Phoenix Knight shares his journey as a man into the predominately female world of burlesque.
Writing this article on the eve of the third anniversary of my first burlesque performance, I could never have anticipated the adventure I was about to embark on.
I moved to Brisbane in October 2020 following five years of commuting from Sydney to see my partner Will.
Our respective careers were keeping us in separate states and we figured the universe would eventually present an opportunity for me to move up to Brisbane. Of course, no one could have anticipated a pandemic would be the catalyst for a long-awaited work transfer.
When the move occurred, and amid lockdowns, I found myself isolated despite blissfully nesting. Enter Susie, one of my few social connections in this new city, who made it her mission to find something social for us to do together.
She floated trapeze classes (that was never going to happen) and fire twirling (as a bear I was afraid of being instantly immolated) so she settled on burlesque.
“But I’m a guy. Are you sure I’m allowed to go?” I asked. We went to the Bombshell Burlesque Academy website and read their FAQs: All genders were indeed welcome.
My related concern remained because although I may be welcome, this was a safe space for females. How would they feel having someone who is a balding, bearded bear in their space?
This was a legitimate concern as I knew enough about burlesque that I wasn’t going to get side-tracked by the film of the same name (for the record, that is not burlesque), to delude myself into denying that almost all of my clothes would be coming off. It is stripping, albeit artfully.
Despite all this, we enrolled in a first term at Bombeshell’s which was a series of courses, where a routine would be learned, culminating in a performance opportunity.
Beginning the journey
I was able to ease into this new world thanks to the campfire-style introduction by the fabulous tutor, the history of burlesque and then there was time for each participant to introduce themselves.
By the end of the first class, my concerns about being a male in the class dissolved into the background. I could just focus on learning something new, having a laugh and making some new friends.
Due to it being late 2020, live shows had been suspended, and so performances were captured professionally on film and uploaded onto the academy’s dedicated YouTube channel.
The fringe benefit of this was that it also proved to be a gentle introduction to the stripping aspect. Due to censorship, certain restrictions on nudity needed to be adhered to. So, I didn’t have to reveal too much.
I recently watched my first group performance and I was so green! But it was such a buzz! I knew that once the first term in 2021 rolled out, I wanted to go back and I wanted to move from beginners level up the ladder.
The owner of Bombshell Burlesque, Lila Luxx showed me such kindness and asked whether I would like to perform my first feather fan group routine early in 2021 for a live audience, once restrictions had eased.
I relished the chance and being up on stage was electrifying. The burlesque community, including its faithful audience, are simply incredible. The sheer love and encouragement you feel emanating from them is palpable.
What hit me hard though was my body issue, particularly in dress rehearsal week of my first performance. My costume, which was usually delivered in an A5 envelope, needed to be worn.
Those first few terms I dissolved into some moments of self-loathing. Thank goodness for my partner who loves me unconditionally and helped me to lean into my beardom. Within a year, I can fluctuate 20 kilos either way.
Sexiness and self-worth were not tied to aesthetics. I knew this but I don’t think I truly believed it. It took me a minute, but I got there in a way I never would have without burlesque. There is truly nowhere to hide in this art form.
Moving into the professional space
As the year progressed, more classes and opportunities to perform presented themselves. Soon, I was asked to be part of professional shows and revues as part of Bombshell’s troupe. I was performing next to the very women whom I had admired and who would soon become my friends.
Here’s the thing about being a male in a female-centric art form and space. Respect, courtesy and genuine love for the artist and the art form itself is all that’s required. You genuinely are welcome to take up space.
In 2022, self-induced pressure to build a solo began. Concept, choreography, music, and costuming are all left to you. With private lessons I cobbled something together, and ‘Phoenix Knight’ made his fiery debut.
It was all cocked-eyebrow thirst-trap vibes. My innate style was masculine, but I wanted to play with genderfuck a little. In truth, it was my partner who encouraged me to perform at least once in thigh-high stilettoed boots. He thought my style would juxtapose well against the visual. He was right. But boy do they hurt!
A year of awards
The beginning of 2023 dawned and I started to play with the thought of entering Mx Burlesque Queensland. I didn’t know if I’d be accepted, but I was encouraged by my loved ones to apply. After losing both of my parents within months of each other late last year, I was made acutely aware not to fritter away opportunities.
To my thrill and honour, I was shortlisted as one of nine state finalists.
Two titles were up for grabs that would lead to the enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Mx Burlesque Queensland, and Mx Burlesque Brisbane.
I tried to temper the nerves while creating new routines to strict criteria as time ticked down.
When my name was called out as Mx Burlesque Brisbane I was in quiet awe, after only walking into my first class two and a half years earlier.
I was floored to also be nominated as Brisbane Pride Queens Ball Performer of the Year category. I thought I was too niche to be nominated, let alone win, so I went to the event and almost choked on my dinner when my name was called out.
To be 46, exactly double the age I was when I came out, and to receive such wonderful acknowledgement from my community, I will never forget it.
I am humbled if I can do even a small part to bring people from all walks of life into burlesque. Yes, that does include more men, and I stand on the shoulders of others who came before me, but also to people who may not have seen themselves represented on stage.
Looking ‘different’ may inspire others who don’t fit the mould to give this or something else they’d like a go.
I’ll happily take that as my legacy. That and being kind but fierce bear up on stage!
You can follow Phoenix Knight on Instagram.
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