Mae West (1893 – 1980)
Blonde bombshell and legend of the silver screen, Mae West lived her life an unapologetic sexual icon. Famous for her innuendos and one liners, she was the first person who asked “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
Though she is now more famous as a Hollywood actress who went toe to toe with Cary Grant, Mae cut her teeth in burlesque shows before she set her sights on movies, first performing when she was just 14 years old. Always controversial, Mae West once ended up spending 10 days in prison when her own play “Sex” was too raunchy for the times. Mae West spent her time on the inside dining with the warden and his wife, and she was able to use the publicity garnered by the whole affair to build on her career.
Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975)
Josephine Baker was well and truly one of a kind. Not only was she an incredible dancer and performer, she was a civil rights activist and a member of the French resistance during World War 2, using her cache as an entertainer to help fight the Nazis!
Her most famous performance was the “dance sauvage,” where she danced erotically dressed only in a skirt made of artificial bananas. The trend setting, expectation challenging Josephine Baker continues to inspire women to this day, with Beyoncé being heavily influenced by the dancer.
Gypsy Rose Lee (1911 – 1970)
Gypsy Rose Lee was a true intellectual burlesque performer. Truly paying homage to the original roots of burlesque as a parody of highbrow operas and plays, Gypsy Rose Lee made a name for herself by reciting passages from poetry and literature whilst she performed her strip tease. Gypsy Rose Lee was a social activist, author and intellectual who saw herself as a high class stripper, or “Ecdysiast”.
Gypsy wrote the mystery thriller “The G-String Murders” which was turned into a film starring the legendary Barbara Stanwyck. In 1957 she published her memoirs under the title “Gypsy.” The memoirs were turned not only into a smash hit Broadway musical that is still being performed to this day, but also an academy award nominated movie.
Dita Von Teese (1972 – )
Dita Von Teese has proven to be so popular and talented a burlesque performer that she is hailed by many as the “queen of burlesque.” Formerly married to iconic musician Marilyn Manson, Dita’s high profile persona helped to push forward a resurgence of interest in burlesque in the 1990’s, the effects of which can still be felt to this day.
Dita Von Teese is heavily inspired by the golden age of Hollywood, and this is heavily reflected in her burlesque performances, which play with classic pin up imagery. Having once said that she wanted to put the tease back into strip tease, Dita’s most famous routine is one such strip tease that takes place inside a huge martini glass.