Celebrating burlesque in Paris

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PARIS — He’s been called the “Quasimodo of Pop” and when he was alive, Serge Gainsbourg shocked and courted scandal with stunts like setting a 500-franc bill on fire and propositioning the singer Whitney Houston in the crudest terms. In spite of his looks and his manner, the persistently drunk French crooner successfully romanced a string of beautiful women: Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, and Brigitte Bardot, among others.

Nearly two decades after his death from a heart attack, Gainsbourg is still inspiring beautiful women. At a Paris cabaret recently, female performers strutted, shimmied and then gradually stripped to his music in a burlesque tribute befitting the pop star.

“Everybody has a misconception of what burlesque is, that it’s sleazy, that it’s dirty, but it’s not,” said Garrett McConnell, 40, an American burlesque performer visiting Paris and one of the many women in the audience. “There’s intent; there’s a story line.”

The Gainsbourg tribute brought highly-regarded performers from Britain and the U.S. to Paris, where organizers hope to revive burlesque, which they insist is about the art, not the striptease.

While the performers stripped down to tasseled pasties and g-strings, the audience enjoyed a musical journey through Gainsbourg’s life and loves: from his celebrated “yeah-yeah” pop period through his Lolita-inspired phase; from his darker days when debauchery had hit a particular high note, to the eroticism of the “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You … Me Neither”) finale. Gainsbourg re-recorded the breathy tune in the late 1960s with Birkin, his wife of 12 years. It features simulated sex noises culminating in the sounds of an orgasm. The hit song was banned in parts of Europe when it was released.

For that final number, Agent Lynch (born Kate Rawlinson), a 24-year-old model, seductively smothered herself in blue water-soluble body paint and, in a nod to the artist Yves Klein, rubbed herself against a giant French flag in order to add the missing color.

“I’ve never done that; it was really fun,” she said after the show. “I kind of want to do it again.” Her alter ego is a 007 secret agent Bond-girl type from the 1960s with a “license to thrill.”

Fellow dancer Cherry Shakewell was clad in a red and white costume with dangling cherries for her performance to the song “Les Sucettes” (“The Lollipops”). Gainsbourg wrote the tune for a young singer named France Gall who was not aware of the overwhelming sexual innuendo until after she’d recorded it.

Shakewell, a graphic designer whose given name is Joanna Topley, said she began performing burlesque as a hobby and a way to earn extra money but it turned into a full-time job. “I’m an exhibitionist at heart,” she said. “If I wasn’t getting paid for it, I’d still do it.” The 29-year-old said she would “do anything so I don’t have to do a nine-to-five.” Burlesque artists make 50-700 British pounds ($75-1,015) for their acts, depending on the event, she said.

Trixie Sparkle, who also came over from London for the show, said dancers’ elaborate costumes can be pretty costly, 600-700 pounds ($875-1,015), but “if I had the money, I’d spend thousands.” Her real name is Rena Lambri and the 33-year-old had just completed a three-month stint on a variety show in Germany where she performed every night, with the exception of New Year’s Day and Christmas Eve. “It was actually an honor to be in it,” she said, still reveling in the experience. “It was a dream.”

Bosses at her day job on a television program allowed her to take the time off. “I have two lives,” she said. “It’s hard to juggle.”

A highlight of the evening was artist Tommy Dollar’s incarnation of Gainsbourg. With a day or two’s worth of stubble, Dollar staggered onto the stage in a mock drunken stupor, his eyes nearly shut, and belted out a few Gainsbourg hits. He chain-smoked, threw erratic fits, kicked a stage stool and set a large fake 500-franc note on fire.

Even when things went wrong, such as when the curtain wouldn’t open, Lady Flo, “the compere beyond compare,” kept the crowd entertained. And the crowd was into it: Some wore vintage flapper fashion, top hats for the men and layered pearls for the women. The elegantly dressed DJ duo Bart & Baker spun retro records before and after the show, music that 25-year-old attendee Simon Ansallem said “brings us back to a time when people were happy,” when “we didn’t have any financial crisis.”

Several people said they were surprised that the city known for the Moulin Rouge didn’t have a bigger burlesque scene. “It’s shocking to me that we have more of it in America,” said McConnell, the visiting American performer, whose stage name is Crimson Boudoir. But more classes in the art are cropping up around Paris.

Gentry Lane, the organizer of the night’s revue, has announced on her website that the “burlesque revolution” has begun. For novices, she explained: “Burlesque is a show where the public is made up of up spectators not clients.”

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