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Taking it off with the many queens of Miss Exotic World 2009

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Photo: Jennifer Grafiada

In the hour before the curtain rose on the 19th Annual Miss Exotic World Pageant, there was plenty of décolletage, saturated red lips, immaculately curled hair and whabam outfits filling the usually less than glamorous Orleans Showroom. While burlesque dancers young and old mingled with fans and found their seats, the first performers were busy backstage, pulling on a glove, clipping a garter, adjusting a hat or, for one cheeky man, situating his devil horns just so.

Burlesque Hall of Fame

Sitting quietly amid all the fluttering, retro glamorous women, was a diminuitive elderly lady. Everyone else knew that she was the grande dame of the night, the legendary Dixie Evans, curator of the Exotic World Burlesque Museum; the world’s first Marilyn Monroe impersonator and an icon to thousands of burlesque fans: basically, the most revered and prestigious person at the entire event and the reason it existed. But I didn’t.

19th Annual Miss Exotic World

“You approached her accidentally?” A tall Monroe-esque blonde who assisted Dixie in walking asked me in shock. “That’s funny. She’s the reason you’re here.”

Then, a dazzling brunette dancer interrupted us to tell Dixie, with overflowing adoration and respect, “You’re an inspiration to all of us!”

“Oh my gosh, you’re beautiful!” Dixie responded with equal admiration. “These young girls keep me going. I consider every one of them my own. See how grateful these young kids are? It brings tears to my eyes.”

The tall blonde was the World Famous Bob, no less than the main host of the 52nd Annual Striptease Reunion Showcase, held at the Orleans the night before, which honored the most esteemed burlesque performers of past decades.

Burlesque, which became popular in early 20th century America and then died out as more blatantly sexual entertainment replaced it, has been resurrected as a hugely popular and cherished lost art and lifestyle. Once every year for the past 52 years, performers and fans from around the world gather for the four-day Burlesque Hall of Fame Reunion to celebrate their legendary predecessors, find promising new performers and entertain one another. With these spotlight-loving, high-toned characters, there is never a dull moment.

Now that the show was about to start, there was hardly an empty seat in the place. And of those who filled them, there was hardly one who wasn’t dripping in glitter, in glorious curve-hugging dresses. Even the men were dressed to the nines.

But the performers’ costumes were on a new level entirely. Each transformed into a character—Marie Antoinette, Queen of the Cavemen, a Wild West showgirl, a Japanese geisha, a pink gorilla, a bride, a queen, a cat.

Others simply wore beautiful sparkling evening gowns and gloves, which they slowly and seductively removed until they stood on stage, stunningly nearly nude, with only their nipples and you-know-whats covered. Quite a sight.

The performers, all of which used monikers like TaTah DuJour, Peekaboo Pointe and Vivienne VaVoom, basked in the attention. No one stumbled or so much as lost their wide smiles as they shed clothes in a controlled dance. These women were true entertainers - born to shine, sensual to a fault - and the audience loved them.

Not only were there plenty of "oohs" and "ahhs,: there were lots of laughs, too. The ribald and witty repertoire of the emcees, El Vez and Miss Astrid, was better than most stand-up comedy acts, and plenty of the entertainers had a healthy sense of humor.

One woman pulled “a pussy” from deep inside her dress, while another danced in a pink gorilla suit before going down on a banana. The three male competitors of the Best Boylesque category did not take their turns lightly.

Monsieur Paco Fish, in a white 17th century wig, took off his aristocratic layers until he stood in French flag briefs with an Eiffel Tower jutting from his crotch.

Competing for Best Variety was a couple who dangled from a trapeze and a slapstick vaudevillian act. Best Group contestants included a troupe of eight women from Sweden, the Amazing Knicker Kittens, who pranced around with white feather boa tails, and Nanda, a quartet of male ninjas that had an impeccably choreographed fight routine, complete with acrobatic stunts, flips and juggling.

At intermission, I caught Miss Exotic World 2007, Dirty Martini, ordering something from the bar—perhaps her namesake drink. I knew that burlesque is known for celebrating natural femininity, that you can’t be too overweight or too old to perform, but what about women who didn’t have bodacious ta-tas to twirl a tassle on?

“If you don’t have the boobs, if you don’t have the body, you still fucking flaunt what you got,” she responded with characteristic charisma. “It’s not about what you don’t have, it’s about what you do have. It’s not about empowerment, it’s about entertainment.”

Her words were echoed by the lady of the evening, Dixie Evans, when she was led onto the stage to speak before the new queen was announced at the end of the show.

“Legends like Ginger Rogers, Gypsy Rose Lee, many went on to be in motion pictures,” said the tiny white-haired woman with the personality and heart of a giantess. “Many of you are too young to realize how important burlesque was to our entertainment.”

All of the winners were announced: Best Debut: Melody Mangler, Best Variety: Gigi & Pop, Best Boylesque: Hot Toddy, Best Group: Nanda.

Stalling for time while the judges deliberated over the winner of the pageant, Miss Astrid got a few last naughty quips in: “The competition is so tight, they’re working on it right now,” and then “The competition is stiff, they’re working it out right now.” Tigger!, best Boylesque 2006, jumped from his chair, slithered across the stage and began frolicking around, dressed and acting like the court jester.

Local dancer Kalani Kokonuts was crowned Miss Exotic World 2009 and Most Dazzling.

And finally, the pageant queen and Miss Exotic World was announced: Las Vegas’ own statuesque Kalani Kokonuts. She also won an equally gigantic trophy for “Most Dazzling.” Indeed, her perfectly sculpted cocoa-creamy body and Vegas-esque larger-than-life feathery and sparkly showgirl costume was breathtaking.

“It’s about fucking time!” and “You’re gorgeous!” came from the crowd as Kalani posed for pictures, cradling her twin trophies with that showgirl smile.

“So how does it feel to win?” I asked her, knowing well the answer would likely be some cliché about hard work finally paying off. But Kalani delivered like true royalty.

“It feels great, I’m just so shocked, but I’m just really stoned right now, so it’s all a dream.”

When she gets up today and gets a look at those trophies Ms.Kokonuts will probably realize that the night, as otherworldly beautiful and dazzlingly colorful as it was, did really happen after all. It was just a more fun, sublime and entertaining version of reality, with much more fascinating people - even the ones who didn’t look it.

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Jennifer Grafiada

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