Upstairs at L'Etage, Philadelphia's answer to a European salon, a flurry of young men adjust their best assets before taking to the small stage. Like a scene out of a Berlin nightclub just before World War II, gender is an illusion here. A few of the performers play with stereotypes, showcasing a dramatic flair for facial hair while donning a pair of pasties, while others put the Rockettes to shame with their high kicks
Despite the smattering of sequins covering the floor, this isn't a drag show and these are definitely not strippers. The men are part of The Weird Beard Revue, a new boylesque showcase inspired by the neo-burlesque movement that's fast becoming a trendy new addition to the city's more racy late-night scene.
"Boylesque is campy, light-hearted and, at times, sexually charged, just like traditional burlesque," says Josh Schonewolf, a nightlife event promoter and creator of Weird Beard. "The burlesque goddesses of Philly such as Lascivious Jane, Hayley Jane, Miss Liberty Rose, Lelu Lenore, etc., inspire the boylesquers to bring it even more because in burlesque it's a woman's world and male burlesque performers know that they have to work way harder to be even half as good as the women."
Schonewolf, who also helped to create Philadelphia's Burlesque Battle Royale – the first-ever burlesque competition series at Tabu – initially toyed with the idea of an all-male boylesque revue after seeing the positive response to Bearlesque, another all-male show, but with a very hairy twist. He hopes there would be even more room for self-expression – and body types.
Taking a page from 1980s New York when artist John Sax made a name for himself strip-teasing while belting out punk anthems at clubs like Danceteria, Philly's own boylesque experience is a bit of a work in progress, but one that has garnered much support from the city's LGBT and queer communities.
Brett J. Hopkins (who goes by the stage name Brettzo in Weird Beard) is among the most popular on the boylesque scene now thanks, in part, to his Dali-inspired mustache, glitter tassels (and "assels" – tassels on his rear end) and very hairy chest. Another performer rising in the scene, Mistor Farenheit (Ryan Henaghan), is equal parts glamour and camp.
"I was searching for a creative outlet that would help me be more comfortable with myself and my body," says Hanaghan, who admits that being covered in rhinestones is an added bonus. He's done lots of character work during his boylesque appearances when he's not cutting hair at South Philly's Juju Salon & Organics – everything from Gollum to Paula Deen.
"I think my tear-away clothing game is on point," he says. "I love adding Velcro to everything." In the past, he's also cultivated a high-fem drag persona with a mustache for Liberty City Kings, another burlesque troupe in town that occasionally features drag kings and queens. "I like to present as a boy performer that really takes on a feminine twist," he says. "It's all about finding the right balance and keeping the lines blurred."
The Art of the Tease
While burlesque is certainly not new to Philly, it has taken some creative turns. For many years, Peek-a-Boo Revue has been among the most popular troupes found slinking, shaking and sashaying across stages all over town.
"Burlesque has many, many branches growing out from itself, and boylesque is just one of them," says Joey Martini, Peek-a-Boo's longtime emcee. "It's an ever changing art form still keeping its ties to the traditional foundation."
When Peek-a-Boo first made its splash in the late nineties, boylesque was being defined by one performer in particular, an artist from New York City who went by the moniker of Tigger!.
"I first caught a glimpse of Tigger! in The Va-Va Voom Room at The Five Spot in Old City [Peek-a-Boo Revue's first home until fire destroyed the venue in February 2007] and my jaw hit the ground," says Martini. "It was new, amazing and different. At the time, The Peek-a-Boo Revue had only three men in the troupe on stage: Count Scotchula, The Amazing WID and myself. Scotchula and I came from a Rocky Horror background and WID was a stand-up prop comic. I don't think what Scotchula and I do in The Peek-a-Boo Revue is boylesque exactly, but there are certainly nods to the art form in some way or another within some of the numbers we produce."
Since then, boylesque performances have been popping up all over Philadelphia. But for audiences new to the genre, don't expect to see a drag version of the strip tease. It's a bit more complex than that.
The Politics of Pasties
"It's different for male performers," explains Timaree Schmit (also known as burlesque performer Honey Tree Evil Eye), "because men who play with gender in any way are assumed to be gay. That assumption isn't made about female burlesquers, although they are often queer."
Schmit, who has a Ph.D in human sexuality and teaches aerobic striptease for Philly Dance Fitness, says Philly's scene is especially ripe with opportunity for creative expression among boylesque artists defining themselves right now. "Boylesque is assumed to be focused on humor more than female burlesque, though the origins of burlesque are in comedy," she says. "But female nudity and humor are sometimes less obvious to people than male nudity is."
While Philly's boylesque scene is still relatively new, it's becoming wildly popular thanks to a renewed interest in drag and other gender-bending art forms in the last few years, especially in gay and gay-friendly clubs. And while not all boylesque performers are gay, there is a queer undercurrent running through many of the more well-attended shows.
"Boylesque performers often queer gender roles, regardless of whether or not they identify as LGBT," says J. Rudy Flesher, known as The Notorious OMG, a gender bender in his own right. He points to Brettzo's striptease spoof of Monty Python's "The Lumberjack Song" and Mistor Farenheit's geekier themes that run the gamut from comic books to sci-fi to showcase the sheer variety of styles.
"Performances that tend more towards the erotic than the humorous often also blur gender lines, using classic burlesque aesthetics like corsets, rhinestones and pasties and placing them on masculine bodies," says Flesher, who himself sports long, manicured fingernails both on and off stage.
But if audiences are expecting to see female impersonators or a Chippendales show, they'll be disappointed.
Gunnar Montana, a dancer and performer in Weird Beard, may look like a veritable beefcake, but his more avant-garde performances are a far cry from any schmaltzy Vegas act. Known for his well-received Halloween show, Drag Me To Hell, Montana – who grew out his own beard for this new show – admits, "It's fun to get out of the box every once in awhile and go a little crazy." As a professional dancer and choreographer, he says, "Any chance I have to put a dance together and be artistically stimulated, I'm going to take it – whether that includes taking my clothes off or not."
Montana has been pushing the artistic bar, even going so far as to disembowel a four-foot Santa while doing a strip tease in mink. For Weird Beard, he's created a dichotomy between a hyper-masculine character and a hyper-feminine one.
"Because it's a newer style and also because it's part of a burlesque revival that is blending old and new aesthetics, there is a huge amount of diversity within boylesque despite the relatively small number of performers," says Flesher, often decked out in fishnets, a corset, makeup and beard during his own stints on stage.
Schonewolf, who has in hands in several new events at mostly gay clubs in the city, says boylesque challenges the usual stereotypes about gay men being either "straight-acting" or sissified. "It makes me feel happy to see all kinds of body types celebrated," he says.
For this reason, the art form may be poised to explode here.
"Something magical is happening in Philadelphia and I think at the root of it, it is the fact that our art elevates us, literally, on a stage, and expands the idea of what is possible in the eyes of the audience," says Flescher. "As a queer male person who has no interest in the boundaries of traditional masculinity, my hat is doffed to the boylesque performers who put masculinity on stage, stretch it, poke fun, throw glitter at it, and generally have a gay old time – even when they're not gay at all. If the one take-away for the audience is that men can be funny and sexy in ways outside of what we've come to expect," says Flesher, "then that's a win for everyone."