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The New Burlesque 

Torchy Taboo puts the tease back in striptease

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"You could never be a stripper, you're too scrawny." That comment from a high school boyfriend was all it took to launch an 18-year-old Wynne-Warren into the strip club scene in the early '80s. She proved him wrong, working for 17 years in a variety of clubs, first at gritty downtown venues, which she described as "really divey, dive bars" with "really good stages."

Even then, Wynne-Warren brought a degree of theatricality to the job. "I was getting Girl Scout outfits and old wedding dresses, whatever went with the songs I was dancing to, the shit that I'd seen on MTV, and was taking it into these places where they didn't care what you did," she says. "No one was paying any attention, and I'd just get on stage and do whatever I wanted to do."

By the time she was 21, Wynne-Warren realized she could make good money as a stripper, so she moved to the Cheetah and on to the Gold Club where the clientele was more affluent and generous.

Back then, strip clubs were very different from what they are today. "Working at the Cheetah all that time, I never had to speak to a customer more than 'thank you,'" Wynne-Warren recalls. "I never had to sit down and fraternize or beg for my money or pander."

But as the years wore on, the clubs began to change, and the demands on the strippers were greater. Wynne-Warren saw the industry shift from managers instructing dancers to perform as though there was a dime pressed between their knees (to prevent a glimpse of the "forbidden zone") to a place where grinding one's forbidden zone into the customer's lap or placing one's palms on the scrungy carpet while allowing said customer to peruse one's "business" was expected.

The role of strippers dramatically shifted when they moved from the stage down to the floor, Wynne-Warren says. And the power and icon-status of the stripper was similarly degraded. Before, Wynne-Warren had been able to just dance and collect tips, but now customers wanted more interaction, more talking. They wanted someone whose mind they could buy along with her body.

Wynne-Warren was willing to get naked, but some things remained off limits, like her brain.

To fight her boredom with the industry, Wynne-Warren jumped clubs often and ended up working for a time as a dancer at the She Club on Cheshire Bridge. "Oh, what a dump," she recalls. But as luck would have it, the She Club was next door to a lesbian club called the Sports Page, which had a drag show.

"I was in theater and art in college, and all my friends were gay guys who started taking me to drag shows and they were all constantly playing the Divine Miss M," Wynne-Warren recalls. "They took me to see Bette Midler's stage show and I was just like ... that's it! That's what I want to do."

Anxious to inject a theatrical sensibility into her performance, Wynne-Warren started to pick up tips on burlesque from some of the older dancers still working in the clubs. She began incorporating elements of burlesque into her strip shows, first fashioning herself as retro pin-up Betty Page. She perfected her act by watching Page's vintage strip reels and poring over issues of the glossy fanzine The Betty Pages.

In 1995, Wynne-Warren competed in Dragon*Con's Betty Page Lookalike Contest. There she met one of the judges, Greg Theakston, publisher of The Betty Pages, and he took an immediate shine to her. The two inevitably hooked up and went on to collaborate on the magazine Tease!, with Wynne-Warren modeling and then contributing writing and design work. In turn, Theakston helped Wynne-Warren produce some burlesque shows in her new flame-haired persona of "Torchy," first at the Catch City Club, and later at the Somber Reptile and the Star Bar.

Eventually, Wynne-Warren stopped stripping. After taking a hiatus four years ago, she woke up one day and realized she was too old to go back. "There's just nothing for me in there anymore," she says.

But she still harbored dreams of burlesque, and those dreams were further fueled last year when she attended the inaugural Tease-O-Rama, a burlesque convention in New Orleans. For the first time, Wynne-Warren realized there were other women out there doing what she was doing. "It was the happiest feminist thing I've ever been at," she says. She saw women from all over the country perform acts based on vintage burlesque but inspired by their own creative, sexual visions. That's when Wynne-Warren realized the burlesque scene was everything stripping wasn't.

She saw in burlesque the perfect antidote to the pandering, guy-dominated strip club. It was perky, fun and an answer to the nihilism of the grunge era that came before. It also was a way for girls, who previously had stood on the retro culture sidelines, to take the stage and break into the guy-band dominated alterna-scene.

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