Essence Revealed, approaching her five-year mark as a burlesque performer, has become a prolific entertainer and producer who infuses the magic and sizzle of classic burlesque with the creativity of neoburlesque. Whether piled high with feathers on her headdresses, dripping with sequins and rhinestones, or wrapped in wildly futuristic space age suits, she is always stunningly attired and a dynamic visual pleasure. Known as “The Bubbling Brown Sugar of Burlesque,” Essence’s facial expressions are two parts steamy and one part sly onstage, with moves to match. She has appeared on the premiere New York stages of burlesque, including Duane Park, Nurse Bettie, and Hotel Chantelle. When the hardworking entertainer and businesswoman is not performing, she teaches women how to twerk the night away at dance studios like Sacred Yoga in Brooklyn and in their own homes or visits her family at home in Barbados.
EBONY: What have you been up to lately?
Essence Revealed: I actually was away for about a month. I was at home to visit Barbados and my family. Thinking about ways to bring burlesque there, actually. I think it’s something the tourists would really enjoy, as well as the performers, because it’s paradise.
EBONY: There are a lot of arms and legs to Essence. You teach, you do theater, you do burlesque.
ER: Because I’ve always been a freelancer, for a very long time, there are so many things. Essence could bartend your party, for real! So yeah, it’s creative, what do people want to create? Do you want an event with live musicians and burlesque? What do you want? I’ll create it for you. I love being a hostess for people to have fun. For example, I’m putting together tour trips where Essence Revealed will host you in Barbados. A mixed group, men and women, stay in a nice villa, and your whole week will have options for entertainment and leisure.
EBONY: Tell us more about Barbados.
ER: My parents are from there. I’m the first born American child. It can be tough. I just feel like Caribbean people, or maybe it is an immigrant thing, they just say what they have to say, and I'm like damn, I’m glad I know you love me. It’s always with love.
EBONY: How did you get started in burlesque?
ER: I started doing burlesque, April is going to make five years. I was part of a women’s and trans theater collective called WOW Cafe, and we work on each other’s shows. The first show I managed was HyperGender burlesque and I was like what are these people doing? I didn’t even know about burlesque, and it just seemed like a really cool mix of theater, storytelling, performance art, and stripping.
EBONY: What do you enjoy the most about doing burlesque?
ER: Number one would be the time onstage with audience members. That’s the reason you spend so many hours on the laptop preparing. Being able to have control of what I’m creating and doing. I don’t have to go to an audition and pray for someone to pick me – I can create my own show. I really love that control. And the costumes are pretty (laughs).
EBONY: Do you make most of your costumes on your own, or do you work with people?
ER: Listen, the struggle is real. I’m not a jealous person, but when I see what women who can actually sew can make, I feel just a pinch, because the struggle is so real. Ic an find things at thrift shops and embellish. I get things made, because I tried to make a panel skirt, and no. Designer Wae Messed has been in my panel-making Rolodex ever since.
EBONY: How did you learn the dance elements?
ER: I did a combination of things. I took a six-week class with Brown Girls Burlesque and their Broad Squad Institute. I call it burlesque boot camp, because they teach you everything – history, current trends, shopping in the garment district, costuming, and all the things. I definitely learned a lot there. I’m an actor and I’ve been doing that for decades and decades, a lot of theater and independent film, so that helped.
EBONY: How would you describe your dance style?
ER: My movement comes from the islands, the way my body moves. We start dancing to reggae and calypso at the ages of one and a half. Dancing and music are just part of the culture. I never felt like I needed to be like, “Five, six, seven, eight!” That stresses me out.
EBONY: Acting seems a lot more important in burlesque than having perfect dance moves.
ER: In what I do, it is. Some burlesque performers wouldn’t be caught dead trying to be sexy. Some would never think to try something comedic, or would be afraid to try something political, and other people would love all those things. The acting for me just helps me hold the stage, I find.
EBONY: You have fantastically expressive facial expressions onstage. Your unique personality brings people back over and over again to see you. How would you describe your burlesque persona?
ER: Essence Revealed is definitely badass. When I’m onstage, I feel like I’m almost the inverse of who I am in the world. Offstage, I tend to prefer to be quiet in the corner and watch everything happen and not really be the center of attention at all, but onstage, I feel like Essence thinks she’s the baddest chick in the place. Essence is badass, she’s pro-woman, she’s smart and brazenly so. She’s tough, there are not too many people who get to see her softer side.
EBONY: Is there anything you’re looking to add to your burlesque routine, whether new dance styles, costumes, or acting skills?
ER: I just recently got introduced to this dance style that comes out of Angola called kizomba, and I want to do some of that, and with it, I want to do a partner strip. It’s just sexy – it looks like Caribbean dancing with a little different tilt to it.
I also want to start bringing women to Barbados for retreats, as part of my Essence Revealed career. I want to add other things to the burlesque personality, not just what happens onstage, but also offstage.
EBONY: You’re very physical in your performances, with lots of expert floor and chair work. That can be hard on your body.
ER: I worked out like I was an athlete most of my life. At first, in my twenties, it was “I want to look this particular type of way.” As I got older, I was like, “Oh, I actually want to be strong.” This is what forty looks like, and I see the women in my family who are getting older, and the ones who aren’t strong, it’s hard. Stairs become a challenge; getting out of a vehicle becomes a challenge. I do believe in working out, just not five days a week now like I used to.
EBONY: What venues are your favorites? I’ve seen you at Employees Only, Duane Park and Macao.
ER: Those are great places – those are some of my favorite gigs. In New York, we don’t have a lot of space. I also like the Nurse Bettie crowd, because they’re a mix of burlesque fans and tourists. They’re really fun. I love HyperGender because I can do whatever I want there. I think I get cast mostly in the more classic shows, but I have comedic acts, I have dramatic acts, I have other stuff. Maybe I’d like to get booked in not just the classic, more neo stuff.
EBONY: A lot of burlesque performers tour and perform away from home. What is it like on the burlesque festival circuit?
ER: I’ve always wanted to travel; it’s been a personal goal for me. I perform in festivals in countries I’ve always wanted to see. From there, I would meet people and develop relationships or friendships. That helps when trying to travel around different places.
Minneapolis was definitely my favorite. They treated you so well. They asked you whether you wanted your host to be with you the whole time, they handled everything. They had huge screens backstage for you to watch. It was the most performer-aware festival that I’ve been to.
EBONY: Legends are important to burlesque, and are honored every year at The Burlesque Hall of Fame. What legendary performers inform your practice as an artist?
ER: Miss Toni Elling, because I love her fierceness. She’s like, “What, don’t you understand? I am Miss Toni Elling!” I would love to get to meet Lottie The Body, who doesn’t seem to be as public. I have a feeling she might secretly be Stripper Jesus.
Miss Jean Idelle, for sure. She’s the reason I ever picked up a fan. I thought, I don’t know if I’m that delicate, or a fan dance type of girl. Meeting her at BHOF (The Burlesque Hall of Fame) and being her escort there was really amazing. She was the first person to say, “Burlesque will let you see the world, so go see the world.” So the push to do burlesque internationally came from her.
EBONY: There have been critiques that burlesque shows are not diverse enough.
ER: I feel like diversity could happen a lot more. New York has so many performers that you could see a show where there’s not just the one person of color out of the entire cast. There are producers like Broadway Brassy who half her cast is of color and it’s not made to be “The Chocolate Evening” (laughs). There could be more of that. It’s interesting because I hear a lot of producers say, “Well, either I cant find performers of color, or the performers of color, their costumes aren’t really up to par,” or whatever. I’m like hmmm interesting because I put together a whole show for several years that was not even just people of color, but specifically black performers, and I never had trouble finding anyone. At HyperGender the cast is always so mixed up, so it’s possible.
EBONY: What’s it like to produce?
ER: A producer thinks, who’s going to make my life easier, who’s going to show up on time, who’s going to let me know if they’re not showing up on time, if they show up late are they at least going to be ready to go in 10 minutes, who’s going to make my show run well? Because producing is a lot of stress. Who do I know who’s going to get me the email back right away, who’s going to get my photo and bio and the music and I don’t have to chase them down? I might put you onstage and you’re amazing – but let’s talk about the other, business side of it.
EBONY: You participated in a Beyoncé-themed burlesque show produced by Calamity Chang and Amanda Green. What do you think Beyoncé’s effect has been on performance artists like you?
ER: I love watching her onstage. People will always have judgments for an artist’s package, and they may not even have any awareness of who the person behind that package is, or what that person does when they’re not onstage. Her stance is, “I’m just going to do what I want.” In terms of being a businesswoman, sure. She handles her business.
EBONY: America has been roiling with the turmoil of Ferguson, New York and more things we don’t see every day. Where do the art of performance art and politics intersect for you?
ER: I feel like art can intersect in ways. Before all of this really erupted in Ferguson, I would pretty much say that my social media was the silly thoughts that go through my mind, just show announcements and quirky things I come across. With all of this going on, I felt like it was a useful platform to get out mainstream media, because if people were only watching mainstream news and media, they were getting a completely skewed view of what was going on in terms of protesters and police activities.
Of course, shows can be done that are fundraisers for helping out people who have fines and tickets that they’re going to have to pay from being arrested. There’s Brown Girls Burlesque that does a more political, message-based burlesque, but it’s not going on all the time, so it can be done even more.
EBONY: Is what you do inherently feminist?
ER: I definitely see burlesque as empowering for me, without any labels, without any discussion, without any sound whatsoever, me being a black woman getting up onstage being sexual, or showing my body, let’s take out the sexual, is political, it’s a statement, it’s powerful. Everything else just adds to that. Our bodies when it comes to black women’s bodies, there’s so much stuff with that. So just to be able to stand onstage. For me, I feel like it’s all about choice. Whether I choose to dress conservatively and go to church, if that’s my choice, beautiful, that is the best thing ever. And if my choice is to be naked on stages all over the world for strangers, that’s beautiful too (laughs). It’s the choice that gives you the power. A lot of problems happen because people want others’ choices to be the same as their own.
Dakota Kim is a freelance writer and burlesque producer living in Brooklyn. Her forthcoming burlesque cookbook is called Bombshell Bakers. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.