I'm Antonio. My pronouns are he/him and I am 61 years old. Full disclosure: I was an actor for 20 plus years and then in my 40's, moved sideways into actor roleplay for business training, and simultaneously went into academia, got my degree, got my masters, taught theatre studies at university, and became a Consultant in Leadership Training, working with traumatised organisations. When lockdown happened, I was 59, and I thought ‘Hmm... how do I want 60 to be?’ Lockdown retired me and I audited my life. I used lockdown to make a critical decision, to retire - because at 60 I still felt young, but you know, third age was definitely on its way. That's when I thought 'I'm going to create a little cabaret number just to celebrate my 60th birthday'. And that was when Medusa Has Been was born!
I had been lucky enough to do some costuming for Duckie, last year, a huge project at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) is. We were recreating this sort of queer Georgian playground. There were individual performances of queer oriented Georgian themed work, and there was a chorus of around 25 princesses who were wandering around being fabulous. My friend Shanti was asked to design the costumes and she asked me to assist her - I do love a bit of sewing and a bit of making, and I'm very happy to take direction!
Just to sort of step back, the world in which I'd come from - the training world, was largely very heteronormative, largely white, very middle class, highly intelligent academic people. So in this world, I felt very much the outsider. But I passed. I passed as male, white, middle class and academic. Then suddenly I found myself in this environment where I was around people who were not heteronormative, who identified in different ways, who were incredibly creative. And some of that shook me because, you know, it was a whole new language for me. But immediately I felt at home.
I just love the playfulness of costume and I realized ‘You know what? I think we need to do something fun for my 60th, so we're going to have a fashion show in my garden!’ And it actually happened. We had a catwalk 60th birthday party! We had a dressing up room and set up a photo booth and everybody stepped up. I knew that I was going to do my catwalk in drag and it eventually spiraled into this bigger thing.
For the first time, I think in my life, I felt as if I had something to say. When I realized that, Bingo! the cabaret number arrived almost fully formed. Nobody needs my opinion on anything, every opinion is out there already! Nobody needs another book about climbing a mountain or running a marathon. But suddenly I thought, there isn't anybody else who's doing this.
I'm at the beginning of my third age, so I've got less to prove- I'm not doing cabaret for money. Firstly, you don't earn anything, secondly, you always spend more than you earn. If you were thinking 'That gig will pay that bill', it just wouldn't be enjoyable. I'm doing it for the love, I'm doing it to express myself, I'm doing it to meet this amazing new community. I see a lot of young performers who are super fit - they're doing high kicks, or they've got spectacular wigs and costumes. That can be a bit intimidating because not everyone's got the resources, or that athletic ability and it makes you think ‘Maybe I'm not going to be that well received’. But I don't see anybody like me on stage doing the thing that I want to see or do, so there is a uniqueness to my performance as Medusa.
I like to see different types of people being able to express themselves through burlesque. Age is one of the things we are quietly ignoring. It's the one bit of diversity that is communal - I'll never be able to change my ethnicity, but one day I will become older than I am today, it’s a thing we all experience. We all age. We're doing it right now, day by day, moment by moment. I'd like to see a bit more representation, so we don't get to a point where people go ‘Well you're done now because we've got 20 year olds who can fill your boots’. I'm like 'Let's teach the children, shall we?'
When we entered lockdown, I thought 'Right, I'm either going to come out the other side older, lazier, probably more depressed, or I come out of lockdown with a plan’. So I spent my time preparing to turn 60. I thought ‘How do I wanna be? How do I wanna show up? How do I wanna live for the last 20 years of my life? We don't all live to 100, I don't have 40 more years, I’m gonna be done at some point.
The response to my performances from older people is a 'go kick ass' for us gratitude. People in their 20's are amazed and impressed. When people see me perform, they reflect on my health, my vitality, my athleticism - I'm proving that at an older age we are still fit and fabulous and feeling sexy. When people say ‘Oh my God, you're gorgeous,’ I think, ‘Tick. Job done'. It's affirming. I don't wanna sound pretentious and say ‘It's a service to the community’, but I definitely think Medusa's got something that says ‘Look at what we can do at 60!’
How would you describe your style of burlesque?
I've definitely played into my age by creating a vintage look- and it's not that I don't think I'm sexy, but I don't know if I want to end my routine in a g-string and nothing else! When I strip down, I’m stripping out of one costume and into another, giving the appearance of nudity and sexiness. I do pull my bra down and twirl nipple tassels, but it's an illusion of iconic nudity. It's definitely 'sexy grandma realness'. I'm the old girl who puts the Ow in Showgirl!
A lot of the stuff that I see in terms of queer cabaret can be filthy, fruity, very sexualised. We hyper-sexualise the female form, so there will be a lot of ‘doing Britney’ - lots of high kicks and hip thrusting action, dance moves that look like fucking, lots of performers grinding the stage with their pelvis. And I love that. But what I don't see is the Werther’s Original moment - sitting with your grandad, watching a black and white movie. Nostalgia. Sometimes nostalgia can feel sad because you remember your grandma used to smell of vanilla. And I wanted to recreate a form of that. A couple of my friends asked, ‘Is this going to be entertaining enough?’ And I said ‘Actually I want to make people cry, to make people feel something’. If I also make people feel sexy, that’s great- I've got extra nectar points on my card. But there are enough other people doing that.
The music I choose is very generational. My first number is set in the 1950s. My next is set in the 1940s, there's a whole 'men going to war' story around that, and there'll be a big sing along at the end which might make people sad. And then there's a 1960s number. So I'm leaning into each vintage period. Imagine that Sunday afternoon, movie musical matinee, watching with your grandparents, tucked up on the sofa when it was too wet to go outside. And then halfway through the song, I start stripping and then the queerness comes out and you think ‘Fuck me, there’s a 60-year-old man with a moustache with his fishnet legs up in the air’. It's kind of catfishing in a way, but catfishing into people's memories!
I did a show at the RVT on a Saturday night and the audience was mostly 40+ men, who were 20+ men 25 years ago, when they first started going! There were two performers that night. I was on first and then this amazing, sexy, young dancer who had lots of flesh showing, doing a lot of stage grinding and they were a phenomenal performer. I went out into the bar to watch and walked past this huge bear of a man, with a bald head, furry beard and massive shoulders, and his eyes lit up all teary. He suddenly looked like a 5 year old boy. He got on his bended knee and said ‘I love you! Everything you did, it just took me back!’
And then there are the young people who easily get the burlesque-ness of my performances. I thought I was just going to take a few clothes off on stage. But, then, I discovered all these layers, the references - it's not accidental. There's always this voice that says: ‘I'm leaving you with this emotion. Do with it what you will’ So I think my acts work on many levels.
I had a designer design my costume and it is a combination of five or six different references. So there's a little bit of pretty Judy Garland in there. There's a bit of Joan Crawford with big shoulders. There’s a bit of Barbara Stanwyck in a Western. It is it’s own sort of unique thing, which means that people can take a little bit of what they see, and then turn that story into their own.
The music I use is reminiscent of other things. I want to re-introduce older, forgotten music which people can then re-discover for themselves. If your act has depth to it, people will add their own emotion. A lot of people who have seen my act have then spent time telling me what it meant to them and that's really rewarding.
I describe myself as Old Boylesque. I called myself an old man once and my friend said ‘You're not an old man! You're an old boy!’ I was like, ‘Ohh. I'd prefer that!’ It's important people know how old I am. Sometimes people don't pay attention or the compere doesn’t really lean on my age in the intro. People often disbelieve my age and I always say ‘No, no, no, no’. This is the whole point. If I was just doing this at 30 or 40, I should be much better than I am! That's really liberating. When I was 50 something 'I'd be a bit like ohh yeah, I'm in my late 40s', everybody shaves a year or two off for Grindr, but actually now I'm really happy to give my real age. It's empowering.
When I was in my 20's I did a bit of everything: acting, singing, dancing. I was in musicals and Shakespeare. I was on Radio 4 and the World Service. I did puppeteering, stage management, I wrote plays. I did some choreography. I directed a little bit, I did a bit of cabaret. I loved theatre from the ground up, but there's so much competition in the theatre world. There's constant rejection, constant pressure to innovate, to do Hamlet in a new way, and represent the world around you. You need to be with good people. You need funds. If you’ve ever had to apply for Arts Council funding, you know it's a whole job on its own, right! Forget being creative and artistic. I also didn't know if I had anything more to contribute on that platform. My burlesque is so immediate, it's so domestic, I'm doing it to please me. I am my own audience. I want people to love it but if they don’t, I love it and that’s good enough.
I really try to bring joy and passion and thought to my performances. I do my research. If I’m really happy with what I'm doing, yeah there will be some people who don’t get it, but if you're happy with yourself, other people will follow. I was never able to do that with theatre. As an actor, it feels quite passive, and then, you know, you direct or you choreograph and you're on the creative team, but you're still serving the beast that is the play or the production itself.
Now, the only person I collaborate with is my designer, and we talk about what exactly I need the costume to do. I really am my own audience and primarily pleasing myself then extending that invitation to the audience. It was going to be just a birthday performance, and then I realized there's a bigger audience out there for it. But I'm still not going to try to play up to an audience who might never choose a nostalgic moment compared to a sexy semi naked dancer on a Saturday night, but then they realize they love the old drag lady so I've seduced them in a good way! I'm pulling people in who don’t know they need this.
One of the first things that was ever said to me when I came off stage was ‘My parents need to watch you because they're getting old too quickly’. That really did feel like a service. These young people go back and say ‘You never guess what I saw last week, I saw this old person doing burlesque gymnastics!’ That's a really nice thing, you know, younger people telling me that their parents should take a life lesson from Medusa!
How would you describe burlesque?
I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer this! But I would describe burlesque as an old art form that has been reimagined. It had this sort of sleazy underground to it, and most people will have an image of say, the Betty Page kind of look, or somebody rolling around in a massive champagne glass, or fan dancing or feather boas. If you've seen Gypsy or, you've seen, any stripper in a black and white movie, you have a little sense of burlesque.
What I think contemporary burlesque does, is open the stage for anything expressive. It's diverse in a way that probably older burlesque was less so. Different body shapes in particular, different cultures and genders, and you can use non-traditional performance methods. You don't need the feather boas, you can do burlesque in denim and leather and studs. I guess burlesque is a performance art where it expresses a moment of life, in the moment.
Costumes play a huge role within my performance. I don't know if anybody needs to see me naked, so when I'm taking clothes off, it's not to get down to the smallest amount of clothing that I can - It's very much about creating an image.
The costumes I've had designed, that I've made, that I've designed, tell their own story. I alluded to the candy stripe, housecoat/ball gown, which then strips down to a sort of 1950s showgirl- my version. I have a black rhinestoned corset, black pants and a black bra. But the black pants have a fluffy bottom to them, because I wanted to have a vintage bum!
I also don't pad. I don't wear breast and hip pads because I’m a boy and I want people to remember that. Maybe one day I’ll pad those areas, but I like the idea of shape shifting - the bra points out towards my collarbones, which makes me look as if I've got bigger shoulders. And then the fluffy pants creates a nice bum and the corset cinches my waist in.
I've choreographed my routines precisely to maximize the impact of the costume. In my feedback, people tell me the dress moves beautifully. Well, ladies and gentlemen, the dress doesn't move on its own. I make the dress move. I almost puppeteer my costume and because we built volume into the costume so that it can swing and sway, the choreography absolutely brings that to life. I will make the dress tell part of the narrative, just in the way that I move.
I usually have a visual moment when creating my acts. Like the other day my goddaughter came up to London to visit and brought with her a pair of over the knee black leather boots. She said ‘Uncle Tony I’ve bought these and I've never worn them because I can't get my thighs into them, but they will look great on you!’ I tried them on and they looked amazing! The minute she gave them to me, an image of a complete costume arrived. I was like, 'Right we need a see through, chiffon black dressing down, but not fluffy. We're going very structured, think WW2. and now I have to find the music!'
Then there are other times while listening to something on YouTube and I'll be like ‘I know what this song is telling me, and I know who she is, and now I've got to bring the costume into focus’. My amazing designer Tesh brings me up a level. When I told him originally that I wanted, 'old lady strips down and does Zimmer frame gymnastics', he was like ‘Yes, but we can elevate that.’ I wanted a Candlewick bedspread housecoat. He was like ‘No, no, no, no. Medusa's too beautiful for that. I don't wanna make you into an old lady panto Dame!’ He totally elevated me. He's got a better eye than I have.
I don't know how it happened, but for the first time in my life, I don't have to work for a new idea. A seed gets planted somewhere and then it sort of goes ‘Ohh, right. This is what it is’. But then the refinement process happens. You know, I've written plays, I've written an (unpublished) novel and I did my Masters in Creative Writing and I wonder if at 60 I'm drawing on all of my past lives, creating a narrative with my cabaret numbers instead.
In the 60 plus world, there are 65-year-old men running ultra-marathons and 70 year old women becoming bodybuilders. And I've watched all of that. I don't wanna do any of that, but I'm doing my version.
I don't think when I was young, I cared whether there was a 60-year-old man running an ultra-marathon. And then you see that he's got a 6 pack, and you go ‘I didn't have that when I was in my 20s, 30's, 40s or 50s’, but these 60 yr olds are doing it because they have the time, resources, and can focus in on themselves. My clock is ticking and if I don't get my fishnets on, there's not an endless amount of time. There's something about that limited opportunity to do it that kind of makes me hungrier for it.
Do you feel any different when you're in your burlesque costumes?
It's another person. It’s not really another person, It's me, but it’s the me that doesn’t feel any shame. I think, that as a bullied kid, as a twinky gay boy in the late 70s and early 80s, there was always a sense of suppressing my natural expressiveness. In my culture - I’m from a Catholic European background, I was called a delicate boy, because my family wouldn’t be rude enough to call me a poof. In my culture, women are very strong and men are expected to be stronger. Tomboys, or femininity in boys, is unacceptable - you're expected to buckle up.
I'm also a bit bendy with movement and was very graceful and I have good proprioception. I think when you're aware of your body, you understand movement and that's very easy for me. I can't throw a ball. I can't catch a ball. I could never hit a ball with a bat. And if I did do it, I didn't make it look like a boy doing it. So there was always a sense of shame and a sense of not quite passing. I never really passed, but at least I didn't do anybody the ‘dishonor’ of being ‘overly poofy’, of being too flamboyant. Now I'm 60 and truly don’t give a fuck. We've all been in lockdown, and no-one gives a fuck. I'm in heels and fishnets and no-one around me is batting an eyelash!
I’m not just expressing femininity, I’m performing it. Do I play up in burlesque? Yeah, I do. I'm queerer. I'm fruitier. I'm probably more scandalous but not sexualized. I might jiggle. I might do things that are stereotypical of femininity and take full ownership of it, because ladies and gentlemen, I have a huge black moustache. I'm still a boy, but I'm queering my outward expression.
People always tell me their ages, because I keep telling the audience on stage that I'm 60+ and I love that. They say you should never ask a lady her real age, but it's really liberating. I always say you look amazing back, because there's always a compliment to be given. Burlesque brings out the best in people!
We have these intimate moments which come out of me being in some kind of state of undress and in costume. People tell me all sorts of things, that they've lost their hair to cancer, that it's growing back a different colour, because they see my wig and say ‘Oh, I should have had that wig when I lost my hair’. I don’t know them, I'll never see them again. These are intimate details, and they feel comfortable sharing them with me and I’m honoured. I'm sort of facilitating again after I do my act.
When you're in costume people go. ‘I love your eyelashes!’ and you shout ‘they're fake’. ‘I love your legs’. You go ‘it’s the fishnets.’ The performativity of that femininity enables an 'honesty' to happen quite quickly. So essential conversations happen as a result. When the young couple said their parents should watch the act, you know they've been thinking about something bigger, having deeper thoughts and all they've done is see me doing some gymnastics. I've left them with something - my work here is done!
I never felt that I could particularly relate as a young person. I was an immigrant, Gay, my parents were poor, we didn't speak English until I went to school and my parents never really learnt to speak English. We were of that generation where we used to translate for my mum and dad when we went to the doctors. And then I went to drama school, where your value was all about your skill. I always thought of myself as outside of the norm. As a man, I'm quite small and very puckish, so I became high energy. I didn't get into my academic prowess until my mid-40s. I never felt people took me seriously. In academia I was with people who were getting their degrees at the ‘right age’. I've always felt like an acquired taste. I think that Medusa is and looks like an acquired taste, but people find things in her for themselves. I am fun on stage. I’m being cute with the music, and kicking my leg high and sort of being a bit saucy, but the kind of sauciness you could watch with your grandparents. That's, well I keep coming back to it, but that's the vintage, nostalgia moment.
Do you have a dream costume?
Yes, I do. And we've made it! A 1960s wedding dress that reveals into a Playboy Bunny costume. It's fuchsia pink satin, it's not stretchy, it's very structured. And that's the most naked I get in the act. I add on collar, cuffs, playboy bunny ears and tail. It fits me beautifully. I absolutely love it - it just looks so amazing and it's a real gender fuck.
My designer and I have playdates where we sketch and draw. I can sew and usually do the drudge work. Of course, you can't pin or fit yourself into a costume, so we collaborate. It's an iterative process really. I think I've got a good design eye, but my designer has skills I'll never have - he captures the essence of a dress and that helps me capture the essence of the number
Do you think burlesque will change in the future?
I think the change is already happening . Neo-burlesque, gothic burlesque, horror burlesque, that all started to change the Dita Von Teese paradigm where performers are incredibly beautiful, well-groomed and leaning into classy striptease. It's already hugely changed to include more body sizes, shapes, genders and cultures. It’s so much more inclusive now.
I know we can have something frivolous and sexy, or somebody who shows amazing skills doing a fan dance, and we can have an old man like me trying to say something about age. What I appreciate about burlesque is that we have classic, enduring burlesque, fan dances and sparkling nipple tassels, and also contemporary burlesque which brings in as many performers as possible which then brings in more audience and keeps us on our toes. I've learned so much being around these amazing performers.
Is there anything that you would like to showcase ?
Whilst we've talked about design, about huge costumes, carefully constructed, moving beautifully, I’m really inspired by the idea of Charity Shop shopping, where I've bought and been inspired by something cheap off the rails from a charity shop. I bought a Kaftan from Traid in Peckham and that’s inspired a whole 1970s Joan Collins fantasy. So that's just stored up for a time when I can find the right 70's, 80s music, find a conversation- a dialogue about women in those decades.
I'd love to run workshops and say ‘Right, this is your task. You have £20 to rummage in the charity shops and be back at noon where we will have a sewing machine, a staple gun, some tape and we have a few hours to create a burlesque outfit and as you do that, have a conversation about what your character might be'. It could make burlesque and drag more accessible - certainly could have some fun with it!
It's no coincidence that my experience of performing, writing, of being creative, all of those strands came together to enable me to get comfortable and confident in doing burlesque. There'll be people who say, ‘But I'm not creative', but burlesque supports creativity. You become creative by doing creative things. You get good by practicing. I would urge people to think ‘It doesn't matter about the outcome, it’s the process itself'. The doing of it is as important as the end product.
To be able to feel the liberation of something sparkly, sequins, fringes, sensual fabrics. It might be as simple as twirling a silk scarf to explore something erotic or sensual, sexy or just amusing, you know, putting it between your legs and flossing. You very rarely get to do something like that without some embarrassment or shame. Burlesque removes that shame.
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