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“Keep Your Overhead Low” — Advice from a Burlesque Performer

by Dakota Kim

“Keep Your Overhead Low” — Advice from a Burlesque Performer Credit: Bettina May

Bettina May is a burlesque performer and the owner of a pinup photography business. We talked with her about the challenges of her work.

Is freelancing as a burlesque performer difficult?

I think freelancing is always a bit difficult, and usually carries an element of uncertainty. To be truthful, I’m not always “in the black.” I couldn’t get through this without the safety net of credit cards, for sure. It’s getting much easier, though, as I get used to the cycles of employment. In NYC for example, summer is a very dry time as all the parties and restaurants move out to the Hamptons and local burlesque gigs stop for a few months. Learning when to stay in town and when to travel has helped me immensely. I’ve also had to check my desire to create more acts or embellish existing ones, as those are both very costly. So now when I get a windfall from an unexpectedly big gig, I’ll channel some of those funds into costumes.

Can burlesque really be a career?

There are very few of us who make a career of burlesque, as the gigs are generally low-paying, and outside of a couple major centers, just too few and far between to sustain a person without a second, or third, source of income.

I slowly transitioned from moonlighting at burlesque with a full-time desk job to being completely self-employed, but I’d always juggled a number of jobs at once, which is really what burlesque is. You have to be a performer, costumer, choreographer, booker, manager, social media wizard, web designer and travel agent. If you have to pay someone to do any of those things, like costumes or web design, you better make sure you can get friends-and-family rate or it just won’t work out financially.

You have to be a performer, costumer, choreographer, booker, manager, social media wizard, web designer and travel agent.

You also have to enjoy traveling solo a lot, as most of your bigger paying gigs will be out of town, sometimes for a month or more away from home.

You run a business where you teach people about pinup style. Is that a hot area right now because pinup is trendy?

Yes, I teach women (and some men) how to do their hair and makeup in a classic 1940s and 1950s style, and then they each get a makeover and photo shoot. This class travels well with me when I’m doing burlesque and helps supplement my income. Most pinup photographers who don’t travel supplement their vintage style shoots with modern weddings, boudoir and headshots, as well as commercial work. But since I travel a lot anyway, it’s a good fit for me, and working with women to boost their confidence is so rewarding.

What advice do you have for new performers looking to turn a profit?

Keep your overhead low: learn to sew your costumes, book as many gigs as possible, create at least one act that is corporate-friendly (i.e., opulent but not too revealing), and try to have a related side line. Crafty at making websites? Trade that skill with other performers who can trade back costuming, choreography, massage, etc.

And please make sure you have an exit strategy. At some point most of us will either tire of working ourselves to the bone, or as in any entertainment field, will just not get the bookings we used to. And start working on your plan B (and C and D) before your career goes. Make it something you enjoy immensely, or something that pays so well that you won’t be so sad about leaving the stage. My motto is, when it stops being fun, it’s time to leave, because it just doesn’t pay well enough to do it when it feels like work.

Dakota Kim is a freelance journalist covering the arts, style, business, food and travel. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Bedford + Bowery, The Wall Street Transcript, and various in-flight magazines. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.