Tossing her perky red bob and casting coy come-hither glances from behind a painted-on mask, stripper Demonica Valentine slithers downstage at the Loop Theater and twitches her eyes to the beat of George Michael's "Freek." Clad in layers of black vinyl and satin, she's an odd mix of twee and goth--an unsettling blend of cutie-pie, sex bomb, and creep. That's the idea, says Annie Terrell, Demonica's offstage alter ego: the Hellcat Hussies, her fledgling burlesque troupe, live to unsettle. "Nobody ever learned anything sitting in their comfort zone."
Terrell, a consultant at Cook County Hospital, and her best friend, Aradia V, have been dreaming of a queer-positive, high-femme, fat girls' burlesque troupe since their days as phone-sex operators five years ago in Olympia, Washington. So after Terrell moved to Chicago in 2002 she started prowling thrift stores and sex shops for corsets, whips, and bows. V joined her the following year, and they began to drag local talent into the fold just this spring, resorting, at times, to some unorthodox recruitment tactics. Twenty-year-old Katie Powers, who performs as Baby Darling, says Terrell told her she had the best legs in the world, then threatened to "cut" her if she didn't dance.
The troupe's first gig, two months ago at Big Wig, was enthusiastically received. Since then the eight Hussies have staged three full-length evenings and performed in three showcases; at the late-night Loop show last month, about 60 of 70 seats were full.
Part of their appeal is political--their act opens with Stella Breathless's a cappella rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which she concludes by unwrapping an American flag from her torso to reveal the words "It isn't his land" scrawled across her stomach. And their idea of alternative beauty goes a lot farther than that of the more famous Suicide Girls, whose tattoos decorate otherwise vanilla bodies--the Hussies strictly limit membership to chicks who buy tops, bottoms, or both at plus-size stores. They also clearly self-select for brains, wit, and a certain sick creativity.
In one routine V, stripping as Cherry Vanilla Creme, takes the stage covered in red-and-black lace, twirling a lollipop and pouting under Bettie Page bangs as she warbles "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Then her clothes come off to reveal a chastity belt. Just as the lights dim at the end, Daddy walks in, brandishing the key.
"Oh my god!" says Terrell, laughing. "We're all so deep into the B-D and S-M scene that it didn't even occur to anyone that somebody might have issues with that fantasy! Maybe we should warn people."
The Hussies sprang from the queer activist scene, but they've long since cast aside community uniforms. "At 16 I used to try to conform to the image of what a lesbian should be--baggy clothes, didn't shave," says Powers. But with maturity came the realization that she feels more like herself when she's color-coordinated: "Rainbow flags don't go with anything!"
"There's a lot of high femme in the younger crowd, though we still get shit from other queers about it," says Terrell. "And fat girls aren't supposed to be feminine either. We're supposed to hide in a corner and eat cookies. If you ask me a skirt is the most radical thing we can wear. We like to be dark onstage, but do it in this cute, fancy way that lets us express the fiercest, most intelligent parts of ourselves in a way that's fun and sexy but doesn't lose its edge."
Some of the pleasure Terrell gets from performing comes from the effect her bare skin can have on shy girls in the audience. After one show, she says, a girl came up to her and said, "I feel like I have a place of beauty in this world for the first time." But in the end, she says, stripping is as much about ego as altruism. At her first Chicago performance she tore away her reversible black mini to the tune of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" and turned it into a sequined cape emblazoned with Freddie Mercury's immortal words. "Six, seven hundred people screaming and holding up their lighters for you while you're taking all your clothes off?" she says, remembering the audience's glee. "I could get used to that."
The Hellcat Hussies perform at 9 PM Wednesday, July 7, at Spot 6, 3343 N. Clark. There's no cover, but you must be 21 or over. Call 773-388-0185. July 16 and 17 they appear as part of Gurlesque Burlesque at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace. Those shows are also at 9 and are 21 and over. Tickets are $15 in advance and available at the Abbey's box office or through Ticketweb, 888-468-3401 or www.ticketweb.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.