Luscious waves of electric blue and purple hair, a chic vintage dress, sky-high designer heels and a perfect, lipsticked smile that lights up the café we met in one rainy afternoon – you simply can’t miss Sukki Singapora. She looks every part the pin-up girl, but make no mistake that behind her glamorous exterior is a hardworking, determined, and surprisingly down-to-earth… ‘dork!’ she grins. ‘I’m such a huge dork!’
Except this dork is Singapore’s first burlesque artist. Yes, the corseted, sensual, titillating, swinging-from-the-ceiling kind of performance. Sukki is a true trailblazer in that regard: she’s the woman who successfully convinced local authorities to legalise the misunderstood art form. Because that’s exactly what it is, says Sukki. Misunderstood. And she’s taking it upon her lithe shoulders to change that perception.
Born Sukki Menon, the 25-year-old grew up as a half Singaporean-Indian, half British girl whose parents wanted her to be a lawyer or doctor. ‘I had a very traditional upbringing, and I wanted to do something that felt liberating,’ she recalls. ‘I’ve been trained in classical ballet since the age of seven, and I discovered vintage clothing during university [in the UK]. So one day I was googling dresses – I’m such a millennial, I know – and found this thing called burlesque. Two questions popped into mind: “What is it?” and “Where do I sign up?”’
Fate stepped in, and a comedy club called The Laugh Inn opened down the road from where she lived in the UK. Sukki marched up to the owners and talked them into believing she was an experienced burlesque dancer. She had never done it before.
‘So I had seven days to teach myself how to do burlesque by watching YouTube videos!’ she laughs. 'When I went in, everything that could go wrong went wrong. I couldn’t even find the zip at the back of my corset, so I literally spent, like, 5mins wiggling around the stage like this.’ She sticks out her elbows as she awkwardly reaches for her back, ducking her head around to check. The crowd assumed the gaffe was part of the comedy, and went wild.
‘It’s all about body confidence and loving the skin that you’re in. When you’re confident, you exude sexiness.’
Burlesque began as a type of comedic musical performance that poked fun at highbrow theatre in the 17th century. It became popular in Victorian England, and soon spread to the other side of the Atlantic. Unlike the European style, American Burlesque is more focused on female nudity. That – and burlesque’s association with alcohol when it stormed the US – explains its seedy reputation.
Not any longer. When the art form made a recent comeback as ‘neo-burlesque’, performances centred on nostalgic showgirl glamour. ‘Burlesque is not sleazy, and it’s not just someone prancing around on stage. There’s a real art behind it,’ Sukki insists.
In fact, a 5min act can take up to two years to wrought. That may sound excessive, but then again Sukki is a one-woman machine. She does everything from designing and hand-sewing all her gorgeous costumes to coming up with the full choreography and deciding how to light the show. Pretty astounding for someone who read geography at university and who used to work as a computer programmer.
Burlesque also requires a Sisyphian amount of physical stamina. Sukki hits the gym five days a week while trying her best to maintain a balanced diet – but she’s quick to point out that burlesque is not only for petite girls. ‘Anyone can do it,’ she shrugs. ‘It’s all about body confidence and loving the skin that you’re in. When you’re confident, you exude sexiness.’
Which might account for Sukki’s audience: it’s 80 percent female, not the leer-and-sneer frat boy affair you’d expect. ‘Burlesque is more sensual than outrageously sexy,’ she clarifies. ‘Striptease does play an important role, but it’s more about the tease than the strip.’
'Striptease does play an important role, but it’s more about the tease than the strip'
In the four years practising the craft, Sukki is already seeing her hard work bear fruit. She’s headlined shows around the world. She’s founded The Singapore Burlesque Society, attracting a flock of 600, including several guys who’re interested in ‘boy-lesque’. Hell, she was even invited to Buckingham Palace two years ago for her contributions to the global burlesque scene.
‘That was surreal!’ Sukki smiles, her eyes widening. ‘I was told that in the 312 years that Buckingham Palace has existed, I was the only burlesque artist to be invited for tea. It really helped put Singapore on the map.’
All that swayed her once-averse relatives – they thought it was a shameful profession – to her side. They’ve even started collecting magazine and newspaper clippings that feature her. But that pales in significance to Sukki’s biggest coup: convincing the Singapore government to legalise her art.
In January, with the ban only just lifted, Sukki made history by performing at an event at Clifford Pier. This debut of the dance on our shores was long in the making, she reveals, and involved a touch of subterfuge. That Singapore Burlesque Society? It ran burlesque workshops, disguised as yoga classes.
And now, she’s about to participate in the island’s largest fiesta – the Grand Prix. Sukki is strutting her stuff at the post-race party Boudoir Noire [see sidebar], co-organised by New York’s (in)famous ‘theatre of varieties’, The Box. She’ll be performing two of her favourite acts, including ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, which features a huge sparkly ring with lights and a champagne bath.
‘I think that burlesque is going to explode after Boudoir
Noire. It might even be the next big thing to take over the fitness scene, like pole dancing did four years ago,’ she muses, and then giggles. ‘It’s called “burlexercise”. Really! Go google it!’