Brainy Burlesque! Coffee with the Brilliant Belle Jumelle
In person, Belle Jumelle reminds me of nothing so much as the love child of a sexy Powerpuff girl and Adele. As she sits across from me in the coffee shop we’ve chosen to meet at while she’s on her break, it’s a little hard to reconcile the beautiful, but recognizably corporate professional, with the unbearably sexy performer of the night before. I had gone to see her act at Cherry Cola’s Rock ‘n’ Rolla Cabaret & Lounge on Bathurst, where she performed twice: the first, a classic striptease wearing red and black lingerie, sparkling diamonds nestled in her cleavage; the second, a role-play as a masculinized executive, complete with suspenders and fedora. Costume changes aside, what both acts had in common was the adorable crooked smile she flashed the audience as she pulled off each piece of clothing. Belle elevates flirtation to an art form. My favourite part of her act, and what differentiates her from other burlesque performers I’ve seen, is that she always seems somewhat surprised by the applause she generates. There’s an air of bashfulness in her performance that is incredibly appealing. We sat down together to discuss burlesque as an art form, but also to explore where it’s headed, as well as its place in modern feminism.
theBUZZ: What made you decide to go into burlesque?
Belle: I had been singing, mostly in karaoke bars and in the mailroom at work. I wanted to have more stage presence so I could perform more. So I decided to take burlesque classes with Coco Framboise to boost my confidence. After my first class, I stayed for over an hour asking her questions. I fell in love with the art!
theBUZZ: In your own words, what is burlesque?
Belle: The easy definition would be the “art of the tease”; that would be the quick line to say what burlesque is. But it’s actually very broad. It’s a form of performance art that is sexy and comedic. It’s definitely the art of the striptease, but it’s striptease in a comedic sense, in a more performance story-based fashion, with a lot of glitz and glamour. Even with the striptease, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get down to pasties and underwear. It’s a common occurrence in most burlesque acts, but just that stage presence of confidence and empowerment and being up there, generally to music, but not exclusively. I’ve seen it done to spoken word or, in one case, a performer who cut the music out entirely in the middle of the act by putting in iPhone ear buds, so only she could hear the music.
theBUZZ: There’s been a resurgence of interest in burlesque starting in the 1990s. In your opinion, what can this be attributed to?
Belle: I’ve been doing burlesque for over five years, so I should be falling into the category of expert at some point, but there are still elements of the origin of burlesque that I don’t consider myself highly knowledgeable about. I think burlesque never fully died; it shifted to an underground status in the ‘60s and ‘70s when strip clubs became more popular and suddenly nudies were everywhere. So it became less mainstream. But then in the ‘90s, there was a group of people that noticed that burlesque was a dying art form that people had lost touch with. So there was an element of nostalgia that pushed it to become more popular. This is when you saw people like Dita Von Teese doing her champagne glass act.
In the ‘90s in Toronto, burlesque was still fairly underground. There were only a couple of troupes in the ‘90s performing it, like Skin Tight Outta Sight and the Scandelles. These were the people that were doing it, but you kind of had to be in the know to know it was happening. However now, with social media, everyone has been able to connect with a larger audience. When I started 5 years ago, it was still an environment where there were only a few actual troupes, and then there were a few people who did one-off productions, like my first teacher Coco Framboise. The group I learned with, the question was “where do we even have an opportunity to perform?” Whereas the question now for young performers is still “Where do we have an opportunity to perform?” but that’s only because there’s competition to get stage-time because there’s such a high-volume of performers out there now.
theBUZZ: Your personal burlesque style seems to be very comedy-based. Why did your act evolve to include it?
Belle: The original vaudeville variety shows that modern burlesque evolved from were even more comedic. They were actually based on Shakespearian satire. There was a lot of actual clown behavior going on in the original vaudeville burlesque because that was the point of the show. They were trying to entertain people during the Depression era. Even the original burlesque movements, such as the tassel-twirl, would have been funny to that ‘30s era audience. Then there was a movement away from that into the cabaret style of Gypsy Rose Lee. Everything was about beauty and flowing movements and that classic women look. With neo-burlesque now, there’s been a return to that sort of classic comedic burlesque. Neo-burlesque incorporates them all together, all these styles.
theBUZZ: Speaking a little more about your personal preferences in burlesque, who would you say is your favourite performer of all time, and who is your favourite performer today?
Belle: Ooooohhhhh, I was dreading this question. A lot of my inspiration does come from the classic originals, like Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm, and April March. These are people who have been amazing from the beginning. With big festivals that we’ve had, such as the Toronto Burlesque Festival, Toronto has been able to bring some of those legends here for us to watch live. I’ve seen April March and Judith Stein, and you’re like “Oh my goodness, these women are, like, 80 doing burlesque onstage!” and you can’t even believe it. They’re all wonderful and definitely on a list of favourites.
As for newer performers, I would say Perle Noire has this incredible ability to engage the audience while at the same time keeping her choreography and her movement sharp. Sometimes it’s difficult to have that combination. I feel that I’m very much a tease-the-audience, crazy facial expressions performer. The audience is wrapped up in my sexuality onstage, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my movement is fully on-point. To do both is an amazing combination. She also does this incredible thing where she takes a classic song to start and then has it transition into something more modern while blending classic and modern movement.
theBUZZ: The world (and Hollywood’s) attention recently has been turned towards feminism. As a woman who practices an art form that is by nature sexually expressive, how do you think burlesque fits into this dialogue?
Belle: I have had conversations with strong feminists that are opposed to burlesque that feel it is misogynistic and objectifying. I stand behind the amount of power burlesque gives others and myself. I stand behind the amount of people who come up to me after a show and say they feel stronger and more confident after watching me. I’m not up there for others necessarily. I’m doing it to make myself feel good. Through me, if others can gain confidence to want to do the same, that’s almost the best part about it. This is a form of visibility for me, as a queer femme, to say, “this is who I am.”
theBUZZ: What is the one thing every burlesque performer should have?
Belle: Confidence and a gimmick. That is to say, the thing that sets you apart from others and makes you unique.
Also, check out Belle’s upcoming holiday performance: For the second year, A Platinum Production invites audiences into their living room over the holidays, where anything can happen! A Platinum Holiday Special; an evening of burlesque, cabaret and drag inspired by the Holiday television specials of the 1950’s and 60’s.
Written by: Lara Thompson
Photos by: Angela McConnell
About the Author
theBUZZ Features is written by theBUZZ editorial staff. Check back often for news on the latest LGBTQ arts, entertainment, and events.