Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jessica Obrist/Jo Jo Stiletto, Burlesque Dancer/Roller Derby Queen, Seattle

I first met Jessica Obrist in 1997, when we were both involved in theater and magazine journalism at our university. But I first met Jo Jo Stiletto—her alter ego—in 2005, when I saw her gender-bending burlesque act involving a auto-work chassis, coveralls, and, of course, pasties. Jo Jo/Jessica performs and leads burlesque workshops in Seattle, and also has a heavy presence in the Rat City Rollergirls team, winning 2008 Alumni of the Year for her fairy-godmother-like dedication. She talked with me about beauty personae, self-exposure, the allure of athleticism, and drag-queen rash. In her own words:




 

On Having a Persona                        
If you gave me two words to choose from—beauty or glamour—I’d choose glamour. Beautiful, pretty…maybe I’m like—that’d be boring. Give me moxie, give me glamour. Would I describe myself as beautiful? Probably not. Fabulous? Yes. I consider myself a faux queen—like a drag queen, but, I mean, I’m a woman: taking this persona and making not even a real woman, but this crazy, over-the-top woman. I like the heightened reality of burlesque, and part of me thinks there’s nothing wrong with that heightened reality—this woman with no imperfections, with 10 pairs of pantyhose on. It’s fascinating to me. There’s the everyday Jessica who wears what I call my uniform: leggings, American Apparel skirt, T-shirt, sweatshirt. Jessica hates glitter. But this other person, Jo Jo, is the glitteriest person anyone seems to know! I want to wear wigs, wear the glitter and the fabulous makeup. It’s me putting on my clown face. And I kind of like to put on my clown face.

It’s for fun, this sort of exaggerated beauty, this fake beauty. It’s not real. I don’t have to do this to feel better about myself, and sometimes I do it in unflattering ways too—r
eally gross-looking eye makeup, the "I cried myself to sleep" look, for dramatic effect. Why not? In some ways I don’t want to attract the male gaze. Maybe I want to be the center of attention, but it’s not about being the beautiful center of attention. It’s about—Oh, look at that wig, where did she get those shoes, that’s ridiculous! It’s the idea of making art. Being myself is expressing myself in these ways, and it’s okay to express yourself by wearing fake eyelashes and way too much glitter.

Right now I have drag rash, this rash on my forehead from a wig. The first time I experienced drag rash, I wasn’t on a show; I was just on this party bus as a fundraiser for an LGBT nonprofit benefit. It was a bunch of drag queens and regular people going on a pub crawl. The theme was “back to school,” and I was the best substitute teacher I could be—beehive wig, pencils in the hair. Could it have been as fun in jeans? Maybe. But every so often it’s fun to put on a dress and have a persona. It certainly makes it more fun to hang your cleavage out in the wind—that’s not me, not Jessica, but that might be my persona.

I feel beautiful if I perk myself up a little bit, put myself in drag. But a part of me also feels like I don’t have to have any of that to have that same feeling. It’s hard to remember that sometimes, especially for people who have a persona: If I take that away, I’m still the same person. Look in the mirror without all that and you’re the same girl, you’re still beautiful. Hearing it without that persona feels strange, but it’s true.

There are these girls with the perfect shoes, the perfect makeup. It’s who they are, from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. I cannot put that effort in. I just can’t! And you know what? I feel fine. I feel fine if I put on leggings and a frumpy outfit. Because tomorrow I’m going to wear a vintage pinup dress and put on fake glasses and do something else, and I’ll feel a little pick-me-up. But then I’ll be back to a sort of frumpy outfit, and it’s okay. I mean, those people who feel like they always have to look perfect—I don’t know if that’s a persona. Is that a persona? I hope so. They’re wearing their game face for work, for everyday. But to me it just seems exhausting.

I was getting a dress for my wedding reception. Honestly, the idea of going to stores is horrible, because I hate trying on clothes in traditional stores. The idea of being fussed over sounded horrible. I go into these stores and have a miserable experience, buying cookie-cutter clothes for cookie-cutter body types and having people fuss over me. I guess I like making my own persona instead of being told who my persona is. The persona of a bride—maybe I’m not comfortable being what other people might define that as. Going anywhere and having someone call me a bride—I’m Jo Jo! I’m Jessica! I’m not going to play that role, that bride role.   


 Jessica as bride: at her wedding reception, November 2010


On Changing Faces
The public image is that I’m pretty happy with myself, but, I mean—my hair is matted down and I’ve got this rash on my head, and my skin isn’t perfect. I’m having my wedding reception this weekend and I’m thinking, I look awful. And then I’m like: You hired your friend, who’s a fabulous photographer. All you have to do is just look in the mirror again, and your face is going to look different. What’s in your brain is going to be what you see. Look back in the mirror and change that. I have that hating voice, and then there’s the good voice. It’s all in your fucking brain.


On Changing the Rules
Roller derby was theatrical at first. Girls in fishnets and lipstick hitting each other—wow, it’ll be crazy! [Laughs] From the get-go there was definitely a lot of sexuality at play, but it wasn’t supposed to be that we’re doing this for dudes. Early in our history we were offered pictures in German Playboy and we were like, Fuck no! There’s this idea of the hyperfeminine, but there’s this athleticism too. If you went to a bout today, there’s no difference between this and any other sport. They’ve trained for hours—it just happens that they wear lipstick. Why are they wearing fishnets? Because it’s fun! We write our own rules. Anyone who changes the rules, it’s not like the rest of the world just catches up to you. I always tell the girls: If you want to keep the fishnets and lipstick, wear it, do it—hey, sure, wear a push-up bra. If you want to wear an athletic jersey and pants to your knees, do it. It’s women being athletic and strong, but still having a wink and nod to something that’s not accepted into any other sort of sporting world.

With burlesque, it’s about accepting that there are many different types of beauty, that it’s not just the type of beauty that we see in magazines. For me it’s the world that I love, the world that people are creating that’s sort of free of what society is telling me is beautiful. I’m seeing what these artists are telling me is beautiful. When we do these burlesque classes, it’s your idea of sexy, and the person next to you is probably really different—let’s explore that. They’re both beautiful and sexy, let’s engage with that. 


On Self-Exposure
Burlesque is fun, and it is petrifying. It’s terrifying to expose yourself, whatever that means. Burlesque can be done without exposing any part of your body, but you’re exposing yourself creatively. Will I be accepted? Will people scrutinize me? You judge yourself more harshly than anyone else. So stand in front of a group of people, take off your top with confidence. Watch the audience, watch their faces change. You have this expectation that you won’t be accepted, and it’s the exact opposite. It’s beautiful and fascinating to watch. You’ve got different bodies, breasts, bottoms. You’ll find that the girl with the big tits hates her big tits and loves the girl with the tiny little boobies and thinks they’re awesome. It’s about finding what you appreciate in other people and what you appreciate in yourself. If a girl walks in and is all, “I hate my butt, I’ve got the biggest butt”—okay, okay, I hear that. But part of my thing is: Well, bend over. Bend way over. Now bend over all the way. Now bend over all the way with your legs straight. And it looks amazing, and that person is owning their giant bottom—everybody loves it!

In my world, it’s very much a bunch of women—I hardly ever think of men. But I do think of gender roles. It’s playing with sexuality, playing with gender roles and who you’re appealing to—or do you even want to appeal to someone? There was a man in the show this year, and I found myself trying to rewrite statements in my head. It’s so much focused on women for me, and I felt totally biased. How do I tell a man that he’s beautiful? How do I make him see that he’s dealing with what we all deal with?

Anyone stands on that ledge, exposing themselves, and you have to take that step. Burlesque and roller derby both happen in a room. It’s not filmed, it’s not recorded. It happens live, for an audience, an audience who will experience it, and then they will leave, and they can’t ever perfectly re-create that experience. It’s truly unique. Something is happening. And there’s a lot of beauty issues there, a lot of issues relating to self-image, to how women are perceived, and sports and art and sexiness, and all these things are being explored live, in front of an audience. You’re going to find that falling off the cliff is a thrill. It’ll be amazing, and people are going to love it. It’s the same for everyone, it’s no different for men, women, tiny women, big women—we all have the same fear. But if you actually step off the cliff, they’re going to love you.

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