Thursday 23 March 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #2 - Black Vintage Burlesque

In my second post exploring the history of the black Pin Up I want to look at the world of burlesque during it's hey day during the 1950's and early 60's. With Neo burlesque well and truly now a part of mainstream culture (nipple tassels from Ann Summer's anyone?) it would be easy to assume that today's burlesque superstars are direct examples of the original scene, but that wouldn't be strictly true. For every Dita Von Teese and Immodesty Blaize today, there was a black performer equally as talented and devoted to the art back then. It could be that the media (then as now) chose to ignore performers of colour in favour of the white all American version.

So with this in mind here are some black burlesque performers who should be as well known as the legendary Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans but have fallen from view. Let's take a look at their incredible careers...

Jean Idelle

Imagine, it's 1950 and you're a young black woman who has just told your mother you want to become a burlesque dancer. She, in trying to guide her daughter to opt for a less salacious career, sends you to speak with the local pastor. Thankfully, the pastor is a man with a liberal outlook on life and tells you, if it's what you really want to do, to follow your dreams.

With Gods blessing Jean Idelle went on to become one of the most sought after exotic dancers of her era. She was a naturally gifted dancer and having studied under Katherine Dunham, she was soon 'discovered' and began performing at Minsky's Burlesque show in Chicago where she worked her way up to become a headline act taking to the stage between 1950 and 1964.

Idelle's trademark performance was dancing with huge white ostrich feather fans and at the height of her career she was earning around $1000 a month. By today's standards that's around $8600, which for a black performer makes the sum even more impressive considering the racism and segregation of the time .

The amount of money Idelle was making was due to her impeccable performances. Professionalism was very important to her and she was never late never sick or sloppy. For such a woman to be so successful both professionally and financially it seems odd that her name is not better known.

Perhaps Idelle's true legacy should lie in her success at performing in both white and black clubs across the U.S and Canada. It can't have been easy staying true to your art in the face of adversity.

Lottie 'The Body' Graves

By the 1960's burlesque was beginning to loose it's appeal. In order to gain bigger audiences the focus became less about the art form and more about the strip, resorting to showing more skin, and mingling with the punters.

Having been classically trained as a dancer, Graves began her burlesque career at the early age of 17 and brought a dash more class to her performance. She stood out thanks to her elegant moves and outstanding figure.

Graves said that exotic dancing was 'top of the shelf, the champagne of dance' and her polished art form gave her the opportunity to lead an equally glamorous lifestyle rubbing shoulders with the likes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin.

Motown legend Martha Reeves a friend and neighbour stated,

'She held her own. Lottie had skills that were superior to all of her competitors. She out-danced them all.

She had body movements that only she could pull off, and very elaborate costumes. And I know she can still dance, and does a high kick that shows a lot of young ladies [up]'

Like Jean Idelle, Graves can be credited with breaking through racial tensions at the height of open racism by performing at white clubs. Never classed as a stripper, Graves unique moves set her apart from other bump n grinders and she transcended both the burlesque and racial barriers. 

Toni Elling

At the age of 32 Toni Elling began stripping quite late in life. It was 1960, and after spending nine years struggling to get a promotion in her telephonist job, and being denied one because of her race, Elling had had enough. It was after taking some advice from her friend Rita Revere, herself a stripper, Elling decided to give the burlesque scene a try.

Taking her stage name from Duke Ellington, Elling started her new career in The Flame Show Bar in Detroit. (She and Ellington were good friends and it is rumoured he wrote the song 'Satin Doll' in her favour). 

Of her first gig Elling said, “I was surprised I knew what to do and that it went over so well. I wouldn’t get an agent, though. Didn’t know why I needed one. So many places I couldn’t work because of the colour thing. An agent who was a friend booked me in Lima, Ohio. Word got around and after that, I found it easy to get work outside Detroit. I finally got a bit of a reputation.”

She had many gimmicks to fill out her repertoire. A Spanish act in a flamenco dress, a wedding dress strip and even a street walker character. But Elling got frustrated by other performers stealing her routines. Because of this she decided to do something few others could mimic, an Afro act. "There weren’t that many black entertainers in Oregon at the time. Nobody could copy that". She also included singing into her routines which went down well with her audiences.

Elling's cool and elegant demeanour earned her much praise in the burlesque community and opened doors, taking her to places other black performers had been denied. She toured the U.S Canada and even took her act as far as Japan.


There were many amazing performers to choose from while researching this post, it's worth mentioning a couple more who caught my eye; the statuesque Ethelyn Butler who used exotic dancing as a bridge to ballet...

 ..and the exquisite Sahji Jackon who appeared in a movie alongside Dizzy Gillespie. Both of these ladies must have fantastic back stories, yet I could find little about them!

It was good to learn how diverse burlesque was (and still is), but eye opening to see how little non white performers get to be in the lime light. I'm really glad that on the whole these women took control of their careers and images and made names for themselves. I think they deserve as much applause as possible.

Next time I'll delve into the girly magazines of the vintage era to see how the black Pin Up was represented in the age of Bettie Page and her colleagues.

Thursday 16 March 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #1 - The Black Pin Up

Following on from my post about the Vogue Ball introducing work I will be doing with Manchester dance troupe The House Of Ghetto I've begun to look into the history of the black pin up which will be the project's starting point.

Obviously, I adore the Pin Up and when speaking of the Pin Up I refer to models, dancers and performers who have all appealed to popular culture through their work and mass produced image. I have even painted pin ups myself in the past. Yet pin ups are almost always shown as white women. It seems the Western world never quite managed to embrace the idea of other races having a sexual identity. The Pin Up's black sibling (and for that matter Hispanic or any other race) is majorly under represented in mainstream popular culture. 

That's not to say that the beloved Pin Up hasn't donned the apparel of other cultures, but she's hardly given those cultures any agency or freedom of expression. She was simply play acting and appropriating cliched ideas.

Despite the lack of portrayal in the Western world, the black female form has long had a power to fascinate the Western audience. Going back as far as the early 19th Century we can find the example of Sara Baartman

Born in the Cape Colony (present day South Africa)  Baartman was a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction because of her unusually large buttocks. Her 'performance' drew huge crowds across England (where she was baptised in Manchester Cathedral) and France, where she eventually died at the young age of 29. After her death her skeleton and body cast were put on display at the Natural History Museum in Angers. 

I understand it is a far leap to put Baartman in the story of the black Pin Up yet she holds an important place in terms of non white women being seen as more 'exotic', animal-like and sexually primitive by white audiences. She wasn't accepted as a 'normal' woman because of her different physical qualities, she was an oddity and her threat was minimalised by making an example of her. This is something to bear in mind when thinking of how the black woman's image has been represented in popular Western culture through the ages.

Moving forward a century, most people will have heard of Josephine Baker and her 'Danse sauvage' where she thrilled the audiences of the Folies Bergere dancing in her famous banana skirt. Baker embraced the things that made her stand apart from the Western ideal, and unlike the upsetting and unsettling story of Baartman, she was able to freely exploit Western notions of the primitive woman to her own advantage. Often referred to as The Black Pearl,The Bronze Venus and The Creole Goddess, Baker created a colourful parody which gained her money, fame and lasting notoriety. Her legacy was to create a shift in how a black woman could hold the power to her sexuality whilst being objectified.

As technology evolved and took hold of the entertainment industry, performers from the burlesque scene became popular fixtures in Hollywood musicals. One such talent from the chorus line was Jeni LeGon. 

Jeni LeGon (see more @gemma_parker_artist)

Dancing from the age of 16 for the Count Basie Orchestra, LeGon had a distinctive gangly style both acrobatic and comedic. She was soon spotted and whisked to Hollywood to appear in her first film Hooray For Love in 1935. As she credits herself, 'I had moves that were typically men’s moves because they were so technically difficult - flips, splits, cartwheels - I could do it all'. No one else offered the particular package LeGon could and because of this she broke new ground as a black woman singing and dancing in mainstream Hollywood films pre the likes of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge.

You can see her technical ability and sweet girlish style on the screen as she performs alongside Fats Waller and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Yet despite the film's success leading to a contract with MGM, her dancing career on film was short lived. She was so skillful she outshone the white leading ladies and soon MGM couldn't find a project suitable for her. She was pigeonholed into typically black roles such as the grass skirt wearing dancer in Swing Is Here To Stay (1936) or increasing, during the 1940's, as a housemaid. It is sad to think of all that frenetic talent going to waste. 

It's interesting to note the difference in how LeGon was represented as the savage black woman to how Josephine Baker chose to do it. LeGon had no authority over her image in this scene. Unlike Baker her control has been taken away so she becomes a 2 dimensional cartoon, another minimalised black stereotype with no sexual identity and no threat.


Jeni LeGon had varied success in her career and, as with most true greats, her talents weren't fully appreciated until much later in life. There is a brilliant article where you can read more about her highs and lows HERE

While researching the black Pin Up I hope that my brief notes give some context to the power of the images that these women left behind.
Join me next time where I'll be looking into the past at the little known stars of the black burlesque scene through the 1950's and 60's.

Monday 6 March 2017

International Women's Day: the Helen Gurley Brown effect

It's International Women's Day this week (March 8th) and I thought I'd mark the occasion by commemorating a woman who changed modern culture. You may or may not have heard of Helen Gurley Brown, but her impact on Western women's attitudes to sex, careers and relationships is immeasurable. She helped create a change in women's lives for the better which led to lifestyles many of us can now take for granted.

To fully understand Brown's effect on modern culture you must first try to imagine how life was for women up to the early 1960's. This was a time before the feminist movement had taken hold and women in the UK had only gained the right to vote a few decades earlier. Life for many women was expected to follow a particular and limited course; marry in her early twenties (or late teens) and begin a family which she would then dedicate her entire existence to. Being a wife and mother were a woman's main duties. To somehow avert these fates was often seen as failure or a waste or to be pitied.

However by the early 1960's strict social attitudes towards gender were beginning to broaden. The Kinsey Report of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female from 1953 had already caused ripples of shock by just talking about women's sex lives beyond marriage, a thing never before done on a public scale. While the new phenomena that was Playboy Magazine, championed the idea that women enjoyed sex as much as men, again unheard of in a world that valued women's virginal (unmarried|) or maternal (married) state but never the idea of her actually having sex outside of these two polar ideals. Women who had sex for anything but procreation were still generally seen as fast, loose and social pariahs. To confuse the status quo even more, a new method of contraception was introduced with the coming of the 60's and 'the pill' offered a new sense of freedom for women wishing to avoid pregnancy.

When thinking of the figureheads of the feminist movement which naturally evolved alongside and aided by these cultural shifts, it's easy to think of influential women like Gloria Steinem or Betty Freidan whose journalistic and literary works stand out as seriously empowering women's voices. Yet another woman was making her mark in an altogether different way with no less impact. 


Helen Gurley Brown caused an international sensation when she released her book 'Sex and the Single Girl' in 1962. This highly accessible book was written in the style of one girlfriend talking to another. It did away with the cold sterile scientific language of earlier books on the subject of S.E.X and introduced the idea that women not only had sex outside of marriage but they enjoyed it and actively went in search of it. Brown, by then a married woman herself had done the unthinkable and published a book detailing her own (mis)adventures as a single woman spanning almost 20 years and over 100 lovers.
 The fallout from this was huge. Overnight Helen Gurley Brown became a household name for all the wrong reasons. She became 'that woman'. It's fun to witness Brown's guest slots on a myriad of TV and radio shows during the 60's (you can find many on youtube). Always introduced as 'the author of 'Sex and the Single Girl'' her shameful notoriety went before her and audiences were deliciously shocked by her unique opinions. On one of her many appearances on the chain smoking confrontational host Joe Pyne's show she was called a 'terrible woman' for writing about how to have affairs with married men. Yet despite the public's moral outrage Brown never became flustered during these PR outings and kept her feminine charming composure at all times. 

In fact the HGB brand was a big seller all round. Her debut book inspired a film of the same name starring Natalie Wood and spawned book sequels, 'Sex and the Office' and the 'Outrageous Opinions of Helen Gurley Brown'. It's important to note that in tandem to Brown's ideas about sex she talked about her career and in turn the notion of women like herself, working and succeeding in the work place. When 'Sex and the Single Girl' was published HGB was one of the USA's highest paid advert copywriters, and she'd worked her way up there from nothing. This was in an era when women's roles were still very marginalised for the majority, and women with a career beyond their families were virtually non existent.

It was while touting a new idea for a magazine aimed at the HGB audience that Hearst Publishing decided to give Brown the opportunity that led to her second life changing career move. Rather than risk a whole lot of money on a new publication that might not take off, in 1965 Hearst gave her the role of editor in chief for their then floundering magazine, Cosmopolitan. The rest as they say is history.

Brown took the safe women's journal that up to that time had spoken about how to be the best housewife with quaint little tips for cooking and home making and replaced it with the HGB vision. She wanted to talk to women who had lived like her, working hard to make their own way whilst making their own decisions regarding relationships. She made it normal for women to talk about sex and own their sexuality. Yes, these women still wanted to get married and still wanted children (it was still the 60's after all) but they had interests that also reached beyond these traditional values. Cosmopolitan now ran articles like 'Why can't a woman be like a man?' and 'Is there life after marriage?'. In 1966 one issue ran with the spookily prophetic 'Dating by computer. Actual experiences of four career girls'

Helen Gurley Brown revolutionised the women's magazine industry making Cosmopolitan the most successful of it's kind, so popular it branched out into Europe and countries like Russia that were way behind in the sexual cultural shift. There is no doubt Brown's input helped to open the eyes of millions of women around the globe encouraging them to see beyond the narrow options that were laid out for them.

Despite her reach and obvious impact Brown was never fully accepted by the feminist cause. She was (and debatably still is) snubbed and sometimes ridiculed by the feminists of the day for her too feminine and literally 'girly' outlook. Perhaps because as she was telling women they could be sexual and successful she was also telling them to be beautiful and liked.

The HGB brand can certainly be criticised for promoting unrealistic ideals of beauty by creating the 'Cosmopolitan Girl' who graced each cover with her huge hair and perky cleavage. Brown cashed in on the ideal of a girl who not only lives life to the full but looks like a model while doing it. The thing is, the ideal sold.

While we can see the symbiotic impact that women's magazines still hold today, on one hand telling women they are empowered and on the other insinuating they aren't pretty or thin enough (that is a whole other blog post!), it's impossible to not give Helen Gurley Brown her due in changing women's attitudes to sex and working life for the better. If she hadn't been the first to take the idea and run with it we might never have seen other women embrace their potential and break down similar barriers.

In popular culture we might never have had Alexis Colby throwing her weight around in Dynasty, or Carrie Bradshaw and her friends exploring Sex and the City or in turn the likes of Lena Dunham writing and starring in Girls. Each incarnation is a product of it's time and open to comment but each also is a powerful platform talking about sex and success to women, and that would never have happened without HGB's influence.

Cosmo gently let Brown 'retire' from the editor in chief post after 32 years at the helm. Instead she took the title of International Editor for all 59 international editions of the magazine whilst in her 70's. She died aged 90 in 2012 leaving a lasting legacy. If you buy an issue of Cosmo, to this day on the staff listings page, you will find the words 'Editor in chief, Cosmopolitan (1965-1997) Helen Gurley Brown.


I purposely haven't mentioned anything about Brown's personal background, her difficult family situation, small town upbringing or the many jobs and love affairs she had while struggling to manage her life. She was obsessed with her weight (while being stacked like a rake), a huge fan of plastic surgery and a workaholic. She was a very eccentric woman, definitely flawed but fascinating and highly influential. To find out more I'd recommend the book Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey and also the many videos which can be found on youtube which cover her rise to celebrity in the 1960's through to her old age in the 2010's. She made many guest appearances on TV shows both trivial and intellectual but her message is consistently clear and delivered with a beguiling shake of the head and a smile, it's hard not to become seduced by her.

Saturday 4 March 2017

The Vogue Ball

Later this month I'll be attending the Vogue Ball in Manchester where I am sure I'll die and go to heaven! 

The Vogue ball is a stunning happening of expression art and culture, it features dance troupes battling it out for glory any damn way they can, and if the videos of past balls are to be believed it will truly take my breath away! Drag, burlesque, dance, costume and high fashion, my pulse is racing just writing about it!

Manchester's own House of Ghetto will be performing this year. A troupe of black female dancers whose House Mother, the award winning dancer and choreographer, Darren Pritchard points out I need to see! We chatted for some time about the historic relevance of black female performers and concluded troupes like the House of Ghetto wouldn't be here if they didn't have the heritage of black female performers that went before them. That includes burlesquers, models and dancers, the black pin up girls from the past. 

Darren Pritchard in Vogue mode (see more @gemma_parker_artist) 

Today it could seem odd to think that black women were under represented in these fields when we have Beyonce and her contemporaries ruling the music industry, however as the pin up girl gained popularity through the decades, the black pin up took a back seat and became something of an underground phenomena. 

The black pin up is my starting point for art work I'll be collaborating on with Darren and The House of Ghetto and I am so excited to start learning more about this subject. There is a rich history of black pin ups that has gone unnoticed or even disregarded running parallel to the likes of the gorgeous Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe. I'll be exploring the history of the black pin up in the run up to the Vogue Ball so keep your eyes open to learn with me!

In the meantime take a look at the amazingness that is the Vogue Ball last year. I am so excited to see this with my own eyes! ahhhhhh!