You know those dreams where people freak out because they're naked? I have those dreams but in them my clothes won't come off.
Michelle L'amour, named the Reigning Queen of Burlesque in 2005, is most recognizable when she's nude. Her singular kind of striptease came into the spotlight after last year's "Butthoven's 5th Symphony" went viral. When she's not disrobing on stage or running burlesque workshops, Michelle produces Naked Girls Reading, a live event where women read nude. Sounds amazing, right? It could be coming to a city near you.
Dita Von Teese once famously said, "I'm not ashamed of being a stripper." How do you react to people who think you're a stripper?
I mean, yes, I'm a stripper, but I'm an old school stripper. I'm not ashamed of it. When I first started, I asserted, "I'm a dancer!" because I was fresh out of that world. I think that there's so much confusion about what burlesque is or what a stripper means. Even now when I say, "I'm a burlesque dancer," people respond, "Oh, so you do the pole?" Burlesque is used too often and in the wrong places. Did Christina Aguilera do burlesque? No. She did a cabaret dance in fishnets. What I am aiming for is the classic burlesque, with a twist. The audiences are different today than they were back then. Back then there were maybe 15-20 minute performances. Now nobody wants to see someone up there that long playing with their gloves. Attention spans are so teeny.
I read somewhere that you feel more comfortable being naked than clothed. Why do you think that is?
I don't really know why it is. Yesterday I did a spot on a morning news show and I had to be really PG. I was in the dressing room and told the girls, "I am wearing too many clothes. This is so weird for me." I feel better once things start coming off. I feel like I can present my true self better when I'm naked…well, in heels. It feels fantastic.
So, being "the most naked woman in the world" is your armor?
You know those dreams where people freak out because they're somewhere and they're naked? I have those dreams, but in them my clothes won't come off. Those are my burlesque nightmares.
Because of that, were you a little girl running around naked all the time?
It was an acquired taste. I'm shy, actually still a little shy. I didn't realize the reaction I might get. It was very different coming from a dance world, and going into burlesque, where the audience isn't super quiet or polite. You get immediate feedback.
Did you wake up one day and say, "I want to be a burlesque dancer!" How'd that come to be?
I think it was something that always interested me: What made things beautiful and what made things sexy. In my bedroom when I was in high school, I would do poses in front of the mirror and try to figure stuff out. I was just kind of fascinated by it. But I didn't really know I was preparing for anything. I was studying dance. I started dancing when I was 15 —ballet, jazz, the classical forms. But I wasn't the right body type for most dancing jobs. I wasn't long and lean and blonde and big-boobed. I wasn't getting the things that I thought I should be getting.
When I was going to school, I was studying finance and was bored out of my mind. Then I went to this audition where I met my now-husband. He saw me dance and asked me to work for his band, so I became a backup dancer for him. After that, he said, "Well, I'm really interested in burlesque and I'd like to open the rock show with a burlesque show." I said, "Okay!" even though I had no idea what that meant. Once I heard the music, I was like, "Oh yeah, I totally get this."
So, you never took a lesson or were formally trained in burlesque?
There was no formal training. That was about ten years ago and I had no idea about the scene. I developed my own style, and I wanted to do that on purpose, because I wanted to have my own influence before I started inviting other influences in. Once we did our first burlesque show, which was terrible, we didn't realize it, but it was terrible…
What was your first thought walking on stage during that first burlesque show?
I was just terrified. At my first solo performance, I didn't even do a striptease. I just did this slightly acrobatic, erotic dance in front of the band. I was just mainly freaking out because it was the first time I was wearing a thong in front of people. I was fully covered. I had a pair of tights on, and a pair of fishnets. I wasn't really hanging out there. After that, I just got excited about it. The thongs disappeared until they were non-existent. Now, I am the most naked woman in the world.
Has there ever been an audience member that crossed the line with you?
Um, probably. I mean, we actually mostly get polite catcalls. Those are always super amusing to me. My favorite one was, "You're a magician!" I just thought that was hilarious. Sometimes people are like, "Take it off!" but who cares.
You're like, "I am taking it off. That's the point."
Exactly. "This is why we're here. Can you relax for two seconds?" And sometimes people just don't know how to act. But if an audience is too polite, it's a little unnerving.
So, the polite ones bother you more than the inappropriate ones?
Well, sometimes you also get that woman who sits in the front row, and she gives you what you call "bitch face" with their arms crossed and their lips pursed. She's just staring at you. And those are my favorite. My favorite people in the audience. Because I will dance to them until they crack. I totally love it.
Why do you think women with "bitch face" are even there?
I have no idea why they come! Didn't you know you were coming to a burlesque show? I don't understand why you're upset. Maybe they're coming because their sons or boyfriends or girlfriends are there. Either way, they're in trouble.
I think I watched your Butthoven video about 5 times. Were you born with that talent? When did you realize you could synchronize your ass to music?
I wasn't born with it, but I remember flexing my butt while I was in class in school when I had a song in my head. I don't think people noticed it, I hope. I had the Butthoven idea for a couple of years, and I just thought it was the most hilarious thing I could do. I teach my students at my studio how to isolate those muscles in a class called Booty Lab. I can't give away all my tricks, though.
I'm really interested in your Naked Girls Reading program. Which is, as I understand, a night where women get on stage and read selections of literature while nude. What's the point of these events?
The idea behind these events was slightly an accident. I was reading naked at home on the couch and my husband found me. He was surprised out how inspired he was about that. He realized he had a thing for naked girls reading. We bought the website, nakedgirlsreading.com that day and sat on it for a year. When I opened my burlesque school, I thought, "Let's try to do this as a library salon." I asked a couple of girls if they wanted to do this crazy show with me.
The first show was more beautiful than we'd imagined. I understand that we're naked, and that's why people come, but we also have a lot of repeat people, people that have already seen us naked. So there's something very, very special and beautiful about a naked woman reading beautiful literature that she is passionate about to an audience. It turns out the audience is really excited about what we're reading and they want to know what we're reading. Then they go out and buy the books. It's getting people excited about literature again.
It's like an x-rated Oprah's book club.
Very different. But, sure. Kinda. [laughs]