This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.
J.T. Newman is an unlikely ecdysiast. Wednesday, over sidewalk cocktails at downtown Chicago’s Emerald Loop, she shared with me her journey from future office lackey to the blogosphere’s “dyke darling” of burlesque, Ms. Bea Haven.
“Seven years ago, I was a performance poet,” she shouts over the non-stop whistle of the Hotel Monaco valet, across the street. “I was also 31, had a terrible body image, and wasn’t happy about that fact.”
Originally, the Evanston native thought she would grow up to be a secretary–or a cheerleader. “My mother tells me now, ‘One out of two isn’t bad’,” Newman says with a smirk.
Winning fifty dollars in a poetry contest at age ten, however, suggested a career in the arts as opposed to the steno pool. Realzing she was gay would come later. Still, when the 31-year-old performance poet was approached by the Sissy Butch Brothers to appear in their Gurlesque Burlesque review, it wasn’t the shock you might imagine.
“I was ready to challenge myself,” says Newman. “I didn’t like the look of my body naked. I knew it was time to push through all that once and for all.”
Then a student at the South Loop’s Columbia College, she decided to kill two birds with one stone by developing a burlesque routine as the final project for a dance class she was taking. She researched burlesque techniques and created a number paying homage to modern choreographers that remains in her act to this day. (“It was very much Martha Graham contract-release,” says Newman.)
(Video: Ms. Bea Haven demonstrates her craft beneath the Lake Street ‘L’ in the Loop.)
In 2003, after a year of performing with the Sissy Butch Brothers, Newman founded Chicago’s first queer burlesque troupe, Girlie-Q. The troupe was a hit for several years at the sadly defunct South Loop venue of the HotHouse Center for International Performance and Exhibition.
Now an itinerant performance group, Girlie-Q remains popular, holding regular shows in several venues around the city. Newman and the gals will host their second-annual Queer Prom for Chicago’s Gay Pride week in June 2009, and in July they’ll take part in the Naked July Festival of clothing-optional plays at the National Pastime Theater in Uptown. (For a full list of upcoming shows, see here.)
But the future may call for a different approach. “I’d like to turn Girlie-Q into a nonprofit, but it’s an art form that takes place in bars,” says Newman. To attract the funders needed to make a nonprofit venture financially viable, the troupe is widening its mission to include variety acts–of a more modestly clothed variety.
Meanwhile, the art form is thriving in and of itself in the Windy City. “Burlesque is huge in Chicago these days, sometimes it’s hard to find an audience,” laments Newman. “People don’t have to travel very far to find a good show if they don’t want to.” She rattled off a list of performers worth the trip, among them the Belmont Burlesque Revue, Eve’s Parlor Burlesque, Flesh Tones Burlesque, Hot N’ Heavy Metal Burlesque, The Pin-Ups, and burlesque photographer Callie Lipkin.
And of course, Girlie-Q. As Newman continues to plot a course towards sustainability for the troupe, she says she expects to be a part of Chicago’s burlesque community for a long time to come, either as a performer or artistic director and teacher. “I’m already giving classes so I’m halfway there–the only thing my girlfriend asks is that I avoid becoming the world’s oldest stripper,” jokes Newman.
Until then, this blogger’s naked ambition is going strong.