If you were to ask a number of contemporary burlesque performers who they considered to be among the original queens of the genre, British music hall star Lydia Thompson would invariably be mentioned. Often considered the true original queen of burlesque, she and her British Blondes troupe lit up the stages of Victorian music halls and then Broadway with their bawdy, sensational revues. Not only did they have a huge impact on live entertainment in their day, but they also questioned the very position of women in society, contributing to some astonishing historical changes in attitudes towards women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Who was Lydia Thompson?
British performer Lydia Thompson was one of the most famous music hall stars of her time. Initially making a name for herself in the UK in the mid-nineteenth century, she went on to pioneer burlesque in America in the late 1860s. Her mixture of dance, comedy, satire and parody combined to make her an outstanding and multi-skilled performer. Her boldness in dressing her female co-stars in more revealing costumes than was generally considered decent in the day, as well as putting women into the roles of men, turned theatrical and societal values of the time upside-down.
How did she get into burlesque?
Born and raised in London, Lydia left the family home by the time she was 14 years old, becoming a professional ballet dancer at Her Majesty’s Theatre. She then went on to work in pantomime, burlettas and finally burlesque (of the traditional Victorian ilk, as opposed to 20th century striptease burlesque). She quickly made a name for herself and was soon touring Europe as a highly-acclaimed dancer, before she even turned 20. In 1868, at the age of 30, she set sail for New York, where her own versions of British burlesques became a massive hit with American audiences.
What style of burlesque did she perform?
It’s important to remember that the original definition of ‘burlesque’ was ‘to parody or make fun of’ and that striptease as we know it did not become a part of the genre until the early 20th century. It was this traditional style of burlesque which Lydia and her troupe performed. Satirical plays and musicals, with comedy woven through them and a dash of societal commentary, offered audiences a break from the drudgery of everyday life and a chance to poke fun at those in positions of power.
Some interesting facts about Lydia Thompson
*Lydia performed a variety of roles in her burlesque shows, but was often hailed for her portrayals of the leading male characters. She was praised in particular for her good looks, wonderful singing voice and charisma onstage.
*Her daughter Zeffie Agnes Lydia Tilbury followed in her mother’s showbiz footsteps, becoming a successful actress first on the stages in London, and later in the movies.
*In 1870, Lydia and her husband were arrested and fined following an altercation with a reporter who questioned the moral standing of Lydia’s dancers. It was reported that the duo held the reporter at gunpoint and then horsewhipped him. The incident actually helped garner more publicity for Lydia and her British Blondes, gaining them a greater popular following.
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