“I was a gymnast when I was young,” says the Olympia performer best known as Valerie Veils. “As an adult, I was looking for some kind of outlet to meet people and stay active. And I went to a burlesque show back in 2008, and I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that. And maybe I can.’ I ended up taking a class in Seattle with Miss Indigo Blue, and it just started from there. Turns out I wasn’t too bad at it.” Fourteen years later, the self-billed “Heroine of the Hoochi Coo” has dazzled audiences up and down the Pacific Coast. Now she’s extended her talents to produce the first-ever Pacific Northwest Burlesque Festival, a two-day, ecdysiastic extravaganza that’ll twirl its tassels at the Capitol Theater the first full weekend in May.
“I got into producing because of Tush! Burlesque,” Veils explains. “Everyone who is part of Tush! is partly a producer, and I learned within Tush! that I really enjoyed helping run the show.” That brings us to 2019, two of the longest years of our lives ago. “Myself and Sly Violet decided to produce this festival, which had probably been on my mind for about five years prior to that, and it just felt like the right time — in the moment. Turned out it wasn’t.” No, that’s when the pandemic hit, and festival planning was put on hold. “Honestly, it’s probably the most difficult thing that I’ve been through as, obviously a burlesque performer but also as a human.” See, in her day job, “Valerie Veils” is a nurse who travels between hospitals in need, which, for years now, was all of them. “Since then,” she says, “Sly has decided to put burlesque on the back burner, for now, so now it is just me with help from a lot of help from people in the community.”
So what are the logistical challenges of planning such an event? “They generally take applications from performers throughout the world,” says Veils. “We had over 250 performers from around the world apply … for a festival for its first year.” Once all those applications were reviewed, “the second part is having a venue to work with, to be able to have that many performers in and be able to get performers interested in coming to, and I think Olympia is really lucky. We have a very big burlesque community for such a small town, and we have a really cool, historic theater that I think draws burlesque performers.”
Performers pay their own travel and housing costs. “The only ones we provide that to are our headliners,” Veils explains. Featured performers for this event will be Gaea Lady (pronounced “Gee, a lady”) and Moscato Sky, formerly Moscato Extatique (hence that name on early festival flyers). “My job,” says Veils, “is to provide an experience back to them that’s worth it … getting your name out there, traveling to places that you normally wouldn’t travel to with your performance career. I think it’s the community experience. It’s meeting new people, so not only making new fans or new audience members but also meeting new people in the community.” Veils and company provide meals and AirBnB arrangements to guest artists, along with professional-quality photos and videos of their work at the Capitol Theater.
Burlesque artists are as aware as any entrepreneurs of the necessity of a strong social media presence and brand identity. Veils says she struggled over the years with specifying her own identity within the art form. “I think my acrobatic skills and my presence on stage and my dance ability has been my niche and has brought me far,” she says. “There are performers with super-specific niches, right? Like, their performances are sexy or the slow burn, and then there are the comedic performers and that’s (what) they do and it’s awesome.”
So what are the niche identities of the PNW festival’s headliners? “Gaea Lady, from Chicago,” says Veils, “her specialty is the silk veil. She grew up a dancer. Her presence on stage is so overwhelming, to the point that I think it could bring someone to tears. I remember watching her at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, when she competed for best debut and won. The act that she did, literally almost the entire crowd stood up and cheered because it was so moving and powerful. And not a lot of performers have that ability, and she does.”
As for Sky, “They’re a classically trained dancer and went to Cornish College of the Arts,” she continues. “They’re transgender and they’re very open about it. Declaring that to the world, with an extremely sexy and alluring dance background, is just so great to watch.” They were the first AMAB (assigned male at birth) trans, non-binary performer to compete in the best debut category at the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
Of course, the fun doesn’t begin and end with the headliners. “We have 43 performers total,” Veils continues, with about half coming from outside Washington state. Some will appear in the Friday showcase, which is billed with the motto, “Strip like the mountain is out.” Others will participate in a burlesque competition Saturday, meaning an entirely different lineup appears in the second program. The competition angle, an element of many such festivals, is “to excite the performers to come and to give the crowd a good show,” says Veils. “We will be crowning a monarch of the PNW Burlesque Festival that night, on Saturday, as well as a bunch of fun awards, such as the Sasquatch Award, which is for most comedic performer, (and) the Mount Saint Helens Award for who blew the roof off the most.”
Saturday morning and afternoon are devoted to performance classes. Moscato Sky will teach a chair flow session at 11 a.m. and silk veil at 1 p.m. Gaea Lady will expound upon “divine bump and grind” techniques at 2. Friday’s co-masters of ceremonies are Seattle’s “showgirl scholar,” Sailor St. Claire, and Rebecca Mmmm Davis from Miss Indigo’s Academy of Burlesque. Other performers that night include Portland aerialist Tova De Luna and Tush! regular Beretta Bristol. Saturday’s competition is hosted by Seattle legend Ernie Von Schmaltz and features Olympia Latina trio Papaya Magic Cabaret.
Masks and proof of vaccination are required for all visitors to the Capitol Theater at this time. Prices shown below reflect a $10 discount on two-night, package tickets. Morning and afternoon classes charge separately and can be reserved through the festival website.
ADDENDUM, MAY 9
The following images of the PNW Burlesque Festival were taken and contributed by Molly Walsh.
Photo credits: Valerie Veils, Molly Walsh.
PNW Burlesque Festival
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 6 and 7
206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia