Burlesque and Campaigning
Burlesque star Sukki Singapora considers how the performance art is perceived in her home country of Singapore and in Britain
Burlesque is changing. From its grassroots of comedy, satire and parody, we now embrace the vaudeville, striptease, cabaret and a variety of performance, freely expressing existential realities through candid observations and shared life experiences. Burlesque has become a community, a platform for freedom of expression and freedom of identity, and a network of creativity promoting 'DIY' ethics (despite being oversaturated at times, with too few opportunities to showcase performers).
However, with the gross misconception that burlesque is stripping, the term has often been breathed in the same breath as women's rights, feminism and censorship. The bodystocking-clad striptease artists of Victorian Britain caused a stir and brought into question the decency and validity of this 'performance art' – and even now, with the broader understanding in what is a far more sexually liberated and open minded society that burlesque does not revolve on the racy axis of sex or nudity, we still find some local organisations squirming at the thought of 'hosting' a burlesque event in council-owned premises. Earlier this year, Hebden Bridge made national news – causing international waves – in the burlesque world when Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival organiser Heidi Bang Tidy presented a petition to Hebden Royd council against its Picture House venue sub-committee's decision to disassociate itself from burlesque on the grounds that it issues of gender equality, and that many people feeling it is demeaning to women.
While visiting Manchester for Vogue's Fashion Night Out in October, I asked North West-based burlesquer and equality campaigner Sukki Singapora how she approaches the challenges of finding platforms for her work both here and in her childhood homeland of Singapore.
Sukki describes a Singapore with an underlying patriarchal political system and cultural norm, where to be free as a woman more often than not doesn't have the same meaning as to be free as a man. "Unfortunately, this underlying inequality isn't unique to Singapore," she says – and we explore how her experiences of growing up as a young creative mind in Singapore are different from her ongoing UK-based creative nurturing process. She tells me that in Singapore it was extremely difficult to express her creativity or individuality. She believes there's a fear to speak one's mind – though this is dressed as a respect for elders – particularly if that goes against the grain of cultural norms.
By Contrast, living in the UK as a young adult, she found an outlet where she could explode creatively. Discovering burlesque through her love of vintage culture and fashion allowed her to express herself for the first time – and Manchester was the location for one of her debut performances. "There is such a supportive and diverse burlesque and alternative scene here, I always enjoy performing in Manchester," she says.
Yet what Sukki thought was a personal discovery in the UK was actually being watched back in Singapore by many interested eyes. After receiving hundreds of inspiring messages from a plethora of Singaporean women and men, she founded a secret burlesque society in Singapore, which she describes as "a safe haven and confidential group for all, to practise and perform without the fear of consequence." Her society and the campaigning behind it has attracted the attention of Asian women's rights campaigners, and this year, Sukki made history as the first burlesquer to be invited to Buckingham Palace in celebration of her work.
When it's suggested that burlesque has been something of an empowering experience for her – and when she's asked if this message of empowerment through burlesque is key to her campaigning – Sukki shudders at the use of the term empowerment, explaining that there is a difference between empowerment and confidence, and that 'empowerment' is losing the weight of its meaning in relation to those who have truly been disempowered, repressed or disabled from existing with their own thoughts, views and opinions. She believes this is due to the word's overuse, in particular with reference to sexual liberation and gender roles.
Sukki describes how, on her last visit to Singapore where she modelled for a lingerie photo shoot, she risked a public flogging for indecency. "There are many who think I am trying to ‘westernise’ my fellow women of Singapore and in doing so, I am ‘spoiling’ them," she says.
Yet, Sukki speaks passionately – and I ask her if it's possible for one person to make such a difference in the face of such adversity. Pointing out that it would indeed be easier to give up her campaign, she recalls – with emotion – some of the hundreds of letters and emails that she has received from men and women relating what a difference burlesque is making to their lives, and encouraging her to spread the word of this creative platform.
"I keep these letters in mind when I face adversity," she says, "and think, 'why should we pick the easy option, when forging the harder path has such importance to the lives of many?'"