BUR­LESQUE’S FLY­ING FOX

Fol­low­ing her pas­sion has seen Flo Fox­wor­thy cre­ate rhine­stone-en­crusted cou­ture for some of bur­lesque’s top per­form­ers around the world

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Flo Fox­wor­thy’s sassy cre­ations

Flo Fox­wor­thy looks like a tat­tooed Tinker­bell. She’s 5ft tall, with at least 3ft of red hair, skin so pale it’s pearles­cent and the voice of a 12-year-old. Warm, en­er­getic and gig­gly, you’d be for­given for think­ing she made a liv­ing im­per­son­at­ing fairies at chil­dren’s birth­day par­ties.

That is un­til you see her hands. They’re rough, tough, and tat­tooed — stars are scat­tered up her arms, there’s minia­ture scis­sors inked at the base of her thumb and her knuck­les are em­bla­zoned with the ini­tials, FUPM (F*ck You Pay Me — “It’s a line from the film Good­fel­las.

I’ve had years of peo­ple ex­pect­ing me to work for free or for “ex­po­sure”. I fi­nally de­cided not to do that any­more!”).

Her hands are also the only thing that give her away as the world’s top bur­lesque cos­tu­mier. That’s not hy­per­bole. Celebrity bur­lesque icon Dita Von Teese, is a reg­u­lar cus­tomer. And last year the lead­ing author­ity on the per­fo­mance art, 21st Cen­tury Bur­lesque, crowned her top cos­tu­mier in the world.

“When I got the first email from Dita,” laughs Flo, “I al­most didn’t read it. I thought it was one of those email news­let­ters!” How­ever it wasn’t a sale on nip­ple tas­sels, rather an email from Von Teese in need of some undies to cover a ‘thong emer­gency.’

Now twice a year, Flo gets an or­der from Dita for her sig­na­ture, rhine­stoned Gs. Most re­cently she made the un­der­wear for Dita’s Black Swan rou­tine, as well as re­dec­o­rat­ing some of her older cos­tume pieces and mak­ing out­fits for the per­form­ers in Dita’s show.

It seems sur­real. Flo, based in Wellington’s Mi­ra­mar, is Amer­i­can su­per­star Dita Von Teese’s go-to girl for de­signs that daz­zle. But ac­tu­ally, the story of how Dita found Flo is a text­book piece of Kiwi en­trepreneurism. Ten years ago, Flo re­turned home to Wellington af­ter a stint in Aus­tralia, and saw the bur­lesque scene was just tak­ing off in NZ. It had already un­der­gone a resur­gence in the US, pump­ing out the likes of Dita and The Pussy­cat Dolls (yes, they started as a bur­lesque group).

A per­former her­self, she de­cided to expand her on­line bou­tique sell­ing cos­tumes for strip­pers into high end bur­lesque cou­ture. She knew she made amaz­ing G-strings, so she sim­ply sent some to Cather­ine D’Lish. “I sent them be­cause I was con­vinced I could make them bet­ter than any­one else! Such a Kiwi, eh?”

D’Lish is Dita Von Teese’s men­tor, one of the gi­ants of the bur­lesque in­dus­try who reigns over the Amer­i­can scene as its highly se­quinned fairy God­mother.

“She loved them!” says Flo. “She put the word out…next thing you know I’ve got emails from Dita!” D’Lish her­self is also a cus­tomer, as are other stars like Miss Indigo Blue, Canada’s Roxi DLite, and Aus­tralia’s Imo­gen Kelly. “There’s maybe six peo­ple in the world at this level, in­clud­ing me and Cather­ine D’Lish,” says Flo, be­gin­ning to laugh. “It’s so bizarre, I can’t be­lieve it! Me — lit­tle old Flo in Wellington!”

There it is again, her shy­ness pok­ing through the tat­tooed ex­te­rior. It’s so fit­ting she would be­come a bur­lesque cos­tu­mier. She is the very em­bod­i­ment of the “bold yet bash­ful” bur­lesque per­former para­dox.

Bur­lesque is a mix­ture of comedy, theatre and dance, shaken up with ele­ments of strip­tease and served with a large splash of rhine­stones. If strip­ping is Ibiza, bur­lesque is St Tropez. They’re both party islands, but only one of them serves Moët — and knows how to pro­nounce it.

“Strip­ping is a sales job” says Duchess deBerry, NZ’s most in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned bur­lesque per­former; a siren with pur­ple hair and a back­ground in strip­ping. “But bur­lesque is en­ter­tain­ment.”

In bur­lesque, a per­former crafts an act with a char­ac­ter, theme and nar­ra­tive that also teases the au­di­ence with strip­tease ele­ments. Some­thing’s com­ing off, but it might only be a fab­u­lously rhine­stoned glove, and there’s a mes­sage be­hind that.

This is the para­dox. You’d think that bur­lesque would only at­tract the most con­fi­dent women. Who else would be happy to dip their bits in glit­ter and whirl them around for strangers? It’s of­ten the com­plete op­po­site. It’s a place where shy women get al­most naked on stage to be­come con­fi­dent. Many per­form­ers start so they can slay their body demons.

“It’s hugely em­pow­er­ing,” says Lilly Loca, an­other of NZ’s most famous per­form­ers and win­ner of the cov­eted NZ Supreme Grand Tease award. “When I started out, I had a lot of body is­sues and bur­lesque has made me love my body more.”

You’re lit­er­ally cov­er­ing your in­se­cu­rity in se­quins and thrust­ing it in the world’s face. And when they cheer, you re­alise that you’re a far braver, sex­ier per­son than you thought you were. “You’re so vul­ner­a­ble on stage,” says Lilly, “you’re dis­play­ing all your emo­tion and all of your body. But there’s a lib­er­a­tion in re­veal­ing your­self and that gives you a kick!”

It’s ther­apy and a class A drug. The supreme highs it of­fers at­tract the thrill seek­ers, of­ten shy peo­ple who’ve al­ways felt they had bold­ness in­side them.

Of course there are ex­cep­tions like Duchess, “For some peo­ple it’s about em­pow­er­ment…” she waves a hand, “but my tal­ent is tak­ing my clothes off…in a beau­ti­ful, stylish and in­ter­est­ing way.”

But on the whole, you get an in­dus­try of women who are equal parts Joan Jett and Bo Peep. So it’s highly fit­ting their queen of cos­tum­ing is a bash­ful, ballsy pow­er­house.

There’s noth­ing that could stop Flo do­ing this, short of dis­cov­er­ing that se­quins were poi­sonous. She’s never let age or qual­i­fi­ca­tions be a

bar­rier. She learned to sew at seven, was mak­ing lingerie at 16, left school half­way through sixth form and has been work­ing as a self-em­ployed cos­tu­mier since she was 18.

She’s not wor­ried about work­ing con­stantly. She works 80 hour weeks, 50 at Weta where she is sec­ond in com­mand of the cos­tume depart­ment and 30 plus at the stu­dio. She shrugs, “I’m used to it. We worked 100 hours a week on The Hob­bit!”

Even los­ing the full use of her hands didn’t stop her. This year she de­vel­oped carpel tun­nel syn­drome from work­ing with them so much. No big­gie. She had surgery, took a hol­i­day, and will be back to full ca­pac­ity by the end of the year.

Sim­i­larly, she wasn’t fazed by not hav­ing a work­shop. “When I was work­ing from home, I had a three bed­room house and all three be­d­rooms were my work­shop,” she laughs. “We were liv­ing in the lounge!”

Shrug­ging, she ex­plains that she’s just go­ing to keep go­ing be­cause it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. “I think it’s the only thing I can do — I’m not qual­i­fied for anything else!”

This isn’t just pas­sion. It’s a fa­nat­i­cal, ir­re­press­ible, “I can do that!” at­ti­tude. Flo started mak­ing os­trich feather fans on the side be­cause she dis­cov­ered only one com­pany in the world made them. She started mak­ing mo­tion cap­ture suits for Weta stu­dios for the same rea­son. She makes male strip­pers’ strings on the side (she’s just done the briefs for Briefs) and still sup­plies sparkly span­dex to the per­form­ers at Cal­en­dar Girls and The Mer­maid. She also thought she’d make body­build­ing out­fits be­cause it was body­build­ing sea­son re­cently and she clearly didn’t have enough to do.

No won­der she’s so suc­cess­ful. This isn’t just num­ber eight wire. It’s a num­ber eight, triple strength, Swarovski crys­tal en­crusted wire that wraps it­self around any op­por­tu­nity and squeezes out gold.

And there’s no bet­ter place to do it than in New Zealand where the in­dus­try is so small. If you have half of her tal­ent and work ethic then you’re guar­an­teed to be suc­cess­ful in NZ. As for Flo, she’s world famous be­fore she hit 40.

Her ob­ses­sive de­ter­mi­na­tion is nec­es­sary to ex­cel in bur­lesque cos­tum­ing be­cause ev­ery­thing is hand­made. When Dita wanted her Black Swan panties, Flo sat for “hours and hours and hours ap­ply­ing Swarovski crys­tals with tweez­ers”. Some pieces take over 100 hours which ex­plains why some of her cre­ations have hefty price tags. They range from a ba­sic $1200 num­ber to $10,000 cos­tumes.

It took Duchess deBerry five years of per­form­ing be­fore she bought her first Fox­wor­thy num­ber.

“I knew I wanted Flo to make my ‘Chastity’ out­fit,” says Duchess, “be­cause she has the per­fect aes­thetic for this act.” ‘Chastity’ is her

South­ern Belle cos­tume, a feast of vivid or­ange silk en­crusted with rhine­stones and a peep hole over the der­riere. “It’s clas­sic Flo, there’s the lace over­lay, clus­tered rhine­stones, flossed bead­ings,” says Duchess. “Her style is op­u­lent!”

It cost $6000 and over 100 hours to make. How­ever Duchess her­self was also highly in­volved in the de­sign. Although she doesn’t have Flo’s tol­er­ance for rhine­ston­ing, she is just as par­tic­u­lar in plan­ning her out­fits. For ‘Chastity’, when she took her de­signs to Flo she already knew she wanted the bow, a front clasped bra, the split, the cut out… all in or­ange.

All bur­lesque pro­fes­sion­als have this fa­nat­i­cal eye for de­tails. It’s what sets them apart from the hob­by­ists and rook­ies. This is per­for­mance art, not danc­ing around in undies you bought from Farm­ers.

Bur­lesque per­form­ers hone their look be­cause their aes­thetic is their brand. “My aes­thetic is sleek. It’s avant-garde meets cou­ture meets high fash­ion,” says Duchess, who owns per­haps 20 im­mac­u­late cos­tumes, none of which cost un­der $1000. “I want to be ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful. I want to walk on stage and have the au­di­ence say, “Wow, that’s a great cos­tume!” and keep say­ing “Wow” when I take it off.”

Lilly Loca is sim­i­larly de­tail fo­cused. Even her ev­ery­day out­fit is a cos­tume. Her man­i­cured al­mond nails and her fuch­sia lips are cal­cu­lated to heighten her im­age of leggy el­e­gance. It’s like talk­ing to a par­tic­u­larly glam­orous gi­raffe.

“Cos­tume is the very first point you sort out,” Lilly says. ‘You need to have it be­fore you can even start chore­ograph­ing your act. If the cos­tume isn’t right then the whole act won’t stick.”

At her Bam­bina Bur­lesque academy, the first thing Lilly teaches stu­dents is how to craft a rou­tine. You need a prop­erly de­vel­oped act com­plete with a theme. And the mo­ment you walk on stage, your cos­tume has to con­vey that theme, right down to the emo­tions it evokes. “It has to be co­he­sive,” says Lilly. “So if you’re com­ing on as a deadly femme fa­tale, you don’t want fluffy pink mules.”

It’s a bur­lesque per­former’s job to daz­zle and en­ter­tain. When Lily won NZ’s Supreme Grand Tease com­pe­ti­tion, she wore a be­jew­elled, mid­night blue cre­ation for her main act, ‘Ab­solem’. It cost a com­par­a­tively mod­est $4000. She added 6000 or so rhine­stones her­self.

Duchess de­scribes bur­lesque as “a sump­tu­ous vis­ual feast.” It’s no won­der that Flo’s metic­u­lous eye for op­u­lent cou­ture has paid off in this arena. This is a world where a per­former’s sto­ry­telling lives and dies on its vi­su­als.

NZ Supreme Grand Tease award win­ner Lilly Loca is a Flo Fox­wor­thy fan, pic­tured here in a be­jew­elled bra by the Welling­ton­based bur­lesque cos­tu­mier.

In­ter­na­tional bur­lesque su­per­star Dita Von Teese is one of Flo Fox­wor­thy’s reg­u­lar cus­tomers.

Lilly Loca per­forms her main act ‘Ab­solem’ in a cos­tume by As­phyxia Cou­ture, to which she added 6000 rhine­stones.

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