As the summer holidays fast approach, St Andrews students are rushing round trying to finalise plans for internships and work placements, or even worse, to secure an actual job in the scary world of graduate placement schemes and career ladders.
Yet fear not, arts majors. There are other ways. Last week I caught up with Suky Goodfellow, a former student taking a somewhat different approach. Having studied English and enjoyed painting and life modelling while at St Andrews, Suky took a year out after graduating to write a novel, pursue her love of art and illustration, and to make forays into the world of burlesque as her stage persona, Bonnie Blithe.
How did you initially become involved in burlesque?
I was involved with arts hub called Dr Sketchy’s that ran life drawing classes and burlesque shows. I’ve always been attracted to the performative aspect and drafted the organisers a proposal and script for my act. I liked the idea that it wasn’t just about dancing – it’s very much a creative, storytelling process. Perhaps I just watch too many Carry On films.
How did your friends and family react when you told them you were pursuing burlesque?
I didn’t spread it around at work since it might have been a little awkward – burlesque is still quite an underground community and not a part of mainstream culture. But my sister is a local journalist so she even took pictures for me for publicity. My Dad wanted to be sure I enjoyed it – he used to be an artist so I remember my Mum posing for him anyway.
How would you describe your acts?
There are a lot of different styles in burlesque and lot of possibilities – some people are very good dancers with highly polished make-up and costumes – some are covered in fake blood and skull tattoos. What I do is a bit more slapstick – it’s coy and cheeky and vintage-inpsired. The places I’ve performed have been pretty low-key and low budget. I do incorporate some swing dance steps but for me, the emphasis is on the story. One called “The Story of My Shirts” is a cross between burlesque and stand-up and incorporates a lot of anecdotes, whereas “The Vicar is Coming to Tea” is inspired by silent movies. I’m working on one called “Hermione Takes Centre Stage” which should be a lot of fun.
So you use a certain persona for your acts?
Yes, my stage name is Bonnie Blithe – it’s pretty much a pre-requisite in burlesque. You really channel the act through your persona and that’s part of the fun. My name has quite a traditional and an innocent feel to it, since it comes from the rhyme. I think that reflects the kind of acts I do – they’re based on classic storylines. Costumes are very important and let you be as extravagant as you like: just make sure they’re easy to take off. In fact, a lot of people wear wigs that also help to achieve that identity change.
I was in the St Andrews Feminist society so I certainly wouldn’t equate the two. For one thing it’s very creative, and it celebrates any kind of body shape. It’s not about the male gaze at all, and is very much about performance and the control you have over your own act. A lot of women attend the place I perform, and about the fun and joy of it rather than arousal. There’s a very light-hearted attitude to sexuality and a celebration of theatricality where people can be confident and alternative.
There are so many avenues I want to explore but I’m seeing if I can model a career out of them at the moment. I do get paid for burlesque and some comic drawing, but it can be difficult with the art world to structure your plans – sometimes it comes down to taking opportunities as they come up. I think that if you can, it’s important to pursue your interests and take your time with decisions.
A little glitter goes a long way! Apart from that, plan your act well and let people know exactly what it is you’ve got to offer. One of the best acts I saw, by a lady called Cherry Shakewell, was very classic, with long gloves and accomplished dancing. She had such confidence and a strong identity. I’d encourage people to try it out, definitely, and to not be too afraid.