Inside The Rox on Industrial Road this Saturday night a crowd gathered that was not of the Strip, not even of our time. Most of the audience looked as if they had stepped out of the 1940s and ‘50s, or had raided grandma’s closet, or Savers. Real live Marilyns stood next to Bettie Pages, James Deans and Buddy Hollys. The place was packed for the 2nd annual All Tease, No Sleaze Burlesque Pageant, and people lined the zig-zag stairs for a view of the show.
As one of the stair-standers, I had a high enough vantage point to get a good view of the stage. Behind me two men provided a first-rate running commentary, leaning against the wall like a pair of Marlon Brandos.
On the stage below, the burlesque pageant contestants were introduced, with descriptions that included what they thought made a gentleman, horoscope signs and measurements.
“That ain’t a 34C, man. No way that’s a 34C,” announced one of the guys behind me. Then, “Look at the girl in the white; her booty just goes BOOM!”
I turned around to ask the two who their favorite dancer was. They said it was too early to tell, and asked me mine. The redhead, I told them, and they got riled: “You know what’s up with redheads? They’re freaky! They’re freakier than the rest.”
A black-haired girl in a violet evening gown and elbow length silk gloves grasped the microphone stand and sang softly, “My momma told me…” The singer then did something that was to set the pattern for the rest of the night: She removed her gloves, then her dress, then her shoes, and danced like a repressed housewife turned sex goddess in a corset and feather boa to increasingly loud cheers.
The next contestant was my favorite, the redhead Karla Joy. She was the crowd’s favorite, too, for her brightly-colored hair, her Irish grass-green silk dress or her breasts, bubbling over the dress’ sweetheart neckline that were, per her introduction, certifiable 36Gs.
There is a psychological explanation for the strip tease’s success: Skin is much more exciting when revealed slowly. It’s riveting - the suspense, the anticipation, the climactic reward. For all the burlesque performances, that reward was the girl bending over with her butt out and then bending forward with her breasts out, and shaking like her flesh had been hooked up to a generator and galvanized.
But it wasn’t all strip-style sex. The contestants also wore beautiful costumes, performed difficult dance routines and acted out imaginative scenarios. One girl played a housewife who baked furry pink cupcakes and sprinkled the audience with confetti-flour; another dressed as a Mexican girl who alternately lit saint candles and took shots of tequila. A Snow White look-a-like dressed in a white and blue WWII sailor uniform got the crowd on its feet for a roaring ovation with an ebullient jive dance number. All the girls looked like classic pin-ups with glittery red lips, jewel tone shadowed eyes, long, glamorous eyelashes, perfectly styled hair and form-fitting vintage gowns and lingerie.
But there could only be one winner.
And the redheaded Miss Joy was she. Her award was $1000 worth of shopping from a group of stores, which included Bettie Page clothing at the Miracle Mile.
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Hanging out backstage, I met the Babes of Sin, the local burlesque troupe that put on the event. The Babes of Sin are six women: Penny Slots, Pottymouth, Cha Cha Velour, Vida Vixen, Ivy Levine and Suenami Sake. They are the only vintage-style burlesque group in Las Vegas.
“We wanted to recreate what was done before the television and the pole,” Cha Cha explained, “to recreate the heyday of burlesque.” The group has performed at the Beauty Bar, Dive Bar, Art Bar and Celebrity Theater. This is the second year that they’ve hosted the pageant, and the proceeds are donated to the local Burlesque Hall of Fame (formerly Exotic World), a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the history of burlesque alive, which hosts the annual Miss Exotic World Competition (held in June, it’s the Miss America for burlesque dancers).
“It’s not just dress-up, it’s a lifestyle,” Penny Slots told me, her hair in an I Love Lucy coif. She wore a gold vintage sheath and had a “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign tattoo. A cocktail rested in one hand and cigarette in the other. The stay-at-home mother of three continued, “You walk into Cha-Cha’s living room and it’s all tiki-ed out - it’s like walking into a fucking time warp.” She’s not the only one. All the Babes in Sin buy vintage, and their homes are decorated in midcentury modern. Penny Slots drives a restored, mint green ’54 Ford, Cha Cha a ’65 Galaxy 500.
But the lifestyle goes beyond shopping. During her competition interview, one contestant stated, “I enjoy being a woman, and that’s what I think this competition is all about, respecting and loving yourself.”
Backstage in the dressing room, however, a not as brazenly unashamed Carla Joy shared a post-win cell phone convo with her mom. “So, you can decide how you want to tell daddy. I’ll tell him tomorrow - I probably won’t come home tonight. If you want to put some icing on the cake, kind of ease him into it: ‘Carla was in a contest and she won, she’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.’ Thank you mommy, love you.”