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Velvet Thorn Oral History Interview, August 27, 2021

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is Friday, August 27th 2021. My name is Laurie Kurutz. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Would you please introduce yourself, tell us your pronouns if you care to, and tell us all the things you do.

VELVET THORN: Well, hello! I am Velvet Thorn and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I am a Burlesque performer, an actor, an aerial circus performer, and singer. I do a lot of things that are fun on the stage.

LK: What is Burlesque?

VT: Well, to me Burlesque can be many things. I think that it's really what the performer wants to make it. But the main things that I try to explain to people that have never seen Burlesque before, or they just think "oh I saw the movie Burlesque with Christina Aguilera," or whatever her name is. Yeah, I tried to say well this is what I do and then I strip off all my clothes 'til I am in pasties and a g-string and that is what Burlesque is to me. It is a theatrical striptease. It embodies musical theater, dancing, Cabaret, but... and just regular club stripping or club dancing, but in a theatrical way that really gets the attention of the audience and kind of takes them on a ride. I think that we have a special relationship with our audience members and that is what makes Burlesque a little different then other kinds of Cabaret or theater that you would see.

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

VT: So the type of Burlesque that I do is that I am more of a Neo-Burlesque. So there's a difference between classical and that's more of ... I strip of this and then I strip off that, and then I walked to this part of the stage and then I walked to that part of the stage, and it can be Big Band and that's kind of what we think of if we see people like Dita Von Tease or Dirty Martini those kinds of folks. But in a more Neo-Burlesque you might pick music that you wouldn't necessarily think is a Burlesque song, like maybe Dubstep or Hip-Hop or something like that. Then also when I think of Neo-Burlesque I think of it as being more free to express your body in maybe more dance-like ways. So it's kind of an evolution of different styles of dance and theater and making it into something that is, I think a little bit more intimate with the audience. Or making a political statement or kind of embodying a theme kind of thing. That's what I think of when I say that the type of Burlesque that I do, being more Neo-Burlesque.

LK: Why do you do Burlesque? What does it give you?

VT: Burlesque gives me power. It makes me feel really good. I think as a young woman it can be hard. Because I started when I was really young. I was 22 when I first danced, and was in my first show. I think that coming from my acting background it really gave me a lot of power to get on the stage, get some eyes on me that were not in... how can I say this?.. The gaze was not objectifying me, because I was objectifying myself. I was putting myself in this position of power for me to move exactly the way that I wanted to move. So it really did give me a sense of power. It also gives me such a surge of creativity because I love music and I love to listen to different songs, but I'm not a great dancer. I've never been a dance class kind of gal, so I think that Burlesque can be a really good tool in between...being a professional dancer...whatever you're doing. If you don't have any technique but you really want to move to the music. You can feel the music and you want to connect with the audience. If you want all the eyes on you, I think that Burlesque is a great way to feel powerful, to feel sexy, and to perform and be creative.

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

VT: So I was born in Willits California and then I grew up in Sonoma County, which is right in the North Bay Area California. I'm a small town girl! That's all I got to say about that! I definitely thought "I'm going to move to a big city someday and be a part of a big theater." And I've just always lived in small towns. I like that feeling, I like to be able to see the stars and you know just kind of hear the animals all night and that sort of thing.

LK: What brought you to Oregon?

VT: Well, I moved to Oregon because I wanted to go to school for theater. I ended up getting my Bachelor's degree at Southern Oregon University so that's really what brought me to Southern Oregon and Oregon itself.

LK: How did you get started in Burlesque once you got to Oregon?

VT: Even though I'm a small-town girl I like being next to the city, so when I was younger, maybe about 19, I was in San Francisco and I saw Dita Von Teese do a show. I got to experience what live Burlesque is. For years it was in my head, I just thought "I could do this! I can't dance, I don't have any skills, but I can do this!" So I really had this want and this desire and I tried to manifest it. And I think the small things, er, the thing about living in a small town is sometimes there's just not as many opportunities. So I might never be able to get this.

But I did see that there was a Burlesque show at this little bar in Ashland Oregon called Oberon's. There was a little Burlesque show there. And I was like "oh my gosh I need to ask these people about what they're doing!" But I did not have the courage to talk to anyone and everyone was from Eugene so I was like "oh well I don't know if i'm ever gonna find it." And then I ended up going on Facebook, of all places, there was an Audition Group; as there is on Facebook for most plays, in most towns, most counties. And somebody by the name of Miss Darby Doll posted that she wanted people for her Burlesque show. I thought "oh my gosh this is my chance!"

So I messaged her. I think I was the only one that messaged her. And I was like "I don't know anybody. I don't know you. But nobody at my school knows what Burlesque is or does any of that." So I really felt like a fish out of water but I was like "I can do this!" I remember I had work "oh my gosh, I have to get out of work!" And I was like "oh my gosh I have to get out of work! I have to do this show or else I'm never going to do it!" That's what I thought: I can do it now or I'm never going to do it. So that's how I got started in the Oregon Burlesque or the Southern Oregon Burlesque scene, and in Burlesque in general.

LK: When you showed up and were practicing with the troupe how did that all unfold?

VT: So I just showed up to the show, I met Miss Derby Doll at her home and she was so lovely and she really took me under her wing. And [she] drove me to the town 45 minutes over from Ashland to Grants Pass. The only time I'd ever rehearsed was at my house and I just, I didn't really have a costume. I had a dress that I wore to my 8th grade graduation. Weird. So I had this really cute, but it was really like the sixties and cute. I had a good sense of fashion when I was younger, but yes, I had this dress.

I picked out this one Lana Del Rey song that I really loved and then I just started doing it. I just have never done anything like that in public before and everyone was very sweet. I remember being backstage and meeting other dancers like Leather Pixie and Sundae Sparkles, and I was just so nervous, but they were so sweet. Yeah it was a good...it was a good starting off point.

LK: Did you study or take classes? Then how did you expand your performing career in Burlesque from that?

VT: So I just kind of flew by the seat of my pants, Laurie! There weren't any classes so I was really just getting the experience from doing shows. And after that I think that Darby knew that I had a real passion for this and I wanted to do this. And she let me perform in the monthly show in Grants Pass, so I was kind of able to have this gig and have something for me every month so that I could get experience in a small town. With a small audience.

So that's kind of what I did and then I was juggling that with school. So I kind of had this other side over here, I do Burlesque over here, but then I do school and I'm trying to do plays and theater on the other side. So it was definitely a balancing act. I think that if I had been in a bigger city I probably would have taken classes. You know I would have been able to see more shows, but the most Burlesque that I was getting was the shows I was in, so that was kind of like what I had available to me. And I was lucky enough to be a part of the community doing it.

LK: Did you ever go to the BurleyCon conference?

VT: Yes! So before I had my first show, I bought a ticket to go to BurlyCon because I first heard about BurlyCon in Sonoma County. I did end up taking one Burlesque class before I went to Southern Oregon. I thought "oh my gosh there's this Burlesque dancer in Sonoma County where I'm living right now!" And I was so excited and then she moved up to Portland. It was Eva D'Luscious and I was so disappointed that she moved to Portland. I still work with her today and she comes down to Sonoma County where I live right now all the time; I mean, pre-COVID. So that's really great.

I ended up taking that class and that's when she mentioned BurlyCon. So I was like "all right I'm going to BurleyCon! I don't know how. I'm just going to do it! I'm going to do it! I don't know anyone. I don't know anyone but I'm going to do it!" I ended up meeting with Darby and Sundae Sparkles before that, so I was able to kind of shack up with Sundae for the conference! I had done my first show, I think, 2 months before the conference, so that was a really good place for me to be in. I was really beginning this planting the seeds and starting this new beginning, so that was really cool. I loved BurlyCon! It's the only time I've ever gone but I really enjoyed myself and I loved just being in that culture of Burlesque because I felt like I hadn't really been involved or in that culture before and it's so awesome.

LK: How did you pick your stage name?

VT: I remember picking it and I actually really love the name Thorn. And in high school my French name was "epine" which is French for thorn. Because I love that episode of Scooby-Doo where they have the witch band and they're like in Salem and anyways and the lead singer's name is Thorn. I was like "I really like this name! My goth girl is coming out... my inner witch is coming out here. And then I also really liked the name Velvet. I should be Red Velvet!" You go through all these names and you then realize other people have the name and I remember "oh I like having all of these words together because it's pointy and soft. So it's sexy and like I'll get cha! Don't get too close!" So that's what I liked about my name and so luckily I've been able to pick it out and I haven't had to change it since.

LK: Outside of performing Burlesque... just a snapshot of your real life outside of Burlesque, do you have a day job? What do you do to support your Burlesque art?

VT: Right now, I am taking a hiatus with Burlesque because we're in the middle of COVID right now. I lost a lot of my creativity and drive to do that. So unfortunately, I wish that Burlesque could be my main job and I think that a lot of Burlesque dancers feel that way. I want to just dance and I think it's amazing the people who can do that. I wish that our culture was more set up to support artists. That's what I want to say about that.

Then for me personally, I still love doing theater and I was auditioning for shows and doing some Zoom theater. Then my day job, I am going back to school and I would like to actually get my Master's and become a theater teacher possibly. So I really do enjoy movement and I think that that kind of playing around, that kind of plays in with Burlesque, how you move and how you find your character on stage. I think that that would be a really cool job for me. I'm looking into applying to schools and I'm going back to my local JC. [junior college] I'm also working at a plant shop, so you kind of learn to juggle some stuff when you are in arts and performance.

LK: You mentioned that the COVID pandemic has affected your creative process. Can you talk about that a little?

VT: Well, since we weren't allowed to do shows in person for so long, and then things kind of started feeling a little bit better, and now they're shutting...we're just kind of not sure. So, in turn, I feel not sure. I really do love doing these performances in person. I have been able to do a Zoom show. I have to say it was kind of anti-climactic. It was actually really cool because I was able to edit my piece and make it look like a music video. That is something that I've always had since I was a little girl-- listening to music and seeing visuals....and it's like a film and that's kind of how I put my acts together, so I really am interested in doing more of that.

I do feel a little creative drive to be like "oh, I'm listening to this song and I can see a music video in my head. I could totally make this something different outside of the stage." I think that it is just a little bit like you gotta [do] project management. Or it's as if, you know, okay, I have a show. I'm going to go up on stage. I'm going to do it. It's going to be great. And then I'm gonna get out of there. Whereas if you are gonna film this thing, you really have to manage it differently.

So when I did the Zoom show, it felt so exciting once I edited it. And then I was like "this isn't a show" but the show felt different. I think the [Zoom] show format feels different and the last live Burlesque performance I was in was actually a proposal performance and I proposed to my sweetie. It's kind of like my best show ever! Then COVID is happening and shutting it down. So I think that let out, let out a little bit of air out of my balloon. But it was also nice to kind of take a hiatus, and think "oh, what do I like about Burlesque? What do I really think about it? What is my heart saying?" And it's still saying that when this is all done I'm definitely getting back out there.

LK You've talked a little bit about this but I'll ask you directly: people in Burlesque say it empowers them. Your thoughts on that?

VT: I think that Burlesque is absolutely empowering. Like I said before, when I get up on the stage I feel people's eyes on me and I take their energy, and they want me to take their energy. Because they're excited and they're looking, they're looking for something. So you can kind of like, set up those expectations and give them the end result. I don't know if that makes sense.

It's like the tease and then it's like "Oh, you want me to take off my bra? Maybe I shouldn't. Okay, I guess I will." And everyon'e like yay! It's a real confidence booster. When I tell women that I do Burlesque, even if they don't do Burlesque and usually like kind of middle-aged women, they go "Oh my gosh! That's so cool! How did you get into that? What is that like?" They're so curious! I just think this is for you! There's a spark and there's something in that name Burlesque and it being a sexual performance. Not sexual in like having sex but I should say a sensual performance and a way for us to act that we don't get to act, as cis-women or just feminity in general.

It is sometimes not okay to be a woman or to have sexual feelings or be sexual in any form because you might be labeled as some derogatory words. It makes a lot of people fearful. So I think that what Burlesque brings to the table is a chance for you to be in public. I honestly think that the stage is the safest place for any woman. I think that it's because they're... if somebody's going to mess with you, there is a crowd of people, that is, those audience members are the most supportive people. They're not gonna let that happen to you. I really think that it's, I think it's empowering in that way. Kind of like "okay I have all these people behind me who are whooping and hollering at me while I'm allowed to be a sexual person." Because that's in our nature.

I think that if there's... that if people want to express that, it's awesome. If they don't want to express that, that's totally fine, too. But Burlesque gives us, who want to express that, the tools. So that's how I think that it's empowering for me and possibly for other other people doing Burlesque. Because it explodes people's ideas and stereotypes of us, who want to express our femininity and even our masculinity in ways that are not in the gender constructs.

LK: Well, that then leads me to the question... well before I go there... so, empowering: do you have an act or routine that expresses that and can you describe it?

VT: For me I think that all of my routines are empowering and I can tell you specifically why. I think that it's because I get to choose what I wear. I get to choose how I look. I get to choose how I move. And I can change any of that in a moment. Maybe not my costume, but how I move, I can move anyway that I want. That, I think, that is power.

I relate that to theater where you have to look a certain way, the Director is telling you what to do, you have to move like this, you have to look like this, you don't really get to control how you are being seen on the stage as a performer. But in Burlesque you absolutely can control all of that. So that's why I think that all of my acts are empowering. I think that especially when the energy comes over me and I get to move, that there's just something in that live performance that touches my soul and my being that I have to express and I think that that is the most powerful thing of all. Especially if I have a message.

I do... actually there is one song that I do a routine to that I do think it's extremely empowering and it's to a song. It's called Mama Said and it's a man singing but it's about ...to me, I think of it as femininity is going to rise up and change is coming. And you masculine folks better be ready, you better be ready for change, change has come, Mama you know, Mama said Mama Said, change has come! So yes I really think of it as like when I do that routine, I tried to express my masculine folks out in the audience like this is the power of femininity and we are not weak. Femininity is not weak. There is a change coming, so even if I can kind of touch anyone's mind for a second. Like they are like "oh maybe I'm waking up, maybe I can see something changing in our culture by seeing this young woman dance or owning her body or what's going on with the song or something." That particular act is probably the most empowering to me because I do have such a connection with the song and the material. l like that I look so beautiful and ethereal, and I'm wearing white and I have lights that are airy-fairy but then I am like my dancing is really hard and the song is intense. I really try to have all the, you know, emotions with it too. That's what makes it beautiful and empowering to me.

LK: That leads right into how Burlesque can be a force for social change. People have said that to me. You clearly think that. Do you want to talk about Burlesque as social change?

VT: So I really find... it's encouraging to just see art and having places where people can be exactly as they need to be, no changing. And maybe not exactly as they need to be. I guess the people also need that in their regular lives because when I come out on stage and I have makeup on and I'm Velvet Thorn. But they do need to be in places where they can creatively express themselves exactly as they need to do. They have messages that they need people to listen to.

I think for four or five minutes you have that person in the audience's attention, their full attention. And whatever you need to get across to them, whatever you need to invoke as a human being for them to see...you have that chance for them to see you exactly as you want to be seen in that space. That's how I think that it can be a force for social change.

I also think that it brings a lot of people together in positive ways, like the festivals. There's different festivals. The Queer festivals and disability awareness festivals and political festivals. Like the Body Political Festival. There's just all sorts of things that people can book, a Black Burlesque Festival for. There's all sorts of things that people can be a part of. You know how to create a space for them to be seen. That's mostly how I think that it can be a force for social change.

LK: What are the challenges facing Burlesque today?

VT: That one of our challenges is that no one knows about Burlesque. So I think that this work that you're doing, Laurie, just going to bring it back, is awesome. Because I think that you're really explaining to people in depth about what Burlesque is. And it can be different to many different folks because there's so many different types. Dita Von Teese is probably one of our biggest American Burlesque artists. Not a lot of people... not a lot of the majority of folks don't know who she is and they don't know Burlesque is still going on.

I think that another thing is that we don't really have our own spaces right now. We depend on theaters. If you have a theater company, you need a theater so you have a space, if you can make that happen. But if you do Burlesque, you're going to different bars and you're going here and you're going there. It can be, as a performer, it can be a little bit like "oh maybe I'm performing at this place that doesn't really have a dressing room or I'm going to get harassed" I'm perfectly safe on the stage but I might get harassed as I'm half-naked trying to find the door to the dressing room or the bathroom or wherever you're changing.

I think that it can be really hard because it is such a hustle sometimes in certain communities to get your shows going if you're a producer. I think that's also one of the reasons why I felt so stagnant is because I love to teach and I'd love to do shows, but I don't really feel comfortable yet finding those places, and that support network. Because you really do need a support network. If people don't know about Burlesque they're like "you just like to do this cuz you like to be sexual or something." And it's like, no, no. It's a lot more, so I think that is one of the biggest challenges facing Burlesque today. It's that we, as Burlesque artists, need our own spaces to do this, to do our art.

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

VT: So I think... but I hope that the General Public... well, first I hope, I wish they knew what Burlesque was and Neo-Burlesque, what it's turning into today. And I also hope that taking your clothes off and doing these theatrical stripteases was a little less stigmatized. So I hope that in the future that the mass majority of American audiences, and audiences all around the world, can really... because Burlesque, I think in certain countries it is even outlawed and not even allowed to do it. Like Singapore, I think, they just legalized it. So I really do hope that audiences can be more accepting and open to what Burlesque has to teach us. I think also open to what beautiful art it can expose people to. Beautiful People

LK: Velvet Thorn, thank you so very much for taking the time to do this.

VT: Thank you so much Laurie, it was so good talking to you.