The burlesque transformation of Ruby Rockafella. (Sean Scheidt)
When fashion photographer Sean Scheidt first hatched the idea to do a series of before and after shots of performance artists, he quicky opted for burlesque entertainers as his transformation subjects. Scheidt noted, “Unlike many traditional stage personalities, burlesque is more confrontational. It is humanizing, in that, even with the comedy, burlesque always makes you think.”
So far, judging from the reaction to Scheidt’s transformations series, he has achieved his goal of humanizing his burlesque subjects. Comments about the project, on various news sites, have ranged from “weird” and “erotic” to “awesome” and “quite interesting”.
But what about the performers Scheidt has photographed? How do they feel about the project now that their individual sittings are done?
The Los Angeles Post-Examiner asked four of Scheidt’s subjects — Maria Bella, Kay Sera, Doctor Ginger Snapz and Valeria Voxx — to comment on their experience. Each performer was asked the same following five questions:
1) How did you learn about Sean’s burlesque project?
2) What was your initial reaction to seeing the side-by-sides with Sean’s early models (Marla Meringue, Paco Fish, and Kiki Allure)?
3) How did you feel going into your particular shoot with Sean?
4) What were your feelings as the shoot unfolded?
5) How did you feel once the shoot was done and you saw the final results?
The four artists were encouraged to add anything else about the experience that came to mind. Here is what each of them shared with this reporter:
“I learned about the project after seeing some of the finished images posted by other performers and fell in love with the concept almost immediately! So many people assume we just walk around being glamorous all the time, but most of us are about as normal as they come. Getting into our stage performance is a true transformation, and I love the way he captured that.”
“I’ve modeled for many years, but this was the first shoot of this kind I’d done. I’m not the most confident in my looks all the time, so knowing that I’d be putting myself out there with no makeup or photoshop had me a little nervous.”
“I discovered, once we got started, that Sean is great to work with! He’s very friendly and can connect with pretty much anybody, so after we got started, it didn’t take me long to get comfortable and just be natural. It was like sitting over tea and discussing your life with someone you may have known for a long while. Needless to say, I very quickly forgot about being worried about what I might look like and instead was more interested in telling my story.”
“I couldn’t be happier with the results. I’ve shown them to both people who have and have not seen me perform. It was funny to note that even the people who have witnessed me in both personas were so amazed by the transformation when it’s presented side by side like that. I guess you never realize how extreme the difference is, if you can only see one or the other at any time.”
Doctor Ginger Snapz
“I initially learned about Sean’s project from (the website) BuzzFeed, then was excited to find out that he was local. I know firsthand the work it takes to go from your everyday life to stage glamor so I wasn’t that surprised by the transformation. What I did like though was seeing the difference between the body language and facial expressions of the everyday versus the performer persona. Looking at my pictures and some others there is a degree of vulnerability that Sean captured in the before images which transform into fearlessness once the burlesque persona is applied.”
“I was nervous working with Sean. I noticed that many of the initial images were thinner performers, and I wasn’t sure if Sean was used to working with plus-sized bodies. We talked this over, and he assured me that the shoot would be casual and comfortable and that my body type wouldn’t be an issue.”
“The shoot was fun. Sean asked a lot of questions about my entry into burlesque and my experiences performing, and I ‘almost’ forgot there was a camera. He seemed really interested in hearing my story. Frankly I like the after pictures more than the before. I feel I look too nervous and vulnerable in my pre-transformation images. It’s scary to put that out there.”
I first heard about the project back in 2013 – while doing research on photography and burlesque – and vowed to get involved once time permitted.
My initial reaction upon seeing shots of the early models was, ‘Finally, someone who truly understands the nature of the transformation from personal reality into burlesque persona.’ It takes a lot of thought, intention and vision to make the transformation into our burlesque characters. And it was powerful to see this concept captured in a snapshot of each of the performers I’ve come to know and love over the past eight years in this business; especially since I knew them personally outside of the business of burlesque as well.
How did I feel going into my particular shoot with Sean? Honestly, I was both nervous and inspired. The nerves stemmed from having to select only one look amongst a variety of my burlesque personas, which properly depicted the performer I am now and where I hope to go. The project also inspired me to look at where I began as a performer and how I’ve evolved. More importantly, it helped me to focus on where I’d like to be in the future.
On the day of the shoot, when it was time for the initial look as my everyday self, I felt vulnerable, but in such a wonderful way. Pardon the pun, but I felt ‘stripped’, though not because of the environment or Sean Scheidt. It was due to my own discomfort of being photographed as myself. I found myself wanting to put on makeup and style my hair but that wasn’t what this was about. I have spent the last 15 years modeling various looks and styles; yet in that very instant in Sean’s studio, it was extremely difficult for me to relax. As the shoot unfolded, I was able to become more aware of my inner monologue and release any inhibitions which arose; because in the end, it was really more about the journey and the statement to me than any personal insecurities.
Once the shoot was done and I saw the results, I can tell you, it is a humbling experience to see yourself that raw and know that is how you are perceived on one side; versus the glamazon you become in full makeup, hair and costume on the other. When I looked at the final two shots, I thought, ‘Underneath that strong, confident sexpot of a burlesque performer, is a person who is vulnerable with insecurities like anyone else; but also a person with the intelligence and creativity to actually make that transformation. It spoke volumes.
I had seen the original images – Marla Meringue and Paco Fish stand out – posted on social media when the project first began.
To some extent, my reaction varied based on my personal relationship with the performer. I was particularly drawn to those where I saw change, not just in the superficial transformation – the ‘street clothes-to-costume’ sense – but in their eyes, their face, the way in which they held their bodies. In some, I felt you could really see a difference between ‘reality’ – very much in quotations – and the stage persona.
Sean and I spoke at length about the shoot before I agreed to participate. I respect the artist’s vision and process and wanted to be sure I understood what he was doing; to be sure that not only would I be comfortable with it, but to feel confident that I could contribute positively to his project. What I was most interested in was understanding Sean’s concept of ‘transformation.’ If the diptychs were meant to be literal before-and-after shots, I’d have been disinclined to be a subject. But they are meant to go deeper than that, and it’s that depth that made me want to jump in!
As the shoot unfolded, Sean’s demeanor was both intimate and respectful. He asked questions about why I got into burlesque, and the conversation evolved naturally from there to include how I feel when I’m on stage; my perception of myself as person and as a performer; how my on-and off-stage lives intersect – or don’t. Sean also shared personal stories about why he began this series and how it has impacted his life.
Once the shoot was done and I saw the results, I felt that in the ‘before’ image, one could see my intellectual passion for sharing the ‘why’ of what I do. And in the ‘after’ (or ‘during,’ really) one could see the physical and emotional joy of doing it; the grounded real-life juxtaposed against the over-the-top performance. To be able to articulate my motivation verbally, then immediately show it, was a unique experience. The cake act is about extremes and how too much focus on one thing and the denial of another inevitably leads to over-indulgence. I’m not just rubbing cake on myself because it’s fun – although it really is, and I recommend everyone try it. If someone who sees that act leaves with just that sense of fun, that’s fine. That’s their experience and it’s completely valid. But I think the images suggest that there’s more to it than that; just as there’s more to burlesque than putting something on only to take it off.
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As of this writing, Sean Scheidt has documented the transformations of more than a dozen different local burlesque performers. Scheidt says he hopes to expand this project to include performers from all over the world.
Scheidt told this reporter he is very pleased thus far with the results of his project and has been thrilled by the public response. He should also be elated to know that his burlesque subjects are equally compelled by his on-going effort.
Whether in sequins or in sweaters, each performer embodies the sense of secure self-awareness which transcends their time on the stage and energizes their everyday life. Scheidt’s before and after pictures certainly makes that impression clear. It’s as country music legend Dolly Parton once said, when asked about her own kind of burlesque transformation, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
Valeria Voxx, Doctor Ginger Snapz, Maria Bella and Kay Sera will be appearing on stage at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday April 22 at 7pm to kick off the opening of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) exhibit Workin’ The Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque. Sean Scheidt’s provocative burlesque transformations series debuts that night as part of the exhibition. The exhibit will run through May 11 at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W Mt Royal Ave, Baltimore, Md. More information about the exhibit and the opening night burlesque show may found by visiting the WTT event Facebook page.
(Read part 1 of our Sean Scheidt burlesque transformations series HERE.)