Interview: Burlesque's Madame Rosebud
The beauteous burlesque star Madame Rosebud, along with partner Bastard Keith, helms the Sophisticates.
Mon Oct 22 2012
Photograph: JM Darling
Time Out New York: Do you recall what originally drew you to burlesque?
Madame Rosebud: I do. I moved to the city to go to a classical acting conservatory. I was doing Shakespeare, Shaw and Brecht…all of that stuff.
Time Out New York: That’s a far cry from burlesque.
Madame Rosebud: It is, but I love theater and I love acting. After I got out of school, I got into the commercial industry. I was doing really well, but I just hated every minute of it. I didn’t appreciate being limited; I didn’t appreciate that casting directors want you to be as bland as possible. I always wanted to be the person with piercings and tattoos.
Time Out New York: And you obviously couldn’t have those and still get commercial jobs.
Madame Rosebud: Yeah. They were always saying, “Just be your natural blond self, and don’t get any tattoos. And lose ten pounds!” I was like, I just can’t do this. Then I got cast as a burlesque dancer in an Off Broadway show. I actually got cast a couple of times as a burlesque dancer.
Time Out New York: For separate shows? That’s a sign, I guess.
Madame Rosebud: Exactly! And then I discovered there was a broader burlesque community. I also discovered that I could make more money doing burlesque than I could Off Broadway. So I decided to follow that path and be in control of my destiny. That was about eight years ago.
Time Out New York: That roughly corresponds with when burlesque really seemed to be taking off here in NYC, doesn’t it?
Madame Rosebud: Yes. When I first got involved, it was still a little bit of an underground cult scene, but subsequently it exploded. And now it’s everywhere!
Time Out New York: It’s a much bigger cult, that’s for sure.
Madame Rosebud: It’s much bigger, and its much more disparate than it used to be. When I started, it was much more consolidated.
Time Out New York: Why do you think that is?
Madame Rosebud: That’s due to a myriad of external factors, one of which is that the Slipper Room has been closed for awhile now. That location was a real unifying factor. Also, there are all these different circuits that have popped up, all these different styles of New York burlesque. There’s nerdlesque and geeklesque, there’s neoburlesque, there’s classic burlesque… Some people are diverse enough in their style to perform in more than one circuit, but not everyone who performs on one of them can, or wants to, perform on the others. And if you only perform on one circuit, there are a lot of people that you just won’t ever meet.
Time Out New York: You’ve always struck me as someone who is equally comfortable in both worlds of both the classic and neoburlesque worlds. True?
Madame Rosebud: Well, I can’t do anything without doing it my way. When I do classic burlesque, I really like to push what that is as far as I can without making it unrecognizable. I like to infuse it with motivation, or with emotions that you wouldn’t usually see in a classic act—like aggression, for instance. And when I do neo, I sometimes like to package it as a modern take on a pinup silhouette or whatever. That way, it harkens back to how the art form was originally presented, but it allows the audience to experience it in a new way.
Time Out New York: You seem willing to think outside the box—not just within the performances themselves, but in how they’re presented. For instance, you and Bastard Keith were doing those Bastardpiece Theater nights a while back, which merged burlesque with cult films.
Madame Rosebud: Yeah, but that one unfortunately never got an audience. [Laughs] We discovered that people don’t want to see things that they haven’t seen before. The nights when we showed cult classics, we would get a crowd, but if we were showing something that has been out of print for 40 years, we’d get nobody.
Time Out New York: Like that night you dubbed a “Dwarfsploitation Edition,” when you screened a Filipino spy movie that starred a guy who was three feet tall?
Madame Rosebud: Exactly. And those were my favorite ones! I guess you could say Bastard Keith and I have a lot of artistic fetishes besides burlesque. We’re always trying to present those fetishes to the public…with boobs.
Time Out New York: What are some of those non-burlesque fetishes?
Madame Rosebud: Classical theater would be one. We’ve been brainstorming things, like taking a classical operetta and transforming it, performing it with burlesquers. Also, I’m been thinking about ways to present my performances in cinematic ways, in a sort of dreamlike way, through short films. Whatever we’re doing, our love of film tends to work its way into it, as well as our love of theater. And we’re opening a new show that has the theme of degeneracy.
Time Out New York: That would be your new show called the Degenerates, I’m guessing?
Madame Rosebud: That’s it. In addition to being artistic and intellectual fetishists, we’re also just straight-up fetishists. So this show will be a chance to have our favorite performers come dressed up in their best fetish outfits and to do the most fucked-up stuff they possibly can.
Time Out New York: So it’s almost the exactly opposite of your other current show, the Sophisticates. I love that name; it reminds me of The Aristocrats.
Madame Rosebud: We do love that association, mainly because of how funny it is. But the Sophisticates is really just what it sounds like: It’s an elegant, intimate show. We get the best girls in the city, and get the best girls coming in from all over the country and from overseas; we’re so lucky to be able to host these incredible talented and beautiful women. We spend as much time in the audience as we do onstage, performing at their tables—and sometimes in their laps, but all in good taste. We had a mother and a daughter at the show last week, and they loved it. We just had a married couple—the gentleman had just returned from Afghanistan, and he wanted to go to a strip club to celebrate. But he couldn’t take his wife to a strip club, so he thought that the Sophisticates would be a good middle ground. They had a blast. I was talking to the wife after the show, and asked her if she enjoyed it. She said, “Absolutely.” I said, “So now you’re going to go home and put a show on for him, right?” And she said, “Absolutey!”
Time Out New York: So you’re serving our country, in a way.
If by “serving our country,” you mean encouraging other women to enjoy their bodies…then yes!
Time Out New York: You say the Sophisticates is in good taste, but wasn’t a previous incarnation of the show once thrown out of the Plaza Hotel?
Madame Rosebud: That’s true. But the term good taste is quite malleable. When we were doing the show at the Plaza, we were getting a very positive response from the tourists who were staying there, and our downtown crowd was very excited to have a chance to dress up and go uptown.
Time Out New York: Yes, the opportunities to hang out at the Plaza are few and far between.
Madame Rosebud: Yeah. How many excuses are you going to have to hang out there in your whole life? Not very many. And I was so thrilled to be able to put these hardworking, gifted women into that setting. Frequently in burlesque, the people who hire you don’t have any idea how to run a show, or how to take care of a performer. They don’t know the etiquette. They’ll shove you in a broom closet with no mirror and no light, and just say, “Okay, get ready!” There’s no consideration for the effort that goes into this, or the talent. To be able to have the performers treated so well, in such a beautiful setting—and also to see the reactions of these people from all over the world who were staying at the hotel, who would gawk and fawn over them—was so fabulous. But unfortunately, the Plaza had a lot of problems going on at that time, and we became the scapegoat.
Time Out New York: It was all your fault.
Madame Rosebud: That’s fine, because things are always our fault. But to be able to say afterwards that I was so hot that I shut down the Plaza… Well, that’s fine with me.
Time Out New York: On another note, I was wondering what it was like to have someone like Bastard Keith as a partner. I imagine it must be a great help to have someone like him to bounce ideas off of.
Madame Rosebud: I’m very grateful, in countless ways, to both be working with him and to be married to him. He is a genius, but we’re still in that mutually disgusting place of thinking that the other one is a genius. We tend to gross people out. But I feel so lucky to be contributing to him having a space where he can hone his craft and show off. He’s so talented as an MC. And to be perfectly honest, doing business in this city as a performer is not easy, and we’ve learned over the past few years that even if the ideas are coming from me… Well, as a female, its hard to be taken seriously. So it’s very pragmatic to have him around. He winds up being the business face of our operations, because businessmen will take him seriously. When people are talking to me, whether they mean to think this way or not, they’re talking to a stripper. It’s like, what could I know? So I keep him around for many reasons!
The Sophisticates is at the Metropolitan Room October 26.