Leslie Zemeckis knows how to get Hollywood’s attention for a book signing party: with boobs and burlesque! Leslie recently teamed up with Los Angeles Magazine to co-sponsor “Boobs, Books and Burlesque,” a book signing and charity fundraiser held at the historic Culver Hotel, once owned by Charlie Chaplin and best known for the frolicking antics of the munchkins, who stayed there during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.(www.culverhotel.com)
Hundreds of Hollywood’s most glamorous attended the star-studded launch of Leslie’s new book, Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr. (www.lesliezemeckis.com/goddess) Girl packs of burlesque dancers, and racy cabaret girls were sprinkled throughout the standing-room only crowd. The talented Sylvia & The Rhythm Boys band played as dainty hors d’oeuvres were passed and classic burlesque videos were projected onto a wall.
This glittering homage to the women and the art of burlesque was also supporting the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, which is working to identify the cause of and a cure for breast cancer. (www.drsusanloveresearch.org)
There was an auction of high end items from the Pacific Auction Company that included Chagall and Degas prints, exotic trips, beaded hand bags by designer Mary Frances as well as signed sports and celebrity memorabilia, to raise money to benefit the cause. Cash donors received a free “Exotic Lili” drink, courtesy of Eppa SupraFruta Sangria, and in a very generous move, both burlesque artists donated their earnings from the event.
Leslie Zemeckis shone in a vibrant purple and nude Christopher Kane dress with a matching custom-made KOKIN headpiece, as she signed books and hobnobbed with A-list supporters like Kelsey Grammer and Christopher Lloyd. Her passion for all things burlesque lured April Showers (the reigning Miss Hollywood Burlesque) and Maxi Millions to perform their bewitching burlesque acts for the packed crowd in the classic hotel lobby.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Zemeckis, who is known as a documentary filmmaker, author, and if I might say so, a historian who is preserving the little-known backstory of the world of burlesque.
Most important to her- the voices of the artists- their real stories behind the glitz and grind. She strongly believes that the stories of these women can empower and encourage women. She was very real and passionate, unapologetic for the burlesque world and tantalizingly comfortable with saying the word “boobs.”
Cindy: How did you come to be interested in the burlesque world?
Leslie: Just kind of by happenstance. I was exploring actually what burlesque was because I was doing a one-woman show (called Staar) that had elements of burlesque, or so I thought, you know I didn’t actually know what that meant. So I was just kind of investigating and then I realized that nobody had really done anything about it. No one explained it from the performer’s point of view and I was lucky enough to meet a few. And then once I met a few they introduced me to more and more and more and more. Two years later I was well into it. They just hadn’t told their stories because really nobody was interested and they didn’t think anybody was ever going to be interested.
Cindy: It was much harder- more scandalous back in the day to do burlesque.
Leslie: There’s still prejudice against it today, but certainly not what it was back then. These were mostly girls, a lot of them not well-educated, from not very high-economic means and that was their way to do anything and to see the world, and they weren’t doing anything wrong. There’s definitely a stigma attached to it.
Cindy: Yes, for sure. I mean even today you have to be kind of careful whom you tell that you burlesque.
Leslie: Which is just ridiculous. I mean you’re not nude, jumping onto someone’s lap. It’s a completely different thing.
Cindy: I think it’s glamorous- it’s one of the few places where glamour still exists.
Leslie: Yeah, the girls dress up and they’re gorgeous and they do their hair and makeup and they look lovely.
Cindy: Absolutely! Which came first- your movie Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America, (Burly Q), or the book?
Leslie: I did the film first and because I had so many stories that I couldn’t get on the film, I then decided to do the book. From that, Lili St. Cyr’s sister came to me and said “You’ve gotta write this… you’ve got to write her story.”
Cindy: Please give me a synopsis of your new book Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stipteuse Lili St. Cyr. I understand you have been working on it for five years.
Leslie: It chronicles Lili St. Cyr who was really the biggest burlesque star in her day, which was the 40’s and 50’s when she was really at her height. She was the first stripper in the nightclubs, then the first stripper in Las Vegas. She made gobs and gobs of money. She was really, super famous. Everybody knew who she was. She was just gorgeous- she was in movies, she was everywhere. And nobody really knew her story.
Cindy: Have you ever burlesqued yourself?
Leslie: Not really. In my one-woman show (Staar) I did a comedic strip.
Cindy: Are you into reincarnation at all? Do you believe in past lives?
Leslie: I think so. I mean I don’t really dwell upon it but I think it makes sense.
Cindy: Do you think that that maybe that’s one of the reasons you are so drawn to burlesque? Do you think that you’ve been in the burlesque world before?
Leslie: Possibly. I mean it’s really funny that I am. (Laughs.)
Cindy: I think it makes you accessible and really plugged in to what’s current and still sort of underground. But because of your work, one can now bring it up in a polite conversation.
Leslie: Well, I’m trying. When there’s any understanding of a thing, it makes things acceptable. I mean, to see these women on camera talking about their experiences- they really are people and I approach all of my projects, as “these are people”. I did a film about Siamese twins (Bound by Flesh) and to me they weren’t freaks, they were people. And I think if you show people that, then things are more acceptable and there’s more understanding.
People just out and out dismissed burlesque for years and years and years and years and years and years and years. That it had no value. But if you talk to the women and the men, you know that it was an art form and they really put a lot into it. They didn’t just run up on stage and take their clothes off and run offstage. They really created an act. And the dancers worked so hard on it- making their costumes, the music, everything. It‘s not a light thing that only took an hour of their day. They devoted their lives to it.
Cindy: Do you think burlesque is spreading outside of the major cities?
Leslie: It’s surprisingly worldwide so it’s spreading everywhere. My Burly Q film debuted in Ireland, which I thought was ironic, and they had a huge burlesque culture there, which is not part of their history. So it’s really everybody embracing it saying, “No, this is fun and I can do this, and why not?”
Cindy: Now let’s talk about your dress and your headpiece. Did you make that headpiece by the way?
Leslie: I didn’t, I had it made (by KOKIN) for the dress.
Cindy: It’s gorgeous. In your speech, I heard you saying something about the pattern on your Christopher Kane dress?
Leslie: Yes, it was naked bodies. Women. And you don’t notice it until you stare at it a while and then it’s like “Oh my gosh!”
Cindy: Please tell me a bit about the charity selected for the event and your base of involvement with supporting them.
Leslie: It was perfect. I love what Dr. Susan Love does- the breast cancer research. You know, boobs supporting boobs, right?
Cindy: Yes, yes! Where do you see the future of burlesque headed?
Leslie: You know, I don’t know. It just continues to grow. When I first did the Burly Q feature and it came out, the industry was big and growing and it just seems to get bigger and bigger and a little more mainstream. People are more accepting of it I think. Just the fact that we were at the Culver Hotel and Los Angeles Magazine co-sponsored it. It’s not such a dirty word as it was and I think people are realizing it’s a fun entertainment.
Cindy: Right, absolutely! How did you come to select the Culver Hotel as your venue?
Leslie: It kind of fit in with it being built in the 20’s and there were some burlesque places nearby in the old days so it was kind of fun. I remember some of the women I interviewed in Burly Q saying they had performed near there. Elizabeth Taylor (and other MGM stars) would be in the audience.
Cindy: And what about boylesque? Do you have an interest in that world?
Leslie: Yeah. Oh my God that’s way fun. That is growing too. Some of the best shows I’ve seen are the guys stripping. Absolutely. They are way, way creative and funny. They’re great.
Cindy: A third book possibly?
Leslie: Yeah. Working on it now. I’ve done about a year of research.
Cindy: That’s great- I’ve been seeing more and more of it, so it’s wonderful for you to document that next. In your new book Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr, you’re doing so much for the preservation of her burlesque memory. It was a gorgeous, very classy event and so wonderful of you to support the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Leslie: Thank you, Cindy.