67 T he lights are glowing off of Straw- berry Chérie, performing tonight as Lady Pig. She is dressed in black briefs that reveal her long limbs and a black bra harness that holds six plastic baby pigs snug against her chest. Each pig is filled with strawberry milk, and as the music plays Chérie puts a straw into each one and invites people to the stage to suckle her. The crowd goes wild as two women join her, each one leaning in to drink from the straws dangling from her chest. The laugh- ter and cries from the crowd send Chérie into fits of pleasure as the women do what they’re told. Next, Chérie leaves the limelight to move through the audience, inviting others to repeat the act. By the time she is done, the audience has literally milked her dry. Chérie is a member of WhiteLies Burlesque Revue, which got its start five years ago with a group of Army wives who performed on post. The group is part of the new burlesque, which keeps the kinky props, satirical sneer and sassy attitude of previous incarnations; but unlike those early versions, this is less about the strip and more about the tease. “Burlesque is not about stripping,” says Nell Fox, the group’s current leader. “It is about telling a story with your body. It’s about the art of tease, and you can tease however you choose to.” Fox says she was an introvert with little fashion sense and even less confidence before she did her first burlesque show three years ago. But as time went by she became more confident and began incorpo- rating elements of striptease into her act. Her newfound skills have transformed both her image of herself and her career. Now she’s a self-proclaimed glitter junkie with some serious fire-spinning skills who doesn’t have any reservations about embracing herself as a powerful woman. Feminism in burlesque? Fox says that in performance, the group tries to capture “the feeling of wanting to glam up and feel good about your body and to have a chance to be like, ‘Look at me, I’m a sexy woman and I’m not scared to let you know it.’” If the group had a manifesto, that would be it. The members see the female body as a canvas from which the audience can form their own opinions, just as you would with any other work of art. They use sexuality to deconstruct gender and femininity, while challenging the idea that what they do sub- verts feminism. Kitty Folie, who is involved in all areas of production, says that people who look at bur- lesque in this way are “looking at it entirely from a voyeur’s perspective.” “I know feminists who think doing burlesque is really the opposite of feminism, that it’s playing into the hands of patriarchy’s female- as-sex-object, man-as-audience dichotomy,” she says. “I think, however, that such a view- point can itself be patronizing. Burlesque, to me, can turn that dichotomy on its head, and violently force viewers to reconsider their preconceived notions of audience and per- former.” Roxi Ramone, a professional dancer from New York, doesn’t see any friction between her politics and her dancing, either: “I’m a feminist, and I do burlesque because I love it and it’s how I express myself. I don’t see any reason why those two things should conflict.” Not everyone seems to feel that way. Mem- bers say one of their biggest challenges is finding venues that let them perform without limits and finding audiences who understand what they do. Fox says that prospective members often tell her they want to change themselves by losing weight or augmenting their features to conform to conventional ideas of beauty. That’s not what the group, or burlesque, is about. “Burlesque helps women to portray them- selves how they want to be seen, not only how they feel perceived by others,” she says. “It lets them show their true side, and gives others the chance to see a woman feeling at her sexiest and most confident.” Objects of desire The group has eight core members, and each person’s act is an expression of the individual and their experiences. The only Korean in the group also happens to be a man who is known for being a chameleon and having a talent for performing in precar- iously high heels. “He transforms himself so completely, he never looks the same twice,” Fox says of Vita Mikju, adding that he dances in stilettos “better than any woman I’ve ever seen.” Mikju aims to defy the expectations of Ko- rean society and blur the lines between tradi- tional definitions of femininity and masculinity. He points to the kilts worn by men in Scot- land as an example of how those definitions don’t always apply. “I want to break those boundaries,” he says. “I want to show that I’m still male, even if I do look feminine.” His propensity for stirring things up is shared by Strawberry Chérie, a photographer, performance artist and costume designer who hails from France. On stage, Chérie is a bold performer who plays with fetish, gen- der and bondage. She uses a provocative set of props, like the plastic pigs, to assert her belief in burlesque as feminist art and to get audiences thinking about their inner desires. “I always think, who doesn’t like a spank?” she says. “No one will ask for one, but when you get one, you are happy.” Her real specialty seems to be upsetting expectations. “She’s trying to break the typical sexist im- age of men enjoying women as an object,” says India DeLune, a singer and a newcomer to WhiteLies. “Instead, she can objectify the audience if she wants to.” in demand This year, WhiteLies will take their act to Korea Burn, an annual Burning Man event. The last time they were there, they invited people to write one thing they loved about themselves on pieces of silk hung up around their booth. “Most women will always say things they don’t like about their bodies, but this was framed in a way that was like a celebration (of the body),” DeLune says. “It was really revolutionary.” Fox plans to carry on the tradition this year by quilting all the pieces of silk from last year’s event into a backdrop for their booth. Back in Seoul, the group is increasingly in demand, building its fan base, branching out into upscale clubs in Gangnam and lending their talents to charity events such as for the Korea Breast Cancer Foundation and North Korean refugees. No matter what they do, they are sure to break a few rules. “That’s what we do,” Fox says. “We tell stories, we do the art of tease, we throw any rules out the window.” MORE iNfO WhiteLies presents “Tough Girls” When: May 28, doors at 9 p.m., show at 10 p.m. Where: Club Myoung Wol Gwan, Hongdae Cost: 10,000 won (includes one free drink)