When I first contacted self-described “neo-boylesque” performer Jasper St. James about rallying his fellow Pastie Pops for a group interview and photo shoot back in January, his response resonated. My proposed get-together date simply wouldn’t work because he was already committed to “hosting and instructing a sexual orientation and gender identity meet-up.” Since St. James manages the boutique portion of the Sexology Institute in Southtown, the scheduling conflict didn’t exactly surprise me; instead it exemplified what’s so distinct and special about the Pastie Pops — the beloved burlesque troupe St. James co-founded back in 2010. Fiercely inclusive, effortlessly funny and disarmingly approachable, the eclectic, LGBT-centric, body-positive troupe — which currently comprises founding members St. James, Camille Toe and Vixy Van Hellen plus later arrivals Mary Annette, Elle Du Jour and Lucy Lips — prides itself on connecting with audiences through performance and has proven unwavering on its path to create “a new idea of what burlesque could be.”
But many, it seems, don’t quite get the concept of burlesque to begin with. “Burlesque is still a foreign subject for some people,” troupe emcee Camille Toe explains. “They see us, and they think, ‘Oh, you’re drag queens … or waitresses in a gentlemen’s club.’” Citing the art form’s shiniest star, St. James adds, “People still don’t know what it is necessarily, [until] you mention someone like Dita Von Teese — which we’re grateful for; she’s been able to put it on a platform.” And then there are the misconceptions promoted by the 2010 film Burlesque starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. “That kind of took us a couple steps back,” St. James admits. “Because people then thought, ‘Oh, then that’s what it is — it’s this little, skinny blond girl singing at the top of her lungs, and then Cher coming out and doing a little monologue every so often.’” And while the Pops are fans of Von Teese and attended her packed performance at the Aztec Theatre last year, their idols are less-obvious players — tradition buckers like Poison Ivory, Miss Indigo Blue, Tigger and Dirty Martini. “San Antonio is still a very conservative city,” St. James continues. “And what we do is still somewhat risqué and pushing boundaries. I think people are starting to see it for what it is, and the positivity that we get from our audience [means a lot] — the positive feedback from people just saying, like, ‘I had a really rough time with my body,’ or ‘I’ve been having issues with my sexuality, and just being able to see you guys perform just really elevated me to a whole new level.’ So I really feel like we’re putting something out to the community — more than just showing skin.
In the Beginning
In essence an offshoot of the once more-active local troupe the Scarlet Darlings, the Pastie Pops emerged in 2010 as a group of collaborators (St. James, Van Hellen and Toe along with Olympia DeWinter, Katie Red, Aliska Wolfbane, Betty Cash and Madame SinClaire) on a mission to fill a void in San Antonio’s still-developing burlesque scene. “We kind of realized that we wanted to do our own thing and do something different,” St. James explains. “We felt like there was something missing in the local scene … [something] that we could add.” Intent on writing their own rules and challenging the classic ideals of burlesque, the Pops cut their teeth on small stages in divey bars — bygone haunts like Dixie’s, Bogart’s, Nightrocker and Boneshakers — and indie performance spaces such as Jump-Start and The Overtime Theater. As steep and bumpy as their climb may have been, the upstart persevered thanks in no small part to a strong sense of camaraderie. “We gathered each other and kind of made sure we were proud of who we were as individuals … and [turned] that into our group mantra essentially,” Toe recalls. In the last couple of years, the Pops have adopted Sexology as home base (first in its original location on South Alamo and now in the dedicated educational space adjacent to the boutique on St. Mary’s) for intimate performances that, as St. James puts it, “give burlesque that 360 view.” Often neck and neck with the lovely ladies of Stars and Garters Burlesque in the Current’s annual Best of San Antonio readers’ poll, the Pops came into their own in 2017, taking home top honors in the category of Best Burlesque Troupe.
Reflecting the troupe’s eclectic spirit, the Pops have become known for performances fusing various aspects of burlesque — classic tease, boylesque, draglesque, and old-school vaudevillian interludes that hearken to the genre’s roots as a politically minded form of satire. And for a tight, six-person troupe, the Pops pack a diverse punch in more ways than one. A blue-haired drag performer who touts herself as the “Mermaid Queen of Texas,” Lucy Lips breaks down their cultural cachet with authority. “We have a lot of people of color in the cast,” she explains. “Primarily people of color in the cast, which is huge, especially in the South — where any acts that have to deal with sexuality or body positivity tend to lean more towards the mainstream. We have not just people of color but we have people of size, we have people of different gender identities. Everybody in our audience, whether they’re gay, straight, trans, cisgender, of color, or not, we have a little bit of everything that everyone can connect to.” Elle Du Jour, a San Antonio native with extensive dance experience, presents their varied backgrounds as assets. “I think we have the most variety in that we’re all coming from different skill levels, different backgrounds,” she says. “Not all of us are dancers. Not all of us are actors. Not all of us can tap dance. Not all of us are singers. Everybody kind of has their own shtick, and we don’t push each other to be homogenized.”
Amusingly drawing creative inspiration from the season at hand (a Big Gay Burlesque Show in June, All Hallows’ Tease in October and a Christmas Burrr-lesque Show in December), the Pops frequently welcome special guests from near and far. “When I produce the shows [and bring in] guest performers, I want [them] to be an addition to the eclectic mix that we already have within our own troupe,” St. James explains. “I just always want to keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do.” The icing on the cake? They all seem to love and respect one another. “We actually care about each other,” St. James says without hesitation. “I think we’re real,” Toe adds. “We do get annoyed with each other. It is a lot sometimes; we’re a lot with each other sometimes, you know? But we’re also there for each other … We’re human about things. We’re real about things.”
The Next Level
While the cozy, personalized shows at Sexology aren’t disappearing from the equation, the Pops have long dreamed of performing on a larger stage for a larger audience. “It’s not that we want to drop the things we’ve done at Sexology or any other place we’ve ever been to,” Toe explains. “But books have new chapters. Life has new chapters. You move on and you want to do something else. This is something different that we can evolve in. And that’s what we want burlesque to do: evolve, grow, spread.” What said new chapter holds is the troupe’s most ambitious endeavor yet: a full-blown Valentine’s Day show at the Aztec Theatre featuring performances by special guests Lita Deadly, Chola Magnolia, Sabra JohnSin, Lady Lola LeStrange and headliner Raquel Reed (pictured). A statuesque, tattooed New Yorker who won the title of Queen of Burlesque at last year’s New Orleans Burlesque Festival, Reed got her start as an alternative model and recently launched a cosmetics line (Wink My Way) specializing in affordable lashes.
In anticipation of their glittery, feather-filled Va-Va-Valentine performance on a big-time stage, we got cozy with all the Pops except for one. Currently on maternity leave, Vixy Van Hellen told us via email that while she unfortunately won’t be attending the show on February 14 (“My due date is the 3rd, and I’m going to be one cranky mama if I’m still pregnant at that point!”), she’ll be there in sprit. “It’s a daunting thing taking on such a big venue, but it’s what we’ve been working towards for years,” Van Hellen wrote. “When we talked about shows like this, it was [like] some kind of pipe dream. To have the opportunity is amazing. For a historic venue to put faith in local burlesque artists is such a hopeful thing for the future of burlesque here in San Antonio. I don’t know how many times I’ve met people interested, excited, wanting shows that have no idea it’s happening right here.” As for whether motherhood will change her involvement in the Pops, Van Hellen, who’s nicknamed the “Bare Bottom of Bexar County” and describes her style as “raunchy classic,” confessed that, “It’s naive to think that motherhood won’t effect the way I’m involved, but I have every intention to continue performing and helping with production to the best of my ability. Will I be able to do as many extra gigs? No, but it will make the ones I’m committed to more special and thoughtful. Will I sometimes make it to a meeting with a kid on my tit? Probably, but the gang won’t mind. I’m lucky our dynamic is like a family.”
Jasper St. James (The Big & Tall That Bares It All)
How does Jasper St. James spend his days?
When I’m not on stage, I spend most of my days working at the Sexology Institute. Not only do I manage the boutique but I’m also a certified instructor for various sex-positive workshops, including Fabulous Fellatio, Booty Basics and Ultimate Orgasms for Him and Her. I also instruct my own Burlesque 101 class and a Stripping for Your Lover class.
What was your earliest burlesque experience?
Growing up, I was fascinated with notorious pin-up model Bettie Page and I remember stumbling upon a burlesque scene from Teaserama, a 1950s documentary starring the beautiful Tempest Storm. The first scene I saw featured Tempest Storm doing a reverse strip and Bettie Page playing the role of her maid. At the time, I wasn’t too sure what I was witnessing, but I was so fascinated and drawn to the glamour of it all that I was hooked. It wasn’t until I moved to San Antonio for college that I actually witnessed my first burlesque show, which was the Suicide Girls show at the White Rabbit … You had elements of kink and fetish but then you also had girls opening beer cans with their teeth and spitting beer into the audience and, of course, electrical tape covering their nipples. It was not what I was expecting but I had a great time. And it helped start my own glittery journey.
How did you first join the burlesque scene?
I actually began as a singer [in 2009]. I started out singing jazz standards while one of my good friends, Miss Blue Carolina, would strip. I later started singing songs without anyone dancing and began creating my own mini-burlesque acts where I would strip down to a tank top and boxer shorts if I was feeling risqué.
Any interesting Valentine’s memories?
I once had a guy invite me on a Valentine’s Day dinner date that he forgot about … I waited for 30 minuets in the lobby of the restaurant before I finally called to see where he was … He honestly thought Valentine’s Day was the next day and was going about his weekly routine at the gym. I had to walk myself out of the restaurant in embarrassment and walk back to my car. We ended up calling the date a wash and met up the following day and had dinner at a much nicer restaurant — which he totally paid for.
Mary Annette (The Doll with No Strings Attached)
How does Mary Annette spend her days?
I’m a medical professional, so I spend my days taking care of patients. I do love my job — my “muggle” job. I love everything about it. I work with patients every day. I’ve caught a few heart attacks in my days, which makes it really rewarding.
When did you first experience burlesque?
Probably one of the Scarlet Darlings shows way back when, before I knew who anybody was … I wanted to know more, because how I started was not how these guys started. [Laughs.] I was in a steampunk army, the Zung Army. It was right out of high school, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do … and working at Bill Miller wasn’t cuttin’ it. So I was hanging around with them, working with steampunk stuff, learning how to costume, and a couple of the girls wanted to do a dance troupe together. And then the word “burlesque” popped up. So I Googled, and I researched what it was and what it all was about. And the girl in charge got us a show at Ikicon in Austin. So I did this big burlesque number and I think the movie Burlesque was still relevant, so I did “But I’m a Good Girl” and made these, terrible, terrible fans — nothing like Lucy’s fans. These things were hot-glued; they could not close, so it was an implied nude routine.
Do you have a signature routine?
I love to dance to Queen. My favorite songs are “Somebody to Love” and “Don’t Stop Me Now.” I like to do songs that people at least recognize, so that they can have that connection with [the performance]. Like, “Oh my God, I heard that song in Shaun of the Dead.” But I’m going to make it better!
Any memorable Valentine’s experiences?
I haven’t really gotten all that — flowers and chocolate and balloons filling the room — except for once. And it was such a bitch cleaning up. Ever since then, I’ve told every person I’m with, “Don’t do that. Just feed me and I’m all yours.”
Can you tease out anything you’ll be doing at the Aztec for the Valentine’s show?
Well, I [got] married on January 20. And he’s very supportive of this. He’s been to almost every show. He’s not a local but I am; he made San Antonio his home. So it’ll be something about love, and the wedding has inspired me. Because planning a wedding is a bitch. Just like a show … So my new husband will be helping me with this routine. We have named him “Johnny Law.” He’s nervous — he’s never done [burlesque] before. We’ve got to pop the cherry sometime.
Lucy Lips (The Mermaid Queen of Texas)
Can you tell me anything about your day job?
No. Lucy and my other persona I keep as separate as possible. With social media nowadays, there’s this huge push, because of RuPaul’s Drag Race, that your boy self and your female self are two sides of the same coin — and that people want to see both. But I believe that Lucy is a character, she’s a vision. And me outside of drag is not part of that vision or storyline.
What does Lucy spend her days doing?
Shopping for lots of feathers. One of the main things that I do, in my drag in particular, is I get a lot of bespoke couture things made for me — especially corsetry, costumes, wigs are a big thing. So if I’m not on stage, I’m preparing for whatever my next costume is.
Who are your greatest inspirations?
For fashion, I’ll have to say Ivy Levan. I love her music so much; she has a really sick sense of style. As far as drag goes, Dallas Dellaforce, she’s an Australian drag queen. Way back in the day, when I first started getting into drag, she did these giant glitter horns, this kind of gender-fuck thing — huge drag inspiration.
Do you have a signature routine?
I have a couple. The one that I’m most known for is doing “Downtown” by Macklemore. [Laughs.] It’s a song that a drag queen has absolutely no business doing. But that just makes it all the more fun. Being able to lip sync a rap like that is so non sequitur. And I do “Nasty Naughty Boy” by Christina Aguilera a lot.
Any memorable Valentine’s experiences you’d care to share?
No! I’m just a single mermaid out at sea. Just, you know, rubbing my oyster and watching Netflix and eating Hamburger Helper.
How long does it take you to get ready?
Oh, I just turn around three times and snap my fingers and click my heels. But in reality, it takes about two and a half hours. On a good drag day, I can get ready in an hour and a half. If it’s a drag brunch, I’m staying out. I don’t want to wake up early if I don’t have to … to put my dick between my butt-cheeks.
Camille Toe (The One You Want to Pick)
What’s a typical day like for Camille Toe?
I love to bake. I actually have a little company called Oh Honey. I do hump-day treats for Sexology on Wednesdays. We have Get Lucky cupcakes that come with a condom topper. We have the Pretty in Kink, which is this great chocolate cupcake with hot-pink white-chocolate drizzle. We also have the Not So Vanilla, which is like a spicy Mexican vanilla cupcake.
What was your first burlesque experience as a spectator?
It was at Dixie’s, maybe in 2008, and Katie Red was performing. She was gorgeous, voluptuous … a plus-size girl, red red hair, and a gorgeous angel face. When you first experience burlesque and you have an open heart about it, it’s kind of like, what is this world? It’s kind of walking a fine line of — especially when it’s your first experience — is it stripping? And then you’re also like, is it art?
Who’s your greatest inspiration?
Miss Indigo Blue is my greatest inspiration — because of the comedy aspect [of her work]. Because of the fact that, actually, when you go back and really look at the word “burlesque,” it’s almost like a sexy mocking, funny and joking thing. Before seeing Indigo Blue perform, I had never seen anybody be funny about it. Tease? Yes. Sexy? Yes. Voluptuous and all different sizes, colors, whatever? Yes. But the humor of it I didn’t see until I actually saw Indigo Blue come on and just really put in the comedy with the tease, with the sexiness. I loved it.
Do you have a signature routine?
Yes, I do. I haven’t done it in a while. But, it’s a routine where I pull multiple different gloves off my hands, and then, when I reveal my hands, I have little hand tassels. As an emcee, I don’t really reveal much, so I needed a little go-to routine. And then, after that, I get out this big box of tricks where I have bedazzled shake-weights. Back in the day, when shake-weights were really popular and had their funny infomercial, I bought some … and I got really good at tossing them like a baton and grabbing them. My arms were legit firm. And I must say, now my boyfriend’s just so glad I have those shake-weights — ‘cause I can jerk you off in a second.
Elle Du Jour (The Contemporary Tease)
How does Elle Du Jour spend her days?
Doing a lot of yoga … And a lot of eating.
Where did you first encounter burlesque?
That was in Denton, Texas, where I went to college. It was a small show at this little dive. And they had a troupe that had two girls and a guy who was kind of like a magician — kind of a play on old-school vaudevillian burlesque. [It was] a really small troupe, low-budget, typical dive bar performance, but it was really inspiring. For one, I saw that people were really doing this, putting things together, and they looked like normal people who did normal things during the day. Not Dita Von Teese-level by any means. It inspired me because I can do so much more than that. So why don’t I put in on the stage?
When did you start getting on stage as a performer?
It was at the end of 2012, beginning of 2013. I started taking burlesque classes, just to get back into dancing, but not take it too seriously competition-wise and all that stuff. Just as something fun. One of the girls who was running the class was with a production company in Dallas that [produces] one of the biggest burlesque shows in Texas. They had monthly shows and they needed a chorus line. She could see that I had the experience from her class and asked me to be a showgirl with her.
What’s your performance style or signature routine?
My feather act is probably my signature routine. That was the first burlesque act that I made. And it’s where I kind of like, find fun pleasure with a feather. But it’s beautiful … it’s very minimal, very reliant on my dance ability … contemporary … a lot of rolling on the floor. That’s like my shtick.
Any memorable Valentine’s experiences?
I’ve never had a Valentine. Never. I’m always single. I once had a particularly shitty Valentine’s Day and I had to go to class in college, and I just remember thinking, all of my friends have Valentines … and here I am all by my lonesome, just going to class on a regular Thursday or whatever it was. And then this random guy comes up to me and is just giving away flowers. And [he] just said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Like nothing. He just dropped it right in front of me as I was reading my book.
How long does it take you to get ready?
From top to bottom, with hair, it takes about four hours.
$20-$35, Wed., Feb. 14, 8pm, Aztec Theatre, 104 N. St. Mary's St., (210) 812-4355, theaztectheatre.com.