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
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.