The next interview in our stagey chat series, is with the sensational Isabella Bliss. She is currently the headline act on the national tour of An Evening of Burlesque. She is also the leading Marilyn Monroe tribute - and it's not difficult to see why! We had a chat about her life as a showgirl so far.

Get yourself comfy and join us for the next instalment of Stagey Chat!

Isabella, thank you for chatting to Stage to Page today! How are you doing? And would you mind introducing yourself and telling us how you first got into burlesque?

Hello - Isabella Bliss here: international burlesque artist, Marilyn Monroe tribute, model and actress. I teach burlesque body confidence workshops based around connecting with you inner sensual goddess. I also mentor and teach in the Trans Community where I work with clients from big sisters on female etiquette, for those who wish to adopt more feminine movements and body language. 

Teaching, giving back and lifting others up is a great passion of mine and I sometimes get on a one woman mission to empower the world to embrace sensuality and the art of striptease into their life. I also design and make props, sets and costumes for both film and stage.

And I'm great thank you; currently writing this while on the “An Evening of Burlesque” tour bus and we're heading to perform at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, which is exciting as its one of the oldest music halls in the UK. Iconic greats like Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin have performed there. 

Ironically “An Evening of Burlesque” was the first ever burlesque show I saw and it literally changed my life. I decided that night that I wanted to be a burlesque artist and set about changing my destiny to chase that dream.

I grew up as a little girl watching old Hollywood movies and musicals and loved all the glitz and glamour of the showgirls and the witty tongue-in-cheek humour of the comedies of the day. I watched a lot of Carry On films on Sundays with my grandparents; they had the entire collection to choose from on VHS - ha remember VHS

I also used to visit my great aunt and uncle across the street where we had a treat of ice cream soda floaters and jelly cubes and was allowed to watch endless Morecambe and Wise sketches and The Two Ronnie’s. Some of my favourite musical movies were: Singing in the Rain , My Fair Lady (which I later created an act as an homage to), Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Mary Poppins. I just loved the costumes, songs and laughter, it seemed so much fun to me as a little girl growing up. Burlesque encapsulates a lot of these elements for me. The elaborate costumes, humorous feel good songs and just pure joy of entertainment.

I have trained in some dance but I'm not entirely classical dance trained as much to the snobbery of some burlesque artists. I feel being a good classical trained dancer would not necessarily mean you would be a great burlesque artist. It's much more about how you connect with your audience, tell a story and take them into another world. This to me is much more than a perfectly choreographed to the count of 8 dance routine. It's a skill of understanding a unspoken connection and dialogue of push and pull with your audience that invites them in on a journey with you. The beauty of burlesque is it's for everyone; whatever your skill or background, it's how you work the stage and connect with your audience - that's what makes it magical.

I trained in some ballet, tap and modern as a small child and belly dance for two years and also pole dancing. But much of my skills and knowledge about dance, performance and how to really connect with people comes from working over a decade as a “stripper”. Something I spent many years being ashamed to talk about for fear of the negative feelings and emotions people have about strippers, but also a level of snobbery that used to exist in British burlesque that burlesque was not for strippers. We were some how beneath burlesque (thankfully that is changing).

It was only when I met and worked with UK British Burlesque Legend “Good Time Mama Jo”; founder of The London Academy of Burlesque and teacher of Burlesque icons like Immodesty Blaze that she really encouraged me to embrace it not be ashamed of being a stripper. In Jo’s words "being a stripper and coming from that art form was like a super power for burlesque", as she said I knew how to connect with my audience and tease with the eyes and body in the smallest movements and how to hold a room with sensuality.

I owe Jo King a great debt for encouraging me to be brave and embrace who I was as an artist and let that shine and not hide it away. It really helped me shape who I was as an artist in burlesque. I've since learnt to have a great deal of pride in what I learned working in strip clubs and I now teach a lot of this in my goddess workshops. 

There is so much value that comes from this industry; it's so much more than the negative beliefs about it. I'm actually writing a book on being a stripper to help humanise strippers a little more and give people a laugh about the silly simple things that happen in clubs. I want to break past some of the negative illusions people have about the industry and tell some funny side splitting stories, like falling over my own pants and the truth about when you need to fart when you're trying to be sexy.

So back to watching “An Evening of Burlesque” and falling in love. 

It was magical for me as I first saw the show at The Cliffs Pavilion, which was where my nan use to take us as kids too see panto. So whenever we now perform the show there I get so goosepimple-y and excited; and I know my Nan would be smiling down very proud.

After watching EOB I immediately went home and did a insane amount of research into burlesque history, burlesque legends and watched as much footage as my tiny brain could manage, or that Google would allow me to find. I wanted to understand the true meaning of the art, where it came from and honour the women who boldly came before me and shaped its history. For me it was like this magic of all the things I saw growing up as a child, the costumes, the glamour, the humour and song. It was like I found my place in the world and it all made sense.

To be sitting here over 10 years later as the headline act and have been the poster child for many years seems almost surreal and mind blowing for this little girl from a council estate in Essex. Seeing the show inspired me so much that I decided there and then that's what I wanted to do with my life and here I am all those years later truly living it.

I worked so hard going to see lots of shows learning the industry and working on my stage persona, costumes and brand. I took a fan dancing workshop with British Icon Gwendoline Lamore and a bump and grind burlesque workshop with American star Lou Lou Dvil. I wanted to understand the varied styles of dance within the genre of burlesque and trust me, there are many sub genres of the art. I remember getting hold of a copy of Immodesty Blaze DVD Burlesque Undressed and being so thrilled to watch her and also the lovely interviews carried out with burlesque legends such as Satan’s Angel, Dixie Evans and Catherine D’Lish. I really did put in the ground work to learn , respect and understand what burlesque was and how I could find my place in it.

Ironically I was performing my signature Giant Champagne Glass act at a Casino in Essex when I was spotted and scouted by Mike Taylor, owner of Entertainers and An Evening Of Burlesque. He literally approached me after my performance and said how much he loved my act and he would love to have me on the show. I nearly spontaneously combusted with excitement when he told me it was in fact “An Evening of Burlesque”. I guess sometimes you just have to dream big enough, work hard enough, be kind and the universe will do the rest. That's always how I have tried to work.

I am always so grateful to Mike for giving me the chance to shine and believing in me.

You're currently performing in the huge UK tour of An Evening of Burlesque as the headlining act. Can you tell us more about the show and your involvement?

The show is a celebration of British burlesque, of humour, song and sensational striptease. It's a really all round fun night out of glamour and laughter, which hopefully leaves the audience feeling good and also shooting off to the nearest store to grab some nipple tassels for them self to get twirling.

The show has been running strong for 13 years, providing many jobs for artists in our industry and bringing the art form to many places up and down the country, as well as Europe. It's a joy to take burlesque all over to people that may never have had the chance to see a spectacle like this before. I think sometimes Londoners are so spoilt for choice of cabaret shows, its almost just taken for granted, where as we go to tiny seaside towns and bring this joy to them to enjoy and there always so happy and grateful for that. 

I love doing meet and greets when we can and just thanking people for coming and spending the evening with us. It brings me so much happiness to hear how much they enjoy the show and how its inspired them; makes my heart happy.

I have been on the show for 10 years and have had the honour and privilege to share the stage with many talented artists over the years who have inspired me immensely and gifted me with so many wonderful memories that I truly treasure.

I was the poster child for pretty much 7-8 years where I appeared with my giant signature champagne glass which was an immense honour. I would get so excited and collect show posters from venues so when I'm much later in my life I will have these memories to treasure and look back on and be able to say "wow - I did that, that's me". I always feel so proud and overwhelmed and grateful to have been given that opportunity.

On the show I currently perform 3 acts but when I 1st joined I only did one, my champagne glass. I've had to earn my stripes and tread the boards as we call it and work hard to earn where I am now. 

My first act on the show you meet me as Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. I perform a comedy musical audience interactive tribute to Marilyn. This segment is taken from my one woman show “One Night with Marilyn” that I wrote in 2017. I can’t tell you how fun this is for me and I love the laughs I get to have with the audience and the spontaneity of some of it and how quick witted the comedy requires me to be. The audience get to pick Marilyn a husband. It's really about inviting you as the audience to be part of the show and have a laugh. With a cheeky nod to British icon Cilla Black, while honouring the spirit and comedic humour of Marilyn Monroe who I adore so much.

My second act is a burlesque number called Stiletto Love which is an act I created for Sexhibition Exhibition in 2015 and is a homage to our love and fetish for shoes; which lets face it ladies, we all have. It's my most un-apologetically sensual and sexy act. I really try to be unashamedly erotic with this act; its like the audience are invited into my boudoir with my giant glistening shoe and we're all here to celebrate what it means to be a woman and own being sexy in your own goddess light. I really want women to be able to watch the act and feel empowered to go be unashamedly sexy and erotic in their own light. Like go own that! I'm here for you and I'm championing it for you.

My third act is the burlesque show, finally! My giant crystal encrusted champagne glass which my dad actually made for me and it really is such a joy to perform such an iconic act for our audiences. I am currently touring what I call the 2.0 version of the act as after doing it for so long I wanted to give it a glow up and keep it fresh for our audiences. So me and Dad built a more intricate and beautiful champagne glass better adaptable for touring life as we load in and out of 2-4 theatres a week, so it has to be practical logistically. I also made some adaptations to the music I use for the act now days as I wanted a more upbeat uplifting version to fit the finally and leave people feeling good ;-) 

I have also made costume upgrades thanks to my sponsors, Fancy Feather and Crystals Parade, who have helped me make the costume even more extra Hollywood Glam. We also have the lovely L'Sheila Showgirls on tour with us now and they also feature in my Champagne Glass act and they really do bring so much extra sass and glamour to the act.  

But also something I'm very proud of is I have created a neon glow version of the act which depending on the lighting rig we have in theatre, I sometimes do. It's the only act of its kind in the world and I'm so proud of being able to develop that. It was really important for me as an artist to find ways to re-invent or re-imagine something and put my own unique stamp on it. My Neon Glow Martini is a product of wanting to push forward as an artist and up the game in what I do.

I also help out behind the scenes on other aspects of the show from creative ideas to logistical plans and support Ivy as Creative Director. I had a vision for the ballet bar number you now see in the show and I worked on designing the bar with my dad who made it for the show. 

Is it difficult to physically prepare for your acts? And what is the most challenging aspect of being a burlesque artist?

My job requires me to be fit and healthy so I do work out as much as I can around shows. I love the gym, walking and I'm also a real fan of my MMA training.  It's key to my well being that I take time to exercise so I can be fit enough to do the job, but also it really helps me mentally to keep well. I maintain as healthy as possible, and I'm really interested in food and well being.

I’ve recently been listening to Zoe podcasts on the tour bus and I love the science advise on food, nutrition and exercise . This can be tough to always get right when were on the road, as motor way service stations don't always offer the best food! And often when we get to venues we don't have time to eat.

Also more tricky for me as I have food allergies and can’t eat wheat, gluten or beef so I travel with a picnic bag with my food prep for the day and try my best to eat as well as I can as it makes me feel better and more able to do my job. But it also is a pain in the bum cooking and dragging a days food with me lol. Some days I’m so over eating out of Tupperware pots I'm like, "I just want to eat my food at a table on a plate". 

Vocally, as a singer, it's key I maintain my voice - so regular vocal exercises, vocal teas, steaming and just making sure I rest and sleep is also key. Which again on the road can be tough staying in various hotels. But these things are non-negotiable. I can’t be the best person I can be on stage for the audiences if I don't take care of myself off stage. I'm never going to be super slim as its not in my DNA and I love food lol, but I honour my curves and my well being by taking care of them the best I can. 

This is what’s challenging touring the way we do as routine for exercise and diet can get disrupted most weeks. So I often have a battle on my hands on the road between managing the fatigue from traveling and making time to work out and eat well.

The most challenging aspect of burlesque is often the business model of burlesque its self. As a burlesque performer we are under unrealistic pressures to have the biggest and best costumes. Thousands of crystals on them, oodles of feathers and custom corsets and headdresses. In my case, huge props also. 

Our costumes often cost thousands to create and constantly require repair and replacing bits as they wear out from constant use. Every week I am repairing either costumes or props or working on new costumes. I mean its got to be the only job you spend your entire income on insanely expensive costumes just to lob it across the stage with careless abandonment. We often joke when we hear crystals fall of were like "there goes another £10" lol.

The sad reality is that burlesque is not in-fact paid very well. On the bill of any show the burlesque artist is always the lowest paid act behind, circus, fire, aerial, and the host as we are not seen as talented in the same way. 

So as a business model we spend the most on our costumes and training, yet are not paid in a way that reflects that. Most burlesque artists on a cabaret show would be getting £150 and that's considered a good fee; most are less.

For me I'm what I call a "working class performing artist". I have no rich partner to support me, inheritance from family or a second job. I am an artist full time so I do my best to up-cycle my costumes, make what I can, crystal everything myself, build my own props and just generally try my best to be as efficient as I can to make something look like a million dollars on a budget.

I also keep my work up outside of burlesque, with modelling, teaching, corporate shows etc.

I think most artists agree we do what we do for the sheer love and joy of it, not because it pays well. I couldn’t imagine not being a creative in some way its just how my brain is wired and where my heart is most happy.  

You are one of the most famous burlesque acts in the country, and known for signature acts such as the impersonating Marilyn Monroe (the resemblance is uncanny!). However, having seen you perform recently, your 5ft champagne glass and the oversized stiletto were sensational - which is your favourite act to perform?

Arh thank you, that's so kind. I honestly would struggle to pick just one. I adore playing Marilyn as its fun and playful with the audience and I get to sing and do comedy which I love. But I love the Stiletto act for how sensual and sexy it is and how it invites people to connect with that in them self.

 Performing the giant champagne glass act is always so much fun for me; its the epitome of glamour in burlesque and such an iconic Burlesque act. I am so very grateful to have been a part of its tapestry and showcase it to so many lovely audiences up and down the country while putting my own spin on it. Honestly when I'm up there splashing around in the glass literally having the best time I'm like "I get paid to do this!”. I know one day when I'm old and grey. how lucky I will be to look back on this time in my life with such fond memories and be like "wow I got to do that". 

Besides the obvious, Marilyn Monroe, is there anyone else you draw inspiration from - and in what way?

I think I draw from many of the old Hollywood legends in terms of glamour and styling, but my humour and silliness came from watching a lot of comedy movies growing up. I have a love of stand up comedy and would love to at some point pursue comedy more. 

I'm inspired by so many things and people it would be hard to pinpoint a few. I also love travel so that inspires me, places and culture.  My musical influence is also varied so I often pull from many places to create acts and concepts. But I guess also a lot from burlesque legends that have gone before us have paved the way so we can do this now and also they did it in a time when women did not have the choices and freedom that we have today. Often they were getting arrested and persecuted for performing and shunned by society. I take a great deal of inspiration from their courage and passion to follow what they loved regardless of rules and exceptions on them as women. There's something so empowering in that. 

When ever I step on stage I always do it with the intention to honour those that came before me. I want to make sure I'm making them proud and being a part of the legacy now and holding the torch for the art going forward so many can come after me and burlesque can continue to grow and thrive.

What is it about burlesque that you felt drawn to? Is it something that you knew early on that you wanted to do? You do have such a way with the audience!

I mean I'm a sucker for a fancy costume, sparkles, feathers and the aesthetic of the vintage glamour. But I am mainly drawn to it giving me the opportunity to entertain people, connect and take them away from their problems - its why I love it.

By me doing what I do on stage it gives people light relief from their problems and a chance to escape the world. I hope that through me giving my best on stage I can show women and shine a light for them to embrace their own body and be comfortable in their own skin. That's what burlesque is for me; here I am in my imperfect body showing you that its ok to be a sexy, sensual, funny woman and to own that. 

I want to be a light for others, connect with them and let them feel part of that essence of goddess-like sensuality we all have inside us. I see it as my purpose to entertain people and we do that through connecting with people. I'm not up there being all look at me, cheer for me; its more an invitation to join me in the moment to connect together. To feel inspired in that moment and to take something from it that's positive; that's what I wish for. Just to bring a little joy to others.

I have to ask every guest on Stagey Chat this question: my blog is called Stage to Page. But if you could turn any book, from page to stage, what would it be and why? 

Oh, maybe not a book specifically but a life story. I would like to see a more positive and happy representation of Marilyn Monroe on the big stage. A more fun comedic musical celebration of her life, what she stood for and who she really was. From the dreams of Norma Jean to her creation of Hollywood's brightest star and the impact she’s left on us all. A celebration of her life would be nice. I feel like I have not yet seen this and I would, of course, love to play her in such a show.

And finally, what's next for Isabella Bliss? Are you working on any new acts? I would love to know what the year has in store…

I am indeed working on a new big prop act for An Evening of Burlesque, but it does involve a huge restoration project as well as making a new costume so progress is slow as I work on it around touring. But I am super excited to make this dream a reality. I can say it will be very colourful and blend more of my dance skill sets into my burlesque, hopefully creating a rather cool spectacle on stage. So watch this space on that one! But I am sharing some of the process on my Instagram stories if people want to keep up to date.

I am also taking my one woman Marilyn Monroe comedy singing show “One Night With Marilyn” to Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year for the first time which is both exciting and terrifying. But I do believe in doing what scares you most. I would hope to gain some interest so I can develop my Marilyn show into a theatre touring show with a band - that would be the dream I think.  

We are also taking An Evening of Burlesque to the West End in October on the 10th at the Adelphi theatre and I can’t wait, its going to be very exciting. A debut for the show in the west end which is so wonderful for burlesque history. I am beyond thrilled to be a part of this, as a little girl growing up in Essex I never imagined I would be able to say one day I'll be performing in the West End; it's a dream. I am so very grateful to Mike and James at Entertainers for getting the show there and believing in us all. I hope I make everyone proud and champion for our art from.

Thanks so much to chatting to us, Isabella! You can follow here on Instagram, here.

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