Wednesday 11 September 2019

The Chantilly Belles

Back in the late 2000's burlesque was THE buzz word that was taking over the world. It was a time when every bar, pub and community hall was hosting its own burlesque night and you couldn't move for new acts called, 'Von' this, or 'Kitty' that. Even Ann Summers cashed in and nipple tassels suddenly became a top seller. It was amidst this chaos of glitter and false eyelashes that a little burlesque duo began to carve a niche for itself.

A pair of opposites, one short and blonde, one tall and dark, both with a drive to make their act something different and not take themselves too seriously, The Chantilly Belles comprised of two idiots with a creative flair for the absurd. Namely, myself and my friend Rene.

We were both artists and had become friends while at Uni doing an MA together some years before. I'd never imagined that down the line we would end up spanking each other on stage in front of 500 people.

It was out of the blue one evening when Rene rang me to ask if I fancied teaming up to do some sort of performance art. She'd just been to a private view and seen a woman singing as part of the exhibition. She thought 'I could do that', and then immediately wondered who would be daft enough to join her for moral support.

I'm no singer so that avenue was out of the equation, but I do love to dress up and prance about, so how about something like that? It just so happened Rene had attended a burlesque class for beginners and the idea of a burlesque duo was formed. Neither of us had an urge to take our clothes off in front of an audience so we knew our USP had to come from our physical differences and our artistic talents. We soon realised we had an uncanny skill for morphing into a cartoonish version of ourselves once we started trying ideas out, think Morcambe and Wise or Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

Rene was always willing to try out ideas and amazing at coming up with details that made things gel perfectly. She was completely out of her comfort zone but determined to give it her all. We would take it in turns to perform our parts in front of the other to see how the act was coming along and give each other pointers and praise. Rene was more of a natural than she ever gave herself credit for.

The Chantilly Belles brand of comedy and dance told stories inspired by music, costumes and silly props, and in perfecting it, we'd spend hours rehearsing routines in Rene's living room. Every Saturday morning I would walk up to her house and for the next few hours I'd be gasping for air as we made each other laugh till we cried. I'd literally collapse on the floor convulsed while she sat chuckling with mascara running down her face.

 Our debut performance 2007

As the Chantilly Belles we performed across the UK at various events and burlesque nights. We debuted at Dukes 52 in Manchester as part of a variety fundraiser compared by the policeman with the funny accent from 'Allo Allo' and went on from there to take part in local nights with other newbies. In time we took part in talent shows, charity gigs, art events and headlined at the Oxford O2 Academy.

When you think of burlesque it conjures up images of sexy ladies with long gloves and high heels, suggestively removing satin robes and silk stockings so that soft gossamer feathers are the only things to stand between their naked forms and the eyes of the audience, it's effortless and tantalising and oh so glamorous. Well yes, it is all of these things, but it's also getting lost trying to find the venue, sharing a broom cupboard with six other girls all attempting to apply tit tape and not ladder their nylons, and the last minute calamity just before you're about to go on stage. As The Chantilly Belles, we had a lot of those!

I remember painting Rene's nails bright red while she bombed it one handed down the M40 because she hadn't had time to paint them before we left. I also remember stopping off at a service station in the middle of the night after one performance still dressed in our goat and goat herder costumes and the cashier not batting an eyelid.

Before one memorable performance (the big one in Oxford) we were getting ready for our Fox and Hunter routine when Rene's recurring Spondylitis flared up. Out of the blue her knee swelled to three times it's normal size and her riding boot wouldn't fit over her calf. As we got the 2 minute call to show time I was on the floor wrestling with the boot while Rene tussled with her leg. 'Push, Push!' I yelled as sweat dripped down both our foreheads and Rene grunted. It was like a scene from a delivery room. I felt my heart galloping and anxiety racing through every ounce of my being. Yet, somehow, finally, said boot moved into place and like the professionals we were we stumbled to the side of the stage before pulling off the act without a single hitch to the biggest audience we had ever had.

The Chantilly Belles achieved so much in the short time we were performing. We made the grade to take part in the Big Burlesque Bout which featured international contenders all battling to be crowned the number one burlesque act of 2008

We were filmed and interviewed as part of a massive summer exhibition 'Express Yourself' at The Lowry celebrating dance, which gave us a chance to show burlesque could be about story telling and fun for everyone.

 Rene's interview with BBC Radio Manchester for Express Yourself

We performed as part of Comedy 4 Christie's at The Lowry helping to raise thousands for a brilliant cause, were commissioned by The Whitworth Art Gallery to create an act to showcase their new wallpaper collection, and took part in countless Dr Sketchy's around the UK which blended our love of art and creativity with burlesque performance.

Over the years we met some fabulous people too, our good friends Scarlet Fever and her husband Tony who had their own burlesque story from appearing on Channel 4's Faking It, and many talented performers such as Immodesty Blaize, Beatrix Von Bourbon and Kitten on the Keys. I have fond memories of meeting and performing alongside some lovely people and I wonder where they are now (Anna Fur Laxis, you were a total doll, great to reconnect on instagram!)

We performed in venues where we had to get changed in the disabled toilets, the kitchen, the pub's upstairs room, the cupboard under the stairs, right through to a real dressing room with our name on the door!

Rene was such fun to work with and together we had a great chemistry that translated perfectly to the stage. Above all my memories of The Chantilly Belles, my outstanding one is my mate Reens who drove me mad at times (the woman had the craziest life) but gave me such joy and the chance to explore my creativity in a way I would never have done without her. It's led to new friends and ventures for me and even though I go to them alone her memory is always with me.

I'm so happy we had this chapter together Rene. Thank you girlfriend x

Rene Lumley 1972 - 2019

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