Burlesque might seem like the perfect career. Forget a boring old 9 to 5: suits, offices, meetings, customer service and the humdrum of a ‘normal’ job. Instead, you picture glitz, glamour, getting paid to dress up in beautiful costumes and exciting travels to exotic places. Sounds like the dream, right? However, all is not as it seems. Academy directors Gypsy Charms and Viva Misadventure have both been working in the cabaret entertainment industry for over 15 years, and our instructors are all professional performers too – we know how much hard work goes into making it work as a job. You can forget weekends off and getting to kick back when you come in from work in the evening. In fact, you can probably write off having your next full day off for the next six months (at least!). Self-employment of any kind requires a dedication to and love of your chosen career, capable of carrying you through and motivating you even in the hardest times.
So we thought we’d put together a little guide for those considering burlesque as a potential career and try to give you a general feel for the reality of what it’s like being a working burlesque performer in the 21st century.
If you’re a newbie, our best advice is don’t give up the day job just yet. Burlesque has grown in popularity over the last decade and whilst there are more gigs and shows, there are a lot more performers on the scene too, so more competition for bookings. You’ll also find that when you start out, you’ll probably just be getting expenses and perhaps a small fee. Keep in mind that anything you earn at this stage will probably be going back into your burlesque fund to help improve costumes, take dance lessons, learn other relevant skills and so on. You won’t be making money right out of the gate, so if it’s a get-rich quick scheme you’re looking for, burlesque ain’t it. It can take years to establish yourself enough to command a reasonable fee and start earning a decent wage, so at this stage you’ll be doing it out of a love for burlesque, not for the money.
It’s fairly safe to say that burlesque performing alone is a not a full-time career for anyone. Even Dita Von Teese, although world-renowned for her opulent shows, has a number of other businesses on the side (burlesque-related of course) which provide additional revenue. She models, has her own lingerie and stockings line, has released several books and DVDs. All of these things combine to create her ‘burlesque empire’. Obviously Dita has managed to step out of the ‘underground’ world of burlesque and into the mainstream limelight, which has given her career a massive boost.
However, if you look at some of the other big names in burlesque, you’ll see that they too have a number of projects on the go, as well as performing.
Chicago-based Michelle L’Amour (Miss Exotic World 2005) runs her own dance school Studio L’Amour, as well as producing the infamous ‘Naked Girls Reading’ events and also has a line of her own merchandise. Similarly, New York’s Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon runs the New York School of Burlesque and is known worldwide for her work as an author and educator. In 2010 she released her popular book ‘The Burlesque Handbook’. These ladies epitomise a successful burlesque career and their dedication is apparent throughout their work.
If you’re serious about making a career out of burlesque, you need to think about other ways to bring in a little extra cash; performing alone just won’t cut it. Performers often teach workshops, write blogs, make costumes or accessories, run events and the some of the bigger names have managed to release their own successful commercial lines. It’s all about building your reputation and brand, finding your niche and capitalising on your successes. Be prepared for working long hours, late nights, missing out on social engagements and more, as you will find that a career in burlesque (or any kind of showbiz) will come to dominate your life. When times get tough, remind yourself how lucky you are to be doing something you truly love for a job because that’s what’s at the heart of it for successful performers worldwide: we do it for the love of burlesque.
For more on starting a career in burlesque, check out our 5-part blog series ‘Getting into Burlesque‘.