Mental Health, Ethnicity, and Queerness: A Conversation with Burlesque Performer Bellamie Beastly

The Revival has been a part of Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood on College Street since 2002.  It’s housed in a seemingly century-old brown-bricked building on the southwest corner of College and Shaw Street; practically next door, on Revival’s east, is a tiny mall with a twenty-four-hour Metro and Tim Horton’s; Shaw Street, to the west, is a quiet residential street lined with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century houses and bike lanes that allow bicyclists to quickly travel from Trinity Bellwoods Park to Bloor Street West and the subway. College to the east sees more pedestrian traffic, particularly with the numerous Italian restaurants, eclectic independent stores, and neighbourhood cinema. Indeed, the seemingly larger Mod Club—which also opened on 2002, but on the north side of College, practically facing the Revival—seems to attract a larger audience, judging from the size of the crowds that often congregate outside the Mod on summer nights.

Yet the Revival’s website claims that it has attracted big names over the years, including Justin Timberlake, Robin Williams, Black Eyed Peas, Sara McLaughlin, and Conan O’Brien.  Revival is indeed large, with three floors that allow the venue to host separate events, including corporate events, trade shows, video shoots, and dinner parties.  Yet despite the big names and corporate events that Revival has attracted over the years, the Revival also hosts smaller events that allow many of Toronto’s lesser-known artists and performers access to an audience.  Notably, it has become a home of sorts to Toronto’s steady yet overlooked burlesque scene, having hosted in the past the Toronto Burlesque Festival, Imperial Burlesque Canada, Game of Thrones, and other smaller burlesque events.  “Burlesque factors large on our calendar,” Revival’s website claims.

It was on a cold and snowy Sunday night in January that I went to see a burlesque show called “Witching Hour: Ice Kween” at the Revival.  The show was on the building’s main stage on the ground floor.  After walking up a short flight of stairs at the north-end entrance, I stood on the main floor, with its beautiful brick interior walls and fully equipped stage at the south end that had a set of stairs to allow performers to walk on and off the stage to the wooden floor, which makes the main floor look like it could be a wicked dance venue.  The centre floor was otherwise empty of people, seats and tables, or anything else.  Along the east wall, there was a fully licensed bar, and along the west wall there were about five or so booths filled with seated people. At the northwest corner was a booth where the stage’s tech person sat, and behind him, at a table, was me, quietly taking the whole show in.

A screenshot of the event’s page of Revival’s website, which prominently displays photos of artists who have appeared at the College Street venue, including burlesque performer Bellamie Beastly, top left.

“Witching Hour” had two acts of two burlesque performers each; in between there were contests and striptease performances by two other performers who used mainly the floor and bar areas.  “Every edition is going to mean something different,” its host and producer, Miss Diamond (all burlesque performers in this article are referred to only by their performance names) a curvy woman who appeared to be in her late 20s, told the audience immediately after performing her own burlesque routine.  “This one coincides with January and the winter season and the issues that a lot of women deal with…All the ice queens tonight are here to show you that they don’t give a fuck what you think…We don’t care what patriarchy says.”  Diamond continued: “They will show you all the various different types of what it means to be a woman in here.  We write women with an asterisk because we don’t think that genitalia tells you who you are.”  (Diamond’s social media ads for “Witching Hour” spelled “women” as “wom*n.”)  Indeed, Diamond on her social media states that she produces principally QTBIPOC (queer, trans, black, indigenous, people of colour) events.

I was at the show at the suggestion of the evening’s last performer, burlesque artist Bellamie Beastly, who has been a part of Toronto’s burlesque scene for the past two years.  For perhaps around a year, I had been following Beastly on social media—primarily Instagram, where she’s a prolific self-promoter, posting photos—both selfies and professional shots—accompanied with sometimes long-winded monologues on her ethnicity, mental health, and queerness. Consider this October 11, 2019, Instagram posting that she used to promote a burlesque event at Oasis Aqualounge that she was scheduled to appear at the following night: The picture is of Beastly wearing a white tank top that says “Get ready to be Babashook” and a black top hat with plastic sunglasses.  Her face is covered in white makeup and a sinister black smile painted around her mouth.  She is holding a pompom, and she is accompanied by another person whose face is covered yet who is also wearing a black top hat while holding onto a rainbow pride flag. (The photo is designed to reference a 2014 Australian horror movie whose titular monster character is noted by online bloggers to represent the coming out process for queers.)

“It’s National Coming Out Day!” Beastly wrote. “If I recall correctly, I came out as bisexual to my parents ten years ago today, and since then I’ve been an unapologetically belligerent queerdo dancing through the struggles of not being regarded as queer enough, being regarded as too queer, being fetishized, and having assumptions made about my sexuality. However, I know that there are so many people fighting battles more taxing than my own; I have mixed feelings about this day because we shouldn’t be forcing people to come out if they’re not ready or if their surroundings are dangerous and unconducive. So instead, let’s look towards a future of living authentically and dismantling the structures that uphold that danger.” Or consider her other musing of her sexuality in a September 23, 2019, Instagram posting.  In it, Beastly is wearing muggle (non-burlesque, real-life) clothes—shorts and a t-shirt.  Beastly appears to be in a greenhouse housing trees, which surround her. “It’s Bisexual Visibility Day, so I might as well make myself seen in this very appropriate lighting from last month! I came out to my family when I was 15, and since then I’ve never felt truly ‘in’ even when meeting new people and providing this fact. I use both ‘bisexual’ and ‘queer’ to describe myself despite knowing that this is not the case for everyone, I define bisexuality for myself as ‘attracted to people with genders like my own and different from my own’ despite understanding the complex discourse behind this definition, and above all, I’m immensely proud to be the bisexual, biracial, belligerent bombshell that I am. I was recently involved in an argument about whether it’s as ‘necessary’ or remarkable to come out as bisexual as it is to come out as gay or lesbian, and to that I say: approach your sexuality the way that works best for you, regardless of obligation. If it helps, look up at some queer trees like these and realize how big this world is and how much room there is for you to navigate your own queerness.”

I asked Beastly about her in-your-face openness about her queerness at Toronto’s downtown reference library, where we met on a grey Sunday in November 2019.  “I think one of the reasons I’m so vocal about being bisexual now is I would have liked to have been when I was growing up,” Beastly told me.  “This is what a bisexual person looks like.  Just because you’re bisexual, it doesn’t mean that you have to feel conflicting feelings about being attracted to people of more than one gender.”  I was interested in Beastly’s perception on how her experiences discovering her bisexuality differed from mine, since she is both a woman (I am not) and almost a generation younger than I. Beastly, 25, continued: “When I think about middle school and high school, from the late 2000s to the 2010s, no one was really out.  We did have a gay-straight alliance, but the person who ran it was a really terrible person.  It wasn’t necessarily stigmatized, but a lot of people were like, ‘Why do you have to be out?’”  But Beastly, who attended an upscale private school, admitted, “I come from a different background—I think my graduating class was 69 people and very well-off kids—than a really big public school, where there would be more people who would be more vocal, and also more bullying.”  When Beastly came out to her parents at 15, they vocalized some initial confusion, although Beastly stated that “I never felt closeted, even throughout school, just because there was never any reason to bring it up.”  One thing that Beastly and I shared, despite our difference in age was an initial confused understanding of our bisexuality: “Something I struggled with when I was a teenager was that I thought that being bisexual meant being 50 per cent gay, 50 per cent straight.  That’s not the case.  Just because I’ve never had a long-term relationship with a woman doesn’t mean I’m not bisexual.  Just because I’m currently in a relationship with a man doesn’t mean that I’m not bisexual.”

I was curious about Beastly exactly because of her use of photos of social media that both emphasizes her burlesque persona, which accents Beastly’s sexuality and sexual persona—her derriere and breasts are abundantly present in her photos, sometimes centre stage—and her strongly held convictions on her sexual orientation, mental health, and her biracial background.  (I’ll touch more on those issues later.)  Beastly maintains that her ability and desire to pontificate on a deeper level go back to her education, for Beastly moved to Toronto from British Columbia in 2012 to study pre-medicine at the University of Toronto (U of T), eventually graduating with a degree in biology and philosophy and a minor in English.  On her burlesque persona, Beastly said, “One comment that I’ve gotten is, ‘Oh, you’re so articulate!’ and it’s not necessarily in a bad-handed way.”  She added,  “Some of it perks my interest when I receive feedback like this is because, especially when it comes to burlesque, it’s so visual on appearance and stage presence that we don’t necessarily see it as a platform for performers to express their thoughts or political ideas or things that might be controversial.”  But Beastly admitted that “one element I would say about myself is that it takes me a thousand words to say something about myself what it takes most people to say in ten.”

And that was certainly true when we met for our conversation.  Beastly arrived at the Toronto Reference Library for our tête-à-tête, her long, wavy hair in thick curls, seemingly appropriately unkept for a Sunday afternoon. Her slightly above-average height—she’s probably about 5’9″—was also striking.  She wore a baggy sweatshirt and jeans.  She has a deep, somewhat husky voice and speaks with a distinct rhythm, often speeding up and slowing down her pace, sometimes mid-sentence.  She reminded me that we had previously met at Red Herring’s Toronto School of Burlesque, where we took Herring’s Burlesque 102 together.  (She finished the program and subsequently moved on to develop a burlesque routine; I didn’t.)  Beastly had graduated from the U of T in 2016, about at which time she first became aware of the Toronto School of Burlesque, which she attended initially because the school participated in the Class Pass app, which allowed her to attend burlesque classes for a flat fee.  Beastly was looking for an alternative to a gym because “staring at a treadmill TV screen for half an hour and then attempting to do lifts on a squat rack” didn’t appeal to her.  (She has since joined a gym, where she goes regularly.)  One of the first classes Beastly took was Red Hearing’s Bump and Grind, although, “I didn’t get much of a workout, and I didn’t get as sweaty as anticipated, I felt that something had unlocked itself in me.”

Although Beastly and I met so I could profile her prior to her upcoming January performance, she was, on the most part, protective of her privacy, particularly of her muggle life.  What I do know of Beastly, beside what I’ve written above, is that Beastly:

  • Self-identifies as biracial, born to an immigrant mother from Vietnam and a white father;
  • Is not yet out to her family about her burlesque activities or persona;
  • Has long battled depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem;
  • Currently has a romantic partner; and
  • Lives on her own in Toronto, with her immediate family in BC and her closest extended family in Montreal.

By the time I saw Beastly perform at the Revival, she outwardly appeared to have sufficiently conquered her anxieties around her body image.  Yet, Beastly’s performance was different than other performers, many of whom predominately emphasized their curves and sexuality.  Although Beastly took off layers of clothing and showed plenty of skin, she seemed more intent on attempting to tell a story.  However, some of this may be tied to Beastly’s admitted limited dance prowess.  But more importantly, Beastly is a self-professed nerd, and this, in combination with her background and interest in science, seems to have set the tone of her act:  At “Ice Kween,” Beastly’s act drew inspiration from a hit HBO fantasy show.  With the lights on the stage dark, Diamond introduced Beastly: “This belligerent bombshell delights in bringing her fiery signature of fiery karma to every act that she brings to life.  Bellamie’s rendition of the Ice Kween resurrects a fantastic frozen creature from a Games of Thrones universe.  And she is excited to bring the coldest fires with this dragon.”  The crowd cheered her on as the lights come up and she appears on the stage.  Indeed, Beastly had attempted to appear dragon like: her long, black hair has been pulled tightly back; on top of her head are two long streaks of tinfoil painted blue, complete with a headband and fake flowers, made to appear to be a pair of a dragon’s horns.)  Her forehead is covered with blue make up, as are her cheeks; and the rest of her face is covered with white powder and sparklers.  She’s sporting a blue and black top, with ample extra material at the back of the arms to make it appear as if Beastly has wings. 

Her top is cut low on her chest, fully exposing her breasts, save for large pasties covering her nipples.  She has on a voluminous shiny blue dress, and black high heals with black straps that circle her legs up to her knees.  As she hit the stage and the lights came up, and Britney Spears’s “Break the Ice” played.  During the song, gently sung at a medium tempo, Beastly slowly works the stage, and slowly takes some layers off.  Yet considering that it’s burlesque, Beastly had little in terms of clothing to peel off: She took off her blue top, exposing blue straps that go from her breasts, over her shoulders and to her back; and stripped from her dress, showing off her transparent blue underwear that exposes her butt but is attached to darker blue material at the front that covers her genital area.  Beastly’s stage movements were not really about showing off her plentiful thighs and curvaceous breasts; rather, she was seemingly interested in creating a dragon character.  This certainly explains why she relied less on flirtation with her audience as she peeled off her outer layers.  As Britney Spears’s song faded away, Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” a more upbeat tempo song, began, her movements quickened, and Beastly got on her knees.  She detached the wings attached to her outer dress, which by now was lying on the stage, twirling the wings in her hands like a cheerleader with pom poms.  However, Beastly was clearly imitating a flying dragon making manic movements in the sky, her arms’ rhythms copying the staccato singing by Fall Out Boy.  And although I’ve never seen Game of Thrones—I am familiar with the premise, though—it’s clear that Beastly was acting out her love for the fantasy hit, which ended last year.  As Bellamie’s act ended, the lights on the stage darkened, and Beastly walked off the stage, down the stairs, and walked the entire length of the dance floor and out the doors leading to Revival’s main entrance. 

Beastly in character as a dragon from HBO’s Game of Thrones at a performance of Ice Kween at Toronto’s Revival Bar & Event Venue. Picture courtesy of Flora Tang (https://www.instagram.com/fctphotos/)

Beastly reflected on her burlesque creations: “I have a narrative every time I go up, and it’s gotten easier for me to portray a relatable character.”  Indeed, Beastly seems to have a sci fi and fantasy motif in her acts: “My first nerdlesque (burlesque that incorporates sci fi, fantasy, and nerd culture elements) performance was framed around Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Rose Tico,” a supporting character performed by Kelly Marie Tran, who, like Beastly, has a Vietnamese background.  “This actress was bashed to high heaven by a lot of this incredibly vocal misogynistic part of the Star Wars fandom by these purist rogues who thought that she was inserted into the Star Wars universe to make it more politically correct or that there was no point to her character existing, that she was useless.  And that really, really bothered me because they are terrible things to tell women.”  But, importantly, Beastly “saw a lot of myself in that character and that portrayal because of the struggles she goes through  and, honestly, because there aren’t a lot of famous Vietnamese people in the Western world. That is what drew me to the character, and that is what drew me to create the act…I do like to inject a little bit of myself or something close to me in every act.”

Beastly is philosophical about her Vietnamese heritage, saying that “I don’t look very Asian.  I would say I’m white passing, but the reason I’m white passing is because I’m half white.  I grew up very Westernized.  I don’t speak Vietnamese fluently: I can count to ten and order food; that’s it.  Even though I grew up very whitewashed, there’s another half of me that’s very relevant too.”  But as Beastly was growing up in B.C., despite her sheltered upbringing, she still felt, at times, different, beginning in grade school and “noticing that I was the only dark-haired person in my very white kindergarten class to looking at my high school graduation photos and seeing that I didn’t look like everyone else.  Sometimes I would bring Vietnamese food for lunch, and my schoolmates would be like these typical stories you hear from children of immigrants.  But I would say that [my biracial heritage] didn’t affect me negatively.  I treat it as a positive aspect of my life.”  Yet this feeling of being a little different has followed Beastly into adulthood. “I get a lot of people asking me that.  They are just coming from a place of curiosity.  Generally, the reaction I get is, ‘Wow!  I didn’t know that.  Cool!’  But it sometimes gets tiring answering.  And I hear that a lot from white-passing people.”  (Indeed, a pet peeve of Beastly is when men who hit on her choose to ask about her ancestry.)  But for Beastly, embracing her biracial heritage through her burlesque is empowering.  And she noted that “I have gotten to know fellow performers all over North America through social media who are in the same boat as I am.  They’re also biracial; they’re proud of who they are.  They may have acts that relate to their identities.  And that’s something that I think about a lot, and that’s something that effects me on a day-to-day basis is to be part of a community and being able to increase not only the visibility but also the diversity.”

Regardless, Beastly’s feels welcomed and embraced in Toronto’s burlesque community, where she has developed numerous close friendships. “I do spend more time with my burlesque friends,” she noted.  “But it’s not because I’ve grown apart from my first [university] friends in Toronto.  A lot of it is because my friends from undergrad have moved away or they’re busy with grad schools or medical school or other full-time jobs.”  She noted that her university friendships developed because of a common physical proximity—being at school—yet with her burlesque friends, it’s the common interest of burlesque that binds them.  But despite her burlesque friendships and burlesque’s seemingly embrace of people who are different, Beastly still noted that the burlesque community is still caught in mainstream culture’s preference of white beauty and slender female body shapes.  “Burlesque should be something where all bodies are accepted,” Beastly strongly asserted.  “There’s that societal stigma of that ideal body type.  Fat performers and performers of colour don’t have as many opportunities to get on stage as conventionally attractive white people.”  She observed that these attitudes are especially stronger is some parts of the world. “In Europe, burlesque is seen as very traditional and white driven, and it does deal with racism a lot more than in Canada and the Unites States.  You’ll still have white performers dressing as geisha dancers or voodoo queens.  It’s really uncomfortable.”  But even in Toronto, Beastly has noticed that “I’ve heard performers in Canada who look at the cast for an upcoming show, and it’s all conventionally attractive white performers, or there’s only one performer of colour, and they feel tokenized.”  But Beastly remains optimistic, noting that Toronto has queer burlesque shows, drag burlesque shows, and shows for people of colour.  She pointed to Les Femmes Fatales, an all woman-of-colour burlesque group, of whose members Bellamy noted are predominately queer identifying as well.

Despite the close circle of friends that Beastly has met in the burlesque world of Toronto and beyond, Beastly maintains an effort to separate her muggle life and burlesque life.  She worries about possible reactions from employers, and she has yet to tell her family, including her parents, about her burlesque, as she worries about their reactions.  “I want to tell my family about it because I want to, not because I feel like I have to.  I’m not pressured into it, because it takes so much of my time.  I don’t want to have to come out to them.  Eventually I might, but I’m not in a rush to.”  She has been open to a few of her muggle friends to her burlesque life.  “The women in my life or [people who identify] as non-binary are a lot more accepting of it than my friends who identify as male,” she disclosed.  “The reason my male friends don’t approve is because they don’t get it.  They don’t understand it as much.  It’s hard to draw the line between empowering and objectifying.  Or between burlesque and stripping.  Or between sex work and adjacent sex work.”  Few of her friends have seen her perform, more because of their busy schedules than a disapproval of burlesque.

Regardless of the wall that Beastly has between her burlesque and muggle lives, Beastly claimed that burlesque has been cathartic for her mental health.  “I do have generalized anxiety disorder.  I don’t take medication for it or for depression.  It’s been one of those journeys that I’ve had to flounder on my own and develop my own support system, mostly because my family didn’t think it was a big deal.”  Beastly cited that for children of immigrants, the stigma of mental health can be greater, particularly because some cultures view mental health as a sign of weakness.  For Beastly, it affected her ability as a kid to make friends.  “I didn’t grow up with a lot of friends until I graduated high school.  When I moved to Toronto, it actually felt kind of disorienting that people wanted to accept me and hang out with me for the weirdo that I am.  And this was even before I got into burlesque.”  Beastly sought out the help of the mental health services available to students while studying at the U of T.  But it’s the burlesque community where she has found a more impactful acceptance of her anxieties and depression.  “Burlesque brings together a lot of people who come from similar circumstances as me, who are socially anxious, who deal with anxiety, who had trouble making friends growing up, who don’t quite fit in.”  But for Beastly, that’s what makes burlesque so much more helpful than an anti-depressant: “In burlesque, you don’t have to fit in.”

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