People Who Make NY Special

All Hail the King of Boylesque!

To be clear, this is not the cheerful character from Winnie the Pooh. This Tigger! is just a wee bit saucier.

Photos by John-Paul Bichard

A Tigger! performance is athletic, absurd, disarmingly intellectual—and generally ends with our hero in the buff. Named for his obvious joie de vivre, tiger-striped hair, and a memorable full-body bounce signature move, the redoubtable “King of Boylesque” Tigger! (exclamation point nonoptional) has been staging queer, bawdy, activist performance art across New York, the country, and the globe for more than 30 years.

Recently, though, Tigger! has dispensed of the costumes, boas, and stripper trappings entirely. As part of a two-year world tour alongside MacArthur “genius grant” winner Taylor Mac, the alt-burlesque performer dances an intricate, five-minute pantomime striptease that both begins and ends with him naked, proving the pantomime far more sexy and profound than the nudity itself.

In between preparing for his many upcoming performances (including his annual Coney Island showcase, Man: A Tease! The Dirty Dozen on September 1), the indefatigable Tigger! recently spoke with us about NYC’s burlesque scene, why he’s happy to see a woman crowned King of Boylesque, and why he doesn’t pine for the good old days of the ’90s.

What Should We Do?!: How does a nice boy like you get into a business like this?
Tigger!: I’ve been an actor all my life. After years of doing progressive experimental theater, I started making “stripperformance” art in the early 1990s, mostly in the back of bars. Those early shows were created out of frustration with how much the heartfelt, supposedly inflammatory stage shows that I was seeing and participating in downtown were ultimately just preaching to the choir. I wanted to confront real people with no programs or cast lists and no preparation, people who didn’t know or care who I was, and hit them when they didn’t expect it.

It was guerrilla theater, which meant it had to be quick, funny, dirty, rock-and-roll; it had to end with somebody naked. There was a message in there, but I found that political activism could be served hidden in irreverent entertainment. The ’90s was a violent era. The world made my sexuality political, and AIDS made our sexual politics life or death. I felt like the way to connect with new audiences was to stop lecturing and get people laughing. Then, in between belly laughs, their throats were wide open for us to slide our politics in.

WSWD: So it wasn’t about trying to resurrect traditional burlesque?
Tigger!: Honestly, it took me a while to realize that what I’d been doing could be considered burlesque. Don’t get me wrong: I was intentionally a man in a woman’s world doing “women’s work.” I loved that stripping was a female art form, but I hadn’t yet recognized that I was sharing my style with those glamorous burlesque stars from the 1940s and ’50s.

I was lucky enough to start doing my performances during what turned out to be the 1990s burlesque renaissance. That was when the very best of them were coming up: Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini, Angie Pontani, Ami Goodheart. I never considered that I was doing a different genre of work from my sisters. I have a penis and they have a pussy. So what? We all had a show to do. No special rules or treatment. But showbiz demands you toot your own horn, and so, “boylesque.”

My goal was for the audience to experience a man exploring gender and sexuality in a way that was traditionally reserved for women. It was very consciously feminist activism. I do believe that burlesque should remain a predominately female art form, ideally run by women. But one of the important missions of burlesque is to explore gender variety while exploding gender stereotypes through exaggeration and subversion, which means we need to hear from all of the genders in the spectrum.

I never considered that I was doing a different genre of work from my sisters. I have a penis and they have a pussy. So what? We all had a show to do.

WSWD: Was the word “boylesque” your creation?
Tigger!: I thought it was at the time! Of course, boylesque predates me by a long, long time. In my defense, this was pre-Google, and the history of boylesque, like most forms of sexual subversion, was hidden. I loved John Sex, but I hadn’t considered that what he was doing was boylesque because he seemed so much more glamorous than me.

When I started, before I met any other men doing it, boylesque was just a small-time marketing term to set myself apart. It wasn’t until I finally met other boylesque performance artists, like San Francisco’s Roky Roulette and Baltimore’s Evil Hate Monkey, that I realized that this vehicle for political subversion could extend way beyond me.

WSWD: How do you define boylesque?
Tigger!: Definitions are the least interesting part of any art form. I used to describe boylesque as “burlesque with balls,” but that was always tongue-in-cheek…because it’s fucking burlesque! The truth is that the gender of the performer is irrelevant. Last year a brilliant drag king, Lou Henry Hoover, won the field’s top prize, the title King of Boylesque, at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. As the original titleholder, let me tell you that it was about time and it made perfect sense. Boylesque is burlesque performed with some starting point of maleness or masculinity. The rest is up to the performer. What matters is if the work is good.

My characters are all beautiful losers, like me.

WSWD: How has the scene changed since you started?
Tigger!: In more ways than I could describe. Once upon a time there was just a tiny handful of us performing burlesque in New York. Every one of us immediately understood, supported, and celebrated each other. There was no grand prize for what we were doing. We were all working for chump change. You couldn’t beg the press to cover our shows. In some ways, that’s the part I miss: knowing that everyone was doing it for the best possible reasons. We just wanted to change the world and entertain our audience while changing them.

The payoff is that every time another wave of performers comes along, there is someone who brings that old excitement, somebody who kicks our bare asses to remind us why we love burlesque. Over the years that has included Little Brooklyn, Nasty Canasta, Perle Noire, Poison Ivory, Tiger Bay, among many others. Every good burlesque performer remakes burlesque in their own image.

Another nice thing about how much it’s changed is that we can make a (marginal) living from it…even in New York! And it keeps growing. People can yammer about the good old days all they want. We couldn’t still be doing it and you wouldn’t still be watching it if it was still the same, original handful of us from the ’90s.

WSWD: You occasionally teach burlesque classes. What are some of the key points you try to get across to your students?
Tigger!: One of the classes I teach is called Fuck ‘Em in the Heart! Acting for Burlesque. I try to get burlesque performers to focus on character and storytelling rather than elaborate gimmicks, stunts, or costumes. I demand self-expression, not impersonation. I’m not interested in a performer who is trying to impress me, but I really care about a performer who connects with me. No matter what other skills you have, if you’re on a stage of any kind, you have to remember you’re an actor above all else.

WSWD: How do you approach choreographing a new piece?
Tigger!: There is no formula to create my act. I often look for the obstacle or flaw and begin to build a character and story from there. My characters are all beautiful losers, like me. I’m not interested in seeing winners win, but I love to see losers struggle.

WSWD: After doing this work for so long, how do you avoid creative burnout?
Tigger!: The biggest obstacle to creativity is taking things for granted, so I try to get myself off-balance, step out of my comfort zone, remove a favorite crutch or habit. Thankfully, I have the option to step away from burlesque to do theater, step away from theater to do performance art, step away from performance art to do burlesque. It’s all just different flavors of showbiz!

Photos by John-Paul Bichard

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