Interview with Holli Mae Johnson, founder of 21st Century Burlesque
Let’s meet Holli Mae Johnson, founder of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine and creator of the annual poll Burlesque TOP 50
21st Century Burlesque began in 2007 as a series of flip books for burlesque and pinup enthusiasts and professionals. In 2010 ad evolved and established as the magazine that we know today. Let’s talk about this project with Editor-in-Chief of 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, Holli Mae Johnson.
Burlesque is not just entertainment
Holli, what does burlesque mean to you?
Burlesque saved me and gave my life purpose at a very traumatic time in my life. I was 20 years old, a survivor of exploitation and abuse with PTSD, who had nothing to live for. Then I walked into a club in San Francisco and my whole life changed. And I know different versions of this story apply for so many people involved in burlesque. Many of us are outcasts and rebels who have known extreme pain and struggle, and need a place to belong and be our true selves.
21st Century Burlesque Magazine, from the idea to the success
What prompted the need to create a site entirely dedicated to the world of burlesque?
I attended Tease-O-Rama – the first burlesque festival – in San Francisco in 2005, and I came back in the following years. I realized I had stumbled upon an amazing community and the contemporary revival of burlesque. I spoke to the performers and photographers and asked if anyone was documenting what they were doing, or publishing the images. Other than a Yahoo! group and some Flickr accounts, no one seemed to be covering the scene more broadly. And this was before Facebook or other social media – burlesque performers existed in little pockets all over the world and only came together at Tease-O-Rama. So I saw a chance to unite everyone, help them share ideas and opinions, and show the world what was happening.
When did you realize that 21st Century Burlesque Magazine had become a point of reference for performers and insiders?
I built slowly over the first few years. I ran an interview with Dita Von Teese in 2009 which attracted some attention, and I launched the Burlesque Top 50 to a largely UK audience. I also attended the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend that same year for the first time and started interviewing Miss Exotic World winners. That’s when the American scene really started to pay attention – and to this day they are the magazine’s biggest fanbase.
In 2011 I published Miss Astrid’s State of the Union address she gave at BurlyCon that year – a controversial statement – and the scene had a very strong and mixed reaction to it; it certainly got people talking.
Then in 2015 I covered a discrimination case where a performer was fired over her size, alongside other bold opinion pieces, and by then the magazine was an undoubted authority; it was even quoted in major mainstream newspapers. Since it began, the magazine has catered to over 2.5 million readers.
Burlesque Top 50
Why the idea of the Burlesque Top 50? The wait to know if next year there will still be a lot, do you want to give us some anticipation?
In 2009 I felt that the magazine needed something to boost awareness and bring the whole global scene together. I thought of Dixie Evans when she created the Miss Exotic World pageant, and realized I needed to create something on that scale too. I also followed publications like TIME and Forbes who published annual lists of the most influential or rich people in the world, and then the idea hit me – a Top 50 most influential burlesque figures. Not ‘best’ – because that’s hugely subjective – but ‘influential’ – the impact they had on the scene. I was nervous at first – I thought people might say ‘Who does she think she is to do this?’ or think it was a bad idea. But I have always taken care to make it about the scene and their decisions, so it’s a list they have created – not me. The vast majority of people love and support the poll, so I’ve kept it going for over a decade.
I almost didn’t run the 2018 poll. I received some very personal attacks after the 2017 poll, with harassment and personal insults made about my family, and I didn’t know if I wanted to carry on – it takes up three months of my life each year and is very hard work. So I asked the scene to really support the 2018 poll if they wanted it to continue – I needed a sign that it was still really valued. And to my amazement, three times as many people voted, so I carried on.
At this time I plan to run a 2020 poll, but because of Covid 19 all shows have been cancelled, and I don’t know when they will begin again. So people will have to make decisions based on other criteria. I’m thinking about a possible alternative if things don’t improve. Stay tuned.
15 years of burlesque
From 2005 until today, how did you see the art of burlesque evolve?
Obviously the key thing is that there are so many more performers. In 2005 you could fit all the burlesque performers in the world in one room. Now there are thousands, and all of them are competing for spots in shows. Professional performers are affected by newcomers and others who perform for small fees or sometimes nothing at all, which encourages producers and venue owners to pay everyone less – even the biggest stars in the industry.
The same thing has happened for writers like me – people offer to do work on job sites like PeoplePerHour or Upwork for a ridiculously small amount of money, so people don’t think they should pay more. It’s very frustrating, and it stops the burlesque industry from expanding.
Social media can also be a distraction. Once upon a time people just created acts and shared them at annual gatherings, but now there is a pressure to entertain and feel significant online as well, and inevitably people argue and project their insecurities. When burlesque is your whole world and a place to belong, it’s easy to spend a lot of time and energy fighting other people in that world who do or see things differently (and obviously I’m not saying issues like racism and sexual assault shouldn’t be challenged and discussed, but I think there are more and less effective ways to do it). That said, I am constantly amazed by the standards of innovation and creativity on stage every year. That is still where burlesque belongs and truly comes alive.
Burlesque in Italy
You have attended shows of artists from all over the world. What do you think of burlesque in Italy?
Like their fashion and music, Italians do everything with style and flair. Italy also happens to be my favourite country in the world!
Is there any performer that has impressed you most of our country?
I’m a big fan of Cleo Viper. Beautiful costumes and creative concepts.
You have become a coach for performers and more. What is your job?
I started out in digital marketing and copywriting when I graduated from university, and I’ve worked professionally for 14 years. As the number of performers increased, promotion became very important, social media became a powerful tool, and performers needed to sell other services to survive. Performers started coming to me for advice on how to promote, market and sell, so I started taking on private clients and running courses on business, branding and sales.
In your opinion, at this moment in history, how does society view the figure of women?
I think anyone who claims women have ‘won the battle’ for equality and feminism is no longer needed are speaking from a place of immense privilege.
I mean, if you can walk down a street without being harassed, or walk through a park at night without fearing for your life, or sleep peacefully beside a partner knowing they won’t abuse you, or work in an office where men aren’t paid more than you for the same job and your boss doesn’t patronize you or hit on you, or your family won’t force you into an arranged marriage and kill you if you don’t agree, or you haven’t had your genitals mutilated, or you haven’t been raped or molested, or your freedoms and rights over your body haven’t been restricted – then… lucky you. But don’t tell the rest of us that women have nothing to complain about or fight against. Just shut up and take a seat.
Right now I’m trying to survive the Covid 19 pandemic like everyone else, so my business and income have to be my first priority. But I’m always thinking about new ways 21st Century Burlesque can serve and entertain the scene, and I hope to deliver new things in the future.