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The secret, brainy lives of burlesque performers, revealed

A behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to be a professional woman by day and a woman who strips by night.

Mina Minou performs at St. Vitus Bar in Brooklyn.
Mina Minou performs at St. Vitus Bar in Brooklyn.Read moreAMANDA MARMOR

Dorian Helena, a behavioral therapist and self-defined "career woman," couldn't really imagine herself onstage like the burlesque performers she'd seen. How could the art form, with its raunch and glittery nipple pasties, fit in with her professional life?

Still, she decided to give it a shot. At her class at Garden State Burlesque Academy, she was entranced by her teacher, how she was able to command an audience with a simple walk.

"That was what pulled me, that confidence," she said.

Now Helena, 27, is both a career woman and a burlesque performer. And in a Friday show at Ruba Club called Get You a Girl Who Can Do Both, she will be one of six performers to present TEDx-style lightning talks and then, in the second half of the show, strip. Helena plans to give the audience an introduction to the field of behavioral therapy.

The message behind the show — its first iteration packed the Philadelphia club in October —  is that there's more to burlesque performers than what you see onstage, says its producer, Timaree Schmit, who performs as Honeytree EvilEye. It's a reminder that there's more to everyone than what you think you know about them, but negotiating that divide is a reality that women, and in particular those who get onstage and take their clothes off, are especially familiar with.

"The world has told people that you have to choose whether you're going to be sexy or competent," says Schmit, 35, the city's most prolific burlesque producer. She also has her Ph.D. in human sexuality studies.

Schmit was inspired to create the show by Ignite Philly, the popular, long-running lightning talk series that features lectures on everything from political activism to how movies make Tom Cruise seems taller. (Schmit actually met her partner, Adam Teterus, who's also a burlesque performer named Flirt Vonnegut, when he asked her to speak at Ignite.)

For the uninitiated, burlesque, as Schmit puts it, is "the art of the striptease." It's different from what strippers do at a strip club because most burlesque performers aren't making a living off their work (though some, like Schmit, do), and their four-minute spot onstage is the main event, as opposed to strippers, who use their performance as marketing for other services off which they can make money, like lap dances and talking to customers. Burlesque, performers say, is theater. It's storytelling; it's subversive.

It's a way of reclaiming power over your body, over the image of your naked body, Schmit says. It's fighting back against conventional ideas about what's degrading. It's saying: "You don't have any power over me because you've seen my t—."

Though not all women think burlesque is a feminist act.

"I don't know how objectification or sexualization of women's bodies challenges those broader ideas of what women are: sexy things that exist to be admired or to be looked at or to titillate," says Meghan Murphy, the Vancouver-based founder and editor of the site Feminist Current.

Yes, it's a woman's choice if it makes her feel good, said Murphy, but the question we should ask is: Why does it make women feel good? Is it because we've been taught that a woman should be evaluated on her looks and desirability?

In that way, Murphy says, the art form can actually perpetuate societal norms.

But for Schmit and other performers, it's a celebration of sex positivity, of different kinds of bodies, of the will to take up space and attention.

Here's what three of the show's performers, a mix of locals and out-of-towners, say about how they negotiate people's preconceived notions of women who strip and how they juggle their burlesque personas and their professional lives.

Anna Frangiosa, aka Annie A-Bomb, 42, Kensington: Costume designer by trade. Been doing burlesque for 20 years. Used to run Cabaret Red Light, "The Best Marxist Girlie Show in Hell." A literature buff who's produced shows on Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley and The Wizard of Oz (the book — not the movie, she clarifies).

"I definitely see myself as someone who's mentored a lot of people, but it's not necessarily about things that are valued by society. … Burlesque has always been a low-culture thing, and you wanna cross out of that, you wanna be able to reach more people and have it not just be this underground thing, but it is so often. But it doesn't have to be. Who decides what's important really?

"I've never applied really for grants for theater because I just assume that they'll be like, 'It's a boobie show, we can't give you that.' … The liberal gatekeepers of the Pew grants are not gonna probably give me money, anyway, so why would I spend time applying for those grants? I'm just like, 'I'm gonna do it my way.'

"Back when Cabaret Red Light was getting big, I was very outspoken about doing a kind of bait and switch. Our tagline was 'The Best Marxist Girlie Show in Hell.' We'd get articles written like, 'Come see this burlesque show!' Then we'd do all this political stuff as part of it. It's like, bait and switch, bait and switch. I still do that. If we're not using our nudity to influence people, why bother?"

Mina Minou, 25, Montreal. Teacher. Getting her master's in religious studies. Plans to get a second master's in divinity to become a minister. Likes to perform in folklore-inspired shows, where she's dressed as a demon, a witch or a fairy.

"I'm aggressively myself. I don't hide things. … I told my parents about it right up front, and they went on this rant about professionalism and what it'll do to my reputation especially because I'm a person who works with kids, and burlesque has these connotations as a sexual thing. … My personal philosophy is: I just want to be happy. That sounds so trite and stupid, but that's my main goal, and if I can't be honest about who I am and what I love, then I'm not going to be happy, so I'm not going to try for jobs that won't allow me to be myself. I don't think there's anything worth it in life to hide yourself for, which is a privileged notion. There are other things about me that make me employable, like that I'm highly educated, that have added to my confidence."

(Nonetheless, Minou asked that her "Muggle" name not be used because while she's happy to disclose her burlesque persona to people she knows, she does not want to be Googled by anyone in the world.)

"I'm a bisexual, Iranian American woman. The world's not going to like me to a certain extent no matter what. So why should I care? Better to just be myself.

"[Burlesque] is absolutely political for me. As a woman, as a chubby person, as a non-Euro-centric person onstage in front of people, taking up space is a political act in my opinion. I am presenting my presence as worthy of attention, which is political.

"People are surprised when they find out I'm this competent human who works with kids and preaches about loving each other and ourselves, but I'm also this woman who has a sexual persona. People don't expect that I work in a church setting. They're like, 'Whoa, how can you do that?' But I love [that I'm in these different worlds.] … It helps me relate to the world better. So often in life, we're stuck on one track, which isn't a bad thing, but it limits your perspective."

Dorian Helena, 27, near Asbury Park. Behavioral therapist. Has a master's degree. Specializes in sideshow, like death drops and her act with a bed of nails.

"The populations I work with are families. I do work with a lot of kids. So it's always there, like, 'What if this happens and I get fired from my job?' It's always something that's in the back of my mind because it's not unheard of for burlesque performers when they get 'found out,' that they get fired. … It's just a riskier art form.

"Work and burlesque, I keep those worlds completely separate. It's not hard for me. When I'm at work, I'm focusing on whatever client or family I'm with so it wouldn't be appropriate to talk about it.

"I'm very careful about my social media. I'm not a huge social media person. A lot of burlesque performers are, but with my career, I really can't be publishing things on the off chance that someone sees. … I try to make it as locked down as possible but still weirdly accessible, so people can be like, 'I recognize her from a show she's in' and send me a friend request."