The Eroticism of Fat Men
All singing, all dancing, all kitsch throwbacks in ostrich plumes and tarnished sequins. Yet no icon better deserves a second chance. Andrea Stuart explains why
Guardian, 1st September, 1996
“It hurts me to admit it, but I’d give up the chance of 10 conversations with Einstein for a first meeting with a pretty showgirl,” Albert Camus once said. Until recently, such enthusiasm may have seemed misplaced, even tacky. Most modern images of showgirls—kitsch throwbacks in ostrich plumes, or hitting new depths of Hollywood dross in the eponymous Verhoeven movie—have been camp at best, sleazy at worst.
But the showgirl’s reputation has recently been undergoing something of an overhaul. In an issue of the New Yorker earlier this year, celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz dubbed a passel of sequin-spangled showgirls “the last romance in Vegas” and in the media the word is everywhere. No icon better deserves a second chance. She is, after all, one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of modern times, her feathers and nearly nude flesh appearing in most forms of popular entertainment, from cabaret to circus, music hall to vaudeville.
This visibility was earned by generations of hard-working, hard-living women who packaged glamour and commerce, modernity and cultural tradition, sexual licence and commodified femininity into a sequined cocktail that has enthralled audiences worldwide.
Vulgar she may be, but never dull. Whether she is a glorious cancan dancer cavorting across a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas or the not-so-dumb blonde in a Busby Berkeley musical tap-dancing her way to the top, she cannot help but mesmerise. Take La Paiva, who once duelled with a courtesan, bare-breasted and with bull whips; La Barucci, who mooned the Prince of Wales, boasting; “Look, I show him the best part of me, and it costs him nothing”; and Liane de Pougy, who attended a Paris ball dressed in simple white—her maid following behind, with de Pougy’s magnificent collection of jewellery festooning her apron and cap.
The brightest and best showgirls know that success comes at the cutting edge of sexual autonomy, where their femininity is exploited but still firmly under their own control. The grandmother of all showgirls, Adah Isaacs Menken, was a published poet and literary critic, fluent in five languages. She mixed with artists and intellectuals and was the mistress of both Alexandre Dumas and A C Swinburne (whom she first bedded on a bet). She also had a very public “friendship” with the female write George Sand. She was best-known, however, for her notorious 1860s dance version of Byron’s Mazeppa, which she performed in “fleshings”, skin-coloured tights that made her look nude under her truncated costume.
The writer Colette also did time as a showgirl. Backstage, life was tough and precarious, but it offered freedoms that had been lacking in her brutal bourgeois marriage. She made her debut in a risqué, gender-bending act called Egyptian Dream, which culminated in a “frankly erotic kiss” with her real-life lesbian lover, the Marquise de Belbeuf. From then on, she was hooked.
To a modern woman, it may seem strange that someone with Colette’s talents should choose life as a performer, a spotlit sex object. But from her vantage point on the other side of the spotlight, Colette discovered a counter to the powerlessness of being watched—the power to look back. And what she saw was thousands of faces, simultaneously hidden and revealed by the light. Reflected and refracted back to herself in such a wide variety of eyes, she was finally liberated from those very special scrutinisers—husbands, parents and children—who proscribed most women’s lives.
For the showgirl, the audience is a mirror, a tool of self-realisation, a space in which a woman becomes spectacle to herself, in which she discovers and reinvents herself, in which she quite literally makes herself up. The showgirl understands what most women never acknowledge: that her femininity is a masquerade, a performance, which she can alter and transform as the mood takes her.
It is still the showgirl’s contradictions that fascinate. She is a paradox, selling her sexuality as woman have always had to do, yet also enjoying unique opportunities for financial and sexual autonomy. She teases with her sexual availability, yet threatens sexual danger: men pay for her, but she is never theirs. A drag queen before the term was invented, the showgirl at once highlights women’s sexual power and reduces it to burlesque.
For men, she is the face of illicit feminine sexuality that can acceptably be courted; for women, she is a female icon whose power rests not on her virtue but on her moral ambiguity, an icon who has been able to carve out that territory between Madonna and whore that so many of us are denied.