When the Toronto neo-burlesque scene exploded in the early aughts, audiences had a seemingly endless parade of tasselled titties to choose from. But those who liked a little chest hair with their striptease had to wait until 2008 for the emergence of the city’s all-male troupe, Boylesque TO.
Along with regular appearances in Toronto, members of the eight-man team have strutted their stuff in New York, Chicago, Vancouver, Vienna, and Stockholm. This week, Boylesque TO members Dew Lily and James and the Giant Pasty (who also serves as artistic director) will appear as part of the Toronto Burlesque Festival on July 20–23, 2017.
The first inklings for the company came when James was only 15 years old. His uncle had snuck him into a burlesque show during a visit to Coney Island, and James was entranced.
“It was funny and smart, naked and unashamed,” James says. “It was also political, body-positive and sex-positive. As a teenager, seeing naked people be funny and tell stories and be proud and sexual at the same time was mind blowing.”
The experience stuck with him but it took another unexpected event to get him on stage, dropping his drawers.
That came in the summer of 2007 when, at a Skin Tight Outta Sight burlesque show, MC Keith Cole plucked him from the audience and cajoled him into an impromptu striptease.
James had made the mistake of not wearing his best underwear to the show (“I wasn’t planning for anyone to see them that night!” he laughs). But the thrill of bearing all in front of a crowd of strangers reignited his teenage inspiration. He knew he had to do it again.
At the time, there weren’t many guys performing burlesque in Toronto. He thought he could probably convince the ladies to let him squeeze in a number here and there, but being the enterprising sort, he saw another solution: he decided to start an all-male troupe.
He enlisted the help of photographer Ella Cooper and writer/performer Johnnie Walker (aka Ginger Darling) and announced auditions. The original plan one was a one-off event, meant only to test the waters. Nine years and dozens of shows later, it’s clear the hunger for man-flesh on stage is there.
Although the troupe was born of a desire to see more boys taking it off, performing alongside women is still important to them.
“Burlesque is a female-originated art form and we don’t want to forget that,” performer Dew Lily says. “The boys are guests here. We do an amazing job entertaining by putting out our own stories with our own hearts, but we never want to forget the legends who paved the way for us.”
“The shows are sexy, but they’re also political and raunchy and hilarious,” Dew Lily continues. “Burlesque is about more than just momentarily turning you on. It will make you much more interesting around the water cooler the next day. And maybe in the bedroom later that night.”
Another key element to the boys’ success is their commitment to featuring different body types on stage. Far from the waxed six-packs of mainstream porn, they have performers in all shapes and sizes.
“We have enough voices in mainstream media telling us that certain types of bodies are more, or less desirable,” James says. “We need more voices embracing what is truly sexy — confidence and comfort in whatever type of body you possess. Burlesque is one of those voices and it’s not uncommon for people of all body types to find burlesque inspiring for that reason.”
The troupe currently has eight members. But they’re also open to guest performers. So if you want to join, what do you have to do?
“Aside from getting naked?” James says. “Show me some personality. Show me some humour. Show me you can dance. But definitely show me your butt.”