Naked! Courage: Meet Darlinda Just Darlinda, Badass Burlesque Performer
Naked in Motion celebrates others who are making moves in their communities, doing work that we feel speaks to our intersectional feminist and body-positive message. These folks are challenging the status quo, and their courage takes the same kind of vulnerability that getting Naked! requires. Get ready to be inspired.
As a burlesque performer, Darlinda Just Darlinda, Mastermind of Bizarre Extravaganza and one half of the Schlep Sisters, has charmed, seduced, awed, shocked, tickled, teased, and clearly adored rapt audiences for over a decade. We talked with her about her love of the artform, her relationship to her body as a woman and as an artist, and, of course, what’s so freeing about getting naked.
NiM: When and how did you become involved in burlesque?
DJD: I started in the summer of 2003. I was in California at the time and I heard about it from my roommate, who was going to see Tease-o-Rama in L.A. I loved it because it basically integrated comedy sketch with sexuality. I’d directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the Vagina Monologues, so I was already doing shows that were about sexuality and gender. I’d been doing improv since I was 11. And I love to be naked. Always have. Running around, growing up in in the Redwoods, out by the ocean, naked hot-tubbing and all of that. So, yeah, I decided to do it and moved to NYC. I was part of the Burning Man community for a hot second and we did a fundraiser for our Burning Man camp in 2004. That’s where I did burlesque and then met the right people. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If you were to characterize what burlesque looked like then in 2004, what were you seeing? What was the energy? Who was the audience? What was going on?
The audience was definitely more of a queer audience. More female-bodied folks were there. And nerdy straight white guys. That was the combination. And the shows were kind of anything goes. We just did anything we wanted. I was running around doing modern dance, striptease, pulling things out of my pussy…
How do you think artists were using burlesque and their bodies to subvert expectations of sexuality, specifically women's sexuality? Disrupting expectations of titillation? Putting nudity into a different context on stage?
I think it’s revolutionary any time you see a woman getting naked who is not whatever you see in a magazine or on a runway. Whether she is extremely skinny or fat—or even just average. Like, my body is the American average. I'm 5'5, 160 lbs, 8.5 shoes, 34B. I'm literally the American average woman. But if I were to try to become a fashion model, I'd be considered too fat. So the mere fact of me taking off my clothes and saying“You know what? This is sexy” is revolutionary. That being said, you've got Dirty Martini, who's a size 16, and she's number 1 in burlesque. She's touring right now with Dita von Teese, who is definitely mainstream burlesque. I think having Dirty in her mainstream show is still kind of revolutionary.
Then you have specific acts that are very specifically about the body [in subversive ways]. Lillian Bustle, a performer who’s also a body-positive activist, has an act where she has no written all over body and then she wipes it off and has people write yes. I do an anti-GOP number where I start out looking like a beauty queen with a big blonde wig and smiles and gowns and a bunch of American flags, and then I get sick and I take my clothes off in a very non-sexy way. Then I pull a photo of whoever is threatening our freedom—currently it's Trump—out of my pussy and I rip it up. That act is about my body, about literally not wanting the government in my body.
There was also a period of time where I didn't feel like I was a sexy performer, that it wasn't something possible for me. Then I did this an act to a Tina Turner song, which makes me feel sexy, and it’s like I make love to the audience: It's all hair and butt and fabric. I saw how much that act really titillated people and made them feel something and I was like, oh, I can be sexy. I don't have to be funny or weird all the time. And for me that was empowering. I can only hope that it makes other people [watching] with average-sized or larger or smaller bodies feel that it's possible for them to be sexy too. And I think that's a part of what burlesque is doing! It’s just making people feel sexy or good about their bodies. You don't open up a magazine and feel good about your body—you feel shitty about your body, so you buy more products that are supposed to make you feel better. With burlesque, we're selling love. This love of yourself. That's the reason I'll never stop. Because I see that what I do helps people in a way that I don't see happen in any other art form. Where you can laugh, maybe cry, feel sexy, and maybe a little scared, but you feel inspired.
I've also been struck by that phenomenon. Burlesque really became this place where women were inspired by watching other women saying fuck it, this is me, and fuck yeah this is sexy, and fuck you if you don't think it is because I think it is. It became a kind of therapy for some people.
Definitely. I would say 90 percent of my School of Burlesque students are just in it to have an experience of loving themselves and feeling sexy. Maybe they'll strip for their partner, and maybe they'll never strip, but they went through the class series and had a moment to feel sexy.
What can you say about your relationship to your body and how it has or hasn't changed in your time as a performer?
It's really complicated. I don't know of any other art form, unless you're a model, where you’re getting photographed naked once a week, or at least once a month. So it's forced me to really not compare myself to other people, and just say This is my body and I love it, no matter what. Recently, I've been doing a lot of restorative yoga, and it's helped me to think less about Am I skinny? Am I fat? It's just like Am I strong? Are my muscles flexible? Am I projecting what I need to on stage? For me, it’s about being centered on stage, being happy with myself, happy with my life. I meditate too. Being "in my body" is more important than what my body looks like.
But I still have “bad body days” sometimes. I still carry all this stuff from being an American woman--this narrative that says we’re supposed to be thin or we're supposed to be "fit." The thing about burlesque is that since we’re on display, it seems to become ok for other people to talk about our bodies. When I perform, because I’m “bigger than the norm,” people will come up to me afterward and say “oh my god, that's amazing that you're out there with your body” or “oh, you're so brave.” As if it's this huge feat to get up there with my body. Like it's so different. But it's not at all different. It's just like everyone else's.
I'm curious to hear what you think about this term "fitness" and being "fit" and the myths around that?
You know, it's interesting how burlesque has changed. We used to have this ongoing joke about how, unlike dancers, burlesque performers always eat right before they perform. We were always like: "We're not everyone else. We're badass and we do whatever the hell we want. If we want to eat fries right before we go on stage, we're gonna do that." Now there are burlesque fitness groups. At some point there was this shift in group consciousness to "oh, we have to be fit." I’m all for being healthy, being in your body, taking care of yourself. Being strong. Yes. Do all of that. But there's this line you cross where it becomes unhealthy, and then we're just buying into the norm again. We're buying into Self magazine or whatever other magazine that says we need to be A, B, and C.
When I do warm-ups in class, I always include an ab exercise, because I know when you have strong abs, it's good for your back. But I always say it's not about what they look like. It's that it's strong. Because I don't want people to feel like they have to have a washboard stomach to do burlesque. No, no, no. There are people in wheelchairs doing burlesque that can't do a crunch, and that's ok!
I see parallels with yoga. We talk often about how it has also became this marketed, commercialized, competitive product. It make sense: when something enters the mainstream and begins to be shaped by capitalism, it's often going to fall prey to false ideals that tear women down and promote that kind of unhealthy competition and self-criticism.
Yes. My mom was a producer in the dance world. I wanted to be a professional dancer and I got told at a very young age that I was too fat for it: I really heard that. Yet if I were doing ballet in the 1800s, I would be the perfect body! But that's what the dance world is like now.
My restorative yoga teacher used to be a modern dancer, actually. So she was around mirrors all the time. But as a yoga teacher she decided to get rid of the mirrors [because she didn’t like that aspect of the culture]. Sometimes I'll go to [other yoga classes], and there's that person in there who's pushing themselves so hard and you feel them, like, looking around to see if someone's looking at them and their cute outfit. And I'm in there in my crop top—because it's hot in there—and it's, like, yeah, I’ve got cellulite, and big thighs, and yep, I’m doing this too. And I'm wearing short shorts and a crop top. Because it’s hot!
Exactly. I think I’m talking myself into trying your naked yoga classes.
Do it! Do you still consider what you do to be radical or a rebellion of some kind?
I feel like it depends on the context. Last night I was performing at a tiki bar, and I was just doing a classic burlesque routine. [pauses] But then again, I was there in my body, which is not the “ideal,” so it is a rebellion in that sense. It’s a complicated question, because I feel like sometimes I’m just doing a job and I'm part of the machine. People come out to the LES to get drunk and want to see some burlesque.
So you would say that burlesque at this point—maybe always—is not in and of itself a radical art form?
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Although some would say that anytime you have women stripping it's a rebellion. I do have a new act, where it’s as if the world just ended, and I'm the last person on earth, but I'm dying of the virus that killed everyone else. I get onto a stage and do a striptease and then die and spit blood up. [laughs] That's rebellion, right?
I think it goes back to that idea of the intention of the artist versus the reception. Where is this being done? When in time does it exist? What changes if you know some information about who put it on stage? Or who's supporting it financially? It might still be a really radical thing in certain parts of the country.
That’s true. We did a thing in Bangor, Maine, recently, and for that audience, seeing all of our different body shapes was revolutionary for them. I think we might have been the first neo-burlesque show there. They were so in awe. So for them it was still revolutionary.
So you were saying you are a yoga fan, you do restorative yoga. What do you think about naked yoga? No pressure.
I do it naked at home! But I've never done it with other people. Yoga is so personal to me. You've got me curious to try, because it sounds like a great space.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in taking a class at Naked in Motion for the first time? How do you coach people in your burlesque classes to be comfortable and to feel safe in taking that risk?
Being naked is so freeing for me. I imagine that if someone tried naked yoga for the first time they'd feel just as freed. And you don't have to do laundry [laughs]. But really, I think that with getting to see so many naked bodies, you start to just become more comfortable with your body. What I tell my students is that they can allow their bodies to be what their bodies are. Not to compare themselves to someone else. To just focus on themselves. And that's what yoga is. It's a practice of your own breathing and your own journey. I do it naked at home because it's more comfortable that way. Doing that in a class space offers you a sense of community. There are these other people doing this same thing with you. And they're probably coming to tackle their own insecurities. Almost every human being has an insecurity about their body. I’ve never met someone who didn't. Your body is the only thing that you really have. It’s revolutionary to be “ok” in our own bodies. That's part of the revolution--about being comfortable in your body because we're taught we're not supposed to be.
This interview has been edited and condensed.