She goes by the name Scarlet Starlet and she found her raison d’être about five years ago in a burlesque class. In a previous life, she was a competitive baton twirler, but Scarlet went in to this experience looking for something new. What she found was a form of art that no longer required her to fit into a box of perfection for affirmation.
“So often, women are told they are not good enough,” Scarlet said. "If we are kind, we are called weak. A confident woman is a bitch. If you dress up, you’re a whore. If a woman is smart, she is intimidating. I thought from a young age that I was not enough. It is exhausting to live up to society’s strictures. But with this form, I can be whatever I want to be: smart, sexy, creative, and funny at the same time. My body is a tool to explore that."
Scarlet’s two cohorts, Murphy Lawless and Sally Stardust, were both similarly taken with the artform’s expressiveness and started performing as well. When the three met last year at a Tim Burton-themed show, they discovered their mutual love for burlesque and became fast friends.
Their desire to see more performances in Richmond and the surrounding region eventually led them to start their own troupe, Burlesque Right Meow. Since September 2017, they have held monthly burlesque reviews and variety shows at Strangeways Brewing, first at their Richmond location, then later at the newly opened Fredericksburg location.
The shows have an open theme, and feature two to three guests along with the burlesque offerings. They perform with comedians, a strongman, “really anyone who wants to show off their skills. A hula-hooper could perform with us,” Murphy said.
However, last month, their Fredericksburg event was almost unceremoniously cancelled. On May 8, the business was issued a citation by the city claiming it was not properly zoned or exempted to have adult entertainment. The citation said Strangeways was violating Fredericksburg’s Unified Development Ordinance by offering a prohibited “adult cabaret, adult motion-picture theater, video-viewing booth, or arcade booth.” Adult cabaret is defined as “regularly featuring dancing or other live entertainment … that … is distinguished or characterized by an emphasis on the exhibition of specific sexual acts or specific anatomical areas for observation by patrons.” The code goes on to specify what those anatomical areas are, what can be accepted for artistic purposes, and where businesses need a special use permit to show them. The brewery is not located in an area zoned for such activities.
The trio stood up in defense of their performances, arguing that they were exempt from adult entertainment statutes because of the artistic content of burlesque. “It does involve the art of striptease,” Scarlet said, “but the goal is to make audiences feel something. They laugh, cry. They share the experience with us.” She also emphasized the hard work that goes into what they do. “Costumes, ideas, choreography, every little bit is done out of love, and it’s a shame if that can’t be recognized.”
When they put out word on Facebook that the shows were not going to be allowed in Fredericksburg, their fans and other performers banded together. With this support, Scarlet emailed members of Fredericksburg city government with legal precedents and an explanation of how what they do is artistic—and often political. Her efforts proved successful, for on May 24, city officials notified Strangeways that the citation had been withdrawn. Furthermore, they clarified that the “adult cabaret” described in the city’s code does not fit the type of entertainment offered by Burlesque Right Meow.
Scarlet is thankful for the outcome they achieved, mostly because of her conviction that burlesque is an artform about self-love and acceptance. “Burlesque has helped me love myself,” she said. “When I saw that first show in Richmond, it was funny and sexy, and it didn’t matter what the woman on stage looked like. I don’t think anything has spoken to me like dance does.”
Photography by Aaron Spicer