My Intimate Interview with Burlesque Queen Jo Boobs Weldon
I’m not sure if I’m becoming a dirty old man or not. As memory serves me, I was a dirty young man but nobody ever complains about that. No, you won’t find me drooling in dark corners wearing little more than a raincoat. Been there, done that. You will find me at Duane Park and Hotel Chantelle and wherever the art of Burlesque takes me. Whether it was Dita who did it, or a sign of the times, or a result of the hard work of many people determined to preserve and expand upon this ancient art form, Burlesque is back big and I am enjoying it. One of my favorite performers/artistes is Jo Boobs Weldon. She is bringing her amazing show to Triad Theatre this Saturday. I had the pleasure to sit with Jo a couple of days ago.
I run into you a lot; you’re a friend of the family. I see you at places like Duane Park and other performance venues. I’m a fan of burlesque in this town. I’m a fan of performance art. To me, it’s the most underappreciated resource we have. Talk to me about the state of the burlesque community, and what you do to help make it better.
Burlesque has a lot of different incarnations, and that’s part of what makes it interesting but also what makes it difficult for people to know if they want to go to shows. There are neo-burlesque shows that are based in variety and contemporary culture, pop songs, that kind of thing, and there are classic shows that are more like what you saw, with jazz standards and showgirls. So there’s a lot. The community actually came out of the Coney Island shows. The Coney Island side show’s been having Burlesque at the Beach for fifteen years.
Is it still there?
It’s still going. There’s a museum upstairs and there’s a sideshow downstairs. They have burlesque shows there two nights a week during the season.
Now, who goes to Coney Island during the season?
Everybody! It’s packed every night.
With a cool crowd?
An awesome crowd, a great crowd of mixed ages and interests..
Sounds amazing. Now, let’s talk about the Pink Light Burlesque.
It’s a program we launched in October which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month: free burlesque classes for breast cancer patients and survivors. Basically, I’m training breast cancer patients to perform burlesque at a great level. You know, I want them to be really good, feel really good about their numbers, and we’re doing our first show December 4th.
Where will that be?
That will be at the Wild Project. Next year we’re doing it in several cities, and what will be our goal is that we’ll all have a Pink Light Burlesque show featuring survivor performers the same night in twelve different cities.
That’s amazing. And Wild Project is located?
Wild Project is located on Fifth St. between Avenues A and B.
What else are you doing around town?
I’m pretty excited. This week we’re doing Gotham Burlesque at the Triad Theatre on 72nd St. between Columbus and Amsterdam. It’s one of my favorite shows, a beautiful stage, really fun. It’s Gary Beeber, he did Dirty Martini and the New Burlesque. He’s been producing a show for uptown audiences, so the audience doesn’t know what to expect. It’s really fun to perform burlesque for an audience less familiar with it.
I can imagine. You’re also very active in the New York School of Burlesque.
Yes, also I run the New York School of Burlesque. I founded it.
What exactly is that?
Well, it started out as a few workshops, and now we run several classes a week with up to four different teachers a week, and when people from out-of-town or out of the country are in town, we have teachers from all over the world. Plus, I’ve been traveling all over the world teaching, so I’ve taught in New Zealand, Australia. I taught people in wheelchairs in Liverpool, I taught In London and all over the US. And I’m teaching in Italy next year.
Is this a spice-up-the-marriage kind of thing, or is it real people wanting to be burlesque dancers?
Ya know, spice up the marriage isn’t the goal, but I did just have someone tell me she became more orgasmic after one of the classes because of learning how to touch herself, and how to have fun and feel comfortable in her body. She was actually a breast cancer patient who had felt sort of alienated from her body, and because burlesque is playful and sexy, an element of mischief. It’s not so overtly aggressive. It’s just playful and sexy at the same time so people feel lighthearted about their sexuality.
What do you want to tell people about burlesque that they just don’t understand?
Well, I want people to know that it’s a great show where the audience is there for the fun. They get to go and express the fun that they’re having, they can yell and holler, whether it’s a glamorous show or a more sideshow-oriented number.
In the movies, you’ve got Marilyn Monroe and so many others being the showgirl. The showgirl life is portrayed as sometimes sad and sometimes difficult and sometimes really wonderful. But it’s really a commitment to decide you’re going to go down this path. How did you decide to do this? How did you make the decision to live this lifestyle, this off the beaten path, over the edge, type of lifestyle?
When I was a little kid I was really attracted to pictures of burlesque women, because they were very fierce. They didn’t look as put together and contrived and old and packaged as women in movies. They looked like self-created loose cannons. Undomesticated women. I wanted to be one of those, so I pursued the path. And it worked out!
When have you regretted it? There must have been times when you said, "what did I do?" Are there midlife crisis after midlife crisis?
I used to every night and then panic and go get a job, but I’ve stopped doing that. When I get frustrated I remind myself that if I don’t do this I’ll have to go get a job. Most artists and performing artists struggle. If you don’t make it big you don’t make it at all; it’s a big struggle. There’s no multi-million dollar contract to be had in burlesque. You’re not necessarily aiming to not succeed and prosper, but you know that you’re not going to make movie star money. You know that you’re not going to make rock star money. The challenges are investing in the future, like health insurance. The same things that a lot of people struggle with.
Back in the sixties, women became stewardesses or secretaries because they wanted to meet men. Is being a burlesque dancer a good way to meet men?
It’s a good way to meet women! (laughs) And hang out backstage with the women. What I do enjoy is that men that come to the shows and men that work in burlesque tend to be very open to the kind of women that enjoy doing burlesque. It sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it hasn’t been true in every business.
Are showgirls or burlesque girls, are they mostly, let’s use this word in quotes, "good girls," or good and bad as in every sport?
Mostly girls with a lot of curiosity and very open minds. You meet a lot of people who aren’t, but you meet a lot of people who are players or, if not, kinky. They’re attracted to things like nude beaches, that kind of sauciness.
Is there a hole in all of them?
Not literally. I mean, is there something missing and they’re trying to express themselves, whether it’s the way they look, or the way they feel about it.
They’re filling holes.
So there is a hole, but they’re filling it. The same hole as everyone else?
Maybe, yeah. There’s sort of a hole in the social fabric for women who are playing with roles instead of fulfilling them, and they sort of fill that hole.
Are you different as a person on stage than you are sitting here with me?
Not that different.
Are most girls different?
Some of them are. Some of them feel that a totally different person exists on stage. They feel really different once they put the costume on, and some of them actually have characters, stage names. Jo Weldon’s my name, but some of them will have a character, some will have an accent, or a consistent kind of costume, or a consistent kind of action. but it’s not unusual for burlesque performers to feel more like themselves. I feel like I’m expressing myself. The makeup I put on isn’t to hide myself; it’s to express myself more fully. The costume isn’t to hide my body, but to make it more visible. They’re expressing themselves by becoming more visible.
Okay, Jo Boobs.
Tell me about the name.
I used to work with Whitney, and her husband is Joe Coleman, and people would call her while I was there and she would say, ‘Jo’s here,’ and they’d say "Tell him hello."And then she’d say, ‘No, Jo Boobs.’ So Jo Boobs really means not Joe Coleman.
Some people would say that’s an extremely sexist name, or something stupid like that. Am I supposed to look at your boobs when you say it?
You better. (Laughs) One of the things about it is that when I started performing, there wasn’t a burlesque scene, and I wasn’t choosing a burlesque stage name, just a few people thought it would be funny and started introducing me as Jo Boobs, and I just thought it doesn’t matter because it’s only for the night, and then it became my stage name and then it started messing up people’s spam filters. But it’s typical of that generation of performers that started in the nineties, that our names don’t sound as much like burlesque names. We just went with what people started calling us, or nicknames that came up, or a character for the night. I don’t know if Jo Boobs is what I would’ve picked. I wanted to be called Demi Mond. And my old name was Tanya Hyde. I did a lot of S&M and fire acts.
Fabulous. So you said you have a boyfriend now. Before you were involved, were you a hunter or prey?
I have won the award two years in a row for Biggest Cougar in Burlesque, and some people find that term insulting but I find it amusing. No, I’m not really a hunter; people ask me out.
Relationships: how impossible are they? What kind of guy has his girlfriend go up on stage, take her clothes off, and seduce an entire audience?
Hopefully a guy that’ll do the same. Johnny’s also a performer.
Well, that makes it easier, but is that how it has to be?
If anybody has a problem with what I do, I can’t date them. I don’t try. I don’t find that it narrows the field, I find that it makes it easier to find people with whom I’m more compatible because I already know.
It eliminates the crap.
Yeah, guys who are like, ‘I love burlesque, I’m into what you do,’ or however they describe it, then I think it’s a good start. We now know a lot about each other.
What have we not talked about?
So you have a book out, it’s available on Kindle now.
Also available on Amazon from Harper Collins. Oddly, it’s the first ever book written and published on how to do burlesque. There was never another one.
What’s it called?
The Burlesque Handbook.
By Jo Boobs Weldon?
Just Jo Weldon. I’ve been publishing under that name for a long time.
Well, I loved this. One more time, what is the next event you’re doing here?
This Saturday, November 5th, at the Triad Theatre.
[Photo by Scott Shuster]