International Queer Burlesque Festival Returns to Pittsburgh

The FIERCE! International Queer Burlesque Festival returns home to Pittsburgh for its fifth year of celebrating the fusion of queer identity and the art of burlesque. We had a chance to talk with founder and Pittsburgh resident, Andrea Varela aka Viva Valezz.

Note: we are pleased to be the official Social Media Sponsor for this FIERCE festival. This post is a sponsored post written as part of that role.

We as queer burlesque performers MUST, now more than ever, keep sharing our art with the world. In the wake of this new government “administration,” our art form is necessary. Us having pride in our bodies, in our sexuality, is another piece of the queer arts tapestry. We are essential. Queers who are not afraid to express our sexual selves, we’re revolutionary.

Why does the world need a queer burlesque festival? There are lots of burlesque festivals in the world – many that feature queer performers, of course – but only one festival that celebrates and brings attention to the whole LGBTQIA community.

Is queer burlesque a growing scene around the country? Queers have ALWAYS been doing burlesque. The entire burlesque community is growing – that means that there will be more and more queers performing. However, we do have “spin-off” genres of burlesque that are directly related to (and come from) the queer burlesque community… like bearlesque (burlesque performed by bears). You’ll see that drag kings are now getting in on the action too. More and more kings are starting to also do burlesque (or boilesque or queerlesque).

Why does it travel one year and come to Pittsburgh on alternate years? The festival doesn’t get a lot of sponsorship support – I personally believe it’s because the word “Queer” is in our title. In order to attempt to keep costs down, I bring it “home” to Pittsburgh every other year. Then, the other years I try to take the festival to different parts of the country where more queers have access to it.

How has the festival changed over the past five years? It’s grown! The number of people interested has grown by leaps and bounds. Our first year we honestly barely had enough applications to host the four festival weekend shows. This year (unfortunately – I hate this part), I had far too many applicants to fill six shows.

The number of trans applicants has doubled too. This makes my heart happy. The festival is meant to honor the whole LGBTQIA spectrum. I’m glad that trans folks are finding this event a safe space.

I’m also honored that we have incorporated supporting programming like the Trans Brunch that has happened the past few years. And we didn’t offer educational classes the first few years – this year we will host SEVENTEEN different educational classes.

Which events might be best for people who are new to burlesque?Geez, they’re all wonderful. For the sense of community – I recommend the Thursday kick-off party or the Sunday brunch. But, if the person wants to experience the spectacle of the art form, the Friday and Saturday showcases won’t disappoint. This year our honored headliner is the world-famous Indigo Blue – the first ever openly gay winner of the highest burlesque title, the Burlesque Hall of Fame Queen of Burlesque. The act she will be performing is quintessential classic burlesque. I believe many new to burlesque will be blown away.

Why is Pittsburgh burlesque friendly? We have such a great art scene in this town. And, in my opinion, Pittsburgh has the grittiest, most raw, sexual vibe of any city I’ve ever experienced.  It’s no surprise that the art of the strip tease is loved here. The Pittsburgh scene wants to be entertained and titillated.

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Regarding burlesque and FIERCE etiquette:
–  Do I tip each performer? Yes you absolutely may and should tip everyone
–  Are allies welcome? OF COURSE! See our mission statement
–  Are photographs appropriate? No. We have hired a festival photographer. We discourage photos and videos taken during the shows. However, if you want to have photos taken before/after with the performers, you’re welcome to approach them respectfully.
Are any of the venues handicap accessible? Pittsburgh is great because their venues are commonly housed in historic spaces. This makes it difficult to find lots of accessible venues. However, we’re so pleased to say that our glorious Saturday all-star showcases at Ace Hotel ARE accessible.Tell us about the first burlesque performance you ever saw? How did it impact you? The first burlesque I experienced was incorporated into drag king shows. The burlesque “girls” were always the treat acts that they put in-between the kings. I was a professional bellydancer when I first saw queer burlesque. It deffffinitely changed my life. I had to pursue it.

What has burlesque taught you about queer identity? Well, lately it’s reinforced my belief that we as queer burlesque performers MUST, now more than ever, keep sharing our art with the world. In the wake of this new government “administration,” our art form is necessary. Us having pride in our bodies, in our sexuality, is another piece of the queer arts tapestry. We are essential. Queers who are not afraid to express our sexual selves, we’re revolutionary.

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Do you have any burlesque mentors or role models? 
Gosh, too many to mention. Of course Indigo Blue is one. The burlesque role model and icon I admire (from afar) most is Jo Boobs Weldon. She’s brassy, and smart, and gorgeous, and talented, and business-savvy, and supports our community fully. When I first wanted to learn burlesque (since no one was teaching it where I lived), I went all the way to New York a few times to take classes with her. And, Tigger! – the “god father of boylesque” and a WAY over the top queer, is also one of my favorites. He’s just really a sweet and approachable person. Humble. I like that most about him – besides his perverse nature of course.

If someone wants to try their hand at burlesque performing, is it
possible to take classes in Pgh? I HIGHLY recommend it. I teach Burlesque Goddess classes in Bloomfield. But, definitely they can get a taste by taking classes during Fierce! Classes will be taught on Friday and Saturday – and they’re not just for seasoned performers. These classes welcome all levels, especially newcomers.

Two of your Pgh venues are not LGBTQ-owned (Ace Hotel and James St. Gastropub) Is it typical for queer burlesque to mostly be in queer owned spaces in other cities? Why or why not? 
I try as often as I can to support queer businesses. There aren’t a lot of venues large enough to host large theatrical events, that are also queer-owned. So, when I can’t find those, the next best thing is to give my business to venues who support us.
Specifically regarding Fierce!, Ace Hotel is swarming with queers.  The staff at Ace that’s assisting me is queer. Most of the staff at Ace is queer. And they’re excited about our shows. THAT counts for a lot.

And, my “home venue,” where I produce all of my shows, is James Street. Kevin and Lisa, the owners, are very, very supportive of me. They’re certainly inclusive of our community – for example, James Street hosts the most successful drag brunch in the city. And, Kevin and Lisa have really big, generous hearts. Kevin is kinda like the kid brother I never had. James Street supports me, and my community, and that’s good enough for me.

Are any of the events appropriate for older teens who are under 21?  James Street is a restaurant, and Ace Hotel is… a hotel. Neither are bars. However, I would recommend that 21 is the standard age. I would say that any of the shows is “appropriate” in terms of content. In fact, my own 12-yr old son will be performing in the Sunday brunch show. He has grown up his whole life in a burlesque household. When told recently that he can certainly leave the theater if a burlesque act were to make him uncomfortable… his quick response to me was, “Why would I do that? It’s just art, Mama.”

Where do you see queer burlesque and FIERCE in five yearsThat… is a good question. I work very hard to keep the festival alive. And, I think we have amassed quite a “family” of devoted and talented performers. My only sadness comes from the financial struggle I go through each year. I don’t pay myself to produce this event. And, it seems to get harder and harder to get any sponsorship support. If Fierce! will continue, I will need to come up with some sort of plan to market it to businesses easier. This year if we don’t pack the houses, I may end up paying some of the technical bills out of my own pocket. I’m prepared to do that. I mean, this is my baby. But, I definitely can’t do that every year. I KNOW that I will keep this party coming back every year, somehow, for as long as I can!

The FIERCE! International Queer Burlesque Festival runs July 20-23, 2017 in Pittsburgh at multiple venues. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the website.  You have options to donate tickets for others to use, sign up for classes, request a vendor table, and more.


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