Imogen Kelly

Imogen Kelly is Australia's current reigning Burlesque Queen Of The World, having been crowned by The Burlesque Hall Of Fame in Las Vegas last year. It's an impressive achievement for someone who started out stripping in seedy Sydney around 20 years ago. But Imogen Kelly is an artist, a professional, and she is driven, so the crown fits quite nicely, thank you very much.

Her new show Herstory is about to hit town in The Famous Spiegeltent, The Tent she calls home. It's a showcase of a few of her favourite women who have lived extraordinary lives, given Her Royal Hiney's burlesque treatment.



Imogen KellyHow long ago did you start thinking about putting your new show, Herstory, together?
I started dreaming it up five years ago. So I created my first show, The Undressing Room as a precursor to Herstory, as at the time I didn’t have all of the characters developed. I often will sit on an idea for years before acting on it… so it is a well brewed concoction of delights I have put together for you.

There have been a lot of truly amazing women throughout his... herstory to choose from. Why have you selected the cast of characters you have settled on?
Gosh and golly there are so many women throughout the ages that inspire me. Some characters lend themselves to burlesquery and some simply don’t. I have to admit I have a penchant for glamour which made the cull quite easy. My take on burlesque is satirical and theatrical so the characters have to have certain elements to be able to be made into a short story. They have to be well known for a start as I don’t really want to stand on a pulpit dictating a feminist history lesson – my job is to entertain. My characters need to be lovable, accessible and at least a little known about them by the general population. I chose to focus on women from western history, and my final selection criteria is that I needed to be in love with their story. I don’t always love my characters from the outset, like Lady Diana for instance. But I usually become quite entranced by them whilst doing my research. When you start digging you realise how intense each character’s life was, the adversity they faced. My main point of interest is in reflecting on how society judged each of my women, which usually comes down to their sexual persona and how the public responded to their image. Women in powerful positions are always judged by society, in terms of being a wilful whore or a submissive saint. So deep in the heart of Herstory is an exploration of those judgements – and my response.

Marie Antoinnette... this would be your Let Them Eat Cake routine? (It's hilarious, sexy and looks like loads of fun, by the way). Was this the genesis for the show?
Marie Antoinette is the second character I created after my Shirley Pimple routine. But Marie is the act I have spent the most time with. Even though I have been playing her for 20 years, and she has many different routines, Let Them Eat Cake is a number I always LOVE to perform. I never, never tire of this act. She is so wonderfully monstrous and tyrannical. I adore her.

Who else appears in the show, and why have you selected them?
The selection came down to which characters I loved the most, but also which ones I could work together in an hour long show. So I chose acts I have either been performing for years or that I have spent years devising in my head. The show opens with a tribute to Hollywood’s leading ladies of the golden era. Again I picked the ones that sang the most in my own heart. Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda, Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charise, Audrey Hepburn and even a visit from Dorothy. I have chosen two queens, Elizabeth 1st talks about war-mongering and Marie Antoinette talks about the peasants calling her a whore – and then that cake comes out! I also have Emily Bronte who swings from a chandelier and Jackie Kennedy gives her version of the assassination of JFK. I am also trying to squeeze in Emily Davison – a suffragette who threw herself under the king’s horse and of course there is an audience favourite, Princess Di.

Princess Diana... intriguing. Not really someone one would associate with burlesque. What can you tell us about this segment?
Sadly for burlesque, people generally associate it with sanitised striptease, which is just not what I do. To burlesque means to parody – which is primarily the driving force of much of my work. I am a story teller. My acts are all narrative driven and Diana’s was quite a story – and the most contemporary one I visit. In my version, which involves an interactive film, Diana wants to share with people what she would have gone on to do if she had survived the crash. So it involves some flash dancing and 80s dance moves, but then launches into Diana’s fantasy of revenge on her cheating husband. She’s no shrinking violet in this number, that's for sure. It’s a load of fun... unless you are a monarchist.

Are there any famous women you wanted to include but were for whatever reason had to be left out?
So many! I had to drop my Neanderthal for instance, Catherine the Great and Maggie Thatcher too. They simply weren’t developed enough to make the final cut and all three have stupidly big props. I hope to include them one day.

Which women throughout history have inspired you the most and why?
I am inspired by women who have risen to meet the adversities in their lives. Marlene in Herstory is the old Marlene still touring at the age of 60. Emily Bronte was ill for most of her life, her father was a religious man and she possibly never knew love, yet she wrote Wuthering Heights. Jacqueline Kennedy kept that blood smattered little pink suit on for 14 hours after her husband was assassinated. She insisted on wearing it to the inauguration of Lynden Johnson “so they would have to see what they had done.” Elizabeth 1st had to create herself as a Virgin Queen just to be able to rule without everyone focussing on her sexual status. Lady Diana manipulated the media to hold sway over the royal family and keep her children. And Marie Antoinette was taken from her homeland at the age of 14, married to King Louis of France and the people all called her a whore. Emily Davison broke into Westminster on the night of the census, just so she could put it down as her house of residence and in doing so have a woman officially registered in The House of Commons. These are just some of the women who pop my cork and I think it is obvious why. They inspire us to hold our heads up and push forwards.

In the world of burlesque, who are your biggest inspirations?
I’m not sure I have that many; my inspirations are mostly outside of the burlesque world. I have many peers whom I adore, but I wouldn’t say that burlesque itself even inspires me very much. It’s just a bit of fun. Mind you I have seen some brilliant pieces around the world and I find that very exciting as an artist. I enjoy the work of Glita Supernova and Julie Atlas Muz the most. They are also performance artists who work with satire so I think I naturally gravitate towards them.
{xtypo_quote_right}Best decision I made was to get performance skills and invest in my individual voice rather than following a crowd or a fashion. I just keep going regardless of fads, popularity or hype. I just do what I do and let the world come to me.{/xtypo_quote_right}
By now you must be a pretty big inspiration to many up-and-comers. For the benefit of those following you, what have been your worst career decisions and your best decisions?
I don’t live with regret – well not about work anyway. I think that is one of my best decisions from the outset; every step forward is exactly that. I’m making this up as I go along, I forge my own path and have always done so. I’m blazing a trail and if others choose to follow that is wonderful, but there certainly hasn’t been anyone in front of me to follow. So I don’t believe in bad decisions – they just don’t exist in my world. Best decision I made was to get performance skills and invest in my individual voice rather than following a crowd or a fashion. I just keep going regardless of fads, popularity or hype. I just do what I do and let the world come to me.

After watching one of your acts I had this picture of you getting your gear off at the beach into your bikini. Are you able to undress like a regular person?
In terms of undressing – I’m like lightning!!!! I do always kick my knickers across the room… is that normal? I also tend to toss clothes about willy nilly when disrobing so there are always little puddles of clothes around the house. At the beach I rarely care if people see me naked so it’s an act in itself – pretending that I am modest and bothering with that whole towel routine? Snore!

Your favourite performance moment ever. What is it?
It was being in the wings of Tarnished and seeing Tiger Lil go onstage after a very quick change. She had forgotten to put her pants on. Comedy gold! My favourite stage moment – once again it was the first time we performed Tarnished and we got a standing ovation. It was a wonderful feeling.

It doesn't get any better than being the best in the world at one's profession. How did you feel at being crowned World Queen of Burlesque in Las Vegas, and how does that achievement sit with you now that some time has passed?
I love being ‘Queen of the F-ing Universe’ as we joke backstage. It has been very validating and a huge reward after decades of hard work. I have always felt it was a disadvantage to my career that I was born in Australia and that I choose to remain here. But that has changed now. I think it has really put Australian performers in a larger light.

You have the kind of CV that makes most of us feel inadequate. On top of your professional achievements, your myriad talents and speaking foreign languages you've also had a child... isn't that just showing off?
I wish!!! Its actually very complex being me. I have way too much going on at any point in time. I’m creatively prolific to the point of it making the rest of my existence almost unmanageable. The truth is that I work very hard for this lifestyle of mine and yes it is wonderful. But it did take well over a 15 years and a lot of hard training and doing crappy gigs before any doors even started opening for me; so I remind people of that. Being an eccentric artist comes at a cost and if you want to be successful you have to work incredibly hard for a long time.

How challenging is it to juggle motherhood with strutting the world stage of burlesque?
Yes, and no. In some ways it works very well as I can tour with my daughter, and take my family with me. In other ways sometimes I am gone for weeks at a time and it nearly kills me each time. When I do get down time I am almost wholly focused on her, the pay off is that I do actually get so much down time and I work at night. So I can in some ways be a stay at home mum.

I think I read that you're keeping a head count and when you've undressed in front of one million people, you'll retire. What will you do when you stop performing?
I can’t see past that point. I have other interests but none that really take me with a fierce passion. So I’ll probably just extend my shelf life like Josephine Baker and tour until I drop dead at 75. I do make films, some of them are in the play. So perhaps I will go back to directing one day.

Who likes your shows more – men or women?
My main fan base is women.

Who would you most like to be sitting in the audience to see Herstory and why?
Well Briefs had a visit from Bob Hawke and I’m jealous of that. Bob – I’ll put your name on the door. FB me. Other than that, I don’t mind who comes, I just simply like inspiring people to do what they want with their lives. I like seeing people leave the show with huge smiles and with their heads full of wonder. We live in a world full of so much constraint, I try to remind people that it doesn’t have to be like that – that we can bend the rules. So whoever is into bending, you are welcome in my show.

Many performers cite The Spiegeltent as their favourite performance space. Your feelings about The Tent?
Tent is my home… really. We adopted each other in the first season of La Clique (LA Soiree) in Edinburgh and it always feels so wonderful to be back. I have the most amazing memories of the Famous Spiegeltent – every other tent seems like a poor mans copy compared to it. Honestly, I’ve had some of the best times of my life in that little mirrored room and I am excited to be coming back.


Imogen Kelly's Herstory premieres at The Famous Spiegeltent, the Arts Centre Melbourne, February 20, 2013. Visit Imogen Kelly's website»



Most read features

Jake Matricardi

This week Heather Bloom chats to Jake Matricardi, an usher for the Marriner Group on his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis unfolding in the theatre world.

Sign up for our newsletter

* indicates required