Kool Kat of the Week: Bernadette Seacrest: From Ballet Dancer to Punk Rock Girl to Torch Song Provocateur

Posted on: Sep 19th, 2012 By:

By Torchy Taboo
Contributing Writer

In an ocean of great musical talent in Atlanta, we’ve discovered a shiny pearl perched on a high rock on the shore. ATLRetro’s Torchy Taboo had the opportunity to chat with singer Bernadette Seacrest and was immediately enchanted by her humble nature and artistic approach to giving performances. Bernadette plays the last Tuesday of every month with a revolving list of local favorites accompanying her at various intimate settings. On September 25, you can catch her at Sister Louisa’s CHURCH of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium; the show is upstairs from 8 to 10 p.m. and there’s never a cover. Bernadette opts to play small venues where she feels she is sharing the evening with the audience, the bartenders and wait-staff, everyone in the room. This intimate approach is informed, she explained to me by the deep creative  fulfillment she gets from performing, one that began as she was growing up fully immersed in the world of ballet.
Torchy Taboo: You are originally from Cali; North or South and is that where your performance background began?
Bernadette Seacrest: Yes, I grew up part of the time in California. My mom and dad split up when I was four. My dad stayed in NYC and my mom moved back to San Francisco but went back and forth between San Francisco and Venice Beach. My sister and I figured it out and all-in-all we spent the majority of our youth in Venice. Because we moved around so much I ended up attending ballet schools at the San Francisco Ballet, the Los Angeles Ballet and the American Ballet Theater in NYC.
Bernadette, as with all true ballerinas, grew up obsessed with the dance. It influenced every part of her growing psyche and was all she knew or wanted. Then all that suddenly ended. She suffered a tragic injury in ballet rehearsal which ended a promising dance career after which she ended up in NYC. How did you cope with that abrupt change and loss?
I dropped out of high school when I was injured; had a bit of a break-down when I couldn’t dance, was living in a foster home at 15,  and went to beauty school when I turned 16 (LA and Kansas City). Then I moved to NYC on my own in ’82 [at] 17 years old and lived in the East Village.
Is that where and when you developed your unique individual style? Did the punk undercurrent of the time in NYC give your angst a place to make itself useful?
I worked for a punk rock designer and started dabbling in fashion, and I also did a bunch of stylist work and modeling and junk – all with the crazy underground punk rock fetish peoples. No formal education in the fashion. I ended up moving to LA and creating a clothing line for a company called NANA. I took a few classes in fashion at Santa Monica Community College, but mostly I just figured shit out on my own. The women who influenced me back then, designers that I sold in the store I worked at [Enz’s – still in existence], were Vivienne Westwood, Dianne Brill and the like. Betsey Johnson had her little store just around the corner from one of the stores I managed. These ladies were kind of self-taught, too. It was the “punk rock” way, you know – if you wanted to play music, you played music, you picked up an instrument or whatever. I did have friends in school, but most of the folks I hung out with were doers.
How long have you been singing? And what was your first show?
I’ve been singing for just over 10 years. My first show was with Pat Bova in Albuquerque, NM. I was a wreck! I had had really bad stage fright all my life  – I was also a mess when performing with the ballet or doing any runway modeling. So I hated my first show! But I had always wanted to sing and I made a little promise to myself that I would perform five times, and if at the end of the fifth show I still felt the same way, I would stop. I would stop knowing I had given it my best. Luckily I was completely addicted by maybe the third or fourth show!
How much influence and input do you have in the writing of your songs? You describe them as “heavy”; does the phrase “Torchy'” (hahaha) also apply?
Torchy is most definitely a good description. I feel very fortunate to have found writers that I resonate with; it’s a real gift. They have all been my bandmates and have come to know me well. I am a feeling-based person more than anything. My guys bring me songs, I listen and see how I feel. It’s very simple. I don’t come at them with ideas- I allow them space to do their thing, the same way they allow me space to interpret their material the way I feel it. It’s a beautiful thing.
Your performance style is so personal. How does singing male-written lyrics affect that, if at all?
Actually, I had kind of a major epiphany this year regarding the song-writing. I have struggled with major insecurity about the fact I don’t write my own material, for as long as I’ve been singing. Really down on myself about it, not feeling confident about myself as an “artist” feeling like the cliche – “fraud.”  But this year I met with Pat Bova while I was visiting New Mexico and it hit me like a tidal wave. I’ll try and articulate it, but I am not sure I have the words to convey the depth of what it felt like to realize that my gift is to interpret his brilliant, and to me profound, material. It is equally as important for me to sing his songs as it would be my own. His songs need a voice. They need to reach people, they’re important. I feel they are important. They have such deep meaning for me. He knows me so well, knows my struggles and heartache, etc. He has been struggling the last several years, not performing himself as much, life kind of hitting him hard in some ways, and as I sat there with him, listening to him sing these songs he wrote I was filled with this feeling of “Oh my god! I HAVE to sing his songs, people need to hear this!” A wave of emotion came over me with an understanding like I’d never had before.
Bernadette explained to me the relief of finally finding that same complete fulfillment on stage that she’s experienced in the ballet. The list of accompanist is impressive, including local favorites RL Martin on guitar, Kris Dale on bass and Marlon Patton on drums. One week she found herself in a last-minute need of a drummer and as luck would have it, Kingsized‘s own king of the pipes, Big Mike Geier himself took a seat at the skins. Now that IS a creative approach.
All photographs are courtesy of Bernadette Seacrest.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Let Her Entertain You: Fonda Lingue Teases Us With a Snow-Glamorous Fan Dance and Embarks on a Grand European Tour

Posted on: Nov 28th, 2011 By:

Fonda Lingue. Photo credit: Rah Benton.

Place a wide ostrich feather fan in the hand of Fonda Lingue, and she’ll tease you with an act that captures the classic beauty of vintage  Sally Rand. She’s mastered “Let Me Entertain You,” the signature striptease number of Gypsy Rose Lee, and she’s even developing a tribute to Lili St. Cyr. But as you watch her graceful moves that recapture the glamour of burlesque’s golden era, chances are it may take you a while to realize Fonda’s ultimate tease. While burlesque has its share of boys, Fonda is one of the very few who dances as a woman and not just that, but as the awards and accolades she’s accrued in just a few years of professional performance in the field attest, with all the skill and sex appeal of today’s top female burlesque revival performers.

Atlanta’s burlesque scene has had its share of rising stars, but when we heard that Fonda was heading to Europe to compete against some of the best international performers for the prestigious Milan Burlesque Awardas well as a whirlwind performance tour through England, France and Italy, we knew it was high time to declare her Kool Kat of the Week. This Fri. Dec. 2, she’ll also be one of the Snow Queens of Burlesque in Santa Baby, a special wintry holiday edition of Mon Cherie‘s Va-Va Voom series at The Shelter featuring special guest celebrity emcee Devin Liquor and Stormy KnightBiloxi BrownKatherine LasheScarlett Page and more of Atlanta’s best dancers. Then on Sat. Dec. 17, she’ll be performing in the Syrens of the South-produced Tits for Toys for Tots show at The Five Spot. Headlined by burlesque legend Gabriella Maze, returning after almost 30 years, that holiday-themed spectacular features a glitzy all-star line-up of local performers including Talloolah Love, Katherine Lashe, Ruby Redmayne, Kittie Katrina, Kisa Von Teasa and Lola Lesoleil.

ATLRetro caught up with Fonda to find out what flamed her passion for classic burlesque and to see what we could tease out of her about her December performances and that upcoming European tour!

ATLRetro: Before you became a classic burlesque performer, you were a ballet dancer and female impersonator for 20 years. How did you get started in burlesque and what captivated you to embrace recreating the golden era of burlesque?

Fonda Lingue: I got started in burlesque when Devin Liquor and I had a show at The Stage Door in Tucker called “The Dirty South Dukes and Dolls Show.” It was primarily a drag king show, and I was the only “female” in the show. I never wanted to do traditional drag acts of just standing there and lipsyncing to popular songs so I would create these dance numbers to use all of my talents. I did a number to “Let Me Entertain You” from GYPSY where I did the first part as the young Gypsy, then ran off the stage, quickly changed and became Gypsy in her striptease years and stripped down to pasties and panties. The audience loved it! I began adding those numbers more and more into my act and was asked by The Lady Miss Vagina Jenkins to participate in one of her burlesque shows. That was the start.

Fonda Lingue. Photo credit: Derek Jackson.

As far as the Golden Era of Burlesque, I am a purist, almost to an OCD extent. I figure if I am going to do it, I am going to do it right and do it accurately. I have studied videos, read books—I am reading GILDED LILI [about] the life of Lili St. Cyr right now—and talked to legends, and to me, that time was the height of what burlesque used to be. You were a star back then and you were paid well to do your craft. You were taken care of and respected for what you did as an artist. I love the glamour, and I love the social aspects of the burlesque scene. I also think it is important to keep that part of our history alive. Right now there is a more contemporary approach to burlesque throughout the country, and my goal is to keep classic burlesque alive. There is room for both and many performers do both styles. For me, it is a preference, and I think it suits my movement style and my look.

It strikes me that the burlesque world is very open-minded and embracing, but did you have any challenges as a boylesque performer among your fellow performers or with audiences?

I can’t believe how well I have been received in the burlesque world. Much more than in the drag world. I am one of only a few males that perform as a woman. In fact, I know of no one else who does what I do. That’s not saying there isn’t someone, I just don’t know of anybody. I am different in that my goal is to fool the audience until the final reveal, then they realize I am a man. Really, I am the definition of the word “Burlesque.” I love to challenge people’s sensibilities and prove to them that they can enjoy my performances from an entertainment standpoint and not necessarily a sexual one. I also like the fact that I may challenge their sexual tendencies as well. The only real problem I have is when I apply to a festival or competition, they don’t always know where to put me. They want me, but they just don’t know if I am to be placed with the boys or the girls. In the Great Southern Exposure pageant last year, I won King of Burlesque. Some other competition might place me as a female. If it is not a competition, there is no problem.  I don’t care myself where I go, i just want to be able to perform.

Who are a few of the performers—both classic and from the contemporary burlesque revival—who most inspire you?

Lili St. Cyr is my absolute favorite. I have been compared to her in my performances, and I take that as the highest compliment. I have been inspired the most by Kisa Von Teasa, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, Dirty Martini, Catherine D’Lish and Michelle L’Amour. Each of them inspire me in different ways.

You’ve won quite a few honors in just a few years in the profession, including King of Burlesque in the Great Southern Exposure Burlesque Competition. Do you feel that ballet and drag experience gave you a leg up, so to speak?

Drag not so much. I would like to say that it had, but I have to be honest. Other queens told me my make-up was wrong, my numbers weren’t current, and they all tried to “correct” me. Even my partner at the time tried to change my make-up. It was only when I went back to following my own instincts that I got any recognition. Plus, it’s all too political in Atlanta, but that is another interview!

Ballet has definitely helped me with my burlesque career. I would not have the carriage and vocabulary I have if it weren’t for my experience as a ballet dancer. Also my ability to portray different characters can be attributed to my ballet training. In ballet, you have to convey the story to your audience through your movements. Your voice is your body. It’s the same in burlesque. Burlesque is just another form of dance. People argue with me on that, but aren’t we called burlesque DANCERS?

Without giving away too much, what can you tease us with about your performance in this Friday’s winter-themed Va-Va-Voom?

Well, I have been asked to do a fan dance by Mon Cherie herself, so that I will do. It will be set to classical music, it will be very sparkly—of course—and I hope it will be very beautiful!

You’ve done a lot of performances at Mon Cherie’s events, including the Rockabilly Lounge. She’s really gone a long way towards making burlesque a regular activity in Atlanta and nurturing so many performers. Can you talk a bit about Mon Cherie’s impact on the local burlesque scene and why folks should come out to her events?

Well, Mon Cherie has done a lot for me personally as far as my performing here in Atlanta. She has allowed me to perform in front of audiences that I didn’t know if they were going to like me or hate me. Fortunately they have all been favorable experiences, and I have opened some peoples eyes through her. Mon brings in performers from all over the south and also tries to give “Newbies”—that’s a term I have learned through my dealings overseas—a chance to perform as well.

Money is tight these days, and there are not a lot of outlets for burlesque performers right now. I am very lucky I perform as much as I do. She has had a HUGE impact on Atlanta’s burlesque scene in that she makes it possible for us to work consistently. Just about every independent burlesque performer in Atlanta has graced her stages at one time or another. I admire the fact that she tries to keep us employed and often reaps no benefits herself. I know her day will come. You can’t give of yourself like she does and not be rewarded somehow. Her events are professional, she has high standards, and the atmosphere is that of those early years of burlesque when it was just as social as it was performance. I always feel like I have stepped back in time!

We just heard the exciting news that you’re about to set off on a European tour. Where are you going and what acts are you taking on the road?

Right now I am going to London, Rome, Paris, and I am still waiting confirmation on Milan. There are other things in the works but not confirmed. I am taking six acts with me! Am I crazy? Yes! I am performing three nights inParis, and they want two numbers each night! I am taking “Zip Strip” (the act I won Great Southern Exposure with) my “funny fan dance,” “Cry Me A River” (my signature piece), “Moon Indigo” (a new act that is in rehearsals now), “Lili,” my tribute to Lili St. Cyr (in rehearsal now, especially created for this tour) and another new number that I have chosen the music but haven’t started yet.

Is it true that Ruby Redmayne is coming with you?

We are working on that! If she does, she will accompany me on part of my trip only. She is my best friend, and she wants to be there to celebrate with me and to help me backstage. And who wouldn’t want to go to Europe?! We can make a great time out of walking through the grocery store, so I know we will have fun. I hope it works out that she can go because I would love to share this experience with her. She has done so much for me to keep me motivated and help me get things done. I have booked this whole tour on my own—researched my own contacts, pursued producers and corresponded with all of them. It has turned into almost a full-time job, and Ruby has been invaluable in helping me get things accomplished! She needs to reap the benefits of her hard work as well! It’s not easy keeping me motivated!

It’s hard to make a living as a burlesque performer here in the US, but you’ve said that the situation is easier in Europe. I was struck, for example, at the huge burlesque scene in London—there’s so much going on that there’s even a “burlesque map.” Would you ever consider relocating to Europe?

Absolutely! In fact, that is my intention when I go over there. I am not sure where I want to live yet. Most likely it will be the UK or Paris. I want to see if it will be possible to make a living at being a burlesque artist. From what I have been told, there are not many male performers in Paris and none that perform as a woman.  The London burlesque scene has exploded. Europeans treat their Artists like Artists. And they pay them what they are worth. I have worked since I was 12 years old and never stopped. I loved my career as a ballet dancer, don’t get me wrong, but I was never a star. I was, and still am, well-known but I want more. I know it sounds cliche but that is what I want. I feel that I am on a path right now, and this is where it is leading. I have had a rough year. My relationship ended, and the day before I was to move into my new apartment I was in a car accident that has left me with some physical problems.  Everything bad that has happened has happened for a reason and has led to this tour. Far be it from me to stop listening now!

Do you have any other performances scheduled in Atlanta during the holiday season?

Yes, on December 17, I will be doing my “Suzy Snowflake” number at Syrens of the South’s Tits For Toys for Tots at the Five Spot in Little Five Points. I have also been asked to perform again at The Pond in Nashville with Ruby Redmayne for their annual New Year’s Eve Party.

You feel passionately about teaching burlesque as well. Can you talk a little bit about why even accomplished performers can benefit from classes to keep up their craft?

Your body is an instrument and it needs to be maintained. Regular movement classes keep you supple and in shape. They also keep your mind working. You are a dancer, and a dancer needs to take class at least a couple of time a week. I try to do my own class everyday. You owe it to your audience to be in the best shape both mentally and physically. The only way to do that is through constant training. People argue this with me, but the performers that do this are the ones getting the jobs and keeping them. You can always learn something from someone else. That is why I try to take as many classes as I can when someone new comes in to town or I go to a burlesque festival. It is always nice to hear someone else’s perspective on the same thing—especially someone that makes their living doing it! Ninety-nine percent of the time you get something out of it.

Finally, if I recall correctly, you recently purchased an amazing, beautiful headdress from Miss Torchy Taboo. Have you worn it yet in an act or what plans do you have for it?

I have not worn it yet. Rumor has it that I did wear it for a photo shoot, but that is not true. That beautiful piece of art will hopefully make it’s debut if I am accepted into the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival here in Atlanta the week before I go to Europe. If not, you will have to come to Europe to see it! I will be applying to the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. Torchy and I both agree it needs to end up there. “Moon Indigo” is the music I have selected for the number. I have designed my costume with a kind of Erte feel to it, and I have matched the fabric to the headpiece. It includes a fur wrap, and it will be made of dupioni silk! My costume is being constructed by Cat Harrison, a big Steampunk costume designer, so my corset will be especially awesome. I am using vintage beads combined with non-vintage Swarovski crystals. Costuming my body is not easy because I have to create body parts and curves that I just don’t have. My hat is off to her and she is doing a great job!

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