Interview: Michelle "Toots" L'Amour; Burlesque Dancer, Lavender Cabaret
By Scott Smith in Miscellaneous on Nov 30, 2005 3:00PM
Most people don’t like being called a tease. For Michelle “Toots” L’Amour, being a tease is all part of her act.
For the past three years, L’Amour has been teasing the city of Chicago as part of the burlesque troupe known as the Sugarbabies. Through their performances with The Lavender Cabaret, a group founded by L’Amour and her fiancé Franky Vivid, they’ve been part of a movement that’s brought burlesque back into the mainstream in Chicago and across the country.
The style of burlesque dance developed by L’Amour is informed by her classical training in ballet and jazz and a far cry from the airport-strip-club-grinding favored by groups like The Pussycat Dolls. L’Amour and the Sugarbabies perform their latest show, Femme TV, Saturday nights throughout December at the Lakeshore Theater here in Chicago. (Click here for your chance to win a pair of tickets to the show).
L’Amour recently won the title of Miss Exotic World 2005 thanks, in part, to a move that earned her the nickname “The Ass That Goes ‘Pow’”. Chicagoist sat down with Toots and Franky at Sweet Thang in Wicker Park to talk about why she loves burlesque dancing, why she teaches it to others and what exactly is behind the ass that goes “pow.”
Chicagoist: Do you prefer Michelle or Toots?
Michelle L’Amour: Either’s fine. And thank you for saying it correctly.
C: How do other people pronounce it?
ML: Tooots. It’s just not correct.
C: So more like how my grandfather says it when he’s talking to waitresses.
ML: Right. And then they get angry. But I don’t.
C: Is that something you picked up when you were performing or something from when you were a kid?
ML: (gestures to Franky) He started calling me Toots and then everybody that we work with started calling me Toots. Once we started Lavender Cabaret, it was just Toots.
Warning: Image after jump possibly NSFW
C: So not so much an affectation as a term of endearment?
ML: I don’t know. What was it, Franky?
Franky Vivid: It’s your interview.
FV: It was a way of winning her over. Being misogynist.
ML: I’m probably the biggest misogynist. And you can quote me on that. I’d be OK with that.
FV: I’m the feminist in our relationship.
C: How long have the two of you been together?
ML: Three and a half years?
FV: She’s the one who forgets the anniversaries.
C: You’re the sensitive one.
ML: He is! Oh my god! It’s true though. I think we take on opposite roles as far as the female/male thing goes. But I think most people are like that.
C: You grew up in Orland Park. What was that like?
ML: Kind of boring. I couldn’t wait to get out. I have gone back to teach there and I just don’t like it. I’ve always liked the city and wanted to live here.
C: Why is it important to you to teach and not just to perform?
ML: I like what it does for the women. Sometimes I’ll get frustrated about something and then I’ll get a really nice e-mail from a woman who’s starting to feel really good about herself. So even if I’m having a bad day and I have to go teach, I’m always feeling better afterwards.
C: What do you find is most empowering for the women who take your class?
ML: Just that they find that it’s OK for them to be sexy. I see the transformation as they go through the class. I’m corrupting their minds (laughs). I think I’m very unassuming. When I teach class I’m not wearing skimpy clothing or have all my makeup on. So I feel like the women feel comfortable right away because I’m not shoving it in their face.
C: How about for you? When you’re performing? What’s most empowering?
ML: I guess I’m an exhibitionist. And I prefer not to have clothes on. (laughs) I think it’s kind of always been there. And then once I performed for the first time it was like “Oh yeah, I really like that!” I was hooked.
C: How old were you?
ML: When I first performed a striptease, I was 22.
C: You didn’t feel that pull when you went to college at U of I when everyone else goes through their experimental stage?
ML: I wasn’t too experimental in college, unfortunately. I’m not a big partier. I don’t spend a lot of my days drunk so that wasn’t really a part of my college experience. It started coming out when I would go to these dance clubs in school when I would dance on top of the speakers and have my shirt up. One of my friends voted me Most Likely To Become A Porn Star. I was like “It came true!” (laughs) Not really. Though I will be doing some burlesque in an “adult film.” I’m just doing a fan dance. Nothing too explicit. I’m not that bad.
C: What are you trying to convey in your performances? It is art so it seems like there would be a message.
ML: I don’t really have a message. I don’t put feminist views or politics into what I do. I just want to make people smile and laugh. That may sound shallow but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think when people go out to have fun, they want to have fun rather than hear the performer’s views on politics.
C: What’s different about this year’s Femme TV show than the last show you did with that title?
ML: We learned a lot about how to pace the show. It’s funnier, it’s sexier, it’s quicker.
C: What was the most important thing you learned?
ML: That we have to end with a bang. Our goal is to make people think they had sex or make people want to have sex. And so when we see people making out at the end of the show, we know that we’ve done a good job.
C: You’re Miss Exotic World 2005. Are there any particular responsibilities you have that go along with the title? Do you have to open malls?
ML: No, I don’t have to educate the children or anything like that. I don’t really have any responsibilities. Right now it’s just to spread the word about burlesque.
C: You competed last year as well. What do you think it was about your performance this year that put you over the top?
ML: Well, the judging last year was a bit political. And there was a change in the judging this year to make it fairer. I was the new kid on the block. I don’t think that I was ready for it last year. I think I also needed that experience and to be more involved in the scene and know people better. Plus, my routine just rocked (laughs).
C: Was there any particular move that…
ML: Oh, I have a move.
C: You have a move.
ML: I’m “the ass that goes pow!” (laughs) Have you seen the move?
C: I’ve seen a couple of the shows but I don’t know if I’ve seen that move.
ML: I could pull it out right here but I won’t. You could just tell people that I did.
C: I have journalistic ethics, I don’t think I can lie.
FV: I thought that WAS journalistic ethics.
C: Only if you work for The New York Times.
ML: Basically, I’m in a straddle position. And then I move my butt cheeks independently (makes an up and down motion with her hands) like a little shimmy. It’s a crowd pleaser.
C: Will you be doing “the move” in this show?
ML: I do. And it’s funny now because when I come out onstage people yell “pow!” It’s become a thing.
FV: I think it could become a new dance craze, like the Macarena.
ML: Maybe I should have my own silly burlesque line dance.
C: It’d go over big in Orland Park.
ML: Oh yeah.
C: You could return like a conquering hero.
ML: They’ll have a parade.