Interview with Imogen Kelly – Bent Burlesque

Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2024

Australia’s First lady of Striptease and Crowned World Queen of Burlesque in 2012

Interview by Chris Duncan

Prepare to be dazzled as the Adelaide Festival Centre presents the Adelaide premiere of Bent Burlesque, featuring the sensational Imogen Kelly. Renowned as Australia’s first lady of striptease and crowned World Queen of Burlesque in 2012, Imogen will take the stage at the Dunstan Playhouse on Saturday, June 22, for a performance that promises to be extravagant, satirical, and a bold reimagining of burlesque. Leading a company of celebrated queer artists, Imogen’s diverse and captivating performances span from the Moulin Rouge to international burlesque festivals.

With an extensive background in the performing arts, including a BFA in Performance, a diploma in Circus Arts, filmmaking, and a NIDA degree in directing, Imogen has graced stages worldwide, including the Sydney Opera House. She is also a passionate advocate for breast cancer awareness, about to launch her campaign, DUKES UP, with The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. Join us for an exclusive interview by our very own Chris Duncan with Imogen Kelly as we delve into her illustrious career, creative process, and what audiences can expect from Bent Burlesque. Don’t miss this chance to get a glimpse behind the scenes with the World Queen of Burlesque herself.

“Bent Burlesque” is described as extravagant and satirical. Can you share what inspired this unique approach to the production and what audiences can expect from the performance?

Imogen Kelly: I originally decided to create Bent Burlesque in 2011 as a response to the gentrification of burlesque – in other words I felt things were edging toward conservative classic burlesque compared to the decades prior which had been so expressive and wild.

Australia has our own culture of burlesque that stems back into the seventies and although there are similar cultures of burlesque in other parts of the world, Australians are real movers and shakers in this satirical style. The only problem was that the shows themselves were very underground, many audiences don’t get to experience this fun, extravagant form. I’d say the hallmarks of this style, often called neo-burlesque, are that it is subversive, has wild vivid aesthetics and often has a courtship with controversy.

However, you might not realise this style exists because when the burlesque revival took off in Australia around 2004, a new wave of promoters and performers strove to revive America Burlesque Striptease, and ignored the creators and artists that were already here.

I enjoy classic American bump and grind, but I LOVE Australia’s own style of burlesque. With that in mind I created a space for LGBTQAI+ artists to express themselves. So come expecting a fabulous showcase of fun, joyous, outrageous, glamorous, soulful, heartfelt, irreverent, queer, political performances. Bent Burlesque isn’t just entertainment, it’s a provocative response to a world in crisis.

As a renowned writer, director, and producer, how do you balance these roles in Bent Burlesque? What challenges do you face when bringing such a vivid vision to life?

Imogen Kelly: This may read as a bit dull, but my main challenge is to bring all three worlds of producing, directing, and performing together in an already very full life.

Producing involves doing many different jobs – from balancing budgets to artist management, rehearsal schedules, lighting plans, technical management, content creation, advertising, and tour management – to name a few of the many aspects to producing.

As a director, I need to be artistically available, to create a safe space for my performers and encourage them to really let out their true selves. It can be complex to create a cohesive show when there are eight artists including BIPOC and differently abled individuals. I want everyone to have a great time, so I need to try to be sure that each artist is well catered for.

As a performer, then, I also have to allocate time for my own act creation, costuming and rehearsals – and as I’m presenting the show I need my own acts to be polished.

In many ways time management is the biggest challenge for me. Second to that is financing this gorgeous showcase in increasingly complex times. I find as the show grows; I am finding amazing people like Olly Lawrence to delegate some of the technical aspects of the show. It’s a delight to find really capable people to outsource the production roles. This takes the heat off me. So, the success of Bent Burlesque is not just about myself and the cast. It takes a family of really talented people that make this show work.

The show highlights celebrated queer artists. Could you talk about the process of selecting your company and what these performers bring to the production?

Imogen Kelly: The key aim of Bent Burlesque is to present a style of burlesque that takes risk, that brings delight to the audience and that provokes thought. So, it is the quality of the act/artist that makes the cut. Each time I present Bent Burlesque I stay entirely true to my original artistic vision to present burlesque that offers audiences an insight into underground queer performance styles and also who we are as a collective of artists.

Bent is specifically designed to house LGBTQAI+ performers, and there is certainly a growing pool of artists who identify this way. However, I am looking for BENT work and there are only a handful of artists who create work with the exact qualities I love. I receive a lot of correspondence from queer performers wanting to be in the show, and certainly I want to include as many artists as possible! But the work has to be BENT. I want meat on the bones of each act, I want stories and glamour, I want daring and sex… and I also want polish. I desire high quality in every aspect of each act.

When making my shortlist I also look for artists who know how to work well in a group. I like a company feel to my show. Sure, I love a big name, I love a big costume, but I am more likely to book a big heart than a big ego. I most enjoy booking MCs like Sarah Ward, who has a huge amount of talent, a wealth of experience behind her, considered and articulate things to say and, after I’ve watched her perform, makes me feel like I can do anything because she’s so very brave and fun.

For Adelaide we have Sarah Bird Girl who is a vision impaired sideshow artist, Kitty Obsidian who is First Nations identified, trans, differently abled and hails from the kink community, Lillian Starr whose work I love – she is a breastfeeding mum at the moment and the last time she performed with us she was in the last stages of her pregnancy, and finally Ruby Slippers who is an incredible chameleon, visually spectacular, sexy and hilarious all at the same time. Bringing it all together is MC Sarah Ward and her partner/musician Bec Matthews. I am honoured to have them onboard. In thinking about it Bent is presenting 5 waves of queer burlesque from the nineties through to now.

Having been crowned World Queen of Burlesque in 2012, how has this title influenced your career and your approach to new projects like Bent Burlesque?

Imogen Kelly: To answer your question it is important to note that Bent Burlesque is not new it has been going since 2011, but this line up is unique to Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It was in fact my win as World Queen of Burlesque in 2012 (also historically known as Miss Exotic World) that prompted me to put so much energy into Bent Burlesque.

I mean, well sure burlesque can be pretty; but it can also become wallpaper if it doesn’t have very much to say. Next thing you’re just a set of tits in a bar. As an icon of burlesque, I felt I was expected to be a perfect, pretty woman in a very heteronormative way.  Anyone who knows me will also know that I’m way too fierce and queer to be able to sustain any such image. I am very proud to be a Miss Exotic World, but I am most proud that I am an Australian artist who survived an extremely difficult path – artistically and otherwise.

I started in Kings Cross in 1989. I was queer before we had a word to describe someone who was not straight, but who also did not identify as lesbian or gay. I was a stripper at a time when strippers were socially condemned. I had to fight for my art in times when it was politically incorrect to be all the things that I am. I was socially boycotted. I was a cancelled human being. I had no rights on paper or on the streets. I fought. My art is my weapon. My art is how I speak. I won the fight.

My performances charmed people, seduced them and made them laugh. I created the first audience for burlesque in Australia (outside of the strip clubs) and I did so one show at a time. It was a really difficult thing to do. I trained up an audience. I broke in the first venues. I changed laws… all just so I could breathe. All of this trail blazing, with a number of fellow queer performers, is the foundation stone of burlesque in Australia.

Over the years, however, I have seen queer burlesque performers pushed aside, by producers and artists who did not recognise (and sometimes still don’t) the significance of LGBTQAI+ artists in Australian burlesque. Most people know and love the American style. I want to show Australian people our own style. I enjoy all burlesque, but I want audiences to be able to see this style too. I take great pride in presenting Bent Burlesque because the audience get exposed to the sheer beauty, wonder, hilarity, integrity, boundless creativity, and incredibly sexy side of Australian burlesque. It’s ours and its queer.

Your career has spanned from Moulin Rouge kick lines to high-end performances worldwide. How do these diverse experiences influence your current productions?

Imogen Kelly: Dear audience: Expect quick changes like the Moulin Rouge. Expect the raw sensuality of a strip club. Expect the sublime chaos of a hard-working company of very sexy people. I love my background as a showgirl, but I also love sabotaging all of the ideals of chorus line, and at the same time destroying common misconceptions of the sex industry stripper. I was forced into performative ideals that I can’t relate to at all. Bent is a reaction to that. I’d say sabotage is what the audience can most expect – a debunking of the idea of showgirl perfection, a dismantling of the sexy robot program that professional showgirls have to run with to be employed.

With a rich educational background in performance, circus arts, filmmaking, and directing, how do these disciplines converge in your work, particularly in Bent Burlesque?

Imogen Kelly: As stripping was my first real performance skill, it is the base note and everything else I learned afterwards informs my creations. I predominantly love the opportunity to transform using striptease and using it to deflower archetypal characters.

My skills as a storyteller certainly were built from my background in film. Circus taught me discipline, physical expression and that I can do anything I set my mind to. Directing gave me the confidence to put my vision into the world and the skills to deliver it all. Kings Cross taught me how kick a predator in the nuts and make it look like a dance move.

Could you share some highlights from your performances at major venues like the Sydney Opera House and international festivals? How do these experiences compare to performing at Adelaide Cabaret Festival for the premiere of Bent Burlesque?

Imogen Kelly: The Adelaide Cabaret Festival is certainly a highlight in my career. I did my first cabaret festival in 2003 with Christa Hughes and I LOVE PERFORMING AT THIS FESTIVAL. I feel very well cared for and appreciated.

Other career highlights would be performing at the opening of The Opera House Studio in 2002, as it became a second home for me as a director and performer for many years afterwards. Performing with The Sydney Symphony Orchestra was incredible, and it was a huge moment for me. I think the biggest event was getting hitched at Sydney Festival and they shut down Macquarie Street so it could be my aisle and altar. Gerard and I were married in front of thousands of people. What a blast!

All of these achievements were moments of revelation where I learned what I was actually capable of – so they represent an awakening. Adelaide Cabaret Festival celebrates that I am already awake. It’s a place to arrive and present my best work including the new pieces I’ll be premiering, and this particular cast are also unique for this showing of Bent Burlesque. It’s a one off just for Adelaide! My gift to you.

You are not only a performer but also a passionate advocate for breast cancer awareness. How do you integrate your advocacy work into your public persona and productions?

Imogen Kelly: My performances are always driven by my personal life. All of my acts are significant to different events or moments. It was inevitable that something like breast cancer was going to become part of my onstage presentations – especially when I reveal my breasts as an essential part of my acts.

I have recently had a major surgical reconstruction. I guess I could cover up the scars easily but – being an old punk – I like to keep breast cancer forefront and centre by simply removing my clothes and showing people what survival can look like. I represent survivors by putting my body on stage and show my audience honestly what I have endured. I don’t cover my scars. My body is a map of continued existence.

You’ve mentioned keeping a tally of how many people have seen you perform and retiring once it reaches one million. How close are you to this milestone, and what might retirement look like for you?

Imogen kelly:Well, honestly it is over a million people who have seen me naked now, and I joke I will hang up my g-string. I’ve threatened retirement many times but always I get called back to the stage. And I find that audiences enjoy watching me age. Its controversial to put an illegal body onstage – besides, I know just how Johnny Farnham feels. Why stop doing what you love?

I’m not retiring! It’s far too exciting to put this aging, irreverent, scared, strong, sexy body onstage and just keep dancing for the fun of it all. My audience have followed me through decades of joy and adversity. They’re not going anywhere, and neither am I.

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