BY: JESSICA BEUKER
American Burlesque shows first became popular in the 1860s. Featuring lewd jokes and female striptease, this genre of variety show perfectly blended satire, performance art, music and adult entertainment. Performers would wear elaborate and flamboyant costumes and often had a gimmick – whether that be fire breathing, knife play or contortion – to enhance their performance. It was colourful, it was edgy, it was mesmerizing – and you couldn’t look away.
“I was in burlesque for 20 years. I got started in burlesque, I joined a carnival – Amusements of America – and at that time they used to have girly shows. It was like a travelling burlesque theatre, they had comics and stuff like that, and girls that stood out front and they got guys to come into the theatres. So when that was over they told me that everyone went to the Gayety Theatre in Miami. So I went there and that’s how it really started me in the business.”
Camille 2000, also known as the Cosmic Queen of Burlesque, has spent the majority of her life in the colourful world of burlesque theatre. Following a 20-year career, she quit her job as a performer. A few decades later Camille was asked to dig out her old costumes and hit the stage again, this time as a part of the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
It’s a fitting place for someone like Camille, who is still as fiery and outspoken as she was 30 years ago. Speaking to her over the phone, you can tell she’s the kind of person who doesn’t take any shit. Her presence, even just her voice, demands attention.
“Hello Dahhhling,” she squeals when she answers the phone, and we jump right in.
Do you remember your very first show?
“Yes, I do. On the carnival, I was scared to death. I was brought up very religious, I couldn’t walk in high heels and they had some big time dancers on there that I didn’t know. Honey West, who was a big feature, helped me and took me under her wing. She let me borrow her gown, taught be bumping and grinding; I didn’t know anything because I was very naïve and very young. I do remember that it was scary. I was so scared and they gave me a bottle of booze, so I drank about half of that and then I had a lot of courage so I went out and did it, but I forgot to take off my pants so I had to go back out there and take off my pants.”
Camille describes growing up in a religious household as stifling and painful.
“My mother is an ordained minister, so she looked at me like I was the lowest thing on earth. Even today when I tell her, or when I tried to share the film with her, ’cause I’m so proud of it. Of my whole career, I would say that the film is the best thing I ever did, and I wanted to share that with my mother and she doesn’t even want to hear it. It hurts me, but I gotta get over that.”
Despite her mother’s – and other outside – opinions, Camille carried on with her career and didn’t let it stop her. She’s well aware that no matter what, people are going to judge what she did for a living, and that there will always be assumptions about the world of burlesque.
“Once people know that you have taken off your clothes for a living, they look at you like you’re deformed. That’s just how it is. You can’t tell a lot of people that you did that because they’ll never look at you the same.”
The biggest assumption about burlesque dancers?
“That we’re all whores. That’s one thing. That we’re all fucking whores and we’re all low-lifes. Some of these women worked their way through school, but people judge us, and you can’t fucking judge people.”
Throughout her 20-year career, Camille has done some groundbreaking performances. One such performance came when she decided to do a tribute to Marquis de Sade. At the time burlesque was losing its audience to live nude dancing, and this was Camille’s way of trying to save their audience.
“The first 10 years of my career I did like classic burlesque, with the fans and gowns,” recalls Camille. “The last 10 years of my career I did tributes to Marquis de Sade and the black widow, and at the time people were saying that that was not burlesque. But now it’s known as neo-burlesque, and I kind of opened the door for it. Sometimes they call me the godmother of neo-burlesque, which I like.”
But her most memorable performance actually occurred 25 years after she had hung up her dancing heels.
“I was 42-years-old and working at the Gayety burlesque in Miami. I had been thinking about [quitting], but I hadn’t met Eddie yet. After I met Eddie I said I don’t want to do this anymore. I was a headliner, I was a featured attraction, but I just didn’t wanna do it no more.”
So Camille 2000 left the world of burlesque. Nearly three decades later, the Burlesque Hall of Fame contacted her and asked her to come perform.
“They asked me for many years to perform and I always declined because I wanted to be remembered as I was. When I saw this 90-year-old fan dancer at the Burlesque Hall of Fame come on stage, I thought man, I’m gonna do it. After I lost my Eddie, I went into such a depression and that’s when I decided to perform again and do a tribute to him. I did a tribute to him to R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly, a fan dance. I can’t tell you how that felt. I almost fainted when I came off stage. It was so emotional, people in the audience were crying. After 25 years of not performing, they drug me back into burlesque, but I loved it and I’m glad they did.”
Do you have a new appreciation for it?
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. I just took it for granted. When I was young it was a job. I didn’t realize I was making history, I didn’t save a lot of my publicity, if I didn’t have girlfriends that cut everything out of the newspaper, I wouldn’t even have anything, because I didn’t even really care about it like I do now.”
At this point in the conversation I can hear a muffled yell from the background.
“My friend is here,” explains Camille. “She’s a drag king. She came to hang out and we’re on our second bottle of chardonnay. It’s happy hour baby in Florida!”
When asked how much longer she’ll perform, Camille firmly answers that she’ll do it so long as she can walk.
“I can still work it. I will work it as long as I can walk. I don’t know how much longer I can go to the burlesque hall of fame, but as long as I can I will. This revival has woken up something inside me that I thought was dead.”
Any last words?
“You’re never too old to rock it.”
You can catch Camille 2000, along with the rest of the Burlesque Hall of Fame in the documentary film, League of Exotique Dancers, directed by Rama Rau and produced by Emmy Award winning Storyline entertainment. The story follows the lives of these burlesque legends who are just a vibrant and bold as they were when they ruled the world of burlesque.
The film premieres on February 19 on CBC’s documentary Channel.