From humble beginnings as a young boy playing with his magic kit, Nelson Lugo has become New York’s premier burlesque-show prestidigitator. He’s also the host and producer of the geekiest burlesque show in town, Epic Win Burlesque.
What was your introduction to the world of magic?
It was a pretty common introduction, really. I got a magic kit for Christmas when I was about nine years old. Whereas most kids would play with something like that for a day or two and then completely forget about it, I continued playing with it. In fact, I still have it; it’s on a shelf in my apartment.
Is it the Harry Blackstone magic kit, by any chance?
That’s exactly it: Harry Blackstone Jr.
I got that set for Christmas myself. And I only played with it a few days.
Like everyone else! It was very popular, and was one of the first kits that came with more than just little trinkets; it attempted to teach kids real magic. That got me hooked, and the school library had some magic books in it.
Were you one of those weird kids that would set up a stage in the basement, invite their friends over and perform magic for them?
Well, yes and no. I tried doing magic at school for classroom show-and-tells—and that got me teased and bullied even more than I would have without the magic. So I decided to not do that anymore. But I bugged my mom and dad, showing them the same card trick every time.
Were they supportive, or did they think it was a phase?
I don’t think they really had an opinion on it one way or another. They may have gotten a little annoyed that I was showing them the same thing over and over, but other than that, they were happy that I was happy.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in the Bronx. I lived there until I was about 13 or so, and then we moved to Florida. That’s where most of my young-adult memories are from. I moved back to New York to go to acting school.
But before you came to New York, you had some magic training in Orlando, right?
Yeah. One of the first jobs I got after high school was working in a magic shop called the Old Town Magic Company. Up to that point, I thought of magic as something really cool I could do to impress friends at parties, or as an icebreaker so I could talk to women. It wasn’t anything I thought of as a serious vocation. But that changed when I got a job selling magic to tourists. I had this sort of mentor-protégé relationship that developed with this old magician there named Stanley Leigh, though it was nothing formal; it just kind of happened. He basically took me under his wing, showed me stuff and introduced me to other magicians.
That was at the Magic Roundtable, right? What was that all about?
The Magic Roundtable is a weekly event where all the local magicians would get together and basically have lunch. They’ll talk shop, they’ll trade secrets, or sometimes a dealer would come in and try to hawk tricks. Stanley would take me there and go, “This is my boy, Nelson.” It was that relationship that laid the groundwork into me being a performer. He was actually one of the first magicians to play Vegas. After that, I moved to New York.
You came back for acting school, but did you have any inkling you’d be performing magic up here?
No—I wanted to be an actor! But while I was auditioning during the day, I started supplementing my income by doing variety and cabaret nights all around the city. Many moons went by, and it finally occurred to me that I was making more money as a magician than I ever had as an actor. [Laughs] I turned pro in 2000.
How did you get involved in the burlesque world?
I did a Floating Kabarette night at Galapagos, when Galapagos was still at its original space in Williamsburg. I was actually doing that show pretty regularly. There was a burlesque performer there named Veronika Sweet, who’s long since retired, who asked me to host a show she was doing called Red Hots Burlesque. I had never hosted anything in my life! But I guess I did a pretty good job, because they kept asking me back.
This was before New York’s burlesque scene was as big as it is now, right?
This was about nine years ago, and I think there were only about four burlesque shows in New York at that point. But suddenly, I was hosting a lot of those shows, without even planning on it. And the years passed. [Laughs]
And now you host Epic Win Burlesque, one of the epicenters of the nerdlesque scene. Actually, which term do you prefer—nerdlesque or geeklesque?
I actually don’t like either! I prefer nerdy burlesque.
Duly noted. Nerdlesque is a bit awkward, anyway.
Yeah, and it really doesn’t describe anything, either. I got into this whole thing by accident. A friend of mine, Magdalena Fox, was on Facebook asking for help on an act she was creating based on the video-game character Lara Croft. I geeked out—I’m a big video-game nerd, among other things—and I supplied her with some fake guns to use in her act. And just joking around, I said that I was going to produce a show to feature her act, a show that was nothing but video-game-inspired burlesque acts. I also joked that my buddy Schäffer the Darklord was going to cohost it with me. I never intended for it to actually happen!
But it did, obviously.
There was this perfect storm of stupidity. The Tank theater, when it was originally on the West Side, hosted a weeklong festival called “Geek Week”; it featured chiptunes, nerdy DJ sets and stuff like that. Just based on me making this joke, the Tank contacted me and asked, “Hey, were you serious about producing this show? Because we’d like to have it!” So I thought, What the hell—let’s do it. So I got Schäffer and a bunch of my friends, and we put together a video-game-themed burlesque show. And much to our shock and surprise, it was well received.
I’m guessing that it wasn’t your average burlesque crowd at that show.
There was an audience who had never been served before—people who identify as nerds and pop-culture devotees. There hadn’t been much that really spoke to them, specifically. We tapped into that market, totally by accident. So we thought, Why not do it again?
Were you calling the show Epic Win at that point?
Yeah, we were. Epic win and epic fail were big catchphrases at the time. We thought of the name as a joke, because we didn’t expect it to go any further than that first show. But it stuck.
And Epic Win Burlesque inadvertently was born.
That’s right, and it will be four years old this August.
What have been some of Epic Win’s more memorable themes over the years?
They’re all memorable. [Laughs] But for me, my favorites are always the Batman shows. I’m a huge dork for Batman. Any opportunity for me to talk about Batman is a joy for me.
There are so many characters in the Batman universe to choose from, you’ll never run out of material.
Oh, no. There are just so many of them. We’ve done Batman shows three times now, and every time it’s been completely different. We’ve never repeated a single character.
Maybe you should do a show based on the Dick Tracy comics; they have tons of cool characters too.
Dick Tracy is great, but I would never do a Dick Tracy show. I would lump that in with a show based on golden-age comic-book characters.
And that’s why you’re the impresario, and why I’m here interviewing you.
I guess so! [Laughs]
It seems as though a huge swath of the city’s burlesque performers have been in Epic Win over the years.
We have a core group of performers that we always like to include, but there seem to be more and more burlesquers coming out of the nerd closet. There are even burlesquers who started out as nerds, and got into burlesque because they saw what we were doing. I love using talented people from the whole lexicon of the New York scene.
How do you determine what’s nerdy and what isn’t?
As far as I’m concerned, you can be a nerd about anything. You can be a nerd about sports, or you can be a nerd about Broadway show tunes. It’s not just about comics or video games; it’s more about being someone who isn’t satisfied with just the information about a subject. They want the minutiae, the details that nobody else cares about. That’s what makes a nerd.
How long do you think Epic Win Burlesque can last?
That’s a really good question, but I think it boils down to this: I’ll keep doing this as long as people keep buying tickets for it. If there ever comes a point when it just seems like nobody cares anymore, I’ll stop. I started doing this because the audience wanted it, so I’ll just do it until they stop wanting it.
But how do you feel personally about it? Do you want to do it forever?
I do get a lot out of it personally. I get a big sense of accomplishment. But I mainly do it because I’m a nerd, and I want to see these shows. If I wasn’t the one doing it, I would hope that someone else was, because this is the kind of thing I would go to anyway. I mean, I love classic burlesque, too—it’s wonderful and it’s valid—but it’s just not my cup of tea. I’d rather see a Harley Quinn act than a classic fan dance. That’s just who I am. So as long as there are nerds who want to get naked, there’ll be a stage for them to do it on.
I’m guessing that as a young kid playing with your magic kit, you never would have imagined it would lead to this?
Oh, God no! I was just remarking the other day that if ten-year-old Nelson could see me now, his little head would explode.
It would explode in a very happy way, I’ll bet.
Oh, yeah. I grew up watching a lot of old black-and-white films, and my favorite films were always the kind that would feature the backstage shenanigans at a vaudeville show or whatever. There was always a character—it could be the producer, the comic or the love interest—who had the ability to go into the dressing room where the showgirls were. They’re always in various states of undress, and he’ll walk in and it’s no big deal. “Hey, Larry, how ya doin’?” they’ll say. He’ll go, “Hey girls, what’s up?” And now I’m that guy!
Many people envy you.
I consider myself a very lucky man.
On the unlucky side, you’ve had a bit of a health scare recently. Is that something that you can talk about?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been diagnosed with stage-two testicular cancer; the technical term is a seminoma. I was diagnosed in March. I’m actually going into the hospital tonight to start my final round of chemo. All of my doctors seem to think that this round will knock it out. I’ve been responding better than average.
So hopefully this will be my last round. I just want to get this over with.
Have you had much support within the burlesque world?
Yeah, surprisingly so! I don’t know if this is a thing, but I feel like I’ve almost had too much support. [Laughs] I was under the impression that I wasn’t well regarded by the burlesque community. When I first started, I was denounced by a lot of critics in that community, who were saying that what I was doing wasn’t real burlesque, and I’m ruining it. At the same time, I was selling out shows.
Which probably helped to inflame the critics even more.
Maybe. But the result was that I never expected the burlesque community to support what I do; making the fans happy was enough. And then something like this happens, and oh, my God! I get tons of messages every day just asking how I am and giving me support, and they threw a big fund-raiser for me to help me with my medical bills. It’s been overwhelming, given that I was convinced that nobody liked me! It was a total shock that so many people cared about my well-being. If there’s one good thing that’s come out of this cancer, it’s that I can now see that my contribution to this world is valid and accepted by more people than I ever thought possible.
The next Epic Win Burlesque is at R Bar July 6. For more on Epic Win Burlesque, go to epicwinburlesque.com.
Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum