I’m a freelance private investigator based in Paris. I don’t stalk people and I don’t wear a trench coat and sunglasses—unless it’s simultaneously raining and sunny. My company conducts investigations of high-flying financiers. While I have no interest in the finance world whatsoever, my entire income derives from it, and in last year’s economic crisis, I had zero income for three solid months.
The U.S. job market tanked, the dollar crashed, and my company laid off 16 investigators. While I kept my job, there was just no work to do, and I felt like I’d been placed on pause in a world where the film continued on without me. I wept uncontrollably. I lived on baguettes and potatoes. I borrowed money from concerned family members. Friends gave me boots when winter struck because mine had holes in them. It was very Depression Era, financially and emotionally.
All of this passed in time, as crises tend to do, and my work life returned to normal. But the experience left me feeling shaken and insecure. I longed for my old life—a life based on more than survival. I missed the humor of my pre-financial-crisis days, the sheer pleasure of being alive. I needed something to lift my spirits and take my mind off things. And then one day I came across a video of famed American burlesque performer Dita Von Teese dancing at the Crazy Horse, a well-known Parisian cabaret. She was glamorous and cheeky, both a parody of and the embodiment of female sexuality. Three minutes later I was enrolled in a class to learn the art of burlesque, a.k.a. the striptease.
I armed myself with high heels, garter belts, and thigh-highs, and went to my first class. There were five other women there, all of them French, between the ages of 25 and 36. We stood side-by-side in front of a mirror, wiggled our hips, and practiced removing elbow-length gloves with our teeth. With the body of an adolescent boy and the bank balance of a homeless person, I could hardly be described as a pin-up girl. But the spirit was there. I returned for another class.
For an hour each week, I learned burlesque and forgot my troubles entirely, financial and otherwise. I practiced unlacing a corset and applying fake eyelashes. I played Sonny Lester’s “Blues to Strip By” and unhooked the straps of my garter belt. I learned how to make pasties out of faux leather and bedazzle them with sequins and tassels. I bought a boa.
In time, my sense of humor returned. I felt sexier and lighter and more at ease with my diminished financial life and my place as a woman in an uncertain world. I befriended the other burlesque girls, who were also trying to iron out the wrinkles of their lives vis-à-vis learning to shimmy.
Burlesque performance in America emerged in the nineteenth century as a risqué satire of social norms. It was a comedic and sexy slap in the face of high-brow morality. In the midst of today’s global economic meltdown, the art form has reemerged as a glamorous refuge from the agonies and boredom of daily life.
While I’ve enjoyed learning to striptease, I’m not sure I’ll ever do it publicly. I’m equally doubtful that undressing is a workable solution for economic troubles, or any troubles, for that matter. But striptease did indeed provide me with a much-needed space to laugh again, and to celebrate being a woman. It diminished my worries and turned up the volume of my inner Gypsy Rose Lee, one bra strap at a time. For that – and for my feathered boa – I am extremely grateful.