In Fall of 2014, if you were to walk down 13th street, between Locust and Walnut, on the right night of the week, you’d hear echos of cheers and screams coming from Tabu… No one was getting killed, no there wasn’t a giant orgy…
although I know of a very popular, weekly circle jerk that takes place a block and a half away. No, you would be hearing the cheers coming from a burlesque competition, one where Mary Vice made quite a number of fans… Most notably the judges, as Ms. Vice won that competition. Mary has done a lot of performing since then; The Philadelphia Burlesque Festival (2015), Burlypicks (2015), and International Queer Burlesque Festival (2015), to name a few. She seems to have, what I refer to as, The Jennifer Lawrence Effect on middle class white people a lot of the public. People can’t get enough of her and that’s not a bad problem to have when you’re a stage performer earning tips. And I’m sure she’ll capitalize on that, although, she’s so punk, I’m sure that’s not her goal. She’s pretty, she’s talented, and she’s a good friend of mine, much like Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve seen Mary’s work ethic and determination and am very proud of the work she’s done, specifically on herself. The life of an artist is like diving into a lake and trying to find a hole at the dark lake-floor to let you out the other side… and Mary’s a pretty good swimmer. Since Mary Vice will be revisiting the East Coast some time this year, i decided I should grab a dirty gin martini and see if I can get Ms. Vice to share a bit about her journey thus far… and I knew there’s one place she was sure to be found… The Green Room.
Mary Vice, how’d you earn that name?
I named myself after Mary Weiss, the lead singer of the Shangri-las. A lot of my early numbers and looks were inspired by 60’s girl groups. So Mary Vice is like a mashup of something sweet and innocent with something dirty and dangerous.
Danger… Oooh, I like danger- a little too much, so my therapist says. So, you’re a burlesque performer? I think the public has a very general idea of what burlesque means, what does it mean to you? for you?
For me, burlesque is about sexual and artistic expression. When I’m working on a new act, what excites me is an idea, a character, a story, a new twist on a song. I get to share something original and creative with the audience, and hopefully give people a few boners in the process.
Remarkable. That is word for word, how I describe my sexual encounters… I’m not even kidding… Walk us through your first experience as a burlesque performer.
My first burlesque number was at a drag show in a church basement in West Philly with like, 5 people in the audience. It was very… DIY… I didn’t have a top that I could take off easily, so I just wore this piece of fabric taped to my chest (I think it fell off halfway through the number). I didn’t know how to make pasties, so I painted them on. I went on stage with wet nail polish. And I was pretty new to walking in heels, so I was about as graceful as a baby giraffe. It wasn’t the best thing ever, but I think it was kind of punk. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I did it anyway and fucking loved it.
So, the people want to know, do you make your own props, build your own costumes, make your own pasties?
I’m not much of a seamstress, but I’m great with a hot glue gun. I’ve made some pretty crazy shit out of cardboard. I make puppets, props and some costume pieces. Most clothing is scavenged from vintage shops, thrift stores, hand-me-downs, the sketchy outlet store behind Target in South Philly, a dumpster… anywhere.
I’ve seen you perform many a time and like most burlesque performers, you end up… pretty much naked. Do you still get nervous about that before performing? Do audience members ever cross the line?
I’m way too concerned with having a good performance to worry about being naked. It’s funny, whenever I watch videos of myself I suddenly turn in to this prude like “wow… I didn’t realize I get so naked…” But when I’m performing, even though I’m not wearing any clothes, I still feel in costume. I’m another person, this character, and I don’t feel personally exposed. I did do one number where I stripped as a male character and I felt way more nervous and self-conscious about my body. That was interesting.
As for worrying about audience members, I’ve been lucky enough to perform in spaces where the producers were very serious about safety. The MC will often remind the audience about consent, and there are sometimes even designated security people standing by.
Where is “the line?
Definitely never touch a performer without permission, or better yet an invitation. Otherwise, just generally don’t be an asshole. Remember you’re talking to a human being, however sexy and naked they are. Don’t be a creep.
Luckily (and I think this has to do with not being a cis female performer) I haven’t had to deal with harassment/inappropriate touching from guys, but I have had to deal with other behavior that’s more annoying than threatening. It’s people feeling like they have to be all “yas queen” with me when that just isn’t how they talk. People have this idea of what it means to be a drag queen because they watched Drag Race a couple of times. And I don’t mean to say straight people shouldn’t enjoy drag. It’s just, don’t come to me feeling like you have to talk to me a certain way.
I think that is the experience of many a gay, burlesque or nah… Well feel your pain. What do you love about the Philly performance scene? What would you change?
I love that there are so. many. performers. And there’s always people trying new things, new shows popping up every other week, as well as the shows that have been going on for years and years. There’s a lot of history in Philly and a lot of promising new talent.
If I could change something, it would be to have fewer competitions. I get that it’s a fun formula to work with, but it just feels a little over done, and I don’t think it’s the best environment for new performers. On one hand, going through a 10 week show is like boot camp. It’s really challenging and pushes you to try new things. But then I think there is also the danger of lower standards for polished work. Almost no one can create a new act (including costume) AND actually rehearse it to a point where it’s fully realized in a week. I think I did well in Battle Royale because I had really solid ideas for numbers, but when I watch videos of those performances, I see myself really unprepared to actually perform. I think, especially for new performers, succeeding in that setting creates an inflated sense of where you are as a performer that isn’t totally realistic… maybe that sounds shady… But for me, when I won that show, I felt like I was the shit and deserved every booking in the world. But I really needed a lot more time, a lot more rehearsal, and a lot higher standards.
I’m saying though…. It’s like ANTM around here, we on cycle 356 of this shit and I’m like, damn, I didn’t do that many cycles of laundry this year, tho. So, we want the goods, what would the general public be most surprised to learn about the life of a burlesquer?
We’re broke! It’s all feathers and rhinestones onstage, but it’s EBT at Wawa on the way home…
When you’re on stage, do you ever feel objectified or do you feel empowered… or are there 50 shades of grey in between?
I totally feel empowered. It’s about sharing something I’ve created with the audience.
I’ve heard some say burlesque reinforces a misogynistic way of thinking, what’s your response to that?
I have heard some stories about male burlesque producers who are total creeps. But most of the burlesque world from is run by women. People might argue that it’s just the same old objectification under the guise of female empowerment, but I don’t think that’s right. Humans are pervs. We like sex. We like to be turned on. I think the world of burlesque is a really positive place to play with that.
Do you ever feel unfairly scrutinized because your sex and the gender of your stage persona?
I’m assigned male and identify as genderqueer or just fluid in every day life. Then Mary is this high femme fantasy persona. I started in Philly, where there’s a lot of crossover between drag and burlesque, but that really isn’t the case everywhere. I don’t know that I’m treated unfairly, but I do think I need to find the best way to market myself. I don’t want to make a joke of it, but I need to address it or people are just like oh… you’re a drag queen? I guess I’m still figuring out how to present myself and finding my place in the burlesque world. But the idea is, be so good that they don’t care whether or not I have boobs.
You spent some time doing theatre in Philly, how does your life as an actor compare with that of a burlesquer?
I had a terrible time as an actor. Not that I never got any work or only did bad shows, but I was bad at auditioning, I felt really insecure, and I ended up taking whatever work was the easiest to find. I felt really unfulfilled. In drag and burlesque I feel really in charge. I’m not waiting for someone to give me a role. I make the role! Of course there’s still submitting to shows, there’s wanting to be in this festival or win that award, but I’m always in control because I create my own material.
As an artist, how do you fight procrastination and fear?
I have to keep moving. I’ve learned that I totally crash after a big show if I give myself room to stop and think for too long. Some reflection is good, but I have to keep myself moving one way or another. If I’m feeling down and know I’m not in the right mindset to rehearse or whatever, I’ll at least try to go take care of the “office work” – research festivals, fill out applications, contact producers, etc.
What do you feel is the greatest struggle in your life that you’ve overcome?
Getting past my own doubts and just doing the damn thing! My latest mantra is “Confidence will come. Work on determination.” I might not always feel like I’m that great, I might think I’m a really mediocre performer sometimes, but I’m learning to just keep working anyway. You can’t force yourself to feel confident, but you can decide to be determined and keep going. Confidence will come (and go). Keep moving either way.
What is love?
Love is the initial feeling of attraction to a person and the decision to continue being there for them when the feeling fades. Love is a feeling but it’s also something you have to do.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I left my 9-5 job last Fall and I really don’t see myself going back. I see myself doing whatever I have to do to avoid a humdrum working life. I’ll still be performing, and I think I’ll be doing some writing and directing as well.
What do you most enjoy about this thing we call life?
I like being on the move. I like new places, new people, new experiences. Food and sex are pretty cool too.
Well, keep on moving. You can follow Mary Vice on the gram and keep an eye on her. (@itsmaryvice)