Girl about town goes Burlesque

Tate Modern’s current exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is potent stuff.

Image by Paddy Mills

Tate Modern’s current exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera is potent stuff. Threading its way from street photographs taken in the late 19th century, through stolen images of violence, sex and celebrity, it is as exhaustive as it is exhausting. But brilliant.

There is an amusing insight in the Public Gaze section, in a series of pictures of the socially ambitious mistress of Napoleon III, the Countess of Castiglione. Almost a century before the word paparazzi was coined – after Paparazzo, the name of a news photographer in Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita – Castiglione created and promoted herself as a celebrity in some 400 staged photographs.

‘She might look less pleased with herself if she knew that, in some ways, she is the precursor of Jordan,’ mused Most Gorgeous Girlfriend, in front of an image of the Countess weeping self-consciously.

Alongside erotic images from Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin is a sequence called ‘Dirty Windows’, by Merry Alpern. She trained her camera on the window of a Wall Street brothel, and even as you stand in the rarefied atmosphere of Tate Modern, there is a frisson at the sight of a girl counting her money, or another bent over with her face against the pane.

The final section is titled Surveillance. Ranging from images of east London suffragettes which were circulated in police stations to reels of CCTV footage, the pictures send a shiver down the spine. They are especially resonant today, as Nick Clegg champions the British need for a Freedom Bill.

‘In fact I went to a debate on privacy held by Big Brother Watch last night,’ MGG continued, as we shared a bottle of wine in Tate Modern restaurant. ‘Did you know that 20 per cent of the CCTV cameras in the world today are in the UK? I gave a small cheer when I realised the coalition government was going to limit them at last.

Anyway I have a theory that what they mostly capture are Londoners having a quick bit of alfresco nookie – which would make the police the ultimate voyeurs...’

I pour her another glass of the excellent Gigondas, and reflect how fortunate we are to live in a time and place where our civil liberties are protected.

Talking of liberties, during a recent evening at the Wam Bam Club night at Café de Paris I fell back in love with burlesque. The night was a whirl of feathers and kitsch; if you haven’t yet been I recommend it. I went with Legal and Lovely Girlfriend, herself a champion of liberty, and also of exotic dance and sequined corsets. After several martinis we decided it was time to have a go at it ourselves.

The first, best and only person to learn from is Jo King, founder of the London Academy of Burlesque and its sister the London School of Striptease. I originally encountered Jo at a hen party, where she gave a hilarious afternoon of burlesque tuition. This time LLG and I decided we would learn to strip.

Aka Goodtime Mama Jojo, Jo is a darling. At 50 and with a figure that is far from size 8 she remains a sought-after burlesque performer, and her combination of maternal cluckiness and three decades of teaching experience mean she can tease anyone into performing a presentable striptease.

Kitted out in Bordelle lingerie, specially bought in Marylebone boutique Apartment C, we presented ourselves in a studio in Mayfair. The central move is what Jo calls the wiggle, in which your hips move in a deliberate figure of eight. After what can only be described as a slow start, she soon has us moving with definite panache. ‘Hold your head high,’ she urges. ‘Make it slow! You are fabulous!’

Jo’s belief in our ability pays off, as do her tips and words of advice. Soon we’re navigating a routine with poise and, dammit, allure. We sashay into the sunshine purring, brimming with fresh body confidence. ‘I understand there’s still a stigma attached to stripping,’ remarked LLG, ‘but it’s madness to criticise a private act which makes you feel good about yourself, and is a nice surprise for your boyfriend.’ I agree. If you fancy a risqué night in, sign up at the London School of Striptease. Indecent exposure, on your own terms.

Original article published in The London Magazine, in August, 2010