Tristan Risk takes her clothes off for a living. But don’t call her a stripper. Pin-up queen, model and slasher film star, “Little Miss Risk” is a burlesque artist who performs with the Vancouver troupe Sweet Soul Burlesque.
A fan of corsets, wine and cupcakes, Tristan came to our attention as one of the Voodoo Dollz who performs with Big John Bates. Led by John Bates, a Gretsch-endorsed guitarist who “mixes punk, blues & rockabilly,” Big John Bates was the first the first rock and roll band to add burlesque performers as part of a synchronized live group. Tristan also writes for the band’s blog at www.littlemissrisk.net
We saw the band live at K Vintners Winemaker Charles Smith’s Warehouse during our recent trip to Washington State. Not part of the usual wine conference fare, it was great to be treated to live, raucous punk-a-billy while sipping Washington Syrah. As the Voodoo Dollz took the stage, I noticed something we don’t usually see at strip clubs. Most of the “whoop and hollers” came from the women in the audience. Tristan says this happens often during her performances.
“I’d say that burlesque is definitely more female friendly than strippers – we are usually being funny or silly,” she says. Tristan says that because burlesque dancers come in a cornucopia of sizes, lots of women identify with them. “They can look at us and think, ‘Hey, I can do that!’ she says. Many strippers, on the other hand, have what the average woman sees as unattainable or altered bodies, says Tristan, which continues to promote an unrealistic perception of female ‘ideal’ beauty. “Most burlesque girls are au natural and happy to put it out there. I think that breeds confidence with our audiences,” she says.
Third Wave Feminist
According to Risk, most burlesque dancers are Third Wave Feminists. Proponents of third-wave feminism believe it allows women to define feminism for themselves by incorporating their own identities into the belief system of what feminism is and what it can become through a woman’s own perspective. In response to the backlash to initiatives from the second wave feminism of 1960s to 1970s, third wave feminism was named such in the early 1990s. Rebecca Walker, a then 23-year-old, bisexual African-American woman born in Jackson, Mississippi, coined the term “third-wave feminism” in an essay commenting on the United States’ Senate disdain of Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during confirmation hearings for his seat on the Supreme Court.
In “Becoming the Third Wave,” Walker said that to her, the hearings were not about determining whether or not Thomas did in fact harass Hill. “They were about checking and redefining the extent of women’s credibility and power.”
Walker resonated with those who saw second wave feminism as largely ignoring the issues of non-heterosexual women and women of color. Second wave feminism also tended to see women who performed in titillating striptease or pornography as objectified and unempowered. The burlesque of Little Miss Risk stands that notion on its head.
I was raised by a single mom the first seven years of my life. I had my granddad and my uncle in my life, though make no mistake, with the women in our family I quickly learned how to serve up a big bowl of Alpha Bitch Soup. Burlesque has been claimed by the third wave feminism movement much the same way the roller girls have been embraced by it too. It’s a chance to be in charge of our femininity and still be these strong girls but not man haters. It’s also a good way to express ourselves in ways mainstream society may not feel as appropriate, that is the bashing in derby and the striptease in burlesque.
A performer as far back as she can remember, Tristan says she turned her fireplace into a stage and forced her family to watch her dance, act, read poetry, “you name it.” She says burlesque suits her since she has always had a difficult time not being funny as well as keeping her clothes on. “Nudist and class clown are a volatile combination, “she says. Risk started her burlesque career almost a decade ago. “It all started as a joke that turned into a serious career.”
Baking Cupcakes and Lacing Corsets
Tristan says she bakes fairly regularly, at least twice a week. While sometimes as a hobby, other times she likens it to a nervous twitch. She sticks to sweets, but as a closet foodie, she likes to try new and exotic recipes. “I’m very much into working with the medium of cupcake and seeing how I can elevate it,” she says. “My friends are complaining somewhat bitterly that their waistlines are increasing since I’m in constant need of guinea pigs for my compulsive kitchen forays.”
While friends’ waistlines may be expanding, Little Miss Risk keeps her 24-inch waist laced up. Juxtaposed with her performances and hatred of heat, Risks’ affinity for corsets seems somehow at odds. “I was always into the look of corsets,” she says, but it wasn’t until she met Melanie at Lace Embrace (first as a client and later; an employee) that she got hooked on the lifestyle.
“As a foundation garment I enjoy them and I love their look,” she says. She often incorporates corsets with her performances, but has found out through trial and error, over time, what she can and cannot do with them. “One of my favorite magic numbers is making them change color onstage, ” says Tristan. “People still don’t know how I do that!”
When I learned of Tristan’s hatred of heat, I wondered how she coped with what we (who are used to the Houston summers of hell) felt was a sauna during the show at Charles Smith’s place. Tristan says she cooled down sitting backstage in the cooler the club provided to keep the bands’ liquor cold. But even then, she says, she had to take a cold shower (as no doubt, did her audience) after the show. “I tend to get overheated easily,” she says, “but then again, when doing shows it sometimes becomes less about the performance and more about a desperate flailing attempt to get your costumes off of you as soon as possible.”
The Burlesque Artist vs. The Stripper
When Tristan commented on our post, “Big John Bates and the Punkabilly Strippers,” she disputed our use of the word “strippers” to describe her craft, saying strippers get paid. We asked what she meant. Don’t burlesque artists get paid as well?
“Okay, let me rephrase that. Strippers get paid, but they usually have to do a lot more than just get onstage and perform. An A-list stripper will get a guarantee, but she will make her real money from selling posters, doing private dances, etc. Many girls supplement their stripping income with table/lap dances, massages, and so on. So while they DO make money they work hard for it,” says Risk.
And while burlesque dancers do get paid, so much of the money goes back into costumes, props and wig maintenance. Add that to studio or rehearsal space rental and transportation, says Risk, and earnings vanish quickly. “It adds up fast and has an interesting way of making whatever we earn disappear,” she says, adding; “I have done gigs where what I got paid sometimes only covered the means of transportation to get there.”
While she has no stage fright, Tristan does fear monkeys, after what she terms “a very dicey encounter” in Thailand some years ago. “Suffice to say I can eat live bugs onstage but put a monkey in front of me and I’ll hide in a closet til someone tells me it’s been carted off to the Mary Kay Cosmetic labs,” she says.
Tristan says she loves wine and is always up for new tastes, adding her go-to wine is California’s Conundrum. While she usually prefers Chardonnay, she likes a good Pinot Grigio as well. “I’ve been into a lot of Argentinian wines lately but I blame that entirely on my tango affinity,” she says. She enjoys all things that come from Argentina, and to her, wine and dancing go hand in hand.
Neo Burlesque: Storming Mainstream Bastions
Inspired by the performances of Alice Cooper, Lady Gaga and the legendary burlesque queen Satan’s Angel, Tristan has developed her own style. “When I started I looked around to see what other people were defining burlesque as, which was fairly traditional. I had a go at that, and then started moving into my own style, exploring more darker themes and ultimately found my place doing magic, burlesque, stage illusions, and ‘cyberlesque’. I feel I’ve moved forward but my evolution is far from over.”
Like Third Wave Feminism, Tristan says she feels neo-burlesque is about being inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s about “a generation of women who say, ‘We look hot, though we’re not in Maxim magazine, and we want to share our hotness with others,'” says Tristan. As such the women are saying, “we can like being flirty and pretty as well as smart and strong and to show other women that they can be that way too, ” she says.
Tristan says the notion of neo-burlesque movement storming the mainstream bastions is best said by her friend and fellow Vancouver-based burlesque artist Crystal Precious.
Quoting Crystal, she says, “We run an underground venue called DollHouse. There we create live shows & pump sick bass through 5000 boomin’ watts. Either that or we take our glittery antics on the road to represent THE NEW GLAMOUR which is FREE of any carbon copy bullshit that is always being shoved down our throats,” She continues quoting, “because if something’s getting shoved down my throat, you’d better believe it’s because I personally f**king put it there…” “Enough said.”
Check out some pictures of Little Miss Risk performing with during Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz.
By the way, no monkeys were harmed either on-stage or while conducting this interview!