Underwriting to underwear - one burlesque girl’s story
Burlesque star Bettsie Bonbon’s life used to be about a very different kind of figures.
Although she now artfully removes her clothes as part of tease troupe, The Folly Mixtures, in glittering striptease show, An Evening of Burlesque, which arrives at Preston’s Charter Theatre on Saturday, she once power dressed as a highly paid insurance underwriter at Lloyds of London.
But two years ago, after working nights in secret as a striptease artist, she finally ditched her city career. She says: “My goal, when I quit my job in the city, was to do it for two years and see where I could go with it. The two years is up in July and I have no intention of stopping - I’ve made a fulltime career.”
Although she never mentioned her other job in the office, as her troupe’s star rose, her colleagues found out. She says: “We were in the London papers quite a lot - and they were like, ‘Hang on a minute, that’s the same girl!’
“But they were so supportive and so amazing. There was nothing wrong with my old job, I just got to a point where I was like, where am I going? My burlesque is really kicking off and I’ve got to make a choice because at the moment, I’m doing neither job well.
“A job at Lloyds is quite social so you work at nights as well - and I was just getting tired, I was making myself ill. So I said, I’ve got to choose.
“But my boss was amazing. He said, ‘You know we are here if you want to come back.’ But he said, ‘I totally understand, give it a go while you’re still young.’”
Oddly, the first time she auditioned for a burlesque troupe, she actually had no idea what it was. She laughs: “I was studying a law degree and I joined the dance club at uni just to keep fit and meet new people, as you do. And someone said to me, ‘You should audition for this troupe. It’s something called burlesque.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what that is!’ - this is a good eight years ago.
“She said, ‘Oh, it’s vintage-y backing dancing, looking good in a corset.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a go.’ So I went along to the audition - and I got it.
“I had no idea it was anything to do with taking your clothes off. When I went to the audition and the girl that was running it - she was called Polly Rae - quite an influential performer on the circuit - explained to me what it was.
“I was about 21 - and i was like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if I’m sure about that!’ But she said, ‘No, I’ll be the only one doing the stripteasy part, I just need some backing dancers.’ So I thought, ‘OK, I can do that, I’m happy in lingerie.’
“About four months later, she said, How do you feel about nipple tassels? And I said, I don’t think so!
“And then me and the other girls stood there - and I went, ‘Right OK, let’s go for it!’ So I put them on in rehearsals and I was looking down - and I went, ‘Oh God, I love them! Why have I never done this before?’”
She says burlesque helped her come to terms with her own body. She says: “In your early 20s, you very much feel that your body is under scrutiny, you don’t look like everybody else and you don’t look like the magazines tell you to.
“It was like, well, I’ve got to get over this - why not just get your boobs out! But the first time I ever performed with them, it took a few stiff drinks!”
She didn’t dare tell her mum and dad at first. But her sisters knew - and one let the cat out of the bag! Bettsie laughs: “I didn’t tell my family for a couple of years - not because I was embarrassed by what I was doing but eight years ago, the knowledge of burlesque wasn’t particularly high.
“Dita Von Teese wasn’t in the papers all the time and it wasn’t seen as the artform that I know and love. And my parents were in quite high profile jobs.
“But my sister is a photographer and was taking some pictures of one of the shows. And she said, ‘Oh, I showed some to Mum.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK, just don’t show her the more nudey ones.’ And she said, ‘Oh... OooooK... And I was like, ‘Oh no!’
“Then my Mum rang me and said: “I just saw some of the pictures....how do you keep them on?! I was like, “The nipple tassels? With double sided tape!”
“They’ve been absolutely amazing. When we went into the West End for the first time, my mum and my sister came down to watch and, without me knowing, they brought my Dad which was quite embarrassing - but I didn’t know till afterwards which was good!
“When I went to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time, they flew up to see me. So they’ve been amazingly supportive. I’m very lucky. And my sister who is an ardent feminist, absolutely loves it and comes to all the shows in London.”
The Folly Mixtures have not only starred in the West End and at Edinburgh but even the world’s most famous burlesque artist, Dita Von Teese, has seen their show.
Bettsie - her stage name - she does not give her real name in case she ever wants to return to the financial sector - grins excitedly at the memory.
She says: “We knew she was coming and, literally, we were all backstage, going, “Is she here yet, is she here yet?” And then she turned up - and we were like, ‘Aaaaaarrgghhh” and, of course, our audience were like: “Dita Von Teese! That’s amazing!”
“But she was so lovely and sweet - and she made sure that every picture that was taken was taken with us as well. She was like, ‘This is these girls’ show, I will take a picture but only with these girls.’
“And I can only thank her for what she’s done. She brought it to the forefront, she is a fashion icon, she is a highly sought after performer - and, without her, it wouldn’t be so mainstream.”
An Evening of Burlesque is at Preston Charter Theatre on Saturday. Tickets are £22 on 0845 344 2012.