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Baby Le'Strange Oral History Interview, October 19, 2021

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is October 19th, 2021. My name is Laurie Kurutz. My pronouns are she/hers. Would you please introduce yourself, tell us your pronouns if you care to, and tell us all the things you do?

BABY LE'STRANGE: My name is Baby Le'Strange. I am a Burlesque performer/drag performer/performance artist here in Portland, Oregon, as well as a producer. I started my first performance was in February 2008.

LK: Great. What is Burlesque?

LE'STRANGE: It means to me, Burlesque is... the kind of Burlesque I do is like a parody on things that are happening in the world, or just like 00:01:00over-glamorization of myself. To me, it's all about entertainment. Entertaining the audience. I really enjoy being an entertainer. I mean there's lots of different styles of Burlesque, I wouldn't say that there is one genre. I wouldn't put it in any sort of a box saying that "Burlesque is this" or "Burlesque is this." Burlesque is anything really you want it to be, is how I see it.

LK: And why do you do Burlesque? What does it give you artistically that other forms don't?

LE'STRANGE: We can go back to talk about my origin story, but I am, at this point, after I'm going on 14 years, I mean to me I just love entertaining. It is also a source of income in my life at this point. I enjoy just putting myself 00:02:00out there and no matter what the size of the stage. Of course, I want a bigger audience than a smaller audience, but to me, I don't see myself stopping anytime soon. It's hard to say. I do it because I enjoy entertaining people. I enjoy putting on a show.

LK: Some people, the general public, some people think Burlesque is part of the sex world, sex work world. Where on the spectrum of sex work do you think it lies?

LE'STRANGE: I don't feel like it is sex work, personally. I mean I think stripping is more of sex work, like those people are like giving people more of 00:03:00an... dancers, dominatrix, things like that are giving more people like an emotional experience as well, talking to people. Creating a service like I've, that's great, I love that but I don't consider Burlesque sex work. I don't even know what the right answer is. It's like that's just my view of it. I'm more of an on-stage entertaining people, where those people are definitely having more like, intimate experiences.

LK: So origin story. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

LE'STRANGE: So, I personally am from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I think I moved here 2005? 2006? Something like that. Then I started doing roller derby, is how 00:04:00I ended up in Burlesque. So, I was doing roller derby around 2006, 2007, and I had a friend in roller derby, her name is Tiffany Hell. And they worked with somebody, they worked at OMSI and their coworker's daughter was the Burlesque performer in Los Angeles. She was moving back here to start Burlesque. I knew nothing, I saw Burlesque show in New York City in like the early 2000s, one of the first like Neo-Burlesque shows that was called the Vavavoom Room at this place called the Time Café, which is no longer even there. A lot of the original Neo Burlesquers. So, I saw the show there, my friend was working on it, had no idea that I would even be doing this in the future or even meeting these 00:05:00people and working with these people that I saw on stage that day.

LE'STRANGE: So back to 2007, it was like winter 2007 , I took these classes from this woman who I didn't know her backstory, knowing that she had burned a lot of bridges in Burlesque in Seattle where she started, and Los Angeles. Then she moved here. Nobody knew who she was so, she said "Hey, let's start something, right?" Tried to make money and maybe take advantage of these people is what, in the end, what happened.

So, I took these classes, and I had the confidence to make an act. I think my first performance was February 2008. Then BurleyCon came about, and I didn't 00:06:00know. Then all these original Neo-Burlesquers were there who knew this woman and knew all the bad things that she done to everybody. So that is how Rose City Shimmy was formed, getting away from this person to do our own thing. Because so-and-so wasn't giving us what we needed.... like being paid or proper communication or fair wages, things like that.

LK: And what originally brought you to Oregon?

LE'STRANGE: Oh, a person that I was dating. But I think I honestly could say I fell more in love with Portland and the fact that "Oh I have an opportunity to live out on the West Coast!" So, I came out here, and that didn't last much 00:07:00longer after I was here for a bit. Definitely not even into me starting Burlesque. That was over before I started Burlesque.

LK: And you went to the first BurlyCon, what was that like-what is BurlyCon? What was that like? Where was it?

LE'STRANGE: So BurlyCon in Seattle, I think the first one was 2008? Or 2009? It's an educational convention, no performances, all education for Burlesque and performance. The first one is interesting 'cuz the class picture is so small. There is not very many of us in that photo. It was great to like, be there with like these Neo-Burlesque Legends and people from around the country that I still 00:08:00am friends with to this day because I met them there. And I knew who was coming in and wanted to connect with these people but since-I mean there were maybe 50 people there? Yeah, and now it's grown to a crazy amount if it does end up in person again. So many people, but the class picture-it was like, so small. I know there's photos of it somewhere.

LK: Just backing up a little more up, what did you do in your formative years, whatever those were, that led you to performance?

LE'STRANGE: Nothing. I mean I was a photographer, I was always into art. I went to school for journalism and photography and film. I ended up doing a lot of photography in Pittsburgh. I would go to a drag show here and there, but I 00:09:00wasn't that into going to see live art. I was more into the visual art of movies and photography and-I think it just was something that I never thought of. That just happened, honestly. I was never like "Oh, I wanna be a Burlesque performer!" It just fell in my lap. And I just continued doing it all these years.

LK: Were there Burlesque schools or Burlesque academies in Portland in 2008?


LK: When did those come along?

LE'STRANGE: It was maybe a few years after. I mean this person that taught me, I mean "taught" they basically talked about themselves the whole time, I didn't know any better because I've never taken a Burlesque class before. I really kind of had to figured things out for myself. But they taught another class and then 00:10:00they taught some more. I think that's all the origin of Rose City School of Burlesque happened. But it might have been called something different? I'm not, I don't remember honestly.

LK: How did you pick your stage name?

LE'STRANGE: I-There's a band from the 70s, T-Rex and there was a song called "Baby Strange." It's the song that I first performed to, so I decided to call myself Baby Le'Strange.

LK: And then beyond that, those beginnings. How did you develop your Burlesque career beyond that?

LE'STRANGE: Just really, I sucked at the beginning to be honest, for years. I was not very good. Nobody knew any better, 'cuz we didn't really have Burlesque 00:11:00here really at the time so. It's funny, I just went back and watched a video of mine from those days and I was like "euegh". So, just networking, putting myself out there, applying to festivals. There's been a lot of rejection over the years but all the positive things that have come out of it weighs more than the negative.

LK: How did Rose City Shimmy begin? Is that-was that a fixed troupe? Was that a show?

LE'STRANGE: We-so myself and one of the other performers had taken classes from this person. She was in the class after me, Charlotte Treuse. And then I-then we met Hai Fleisch, move here, another person named Itty-Bitty Bang Bang was interested in Burlesque, just learned on their own, I think from going to show. 00:12:00Megan Mayhem moved here from Hawaii and we all just met each other, and decided to start our own things, 'cuz we weren't happy with what was going on. So more of a collective than a troupe. Then we started putting on our own shows, pretty early on. We didn't do too many, everyone kinda went their own separate ways with things after a couple years. I think there's only one of them still really, Charlotte Treuse, she performs sometimes, and she lives in New Orleans.

LK: I saw that you were in the cast of Tease-O-Rama, the tour in 2008. Can you describe what Tease-O-Rama is and then, how did you get selected?

LE'STRANGE: I think Tease-O-Rama was the first-one of the first Burlesque conventions outside of, maybe, Burlesque Hall of Fame, I'm not 100% sure. So I 00:13:00just knew that it was coming here, they did a roadshow. I believe it started in New Orleans and then went to San Francisco and then over the year they did this roadshow tour. So there weren't many of us here and I had this roller skating act at the time. I don't know what I was thinking. It was crazy being a new performer on roller skates, but hey. Then I applied, and it was funny because at the time you had to actually like send in a paper application and send in a DVD, a CD-ROM, or whatever, of your performance.

So, myself and Charlotte Treuse got selected to do the one in Portland. And I think we did a Seattle preshow. I'm looking back, oh my goodness, I did it but 00:14:00I'm like "oh God I wasn't very good at the time." When I'm on stage with all these like Burlesque, Neo Burlesque legends, so. And then it's funny. Then they did another big one in San Francisco. I applied and I didn't get it because Burlesque, even in just that year, [2009] had blown up and the competition is just-was just so much more. Very competitive, it still is, but it's competitive to get into a lot of the festivals and things. You have to have an act that stands out for sure. Or I mean some of it is who you know, of course, but...


LK: And you mentioned that when you first started, just a couple three years before 2008, there really wasn't very much Burlesque in Portland. Did Tease-O-Rama have an effect on the Portland Burlesque scene?

LE'STRANGE: I think people saw it yeah... and people told me that they saw me there, and then maybe they started performing shortly after. I think it kicked some things off for some people that wanted to come, wanted to try it. A lot of that is fate. Those memories are just... I look back and go "oh that was so long ago." But it was at the Bossanova Ballroom. Yeah, it was super fun. It was a cool experience for sure.

LK: And around that same time, the 2000's, other Neo-Burlesque people talk about how the early Internet, in the 2000's, was a driving force explosion of 00:16:00Burlesque. What was your experience with that?

LE'STRANGE: So, we know, I would just find people-I started in when MySpace was on. I don't really know what they were doing before that. I know there was like another kind of social networking thing where people met each other. But yeah, just Googling, looking up what's out there basically. What's what else is around the country.

LK: And then other parts of the Burlesque community in Portland I've heard mentioned of Miss Kennedy's Cabaret, the Bridgetown Bombshells, the Legend, Tempest Storm at the Star Theater. What were the other shows and what was the 00:17:00Burlesque scene like?

LE'STRANGE: Interesting because a lot of people weren't coming to things for a while. I think they just didn't know or weren't interested. I performed a lot to like small crowds, for a while. Tease-O-Rama, that was the full room. But a lot of the smaller shows, like Crush Bar, is where a lot of stuff started. I mean of the stuff-before Star Theater opened, that is where a lot more Burlesque shows started.

I started working early on with Sign of the Beast Burlesque. That was started by people that really aren't even involved in it anymore, Vera Mysteria is the name of the person, and then Rocket, they started that. Rocket is still performing but Vera is not.

And there's also Black Lodge Burlesque, which is a David Lynch theme, which 00:18:00now-which that was also Vera Mysteria, Rocket, Hai Fleisch. Then they decided they don't wanna do it anymore so then I took that one. So even back then like, 2010ish, is when those shows started, more things that I'm interested in but other people, a bit more of a niche thing that needed to happen. 'Cuz I tried, I was like, "I'm going to do classic Burlesque" for a couple years and ehh it's not really my jam. I'm like more comedy, it took a while for me to kinda find myself, for sure.

LK: Then in 2015 you were in the Oregon Burlesque Festival, what was your act?

LE'STRANGE: Was that the first one? I've been in-I was actually did two acts in 00:19:00that. I think I did-the opening night I did a Tina Belcher, it's a Bob's Burgers show. I did that act and I think I might have competed as well. I'm not sure. I had an act as a hotdog, where I have a hotdog, I still have the costume, I want to revamp it eventually. But I think I competed with that the first year, too. Then I've done every year of that except for 20-the last one that was live. I didn't even apply that year, I think I had a paying gig that weekend and I was like "ehh, it's time for me to take a break from this". But I'll do it again for sure. But it was fun, I mean I love the Oregon Burlesque Festival, it's fun having people come to town from all-from different places.

LK: And then outside of Burlesque, do you have other jobs that support your Burlesque?


LE'STRANGE: I work a retail job that I've had for 10, 11 years now. But I used to spend so much money on costume and props and things for so many years. I racked up credit card debt from traveling and doing festivals. Now I'm at a point where, the money I make is... money that I can use to pay bills and do fun things with. So I don't really-I haven't made anything new in a while and I just kind of...with what I have. For a while, I thought you had to keep pumping out things and things and things, and they weren't always like the best things. So, you would always be buying the stuff, new costumes, new props, but now-it's funny I moved in with my partner in January and I purged so much stuff, sold so 00:21:00many things to new performers, it was great. A lot of people took things off my hands and I'd rather have them have it than it just sit in the closet.

LK: And so where did you get your costumes and props?

LE'STRANGE: So, Charlotte Treuse has made a lot of my costumes. Hai Fleisch has made a lot of my costumes. Johnny Nuriel has made a couple of my costumes, those are my most-I tried my hand at making things, I can like glue rhinestones and use a glue gun, but I never really had the space to like set up a sewing machine and do this and do that, and I just always paid people to do it for me. I love that I have that option, it's nice. But I definitely have thrown together some like costumes that... I'm surprised some of them have held up for that long, I 00:22:00still have a lot of things in my closet that I don't even use them, like I'm just gonna keep it on hand, just in case.

LK: People in Burlesque say it empowers them. What are your thoughts on that?

LE'STRANGE: Yeah! I mean I can see that, for sure, I definitely feel a high after like a great show, that adrenaline rush. It just depends on the situation, and it depends on the person really. To me it's just like a natural thing right now like-I don't- , it's just what I do. I can't say it still empowers me. I still love it, that's why I'm still doing it. But I love that-that people have 00:23:00that feeling. And sometimes I do still, for sure. I've definitely learned a lot about like navigating people in general through the whole-through all these years of performing just businesswise, and communication wise, people skills, life skills, especially with producing. There is a lot of moving parts with that.

LK: People also talk about how Burlesque can be a force for social change. Do you see that?

LE'STRANGE: Oh yeah, I definitely see that.

LK: How? Can you describe that?

LE'STRANGE: I mean-I think that, just depending on like the subject matter of the show and what people are presenting in their acts can definitely make people think for sure. There's been a lot more-putting more-it's been more eye-opening. 00:24:00Like, okay, as a producer I need to add more People of Color in my show, and I want to I want to have more diversity of bodies and images of the performer and I definitely think it is. I'd like to see more diverse people come to shows, even too.

LK: How do you-how do you develop audiences?

LE'STRANGE: That's interesting. I mean the nice thing about the Black Lodge Burlesque show is that it's been going on for so long and it's such a niche thing that-just keeping it fresh with new performers and new acts and things like that. But if you're putting on something new it's a lot harder for sure. 00:25:00Here's an example, years ago we would put on shows with Rose City Shimmy and we had a group from Key West. Key West Burlesque was traveling through and that's long way to be traveling. It was the night Michael Jackson died. Nobody came to the show. And I hate to laugh but I was looking at it now it's like just social-I'm not gonna cancel a show because a celebrity passed away, right? But it's just that... it's just interesting the things that happen.

I think that Port land too has grown in people-like people have grown. Like there's more younger... plus more people here since I started. So it just puts more people in the chairs too. And branding, you have to-I hate Facebook, I hate 00:26:00having to promote, not a big fan of Facebook. It's just like doom scrolling sometimes, but I have to use it to promote. I personally miss the old-school way of flyering all over town. That's the way I like it, but it's not really effective too much anymore. But I still have hand bills for my show and I still try to make paper copies and things for shows because, you never know who's gonna see it. But I used to go all over town, postering, hand billing, hiring someone to do it for me, since it's a lot of work.

LK: What are the challenges facing Burlesque today?


LE'STRANGE: I definitely think... people still having like all white thin cis shows. That's definitely a problem in Burlesque and people still not getting that cultural appropriation can happen a lot in acts. I definitely see that more from like European performers. Things I just catch wind of... things on Facebook or-just keeping things not crossing those lines. Those are the challenges I feel-some of the challenges I feel like.

LK: And then; Final question. What do you wish the general public would understand about Burlesque?

LE'STRANGE: I'm gonna-it's not just one thing. Like, it's not that it's so much more diverse than what you see in the movie... the Burlesque movie, right. I'm 00:28:00not gonna say that that didn't have entertaining aspects to that movie but having that name "Burlesque"...the general public thinks I'm up there doing like some kind of Fosse dance and that's not the case. I mean I love watching those kind of acts but just that-that is more than, maybe what the mainstream media makes out to be, or like movies. There's a lot more to it and there have been some great documentaries like "A Wink and a Smile", I think is my favorite, and I think there was a new one about like New York Neo-Burlesque. I forget the name of it, but that really-it was on Netflix or Prime or something, but that one was wonderful and-I am-'cuz I just love the world of like performing artists.


LK: That's great. Thank you so very much.

LE'STRANGE: Yeah, you're welcome! Is there anything else you want me to elaborate on?

LK: Thanks very much.

LE'STRANGE: Thank you.