Canadian native PAULA OLIVER was a burlesque performer way before she even properly knew what burlesque was. As a stripper grinding her way through college in Vancouver 12 years ago, she would create elaborate Marilyn Monroe-themed shows and play vintage music during her acts; despite having a fairly loyal customer base, her boss wasnt so pleased, calling her work too arty. We want tits and ass and Aerosmith and Budweiser bikinis ... not "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend," says Oliver, 35, of her boss' complaints. Eventually she met fellow dancer Cecilia Bravo, who invited Oliver to join her troupe, Fluffgirl Burlesque, and learn the craft. After a few successful years, Oliver left to pursue more independent work; in 2001 she founded the Empire Follies Association, a group closer in format to a theatrical dance troupe, and soon thereafter moved to Seattle.
Seattle's burgeoning burlesque scene has made Oliver one busy woman. As a performer, Oliver has two separate identities: Babette La Fave, the name she uses for solo acts and for performances under the Empire Follies label, and Ivy St. Spectre, her character with the Atomic Bombshells. For Bombshells gigs, her favorite venue by far is the Triple Door, which she says has "the most amazing stage ever," technologically equipped to handle more experimental performances (in one of her acts, her body is silhouetted behind a screen, which requires very specific lighting). Oliver also teaches a class on stage presence and gimmicks at the Academy of Burlesque and performs regularly at the Pink Door and Columbia City Cabaret.
The work Oliver does now is closer to cabaret, a combination of the adventurous aspects of circus performing (in one act, she lights her nipples on fire—not a typical burlesque move, nor a particularly sane one) and her love of theatrics. "I've been told that some of my acts are not burlesque when I've performed at an event that was billed as a burlesque show," says Oliver, who unlike most burlesque dancers doesn't always use vintage music in her acts. "These days, burlesque shows are combining all aspects of performance: singers, bands, comedians, contortionists, jugglers, aerialists, erotic mimes, puppetry . . . everything! I love the word 'cabaret' and actually prefer to be billed as a cabaret artist."
Contrary to the uncultured-American stereotype, Oliver believes U.S. audiences are very art-savvy and responsive to innovation: "[Americans] take art and explode it into pure entertainment. They invade with Disney, Hollywood, the incredibly huge music industry, and all other arts industries." She has also found that most American audiences know and understand burlesque when they see it. "There's more of a social acceptance with what I do here. . . . It just seems like the U.S. really respects entertainers more than Canadian audiences," says Oliver. Once during her early days in Canada, "this guy screamed at me, 'Show me your tits, bitch!' I was so pissed off," says Oliver. "I walked off the stage, went up to him, peeled my glove off, slapped him across the face with it, grabbed his beer, and sauntered back to the stage drinking his beer. When I got to the top of the steps of the stage, I dumped the rest of his beer on the floor while smirking at him. The crowd was standing up and screaming with laughter."
Not that Oliver has any qualms about nudity, making great money as an art model for the Seattle Art Institute, Digipen, and various individual artists. The variety of shapes and sizes among performers also makes burlesque a colorful, welcoming profession for Oliver. "Size does not matter at all in the burlesque world," she says. "[And] you don't have to be an accomplished dancer."
More than anything, Oliver hopes to make Seattle her permanent home; she's slated to get her green card in a few months. "This is my home," says Oliver. "I don't have any family here, but I do—I have a great support system of friends."
Paula Oliver's Picks
Best Burlesque Performer: A tie between Indigo Blue and Paula the Swedish Housewife. Of Indigo, Oliver says, "She is the hardest-working woman in burlesque. She gives a lot of us employment, and is a great lady all around." Of Paula, she says, "Anyone that can strip out of a mummy costume is a goddess to me!"
Best Vintage Clothing Store: Melissa Flynn's Friday Night Date, an appointment-only operation. "Melissa is a personal shopper and has monthly sales in her home," says Oliver. "She just opened a shop in Ballard above Live! Girls! on Market Street."
Best Street Performer: Scotty Walsh, who does escapist routines and magic. "He's like a comedian with it as well. He's really good with kids, too."
Best Local Celebrity: Dina Martina. "Love her!" says Oliver, who first saw Martina at On the Boards. "I was screaming and rolling with laughter. The more you work in the entertainment field, it's harder to be entertained."
Best Zen Spot: Kobe Terrace, in the International District. "All the seniors do tai chi in the morning," says Oliver. "It gives you an amazing view of the south part of the city."
Best Place to Walk Your Dog: According to Oliver, a cemetery. "You can read all the tombstones as you're walking," she says. "I always want to steal the flowers, but I'm too superstitious."
Best Fatigue Remedy: Tea bags on the eyes. "I drink a lot of tea throughout the day and save the tea bags. I've always had insomnia problems and average about four hours [of sleep] a night."