After-dark inquiry: Calamity Chang
"The Asian Sexsation" is one of the NYC burlesque scene's busiest performers and producers.
Tue Nov 1 2011
Photograph: Michael Webb
You weren't always a glamorous burlesque star—you have a background in website design and advertising, right?
That's right. But I actually was an English major in college. Of course, my parents were like, "Well, what are you gonna do with an English degree? You've got to be a doctor or a lawyer!" Typical Chinese parents. But, of course, with an English degree, all you can do is teach—and I'm a horrible teacher. I was learning a lot of Web design—this was around the cusp of the dot-com boom—so I went into that, and I still do that as my day job. As you probably know, burlesque does not pay the bills!
You do two weekly shows, at Nurse Bettie and Hotel Chantelle, and two monthly shows, Beatles Burlesque and Drunken Dragon Nights—not to mention a ton of guest spots. And you have a day job! How do you do it?
Everybody asks me that! To be honest, when I don't have to gig, I'm a total homebody. I take naps, I don't drink very much, and I generally try to take care of myself. My day jobs are freelance, and some of my agencies know about my burlesque side—they think it's really cool, actually—so they're pretty flexible. But some of my agencies, the newer ones, don't always know. At some of them, I'm the only girl there, and I don't want all the guys going, "Ooh, she's a burlesque performer." Until I prove my chops to them, I keep it to myself. Then I'll slowly let the information seep out.
Have any of your coworkers ever come to your shows?
Oh, yeah, they all come to my shows. It's usually cool. But there was one guy who didn't know what I do, and he came to Nurse Bettie, where I was go-go dancing. He was like, "Oh my God—I looked over, and I saw you!" Which was cool, but then he started coming to a lot of shows, which was a little bit uncomfortable.
I'm surprised he recognized you. I'm guessing you have a slightly different look in the daytime.
Yeah, in the day, I don't wear much makeup and I wear my glasses a lot. And I'm covered up a little more.
Speaking of Nurse Bettie, didn't Brooke Shields pay a visit to your show there recently?
That was because of Tina Turnbow, who does a lot of celebrity makeup, including Brooke Shields's. Tina is friends with the owner of Nurse Bettie, Stephen Schuler. Brooke apparently had been mentioning that she wanted to treat the cast of The Addams Family to a night out, and Tina kind of put the bug in her ear that they should all come down to Nurse Bettie to see some burlesque. It turns out that Brooke is a huge burlesque supporter—remember, she was in Cabaret a while back?—and she did a guest burlesque act at the Box once. So I think she's interested in the whole thing. Actually, she's been there twice now! She is so super nice, so chill and very fun.
You should get her to do one of your shows.
I actually mentioned that to her—we'll see! Last night, we did a show for Corey Miller of LA Ink, too. He was actually pretty cool too. We told him we were gonna give him a little burlesque lap dance, and he said, "Yeah, that's cool, as long as it's not too gnarly. Don't want to piss off the wife and kids." We were like, "Don't worry, we'll keep it PG-13."
The Hotel Chantelle night concentrates on traditional burlesque, while the Nurse Bettie gig focuses more on neoburlesque, correct?
Yep, that's right. Hotel Chantelle is kind of a classier place, and because of that I book it differently than I book Nurse Bettie. The clientele at Chantelle...well, let's say just that it's of a different financial demographic. [Laughs] I tend to book very seasoned performers with big costumes, but at Nurse Bettie, I might book newer performers who don't have the money for a really grand costume. They're two different things.
Which kind of burlesque is more appealing to you, personally?
I lean towards the classic style. I think a lot of people go to burlesque for the beauty and the glamour of it, and I like the pretty stuff too. But I also think that just because of the way I look—my physical shape—I'm not really built to do the really edgy neo stuff. I can't do the kind of performance that someone like Stormy Leather can do, like all that amazing drag and fetish stuff. A figure like mine just lends itself better to the classic stuff.
Because I have boobs! I'm not really believable as a drag king.
I'm kind of fascinated by your Beatles Burlesque night. I have to admit, when I think of the Beatles, I don't immediately think of burlesque.
That originally wasn't even going to be a Beatles night. I originally wanted to do Warhol Burlesque! But then I started wondering, What does that even mean? Is everyone going to be dressing up as an It girl? Or Factory people? Is everyone going to be dressed like the Velvet Underground? And then I just realized that the Beatles sounded just so much more fun.