Burlesque Beauty & Cabaret Queen, Miss Polly Rae: Pt. 1
By Anna Robb
Miss Polly Rae sat down with TheatreArtLife to chat about her life and the steps that lead her into the world of Burlesque. Open and honest, Polly is quite frank about knowing where her talents lie and the need to focus and maximize on those skills to succeed.
Polly, How did you first become involved in the burlesque world?
Ten years ago, when I first discovered burlesque, I thought I’d be in this industry for two or three years. Burlesque and cabaret specifically at that time were only just bubbling under the surface. Dita Von Teese had put herself out there and as people started to know Dita, they also started to learn what burlesque was. They were going to these small scale cabarets but it only really exploded maybe two or three years after I began. We didn’t know that was going to happen because it was such a small niche thing at the time. I just thought that this would be a bit of fun for a few years, especially because I had never trained as a performer. I was a beauty therapist and I moved to London to seek my fortune (laughs) and I met someone who was a dancer. He introduced me to the entertainment world and he exposed me to opportunities that I could explore regardless of whether I had training or not. I thought I’ve never trained as a performer so how am I going to get a job? But London is the land of opportunity. I was never going to be in a West End musical and I was never going to be a ballet dancer, but I could’ve been a pop star (laughs).
Obviously, there are genres in the arts where, if you don’t have the initial training, you can get the training. That’s what I loved about burlesque and that’s how I broke into the entertainment business. In burlesque, I found an art form that allowed me to use the skills that I had to get access to perform and get on a stage. It allowed me to use my own imagination and creativity. That’s what I love about it. Although I hadn’t trained formally, I developed my singing, I developed my stagecraft, my dance ability and all of that over the years on the job. To still be here, ten years down the line is really awesome. I think it says so much about how diverse the entertainment world is.
What’s been very interesting to me over the past few years is the way all the genres have merged together. Dragone and Cirque du Soleil are the big productions but then you have your La Soirées and you have your Absinthe Vegas. Although they are different in scale, all of those shows seem to blend. I work with artists who have been in The House of Dancing Water. It’s such a small world and we’re all in each other’s shows; it doesn’t matter if it’s a small-scale cabaret or a gigantic cirque production.
What was your very first gig in this industry?
Well, there were two aspects to the way my career began. The first one’s really random! When I moved to London, I lived with a friend of mine who was a Bollywood dancer. He sent me along to an audition one day to be a part of this Bollywood dance troupe. I gave an awesome face and got in! So my first job actually as a performer was as a Bollywood dancer. It was amazing – it was called Bollywood and Bhangra Beats.
What I loved about Bollywood, is that Bollywood is so much about character. Learning Bollywood actually taught me how to have a personality on stage.
It taught me how to make a connection with the audience. When burlesque came along, I knew exactly how to grasp the most important element of Burlesque, which is your audience connection, your character, and your personality. Although Bollywood seemed random at the time, it taught me so much.
So I started off dancing in Bollywood and then I started singing as well. I used to sing in pubs with a friend of mine and I started getting vocal coaching. I saw an advert for a burlesque course in a dance studio. I did this course with a lady called Jo King at the London Academy of Burlesque – that’s where I discovered the history of burlesque. The iconic 1940s and 50s American style burlesque made me fall in love with the genre. That side of burlesque has a strip-tease feel to it, which I felt made it more interesting.
I’d been doing some research in the community to see what was going on in the burlesque world at that time. There wasn’t very much as I said before and there weren’t any troupes. Once I did this course, I decided I wanted to put a troupe together. It was me and my girls; I called it Miss Polly Ray and the Hurly Burly Girlys. We started in a venue called Too Too Much, formerly one of the most iconic gentleman’s clubs in the world called the Raymond Revuebar.
My first performance was there – that was the first time I ever did a little tassel twirl on stage. It was me just experimenting one night. We put a few routines together and I got some pals together who wanted to showcase. The venue loved the burlesque and they gave us a residency after that first show. It was ridiculous! From there, I got a residency at another venue as well, so I had a Friday night and a Saturday night once a month. After a year or so those became weekly as me and the girls became quite well known on the circuit.
Within two or three years of our beginning, the scene blew up. Suddenly, in London, you could see a burlesque show every night. It became such a popular thing that all the shows would sell out. After a year or two, I realized what I wanted to achieve was the Cirque du Soleil of burlesque shows. I wanted to create the biggest burlesque show that London had ever seen. I wanted to take burlesque to the mainstream and make this big production. But I didn’t have any money. When I first started, I took out a loan that I’m still paying off today (laughs).
I realized I needed to find someone to take the Hurly Burly Show to the next level and I thought maybe that should be a stylist, someone who could make the show look grander on a budget. Around that time I met a guy called William Baker through my manager. William Baker is Kylie Minogue’s right-hand man. He styles her and is the creative director of her live shows.
I basically sat Will down and I pitched my project to him. I showed him some video and pictures of the performance and I told him basically that I wanted to take the show to another level. He said ok, let’s do it.
I thought he might just want to help us with styling but then he told me he wanted to direct it and bring in his entire creative team. We basically put on the Hurly Burly Show with Will Baker, Steve Anderson (Kylie Minogue’s musical director), Ashley Wallen (her choreographer), Terry Ronald (her vocal arranger), and Nick Whitehouse (her lighting guy). All these ridiculous people. We made the Hurly Burly Show into the biggest burlesque show London had ever seen!
The premiere was 2010 in a small-scale theatre. In 2011 we went to the Garrick Theatre and in 2012 we went to the Duchess Theatre. So we had three seasons in the West End which was very special.
We did a tour – we did Sydney, Australia, and Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a pretty insane ride. I had big dreams for it to continue but for a variety of reasons, it came to an end after that three or four year period. But it was incredible to do what we did for the time that we had. That was the pinnacle of my career. I got my dream and I got to tick that box, which makes me happy now.
How did you pitch your original concept to your first group of Hurly Burlys?
That’s a great question! Nobody’s ever really talked to me about that.
It wasn’t easy, it was complicated actually. I went through a lot of girls before I found the right ones. I would get recommendations through dancers that I knew. At the beginning, I needed dancers, so I would take whoever wanted to be involved after auditioning them a little bit. The biggest thing, in the beginning, was finding girls who were prepared to do the nudity. Obviously, the nudity was only ever to nipple covers and a thong at maximum but I would get people and then lose them because they didn’t feel comfortable doing the strip tease part of it.
As the troupe got more popular, I would hold auditions in dance studios and I’d have lots and lots and lots of girls coming along. So eventually, once we’d become established we were able to expand the number of girls we had.
I do remember in the beginning having a girl booked to do our opening night. Back then, the girls didn’t do any nudity or strip tease but I wanted them in lingerie. One girl pulled out literally two days before the first show because she didn’t want to wear the lingerie. It was a big mad panic trying to find a cover for her. But obviously, you have to be very, very confident in yourself to do burlesque. You have to own your body and own your sexuality. And we were kids then – I’m 36 this year and this was eleven years ago. So we were all in our early 20s. What 20-year-old chick is hugely confident in themselves?
Obviously, at 36 you’re a confident woman. Had you always been body confident or did you need to get over the body confidence thing to do what you loved?
I think that I’d always been self-conscious about my breasts. I’d never really had much of a chest. Through the training that I did with Jo at the London Academy of Burlesque, I was able to understand the concept of loving yourself no matter what insecurity you have. As women we all have insecurities, of course, men do too, but women are particularly body conscious.
What Jo really taught me was to take my insecurity and leave it at the doorway. You’re a woman which makes you fabulous regardless of anything else.
Also, when you go on stage you do become somebody else. I’m not insecure, normal human being Polly when I’m on stage. I’m Miss Polly Rae when I’m on stage and she don’t care about what people think about her body. It’s 100% a mindset. If you listen to those negative voices, you’re not going to win.