It might strike you as odd that Cheltenham has a Burlesque Queen at all. After all, we’re a far cry from Las Vegas, Broadway or even Soho. So what brought Missy Malone to Cheltenham all the way from Scotland? “Love really; I came here because of my boyfriend. I was brought up and studied in Edinburgh and while I was at the university I sort of established myself as a burlesque act. At that time there were only three reputable clubs in the whole of the UK; one in London, one in Glasgow and luckily, one in Edinburgh. That was seven years ago and the circuit has grown a lot since then.”
But what is burlesque? Is it variety, is it strip tease is it music hall, is it seedy? Missy told me what it meant to her. “It’s my passion. It’s very much an indulgence for me. When I was younger it was acting I wanted to do but I got the opportunity to join a circus group for a three week workshop and that sent me off in a different direction. The woman running it offered to train me for a year, so at the age of sixteen I dropped out of school and ran away to join the circus.” she laughed. “What I liked was that I was in control; there was no director, no script. I devised my own act, chose my own music and made my own costume.
“Because I dressed a bit 50s with high heels and stuff, one of the girls at the circus said I was like a burlesque dancer. I had no idea what that was so I looked it up on the internet and immediately I wanted to incorporate it in what I was doing. I was still only sixteen or maybe seventeen so I legally couldn’t perform that type of act in public.
“As soon as I turned 18 I started working in clubs and could be more risqué but I never do anything that is rude. I am pleased for my family to see me working.”
The more I spoke to her the more I realised Missy considered burlesque was very little to do with sex and I asked her if there was a fence built between sex entertainment and the theatre, which side would she come down on? “Oh, theatre.” She answered without a pause. “It’s all to do with glamour, costume choice and there is even some characterisation in the comedy routines. I have about twelve routines and in half of them I hardly remove anything, certainly a lot less than people are expecting.”
A couple of years ago there was, or maybe there still is, a craze for belly dancing. And it was done as much as anything as a health and fitness activity. Were women taking up burlesque dancing now? “In the last few years everyone is a burlesque dancer. Everyone’s a pin-up girl and you get amateur nights in clubs. It’s really taken off, especially in London.”
But I suggested that of lot of these amateur nights must be a bit seedy because there was more to being a burlesque artiste than getting up on stage and taking your knickers off. “Absolutely. That’s why I wanted to do it. To show that burlesque could and should be good. I didn’t want people who knew me going to bad shows and saying ‘ah, so that’s what you do.’ I wanted them to see a really good, professional show and that’s what I offer.”
Missy works all over Europe. She has an agent in Italy and works a lot there and was off to Paris soon after I spoke to her. That, I suppose, is what you’d imagine.
But Cheltenham? Maybe I don’t get out enough but I wasn’t aware of a burlesque scene or anything like it in Cheltenham. “Well there wasn’t when I got here but within a few months of arriving I heard of a club that had opened called The Lollipop Lounge who I used to work with and now there are a few other places.”
I wanted to lead the conversation in a slightly different direction. I had been a little surprised at the show that some of the performers were, how can I say it, not in the first bloom of youth and some of them were quite, well…large. Did Missy not think the public might expect more conventionally glamorous dancers? “I don’t think burlesque was ever about that. Women are beautiful whatever their size and age.
“I think that’s one of the reasons it’s popular because it is a celebration of women as they are, perfect or imperfect. There are obviously elements that men enjoy but women enjoy it as much, if not more. In my shows I have dancers of all types and therefore each woman in the audience will have something to relate to. As I said, it’s a celebration of women, not something to intimidate them with.”
But was she doing the shows for women? “I’m doing them for women as much as men, but most of all I’m doing them for myself. When I was 16 or 17 I was very insecure about my body, I thought nobody would want to see it. And even when I started performing I still wasn’t 100% confident. Then I had my first professional photos done and I was able to look at myself quite objectively and I thought, ‘if I saw that woman, I think she was fab’ and my body wasn’t what I believed it was.
And burlesque helped me with that. It supported me and made me feel good about myself. The compliments I’ve had and the work that I’ve done in the last six years make me feel glamorous and I don’t worry about things anymore. I think I’m beautiful in a different was and it’s entirely burlesque that’s done that for me.”
But it’s not just the dancing, it’s the whole thing. That’s right. I studied costume design at uni and when I finish performing I’d like a shop, a shop selling vintage clothes but which also includes repairs and making custom pieces. Or I’d be just as happy working in the wardrobe of a theatre somewhere. I quite like the idea of being a mad old bat in a back room somewhere regaling everyone with her memories. I want to perform as much as I can at the moment but in about five years I will want to do all the family stuff, have children. That’s when I’ll open my shop.
If you missed the last show you can catch Missy Malone at The Playhouse in Bath Road on 16 April next year.