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It’s a long way from the streets of Victoria, British Columbia, to the avenues ofGotham—but that hasn’t stopped the vintage-loving Bettina May from becoming one of New York’s leading burlesque artists and pinup models. She’ll be performing at the Sophisticates, helmed by Bastard Keith and Madame Rosebud, on Friday, February 22.
Time Out New York: How does a nice girl from British Columbia end up in the burlesque and pinup scene?
Bettina May: I came at it through vintage culture, hairstyles and outfits. I did pinup modeling first, and through that was introduced to the burlesque world. I basically saw it as a way to explore my love of vintage.
Time Out New York: Didn’t you have a stint with Suicide Girls?
Bettina May: I did! Once I started getting pinup modeling, they contacted me and asked me to model. That sort of helped to jump-start things for me; once I started meeting other people in my town who were into modeling. One of the girls that I met wanted to do burlesque, so we started a little troupe together. Around the same time, Suicide Girls started flying me around for events, and I ended up being flown down to L.A. to do a show on the rebirth of the modern pinup. That’s what started getting me known on more of an international scale.
Time Out New York: Was it your plan all along for this to become a full-time gig?
Bettina May: It just kind of happened! I got my degree in political science and really saw more of an activist path for myself. I was working for an environmental nonprofit and doing this kind of stuff just for fun, because I liked it. But then I thought, Wait—this is really taking off, and I can do more of it! It was really just a case of following what I love.
Time Out New York: Not only did you follow what you love, but you also managed to snag a green card via the “extraordinary ability” route, which I’m guessing is not all that common for somebody in your field.
Bettina May: Definitely, and it was a real uphill struggle. For one thing, no one involved had ever heard of burlesque before. At least officially! [Laughs] I had to work hard to make it a category that was acceptable to them, which took quite a few years. But New York is really the place where burlesque is happening, and that was the only option for me to get here. I just got it in August, and I still can’t believe it. It’s like, Wait—I don’t have to go talk to my lawyer or fill out a bunch of forms!
Time Out New York: And you now officially have the title of “Alien of Extraordinary Ability.” That’s kind of cool
Bettina May: I know! It’s pretty hilarious. I’m actually planning an act based on it; it definitely begs for an epic burlesque treatment in a Barbarella vein.
Time Out New York: You were saying before how you got into burlesque and pinup through your love of vintage, but you’ve also stuck with the vintage theme; you’re known as an acolyte of the classic style of burlesque. Is that simply through a love of that look?
Bettina May: It really is. It’s so elegant and glamorous. I grew up watching old musicals with Rita Hayworth and people like her, and I thought that they were just the epitome of style. Everything in the period from the ’20s through the ’50s was so well designed; so much thought was put into everything. I love the architecture of the time, and the clothes were very architectural as well. The lines were beautiful, and really flattering for women. Curves are celebrated—and if you don’t have curves, that’s great too. They built clothes around the shape of women, where a lot of modern fashion is women trying to fit themselves into a designer’s vision of a shape that’s not normal.
Time Out New York: You teach pinup classes that touch upon this theme, right?
Bettina May: I do. I want to help women discover their style and learn how great that vintage can make you feel about yourself. I’m actually traveling a lot doing that right now; I was just in Kansas City, Austin, Dallas and Nashville with the class. That went really well, and now I’m gearing up for a West Coast tour with it.
Time Out New York: Regarding burlesque, did you enjoy doing it from the very start? Some performers have told me that they were freaking out the first few times they did it.
Bettina May: It’s so much fun, I can’t even believe it’s a job I get paid for. The first show I ever did was with all the Suicide Girls in Victoria. As soon as I stepped on that first stage, I loved it. I wasn’t nervous at all; I was like, This is great! There were five of us, and two of us loved it—the other three were saying, “I never want to have that happen again.” [Laughs] You either love it or hate it.
Time Out New York: Where do you get your outfits from? Some of them are quite amazing.
Bettina May: I grew up sewing, and I make a lot of them myself. That’s one of the things I really love most about burlesque: I get to do all of the things that I love—dancing, costume making, dressing up, performing—and can put them all together. It’s very satisfying. As a kid, I used to love Halloween, because it was the one day of the year that I would get to dress up. And now I get to do that every day!
Time Out New York: You are not the first burlesque performer to tell me that Halloween was their favorite holiday.
Bettina May: I think that’s a common theme for us! We all like dressing up and being weird. And now it’s our job, which is great.
Time Out New York: On the opposite end of the dressing-up scale, you were featured in PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” campaign, right?
Yes. I’ve been vegan for about five years, and was vegetarian for about ten years before that. PETA had partnered with Suicide Girls because they figured that alternative models might be Bettina May: more into the issues that they work on. I was so thrilled to be a part of that; I’m a longtime supporter of what they do, and of animal rights in general. I like to do what I can.
Time Out New York: You’ll be performing at the Sophisticates this weekend. Do you have anything special planned?
Bettina May: I’m still trying to decide on my act, actually! But it’s a lovely stage at the Metropolitan Room—they even have proper stage lighting, with is a real treat for a burlesque performer—so it will be something special. The last time I was there I did my bagpipe act.
Time Out New York: You actually play the bagpipes?
Bettina May: Yeah, my heritage is Scottish and I do play the bagpipes. Maybe I should have used that to get my green card! They’d probably be like, “We’ll let you in if you don’t play them.” [Laughs] There’s no volume control on those things.
Bettina May performs at the Sophisticates on Friday, Feb 22. For more on Bettina May, go to bettina.ca.
Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum