It’s a busy night at Talde, the Asian fusion restaurant on Erie Street, but tell the hostess that you’re there to see Lillian Bustle, and you won’t have to wait for a table. Behind the bar is a nondescript door hidden in plain sight. It opens into a winding industrial staircase that leads to a little bar and performance area in the basement known as Miss Wong’s Lounge. The glow of candlelight reveals a space that looks like it could be from the Prohibition era. It’s a packed house. Everyone is there to see a striptease variety show called Speakeasy Burlesque. The performances are provocative but also artsy and at times funny. The performers are diverse in terms of gender, race, and body type. The event, which has been running monthly since May, is hosted by Jersey City resident Lillian Bustle.
Bustle keeps the crowd entertained between acts while the stage is cleared of abandoned lingerie. She’s a natural comedienne with a great singing voice. She showed off both (and a bit more) singing “Crazy” by Patsy Cline as a sardonic statement about U.S. politics, while she shimmies out of a sparkly red Statue of Liberty gown to her star-spangled underwear.
Burlesque to the Rescue
Bustle’s body-pride is as obvious as her talent, and a big part of finding self-love was finding burlesque. She attended her first show for her own bachelorette party in 2007. “Cliché, I know,” Bustle says. “It was on the Lower East side of Manhattan, in a club that’s now been remodeled but at the time was gloriously seedy. The show had some tame stuff, but some of the acts were political, some were wild. The show made me consider my own boundaries, and I was blown away that performance art could be so thought-provoking.”
Bustle already had stage experience. She has baccalaureate degrees in both psychology and theater. She once hoped to make it as a Broadway actor.
“I quickly learned that Broadway, heck, even regional theater, is almost impossible to break into as a young fat woman,” Bustle says, but she realized that burlesque is different.
“A couple of years later I took a one-day class with The New York School of Burlesque, and then a year later I took an act development series with Jo Weldon. I performed for the first time in 2012, at the Parkside Lounge.” Jo “Boobs” Weldon is a performer. The Parkside Lounge is an East Village mainstay.
“The performance was about three minutes long, and it left me feeling like I could do anything,” Bustle says. Her burlesque mentor, The World Famous * BOB *, calls that kind of experience a “courage reference,” which Bustle describes as, “doing something brave and keeping that feeling in your pocket for times when you’re not feeling so brave anymore.”
The Ultimate Selfie
Bustle, a self-described outspoken fat girl, is passionate about self-esteem. Body-shaming, she says, is culturally accepted prejudice; she hopes to inspire people to love and accept themselves.
“There’s so much stigma and shame attached to fat bodies,” she says. “The American cultural narrative tells us that thin, white, able bodies are the most valuable, and that everyone else should spend their lives trying to achieve that body, no matter how unattainable that goal might be.”
Fat “is painted as failure,” Bustle says. “Fat people are marginalized and harassed; they make less money than thinner counterparts, and experience a much higher rate of workplace discrimination. Society tells us it’s OK to be cruel to fat people because they deserve it, and if they really didn’t want to be tortured they’d stop being lazy and just get thin already,”
Fat and Flourishing
“For the folks who think I’m promoting an unhealthy lifestyle: poor self-image leads to health problems like depression, eating disorders, a weak immune system, and suicide,” Bustle says. “Fat-shaming causes weight gain, not loss, and it keeps fat people from seeking medical attention, even preventative care. Everyone deserves respect, even if they live in a body that isn’t your personal favorite, and showing others compassion and respect makes us all better people.”
She spoke about it two years ago at the TEDx Jersey City conference in a speech titled, “Stripping Away Negative Body Image.” TEDx puts together local, independently organized events that include TED Talks videos and live speakers with “ideas worth spreading.” TED speakers have included luminaries like Bill Gates and Jane Goodall, and local success stories like Kerry Magro.
“TEDx Jersey City is an amazing organization, and they are so nurturing and supportive of their speakers,” says Bustle, whose speech has been shared by hundreds of thousands worldwide.
She decided to try out for the 2014 conference after being urged by friends. She did a few rounds of auditions. “I was accepted and asked to present an 18-minute talk,” she says. “I wrote about a study that discusses visual diet, the idea that the images you consume can impact your preferences. I wrote about how science is proving that the more we’re exposed to different kinds of bodies, the more we prefer different kinds of bodies. I wrote about burlesque, and how that’s a great way to get exposure to body diversity, and the first time I read the thing out loud, it was almost 40 minutes long! Oh man. I must have written 20 different drafts, and was still making changes the morning of the conference.”
In her talk she discusses her personal journey to self-acceptance after a childhood spent wishing to be thin. “I found confidence slowly, through my chosen family,” she says. “I used to be painfully shy and would always be aware of whether I was the fattest person in the room. I wasn’t really comfortable in my own skin until a couple of years ago. Even though I talk about my body all the time as a body-love activist, it’s the first time in my life where I’m not comparing myself to other people’s bodies on a daily basis.”
The TEDx speech was a hit; that popularity grew once the video was posted online.
“A couple months later when the video went live, I was blown away by the response,” Bustle says. “My TED talk went viral. Memes popped up of me! Screenshots of the talk were captioned with my opening statements about fat not meaning ugly. One of them has been shared on Tumblr over a million times! I guess that sounds braggy, but I’m proud that I got up and said those words, and overjoyed that so many other people are connecting with the idea and having conversations about body shaming.”
Bustle discusses body-positive topics on her podcast, The Body Poscast with co-host Liza Poor.
“We cover a lot of pop culture, hashtags that have bubbled to the surface, or current events regarding body shaming or body positivity,” Bustle says. They interview other activists, artists, and burlesque performers in their semi-weekly episodes.
“A number of burlesque performers live in Jersey City,” Bustle says, but performances in the area are few. “To the best of my knowledge, my monthly show, Speakeasy Burlesque at Miss Wong’s Lounge, is the first regular burlesque show in Jersey City since Vaudeville days,” she says. “If anyone knows more about local burly history, please get in touch with me. I’d love to know more!”
Bustle thinks Jersey City is a pretty body-positive place. “I feel the people who live here celebrate individuality and expression, and that Jersey City has a very strong sense of community and compassion,” she says. “I find Jersey City to be an incredibly kind and supportive place to live and create art.”—JCM
Speakeasy Burlesque is held on the first Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. The cover is $10.