Friday, February 3, 2012

Say It Loud, I'm a Dork and I'm Proud!

by Mary Widow of Black Cat Burlesque

Mary and her glasses
Growing up, most of us burlesque beauties weren’t the prettiest or most popular people in class. In fact, most of us were nerds, outcasts, drama club members, art room kids, band geeks, “lesbos,” “fags,” freaks, and weirdos (all titles we are still proud to hold!). As a child, I was skinny, gangly, wore huge glasses, and didn’t know what to do with my curly hair, so I let it frizz out every which way. My dad was my hero and he is still the goofiest guy I know. He introduced me to Spike Jones, Monty Python, and the Marx Brothers.

When I started making silly tapes, and writing parodies of Shakespeare in elementary school, he was my #1 fan. My Sony Walkman saw an odd rotation of genres, ranging from (but not limited to) “Weird Al” Yankovic, Queen, Twisted Sister, jazz standards, barbershop quartets, Janis Joplin, and New Kids on the Block. The Muppets were more real and relevant to me than any characters on Beverly Hills, 90210.

I had dorky friends. In fifth grade, we got called “the Nerd Herd” by the popular kids in our class, and we didn’t mind at all. I looked up to people who were silly like me, or weird like me. I was never afraid to be myself, even when other kids didn’t understand me. My dorkiness never stopped me from thinking I deserved attention from the opposite sex, either. I was voted “class flirt” in sixth grade (though not one single person seemed to flirt back -- I mean, who could resist a gal with giant glasses whose ideal mate knew all the lyrics to “The Lumberjack Song”??).

In my early 20s, Black Cat Burlesque formed, and my life changed forever. I finally found an art form where I could express myself however dorkily or sexily I wanted, and be applauded for it. The founder, Devilicia, taught me that we can use this art form to live out our wildest fantasies, and recognize all of the oddities that inspired us. One of our first shows was a tribute to Russ Meyer, where Dev did an act with a real fish in homage to Meyer’s movie Vixen. J. Cannibal helped me push ideas further than “let’s dress up like these characters and take our clothes off.” And burlesque as a genre isn’t just about taking your clothes off, it’s about telling a story, taking the audience on a journey with you. Black Cat got a well deserved reputation for taking an act, leading the audience in one direction, and grabbing them with a twist ending. We also strove for authenticity whenever possible. If you’re gonna rip someone’s guts out on stage, they’d better look like guts – or else.

Mary as "Marko"
Through my journey as a burlesque performer, I’ve been able to portray so many characters that meant a lot to me growing up. Black Cat had a beautiful and gory “werewolf suite” where I played Little Red Riding Hood. J. Cannibal and I have a spectacularly bloody “Freddy vs. Jason” act (complete with latex face on yours truly). In 2008, we did a shadowcast of The Lost Boys, where I portrayed Marko, the vampire played by Alex Winter, a.k.a. “Bill S. Preston, Esquire” from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure…the list goes on and on. We’ve even done an epic, eight-minute act based on Sumerian mythology. Then in 2010, I hit my pinnacle of dork/fan burlesque: my Jareth act.

Mary as Jareth
There aren’t many ladies who grew up in the 80s who didn’t love Jareth the Goblin King, (played by David Bowie in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth). As a personal rule as a performer, I won’t do an act until I feel it meets my standards. I won’t just get on stage dressed as a character; I’ve got to tell a story, and then push it a little further, and further, and further, until the audience is forced to say, “What the hell is happening? This is awesome!” Jareth is by far my most popular and most requested act to date. I love it, and I love performing it. If I retired from burlesque tomorrow, I would be proud to have that act as my legacy.

Mary meets her idol, Weird Al!

In 2011, I got to perform with one of my childhood idols, “Weird Al.” It was a chance opportunity that fell in to my lap, and it was an incredible experience. Everyone in the band and crew were extremely nice, and a pleasure to work for. After the show, I hugged Al and told him that I had been a fan since I was little, and that it meant a lot to me to perform with them. The picture taken of the two of us is him saying “Awww!” and hugging me back. After the photo session, Honey Pie (of Babes in Boinkland) and I were having a drink with Jim “Kimo” West (guitar player and all around super-nice guy) and I said to him, “I really appreciate that you guys are still around. ‘Weird Al’ was MAJOR for me when I was growing up, and I found my true friends back then because we were all goofballs and weirdos, and I think what you do is really important.” He thanked me and said that the reason they are still doing it is because Al is timeless, he’s always parodying something current. He told me that a week before their Boston show, he looked up into the balcony and saw a row of 8-year-old girls holding a sign that said “We Love Weird Al!” I smiled and had a warm feeling for those girls. I was happy that they had each other, like I have my burlesque community. I was proud that there is a new generation of people who love weirdness, and aren’t afraid to admit it.

When I first came on the scene, we were swimming in a sea of burlesque revival, and we seemed to be the only weirdos in town. That is not the case anymore! I’ve had newer performers come to me and say “You guys were the first burlesque I ever saw and now I have my own troupe!” Or, “I didn’t think I liked burlesque until I saw you.” That feels amazing, and I couldn’t be prouder. In 2008 I was dubbed “Boston’s Burlesque Queen” by Lola magazine, and was featured in this year’s Halloween issue of Pin Up America magazine. I have had a long and exciting journey and it’s not over yet!

To the weirdos reading this: I want to tell you to love who you are, express yourself, and don’t be afraid. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I will continue to be a dork, “class flirt,” and a force to be reckoned with. I will challenge you and ask you to join me.

See video of Mary Widow and Honey Pie performing with Weird Al Yankovic!


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  2. This article takes me back to my own adolescence! I was not so much a dork or a geek but a big ol' book-reading, good-grade getting, school-loving nerd. I shared pictures of myself (with similar style glasses and shaggy 'do) in my Freeze Frame routine. I love that burlesque gives us the chance to celebrate our beautiful beginnings (especially the dorky ones!)

  3. Really good article! I think Al does understand how he's a figure of hope & community for the nerdy kids, having been one himself (you're not the only one who fit the "skinny, gangly, wore huge glasses, and didn’t know what to do with my curly hair" description).

    And you and Honey Pie were excellent Nirvana cheerleaders. I have some grounds for comparison, I've seen that song performed almost 50 times now. You really brought the grunge and the angst. Congratulations! I'm glad there's such good video of your Weird moment. Now I want to go to another concert!