It's midnight on a Friday as a limousine pulls up to Ain't Nobody's Bizness, a gay club on Indian School Road.
Four corseted women in satin gloves, glittery go-go boots and fur coats emerge from the stretch. With deliberate grace, they strut sensuously toward the entrance.
Their makeup is heavy glam, their wigs slick bobs in pink, platinum and black. Their exaggerated curves are scattered with piercings and tattoos.
When they open the door and step inside, the lights in the club go down. The anxious crowd of 200 cheers raucously in the darkness.
The women snake through the center of the room, mount the stage and assume their positions, backs to the crowd, as "Erotica" fills the air.
Strobe lights pulse as Madonna coos:
"If I'm in charge and I treat you like a child, will you let yourself go wild, let my mouth go where it wants to?"
Madonna's subsequent moan is their cue to begin a routine that combines choreographed dance moves with sensual raunchiness. This is what the crowd has come for. Jazz hands and pirouettes are spiced with lurid sensuality that borders on the obscene.
Within seconds, the women are paired up on the floor groping and fondling one another. Legs encircle waists as the music throbs. The crowd whistles and screams.
The women respond with sultry smiles as they dance their way back to a standing position and swap partners, fondling breasts, grinding up against each other while eyeing the crowd as they pose, vamp and wiggle under the spotlight.
The crowd bursts into applause and catcalls, but it's not over yet.
The dance performance is followed by a muff-diving contest, in which members of the audience don scuba masks and consume a pie plate of whipped cream placed provocatively in each of the four dancers' crotches. The performers, perched on stools, have their backs to the audience. Thus, the pie plate isn't visible, just the bobbing heads of the women in their laps as their legs flail.
The winning contestant receives $100 for simulating cunnilingus onstage.
Club manager Andy Bryant couldn't have been more pleased. "The show went great," she says. "The crowd was absolutely enthusiastic."
It's this kind of performance that the dancers and founder of the all-lesbian burlesque troupe Lezbosagogo say will soon make them superstars.
Bryant is a little more cautious in her predictions for their future success. "I don't know if they're ready to go national," she hedges. "That takes a lot of dedication and time." Yet Bryant admits Lezbosagogo has garnered quite a following among her customers. "I get a lot of people telling me we need to have them back."
Neither dedication nor time seems to be a problem. The Gogos travel to the outer reaches of Ahwatukee to practice three mornings a week with choreographer Jessica Joseph. They're keen on adding whips and chains to the act. They're meticulous about practice, repeating moves until they are perfected and dissecting every aspect of the routine as a group. And they're smiling all the way despite the tedious rehearsals. They have the kinetic energy that comes from being on the cusp of fame, or at least believing they are.
"Wait until they see us," says Lezbosagogo founder Angela Pulliam, referring, it seems, to the entire universe. "They're going to love us. Nobody does anything like what we do."
What Lezbosagogo offers is a hybrid of burlesque, go-go dancing and nasty girl moxie that is unique and vibrant enough to have won them a gig performing at this year's Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, a huge annual lesbian gathering at the end of this month. Pulliam is confident that the Dinah Shore show will lead to bigger and better things.
Huge things, even. Pulliam's vision of Lezbosagogo's not-too-distant future and no, she's not on crack (anymore) includes appearances on Howard Stern and Jay Leno, opening Lezbosagogo hot dog stands in downtown Phoenix, and eventually "conquering the Greek isle of Lesbos" by performing on the symbolic island.
To hear her and her dancers talk, fame is not only probable, it's inevitable.
Lezbosagogo is riding a wave of renewed interest in burlesque that has swept many major American cities over the past eight years. Los Angeles has the Velvet Hammer, with a regular burlesque revue (they even perform dual shows with Mexican wrestlers). Also L.A.-based, the Pussycat Dolls (whose members have included Carmen Electra, Christina Applegate, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera) perform regularly at the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard and have been featured in People, Rolling Stone and US Weekly. San Francisco has the Cantankerous Lollies performing can-can and silhouette shows to rave reviews, and New York has clubs like the Slipper Room, where the perfectly synchronized Pontani Girls dutifully re-create vintage MGM numbers.
Burlesque fanatics even have a yearly convention to attend, the Tease-O-Rama, where they learn the ins and outs of making pasties and proper tassel-twirling techniques, and enjoy performances by dozens of burlesque acts from around the country.
Burlesque was born in circus side shows where carnies knew that displaying exotic beauties in the flesh was a quick way to make a buck. America got its first taste of burlesque at the Chicago World's Fair. Twenty-seven million people attended the fair in 1893, and many took in the then-oh-so-scandalous performances on the fair's midway featuring topless local blacks billed as "half-naked savages," and "hoochie coochie" dancers purported to be from the Far East (read: the U.S. East Coast).
A newspaper reporter described one such performance by the infamous Fatima as "a dancing exhibition that includes the wiggly-wiggly, the wormy squirmy, and the ouchie-couchie." Later, a filmed version of Fatima's act would be one of the first motion pictures ever censored.
In an age of relative innocence, free of triple-X entertainment and pay-per-view porn, burlesque grew and flourished as an erotic art form.
The genre's increasing popularity over the next five decades evolved to incorporate elaborate sets where dancers fluttering colorful ostrich feather fans emerged from giant oyster shells and slowly stripped down to tasseled pasties. Water shows cloaked the allure of shapely women in tight wet bathing suits as family entertainment, and were as popular as they were outrageous. Performers such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr became legendary.
By introducing America to sexuality, burlesque quite innocently paved the way for the porn industry that would ultimately overshadow it by the end of the 1960s. As the love generation discovered puberty, the seduction of a slow, choreographed striptease could no longer compete with the full-on nudity of the burgeoning adult entertainment industry. Strip clubs, porn films and later the VCR would make burlesque virtually obsolete by the '70s.
But beginning in the mid-'90s, interest in burlesque as a more erotic alternative to strip clubs, propelled by retro-nostalgia trends such as swing, tiki culture and rockabilly, pushed the antiquated art form back into the public eye.
"I don't know if burlesque ever really died out," claims Jo Weldon, a fan and performer from New York who runs a Web site devoted to the naughty art form. "With the way the media is now, and especially with the Internet, it's much easier for people to find out about it. It's natural for people to be interested in burlesque, and for the media to pick up on that," she says. "Burlesque is charming, a very visual, entertaining performance art."
Whether Lezbosagogo will be Phoenix's entree to the national burlesque stage remains to be seen. Not that troupe members care much about those geeks. Their act is less concerned with respecting the traditional aspects of a burlesque routine (Pulliam admits she did no research into burlesque before or since forming Lezbosagogo) than it is with titillating a lesbian-friendly audience. Or any audience, for that matter.
But burlesque dancers and fans like Weldon say that's okay, too. She says there's room in the burlesque scene for both the expected and the unexpected. "Everybody admires and respects traditional burlesque and those who reenact it, but there's also this complete element of anything goes."
Weldon raves about the Tease-O-Rama convention in San Francisco she attended last year, describing it as "the most amazing thing I ever saw." The variety was what impressed her. Weldon says she found the different body types in shows "extremely sexy. You had stripper bodies, mature women, heavier women I found it really exciting."
Weldon was really impressed by the divergent performances, such as an act by Trixie Little. Dressed as a muscular superhero, Little's routine consisted of subduing an evil man-in-a-monkey-suit through choreographed tango/kung fu-acrobatics. "There's room for absolutely anybody," she says. "I'd love to see the lesbians there next time."
Angela Pulliam, 40, saunters into Espresso Depot in downtown Phoenix and seats herself at a side table. Her skin is deep chocolate, her head bald, her doe eyes lost behind the metal hoops and bars that dangle from half a dozen piercings like fishing lures. Pulliam is fierce, not fierce as in dangerous, but gutsy-cool-raw-street fierce.Even without the pierced lips and shaved head, Pulliam would make quite an impression. She is joyous, confident and gregarious with a mouth that smiles as easily as it laughs all useful character traits for a promoter.
"I should be dead right now," Pulliam says. "Instead, I'm on top of the world."
Not so long ago, Pulliam was a homeless crackhead. Now she is the founder, manager and den mother of Lezbosagogo, born four years ago in her Phoenix living room. And, much to her delight and hard work, she and her troupe find themselves preparing for their biggest gig ever, what she hopes will be their "breakout" performance. Excitement spills out of her like boiling milk.
It's the Gogos she's come to the cafe to talk about, though her own story intermingles with theirs, and she's brought one of her gang along, veteran dancer Angela "Skylar" Nowak, to explain the concept.
"Girl-on-girl interaction" is what Skylar says sets the Gogos apart from other burlesque troupes, as Pulliam nods in agreement. "Grinding, touching breasts, face between legs, hair pulling, biting, licking. We give them something they haven't seen before," she says. "And then there's the muff-diving contest."
Pulliam tosses her head back and laughs out loud. Skylar smiles demurely as Pulliam says, "We always want a big crowd, so weeks before the show we'll start promoting." Pulliam and her dancers print up fliers and advertise on the Internet and hype on radio spots. The night of the show, the Gogos employ "crowd lubricators," girls who will work the club for hours giving away tee shirts and getting the patrons excited.
Marketing is as much a part of the performance as costumes and shimmies, and Pulliam's skills as a pitchwoman come in handy. One look at the group's Web site, which features Lezbosagogo-logoed products from lunch boxes to sweat shirts to license-plate holders, is evidence enough that at least the infrastructure for fame is well in place.
Pulliam says she learned her hustle and survival skills on the street, and after beating crack and homelessness, she feels nearly invincible. "If I can get through that, I can do anything."
Pulliam grew up in the Chicago suburbs. A veteran of more than a dozen rehabilitation and treatment centers, she just couldn't seem to kick the drug that devoured her. "Things got bad, really bad," Pulliam says somberly. "I OD'd the night my brother died, and even that wasn't enough to stop me."
Angela was on a four-day crack binge. While her mother was in a store shopping, she took her mom's car during a snowstorm and didn't return for days. She holed up in a windowless crack house and lost consciousness for a while before she was revived. It felt like death, Pulliam recalls, and it was enough to make her visit home that, and the fact that she had run out of crack and money.
Pulling up to her house still in the grips of her high and with paranoia roiling in her veins, she saw the yard lighted up by the strobes of police cruisers. "I figured they were here for me," Pulliam says, and on most nights they would have been.
She went in, and her mother informed her that her brother had died following a heart attack two hours before. "He died at the same time I was OD-ing. We both gave out at the same time, only I came back." She looks down at her feet for a moment and shrugs a little. "As horrible as that sounds, it still wasn't enough to get me sober."
In early 2000, Pulliam felt ready to quit crack again. "The patheticism inside me was clashing with my creativity," she says. Pulliam moved back in with her mother, entered yet another treatment program and somehow it stuck. "I went through an entire psychic change," she says. She shaved her head then, and has kept it that way to remind her of the importance of clean living. This April will mark her third year of sobriety.
Pulliam was in sales for a while, but it didn't fulfill her. "It felt like feeding my addictive side," she says. It was the creative side she wanted to see grow, a part of herself she needed to make stronger to really recover. She quit work and began throwing sober parties which she says she was good at. Good enough that she figured out a way to make entertainment a career. "I loved the scene underground. Pretty soon I was the go-to girl for all the good lesbian parties. It was then that the idea for a lesbian burlesque show came about."
Pulliam set out to find just the right mix of dancers. "I looked for beautiful girls, open-minded women who like to have fun, dance and were not at all shy." She found them in the troupe's current incarnation, four core members Pulliam has whittled down from a high of 14 dancers a year ago. "With that many girls, attitudes and politics got in the way of what was important."
What remains is a Whitman's Sampler of different body and personality types. "We offer something for everyone, every taste," says Skylar.
None of the four dancers has a supermodel body. Shennay "India" Perryman is 26, caramel-skinned with broad shoulders that are muscled from lifting weights. She has glowing cat eyes, slicked-back hair, and a refined yet warm presence. Leslee "Devin" Toliver, 22, plays the role of an angel in a devil's body; she's rock 'n' roll and piercings and aggressively sweet, with a cascade of blond hair and rings in her nipples. Skylar, 26, is debutante grace, impeccably groomed yet oozing sexuality and charm. Lette "Gemini" Garcia, 22, is delicately beautiful, with long dark hair, sensual Latina curves and a shy, sweet demeanor.
They are, they affirm, the best of friends, one big happy lesbian family. They share everything, and even menstruate within hours of each other. "I'll be at my house and two or three of them will come knock on the door with their pillows and a movie; we have great slumber parties," Pulliam says.
"We all eat, breathe and sleep [Lezbosagogo]," Skylar says.
Lezbosagogo's members are beautiful, not only because their bodies are tight and their faces appealing, but because they are self-possessed and confident. Theirs is a medium where identity resides in sexuality. They have not only embraced the idea, they have full-on groped it, fondled it and tongue-kissed it.
In concept, Lezbosagogo seems so cosmopolitan, so San Francisco, Greenwich Village or West Hollywood. Which is why those cities have seen more of the troupe of late than has Phoenix. They've performed in more than a dozen cities since last October's show at Ain't Nobody's Bizness, and it's a rhythm they hope will become more furious after their March 30 performance in Palm Springs.
The venue seems perfectly suited to what the Gogos say they're all about. Dinah Shore Weekend is a party held in conjunction with (although it's not officially connected to) the Kraft Nabisco LPGA Championship, formerly known as the Dinah Shore Tournament. The LPGA is notoriously squeamish about admitting any connection between lesbians and women's golf, despite the fact that the Dinah Shore Weekend (in the same town and at the same time as the golf classic) is the largest gathering of lesbians in the country.
Mariah Hanson, co-producer of Dinah Shore and owner of the Cherry Bar in San Francisco, saw Lezbosagogo perform at her club in January and was impressed enough to offer them the gig in Palm Springs.
Although unfamiliar with the group when Pulliam first approached her, Hanson had taken a risk and wound up thrilled with their show. "It turned out to be a phenomenal performance, very sexy, innovative, fresh. It wasn't in bad taste, and had some humor as well." The crowd couldn't get enough of them, she says. "I think there's always an element of sexual eroticism in lesbian dance performances. However, [Lezbosagogo] brought their own unique style."
They were exactly the kind of act she was looking for to perform at the Dinah Shore Weekend, which Hanson has been co-producing for 14 years. "What works best is when sexy is combined with playfulness. They're very good, they make it fun and people are not afraid to approach them, engage them or get involved."
Other entertainment Hanson is planning for the event includes comedians, erotic belly dancing, pool parties and live music featuring bands from L.A. and San Francisco. Lezbosagogo will be as well-known or viable as any act there. Hanson says attendance at the golf tournament and Dinah Shore Weekend combined will range from 15,000 to 25,000.
Though a large number of the LPGA attendees will also attend Dinah Shore, Hanson says both the tournament and the lesbian venue want the two events to remain separate. "The Dinah Shore Weekend party presence is not appreciated by the LPGA."
Hanson complains that pro golf is "the last bastion of homophobia in sports. It all comes down to money." The last thing the LPGA wants to spotlight is that a legion of lesbians will be on the links at the championship event.
Hanson recalls the reaction when Sports Illustrated ran a seven-page package in 1997 on the Dinah Shore Tournament; three pages on winner Betsy King and four pages on the Dinah Shore Weekend. The author called the scene a "lesbian spring break," describing "hordes of them, gaggles of them, giggling and groping and making out with abandon." Golf club manufacturer and LPGA sponsor Titleist was incensed, calling the article "an inexcusable triple bogie," and pulling $1 million in advertising from the magazine. The message to LPGA players and their lesbian fans, Hanson says, was clear. "If you're a lesbian golfer sponsored by Titleist, or Nabisco, or any large corporation, you're better off not coming out." (It was rumored in Hollywood that songbird Shore, once married to actor George Montgomery and the girlfriend of Burt Reynolds, was herself bisexual. But if she was, she never came out, either.)
Breaking past homophobia and stereotypes is something Lezbosagogo is also concerned with. They have no corporate sponsors to censor their act so they confront misconceptions about gay women on a regular basis. "People think of lesbians, and the first image that comes to mind is Pat [from Saturday Night Live]," says India. "That's just not true. Lesbians can be beautiful, too, and people need to see that celebrated."
Being a gay woman, she says, encompasses more than wife-beaters, jeans and work boots, and that diversity should be reflected in entertainment as well. "I've never really liked the entertainment at gay bars," says India. "Lesbian bars usually are all karaoke or acoustic guitar and granola eaters. It's like the Dark Ages compared to the entertainment in straight bars." Skylar agrees, adding, "I think people are ready for some style, something more polished."
But the Gogos do not limit their performances to gay clubs. "Gay, straight, male or female, everybody loves lesbians!" Pulliam says. She means lipstick lesbians, of course, and she's forgetting, for a moment, the LPGA.
She recalls a show the Gogos performed in Rosarito, Mexico, last Fourth of July.
The crowd was made up of tourists and college students mostly, and the members were uncertain just how they would come off. Nerves were further rattled by what Pulliam describes as "some political nonsense going on between the bars there. The Federales became involved and were about to pull the show." Typically, some money exchanged hands and the Gogos performed for 800 people in a 650-capacity venue. It was intense.
The energy in the room was so great, in fact, that "the stage felt like it was going to collapse," recalls Skylar. After their performance, Pulliam says one of the Federales approached them with a camera and asked for a picture with the girls. "They loved us," Pulliam says. "How could they not?"
The Gogos also do private parties locally. Their clients include two prominent local attorneys whom Pulliam declines to name, as well as local music promoters and friends. Sometimes clients want a full-blown show, sometimes they just ask the girls to hang out poolside and interact with the guests. Pulliam says she charges about $5,000 for a club gig, and each girl makes between $50 and $300 a show, plus travel and expenses.
For now, Pulliam is the only one who makes a sustainable living out of the project. Her dancers all have day jobs or activities. Skylar is a server at a local restaurant, Devin studies business at ASU, India is learning to be a personal trainer and Gemini works at a mortgage company. But none of the women is averse to dancing topless at local strip clubs from time to time.
They are, however, concerned with being labeled as mere strippers. "We're much more than that," Devin says, "and that's not at all what we do in our show. With [stripping], we can work when we want to, go in and dance and make some money." It leaves their schedules open for rehearsals, school and Gogos gigs.
It's Friday night at the Amazons topless club on Seventh Street. India and Devin are in the dressing room getting ready to go onstage. Female patrons, and there are a scattering, must walk through the area to use the rest room, a path so narrow that one nubile stripper bending over to strap on a stiletto can block the entire pathway with her ass.
It's a seedy place at first glance. The lockers are dented and covered in stickers. Scuffed patent leather platforms and discarded, orphaned thongs lie here and there. But despite the run-down appearance of the club's inner sanctum, the women are friendly, the clientele are low-key and the drinks are reasonably priced. It has a neighborhood feel, not unlike Applebee's.
"Don't mind the titties, honey," a stripper says, as a timid customer squeezes past her breasts to the rest-room stall. Meanwhile, India slips into a white string bikini top and thong, gold knee-high go-go boots, and a diaphanous white chiffon coat. Out onstage, under the black lights, the glowing garments contrast with her toasted almond skin as she sheds them slowly. Devin is there, too, in a black thong and orange mesh top that reveals her pierced belly button and nipples. Her hair is blond and curly; she looks like a very naughty 16-year-old cheerleader as she grips the pole between her thighs and swings wildly around it.
Pulliam, Gemini and Skylar show up as patrons and commandeer a large booth in the corner. They applaud their friends loudly. The performers step off the stage, and India gives a lap dance to a woman in the far corner, while a middle-aged man quickly engages Devin. They seem encouraged by the presence of their friends, and, between dances, stop by to hug hello.
The contrast between Lezbosagogo here and in their burlesque gig is marked. At Amazons, mostly men congregate to watch nude women, yet spend considerable effort to affect a nonchalant indifference to the naked bodies writhing around them. Some of the dancers look amazingly bored as they hang upside down from the pole and finger their thongs while some of the men look past them to the basketball game on the big-screen TV.
"The difference between stripping and burlesque is the difference between work and play," sighs Jo Weldon, also a former stripper. "Stripping is about money. Burlesque is about performing your sexuality, not selling it."
Lezbosagogo's members agree, only they hope to make lots of money from their brand of burlesque so they can leave lap dancing behind.
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