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Hai Fleisch Oral History Interview, October 15, 2021

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is October 15, 2021. My name is Laurie Kurutz. My pronouns are she/her. Would you please introduce yourself, tell us your pronouns, if you care to, and tell us all the things you do?

HAI FLEISCH: My name is Hai Fleisch. That is German and I will let you look that up and figure out what that means. It's sort of a riddle. My pronouns are she/her or they/them and I am a Burlesque performer, producer, and in my professional life, I am a costumer and a fabricator.

LK: So, we'll start with a big question, what is Burlesque?

FLEISCH: Burlesque... I'm sure you've gotten a lot of sort of generic 00:01:00definitions around the striptease and I would say it's performance art that incorporates elements of playful sexuality generally. But it's really what you make it, beyond that.

LK: How do you describe the kind of Burlesque that you do?

FLEISCH: Well, I got it... I was attracted to Burlesque because I appreciated the idea that somebody could take... make their own costume, make their own concept, build the act from the ground up, and it could be a full short form performance piece. That it maybe told a story or illustrated a point or was just like a beautiful spectacle for a few minutes on stage. For me, I approach it in 00:02:00that way. I am usually inspired by the song to begin with, and then I want to tell a story on stage. That's the way I think about it. My acts are very.... They go from showgirl Ziegfeld-style glamour to campy pop art tributes. I would say the common thread is always character or story, and always costumes!

LK: Well, that might answer the next question about why Burlesque? And what does it give you artistically that other forms wouldn't?

FLEISCH: Well, growing up I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn't sure what format. I was never drawn to any one medium. I wanted to do everything. Then I got into film because film allows you to do everything. When I discovered Burlesque, it felt similar to me in that I could shape this whole 00:03:00performance piece. I also liked the idea of transforming into, maybe not necessarily a character, but a part of myself that wasn't seen on a daily basis on stage in an atmosphere that felt supportive and safe. I also liked that I didn't have to use my voice, I don't have to speak publicly. I think for me really the idea of sharing this really creative, magical creature... part of my daily blue jeans... you know, working with my hands kind of life.. on stage, it was really exciting for me.

LK: Some people equate Burlesque with sex work. Where on the spectrum of sex work, does Burlesque fall?

FLEISCH: I'd say if true sex work, involving physical contact and bodily fluids 00:04:00and all that, is X then Burlesque is PG. I don't mean that in any way derogatory way towards sex work, I have all the respect and a certain history myself. I just mean that Burlesque is very light and flirty. There's no contact between the performer and the patrons.

LK: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

FLEISCH: I was born in Santa Rosa, California. So, in Northern California, in an area called Sonoma County, which just recently has become famous as wine country but it was really kind of a place for people to go and escape and be weirdos when I was growing up there. So a lot of strange hippies out in the woods, it was a Gay resort area from San Francisco. Because it's only about an hour and a half north. I grew up in a small town thinking that was totally normal to have 00:05:00Gay events days, in the small town on a summer day. Then also having rednecks living there and everybody kind of intermingling. I didn't realize it wasn't a normal small town experience for a long time. Then when I reached college age, I moved to San Francisco and that's where I started doing Burlesque.

LK: How did that develop in San Francisco? How did your career... How did you discover Burlesque?

FLEISCH: I think I had kind of a vague awareness of it because it had really a Neo-Burlesque resurgence in the '90s. It was popping up in magazines I was seeing. I was very interested in Betty Page and pin-up culture. I started to see little things here and there but the pivotal show for me was that the Velvet Hammer Burlesque came to Bimbo's in San Francisco. I saw that show and just fell 00:06:00in love. It was so fun. I loved all of the little jokes built into all the acts. The little details, the little puns. There were characters coming out of lotus flowers. Somebody whipped articles of clothing off of another person with a bullwhip. It was just a total spectacle, it was really fun.

Then I was too shy to really start it myself. A few years later, several years later, actually, a friend of mine told me that she knew people who were starting a troupe. And it was a queer troupe, a gender-bending a troupe called Qu'est-ce Que C'est? So, me and my friends Pinky Lee and Miss May Western joined the troupe and our first performance was at a big party for a couple of sex 00:07:00therapists. They had an annual party, where they had people serving sushi off of people wrapped in saran wrap and tickle rooms and things like that. We did a really awkward, goofy group number that would just be so embarrassing to watch now just like really embarrassing. We had thrown-together costumes and awkward group choreography.

Then a few of us took that troupe... several people dropped off and the ones of us kept going, and it changed and it got more refined. I'd say one of our first real performances was at the Lexington, which was a famous lesbian bar in San Francisco. It recently went out of business, which is sad. It was there for decades, I think. We performed as Drag kings on the pool table there. That was 00:08:00one of my first real thoughts like "OK we're in this. We're doing it" shows.

LK: About what year was that?

FLEISCH: I'd say 2006 was when the first performance was.

LK: That's great. How did you...well, how did you pick your stage name?

FLEISCH: Well, so I have a nickname of Shark Meat, which relates back to my given name. I was taking a German class at the time, because I was traveling to Germany. We figured out that "shark meat" in German was Hai Fleisch. So I had several roommates at the time and they referred to me as that all the time and it had kind of a ring to it. Everybody else was, you know, like Kitty McVey and you know blah blah blah Von-this. I don't want a first and last name that everybody would have overlaps with. I wanted to be sort of more mysterious and 00:09:00undefinable, so I went with Hai Fleisch, which has been a mixed bag. People never know how to say it. Once they do, it's good. But, yeah, a lot of confusion off the bat.

LK: Great. Then, how did you develop your career beyond those beginnings?

FLEISCH: I performed with that troupe for, at least, a year. We put on group shows and we did a regular show at the Knockout that was... every year they'd have a Johnny Cash tribute show with a bunch of fans. Then we would do country numbers, which I really wasn't seeing at the time. So we developed that as a group together. And we would do solos within the group sets and it really just felt like this very fun, punk rock, circus like feminist collective. It was super fun.


Then I moved up here, because San Francisco, well, California in general, I just couldn't afford to live there and have the kind of life that I wanted to live. So I decided to move to Portland and I wasn't sure if I was going to keep performing up here. But once I was up here, I really missed it. I wanted to keep making costumes and I wanted to meet people. I started looking around and there wasn't much of a scene in Portland at the time. But I came across Baby Le'Strange and Charlotte Treuse. I reached out to both of them and they're both very friendly. I did end up getting booked in a show with them. We did end up meeting in person. I'm forgetting the name of that because I had a bad experience with the producers of that show. Actually, many people did, so I kind of blocked that out. It was a kind of awkward show. But I also met Megan Mayhem there and we all... and Itty Bitty Bang Bang, who wasn't performing yet. I think 00:11:00she was Kittening at the time. But we sort of... oh! and Angelique Deville was there.

So there weren't many people in the scene at the time. I think the Rose City Sirens were performing. And Burlesquire, which is Isaiah and Ezekiel Esquire. There weren't many shows, so you keep running into the same people over and over again. And getting booked with the same people. We kept having issues with producers who wouldn't pay us or were being deceitful. And so we decided to form... me, Baby Le'Strange, Charlotte Treuse, Itty Bitty Bang Bang, and Meghan Mayhem, we formed Rose City Shimmy, which is not so much a troupe as a collective. Basically, we just wanted to be able to put on shows so we knew that the show was going to happen. We were going to get paid. And it would be the standards that we wanted it to be. But we all did individual acts. We didn't 00:12:00really do group numbers.

And then more people sort of started performing and we connected with Raylene Courtney, who is a producer. She produced Sin Savvy and really she had multiple regular shows that kept people working. And Zora Phoenix started producing. Then we performed with some bands like the Stolen Sweets. We started going out to Jake the Alligator Man. We basically started getting regular gigs and making connections with people we knew and trusted and it went from there.

LK: What year did you move to Portland?

FLEISCH: 2008.

LK: And so who is Jake the Alligator Man?

FLEISCH: Jake the Alligator Man is a sideshow attraction that is in a little 00:13:00museum of Marsh's Free Museum in Long Beach, Washington. He is a half man and half alligator. He's just sort of local famous. I first started seeing him on bumper stickers all around town. Then some people in Long Beach decided to do...they would do weekenders where they would have a Bride of Jake Contest and they would have a Burlesque show to celebrate his "birthday." Many of us will go out there and perform. I never was in the contest, but there was an amazing contest and contestants. I would perform at the Elks Lodge up there with Rose City Shimmy often. It was very fun.

LK: And just backing up to San Francisco, to go to college, what did you study?


LK: And did you complete that degree?


FLEISCH: Actually not until I moved up here. And then the recession hit and I was like "I better get that degree!"

LK: Are you a filmmaker?

FLEISCH: I've made some short films. I've made some music videos. I have worked as a production designer and a costumer on films. Currently, I work as a fabricator in stop motion.

LK: What is the difference between a collective like Rose City Shimmy or that group that you described, and a troop or a show. What... or... paint us a picture of how that works.

FLEISCH: I think why we call ourselves a collective is that we had several very strong personalities that just wanted to be solo performers who didn't want to be beholden to, maybe, troupe politics. They wanted to do what they wanted to 00:15:00do. But also support each other and make shows happen. So there was no pressure to ...on anyone else to make their acts a certain way or to come up with group choreography. It was more about making or putting the shows on together. I think most of the shows we did were out of town, but we had a wild west themed show at Kelly's Olympian that was really fun. And then we went to Long Beach and Astoria a few times.

LK: Astoria on the Oregon coast?


LK: How were you received... What's it like to travel to a small town on the coast and do Burlesque?

FLEISCH: With very few exceptions, I have really enjoyed the experience of going to perform in small towns, because... I mean, I grew up in a small town. I know 00:16:00what it means to not have much to do in a small town and not have interesting entertainment coming through. So, people are very appreciative that you are there to entertain them, and you're sparkly and you're larger than life. It's just really, really fun because the audience is so invested and appreciative. And afterwards, because it's a small town, you end up running into audience members and talking to them. You see them at the bar down the street or you see them at breakfast the next morning and yeah I love it.

LK: How did you... what was your background or take any dance or performance or did you take any Burlesque classes? Did you train?

FLEISCH: I have never been a dancer. I have really struggled with choreography. I think I have a little touch of physical dyslexia. So telling right from left, 00:17:00and watching somebody else move their body, and relating it back to... I've never been able to do it. I did belly dancing for a few years. That, I think, has really informed the way that I move onstage. That was the only kind of dance I really could keep doing for more than a couple months, successfully. But that is also... so I'd say it's why my costumes and my presence on stage is more of my focus than "oh I'm gonna do this move that's going to be really impressive." I can't do the splits.

I did take some classes in San Francisco when I was thinking about trying Burlesque with a woman named Betty Bombshell. I think I only went to two or three. And I did go to Tease O Rama, where I took an amazing glove class with Jo Weldon. I was just... she just charmed the pants off everybody, of course. I was 00:18:00like "this woman is amazing!" and she really instilled the idea that it's really about being a powerful presence on stage. That is something that makes people want to watch you. You don't have to be doing something incredibly acrobatic or you know... I very much appreciate dancers. It's just not my area of focus at all.

LK: You mentioned Tease O Rama. What is that?

FLEISCH: Tease O Rama used to be a big show that happened in San Francisco every year. There were Burlesque performers from all over the world, but I think now all of these festivals have replaced Tease O Rama. But at the time, it was the big gathering Burlesque festival show of the year. It was put on by... I want to say her name is Baby Doe. OK yes, and so they would have their Go-Go troupe do a 00:19:00number. My troupe, Qu'est-ce Que C'est?, did do a number when we were first starting out at one of the pre-shows. We weren't ready for the big stage yet, but we got to do a pre-show one time.

LK: In those early days of the Neo Burlesque resurgence, some people talk about the adoption of the early Internet in the 2000s as a connecting or driving force in the development of Neo Burlesque. Was that your experience with that? You mentioned that you moved to Portland and reached out to these people, Charlotte Trusan and so forth. And that they were friendly. How did you develop those relationships?

FLEISCH: Yeah, I don't think without... Let's see, what was it at the time? Was it MySpace? So I think without those platforms, it would've been a lot harder to meet people. I would've had to just find a poster on the street and go to that 00:20:00show and introduce myself. So getting to sort of see somebody ahead of time, and see what their style was done and kind of having a little bit of information before you go in did make it easier to talk to people. I do think it, yeah, it made it a lot easier to form a community.

Then we would have Facebook groups where people could talk about shows and and talk about issues in the community. I helped start [the Facebook group] "We Heart Portland Burlesque" to help promote shows in town because there really wasn't... Actually in the beginning, when I moved here, there was a lot of prejudice in local papers against Burlesque. And they wouldn't run ads. They would mock us constantly and compare us to strip clubs and be like "why would you go to this when you could go to the strip clubs?" So it was really like a 00:21:00strange antagonist relationship. So being able to promote our shows online, without having somebody gatekeeping made it a lot easier to get the word out and build a community and build an audience.

LK: Did that change over time with those newspaper weekly entities?

FLEISCH: It did. It was interesting how much resistance there was. I think a real turning point was... I can't remember now if it was the Willamette Week or the Portland Mercury... but there was an article, I guess you would say, that they challenged one of their writers to go to five events they're guaranteed to hate. The object was to torture this writer by sending him to things he'd hate to see. One of the things they picked was a Burlesque show that was produced by Raylene Courtney, who I mentioned earlier. I think it was maybe the Rose City 00:22:00Rendezvous. And she, because Raylene is an amazing communicator, I think she now works in government... she reached out to them and said "hey, you're going to come to our show? That's great. I'll give you free passes and a nice seat. And we will talk to you about it. And welcome. Welcome to the show." And the writer ended up having a really great time and being really impressed by the way they were welcomed. He actually wrote a little piece about basically how they were wrong and they were being mean and childish. I think after that, there really was a change from those papers and we've been featured for several times now since.

LK: That's great.

FLEISCH: I think also there was a real attitude when Burlesque was starting in Portland. Because there is a strong strip club scene in here, people thought 00:23:00that Burlesque dancers were saying we're better or different than strippers. And that we were trying to set ourselves apart, which really was not... often Burlesque dancers are also working in strip clubs. So it really kinda had to get through this awkward phase and realize that we're not enemies here. We can all do this and we're all in the same club. It's fine. It took a minute.

LK: What kind of reactions do you get when you say "oh yeah I do Burlesque?" Is that still true?

FLEISCH: I think most often I just get kind of a confused [reaction] like people don't really know what it is or they think Dita von Teese. I know from experience that shows can be a wide variety of things. So maybe they've been to a show at one point, and they did or didn't enjoy that, and they are basing it 00:24:00off that one experience. I usually just try to put it out there in little bits, to try to test the waters. I let them slowly absorb what it is, instead of coming out and saying Burlesque is great and here is why. I have had a couple people who are immediately. and don't really have any experience with it, and immediately are very judgy in a derogatory way, but that's pretty rare. Usually, people just don't know how to feel about it.

LK: Since 2006 or 2008, how has the Burlesque community changed or evolved in that time?

FLEISCH: Well, I can say in Portland it's grown exponentially, and I think probably across the country. I mean there are always new performers coming in, and they continue performing and some people leave. The diversity of people, of 00:25:00acts, of music, at this point is so far beyond what was happening when I first started. It was still very classically oriented. I liked to do more weirder acts, more boundary-pushing stuff. There were less shows that wanted that and I think now also there's a lot more... at least in Portland... I'm sorry I have a tendency to jump around when I talk. I have ADHD, so I kind of go whoop! whoop! whoop!

But when I first started Burlesque, I had already been going to Drag shows all the time. San Francisco had an amazing Drag scene. That was very John Waters and Divine influence. That had a huge influence on my Burlesque. When I came up 00:26:00here, it seemed like there was more of a focus on Classic. I liked that too. I had some numbers like that, but I wanted to incorporate more of the Drag performance art. There was also, at the time, it seemed like a real divide between Drag, Burlesque acts, stripping... all these things kind of lived in separate camps. I didn't really understand why. I don't think it was like that in every city. But it felt like that here. Definitely over the years, those walls have come down.

Now we have shows with circus and Drag and Burlesque all together. People who do those different things when they are not at that show they might also strip or also do Drag. That has been really cool to see. There's a lot more variety in the genders that you see on the stage. It's not divided by..."oh we have 10 female performers and one male." I love all of that variety because I have 00:27:00definitely been to shows where you see ten.. they start off with a gown and a boa and a glove peel and a corset... and I just appreciate more variety. Speaking of Tease O Rama, Waxie Moon... I saw him there for the first time. He was a huge influence, it just blew my mind, like such a vision. And so unique... his bald head and his handlebar mustache, white flowy gown and just moving so elegantly. I loved it. I love the juxtaposition.

LK: That's great. So you're very busy: you're a performer, you're a customer, you're a producer, music, you do film, you do photography. Can you describe a week in the pre-Covid life of being a creative industries entrepreneur? What was 00:28:00your week like? All the skills that you have?

FLEISCH: Well, honestly around the time that Covid hit, I actually just told my troupe that I wanted to take a step back from producing. That was because we were going into our fifth year of producing Metalesque Fest, which is year-round work, and then additional shows beyond that and then performing. I was also working for several years before that as a freelance artist, so I would have music video gigs and theater costuming gigs. I mean, you know, because you work in theater, sometimes you end up working seven days a week, and you don't have any break. I think I was able to do that for several years in my early 30s but 00:29:00not anymore.

I really wish at this point where I just wanted to slow down. I wanted to focus more on my own personal projects, instead of being responsible for a group of people within my troupe, and then a larger group of people in the festival. I had already decided to take that step back, but I was still kind of helping transition from just me and Rocket [Queen] being the producers to Dee Dee Pepper, Wanda Bones, and Rummy Rose all becoming joint producers.

Then Covid hit. We had already started planning the Festival for that year, for 2020, and it took several weeks to figure out what to do. We did it in stages, and we were taking applications, and then eventually had to cancel. That was really pretty devastating because that was our 10th year as a troupe. pretty exciting so we really wanted to celebrate the decade of all this work, and just 00:30:00had to skip it. So my life was already kind of starting to transition, but definitely Covid made some other priorities come to the surface. Also I have had some family stuff that's come up, so yeah, definitely simplified at this point.

LK: So Sign of the Beast... What is that and what niche does that fill?

FLEISCH: Sign of the Beast Burlesque is our heavy Metal Burlesque troupe. The first show was produced by Rocket Queen and Krista.... I'm sorry...was produced by Rocket Queen and Vera Mysteria. That was in 2010. And I was in that show. Before that, me and a couple other performers had talked about doing rock 'n roll Burlesque or punk Burlesque. We really wanted to expand the kind of music 00:31:00that people were dancing to, because at the time it was very much, like, find the album of Burlesque hit songs, like The Stripper and do an act of that. There were a lot of repeats and there wasn't a whole lot of punk Burlesque out there.

So when I was contacted by Rocket to be in Sing of the Beast, I was like "hell, yes, this is exactly what I'm looking for! I'm so excited!" Heavy-Metal has this really theatrical over the top presence on stage, there's so many different kinds of Metal that each one has their own stage presence. It is really a natural marriage, in my mind, between Burlesque and heavy-Metal, but a lot of people didn't feel that way. People who were into Metal were very confused by it. I went to the first show, and performed and it was so much fun! I became one of the regular performers. Then they did the show the next year, and then did it again.


Then in 2013, they weren't gonna do it anymore. They were just exhausted as producers and they had multiple other shows happening. I reached out and said "Can I help? Can I come on as a producer and make sure this happens, because I really want to see this continue?" So me and Krista... oh, I keep doing that... and so me and Vera Mysteria produced the show that year. Then she had a child and needed to step back. She became the host, and myself and Rocket Queen became the sole producers of that show.

Then in 2016, I really wanted to take the troupe on the road and Rocket really 00:33:00wanted to start a Festival. We decided to go ahead and try to do a Festival. So we put it on. We just open it up to people from around the world. We ended up finding out... At the time, we didn't really know a lot of people that were performing to Metal. There were a couple scattered around. There was a very small Facebook group devoted to punks and Metalhead Burlesque performers, so we just kept putting it there. We got our first show together and it was so much fun! It sold out! And the audience was absolutely fanatical about it. So we've just kept going. It has been one of my favorite things in my life so far.

LK: How does one do that? Do you fly people in? How do you house them? How does all the nuts and bolts, the fundraising...how does that work?


FLEISCH: Well, I'd say because it comes from a punk Metal background, it was very DIY and that's how we approached it. Neither one of us had really done many festivals. But we knew that, often at festivals, people weren't paying for their own travel, unless they were a headliner. At first we weren't going to have a headliner. We didn't want to do the typical structure with a competition and a ... We wanted it to just be a celebration of this art form. But we decided to have Jamie Von Stratton headline the first year because she was in Seattle and not too far away.

So we did help people...we helped our headliners find a place to stay. We had... we put all the performers in a chat room together so they could find other people to stay with. It was very much our existing troupe and community here 00:35:00stepping up to help people coming in from out of town. We were trying to engage them and make them feel like a part of the community as much as possible, whether they were here.

As far as money, we would do a fundraising show every year with our troupe and that would bankroll the festival. You take application fees, so you make sure everybody gets paid at the end. But you know, it really is a huge labor of love. No one is, you know... I wish that it was something that was more profitable, but it is definitely not. Nobody's getting rich off of Burlesque. There's so much work that goes into it, and so many expenses involved. But it was such an amazing experience, that people really wanted to do it still. I know that now there are more producers that can split the work, they are working on streamlining more of those things, and making it easier for people to find 00:36:00places to stay and all of that stuff.

LK: When you say "a labor of love" you mean most people have full or part-time jobs, and then they do this for their artistic expression?

FLEISCH: Yeah. I mean there are people who are full-time performers and they have to travel a lot and they have to work a lot. I think most of those people are people who already have a theater performance background or a dance background.

LK: So, Covid.. ha ha...hit in the state of Oregon, and Oregon shut down on March 19, 2019... 2019? 2020? 2020! Oh dear! How did the Covid pandemic affect the Burlesque scene in Portland?

FLEISCH: Well, everybody had to start doing virtual shows in order to do 00:37:00anything, any kind of performance. I think I was booked in two [live] shows at the time, and I got canceled. Honestly I did one online show with Lacy Knickers of Booklover's Burlesque. But I knew what it was to record stuff because I work in film and I just...I just decided to focus on other things. But it has been really interesting to see how quickly people adapted and how quickly everyone figured out what are the platforms that we can host on. What websites are going to support this?

Then making the videos themselves. People's skills have developed over the last year and a half. We just had the Metalesque Fest weekend on October 2 and the 00:38:00first night and the first night was a live show and the second night was all virtual. We got together as a troupe and watched it privately. I was so impressed at how people's skills have developed. How in each video, people were really working with different environments and camera angles and lighting. In each one, it had a totally different feel and it was really exciting.

As a film person, it reminded me of when you're young and you discover people's underground movies. You're like "oh, my God, has anybody seen this!? This is incredible!" I just got really excited. I know that virtual shows are going away and I hope that this show lives on as this little piece of underground art, and doesn't just get swallowed up by the Internet because it was very fun and inspiring.

LK: You mentioned issues in finding a website to host this kind of show. What do you mean? What are those issues?


FLEISCH: I know that there were concerns around... first of all, selling tickets. And then do you sell the tickets separately from the website that you host the show on? And how do you get that show to people so that they...so that [performers] people's videos aren't being reproduced and just put out there? How do you keep it private? People who are paying can watch it. All of that. I honestly was..."I took a step back already! I can't think about this right now. I have other life stuff going on." So, I've been very, very impressed by how quickly people figured all this out. It's sorta wild.

LK: Then the pandemic... you mentioned personal projects and just the wide array of your artist areas that you express yourself. Did the pandemic affect your creative life, your creative health, the mental health, the community? How did 00:40:00all that impact?

FLEISCH: Yeah. I'd say... I think that was at first when everything first shut down, there was a real knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people and a lot of artists...there was pressure put on artists to create content. My immediate response to that was informed really by years of thinking about my own practice, and my art and what it means to be a content producer and how does that relate to my practice? I was really in a place where I felt like if I'm not doing this because I am enjoying this and really want to do it, then I'm not gonna do that again. If I'm not feeling inspired... because we are going through a pandemic and protests, and all of this economic injustice and racial injustice coming to 00:41:00light and [wild]fires.... and all of this chaos. I'm not feeling creative. I don't feel open. And the best thing I can do for my creative self is to take care of myself and my people and just be healthy. And try to not push myself out of that box. So that's really where I went. I do appreciate people who... I know a lot of people were really devastated by not being able to perform and really got creative with ways to put themselves out there, and that was interesting to see, and exciting to see.But I wasn't feeling that.

LK: So just switching gears a little bit... You are an exceptional costumer. Where did you learn to do all of that? Burlesque Seattle Press in 2010 says, and I'm quoting: "Bombshell Hai Fleisch made jaws collectively drop with a 00:42:00magnificent gold ship headpiece and gigantic Isis wings." So how did you learn to do all that?

FLEISCH: Well, while I went to school for film, I also minored in theater and did a lot of costuming there for the theater. I really fell in love with the specific ways that building costumes and clothes differ, depending on what the medium is. I love the difference between tailoring or making clothes for yourself and theater. There's all these different ways, as you know, to rig things for quick changes or for comfort for the actor.

Burlesque had this really specific set of challenges that was really, really exciting for my creative brain. So because I was doing costuming and trying to build my portfolio, I opened up myself to other performers, too. Starting off 00:43:00with trades. Baby Le'Strange was one of my first clients. For things like hair cuts, for things like that. I really got to expand my experience by making costumes for all these other people and really thinking more about what their needs were for the acts they were doing. Also creating my own costumes. I am so grateful for the Burlesque world for that experience and to people for trusting me and letting me do that. I've learned so much through that experience of doing Burlesque and really built my portfolio that way, in addition to Theater.

LK: With costume and performance, and given your background in belly dance and just the journey that society has gone on in the last 15 years, how is cultural appropriation talked about and approached now, as opposed to 10-15 years ago?


FLEISCH: I mentioned that first Velvet Hammer show and there were definitely some cultural appropriation acts in that show. It really didn't seem to be a conversation that I was aware of. I think the more conversation happening online, has brought a lot of these issues to the forefront. Because you are talking to people from different places and different backgrounds, from the people that you are engaging with every day. So that really helped raise awareness. Just in the culture, in general.

I remember when I first moved to Portland when somebody told me "Oh, you look Spanish. You should change your image and make yourself a Spanish dancer." And I was like "No, I'm not, I don't want to do that." But I also think that 00:45:00the...lots of performers of color have been pushing and saying "Hey there really has not been representation in shows and we need to be included too." And having them centered has meant that people are confronted with this reality of "oh this act that I'm doing is not OK." They can actually have a conversation with another person face-to-face with a person who has that real experience, and it can be like "No, you can't do a geisha number. That's not OK." So, it's changed a lot and for the better. It's great. I think it's not only more sensitive, but it's more interesting to not be reproducing stereotypes on stage. I'm very happy to see that development.

LK: People talk about how Burlesque can be forced for social change. You just 00:46:00described that piece of it. Are there other aspects of Burlesque as social change?

FLEISCH: Well. I think that... one of the reasons that... I think a lot of people feel this to different degrees... is that it is a safe place generally, hopefully. A safe place to express sexuality in a way that is fun. Sometimes people have darker or more challenging acts, but it's really a way to express it and know that you're not going to be assaulted or harassed. The people in the audience, for the most part, are just really excited to be there; excited to see 00:47:00you. So there's all of these things are addressed in that: your body image, your feelings, your gender, your own feelings about being naked on stage, and expressing yourself sexually in front of strangers. That's all really freeing. I think even just the experience of being in the audience for that, makes you feel good. Sex doesn't have to be... sexuality doesn't have to be a serious taboo secret thing that nobody talks about in public. It can be fun and lighthearted and all of these different things, yeah, and I think that's huge.

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

FLEISCH: Yes, yeah, I think my experience has been empowering in multiple ways. The one thing that I really wasn't expecting when I got into Burlesque was how 00:48:00it helped me shape the rest of my life and my career. As I mentioned before, I have ADHD, and it's always.... I didn't know... it wasn't actually diagnosed until all this year. So I am a very creative person, but I really couldn't focus my energy in any one direction. It was really frustrating and Burlesque kind of forced me to.

Because I was starting out in this very DIY way, to start at the beginning of a project and see it all the way through. Especially when you are putting on your own show. You're developing your own act from the very start, I'm making my own costume, and I have my persona, and I'm making a show happen. And I have to make a show happen, the show must go on. You have an audience. There's no pressure like that... to follow through.

So, that was a real life lesson and it was a real confidence builder. It was a 00:49:00real experience builder, because through producing I learned about management and money and business and promotion and networking- all of these things that seemed really mysterious and daunting to me when I was younger. And being told as an artist that I had to network and all the stuff. It became second-nature after doing Burlesque, so I think... What was the question again?

LK: Yeah, about Burlesque being empowering?

FLEISCH: Yeah, and also, I used to be a shyer person. Like I said, I was partially attracted to Burlesque because I didn't have to speak on stage. So getting to express myself with strangers in a confident way without stumbling over my words, was very empowering for me. I feel like that expression is just as valid as having a conversation with somebody.


LK: What do you think are the challenges facing Burlesque today?

FLEISCH: Today...it's the same as it's been for probably a while. I think Burlesque has found a niche, it's found an audience, people know what it is. It's more diversified, it is accessible to more people. But the Internet is a challenge because people have become really dependent on their social media platforms for promotion. Of course, now those platforms want money for everything, and so they're shadow banning or blocking people, making it really hard to get the word out there. In general, people are really overwhelmed with 00:51:00the amount of information they see online every day. Getting people to pay attention to your show specifically is really challenging.

But, going back to Metalesque Fest, if you have a product that really resonates with them and you care about it deeply, people pick up on that. That's where your audience is going to come through. But I think that things like you mentioned cultural appropriation, diversity and gender, all of those things are going to continue to be issues that have to be talked through by the people constantly, in order to not be stagnant and oppressive.

LK: The final question: what do you wish the general public would understand about stripping and Burlesque?

FLEISCH: I wish they would... In general, I think that in this culture, there is 00:52:00an idea that if somebody is showing their body in a way that they are proud and they are free, that they are diminished, in some people's minds. Or, that they are not living up to their potential because they're not... that people immediately make assumptions that you are not using your brain or your talent... you're just showing off your body and you're diminishing yourself and you're exploiting yourself. And that's not the case! It is empowering because those things are not what define me, that doesn't define who I am. But it can be a beautiful part of myself and a beautiful part of expression. It can be a beautiful way to relate to other people. And you just need to get that little block out of your brain, throw it away, it's just not useful to anybody, and just enjoy it!

LK: Thank you so much for taking the time.


FLEISCH: Thank you.