An opera singer with stage fright, a stay-at home mother who’s tired of seeking societal approval, a dark and twisty virgin, and a young woman who has struggled with body hatred and bulimia are among the ten women who seek out Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque for an opportunity to change their lives in just six weeks—and first-time filmmaker Deirdre Allen Timmons’ A Wink and a Smile captures that transition on film.
The first movie to explore the process of becoming a burlesque dancer, this musical documentary shows that Burlesque is more than just a campy striptease. It’s about embodying a powerful persona, mocking traditional gender roles and sexual scripts, exploring sexuality through a teasing playfulness, and having a wicked sense of humor. A Wink and a Smile is full of delightful surprises that uncover both the history of the art form and its modern day incarnation through a handful of today’s popular performers. Burlesque is about the creativity of the reveal, not the reveal itself, so here’s a brief interview with Timmons to whet your desire to see this film.
When did you decide to make a film about Burlesque?
In February of 2007. I was looking for an edgy and musical documentary subject when I met a woman who was studying burlesque. As she explained her surprising journey of sexuality and self-acceptance through striptease, I knew immediately that this was a topic audiences would find compelling. Then I went to my first show and it was love at first sight. Seeing the women and men in these incredible costumes performing these beautiful and hilarious acts practically knocked me to the ground. I attended more than 50 burlesque shows and met with performers and producers around town as I settled on an angle for the film.
How did you go about hooking up with Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy?
So I needed an angle. What’s interesting about stripping? Well, lots of things, but for a mainstream audience I figured the escapism and imaginative elements of, “What would it be like if I became a striptease artist?” would be universally fascinating. I approached the headmistress of Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque, Miss Indigo Blue, and asked if she’d let me cover her 101 class. Eventually she agreed to let me bring my cameras and crew in and start chronicling the journey of ten women learning the art of peeling and revealing.
You have a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter, which I can only assume means you’ve participated in Burlesque yourself. What do you get out of it personally?
Hells yeah! Not too far under the exterior of a responsible mother and longtime journalist is a comedic exhibitionist just waiting to throw it down. I also figured, if I were covering these women’s journey, I’d have to know what it was like from the inside. But really, that was just an excuse. I’ve performed several ridiculous acts as Duchess Moorehead and it was so freeing and so fun. In her tassel twirling class, Miss Indigo Blue even taught me how to spin tassels in several different directions. It’s a skill I don’t exactly list on my resume, but I’m damn glad I have it.
In your film both the students and performers opened up to you about some very intimate parts of their lives, which creates an interesting juxtaposition of baring one’s soul (or secrets) with baring one’s body. How challenging was it for you to gain people’s trust with a camera was rolling?
The women in the film were very sweet and generous from the get-go. That’s not to say that they just bared all right up front; they had to get used to the cameras and the process of being interviewed. But we started out with simple questions, and as the weeks passed, the questions became more intimate. Also, they don’t remove clothes in the beginning of the class, so they had time to get used to that notion. It also helped that I have been a reporter for years. I assured them that I would respect their information and the footage we shot, and I did. I wanted this to be a film that they could be proud of—or at least live with—for the rest of their lives. I was not going for reality TV smear. At the end of the day, however, they didn’t have to trust me and I thank them for giving me their trust.
There is a distinction made between being a Burlesque dancer and being a stripper. What is this distinction and why is it necessary?
Of course both involve the removal of clothes on stage and voyeuristic entertainment. So it’s safe to say that burlesque dancers are strippers. But strippers are not usually burlesque dancers. I think of burlesque as a traditional performance art form that comprises comedy, music, dance, elaborate costumes, clever storytelling, heightened theatricality, and exaggerated sexuality. I think of stripping as entertainment designed solely for sexual titillation. Burlesque shows attract varied crowds of all races, ages and sexual orientations. Stripping tends to attract a specific audience depending on the venue. Burlesque dancers don’t tend to make much money. Strippers do.
One of the students ended up dropping out of the class before the final performance, which adds an element of realism to the film, but must have been a curveball in the process. How did you feel when that happened?
It freaked me out in the beginning. I was like, “Oh, here goes the movie.” But then I realized that one woman’s decision not to take it all the way illustrated how complicated this was, because we may fantasize about stripping, but we have obligations to family, ethics, religions, or ourselves that may—in the end—kill that fantasy. It really pointed out that this is not easy, and if you think you can just take a class and become a burlesque performer, you’re wrong. So it actually gave the film more depth in the end.
What reactions have men had to seeing this film?
I’m so glad you asked. Straight men LOVE the film. How can they not? There are 18 scantily-clad beautiful women sharing trade secrets about women and nudity. Gay men love it too because it’s quite simply fabulous to watch and Waxie Moon and Ultra bring in stunning boylesque performances. And while this film is mostly about the students’ journeys, men have shared the most poignant responses to the notions of body image and abandoning fear to chase a dream.
One gentleman wrote me a long impassioned email. He had lost more than 100 pounds and watching these women accept their bodies so they could present them—in all their naked glory—to perfect strangers touched him deeply. Other men have said they’re relieved and excited to see real women on screen, not hyper-produced, skeleton-thin girls who are on their 15th plastic surgery “improvement” at the age of 20. I’ve had only two men say they prefer old-school stripping for the trench-coat crowd. They specifically did not like the idea of women being funny while being sexual. Maybe they fear we’re ultimately laughing at their penises, which of course we’re not.
Since Burlesque is all about the element of surprise, what surprised you during the making of A Wink and a Smile?
This was my first film, so I was learning how to make a film as the students were learning how to become burlesque performers. The process was grueling for all of us, together and independently. As we were all dragging through the glittery trenches, I found myself becoming very protective and maternal toward them. The love that infiltrated the making of the movie actually reads onscreen. And that was a beautiful surprise!