Award winner, burlesque performer and producer, and self-proclaimed ‘professional loudmouth’ Rubyyy Jones was kind enough to chat with me recently, about her star persona, her performance motivations and the politics of burlesque. This conversation will be available as Here’s Looking At You podcast #5, next week.
I thought it was therefore appropriate to talk a bit about what it is that makes Rubyyy so very special as a performer. To do this I am going to talk a little about the act through which I first experienced her.
Working as a promoter and producer between 2006 and 2016, I was constantly on the lookout for acts that enthused and excited me and that I thought would enthuse and excite our audience too. A conversation with the fabulous performer Diva Hollywood prompted to me seek Rubyyy’s work out on YouTube. I’d heard rumblings, but never actually seen her but I liked the sound of what she was doing – namely, ‘queerlesque.’
I understand queerlesque to be burlesque performance that ‘queers’ the understanding and representation of identity, particularly around gender and sexuality. These are performances that engage with a spectrum of identities rather than a restrictive, binary arrangement. I personally would describe Rubyyy as an avant-garde, neo-drag performer, promoter, producer, campaigner and general badass. (However, as I say in our podcast conversation, its probably much more appropriate that Rubyyy define herself, in her own terms.)
From the opening seconds of the first video I watched, I was in love. I started with You’re Welcome, then moved on to Pottymouth Princess, by the end of which I was a snotty, sobbing mess.
This was what I had always wanted burlesque to be. Jones’ ‘look’, in heavy drag make up, all blonde hair and big eyes, and with eye-popping costuming, accompanied by a direct and often aggressive address to the audience and a satiric intent, made her, to my mind, the embodiment of burlesque. She utilised, in fact, wielded the mode, like a weapon, in the subversive, dangerous and brazen manner that I associated with trailblazers such as Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes.
Like a school mistress, schooling her audience, You’re Welcome opens with Jones lip-synching:
‘Hello children. You might have heard of me. You might have heard that I’m an unwashed, American Lesbian.’
And as such she sets up the premise of the act – a systematic refusal and embrace of labels and identities. From here Jones joyfully asserts:
‘Well let me tell you, I’m Rubyyy! That’s with three Ys. I’m the hairiest burlesque beauty in the world, the Queen of queerlesque and I’m a big, fat, fabulous, queer Canadian!’
The act itself hinges on the notion of what it is to be ‘gorgeous,’ how this notion is subjective and how, quite frankly, she’s here to celebrate, to show (and tell) you just how gorgeous/fabulous she is. In fact, you should be grateful she is here to educate you. (Hence, ‘you’re welcome.’)
The thumping soundtrack is punctuated with dubs of Jones repeatedly asking, to varying degrees of cuteness, ‘Don’t I look gorgeous?’ As a lip-synch artist, these lines are mimed/delivered expertly, initially whilst adopting the poses and facial expressions of a preppy, cute, nubile girl or a coy ingénue, but as the act progresses, this delivery becomes more and more aggressive and absurd, and Jones’ accompanying actions and gurning facial expressions more provocative. At one stage Jones wipes her groin with her satin-gloved hand, and then mimes flicking the accumulated bodily fluids into the faces of the front row. Good taste and decorum dictates that the performance of such an action is shocking by anyone identified as female, but it is doubly so when that female has been employed to perform in a public space and as a strip tease artist.
As a result, the constant ‘Don’t I look gorgeous?’ becomes a direct challenge to Jones’ audience, rather than a question. Instead of offering a passive, reassuring example of nubile, sexualised femininity up on the stage, Jones’ striptease and her constant questioning is just that, a questioning. An act of aggression, a refusal to submit and a wilfully antagonistic assertion of power and of feminine identity.
Elsewhere, staple strip tease moves are disabused of their reassuring connotations. As Jones removes her satin gloves with her teeth, she takes on an unhinged look. Rather than provocatively nibbling on the finger tips of the glove and easing it off her hand, she crams the glove into her mouth, eyes bulging and visibly gagging. The fact that, as this is occurring, the soundtrack repeatedly asks us ‘Don’t I look gorgeous?’ suggests a performative engagement not just with female sexuality on show, but with dysfunction and the harm we can do to ourselves in pursuit of desirability.
Elsewhere formulaic chorus girl and stripper moves such as high kicks, shimmys, grinds, hair flicks and even doing the splits are given an aggressive, isolent inference, making them sexy as hell, in a very assertive way.
As the act, and Jones’ aggression gathers pace, Jones repeatedly breaks synchronisation, shouting out into the audience and drawing attention to the falseness of her mode of address. Furthermore, her non-synchronised interjections are to directly goad the audience. Whilst the soundtrack sweetly requests that the audience ‘cheer for me!’ Jones breaks synch, snarling loudly to her audience ‘Come on!’ At one stage Jones again breaks synch to shout directly into the crowd, ‘Cheer for my gorgeous, natural body, assholes!’ This moment, this direct and determined disregard for the opinions of the audience who are paying to see her, and the provocation inherent within it is why I am so glad this performer exists, why I cry every single time I see this act live and I was so thrilled to talk with her for the podcast. Rubyyy rules.
video of act below: