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Cecelia Walker has a hot pair of breasts, literally.
As the thumping congas of Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" pump from the Paper Heart's loudspeakers, the scantily clad 62-year-old burlesque dancer stands onstage at the downtown Phoenix performance venue, preparing to light her size 42D boobs on fire.
Walker, who's known by her stage name Satan's Angel, uses her Bic to set ablaze a pair of lighter-fluid-soaked cotton wicks connected to her nipples by 4-inch-long metal tassels. Peeking out over her sparkling gold-colored, rhinestone-encrusted corset, Walker makes sizzling circles in the air as she shimmies to the throbbing beat and flings her breasts around, whirlybird-style.
While the showstopping stunt is the kind of spectacle you might see on Fuse TV's Pants-Off Dance-Off, it's Walker's trademark, and generates a roar of approval from a standing-room-only audience of howling hepcat types, who've come to witness the sultry Suicide Girl-style striptease acts presented by local burlesque troupe Scandalesque at its monthly showcase.
Although her flaming-tassels act lights up the crowd, Walker's more than just a warmup act, taking the stage near the end of the program.
As Walker, who mentors Scandalesque and performs at their events, snuffs out the flames with her fingers, the crowd erupts into a standing ovation. Soaking up the applause, she absentmindedly fingers her shoulder-length hair (dyed blonde to cover her gray), making sure none of it's been torched by a wayward tassel.
"My boobs aren't what they used to be, 'cause gravity ain't been too kind," says Walker after the show. "Every once in a while, a fire tassel won't go where I want it to, kinda like it's got a mind of its own."
It isn't the first time Walker's thrilled the masses with flammable antics and unclothed gyrations. More than three decades ago, the burlesque queen wowed packed houses in Las Vegas, New York City, Tokyo, and other far-flung destinations with her elegant costumes, graceful movements, and (in those days) killer figure.
But globe-hopping isn't on her mind at the moment. Instead, she's heading to the parking lot for a smoke. Relaxing on a wooden bench, she lights up a cigarette while discussing the places her career took her, whether it was performing at Caesar's Palace, hanging with the Rat Pack, or slipping between the sheets with '60s and '70s glitterati.
It's the latter that provides the most attention-grabbing aspect of the many yarns she spins, including somewhat dubious claims of knocking boots with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Bobby Darin, TV star Frank Gorshin, and other celebs. Although she's currently a lesbian, Walker was more ambisextrous back in those days, asserting she also bagged Janis Joplin.
Her life of hedonistic decadence started out with demure innocence, as Walker was once a "good Catholic schoolgirl" who dreamt of becoming a nun. As her stage name implies, she strayed far from this path of righteousness, becoming a teenage hellion who traded charm school for reform school, and eventually choosing the life of an ecdysiast.
Her stories are as lurid and scandalous as any pulp novel or gossip rag, and go from the metaphorical penthouse to outhouse. After leaving the stripping biz in 1985, Walker nabbed a hardcore cocaine addiction, which drained her both physically and financially.
She eventually wound up in the Valley, where she's found redemption of sorts. In 2002, local playwright Terry Earp penned the one-woman show about Walker's life, Have Tassels, Will Travel, which has led to a career resurgence for Walker. In the past few years, she's become something of a darling among the hipster crowd who've fueled the recent revival of burlesque, even though she could easily be their grandmother (albeit one who sets her breasts aflame).
"The crowds love her; she's freaking amazing and gets a standing ovation every time," says Christy Zandlo, the 28-year-old fireball-slinging blonde bombshell who's the artistic director for Scandalesque and performs under the stage name Pyra Sutra. "She totally has this aura and adds so much to our show. With Angel, performance is in her heart. It's so rare that you see some sixtysomething gal lighting her tits up."
In addition to hooking up with Scandalesque, Walker's performed at burlesque conventions around the country, and is participating in an upcoming documentary on the art form's history and its resurgence. In the flick, she recounts her salacious life story, describing how a wanna-be bride of Christ became the torrid tease artist known as "The Devil's Own Mistress."
Although the rocky road she's been traveling on since birth has had plenty of perilous potholes along the way, Walker is certain it was far better than leading a life less ordinary.
"I never wanted to wind up staying home and changing crappy diapers, when I could be jet-setting around the world and dating movie stars. Why would I ever want anything as plain-Jane as that?" Walker says. "Once I left home, boy, it was one big party for 30 years straight."
On a lazy Labor Day afternoon, Walker putters around in the kitchen of her single-wide Apache Junction mobile home, fixing a dinner of baked ham, potato salad, and deviled eggs for herself and Vic, her lesbian partner of six years.