"Alien of extraordinary talent" is what's stamped on Canadian, Bettina May's, passport. And extraordinary she is, from Hollywood music video shoots, to burlesque performances in Germany, Bettina has an energy about her that's infectious.
You’re Canadian, right?
Yes, I’m from Victoria, BC. Far on the west coast.
What was your first week in New York like?
When I first moved to the U.S. I was part of a touring show and I was living in New Jersey. Two years later when I decided to leave the show I wanted to move to New York because it had been my favorite city on the tour.
My first week was very tumultuous, by leaving the show my legal status as an immigrant had changed, so that first week was spent finding an apartment, finding a lawyer, thinking I was getting deported. I got my worst experience of New York over in my first week. That was back in 2010.
It was August and it was so hot but it was also that year when Hurricane Irene came through, the one that everyone thought was going to be crazy but wasn’t. In the far Bushwick apartment that I was in, with windows that weren’t really up to code, the rain was coming in so heavily and coming in through the cracks in the windows. I was home alone and new to the apartment and I was trying to put towels everywhere to keep my roommate’s stuff dry.
How was it once you settled in?
I eventually found lots of work. I started doing every burlesque show that I could possibly get my hands on. Even though I had been doing burlesque for 7-8 years, I didn’t have a big name in New York so I had to do a lot of shows.
Moving here was humbling because you had to start at the bottom and work your way up.
Were people in the industry welcoming?
Yeah, they were. It was amazing actually because no where else is the burlesque scene as professional as it is here but it’s also so open and welcoming. People are just very supportive of everyone else doing well. I thought it was going to be cut throat, I watched Fame growing up [laughs].
I got a teaching job right away at The New York School of Burlesque which was amazing. That first year was just wild and crazy. I ended up getting on tv, I was on The Real Housewives of NYC and that was kind of interesting because I was still going through my visa stuff.
You have the Genius green card? That’s a huge thing to get!
It is a huge. It was sort of my only option because there’s no employer that employs burlesque performers because we’re all freelance and there’s very few of us that make a full time job of it.
It was a lot of work. The two visas I had before while I was on the touring show really helped because we had to create the category “burlesque dancer” to get them so the groundwork was laid down because of that.
With the extraordinary visa you have to prove that you’re better than anyone in the world and that’s so hard when there are people like Dita Von Teese out there. As a Canadian there’s also that mentality like “you know, I’m OK at this”, it’s just not in our nature. So I had to really think a different way and realize that I do bring something to this that’s different as an individual.
What makes you unique?
That was the question plaguing me so much because I had to explain that. Especially when I was getting interviewed by NBC and the Daily News and everyone would ask “what’s your unique style?” So I say “I have the fasted shimmy in the West and the looks of Rita Hayworth.” [Laughs]
I really love classic traditional vintage style. I love that feeling that I’m recreating a scene in a ‘40s musical but a little racier. That’s what I try to bring to it, keep it classy but also, I think that burlesque should be really sexy, it can be playful too. It’s something that the whole audience can enjoy.
The audience is usually 60:40 women, a lot of bachelorettes and birthdays, so I don’t want them to feel alienated at the show, because I like to enjoy burlesque too and I don’t like feeling like I’m being ignored.
What’s the difference between traditional and modern burlesque?
Modern burlesque incorporates modern outfits and music, sometimes. In New York especially it’s very “performance arty” which makes you feel unusual rather than feeling sexy.
There’s a huge popularity right now for “nerdlesque” that incorporates themes like Star Wars or Star Trek or David Lynch burlesque. There are all these very modern themes but there’s still the element of strip tease.
Is there a fine line between fetish and burlesque?
I think a lot of the burlesque stuff feeds into people’s fetishes and then there is straight up fetish burlesque too, with what you typically would think with the patent heels and spanking.
I think the whole appeal of burlesque is that you see a lady that you could see on the street and then she starts taking her clothes off, which is shocking and something you can’t see in real life.
What is it about the 1940s that appeals to you so much?
I love everything between the ‘20s and the early ‘60s. That whole period was just so glamorous and fun. I feel like back then it was easy to see the difference between the decades but not so much these days. Things now are an amalgam, which is great because I can go out dressed in a variety of styles and no one cares.
But for me, I settled in the ‘40s - ‘50s because it just suited my figure so much. I actually really love the ‘20s but I’m too curvy for it.
As a kid I grew up watching reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Leave it to Beaver”. I remember saying to my mom when I was about five “I can’t wait for the olden days to come back”, she was like “no, that’s over” and I started crying.
What do your parents think about you getting into burlesque?
I think they thought it was kooky at first. They prefer it when my hair is straight, saying “Oh that’s the girl we know”, but now I’m so much more put together than when I was a punk rocker. I ask them if they long for the days of my mohawk.
Now they’re really proud of me, that I’ve managed to get myself here. It definitely helps when you start getting your name in the paper. Now they have something to talk to their friends about, rather than (sneaky whisper) “Oh our daughter just takes her clothes off”. They see how happy I am.
Once they came to New York to visit me the first time … everyone has this idea that New York is like a cop movie in the 1970s, that it’s terrible and scary … but they saw everyone is really nice and amazing. It’s a really fun town. That changed their mind a lot.
Is there a specific New York burlesque scene that’s different to anywhere else?
I think it’s a very big scene. Someone was just recently trying to count how many performers there are here, there’s probably over 500 who are fairly active, and then including the people who just do it once or twice a year, as a hobby, maybe 1000. It’s one of the most cohesive scenes.
Because we don’t have a troupe system here, everybody is just an individual performer, and we work in each others shows. It’s really cool, you know, we have a Facebook group where we all share experiences, who can make costumes, who can help with your website, mix your tracks together. It’s a really supportive community.
In terms of your own shows, who is coming up with all the content including music and costumes?
It depends. There is no one saying “you’re going to come up with an act for this song, and you’re going to wear this”. If I love a song, I’ll come up with an act and if there’s a show that comes up I can do it. Or sometimes a show comes up where someone is doing a theme, like a David Lynch ‘Twin Peaks’ theme, and you can come up with an act for that.
But mostly it’s me having an idea for an act and then creating it. Then you’ll do it at one of the smaller shows, get video of it and pitch it to the larger show. It’s really fun and a great creative outlet for me.
Being a solo performer who is also a touring manager and business manager and web designer … all the things that I like to do I get to do. Sometimes my parents are like “I wish you were doing something with your brain”. Oh my god! What I do uses up every inch of my brain.
Is there a lot of pressure that it’s always you being the one that has to make it happen?
It is overwhelming. Being self-employed is so much work and there’s no one to blame but yourself. When I’m getting that 6am flight, I booked it. I am the one who thought that was a good idea [laughs].
There’s no one you can turn to either, which is why it’s great to have such a supportive community where there is such a range of experience and ages that you can find people who have done this before. Then there’s people who are new to it, and have boundless energy you can work with, which is really exciting and inspiring.
I’ve been doing it for 10 years now, I thought this was just going to be a hobby. Now suddenly I’m living in New York and doing it full-time and it’s amazing, but you never step back and see that. You’re always thinking of things you didn’t do or have to do.
Do you have advice you would give to yourself when you first started your career?
I would not make fun of people in business school and I would take a business class. I was a snobby political science student saying “all those capitalists blah blah blah”. Now, I could really use some business management advice [laughs].
Maybe I should have taken that class, or maybe I should have taken some dance classes when I was young but thought I didn’t have time. But I’m glad how things turned out. Shoulda woulda coulda! But I think it turned out pretty well.
And you’re happy with the decision to come to New York?
Yeah. It was the smartest choice. I was wobbling between Portland and New York. I have a lot of friends in Portland, and most of my family.
New York was the scarier choice, I thought I could always go back and do Portland, go and do the scary thing first.
Do you see yourself here for a while?
I don’t know. I’ve been traveling a lot the past year, I think maybe 6 months total. Part of me is questioning why I’m paying New York City rent if I’m never here. Never ask people what they pay for rent in Iowa. Just don’t do it!
I did find a good deal once … I think it’s the only reason I managed through New York. An apartment for $350 a month, well a closet in an apartment. I shared it with two other girls, and I slept on a WWII army cot for 2 years, it had actual blood stains on it from the war!
What are you working on right now?
I’m actually home for the next few months, I just finished my last tour in October. I’m doing a couple of classes here, all of my holiday classes are happening right now.
I’m working on my instructional books, it’s like a manual for how to be an everyday pin-up, posing tips and lifestyle tips. I’ve had the book for a while but I’ve needed to illustrate it. So I did a huge photoshoot this summer, and I’ve been trying to go through all the notes. I want to have that finished and ready for christmas, we’ll see!
Why do you think people are so drawn to pin up?
It’s an every woman style. Every woman in the 1940s dressed like this, it’s attainable for everyone. There are examples from every culture of this kind of dress. People with Asian hair, with African textured hair, there are so many examples of how you can do it.
Also with every woman’s body type. It’s so universally attractive. The cut of 1940s clothes are so forgiving, and were all designed to be worn with severe undergarments. You know grandma didn’t go to the gym, and that’s ok! She wore a girdle and a push up bra. It makes supportive undergarments sexy! You feel like you’re in a sexy package instead of being packed in like a sausage.
I get people saying in the class “oh I don’t have a waist” or “my boobs are too big”. There are so many ways that you can pose that camouflage that, or accentuate that. It’s not just for a photo, it’s how you stand in everyday life. Now I know how to look slimmer or more curvy.
I’ve seen it change a lot of women’s lives. They come into the class, maybe they’ve just gotten a divorce, or they’ve had a traumatic experience, and they need a change and want to do something outside of their comfort zone.
I make everyone come into the class with no make-up on, and I come in with no make-up on and my hair in curlers. So I show them how I completely transform, it’s just easy make-up and hair styling.
As I put it all on, people are like “oh you just made that magic happen”. But it’s just foundation, little tricks that make you feel better.
Words are really powerful, and when you tell yourself “I can’t do that”, “I’m not pretty”, or ‘I’m not good enough”. Those are things that either you’ve had said to you, or you’ve said to yourself. It really impacts you.
In the beginning people come in and say they don’t want anyone to see their photo shoot, and by the end it’s like a big slumber party … “you did it!”, “oh my god, you’re so sexy!”
It’s great for women to have that experience being around women who are very supportive and not competitive. You see that reinforced so much in TV and it doesn’t have to be like that. Those are situations that are created, people can be supportive and helpful which has been my experience in life.
What you see and what you choose to see really affects your reality.
Right now you do so many things, you teach pin up classes, do shows, have online magazines. How do you interweave all of them?
That’s the great thing about New York, you kind of have to do a million things. Also, when you’re in the entertainment industry you can’t just think “I’m going to be a dancer forever”, you need to have different avenues and not rely on just one.
I was always the girl who’d prefer three part time jobs than one full time job because I’d get bored. So it was no surprise that when I became self-employed that I wanted to do a million different things.
The thing I first started doing before burlesque was running an accessory company and I made vintage style faux fur. At the same time I did a male pin-up magazine called Occasional Man and I was doing modeling and burlesque while having a day job. Now I wonder how I had all that energy!
What are some of your favorite places to see Burlesque in New York?
The place I’m going tonight is actually a favorite, Employees Only in the West Village, there’s just one act on a Sunday night. It’s really cool and the bartenders are amazing.
Nurse Bettie has great weekly shows, it’s a really cute pin-up themed bar. Another one is Hotel Chantelle. A lot of my friends perform in that show as well. Also on Saturdays, Dandy Wellington and His Band play a booze brunch at Hotel Chantelle that gets a little crazy, but it’s all live 1930s jazz.
I produce a show once a month at Beauty Bar, the first Monday of every month. It’s really cute, they do this thing called Martinis and Manicures. So you go and get your nails done and sip a martini for $10.
What? We’re going!
All you need to do to get into my show is have a drink in your hand! It’s called Behind the Velvet Curtain. I bring in touring performers as often as I can. In December I’ve got the king of burlesque, Mr Gorgeous. In his heels he’s about 6'7".
What are some of your favorite restaurants and bars?
When I first moved here my favorite place to go was the Algonquin, it was huge with the literary circles in the ‘30s. It was really gorgeous, they just renovated it and it’s pretty nice but it’s not the same anymore. It’s so full of history though!
Around Bushwick, The Anchored Inn is really cute. The most amazing velvet paintings of random things!
I’m also here at Dunwell Doughnuts at least once a week. I’m vegan so there’s this feeling that I owe it to the vegan community to support them, and it’s so much easier when it’s a delicious doughnut. It’s my job as a vegan to eat all the vegan sweets.
Speaking of vegan, you did the PETA campaign ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ …
Yeah! That was so amazing. PETA approached this group that I was modeling with, and asked if anyone was interested. The girl who ran it knew I was vegan, and did so much for animals so she asked if I wanted to submit. Oh my god yes! I submitted a photo to them and they loved it, it was included in a Valentine’s Day show they did in LA. It was really cool. That went in the green card application for sure!
I also have to ask, where you in the Probot video for ‘Shake Your Blood’?
I was, yes.
That was the best song on the album. I love Dave Grohl! Can you tell me about that?
That was back when I’d first started modelling for Suicide Girls, they were the ones who got me a lot of opportunities like that. The first one I did was an episode of HBO’s “Real Sex” about the rebirth of the modern pin up. I was flown down to LA for that, and then a few months later they asked if I wanted to come down for this music video.
Being in a music video shoot was so tedious but awesome. I got to meet lots of really cool people. That was my year of LA experiences! That was the start of everything for me.
How do you even find the time to sit down and have a cup of coffee?
It’s crazy but somehow you just make it work. I find that the more I do the more I fit in. It’s really easy to do nothing though! It’s good to step back and I try to do that more often now.
What do you think of when you think of New York?
I think of jazz and broadway and Rosemary Clooney singing about New York. Everytime I ride the A train I’m singing “Take the A Train” in my head.
You have those moments every once in a while when you’re in Manhattan, you look up and think “wow, I live here!”