Witches and Mermaids

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Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink
Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink


Miss Cherry Delight woke up one Saturday morning not long ago and knew she was no longer a princess. Her reign had ended the night before when a new Miss Coney Island was crowned. Hers had been a good reign, albeit a tough one. “I may not be the Miss Coney Island anymore,” she said again and again, “but I’ll always be Miss Coney Island 2013.” No one could take that away from her.

A year before, she had stood on the stage of the Sideshows at the Seashore theater and wept as The Queen of Coney Island, Bambi the Mermaid, and the previous Miss Coney Island, Lefty Lucy, gave her a sash and placed a crown on her head. The night was, as it had been for years, the capstone event of the Coney Island burlesque scene. The house was packed. There were ten contestants, all of whom had performed stripteases. The audience had voted and made Miss Cherry Delight Coney Island’s new princess. She was so excited that, even now, she remembers nothing of that moment.

Her name is Andrea Lorraine offstage, Drea for short. She is 26 and dresses like a gothic baby doll. She accents the thick black hair and dark eyes she inherited from her Filipino father with black winged eyeliner and penciled-in high-arched eyebrows. Her full cheeks are warmed by blush, and these days she is really into red lipstick and blending her eye shadow. As a professional makeup artist by day, Drea likes experimenting. Drea also likes to talk. She speaks like chocolate-chip ice cream: a lot of vanilla, saccharine ideas punctuated with a hard bite.

It was dusk, four days before the pageant and the end of her reign. Drea and I sat on the beach in Coney Island to watch the sun set behind the parachute tower. “This place,” she said, “is the epitome of lucky. It’s been burned down and shut down, but always comes back bright and colorful. There’s always hope here! It’s something people carry in their hearts.” She paused, inhaled deeply, “This is a place for the underdogs.” She paused again. “I relate to the place.”

Coney Island is called “America’s Playground.” In its heyday during the first half of the 20th century, New Yorkers swarmed to the beaches and amusement parks during the summer. It’s managed to avoid becoming another Six-Flags Park or Disney World, and everyone you meet there talks about “the spirit of Coney Island”—a sort of weathered, scrappy vibe. Depending on their sensibilities and tastes, Coney Island, like burlesque, has long meant different things to different people. To Drea, the neighborhood is a magical place: “It’s like coming home.” Her family’s connection to Coney Island dates to her great-grandfather, who was a potato chip vendor by the beach. As a child growing up in North Salem, a wealthy “boring” town in Westchester County, New York, Coney Island seemed to Drea like a fantasyland. And it still does.

“I want to show you what I think burlesque is,” Drea said when she answered the door to the Queens apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Matt. She was barefoot and wearing a sleeveless, faded cherry-print nightgown. Her hair was down, and for the first time I saw her without makeup.

The apartment smelled sweet, like hay, because of her rabbit, Bess, who roams freely. Drea and I sat on her kitchen floor and fed Bess raw broccoli while she told me about the burlesque show she saw the night before, one I “shouldn’t have missed.”

Drea describes herself as half-witch, half-mermaid, which is also an accurate description of her apartment décor. The walls look like a war between cherry kitsch and a Tim Burton movie. “A home,” she believes, is filled with “things that are special and things that remind you of why you’re happy to be alive.” There are stuffed animal toys and small cherry figurines. Drea is adorable. There are feather fans and tiaras. Drea is glamorous. And there is a photograph of her dolled-up like a 1950s housewife, wearing cupcake-shaped pasties and oven mitts, while holding a cupcake with a cherry on top. Drea is edgy. There is another photograph of her posing with fake blood streaming down her chest. Drea likes to shock. Hearing an audience gasp, she said, is more satisfying than hearing them clap.

 “Miss Cherry Delight is like the drag queen version of me,” she said. “There’s not much of a personality difference.” Stylistically, Drea is slightly more gothic—“more witchy. I guess the difference between Miss Cherry Delight and me,” she said, “is lots of glitter. A shit-ton of glitter!”

“So, you wanna watch some burlesque?” she asked. We moved from the kitchen to the living room. She left the lights low and pulled up YouTube on a big desktop computer. “These two are my absolute favorites,” she said, clicking on the first video. We watched routines by Tigger! and Leg’s Malone. Both had clear narrative lines, deliberate stripping, and comedy. Burlesque borrows from many performance traditions, but it’s all about satire. And these days it also involves a striptease.

Burlesque had its American debut in 1868 when an English actress named Lydia Thompson and her troupe of British Blondes performed a play called Ixion in New York City. To 21st century standards, there was nothing risqué about the performance—the women didn’t even wear particularly revealing outfits. But it was controversial at the time because the American palate for theatrical entertainment was changing. The composition of audience members and their tastes were dividing along class lines. The upper class set new standards for what women should, and should not, do on stage. Female performers fell into two categories: ladies and prostitutes. The former embodied an ethereal air of perfection, and the latter a transgressive shock.

In Horrible Prettiness, Robert C. Allen writes about burlesque’s “irreducible complexity, its power to elicit fear and fascination.” He calls burlesque subversive and transgressive because performers satirize social and political norms, unapologetically challenging and confusing society’s rules, roles, and categories. In 1869, a literary magazine called Appletons’ Journal wrote that “the mission of the burlesque is to throw ridicule on gods and men.”

“Personally, I like a lot of weird shit,” Drea says, “I like to make fun of things, celebrate things. I like to surprise, shock, and excite.” Burlesque, she explains, gives its performers “permission to be both pretty and ugly on stage.”

Drea’s most famous burlesque routine is the “Evil Queen.” She walks on stage dressed as the Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: a long purple and black cape with a white collar, thigh-high black boots, a black balaclava, and a gold crown. She carries a small wooden box and stands facing the audience. From the sound system booms the Queen’s voice, commanding her huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her. “You know the penalty if you fail,” Drea mouths, slicing the air with her arms. “But to make doubly sure you do not fail, bring back her heart in this.” She holds the wooden box out in front of her body. “Magic mirror on the wall, who now is the fairest one of all?” The music starts—“I’m fucking beautiful. I’m the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” To the lyrics and music of “The Most Wonderful Girl” by the Lords of Acid, Drea begins her striptease. The act ends when she removes a bloody pig heart from the wooden box and rubs it all over her naked chest.

“I get asked to do that act more than anything else,” she told me. She gets pig hearts from a local butcher, and uses them because they look like human hearts, but the blood is fake. “Burlesque is ridiculous and you should acknowledge that on stage.” Drea considers herself an ambassador of sexy. “You can be sexy by being funny, by telling a story with your body. Surprise is sexy. Scary is sexy. Being sexy is rebellious—society says you can’t take off your clothes in public and touch yourself, so we do it on stage.”

Lydia Thompson’s New York City debut was a sold-out show. Ixion blended music, singing, dancing, comedy, bold costumes, and satire. Women played every role, including the men. The initial performance was applauded by reviewers and loved by the audience. It ran for three months, and as Allen wrote, the demand for tickets always exceeded the supply of seats. But the glory of Thompson’s troupe only lasted through the winter of 1869, because by spring, an anti-burlesque campaign was in full force.

Shortly after Drea’s reign ended, an article in the online magazine xoJane went viral in the burlesque world. In the piece, Unpopular Opinion: Burlesque isn’t just Sexist, it’s Boring, Megan Murphy asks, “why do girl trends always have to be about getting naked or pole dancing? Why does female ‘art’ or performance still have to be about performing for the male gaze?”

“She just has no idea what she’s talking about!” Drea said.

“Well, what would you say to her point,” I asked, “that dancing naked on stage is objectifying?”

“She just doesn’t get it!” I pushed the point again. “I don’t like people telling me that what I do isn’t worthy,” she said. “And listen to this,” she continued, reading from the article, “‘the only difference between strippers and burlesque dancers is that burlesque dancers are well-off enough to call their strip shows a hobby.’ What is she talking about? There is no money in burlesque. We get maybe 50 bucks a show. It’s barely enough to cover our costume costs.”

When I asked her to explain the difference between burlesque and stripping, she answered without hesitation. “Burlesque is theater; stripping is a business. One uses sex to promote a message, and the other uses sex to make money.”

The anti-burlesque campaign began with Victorian elites and first-wave feminists in 1869. William Dean Howells was an American writer whose criticism of burlesque reflected the puritanical Victorian fear of female sexuality; he believed it led to social chaos. First-wave feminists also disliked sexual displays, but their main criticism of burlesque was that it undermined the struggle for women’s rights. “By the 1870s,” Allen wrote, “most American feminists agreed that in order for sexual equality to be achieved, sexual passion had to be brought under the control of women and carefully regulated, rationalized, and channeled exclusively into procreation.”

“Every once in a while,” Drea said, “I have an audience member—always a woman—who covers her eyes and won’t look at me. Someone who thinks it’s indecent.” She’s not particularly insulted when this happens, but views it more as a sad indication of what society deems acceptable. Drea’s grandmother also had a hard time with her doing burlesque. “She always wore sequins—sequins of all things! Naturally I thought she would understand burlesque,” Drea explained. “But she was upset that I was showing my body on stage.” The two had a big fight and didn’t speak for almost a year. “I get a lot of my fire from her,” Drea said. “She’s Sicilian and I’m a Scorpio.”

“So what happened?” I asked.

“I think she began to understand that this is an art form that empowers women—that it’s not degrading—and that our relationship was more important than judging my lifestyle.”

“Every time I perform,” Drea said, “it’s like a big ‘fuck you’ to everyone who ever made fun of me.” We were having lunch at Tom’s in Coney Island. She ordered a bacon cheeseburger and a strawberry milkshake with whipped cream—“seriously, this place has the best milkshakes!” She told me that she grew up in an adult world, which made her “a little socially awkward.” Her parents are artists and encouraged her to be creative, “to stimulate the right side of the brain.”

I always felt very sexyWhen Drea was six years old, she would often stand in front of her bedroom mirror and practice stripping. She perfected the art of flinging her underwear into the air by kicking her leg, and then catching it in her hand. “I thought I invented the move,” she said, stirring the milkshake with her straw. “I always felt very mature. .” But this made relating to other kids her age difficult. “People didn’t get me in school.” She took a sip of the milkshake, and her red lipstick left a ring around the straw.

Along with the lipstick, Drea had on black leggings, a blue tutu skirt, a black belt with a rhinestone-studded buckle, a pink tee-shirt, and red TOMS shoes. She wore clip-in bangs and had the rest of her hair in two Princess Leia buns. On top of her head was a plastic tiara. Because we were in Coney Island, she was also wearing her pageant sash. The fabric is blue and white, and has pearls and gold sequined letters. It’s a little grimy in places because she wears it a lot. “I did go to the supermarket once or twice with my sash on,” she said, “but Matt doesn’t think I should wear it outside of Coney Island.”

Part of her duty as Miss Coney Island is to be an “ambassador to Coney Island,” so after lunch she took me to her favorite boardwalk store. Drea had been meaning to get a shirt from the 2013 Mermaid Parade, since as Miss Coney Island she led it this past June. The year’s design, she explained, was meant to look like her: “a mermaid with long black hair.” She bought a yellow tank top with the print.

Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink
Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink

After the store, we went to the beach and walked barefoot in the water, collecting seashells. The sun had started to set, and the sky—no longer gray and overcast like earlier in the day—was slowly turning pink behind wispy cotton candy-looking clouds. We walked east towards the aquarium and decided to sit on the beach. Drea had no qualms about rolling around in the sand: on her stomach, on her back, propped up on her elbow. The sun got lower and it was the golden hour. Everything looked soft. She told me that a few weeks ago she went swimming here at night; there was just enough light from the amusement park to illuminate the water.

“There’s something in the air here that can make someone fall in love with you because they’ve fallen in love with the place,” she said. “Being Miss Coney Island was like marrying Coney Island. This is my favorite place in the entire world.”

Drea got her first paying gig as a burlesque performer in 2008. After watching a show at the Palace of Wonders during a visit to Washington D.C.,  she returned to New York and wrote a letter to Swami Yomami, who ran the show. “I said, ‘I’m Miss Cherry Delight and I love burlesque. If you give me one chance to perform with you, I promise a show that will have people coming back.’” He told her to send a tape. “I filmed a video of myself in my living room with clown makeup. I did a striptease and hula-hooped at the same time.” Swami invited her to perform, and thus began her burlesque career.

“So why burlesque?”

“I have a dark past,” she replied. Drea cut herself growing up and struggled with bulimia. “I guess a portion of burlesque is about putting your body on display, but in burlesque there are all shapes and sizes—you’re supposed to be different. It’s not so much about just looking sexy, you have to know that what you have to offer is of immeasurable value.”

Drea speaks of “the period of sadness” in her life. Triggered by the discovery that a boyfriend was cheating, she “went off the deep end.” Craving human validation, “I felt the need to use people like I felt used,” she said. “I would drink all day and then go out with people I didn’t remotely care about.” She got tired of hearing about the things she did while drunk, and finally sobered up after beginning to date her current boyfriend, Matt.

Drea never felt like she belonged anywhere until she started spending time in Coney Island. “I shared something with all the freaks and burlesque girls here. Coney Island gave me permission to not be perfect.” For Drea, the last seven years have been about becoming Miss Coney Island. “It was my greatest wish, my greatest dream. I had to win. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t.”

The Miss Coney Island Burlesque Beauty Pageant is the big end-of-the-season event in the Coney Island burlesque scene. The Queen of Coney Island, burlesque performer Bambi the Mermaid, founded the pageant 11 years ago. The first show was scripted and intended to be a one-time satire, but was so popular that she hosted it again the following year. And then the next year. And then somewhere along the way it became an annual event.

The pageant is also a big deal in the global burlesque scene. “There aren’t a lot of crowns to be won in burlesque,” Bambi explained. Titles carry clout, and in the past few years, “people have started bragging about the title of Miss Coney Island.” Bambi estimates that there are 300 burlesque performers in New York City, which is a fraction of the global community. “Within the global community,” Bambi said, “we all have similar sensibilities. We all get along. There’s a very broad range of people.” The burlesque world interacts through Facebook, sharing photos, video performances, and encouraging notes. “There’s a place for everyone,” Bambi said. “We appreciate everyone and any effort.”

The neo-burlesque revival began in the Sideshows by the Seashore theater during the mid-1990s. The venue is in the amusement park district of Coney Island, on the corner of Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, a few blocks from the beach. It smells like stale beer and fresh paint, and has a style that can only be described as totally Coney Island: sort of grunge-meets-freakshow-meets-punk-rock-meets-the-historical-society. “In a way, it’s a little strange that people feel such a strong connection to Coney Island because there’s very little actually going on,” Bambi said about the burlesque scene. “But it’s the nostalgia of it all. The magic is palpable, even if you can’t put your finger on it.”

Burlesque in Coney Island happens on Thursday and Friday nights, from May through October, at the Sideshows by the Seashore theater. The series is called Burlesque at the Beach, and is coordinated by Bambi and The Great Fredini. Only the best performers and burlesque groups get a slot. The final show of the season is the Miss Coney Island Burlesque Beauty Pageant. Contestants only get one shot to compete; “the stakes are really high,” Drea said. In fact, Bambi asked her to participate in the 2012 pageant, but Drea turned down the offer. “I wasn’t going to compete until I really thought I was ready,” she said.

“She was kinda shocked when I asked her,” Bambi told me. “She practically fainted over the invitation.” While Drea’s response was exceptionally emotional, many of “the girls get so ridiculously honored to be asked,” Bambi said. “I’m like, ‘really? Okay, great!’”

By the following year, Drea felt more experienced. Since Bambi casts the show a year in advance, she allowed Drea to take some time and consider whether to compete. “A few weeks later,” Bambi said, “she said she felt ready, and that she was going to take the rest of the year to prepare.” And that’s what Drea did. And she won.

“Thank God,” Bambi said, that Drea reigned when she did, because a few weeks after the pageant, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. Drea remembers walking into the theater and seeing five or six feet of sewage. Being Miss Coney Island may be glamorous and fun, but sometimes she needs to be “a sparkly mermaid taking out the trash,” Drea said. She devoted herself to rehabilitating the theater, and was instrumental in the $100,000 fundraising campaign to save the 2013 Mermaid Parade.

“She was amazing,” said Debi Ryan, development director of Coney Island USA, the arts and culture non-profit organization that runs the theater. “She looked up the recipe for a homemade record-cleaning solution, and cleaned every single record we have with a Q-tip.” Looking down at the floor, Drea blushed. “You were amazing,” Debi repeated.

Being Miss Coney Island “means something different to every girl,” Drea said. “To me, it’s about being the face of Coney Island. It means protecting and preserving the traditions of this place.” Bambi said the title has always been “loosey-goosey; whatever each girl wanted to make of it. Some girls do absolutely nothing, which is actually fine with me,” she said. “There are probably people who wish I would only pick girls who would live and breathe Coney Island, but I like the fact that they can make it whatever they want.”

For Bambi, there are two Miss Coney Islands that stand out: Lefty Lucy, who won in 2012, and Drea. Even before they competed, they spent a lot of time in Coney Island, and “were real fans of the pageant,” she said. Drea “was practically crying when she told me how much she loved burlesque, and how much she loved the pageant. It was so freaking cute.”

Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink
Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink

The sun was moments from touching the horizon, and the sand was rapidly losing warmth. “I’m still Miss Coney Island until they say her name—I’m savoring every minute,” Drea said.

Drea’s reign ended four days later, on Friday the 13th. Two hours before the pageant, she sat on a wooden throne in the theater lobby. She reclined in the chair and ate cotton candy, which stained her teeth blue. She picked at the sequins on her armbands. “I’m just sitting here observing,” she said.

A girl Drea knew walked over. “Are you sad?” the girl asked.

“It’s not like I won’t be Miss Coney Island 2013, I just won’t be the current Miss Coney Island.”

The lobby was filling up. Another woman approached, “Are you ready for tonight?” she asked smiling.

“I don’t have a choice.” The woman looked at the floor and shifted her weight from foot to foot. Drea held up a small notebook, “I have a little speech,” she offered, trying to sound positive.

Debi walked out of the theater, wearing a black and white octopus-print dress. Her pink iPhone was tucked into her bra. She saw Drea and waved. Debi may not be a burlesque performer herself, but she’s one of the mothers in the Coney Island family. “Remember,” she said facing Drea and placing her hands on her shoulders, “once a Miss Coney Island, always a Miss Coney Island.”

Minutes before the show began, Drea stood near the right side of the elevated stage. She wore her sash and had a silver cape wrapped around her shoulders. Bobbing to the music, she held the notebook with her speech against her chest. Lefty Lucy—a petite girl with a bleach-blond pixie cut and high heels—also wore her sash, but leaned casually on the side of the stage, chatting with some audience members

As the host of the pageant, The Great Fredini asked Miss Cherry Delight to join him on stage and say a few words. Drea spoke into the microphone, “how the fuck are you, Coney Island?” Everyone cheered. “Seven years ago, I made it my goal,” she paused. She took a deep breath and swallowed, “don’t fucking cry, right!” she said, forcing herself to laugh.

The anti-burlesque fervor that began in 1869 continued into the early 20th century. Even though burlesque is now associated with stripping, it wasn’t until the 1920s that it became a standard feature of performances. “The true strip was burlesque’s last-ditch and ultimately unsuccessful strategy to stay alive,” wrote Allen. “The completely revealed female form was twentieth-century burlesque’s only trump card. When it was finally played, authorities in New York City moved to close down the game.”

The police raided burlesque venues for violating Section 114oa of the New York Penal Code, which outlawed “presenting a performance likely to corrupt the morals of youth and others.” The attacks on burlesque became increasing litigious, and the city relied on theater license renewals—mainly, by not granting them—to shut down burlesque operations. In 1937, burlesque shows became illegal.

For the next 60 years, what was left of the burlesque scene went underground, trading satire for stripping. The word “burlesque” became synonymous with the sleazy, seedy, and salacious. It became, ironically, the opposite of what the entire early American burlesque movement was about. Yet, it’s legacy survived, and it has resurged during the last two decades. The American burlesque world largely revolves around New York City, and the center of that scene is Coney Island.

Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink
Miriam Wasser/The Brooklyn Ink

Three days after the pageant, I met Drea at Molly’s Cupcakes in the Lower East Side. “I’ll never forget the morning after I won,” she said. “My whole email inbox and voicemail box were full of ‘Good morning, Miss Coney Island’ messages. It’s the best sentence ever.” She was back to her expressive self. “But it is what it is, you know? I’m not going anywhere. I’m still part of the community.” For the first time, it sounded like she really believed it. “The more I think about it, not that much has changed. What? I just don’t get to wear a crown?” She shifted in her seat, “I’m not really, really sad. It’s not going to be that weird going down there and not dressing up like the Queen of friggin’ England.”

“I can’t imagine there will ever be another Miss Coney Island that could meet her level of commitment,” Bambi said of Drea. “It was all about Coney, for all the right reasons. She lived, ate, and breathed being Miss Coney Island.” I asked her why she thinks this was the case. “She’s a kindred spirit,” Bambi replied. “95 percent of people are Coney lovers; 5 percent are Coney breathers.”

Bambi said that Drea “grew up” during this past year. “She was a little shy at first, a little newer than other girls. But she stepped up and became a leader. I got more positive feedback about her work than with any other Miss Coney Island.” And as for Drea’s future, “I hope she gets whatever she wants,” Bambi said. “Who knows what she’ll do? But I look forward to seeing what it is.” Drea has “what it takes to make it. She has the enthusiasm and the talent,” Bambi said. “She’s pretty much unstoppable.”

On the afternoon that we watched YouTube videos in her living room, I asked Drea how burlesque is both horrible and pretty. We talked about witches and mermaids and female icons. Drea showed me the trailer to a documentary about Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey, a burlesque-performing husband-and-wife pair.

“Be careful not to make your dream too small,” Trixie says, “because if you get it, well, you’re really screwed.” I looked over at Drea, “Broadway,” she said. “And hopefully, eventually Miss Exotic World,” the global burlesque competition. “But yeah, Broadway is definitely next for me.”

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