?

LK: You mentioned shadow banned. That's on social media. Can you describe what that is?

RR: If you post too much pictures with skin or promote events that have to do with that kind of stuff, shadow banned is when it doesn't...when people just 00:36:00don't see it. It doesn't come up on their feed. So when I post something on my feed, one day I'll get 500 viewers because people liked my haircut and then I'll post a photo, like a promo ad for a Burlesque event, and it's like two people have seen it. It's like, what's going on here? I know that it can't be that people didn't like it because... Yeah, shadow banned. It just disappears and people don't see it. So it doesn't get shared, it doesn't get liked, it doesn't get viewed. Unless you individually post it on each person's personal profile, which that's impossible to do when you're trying to promote a show when you 00:37:00have... If you have a venue with 50 to 100 people that you want to show up and fill up the seats, some venues are much bigger some venues are so much smaller. It's kind of hard to do.

LK: And so, final question: What do you wish the general public would understand about Burlesque?

RR: Oh, man. Just the amount of work and effort and everything that goes into doing a silly, four-minute act on stage, there is weeks and weeks of creating and practicing and rhinestoning. It's so much more than just a little striptease. But I also wish the public knew more about all the charities and 00:38:00things that the performers are doing to try and better their communities.

LK: Great. Thank you.

RR: Thank you. I probably rambled on a little bit.