By Nicci Talbot
At 85, Tempest Storm is still going strong. She has just finished recording an album with Jack White and dispenses advice for young women on the B-side. She is doing a comeback show in New York with a new generation of burlesquers and has plans to launch her own clothing line. Nicci Talbot spoke to Kaitlyn Regehr who is making a film about her life.
How did the project to film the story of Tempest’s life come about? What drew you to it?
I’m currently writing a PhD, which is an ethnographic study surrounding sex icons from the 1950s. For this research I interview women who were entertainers (primarily exotic entertainers) in the 1950s and record their oral histories. I met Tempest through this research. What’s so amazing about Tempest is not just that she was girlfriend of Elvis, Mistress of JFK, friends with Marilyn Monroe and a true icon within the history of erotica. She has incredible stories to tell and is incredible at telling them. When I met her I was struck that she had never had a film made about her.
This film is not just about the sex and politics that surrounded 1950s Vegas. This film also lives now in Tempest’s current life in contemporary downtown Las Vegas also called “old Vegas”. It’s the forgotten Vegas, with its ageing casinos and vintage neon signage, which sits as a perfect backdrop as we question what it means to be an ageing sex icon.
How’s it going? What do you need to raise to complete?
We’ve shot about 20% of the film so far and we feel immensely proud of the success the project has had already. The project won Pitchfest LA (at Westdoc) and subsequently was written up in the LA Times, Variety, and Deadline Hollywood. We were also selected as finalists (and the only documentary) to present at Toronto International Film Festival’s Pitch This Forum.
Having said that, we really need public support in order to keep shooting. We currently have a Kickstarter campaign and we need to raise 40,000 dollars on that platform by the 9th of October.
You teach and give talks about the history of women’s sexuality. What have been the most interesting developments over the past century? Do you think we are more comfortable with our sexuality now?
Wow, that is a big question…ok, I realize that this is not a very sexy answer. I realize that you would like me to say that that launch of internet porn or the rebellious flappers of the 1920s, or the advent of the Brazilian wax was the most interesting development in history of sexuality over the past century (all of which I love and support by the way). However, from my standpoint, I honestly believe the best thing that has happened to sex over the past 100 years was the emancipation of women. Today, thanks to our 1960s foremothers, carriers are our birthright, we don’t have to marry for fanatical security – we don’t HAVE to do anything.
So, with commerce and contraception (also a 60s invention) in our pocket, we can date, snog, shag whenever and whoever we chose. The movement also further opened the conversation about women’s ownership of their bodies, which meant that people actually started thinking about how women’s bodies worked – which, from a societal standpoint, is a shockingly recent development. I mean the clitoris was not thoroughly written up in an academic journal until 1998. Read more about that here.
Though much of feminism has been reported to be antithetical to sex (that is, feminists are angry, hairy, penis haters), I truly believe that the more you empower a woman, the more you allow her independence, agency and free choice – the more she will feel confident and empowered in her body. Which will ultimately lead to better sex for all. In sort, feminism made sex better.
When did you first start teaching workshops via dance to empower women? How did it come about and what kind of feedback have you had?
I first started teaching classes in a variety of popular, sexualized dance forms (such as striptease, burlesque, cabaret, coyote ugly, chair dancing) as part of the beginning of the pole dancing aerobics movement. I started at a groundbreaking studio in Toronto, Flirty Girl Fitness, which is now a huge sensation across the US. They have done very well. When the company was just starting out and I began shaping lesson plans and building classes for theme, there was really nothing else like it around. We were pole-dancing pioneers. The idea of taking erotic moments and using them as a way in for women – a way to get in to their bodies, a way to gain understanding of their physical self – was pretty revolutionary, if not controversial.
I was somewhat surprised and incredibly moved by the feedback. Having women look in the mirror and embrace their bodies can be immensely powerful. We laughed together, sometimes we cried together, it was a very special and formative period of my life.
Did the TV series ‘Re-Vamped’ grow out of this?
Much of the work I did on ReVamped grew out of my initial work as a Flirty Girl instructor. My ideology behind the work I did on ReVamped was this: Every woman has a time period where her body type was the absolute ideal whether she is a 1950s pin-up or a 1920s vamp.
The amazing thing about burlesque, cabaret and a verity of pop-dance classes, is that they allow us to embrace a wide range of body types that were popular throughout history. In the 1930s for example, a small chest and wide hip was the ideal. Women indulged in elegance and would wear low back, silk gowns. The larger hip would help the dresses to sway from side to side and the smaller chest meant that no bra was needed and nothing stood between a woman and her dress but a little perspiration.
My job on ReVamped was to figure out what each woman’s time period was and then to teach them to how to dress and move for their body type. A lot of confidence can come from just understanding your personal body type, owning it, and then frigging rocking what you got!
You mention that teaching fitness/burlesque classes has changed your thoughts and reflection on modern feminism. How so?
Much of the argument surrounding self-objectification, especially when speaking about pole dancing aerobics, neo-burlesque, roller derby or any other communal activity where women are reinterpreting a form of erotic entertainment for their own (often recreational) purposes, is the issue of agency. Historically, some more conservative feminist standpoints have not allowed for a nuanced conversation, which allows for personal agency or display. Making any form of display or sexual exploration is at odds with the women’s movement. Unfortunately this creates a very limited view of what a “good” feminist is and begins to sound awkwardly close to many right wing religious preachings involving women’s relationship to their sexuality.
One of the goals of modern feminism is the right to sexual freedom and expression. Burlesque classes, in my obviously biased opinion, create a safe space in which such goals might be explored and implemented.
You did a vintage pin-up calendar, “Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups” to raise funds for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation – the aim being to enable women to explore their femininity post-mastectomy. How did it go? Will you do a new one for 2014?
Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups is a vintage pin-up girl calendar where all models were women living with, or had survived, breast cancer. 100% of the proceeds of this project go to cancer research. I’m not sure I’ve worked on another project that has impacted me the way Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups did. As I mention in the calendar, one day, after teaching a burlesque workshop, I was approached by a breast cancer survivor who had taken my class in order to reclaim her “mojo” post treatment. She told me that she had been asked to participate in a photo shoot in which she would be photographed without her wig “to show the ugly side of cancer”.
She explained that she declined involvement in the project because she feared that the experience would make her feel ‘sick’ and like a victim on display. I was struck by this idea of the ‘victim on display’ and became interested in creating an alternate way of capturing cancer survivors. I wanted to photograph people; not their disease and to give women the opportunity to choose how they represented their post-cancer bodies and sexuality. Thus, my partner on the project Jordan Balaban and I started developing Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups.
Much of the original Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups team were the creative team from my Television show ReVamped. I got luckily that way – they all volunteered their time and brought the project from a conversation in a dance studio to being sold in 200 Safeway stores.
Unfortunately, though the calendar was amazing for the years we did it, everyone worked for free and that is not really sustainable. It is a full time job for me and I need more help. That being said, if there ever is an opportunity, I’d love, love, love to bring it back.
When will the documentary be released in the US/UK?
The film is set for theaters in late 2014 or early 2015…but it’s really dependent on the success of our Kickstarter campaign (bit.ly/tempeststorm). We’ve got some great prizes. One of my faves is the gift where Tempest actually gives you a phone call! We also have the vinyl Tempest recently did with Jack White, which is a fabulous piece. Any support at all is a huge help.
The team have raised their fundraising goal and the campaign ends on the 9th October. For more information, see www.tempeststormfilm.com.
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