Theatre | Miss Sugarpuss: Waiting for Elijah

How did Holly Gauthier-Frankel find her inner Miss Sugarpuss?  Shtetl speaks with this Montreal burlesque bombshell and gets the inside scoop.

Shtetl: How did you get into Burlesque dancing?  Was there a moment or person that pushed you into performing?

Holly G-F:  In 2003, I was heavily involved in amateur musical theatre-loving and performing and did productions whenever I could. I was also entering into a phase of extreme confusion, depression and alcoholism (which I believe some people simply call «partying too much»…yeah, right!) with the demise of a long-term relationship, and was trying to find myself as a writer and actor. Some friends in the musical theatre scene dipped into the world with me by producing a little fundraiser which featured some crazy burlesque dancing from a troupe called «Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad,» out of New York, if you can believe it. The show was a flop because we were pretty bad producers at the time, but it definitely piqued my interest. Then, in 2004, my mom dragged my depressed ass out of the house to watch a movie at a festival called, «The Anatomy of Burlesque,» by the late, great Lindalee Tracy. I had an epiphany in the movie theatre. A total, mind-blowing, brain reset. I decided to write a burlesque play (even though I had no idea what that even meant) and to study the art of burlesque from then on. I went to Helendale, California, on a pilgrimage to meet the founder of the Miss Exotic World Museum, Dixie Evans, did as much research as I could, wrote the show, got into the Fringe fest in Montreal, and by the summer of 2005, Miss Sugarpuss was part of the «scene.» It was pretty intense, and I messed up a lot in terms of being able to run a troupe of performers, but I don’t regret any of it!

Shtetl: What is the scariest thing about doing burlesque? What’s the most exciting?

Holly G-F:  I’m not really scared of much anymore in terms of performing, although the first time I got undressed in public, at a dive bar on St. Laurent for our first fundraiser I thought I was going to implode, or maybe just die. I couldn’t believe I was going to unleash my naked body on a crowd of people drinking cheap whisky. And that’s probably the most exciting thing to do now! Except maybe the whisky is more highbrow. Haha. One of the most exciting things (with a scary element, I suppose) was being brought to Tokyo, Japan, to work on a show there with some performers from the Fringe who have now become dear heart-friends. It was the most generous, crazy, risky, strange and exciting thing I’d ever done, but I knew as soon as I stepped off the plane and into the theatre, with no knowledge of Japanese or where the hell I was, that I was «home.»  But every new experience is kind of scary and kind of exciting all at once, which makes it all worthwhile.

Shtetl:  How similar is Holly to Miss Sugarpuss?

Holly G-F:  We are pretty much each other’s alter-ego, which got very confusing for me after a while. In fact, I found it so confusing that I had to write another show with my friend Paul Van Dyck, called “Miss Sugarpuss Must Die!” in order to exorcise all the confusing demons that were being appropriated by Miss Sugarpuss and ignored by Holly, and vice versa.  Miss Sugarpuss is an extension of me, and all the goofy, inappropriate, true things I sometimes want to say or do but never had the guts to really go for. Now I don’t need the burlesque persona to speak my mind or put myself where I want to be in terms of my life and my career, but it’s wonderful to know she’s there if I need her to express something or simply to make me and others laugh. Because, ultimately, no matter how drunk or tragic she is, she’s a huge clown and came into the world so that there could be more laughter, more empathy and more humanity in my life.

Shtetl:  What is it like to do burlesque in your home town?

Holly G-F:  It’s great to do burlesque in Montreal, since we were such a dirty, jazzy, vaudeville town way back in the 30s and 40s and 50s, and that’s a tradition I feel to be part of the fabric of my heritage since I come from a family of musicians and performers and artists.  I’m proud to perform there, and proud to represent Montreal whenever I leave town to perform somewhere else. The Montreal burlesque scene has shifted drastically since I started performing, perhaps even becoming slightly homogenized as the art of burlesque hits the mainstream more and more; I can only hope that it keeps shifting to include all manner of neo-vaudeville and burlesque and cabaret styles so that Montreal remains vibrant and original. I’ll always work to make that happen.

Shtetl:  Has your family seen you perform as Miss Sugarpuss?  How do they react?

Holly G-F:  Yes, they’ve seen some of my shows, and it was always fine! They’re very supportive of what I do, and aren’t prudes about the body or about bawdy humour.  They didn’t see my latest show (MSMD) because I talk about some serious and sad family issues that affected me, and I didn’t want them to be disturbed or hurt or misunderstand what I was trying to express.  But I certainly never kept burlesque a secret from them; I think I’d have to keep it a secret if I started working as an accountant or a typist or something!

Shtetl:  What is the most Jewish thing about doing burlesque? 

Holly G-F:  Oof.  That’s a tough one.  My Judaism is a complicated topic for me, because I grew up in a household that didn’t espouse religion in any way; my mum was raised Irish-Catholic but she totally renounced it, and my dad is Jewish but never really practiced.  The exception was that my convert-paternal-grandmother (Laura Leigh McEvoy with flaming red hair, thank-you-very-much!) insisted that I be educated about Judaism.  She taught me everything that she loved about the religion and the traditions, and also taught me about the power of your own imagination, so I truly associate Judaism AND burlesque with her! I never had a bat mitzvah, nor did I convert, but my journey through Judaism took me to Zionist summer camp, private Hebrew tutoring, half-Jewish and Jewish boyfriends, trips to synagogues alone and with others, and coming to terms with my technical “Non-Jew”-ness.  I still have love for the culture, the traditions and some of the precepts, though I don’t feel the need to be Jewish the way I once did.  But I would have to say that the most Jewish thing about the way I do burlesque is that it stems from a sense of wanting to create a community, and that it comes from a place of true love. Also, I’m a huge kibitzer and kind of a schlub, a yenta and a shayna punim, and I love being able to bring all that into my burlesque numbers!

Shtetl: Have you ever considered doing a Jewish-themed number? What would that look like?

Holly G-F:  I’ve already got two…way ahead of you! I have a lovely Channukah number that I performed last year, where I light the Menorah and then disrobe while imbibing all the wine (dressed in blue and white and with little Kippah pasties, of course!), and another I like to call “Waiting for Elijah,” which is my Pesach number where I wait and wait and wait for Elijah to come have dinner with me, and I end up eating all the matzah and drinking all the wine, and flailing around having a drunken burlesque tantrum. They’re some of my favourite numbers ever, because they’re so ridiculous and messy and food-oriented, which I always love to explore.  I’m thinking of doing a Nigella Lawson tribute at some point.

Shtetl:  Who is the best burlesque performer of all time?

Holly G-F:  There cannot only be one, I’m afraid.  But if I had to pick my biggest inspirations they would have to be Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini, and Cherry Typhoon.  These women are pioneers, adventurous spirits, insanely talented and devoted performers, and totally unafraid to express their art and their truths.  They’re also pretty damned hilarious. But all the legends of burlesque, all the women who came before these last few generations of neo-burlesque, the ones who had no choice in their venues or audiences or payment and who weren’t doing this job to feel empowered or for art’s sake, but to make a buck, are the greatest inspirations. The gutsy ladies who did what they had to do to survive and formed a community of strength and power despite many odds, Dixie Evans, Jennie Lee, Satan’s Angel, Venus Dee Milo, Kitten Natividad, Tura Satana, and on and on and on. There were many, and there are many now.

Shtetl:  What are some common misconceptions about burlesque?

Holly G-F:  My most hated misconception is that burlesque isn’t feminist or empowering and therefore not a valid form of expression. It’s a generalization and an opinion that’s absolute bullshit.  There are some dancers who don’t consider what they do to fall into feminist expression, and I feel that’s partly because no one seems to even know what feminism means anymore. I’m still grappling with that one myself. However, there isn’t a feminist or a post-feminist or a whatever-ist in the world that can tell me that what I do isn’t empowering. Burlesque saved my life; it gave me back my true self, by teaching me how to be an artist and a woman and a part of the world.  It gave me love and it gave me strength.  There was never anything tawdry or cheap or dirty about burlesque for me unless I WANTED to make it tawdry or dirty or cheap! My sense of expression and my opinions were always supported by the world of burlesque and neo-vaudeville.  The way burlesque is evolving in mainstream media now scares me, however, because it idealizes the same kinds of bodies we’ve been seeing for years, and really dumbs it down.  I’m sorry to say it, but when you put Christina Aguilera in a corset and some feathers and glitter and call a schlocky run-of-the-mill heterosexual-fairy-tale movie “Burlesque,” that’s really damned problematic for me.

Shtetl:  How can burlesque dancing heal the world?

Holly G-F:  By remembering that art heals, love heals, the matriarchy needs to come back in full force, and that putting on a little shimmy or glitter or simply shaking your glorious body (whether you’re male or female or anything else!), can do wonders for the soul.  I’m trying to help other women by teaching self-empowerment burlesque classes and by performing with as much integrity and social conscience as I can, so that people can know my struggles, my triumphs and my story. It’s all about community and love, man. Seriously.

Shtetl:  Have you ever dreamed of being a rabbi?

I never did, although a dear friend of the family is a Rabbi in New York, and she’s one of the coolest women I know. I did consider becoming a marriage officiant though! I mean, who wouldn’t want some gaudily made-up, feather-toting weirdo shaking and shimmying you off into wedded bliss?

Shtetl:  Any tips for the uninitiated on how to add some sultry/sexiness into the home burlesque performance?

Holly G-F:  Be yourself and LOVE yourself and remember that it’s all in the eyes. No one is looking at the parts of your body you’re insecure about when you’re drilling a hole into your partner’s soul with your sexy bedroom eyes! And when all else fails…booze. Just kidding. I meant butt-plugs. Ack! I meant go to bed naked! Oh, never mind.

Shtetl:  What’s Miss Sugarpuss up to now?

Holly G-F:  I’m in Paris right now creating a show with a fellow cabaret performer, the wonderful contortionist stage performer Andréane Leclerc, called InSuccube. We’ll be presenting it at the Edgy Women Festival in March, but we get to create it here on a grant! It’s very bohemian and exciting…and by bohemian I mean I’m poor. And by exciting I mean it’s fricking freezing cold here and I didn’t bring my proper winter gear. You can also catch my one-woman show, “Miss Sugarpuss Must Die!” at the Segal Centre on March 3rd (two days after I get back from Paris…yikes!) and April 21st.