Porn’s Got Nothing on Burlesque

The titillating community gets ‘Exposed’ in filmmaker Beth B’s new doc on the resurgence of the old body-baring, cultural-boundary-shattering tradition, which she dishes on in this Q&A.

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Who doesn’t like a good old-fashioned burlesque act? The burlesque shows, which were variety shows—a wild human circus filled with acrobats and singers, magicians and comics—were best known for their funny, shocking, risqué, and erotic female performers, who teased the audience with a little leg, sometimes more. The first burlesque performers specialized in innuendo and flashes of a demurely stockinged leg peeking out through ankle-length skirts. As weary Americans began to shake off the puritanical remnants of the Victorian era at the turn of the 20th century, vaudeville performances began to be peppered with these semi-scandalous dances and routines—they called these “burlesque,” from the Italian term, opere burlesche.


In 1907, Ziegfield’s Follies opened in New York, and the art form evolved, now becoming even more risqué: There, the burlesque was a nearly nude showgirl revue, which, not surprisingly, played to packed houses for nearly 25 years. In the 1920s, alcohol had been outlawed, but sexual mores had loosened. Josephine Baker—also known as the “Black Pearl”—began her career in St. Louis, and moved to New York City, where she became one of the highest-paid showgirls on the Great White Way. Like so many Black American artists, she found even more fame and success in France, becoming a star of the Folies Bergères. Gypsy Rose Lee, another 1920s success story, was said to have brought the “tease” into “striptease,” with her bawdy approach to peeling. Lee had aspirations off-stage as well and went on to write a best-selling memoir, which inspired the iconic Broadway musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable.


Burlesque really bloomed in the 1950s and 60s, with performers like Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, and the late Dixie Evans, shimmering out of sparkly gowns to grindhouse sounds, but by the early 70s, burlesque was on its last legs. Why wait for someone to dance their way into near-nudity when there were all-nude strip clubs and peepshows—and for the price of a movie ticket you could watch the Devil go deep into Miss Jones? Burlesque went on an extended hiatus until a retro-revival in the 1990s sparked a renewed interest in the art form.


Today, the most famous burlesque star is Dita Von Teese, who is in part responsible for its newfound popularlity. There are annual burlesque conventions in Vegas. Nearly every major city has at least one burlesque troupe. And perhaps it would be best not to speak of the Christina Aguilera–Cher 2010 film, Burlesque, out of respect for the art form.


At a time when most mainstream strip clubs adhere to a uniform undress code of implants, spray tans, and fully waxed nether regions, neo-burlesque celebrates all body types. There are conventionally beautiful women like Julie Atlas Muz, but also untraditionally handsome men like Julie’s husband, Mat Fraser, who was born with phocomelia of both arms, due to his mother having taken thalidomide during her pregnancy. A bodacious broad like World Famous Bob might never have gotten chosen to go onstage at Scores, but at venues like the Slipper Room, the crowd roars when she hits the mark.


While burlesque still mainly flies under the radar, its gender-flexible acceptance of different body types and sexualities, along with its relaxed, funny approach to eroticism makes it very appealing to feminists, queers, gays, straights, and yes, even the occasional frat boy.


And this week, the glittery, naked, bouncing bodies of burlesque are celebrated on the big screen with the release of filmmaker Beth B’s Exposed, a documentary about what goes on onstage and off.


Beth B is best known for her part in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Cinema of Transgression, which also spawned such arthouse filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch, Nick Zedd, and Richard Kern. Over the years, she’s also expanded her artistic scope to sculpture, photography, and media installations. Beth and her mother—the fantastic painter, Ida Applebroog—may be among the few if only mother-and-daughter duos to both have work in the permanent collection at MOMA.

Whether she’s filming Lydia Lunch masturbating or filling the walls of Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery with closeup photographs of vulvas, Beth’s work has always had a sexual edge. But while Exposed has a premise that sounds extremely sexual, it goes way beyond cheeky nudity and is actually an extremely moving, personal film. I’ve always loved Beth’s films (check out young Viggo Mortenson in Salvation!), but Exposed may be her finest work yet. We caught up with her by phone to get the skinny on what drove her to spend seven years of her life filming, editing, and Kickstarting this movie.


Exposed will be screening at IFC from March 14, through the 20th, with live performances at every showing. The film rolls out national in April. 

Compared to your raw early work, burlesque seems tame. What drew you to this art form?

I felt like it had these very strong threads that related back to my early work, and the transgressive work that was being done in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Not just sexual, but sexual, political, and social. I haven’t seen that being dealt with in 20 years. Or at least I hadn’t been in touch with it in 20 years. Instead of alienating and shocking, out of some kind of confused sexuality and rage, these performers follow some similar themes but use a much more seductive approach.
It’s also rare that you find a film about a scene that is still alive. It’s always these historical documents—we look back twenty or thirty years ago and the scene is already over. I feel like I’ve caught the scene at its apex.

One of the most touching storylines in ‘Exposed’ is the love story between Julie Atlas Muz and her husband, Mat Fraser. Did they get together after you started filming, seven long years ago?

Their relationship had already started, but I think Mat and Julie discovered the comfort of creating theater about themselves as a couple throughout the course of the filming. I think that’s why it’s such a touching and tender story. We see them struggling with the same things that all of us are struggling with, except, as Mat says, “we both have these big egos.” Personally, I’ve had many relationships where, if you’re working with someone in an artistic manner, how the professional versus the personal manifests is sometimes really challenging. What I love about the story of Mat and Julie is that they’re so committed to each other and their artistic vision is enmeshed. They accept each others’ vulnerability and flaws and use that as material for their work.

New York City has no shortage of burlesque acts—what drew you to these particular performers?

I filmed a lot of performers, and after about a year, the characters that I was most interested in began to emerge. They tended to be the ones doing the more social/political/sexual-oriented performances. I wanted the film to be a transcendent experience … an interchange between the performers and the audience. One of the most important things that all of these particular performers bring to the stage is a sense of inclusiveness. These are people who are crossing boundaries—gender, sexual, political, performance, and intellectual boundaries.

The performances you capture from people like World Famous Bob, Mat and Julie, Tigger, Bunny Love and the others are fantastic, but where the movie gets phenomenal is during the off-stage moments. How did you manage to get them to trust you and open up?

You can’t just enter someone’s private world and expect them to open up to you. So I think you need time to gain trust. It’s like any relationship. It’s the difference between revealing and exposing. When you go to a show, you see a million cameras. Some of them were so burnt out by these promises about people making a film about them and then flaking, that they were reticent to open the door. Or some opened it a little crack and then slammed it shut. I absolutely respect people’s boundaries, but I was also very tenacious. I felt like their stories were so important that I was going to be patient. Especially World Famous Bob, who I love so dearly. She was reluctant to let me film backstage, but then I got some suggestions from some of the other performers. They told me to not use a camera person and just hold the camera myself. I went back to my Super 8 roots, and bought myself a tiny HD camera with a mike. I became the crew. That made a huge difference because with just the two of us there, the camera disappeared at a point.

I knew the movie would be fun (which it was) but it’s also very moving. I didn’t expect to identify so heavily—why do you think that we do feel that deep connection?

There was a lot of pain, struggle and a perseverance to live in a place of their own acceptance. All the performers are struggling with that, just as we in the audience are on similar journeys. It’s all about self-acceptance and liberation of mind and body and trying to break out of the mold that society says we’re “supposed” to fit into. I think that’s what it makes the connection. That’s what makes it accessible. Their stories are the same as ours on a human level. It’s just about being.

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