Stephanie Gawne, also known as Foo Foo LaBelle, reveals why she embraced burlesque and how this genre of performance is enhancing women’s confidence.
by Julia Migné
Ice blue eyes and pink lips, Stephanie Gawne is all laughs and smiles. There is something about her – a subtle je ne sais quoi – that makes you want to know more. Her confidence and posture give away that she is a dancer, but somehow, there seems to be something hidden beneath the surface – an invisible reality, so intriguing and enchanting.
A little scratch on the surface and Stephanie reveals her secret: she becomes whoever she wants to be. Give her some makeup and wigs and her alter ego, Foo Foo LaBelle, comes to life. Extravagant and sexy, she turns into a burlesque performer.
That’s what burlesque is all about – transforming the self into an out-of-this-world persona. “You’re taking something and moving it to something else,” says Stephanie.
Often described as the ‘Queen of Burlesque’, Dita Von Teese is believed to have brought Burlesque back to life in the 1990s. It’s a mix of dance and striptease, often involving props and characters. Having a background in circus arts, dance and fitness, Stephanie took the leap towards burlesque in her mid-thirties.
“I had this background of musical theatre, lots of showgirl work, lots of commercial theatre work and also belly dance. When you put all that together with the burlesque revival that was happening, it just seemed like a very natural stepping stone to then go on and perform as a burlesque performer,” she recalls.
Being a burlesque artist is also a way to pass on important messages. The performances are not random dance moves but coherent intellectual thoughts brought to life in a vibrant and exuberant way.
“It’s important to have a message and not just sort of dance around,” says Stephanie. “You’ve got to have a reason to be there so you have to have that intellectual thought of what that act is about.”
Few Christmases ago, she produced a show called Mother Russia right at the time when Pussy Riot was in jail. Amazingly, few days before the shows, Pussy Riot was freed. “It made what we were doing so relevant and sort of so poignant, so it worked really well,” she says with excitement.
The feedback that Stephanie gets from the shows she creates at Cardiff Cabaret Club is a key aspect of her inspiration and motivation. “I get inspired by the audience,” she explains. “The feedback you get and the energy that creates kind of inspire you to carry on and do it again. Because, you know, every time we do a show, it’s all self-funded, we are bringing our own money into it, and we’re building it ourselves.”
Stephanie, who always loved teaching, runs a burlesque class in the Welsh capital every week. To become burlesque performers, women need to be able to cope with walking onto the stage with their costumes on and that requires a certain level of confidence and body acceptance.
“The payback is huge,” exclaims Stephanie. “The self-worth that women get from it; it’s immeasurable. I hear that not just from the ladies who are in my class but from their partners, from their husbands, from people who’ve come up to me and said thank you so much for doing this for my girlfriend or for my wife.”
Mixing fitness and dance, burlesque is also about standing up a bit taller, acquiring that confidence and holding yourself up. One of the greatest things about burlesque is its openness. Body types or age do not matter, everyone is welcome to join.
“Here, we’ve got a very mixed bunch. We’ve got people who are bigger, we’ve got people who are smaller, we’ve got older people,” says Stephanie. “You’re taking people outside their norm and you’re giving them this lovely sort of subplot to their lives.”
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.