Dirty Martini

Dirty Martini: Show Time

After a long night of partying, I pulled myself out of bed, plopped down on my sofa and popped in the video my roommate had played for ambiance the night before. Glancing from the dirty glasses, bottles and cans strewn about the apartment after our housewarming party, my eyes slowly focused on the whirling image on the screen.

She was in a satin bikini swiveling her hips and tossing her long curls around. A black and white image moving in a sort of jitterbug meets ‘come hither’ sexy dance. Before I could even ask myself what I was watching, a woman dressed in what could have been red or black velvet came strutting out from behind a curtain. She was blonde, buxom and so in control. She seemed to have done her show a million times, and this was one million four. The thought came to me like a bolt from the sky. This is it! This is relevant! A black and white world where all women were desirable, kitschy and glamorous. Lots of skin colors, lots of body shapes and what they had in common was dance and nudity. I watched the entire video start to finish that day and then went back the next day for more.

The cult section of Kim’s Video was a perfect collection of what I became very familiar with. That green and black spiral with old synthesizer * wha * wha *wha sound leading to a jazzy ’60’s song by The Hell Raisers. When I heard that song, I knew inspiration would follow. That first video was called “The Can Can Follies” and the theme song was courtesy of Something Weird Video. Needless to say, this was before the internet was a vast tumble of vintage and shock imagery. Video stores were still how most folks watched movies at home and Kim’s had everything. Organized pretentiously by director and sometimes genre, I would spend hours pouring over their pre-code Hollywood films and cult sections. There were more than one cult genre on display there. I had a simple plan, start on the left of the rack and make my way to the right. Renting three at a time, I would fast forward through the nudie cuties lolling around by a pool naked or climbing through a rocky forest topless. I was more interested in the costumes than the body. Here, nudity was a “Ta-da” moment at the end of a show. Watching these films was a balm for me. Regular television featured an army of Baywatch bodies. Impossibly small with big lollipop heads and maybe some fake tits popped on for extra appeal. There were no hips unless a wagging finger was next to them. Anna Nicole Smith was a long ago memory not yet to resurface and be chastised. Even the Marilyn impersonators looked like Tori Spelling. The world needed these vintage vixens, but where did they go? I thought, maybe if I emulated them, I would get to meet them someday!

As I was formulating my plan to supplement my contemporary dance life with burlesque, I dreamed of a world where I could be the drag goddess. This world would be for women and those who love them. Not exclusive but definitely not for the mainstream. After I had rehearsed and performed my first fan dance without the Fortunettes’ foam body suit and cartoon hair, I started practicing tassel twirling in earnest. I wore my under costume to Wigstock, an anything goes day long drag explosion headed and hosted by the legendary Lady Bunny.

At Wigstock, the crowd was just as much on display as the show and I used that six hours of wandering from queen to queen to work on tassel tricks. Mostly no one even noticed except one pervy guy who kept trying to get pictures of my tits. My first solo was with a one off show, Tex and Trixie’s Vaudeville show. I was obsessed with performing burlesque after this. One day, I sat down to read Time Out NY and noticed a blurb that said “The Red Vixen”, vaudeville and burlesque show. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I immediately called the contact number. There were no Brown Paper Tickets in those days! David Marquis answered the phone and very politely asked me what my act was like. I explained that I did a 1940’s style fan dance and he booked me for an “audition” – an unpaid spot in the next week’s lineup. I responded with a delightful and resounding Yes! It never occurred to me that anything unusual would happen, it was a show and it sounded like I would fit in perfectly.

When I arrived in the “dressing room”- an ante-room leading to the public toilet- I met the proprietress Selena Vixen. She was a very sweet and stressed out Australian lady trying to get her look together, make a set list and make sure people paid to get in. As I got to know her better, it would be many times that she would scream “The show’s cancelled tonight! There’s no way we can do this!” I started to recognize this as more of a battle cry than a whimper of defeat. The show would always go on; every Sunday night whether it was packed or just a few folks scattered about the cocktail tables.

It’s in that dressing room and on those go go platforms that I came to know Julie Atlas Muz and Tigger. Bonnie Dunn and I didn’t meet for a long time because we were both classic fan dancers. She was straight from Bourbon Street and I was from down the street. I walked to the Flamingo East from my East Village apartment all done up and ready to roll. Tigger and Julie thought I was from some other city, maybe Philadelphia or 42nd Street in a time machine, but I was hiding in their midst: Tigger, an actor and Julie from my world of the contemporary dance. I was so excited to find a downtown dancer in this strange world and felt that we had something in common. She recruited me for Penny Arcade’s show Bad Reputation and I recruited her to be a Fortunette.

During this time, I earned the nickname Dirty. It became more than just a stage name because that’s what Julie called me when I got her on the phone. Later she would tell me that she could only remember one name at a time for any one person. Red Vixen was a fun mix of music, striptease, performance art and clowning. One night, I followed Velocity Chyalld in the line-up. She had an industrial flashlight and some candle wax in a moody and beautiful performance piece, but unfortunately no tarp. A suggestion I heartily declared after slipping and falling in her residual wax, ostrich fans akimbo. After my hearty recovery, the next performer was Dame Darcy with some spoken word and a live band that seemed to set up magically. I don’t ever remember a host in those days. I just have images of Julie go go dancing with her disembodied hand as she found the voice to develop her iconic number. She operated that puppet so deftly that I was convinced it was a mechanical prop. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered her magic trick was store bought.

The Red Vixen was modeled after the long running early burlesque/strip club The Blue Angel created by its mysterious innovator Uta Hanna. After every act, the performers roamed through the cocktail tables with a tip bucket. Tipping was mandatory and was paid in addition to the cover charge and drinks. It wasn’t a pricey night out as the cover was low and drinks at that time were cheaper, but it leant the night an air of debauchery and luxury. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing this! $50 cash and all the tips from my bucket. I wanted to come back every week. In fact, no one explained to me that I wasn’t supposed to return every Sunday.

After the show, I had rave reviews from the producers who enthusiastically asked for me to come back. So the following Sunday I showed up blonde and be-pastied only to be told that I was not booked. They let me perform anyway for tips. I was beyond thrilled to do it. I sauntered back to the dressing toilet with a blue silk travel kit from the ’60’s that I had found in the garbage. I hung the kit on the back of the door, as it scrolled down it unfurled to reveal separate compartments for pasties, eyelash glue, mascara, hair brushes and bobby pins. Just the essentials. Apparently this made a big impression on Julie who thought this case was extremely professional.

This is how they must do things in… “Philadelphia” or where ever. I kept coming back to this strange new dressing room world every other week until I knew the characters and bartenders pretty well always arriving completely done. As far as anyone knew, I just woke up looking like a stripper Marilyn Mae Mansfield West and my birth name was Dirty. Until one day, I received a phone call from the lighting designer at Pink Inc. I had worked with Leonel and traveled with him to foreign countries, but we hadn’t socialized much outside of Pink Inc’s studio. He said he met someone I knew (a one night stand the night before) and she was performing that night at Flamingo East. Would I go with him to see her perform? It was my week off and I nearly dropped the phone when I heard the name Julie Atlas Muz. I knew her well and I jumped at the chance to watch this lady perform. I said “Leo, you’re in trouble” she’s incredible.

That evening I came to the show out of costume with my long brown hair, modern dress and light day makeup. When Julie saw me, she said to herself “who IS that woman with the guy I slept with last night?” Only the bartender recognized me. Julie eventually married Leo and she and I became very close.

Red Vixen came to close within a few years. I was without a regular burlesque show, but I was constantly booked in the strangest and most wonderful gay clubs. At that time, when the world had forgotten the strip queens of old, gay men intrinsically knew the genre of burlesque, showgirls and MGM musicals. I fit in like a slightly obtuse puzzle piece. My first regular gay nightclub gig was at a leather bar called The Lure. I had three numbers under my belt at that point; a red ostrich feather fan dance, my balloon ballet and a shadow strip lip synching number. The sweet producers of the trendy leather night, “Pork”, wanted a 1940’s feel for their monthly party. They built a sturdy multi-level stage for me when I refused to dance on a torture rack with some plywood thrown on top.

Arriving at the club that night, I found that the aesthetic was more Vietnam prison than the 1940’s USO experience I expected. None the less, I breezed easily past the door man offering a friendly hello. The bartender was bare-chested in leather short shorts and had rat traps dangling from his nipples. He looked pretty frightening to me, but when he saw me, he sprang to life practically lifting right out of his Doc Martens with excitement. “Helllllllloooooooo Miss Martini!! Oh, we’ve been so looking forward to seeing your show!” The dressing area was in the basement filled with giant industrial cans of tomato soup and mannequin parts, crepe paper and saw horses. I gamely put on my pointe shoes as a few friends helped me blow up my balloons. One was my favorite drag performer, Girlina, who happened to be dating my roommate at the time so they came to support me with a few random friends of ours. I was star struck as they fluttered around me primping, tying off red balloons and offering advice. When I hit the stage, there was a strange silence. The lights were bright in a very dark room and I could barely see the audience. I heard murmurs over my music as I danced and posed. Then, so clearly I heard “she’s on pointe” from the back of the room and the crowd exploded in screaming and applause.

All it took was one leather daddy to accept me and I was off to an amazing start! I returned to the Lure seasonally, like a spring fairy or winter snow queen. Every show went sort of the same way; friendly bartenders chatting and giving me photo prints from the previous shows, leather daddies posing masculine and not so secretly loving the femininity I offered. That club and others in that NYC gay world offered me a different kind of exposure and opportunities.


I posed for the cover of a record album with the producers of Pork as they were well known in the world of fine art photography. The nightclub legend Lady Bunny was the reason I met and shot with Karl Lagerfeld in 2010. Many of the nightlife impresarios I have worked with have grown in stature from when I worked with them. The queen of New York Club life, Suzanne Bartsch continues to hire me for the oddest performances and installations for which I am grateful.

Around 1999, along came a woman from Los Angeles who would change the face of New York Burlesque as we knew it. Boy did we party like it was 1999 too. Her name is Kate Valentine, worked with a troupe in Los Angeles called The Velvet Hammer burlesque. It was a sumptuous show featuring a live band dressed in satin and turbans called the Swingin’ Swamis along with fabulous sets and costumes and always presented in a historic theater. I heard about her when Julie and Tigger had told me that they were in a play featuring some burlesque and variety acts. I went to see what it was all about and although I don’t remember the plot, I loved the variety acts within the show. I remember meeting Raquel Cion after the show. She played a moody French chanteuse. She had a powerful voice and presence and, off stage, an upbeat personality that I clicked with immediately. She introduced me to Kate and like magic we were all a part of her new variety show, The VaVaVoom Room. She created a well curated weekly variety show with burlesque acts, magic, a Cab Calloway impersonator, apache dancing, comedy, circus acts, one man bands and a guy named “Mr. Spoons”. Most of the acts from the old Red Vixen came over to the show and it remained our home, the best venue to put the polish on future “signature” acts.

The audience was packed in jazz club style in tight long tables where they had cocktail service and some deep cushioned booths lining the walls. They were a perfect burlesque audience. Not sober enough to be quiet, but not too drunk to be inattentive. The VaVaVoom Room ran at the Fez in New York and then eventually a San Francisco residency that we all enjoyed at the Plush Room in the York Hotel. As Miss Astrid, a one-eyed somber Weimar German hostess, Kate gave the night a hip and sexy feel. A strong and in-control uber vixen steering the madness and always ending the evening with her rendition of “Is that all there is”. The audience would end the night with their table’s votive candles held high swaying and singing along.

Kate was the first to mention a festival that was to be held celebrating the new burlesque called “Tease-o-rama”. At that time in New York, I could count all of the burlesque performers on one hand so I wasn’t quite sure what this mystery show was going to be all about. We held a fundraiser to counter the cost of renting a van and a cute cottage in New Orleans for the weekend. We stuffed the van full of costumes, wore matching outfits for the entire trip and drove 26 straight hours to see what kind of burlesque the rest of the nation thought they were doing. The answer was “wow, a lot of burlesque.”

This was where I first met Dita VonTeese and Catherine D’Lish who performed two incredible duos together: dueling champagne glasses and a pink satin boudoir fantasy. We were wowed by Torchy Taboo from Atlanta performing a tiki extravaganza and the Gun Street Girls from Seattle featuring punk girl gang realness. I remember being approached on the first day of the festival by illustrator Greg Theakston who asked me what would present at the show. I had never even imagined that there were others performing in this new performance genre. When I naively answered “burlesque!” he said “everyone here does that!” That really made my head spin. Sure enough, after seeing the shows at Tease-o-rama everyone WAS doing burlesque in some form or another. It was the very beginning of a new national sense of a scene. The show and the Yahoo discussion group that followed formed the base of a new community of performers and enthusiasts. Mainly women who were hell bent for showbiz and had strong aesthetics and opinions. Those discussions are still archived online and are very interesting to read. Many of the same topics are discussed vehemently today.