Interview with Isabella Darling

Interview recorded on 01/04/2015
So tell us about Isabella Darling and how you got started in burlesque?

Isabella Darling:
Basically, when I first signed up for the Burlesque classes, it was because I knew of Dita Von Teese, a lot of people probably say that. In High School, I was always the pasty skinned girl with the dark hair, I was never the blonde tanned girl. I tried that whole thing, I tried the going tan and going blonde, and it just wasn’t for me. So my mum, for Christmas, she presented me with this massive coffee table sized book of Dita Von Teese’s. One side of it is called The Art of the Tease, and you turn it over and the other side is the Art of the Fetish. That kind of awakened something in me, I suppose, I read the book, and I was looking at the pictures and I thought “This woman is beautiful!”, it’s her confidence. I read her book and she was like “when I was growing up, y’know, I was never the ‘pretty girl’, I was the ugly duckling of the family”. And then she’s just blossomed, and I really loved that. So I was like, okay, I want to know what this “burlesque” thing is.

So I signed up to do the beginners class with Ayla’s Angels. I really loved Burlesque and I wanted to, I guess, harness my sexualness… I’m not sexy, but I’m sexual, if that makes sense? So I wanted to be doing that sort of strip tease, and then I sort of took a wee bit of a hiatus during 2012, because my job was crazy hours, split shifts out at the airport so, I didn’t do so much in that year. But then, in 2013, I guess I got to know myself better, and I realized that Classic Burlesque was not so much for me because I like to be the person that’s making people laugh. And I don’t care if you’re laughing at me- I honestly, don’t care- or if you’re laughing with me, y’know, whatever.

So I sort of got to this stage where I was trying to incorporate comedy into all of my acts. It’s sort of a little bit of that sexiness but with the comedy and you don’t usually see that, because there is sort of a stigma for female comedians, you know, it’s sort of like they’re funny but they’re not sexy? I’m not saying I think that but that’s the sort of a stigma that exists.

So it’s cool with a burlesque act that’s comedy, it’s sort of like you’re showing “Yeah, there’s a sexy side of me but I can make you laugh as well.” The first act that I did that made people laugh, and then hearing them laugh, that was like the biggest validation of it for me. That was the Snow White act where I basically take your well known Disney character – essentially she existed well before Disney, but you know what I mean – and made her into this relatable, drunk, hot mess, that The Prince has left her and everything’s shit and that’s like what real women actually go through. So, combining the two and doing that act I found my feet, almost. Women especially love that act, because it’s the typical “you’re heartbroken, so you’ve had a few drinks and you’ve got a cigarette and you’re sort of pissed off at the world.”

Anyway, that’s how I would define Isabella Darling, she’s bringing the comedy element into burlesque because I feel like you can be sexual, express sexuality but also be funny.

How has Isabella evolved over the years, what are some of her turning moments?

Isabella Darling:
The first ever performance I did was in a graduation show for Ayla’s Angels after the beginner’s course. I did a kind of religious act… well, I was a Nun, although I have found out recently that there’s a performer up in Wellington who is very well known for her Nun Act, so I haven’t done it again because I have evolved since then and it’s her thing, its professional courtesy.

How I evolved? Well that first performance, I fucked up my timing and the music ran out before I was finished and that was my worst nightmare. Then I just stood there and I saw this crowd full of people, and I was just was like “Oh Shit”, and I said it out loud, in front of everyone and they just laughed. I thought, “Fuck, I kinda liked the bit where they were laughing, rather than the bit where they were hooting and hollering, I kinda liked the laughing more”. I think we started the track from the top and I sort of finished the act. I remember thinking “THAT was my worst nightmare” but when it happened in real life it wasn’t so bad, you know, it was fine.

I’ve always been a bit of a clown around my friends, and I’m always the one that’s making inappropriate jokes and all this sort of thing. I’ve evolved to realise that maybe some of these inappropriate jokes, maybe some more people want to hear these jokes than just like my friends and maybe there’s more people than I think that have the same sense of humour as me. People love to laugh so, I’ve more evolved into that comedy aspect.

I moved from wanting to be a really classic sort of burlesque artist to wanting to do comedy, and also I like the acting element of it as well. When I first started, I was Isabella Darling, and that’s one character. Like when I’m on stage I’m Isabella Darling, but now I’ve realised, my Burlesque character is Isabella Darling, but within that I can have different persona’s. I did a Joker act, and that was probably not that sexual, because I came out, and I was like flicking my tongue, stroking peoples hair and just creeping them out, and I was dressed like the Joker, in a masculine way, but I loved acting a bit sinister and doing the acting side of it.

What has helped you take Isabella and burlesque this far?

Isabella Darling:
I would have to say, my inspirations and also people in the real world who have given me the chance to perform and who have said ‘yep, you can do that act”. So with Ayla’s Angels, putting an act in a show, I would say to Nancy Nightshade, “Can I do this?” and I’d be worried, cos it’s not like typically sexy, but she’d be like “yep, you do it well, you can do it, that’s fine”. So I’ve been pleased to have the opportunity to perform things that aren’t classic, and a bit sort of left of centre, and my inspirations are so varied. I have like my big, big inspirations like Jim Carey, I’ve always loved Jim Carey, he’s like my idol. And I know that’s so far away from Burlesque as you can get, but his physical comedy, his expressions and the impressions he can do, I’ve always really loved it.

Closer to home, there’s Lily Loca, I really like her, because she does this act where she is Gary, and so the acting in that is just brilliant, I think she’s a drama teacher so she’s got that down. Seeing her bring the acting side and the comedy side of it into burlesque has really inspired me. Miss Tassel’s last year was good, because with that I got to go up to Miss Burlesque, and perform in front of some people I didn’t know from Wellington and in front of people like Willow Noir and Sina King from Australia, and that was cool performing in front of them and then have them give me feedback. So one of the things that Sina King said to me [was] she liked the fact that when I get up on stage it’s obvious I’m pretending to be a character, in the sense of the act, but I’m not pretending to be someone else completely. Like, I’m me but I’m being a character, and she really liked the comedy element of it. So it was cool having that feedback from her, and I wouldn’t have got that if I hadn’t performed at Miss Burlesque, so that was good.

My mums a big help as well, she’s always giving me idea’s and helping me out with costumes and things like that, and helping me to sew things and make things. Another thing is that a lot of people say to me “does your dad know you do this?” And I’m like, “yep, my dad knows I do this”, my dad is fine. He actually helped me with the dialogue for Snow White. At the start of the act, I come out and I’m talking. I’m stumbling around, I’m drunk and I’m saying “The Prince has left me, I found texts on his phone from Cinderella, and all this sort of stuff, and I remember speaking that dialogue and being like “Dad, can you watch me do this and tell me if you think I’m projecting my voice as much as I need to be and stuff?” So he helped me with that and he was the first audience for that dialogue. So my parents are really supportive which is good, because I know that there’s some people in the scene that their parents don’t know they do it and they’re not that supportive, which I think is such a shame because there’s more to burlesque than just taking off clothes.

And something that we ask everyone we interview, when did you know you weren’t normal?

Isabella Darling:
I’ve always known I’m not normal, literally since I was a child, I have a really big problem with taking on all of the worlds problems. I remember being a little girl when I was, I dunno, 5 or 6 and I just went and sat in my room and I was crying by myself and I was like “Man, urgh, there’s so many problems in the world”. There’s so much shit going down and I literally couldn’t understand why there couldn’t be world peace. That’s why I actually like children, because they have these grand notions of world peace and everyone getting along. They can be little shits some times, yeah. But, I was just one of those kids that couldn’t understand a lot of things about the world, not because I couldn’t understand the concept, but because I couldn’t understand the bad things that were going on, and so, I’ve always had this thing of carrying the worlds weight upon my shoulders. If I wasn’t doing burlesque, or maybe in the future I will do this, my dream is to travel the world, I want to produce a documentary, essentially. Travel the world and, not interview, but get to know the worlds children and what it’s like in their lives, so like have this documentary of all these children and their little stories. It’s weird but that’s my ultimate thing.

I feel like when people are laughing at a joke or at something, and they’re enjoying it, it’s almost as if you’re going back to your childhood a little bit, to when you were able to just enjoy something and just laugh at it and forget about everything else that’s going on in your life. Laughter’s like the most important thing for me. When I hear people laughing, I just love it, because it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are in the world, I even think sometimes “Man, imagine if in Syria, the people there, do they laugh at jokes? Do they sometimes laugh?” Y’know, like that would be cool. And people who are going through horrendous, really horrible things in their lives, laughter is the sort of thing, I guess that it’s like that Robin Williams movie, Patch Adams. Because when you’re in that moment of laughter, you are forgetting about all your problems for that moment…

I’m guessing that’s why you like to make people laugh?

Isabella Darling:
Yeah! And I don’t mind people laughing at me, and I used to, because I didn’t have a great tine at Primary School and I didn’t really have a great time in High School either. People have laughed at me in the past and I’ve come to the stage of realisation that [it’s] all good with me. Y’know, if I’m doing something that is making people laugh, I’m just like “cool”, I don’t mind anymore. Like I don’t have any qualms about that, and that’s why I’ve sorta moved into a different side of Burlesque.

I especially like to make women laugh, and that’s no offence towards men, but men seem to laugh more in their day to day life at things more than women do, and it’s harder to make women laugh. And then, I saw Bridesmaids, y’know that film? And I was cracking up the entire time and I was like “THIS is the kind of comedy I love.” And women, the world over, find that movie funny, because it’s like relatable as well. I think women are good at laughing at themselves sometimes, so, when there is relatable things like that in that film and then you’re laughing because you’re like “I do that too”.

Lets just say I wanted to be a part of Burlesque, what advice would you give to me starting out?

Isabella Darling:
First off, I would say, facebook and online are the biggest resources you can have because that’s how you connect with all the other performers. I went to Taiwan last year, and I posted a message somewhere saying I’m gonna be in Taiwan, I’d love to see a burlesque show if they have them in Taiwan. After which I found out that actually they do not because strip clubs are illegal in Taiwan. A burlesque performer, an Italian living in Taiwan, saw that message and got in contact with me and was like “hey, what’s up? Lets meet up?” And so, I went to Taiwan and I met up with this girl I had never would have met if I wouldn’t have been in the burlesque scene and gone on facebook. That was cool. Everybody’s got a facebook page. The other thing with burlesque is when you first get into it, you really have to do your research, because when you’re picking a name, there’s so many other people that might have that name, and there’s coming up with an act, that’s hard work as well because a lot of things have already been done, so yeah, just Internet, Internet, Internet.

And also, it’s good to do the Ayla’s classes, because then you have that first opportunity to perform, and then you can perform again at private gigs and in an Ayla’s show, we also do corporate gigs sometimes as well. Then you get to practice your acts more, so thats why I have done a few acts more than once, because then you get better at them, you need the chance to perform to be doing that. So probably signing up for the classes [helps], but also sometimes there are people coming to Christchurch and doing workshops. I did one with LouLou D’Vil and that was as part of the New Zealand Burlesque Festival, last year (2014), and that was a good bump n grind workshop. I’m also doing a workshop with Venus Starr, she’s taking a two hour workshop, it’ll be good to learn somethings off her. Learn as much as you can from all the different performers, by going to their workshops, also, it’s a good way to support their art as well. Because, basically, if you’re a full time performer, your main income is that. So, doing the workshops when they come to town and also, keeping up to date with things on facebook, there’s Burlesque news and there’s different facebook pages that let you know about stuff going on around the world.

There are some particularly big names in NZ, Venus Starr, is one of them. Do you find they’re supportive of the newer performers?

Isabella Darling:
I think that the big names in Burlesque are pretty supportive, like Lilly Loca from Auckland. She came down and did a workshop, she was coming down for a show and I messaged her and I was like “Man, you should do a workshop, we’d all come”, and so a bunch of us Ayla’s girls and a few others went along and that was really cool, because she wasn’t going to do a workshop, she was just gonna come down and perform, but she put that workshop on for us. I think Bonita [Danger Doll] and Ruby [Ruin] are really supportive as well because they’ve got their Burlesquercise, and they’re sorta bringing Burlesque to a more general audience as well. I think all of the big names are supportive, yeah. I feel that Venus is [supportive of new performers], because what happened with Miss Tassel’s was basically Venus messaged us and she was like “Do you need another judge for this?” and we were like “FUCK YEAH!”, because Venus Starr! We worked it all out with her and we’re flying her down and we’re putting her up in accommodation and all that because we have to have [her]. She actually said, she wants to do this because she wants to support the new talent coming up out of the South Island. Sometimes it feels like in the South Island you’re a little bit out of touch with the North Island. The North Island burlesque scene is a bit tighter, I think, but also facebook’s helped me with that, in that, you can like all these different peoples pages and see what they’re doing and encourage them, and comment on their pictures “I love that”. There’s one girl I have never met who lives in the North Island, her name is Pixie Twist, and she does like a Slut Shaming act. Basically, she’s got all these labels on her, like Slut and Whore and stuff and she peels them off. I saw the photo of it, I’ve never seen the act, but I’ve seen the photo and I commented on it and I was like “I fucking love this”. So facebook is good to bridge the gap a wee bit but, it’s still quite hard because sometimes you feel a bit out of touch with what’s going on in the North Island, because there’s so much more going on up there, in terms of shows and things like that.

Altearoa: id4
We’ve touched a little on burlesque and politics, and we know you did a write up in Pastie Politics. Did you want to talk a bit more on how burlesque and that meets up, and why that fascinates you?

Isabella Darling:
So Amorous Ava put the call out, and she was like “look, I’m going to be doing this zine, it’s going to be burlesque and politics basically” and feminism, actually, that was another thing she was wanting articles on. I sort of wrote about how burlesque is a good forum for women, and men as well, to get up on stage and do an act that challenges something about society that could be holding women back. For example, I met this girl in Wellington, and she did an act where basically, she comes out on stage and she’s got all these cupcakes, and then she’s got this beautiful dress and the gist of the act is she wants to fit into the dress, but she also wants the cupcakes and that whole internal dialogue, I guess, she made an act out of that, and that’s her challenging something that’s prevalent in society, is that we as women should be denying ourselves these other pleasures so we can look a certain way in a dress. In the end, she goes more towards the cupcakes, so it was cool. You wouldn’t really get a platform anywhere else, because with Burlesque you make up all your own acts, so I don’t know where else you would get that opportunity, to make up an act that makes a statement like that. Because in theatre, you’re acting a character, maybe if you’re a writer you can write about these things but burlesque gives you that opportunity to take an idea and make an act in response to it, and just be like “fuck that idea”, y’know?

Then I’ve seen housewife acts, I’ve seen a couple in the past, I can’t remember who performed them but the gist of it was the performer comes out dressed like a “good” housewife, and it starts off like they’re the good housewife, then they go into the burlesque, striptease thing and they’re like “fuck this, I’m a housewife, but I have this sexual side of me too”. It’s a funny, comical act, but at the same time, it’s actually making a point. Yeah, I think that burlesque gives women that platform to make a statement about something, and they might not get that platform otherwise. That’s what I basically wrote about for pastie politics.

So what were some things that got in the way that you weren’t expecting?

Isabella Darling:
in 2012, my job, basically because I was working nights, most nights, you do need a job that’s, not flexible, but is essentially a day job. You really need that 9 to 5, otherwise you won’t have that time. So I did actually look for a new job, so I that could do more burlesque, there were other reasons too, I needed a job that I can be doing stuff during the nights and after work.

In terms of relationships, I’ve actually had no backlash at all from friends or family, because I realised a long time ago, if you are my friend, or if you are my family, then you take me as I am, whatever I do. All of my friends have been super supportive, even though burlesque isn’t really their thing, per say. They sort of might not get it, but they come along to the shows anyway, because they know I’m in it and they want to support me. Last night, I actually had one of my friends, she was like “ohh, I bought a ticket to Miss Tassel’s”, it’s not the thing she usually goes and would watch off her own bat, but the fact that she texted me and she was like, I bought a ticket and I had another friend text me and say “Oh I bought a ticket”, it just about brought a tear to my eye. If they didn’t know me, they would never have come to a burlesque show, and I just felt so loved. So, I’ve never had any backlash which is so good, and my parents have been really good, but I do know of performers who their parents don’t want to come to shows, they don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Relationship wise, I’ve never had an issue. Although, the thing I find is if I’m out and I meet a guy and he’s like “What do you do?”, and I’ll say “I work in retail, and I also perform Burlesque”, they immediately sort of equate that with stripper, which is fine, but then they sort of see me as a good conquest because I’m a burlesque dancer, but that’s not girlfriend material because she takes her clothes off in front of people. You start to be seen in a certain light, not taken seriously as a prospect to be someones girlfriend.

So I’m doing things like this, and I’m expressing myself in this way, so I sort of feel like if I do ever meet the right guy, he would be a guy who would accept all of that and not have a problem. Which its hard to find, because I find that a lot of men can be quite conservative, a lot of kiwi men especially, for some reason.

Do you want to talk about some burly crushes?

Isabella Darling:
oh, burly crushes, okay, Hannah TaskerPoland, straight up. She’s a babe, and her performances are absolutely flawless. The first time I actually saw her perform was actually at an Ayla’s show a couple of years ago. She’s actually got a background in dance, she’s a professional dancer, and the first act I ever saw her do was a fire fan act, but I was just mesmerised by her on stage, because the way she’s moving, she’s mesmerising and she’s just so creative. There was a writer that came to Electric Burlesque, they saw her and they summed it up perfectly, they were like “ I could watch her washing the dishes and be entertained”, and that’s so true. Then she went and did an act of her washing the dishes, and I just think she is one of a kind. I also like Lilly Loca because she does the acting side of it, she has different characters within Lilly. When she is Lilly Loca she does the classic burlesque acts, and then she also can be Garry, who is awkward, kind of like nerdy guy, and the way that she does it, it’s convincing.

It just goes to show my earlier point, she’s sexy but she’s also funny, y’know. And who else… My first ever Burlesque crush was of course Dita Von Teese, but now I’ve come to more appreciate her opinions and what she uses her voice for, because whatever she has to say, a lot of people are listening.The messages she puts out into the world are really positive, so I’ve come to appreciate her more for that than.

My biggest sort of inspirations are people who I love their minds and their idea’s for acts, are usually people who are sort of dealing in burlesque but with comedy. I also like Dirty Martini, and I also like performers who make a political statement as well. Because I feel like that’s essentially what Burlesque was when it first started, I’ve seen, or read, a couple of times that in Ancient Greece, they were using it as a form of political satire, so that’s what it was originally, the little seed of it. So it’s cool to see it being used for that again.

Who else? I really like Willow Noir, because she does stuff that’s a bit different, and she’s also a really good person in terms of when it comes to inspiration for saving money on costumes, because she’s really thrifty and savvy with her money and her costumes. So she’s got amazing costumes, but she’s made it all or sourced it all, or found it or borrowed it or something. I don’t have a lot of money, so I can’t be spending thousands of dollars on corsets and boa’s and all this sort of thing, so Willow’s a good inspiration for that, she actually said to me, “You don’t actually need that much money”.

Is it kind of hard being a poor girl in the burlesque scene?

Isabella Darling:
Yeah, it is, because you do see a lot of bling and sparkle and sometimes it does feel a bit like “oh, I don’t have enough money for that”. It doesn’t make you feel like less of a performer but it does make me feel like I can’t take myself to that next level because I don’t have that money. But at the same time, I feel like that’s not what burlesque should be about anyhow. It should be about the idea’s, the concepts, the stage presence, and I think that in how creative you are as well, it should be about that because you can make some beautiful things if you have the right idea. I love Audrey Baldwin, and she’s not really, strictly burlesque but she is the thriftiest person and she can make something from nothing, you couldn’t buy her idea’s, y’know what I mean? You could spend a lot of money on a costume, but someone else could also do that, but if you’ve got a really original idea, that’s priceless.

So let’s talk about some of your favourite moments in burlesque and some of your least favourites?

Isabella Darling:
My favourite moment was in my first ever act when the music stopped, and the audience was all good. They like to see that you’re real, they can appreciate an illusion, but they can also appreciate realness, it can go either way. I actually liked that moment, because it was a moment that I thought would be my worst nightmare but wasn’t. I liked performing my Snow White act for the first time at Miss Tassel’s in 2014, because that was the first time I had done the act and like 10 of my friends came to watch me and they were legitimately laughing, I know if they were fake laughing because I can hear it, but they were literally laughing and the whole audience was too. And getting feedback from the audience, in my dialogue when I say “I saw texts on his phone from Cinderella”and someone in the audience yelled out “What a slut!”, I love that banter. So that was a good moment as well. And the friendships I have made, as well, because we’re all similar minded in terms of feminism and in terms of how we feel as women in society, so we’ve all kinda got the same idea’s. Also, I helped to organise one of the Ayla’s shows which was the Winter Masquerade Ball, and to see that entire venue filled, that was amazing.

And then bad moments, I don’t know if I’ve had any really bad moments. Sometimes the stress, because you’re working under a time limit, if I’m helping to organise something that’s when I really get stressed. If I’m just performing it’s fine, because I’ll have an act ready usually, and it’ll be fine. But with Miss Tassel’s, there’s so many things I am thinking about, I’m thinking about my contestants, gotta keep in touch with them, keep them up to date, being in contact with Venus, making sure everything is sorted there, doing the judges, updating the facebook page, putting up the posters, all of these things. But I kind of thrive off that stress, so I’ve found that I actually kinda like event planning, so that’s another aspect if I hadn’t done burlesque, I might not have figured that out. But that can be stressful with having a day job, but my day job, they’re really supportive, they’re coming to shows and stuff. The department I work in, is all with women, so they’re all wanting to know about tassel twirling and they want to know about burlesque so that’s been really good.

The only thing I worry about is applying for certain jobs, but at the same time I don’t know if I’d want any jobs where they’d be like “oh you can’t because you did burlesque”. I can see how someone who worries about what people think would be stressed out about burlesque, but to be honest, I dunno, I got to a certain point in my life and I think it was in my early 20’s where I was like fuck it, I don’t care. There was a point where I was like “oh my god, all my relatives might see this stuff on Facebook” but I don’t care. I put my boobs on facebook now, I don’t care anymore. They were covered, like with pasties, but still, I’m not stressed anymore. I’ve realised the small group of people who’s opinions I truly care about, that’s all that really matters to me.

I kind of like doing a birthday party because I basically made a head piece that has birthday candles on it so I actually light the candles and get down on my knee’s for the birthday boy to blow out the candles. My mum’s really concerned about that one. She’s like ‘you’re going to set your hair on fire and ruin it”, and I’m like it hasn’t happened yet so, I just can’t use hairspray on those particular occasions, but it’s usually fine. I like thinking up little things like that, I’m thinking next birthday party I wonder if I could like tassel twirl in the guys face, and just like slap him in the face with the tassel’s, I dunno. Maybe I’ll try that.

So what are your plans for the future?

Isabella Darling:
My plans for the future are to continue in this avenue of bringing comedy into burlesque, and also I would also love to pursue acting as well, in some way, shape or form, because I also like being a character, and essentially it all comes back to I like telling someones story, not just necessarily my own story, but someone else’s. There’s so many things I want to do, I’ve never really made up my mind about one career path, so I’m going with the flow, I wanted to be so many different things over the years. My degree is in Japanese and philosophy, so I love philosophy and I wanted to be a modern day philosopher and write books. I also did Japanese because I wanted to move to Japan and teach and after that degree finished I went to art school and I was like I’m going to be an artist, I’m gonna paint everyday. There’s all of these different things that I love, so I don’t actually know where exactly I’m going to end up, I just wanna be able to look back on my life and be like “I traveled, I did this, I did that, I had an amazing time and I tried everything”. I don’t want to like, settle down, y’know, like some people sorta say that “oh I’d just love to settle down one day and have children”, and that’s not me at all. I just wanna be bad ass. Just do heaps of different projects and make a documentary, that would be cool, I’m thinking about film school for that, but the problem is there’s so many things I want to do, I don’t know what to choose. But yeah, I’ll definitely carry on with burlesque because I’m really liking bringing the comedy into it.

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About Vince Clark 64 Articles
One of the original founders of Altearoa in 2013. Coming from a background in theatre and the perfoming arts Vince is the jack-of-all-trades behind - creating graphics, developing the website, and producing events along side writing and photography work.

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