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Interview with Judith Stein

Judith Stein

In honor of Women’s History Month, and inspired by the #5WomenArtists project led by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we are asking burlesque artists to share with us their thoughts on their art form. First up is Judith Stein, “The Lady Divine”, who performed throughout the 1970s across North America and as far away as Micronesia and New Zealand. Known for her humor, Judith Stein has become “Mama Beaver” to a whole generation of new performers.

BHoF: Why did you choose burlesque as your art form?

Time, money, and adventure!

Back in the very early 70s I was an impoverished university student who needed a job that would mesh with my class schedule. Someone suggested I apply as a go-go girl, working nights in a small bar in Eugene, Oregon.

Having never seen a stripper, except once sneaking into the Victory Theater in Toronto, I was quite horrified, being the good little radical feminist I claimed to be.

But… As life would have it, I got the job and began dancing between the stripper acts, and much to my surprise they were “nice girls” who were owning their bodies, making money and seeing the world, and with their encouragement I began my journey into burlesque in 1973.

BHoF: What do you want to get across with your work?

What I wanted to “get across” with my shows was entertainment, and that I was a funny and thought-provoking entertainer.

Suggesting that “sexy” had a very humorous side, and that the audience, for whatever reason, was accepted as those who chose to view and be “entertained” in a risqué format.

BHoF: What is your process for putting an act together?

Step one for me is finding music that speaks to me. Does it have a message, suitable tempos, pauses, themes that I can work with? Does it have a gimmick factor I can develop?

Judith Stein performingNumber two is costuming, designing a costume that highlights the character (i.e.  long pants to “Sam You Made the Pants Too Long”),  deciding how the reveals will be executed and what if any props could add interest to the act.

I am “old school” regarding rehearsal, which means I rarely rehearse in full costume. However, I play my music constantly so that I know it “inside out and sideways”. Again, being “old school” one did not have a rigid choreo, due to the variances of stages on the road.

Sewing, gluing, embellishing, etc. etc. etc. costume… I am a seamstress so creating each costume, fitting, more sewing, more rhinestones, more fittings – and hope for the best!

BHoF: How do you know if an act is “working”?

The audience response is the best indicator that an act worked. Do I get requests to perform it again,  and quite frankly, am I getting booked on the strength of this act, and how much am I getting paid!???

Judith SteinBHoF: What makes you feel best about being a burlesque performer?

 Probably the best about being a past and present burlesque performer is enabling the audience to enjoy my art, my absurdity notion of sexy, teasing and again “entertainment”. I’ve been blessed with the chance to travel internationally and observe different cultures, meet and interact with so many people that I would never have met otherwise, explored my own sexuality, my strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully brought a little joy to my audiences. And get paid well for doing something I love!

BHoF: What has been your greatest challenge as a burlesque artist?

 Hmmm… Back in the day when I began stripping it was assumed if you were indeed a “stripper” you no doubt were a prostitute, socially unacceptable in polite society, intellectually challenged, and open game for predators. Fortunately I was educated, supported by my family and community, had a good sense of self-worth and awareness.

There were always challenges… alcohol, drugs mostly, but pressure also for “boob jobs”, more sexually explicit acts, and the dreaded B-drinking. It was difficult to maintain relationships as I was constantly on the road…and yes, being respected for being my own woman, a feminist in an industry that was often male-dominated.

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