Loving Burlesque & Pinup Culture as a Black Femme

Hello out there!!


It's a not-so-shiny but totally-brand-new year, and I recently realized I'm slowly inching up on my four-year burlesque and pinup girl anniversary. For many performers (myself included), 2020 almost didn't count -- it was full of cancellations and postponed gigs and hibernation and a rush to adapt to pandemic life. Now that 2021 is here, I no longer have to worry about grad school and I've settled more comfortably into balancing work and basically home-schooling my kid. I even moved into a new place! Kinda feels like I'm finally coming up for air.


In anticipation of my fourth year, I've been really taking it back to basics when it comes to burlesque and pinup. I've been re-reading my favorite burly baby book, The Burlesque Handbook by Jo Weldon, and re-watching all the burlesque documentaries I can find. Most importantly, I've been thinking about what drew me here in the first place, and why I haven't lost interest after these first 4 years. Many people I knew (never any actual performers) thought burlesque would be a one-time thing, but it quickly snowballed into a second career. Then that career snowballed into -- dare I say it -- a lifestyle. As I type this now, I'm surrounded by a mess of ostrich feathers and rhinestones and pink satin and a big ass cutting table and sewing pins and way too many ideas for one person who just learned how to use a freakin' machine. Four years later, it certainly doesn't feel like a one-time thing.


When I sit back and reflect on what it means to love all of this enough to try to do it "professionally," I admit I get a little confused. Before falling in love with it all, I always felt like I was defending my right to be high-femme, to love hot pink, to not see anything wrong or indecent about having a sensual body. Now, I credit debuting and modeling with helping me connect with myself enough to not give a f*ck what anyone thinks -- no defense necessary.


My choice to be a pinup starlet is directly related to the void left from never seeing anybody that looked like me being celebrated on a mainstream level. And I'm not chasing celebration and validation from any old rando interested solely in porcelain pinups. My brand of burlesque and pinup is meant for those who've been long searching for a girl like me... how will they know where to find me if I never let 'em know I'm here?!

Yes, it was a whirlwind courtship for burlesque and pinup and I... but my newfound independence showed me something that I had somehow missed all those years growing up: those mainstream and widely-shared pinups didn't really look like me.


With the realization that most of the popular pinups were monolithically white, it's intriguing to know that growing up, beyond Bettie and Marilyn, my favorites were alternatives to the norm like Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Betty Boop, and Hilda. And even then, I realized that they all had very fair complexions. For ye faithful blog readers, you know that my desire in adulthood to find black pinups led me to the wealth of black beauty known as "shake dancers". It's never been lost on me that, despite similar attire and poses, femmes of color are usually first called something other than "pinups" or "burlesque" dancers, and we're usually filed under alternative phrases like "jazz dancers" or hiding in archival photos of chorus lines. Pinups of color have always been around, but since we often remain nameless it's sometimes a matter of knowing where to find them.


So now that I consider myself a bonafide rising burlesque and pinup starlet (yep, I'm claiming it), I'm also asking myself really tough questions like, "Why are you really seeking entrance and validation to a community that has shunned so many others who look like you?" And this usually stops me in my glitter-covered tracks.


First of all, I was raised in the hood by my organ-pounding Southern Baptist grandmother in Texas. It's weird... but I know that, while culturally glorifying aspects of sex work, there is still widespread black repulsion of all things sex and sex-adjacent, including sex work and burlesque and pinups and p0rn. Many black people were forced into sexual slavery and performance slavery during American antebellum slavery, so it's always carried a specifically heavy weight for some folks. Clearly it doesn't carry that same weight for me, and in fact, burlesque and pinup tends to lighten my burden -- but that's just a testament to the wise old proverb "different strokes for different folks".


So how can I correlate the two? How can burlesque and pinup lifestyles make me feel so empowered, while being rooted in systems based on the deprivation, dehumanization, and devaluation of the black body itself? HOW SWAY?? HOW??


I have a bit of an idea, after much thought. Young Maxine once declared that she was "reclaiming her time," and it all goes back to that. There's nothing wrong with being high-femme and sensuous -- that's not at all the issue. But there is something unfair about only seeing one type of person get to enjoy and experience that beauty, pleasure, and worship.


We are all capable of experiencing that on a grand scale. My choice to be a pinup starlet is directly related to the void left from never seeing anybody that looked like me being celebrated on a mainstream level. And I'm not chasing celebration and validation from any old rando interested solely in porcelain pinups. My brand of burlesque and pinup is meant for those who've been long searching for a girl like me... how will they know where to find me if I never let 'em know I'm here?!


I know that burlesque and pinup modeling have their own language and customs like any other cultural lifestyle, so now that I'm in my fourth year of walking confidently in starlet-ness I'm overjoyed to be sharing what I know with others who want to let the world know they're here. I'm teaching a shake dancing class on Jan. 13th with the New York School of Burlesque, and I'd like to get well enough at sewing to make pinup clothing for femmes who have difficulty shopping online or finding their sizes. This is my first handmade pinup top, and I can't wait to make more in lots of different sizes -- I'm already working on a second version:


I also recently bought a few Vargas calendar girl originals, thinking they may be worth more one day online. They will definitely go on my wall, side by side with Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, and Miss Topsy. I'll also be commissioning original diverse pinup art from a few artists I've found on Instagram. Vargas is great and all but he never drew any other type of girls -- I'm happy my own pinup art collection will be diverse. Here's what they look like, along with a masked-up hello from me at the open market a few weeks ago:



There's definitely room up there on the wall for all of us pinups of every size, color, creed, etc. I feel lucky to be alive at a time when pinups of color are thriving!!


Until next time,

Bebe Bardot






  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White YouTube Icon

© 2019 by Bebe Bardot. Proudly created with Wix.com