Laurie Hagen is, hands down, one of the most multi-talented, endearing, dedicated and creative women I have ever met, with an inspiring story to tell. When I first saw Laurie Hagen perform, years ago now, I knew I had seen something very special, and I was thrilled when I read and heard the reaction to her ovation-worthy ‘Most Innovative’ performance at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2013 from people in the States, many of whom were discovering her gifts for the first time.
Her triumph was the perfect moment to finally do a big interview with Laurie Hagen; her talent deserves so much more publicity than my pre-interview preparation could discover online, and so many people have asked to know more about her after her Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend win and the subsequent viral circulation of her mesmerising ‘Reverse Striptease’ video.
The following is an edited transcript of a long but fascinating chat Laurie Hagen and I had in June. Pour yourself a glass of something and settle down to enjoy it .
Holli: Let’s begin by talking about BHoF – it was a first time experience for you. Take me through your Saturday…
Laurie: Absolutely. I hadn’t been to the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend before, so the whole thing felt very new to me, very exciting, but also quite daunting, obviously. The first time I went into the theatre on Thursday, my stomach flipped! [laughs] Such a huge stage and such a huge occasion; it really sunk in when I saw the venue, without even seeing people perform. When you see people perform, there goes the pressure – it just ramps it up even more, but at the same time, the atmosphere was really positive backstage. ‘Best Debut’ were on first and it felt really calm backstage with just us getting ready. I’m used to things being really hectic backstage, but it was just the ten of us spread out in the dressing room, having chats and getting to know each other, which was lovely. So it was a combination of, ‘Aaahhh, I can’t believe this is about to happen!’ and things feeling quite lovely already.
H: And what was it like out there? Because, of course, it’s not just any audience you are performing for; it’s an audience packed with peers and burlesque icons, a really informed burlesque crowd…
L: It was incredible. Being in the audience from the Thursday night onwards, the atmosphere was incredibly supportive, so you felt that they would be rooting for you regardless of whether they knew you or not. People genuinely wanted you to do well, so that was lovely to know. But at the same time there was the other side of the coin – everyone is there, everyone that you admire; you feel star struck just watching them walk by. I remember talking to Kitty [Bang Bang], who is a very, very confident performer who doesn’t get nervous, and she told me that she came out of her bin last year and saw Dirty Martini in the front row as one of the judges, and she thought, woahh! [laughs] So even Kitty got nervous, because you are literally performing for your idols.
H: Did you think in advance about the other acts that would be in that category and how your act might be received?
L: I tried not to think about it too much. I was so pleasantly surprised to have been selected to perform in the first place, particularly as I hadn’t attended the weekend before, but a couple of people who I hold very highly in my esteem, Polly Rae and Kitty Bang Bang –
H: Didn’t they almost strong-arm you into applying?
L: Well I hadn’t thought of applying, but they said I should this year with my reverse striptease. I was just so, so thrilled to be selected and do something which I guessed would be quite different. Having the opportunity to go out there and perform was incredible.
H: So did you go with any expectation of picking up anything? Was it a genuine shock when you were awarded?
L: Absolutely! I mean, obviously I’m not going to say I didn’t want to win – of course I wanted to bloody win! [laughs] But it was really important for me to do my number justice and to do it well in front of all those people; I think that was the most important thing. But if I win something, that’s fucking awesome! [laughs] Picking up ‘Most Innovative’ was just incredible; it means a lot to win that. Very exciting. It’s definitely the one that made me think, oh, if I could just win that one it would be amazing! I’d be utterly thrilled and honoured.
Holli: Okay, so let’s talk about the act, because everyone is still talking about it post-BHoF. People have said all sorts of things to me about it this week; someone said that it ‘transcends burlesque’. It’s had so many different responses from the BHoF audience. I know a little bit about how you went about this act, but how do you feel when people describe it in that way; how do you view it? What was your intention and what initially inspired it?
Laurie Hagen: Well, it was created initially for a show that Polly, Kitty and I put together for the opening of the Hippodrome Casino last year. Polly wanted a new solo from me, so I thought about what I could bring to the table. A reverse strip is something people have done before, and it was just the simplest idea to take it to its extreme and do the whole thing in reverse. When I started talking to people about the idea, they were a bit like, ‘Hmm… Yeah…’ No one said that’s a brilliant idea, and I had no idea myself whether it would work or not.
I’m really into weird movement, contemporary movements and isolation, and I really enjoy trying to study and replicate it. I’m quite obsessed with Michael Jackson and watched him all the time when I was a kid. I used to watch his videos and try to mimic his movement, just because I thought he was the most phenomenal dancer. So filming stuff and then watching it and trying to replicate it is something that I’ve always been interested in. Anyway, once I came up with the idea, the first thing I did was Google and YouTube it because it’s such a simple idea – someone must have done it? So I started looking for clips of other performers and I couldn’t find anyone who had done it that way. That’s half the battle. I thought, yes! No one has done it before; that’s incredible.
H: And quite a rare thing nowadays.
L: Absolutely! And then I started working on it and realised, ah! That’s why no one’s done it – it’s a bloody nightmare! It was really tough; for quite a while we really didn’t know if it would work at all.
I started hiring a little studio around the corner from where I live, and I took my laptop with me and filmed myself doing a really classic strip. I tried to put movements in that people would recognise, so that if you watch it backwards people can process it and see it. It took so many sessions of me filming myself and watching the footage in reverse. Certain things you think will look great in reverse look terrible, and there are other little moments where you have no idea. Like the chair thing: the first thing I would do is drag a chair on to start the strip, and then when I finished watching the footage and the chair movement going off I thought, oh – that’s really nice! But I had no idea it would be – it’s not as if I came up with the idea of having a chair and pushing it off, it was just through watching the footage. So I ended up having to do a lot of editing of all these versions – I still have all the footage somewhere on my computer – piecing together all this structure and also the basics of how many items of clothing I could get back into properly. You know, it would have been great to have stockings and a bra, but it was just never going to happen; I felt quite limited as to what costume I could use, so that was quite challenging.
And then the music. I picked my song, Keep it Hid by Dan Auerbach, who is the singer in The Black Keys, and it was my boyfriend Michel who suggested it would be a good song to do a striptease to. At that point, I hadn’t even thought of the music being backwards, but every time I watched it in reverse, this track just stuck to my head and I decided to keep the track that way too. Although it sounds very weird, there are still musical phrases in there.
H: It just sounds fantastic, perfect for it.
L: Yeah, it sounds amazing, doesn’t it? I actually sent a clip to him on Twitter saying, ‘Ah, I hope you don’t mind – I’m using your song and doing it backwards!’ But so far no response! [laughs] So yeah, the music was another element that was just there from practising and playing around with things; I just stuck to that – lots and lots of practising. And then, when I had the final version I was happy with, I had to learn it, and that was really, really difficult.
H: I can imagine!
L: Yes, and especially with the music – I love choreographing to music, but there’s no way you can count that, so it’s all about just listening to those weird, backwards sounds.
H: Yeah, because it’s not like some conventional striptease where you can milk every beat and bump – you’re not able to use that track for obvious cues and synchronise with it in that way…
L: Exactly. Towards the end, things are a little bit freer, but almost the whole act is built on specific noises, so it took a long time to learn it. Whenever I was backstage at the show, I would practice and they would say, ‘Oh, look, there she is doing her weird stuff again’ [laughs] – me trying to imitate myself. So yes, it took a really long time to learn.
And then, of course, to try it out was terrifying. I showed it to a friend of mine, Antoine Vereecken, who is one of my closest friends back home in Belgium and a phenomenal contemporary dancer who teaches and choreographs. The first time I showed him, I started doing the routine and I think I managed about four or five steps and then I fell over! [laughs] In the most comical, cartoon-like manner; it was really bad! I should put a clip of it next to the proper video of it because it was so hilarious, but it kind of took the edge off. I did it again, and he was amazing and gave me some really good pointers. Up until that point, I was trying to imitate exactly what I was doing on the video, and he said to me that, from a performance point of view, I needed to exaggerate my movements so that it would translate. It was very helpful for him to give me that note – that you have to exaggerate everything, because it needs to read on stage and read live.
So then came the question: is this more of a video performance as opposed to a live performance? Michel shot my little video for me, which was great to get bookings, but at the same time, I thought I might have shot myself in the foot because it might be more interesting as a video as opposed to a live performance. Luckily, I got booked for quite a few shows and the response was positive.
H: How long would you say it took you to really get it down, to the point where you were ready to perform it?
L: It took about six weeks, obviously not intensive every single day, but it took a long time to figure it out and film it. It’s definitely the one I’ve worked on the most. The costume was probably the simplest thing to get, but the choreography took a seriously long time.
H: I really admire the meticulous attention to detail – it appeals to my nature. I’ve seen you do it live a few times now, and everything, every time, is bang on. You have that dress perfectly lined up on the floor, and I marvel at the fact that you don’t fumble picking up a strap, or don’t catch the hat, or a shoe doesn’t fall over… [laughs]
L: It’s kind of terrifying because, up until now, my solos are all very much comical characters and if things go wrong it can be even better because you can just make a joke of it, but to do something very serious and all about the movement, there’s no room for fucking up, you know? It has to be spot on.
H: Do you consider yourself to be very meticulous by nature? Does it almost make it easier to do something like this?
L: Yes, I am quite perfectionist and I guess that’s in my nature, for sure, but I always thank the stage managers, who are amazing because they do half the work for me and set up for me. Things are so specific to set up and you have to trust them to do it well, and they always do. Of course, I clean up after myself in this act, which is quite nice for them, for a change! But I always thank them afterwards because it is so specific. A lot of them take pictures and practice it just before.
H: Do you actually say, ‘Right, this needs to be so many feet/inches here, and this there’? Is it really that specific?
L: Yes, so, so specific. I try to set the coat on the chair already so they just have to carry on the chair, but I have to mark it down on the floor. And the way the dress is set and the shoes are set. At one point, towards the beginning of doing this act, I used to tell them to put my shoes together but against the front leg of the chair, but then I’d sit down on the chair and it would wobble a bit and my shoes would fall. So I did learn a few tricks to make it even easier, but it is very specific, especially when people are moving very quickly and trying to make it a smooth transition. People feel so responsible, like if they do it wrong they’ll fuck up the whole act, so I always really feel for the stage manager; it’s definitely a challenging one to set up.
And then there’s the whole hat throwing thing as well –
H: I was going to say! As I sadly couldn’t attend the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend this year, the two things I was wondering about were: how did it translate on that big stage, and who ended up throwing the hat to you?
L: That was the challenge; they have so many people to tech, so you have five or ten minutes to sort everything out. The stage is so big that there was no way I was going to catch it from someone throwing it from the wings. I had thought, from watching the other shows, that one of the stage managers could be on the floor by the audience, which is what happens at the Hippodrome – someone’s at the front of the stage to throw it to me there. But that wasn’t possible. And then I asked if one of my friends could do it, but that wasn’t possible either. So we tried it with one of the guys walking on and throwing it at me, but he felt that wasn’t the right way to do it. So they ended up saying to me: ‘Right, we’re going to throw it to you from the rigging!’
L: Yeah! Which was a fricking awesome idea. We tried it once and I caught it, so we put a little mark on the floor –
H: So we are talking about a completely vertical drop?
L: Yeah! So I thought, right, there’s my mark, there’s my chair. I had to change some of my choreography so that I would end up in that spot. Sadly, on the night, the spotlights were on; I had asked for no spotlight, but I guess it’s an automatic thing to put a spotlight on a performer. I was so blinded through the whole thing, and then it came to catching the hat. I was on the spot and I looked up, and I just couldn’t see anything because of all the lighting. I almost caught it, but then it fell on the floor –
H: Oh no!
L: Yeah, so I just carried on and ignored it, and I came off feeling really deflated – disappointed because I really wanted it to be the best it could be. And then David Bishop, the stage manager, said, ‘Laurie, come back! Look – everyone is on their feet!” And the whole theatre was on their feet, which was amazing. So I thought, oh, maybe it’s not that big a deal then – phew! But yeah, I was really disappointed. When I watch the video I’ll think, argh – that’s so annoying! Almost caught it! But that’s the nature of the act, I suppose.
H: Well, regardless, it has clearly made a massive impression on people. Did you expect that response – a standing ovation?
L: Not in the slightest! I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? Such a weird looking act. When I’ve done it in the past at different shows, sometimes the audience needs a bit of information about the act so that they get it from the beginning, because otherwise it’s, ‘Here’s Laurie Hagen,’ and it’s like, ‘What is she doing?’ [laughs] So you just don’t know whether it’s going to go down well or if people are going to clock on to it soon enough, because it’s not a very long act; it’s just over three minutes. So I didn’t know how it would go down, but I did know that people were very supportive after seeing the other shows. I knew that if it wasn’t their cup of tea, they would still be appreciative. I wasn’t worried I’d get stuff thrown at me or anything! [laughs] The reaction was insane, just amazing.
H: Did you enjoy your experience at BHoF overall – was there anything you particularly enjoyed on your first visit? Will you come again?
L: Gosh, yes, I would definitely come again. The whole thing was just phenomenal, seeing all those shows and so many people perform. The closing show was just astonishing, just one star after another. Seeing all your idols doing their thing is incredible.
H: Sunday is powerful, isn’t it?
L: Absolutely amazing, the atmosphere all round. And the boys! Gosh – the boylesque is just incredible; they were just astounding. I was very happy to be in ‘Best Debut’ and on third, so I could change quickly and watch the whole of the rest of the competition. The standard was just incredible – so many new ideas, people being very clever with their skills and putting so much effort into their acts. Everyone is upping their game; it was very inspiring to watch. My face was hurting from smiling so much. I had such an awesome time – it’s a bit shit to be back, to be honest! [laughs]
H: Was the impression of the US scene it offered as you expected?
L: Even more so. Polly Rae and Kitty Bang Bang told me it would be amazing once I went out there and met everyone and got that community feel. Obviously I was aware of it, but I just didn’t expect it to that extent; it was so lovely. And I’ve had so many messages since from people on Facebook, some saying they are residents in Vegas and to let them know when I come back to the US. Just so supportive. It was brilliant to be in The Orleans and see all these other people in the hotel and casino saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ They were completely fascinated by everyone turning up, dressed to the nines, and all came up and spoke to us. Some of them ended up buying tickets to see the show, which was really cool to see.
H: Did you find the US scene more versatile than you were expecting it to be? Do you get the impression that the view of the US scene over here in the UK is that it’s almost solely ‘classic’ territory? Were you expecting that level of variety and innovation?
L: I was, but not to this extent; it was so impressive. They can do it all, they touch on all the elements: the skills, the sensuality, the costume, the ideas, the humour. And that’s just one performer, you know? It’s very, very impressive. And yes, perhaps the notion that it’s more about just the classic burlesque is not accurate; there is so much variety out there and done to such a high, high standard, but at the same time you can see people there genuinely playing off the audience. It was very, very impressive indeed, and very inspiring.
Holli: I’m so glad you enjoyed it, I really am. So let’s move on a bit now and tell people a bit more about you – particularly your new US fans who keep asking me about you!
What was your upbringing like, and what were your early interests?
Laurie Hagen: I started doing ballet when I was about four or five, and my mum was very much into tap dancing, so I grew up watching lots of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers movies. My mum really wanted to be a tap dance teacher, but she couldn’t get the opportunity to do that when she was younger, so she decided that when she had had her kids – and my dad was very supportive – that she would start to do lots of courses in tap, and she became very good very quickly and ended up opening her own tap dance school for children. She would take me along to her classes because I wanted to make noises with my feet as well, and she bought me tap shoes. So the bug was there from quite early on. I trained in ballet, although I never really wanted to be a ballerina, and I’m definitely not physically made to be a ballerina, but I knew I wanted to do something in the arts. I really loved watching musicals and I loved the versatility of musicals: singing, acting and dancing. That was my first love.
I started doing professional ballet training at the age of eleven when I went to a school in Antwerp, where you would have your normal classes and then loads of ballet and dance classes. It was good to do that as a base, but it was quite a tough school, especially as I knew I wasn’t going to go into a ballet company; it was never going to happen – I had terrible turnout, for one thing! [laughs] So it was a tough environment to be in, especially as a young teenager, and I think my parents could see it was taking its toll on me. I was interested in doing other stuff and sampling all the other styles of dancing, singing and music.
They allowed me to go and audition in London at musical theatre schools, and when I was sixteen they let me move there and do a three year musical theatre course. I lived with a Polish family for the first year so I wouldn’t be on my own, and it was all about learning English and coming out of my shell, because I was really, really shy when I was much younger! Then I completely took to it for three years, and the idea was to go back to Belgium after that and hopefully get a place in a musical theatre company over there. But, of course, having come from a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere, moving to London at the age of sixteen completely opened up my mind – there was no way I was going to go back! I started getting work as a chorus girl and dancer in musicals, and my parents said that if could support myself I could stay in London. So I did!
Interview ( Part Two )
The fascinating Laurie Hagen interview continues. At the end of Part One, we were discussing her early career…
Laurie Hagen: I danced in musicals for a few years and I ended up dancing in Beauty and the Beast in the West End as one of the original cast members, which was really exciting. I was a plate, and a napkin! [laughs] It was really cool to be a member of the original London cast, and the costumes and scenery were incredible. It was my first long contract – a year – and since a young age I had worked very hard to get to that point. Aside from being on Broadway, being on stage in the West End was the ultimate thing to me – literally my dream job. So I surprised myself when, in a few months, I generally got bored of what I was doing. I was especially observing the actors in the company; they were able to play around and discover new things, whereas, as a chorus dancer, you have to do exactly the same thing every single night and you can’t really express yourself that much. That really frustrated me and I had no idea that I would feel that way. And I ended up injuring myself towards the end of my contract anyway –
Holli: And that was a turning point for you…
L: Yes, big time, otherwise I would have just carried on auditioning and got work, but end up a bit stuck in what I was doing at the time. The injury forced me into reassessing everything and I had quite a lot of surgery back home in Belgium, so I was there for almost a year before coming back to London. I came back because I just had to come back, but there was nothing lined up for me and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I ended up going to acting classes and decided to audition for drama school. I wanted to do a post-graduate in acting, which I ended up doing at East 15 Acting School, and I had a phenomenal time doing that. Then I got an acting agent and started working in TV and theatre. It took me in a very different direction, but it was such a blessing in disguise, it really was.
I spent a few years doing quite well, but I really missed the movement side of things and dancing. I mean, you do a lot of physical things when you’re acting too, but I missed choreographing and being creative in that way. So I was in a play where I was playing a showgirl, and I had to learn a fan dance for it. For me, one of the most exciting things about being an actor is research – researching your character and their era. I was researching burlesque and became really, really interested. I went to see a few shows in London and was completely blown away by what it involved and how creative people were and how in charge they were of what they were doing – they could do anything they wanted, you know? Choose their own music and make their own costume… It really struck a chord and was very exciting to watch.
H: Am I right in saying that you ended up taking your friend’s place at a burlesque class which Polly Rae was leading?
L: Yes! At the time, I used to go to this amazing body popping and street locking class, and I got to know this really lovely girl called Siobhan, who was an amazing dancer. I suggested we try out a burlesque class as I thought it would be really fun to do with a girl friend, and she was totally up for it. But she has a little boy, and on the day of the class she phoned me up to say her boy wasn’t well. I almost didn’t go because I thought, ahh, I don’t really want to go by myself – I had imagined doing it with a group of mates, you know? But at the last moment I thought, screw it, I’ll just go. And yes, it was Polly teaching one of her classes at Dance Attic; she’s an incredible teacher as well as an amazing performer. It was an amazing class, and so much fun to do – I was smiling so much throughout and really enjoying myself.
Anyway, after the class she called me over, and it was really one of those right place, right time moments. One of the girls in her burlesque troupe had left to work in the US, so she was looking for a new girl to join the troupe and she invited me to audition the week after. I had no idea about vintage clothing – I had no idea what I was going to wear! So I ended up wearing this pencil skirt with high heels and stockings; I couldn’t really move in it, but I thought I could hardly turn up in my jeans! They were doing a warm up and it was so embarrassing because I couldn’t really move. [laughs] I auditioned with some other girls and had a really lovely time, and then I got the call the next day! It wasn’t really my intention to become a burlesque performer – I was just genuinely interested in it and then it just all happened. It was a great way to fall into it and a really nurturing environment to start off in as well, being part of a troupe.
I had to learn the material quite quickly, but it was a wonderful time with a lovely bunch of girls who are still my friends now. And I got to know other people very quickly; as you know, the burlesque circuit is very close knit and can be very supportive and friendly. I got to know Dusty Limits quite quickly too. He was hosting for us at the time at the Soho Revue Bar and he encouraged me to start singing again, which was cool because I sang in musical theatre but never really solo. He pushed me to develop some solo material and invited me to perform at the Vauxhall Tavern in a show he was doing at the time. He introduced me to a lot of people. Things happened very quickly, in a very supportive manner.
H: And you got into hosting through Dusty as well I recall?
L: Yes! Well, actually, I was shoved on at Proud Cabaret quite a few years ago for Sara Colohan, who hosted her shows back then and had a last minute job in the South of France. She asked if I could just have a go, and as an actor you say yes, I can do that. It’s a really good challenge as well to take the opportunity and just do it. It was one of the most terrifying things ever, but I didn’t completely die on my arse. It was that thing of really having to push yourself into something; I said so many times that I was never going to host, but doing it in character was how I got away with it.
H: It must have been so much fun to come up with all your personas, like Madame Jo Jo –
L: Absolutely, it was really fun but also a necessity! I could never go out there as myself; a lot of people do and I have so much admiration for them because there’s nowhere to hide, like being a stand-up comic. So I thought I’d do a heightened version of myself, and as soon as the wig is on, that’s half the battle. It was the Folly Mixtures who booked me as their resident host –
H: Of course, they are some of your previous troupe mates.
L: Yes, exactly. We had a history together and knew each other very well, and they started their own troupe and wanted a regular host. They took a chance and said they wanted me to do it. So although it was a very daunting task, it was in the best possible circumstances with a bunch of girls I knew I would have so much fun with. It’s thanks to them that I started doing it on a regular basis, and then I started dipping in and out of other shows as well. So I fell into hosting as well – who knew! A lot of falling! [laughs]
H: I’m interested to know how easy you find it to retain that control underneath while you’re playing this humorous, seemingly out of control character on the surface, but having to retain control and authority as well. How did you learn to master that?
L: You have to go with your instincts. It’s up to you as a host to really gauge an audience and to either get them going or get them to calm down a bit if they’re too raucous. You’re there to introduce the acts, but also to look after the acts and do the best possible introduction for someone. So that, for me, is the job of the host – to link everything together really well and be ready to jump in if anything goes wrong. You have to be on your toes the whole time and it does take a lot of energy. Doing a couple of acts are like a burst of adrenaline and effort, but when you’re hosting a whole show you have to stay on your toes the whole time and be ready for things to fall apart, if the music cuts out, etc. So it’s quite challenging, but at the same time it’s really exciting to do. Every time I host, I feel like I’m learning more and more; there’s no ‘school of hosting’ – you learn by doing and you have to throw yourself out there. I always try to get the running order in advance so that I can do a bit of research. That, as well as my songs, is the kind of preparation I can do, but everything else you have to be open to and ready to answer back to.
H: And that can only come through experience –
Holli: As you said previously, you started off in life admiring all these ‘golden age’ MGM personalities who were all genuinely versatile, multi-talented performers who could turn their hands to so many things: they all acted and sang and danced and delivered comedy… Was it your intention to emulate them in your career, or has it all just happened?
Laurie Hagen: I guess I was really drawn to people who were all-rounders, although sometimes I wish I was just a brilliant singer or something. It’s so wonderful when people are absolutely amazing at one thing, and that’s definitely not my case. I’m good at a lot of things and I guess that’s a strength, but sometimes I do wish I was kicking ass at just one particular thing. But yes, I have always admired people who are all-rounders – someone like Amber Topaz who can do everything to such a high standard.
H: In a climate like this in which everyone who works on any sort of freelance, self employed basis is finding it increasingly difficult and competitive, has being so versatile helped you to find regular work?
L: You can’t rest on your laurels for very long because there are so many people out there. Every year there are more people who are inspired and want to do the same thing, and you get a new wave of amazing performers joining you every time, so you have to up your game. I guess being very individual and doing your own thing and throwing in every single skill you think you can get away with is the thing to do to keep yourself on a level with everyone else. I mean, watching some of the performances in Vegas – Roxi DLite and her incredible hoop act, for example – there was incredible physicality and astonishing skills on display. You know that the next time you create something it’s going to have to be at least as good as that. You know Mr Gorgeous? My goodness. I hadn’t seen him perform before, but he was just brilliant. All the elements were there: skill, comedy, rapport with the audience… I thought all the men were absolutely incredible. You have to keep ahead; I’m constantly thinking, oh gosh – what am I going to do next?! It’s quite daunting.
H: Let’s attempt to cheer people up a bit who are astonished and sickened by your many talents! Is it as effortless and natural as it looks, or does it require particular and constant effort and hard work to keep all your skills really polished?
L: I’m the kind of person who needs to work a little but harder at stuff. I’m not naturally flexible; I can hold a tune, but I haven’t got the most amazing voice; and I’m quite shy, so when it comes to hosting I really have to push myself. So it definitely takes work. I’m not one of those people – like the incredible Kitty Bang Bang – who improvises and is just incredible in that way. I could never do that; it would scare the hell out of me. And I like to have things choreographed… So, different ways to different people I guess, but I feel I have to put the work in, definitely, to get the results. I’m not one of those people who can just turn up and wing it.
H: You certainly do a very good job of making things seem off-the-cuff and effortless. I get the impression that your family in Belgium must be very supportive of your career – it sounds like they were very on board from the start…
L: Very much so. When Polly first rang me and said she wanted me to join the troupe I was so excited, but at the same time I wondered how my family were going to feel about it. So I rang my mum and dad straight away and said, ‘I’ve been offered this opportunity and want to do it, but I want to talk to you about it.’ And my mum said, ‘That’s wonderful – do it now before it all starts sagging!’ [laughs]
L: Yeah. My mum loves London and has come over every year that I have been here, so she has seen the evolution of things I’ve done in burlesque and cabaret, and she knows a lot of people and loves that environment. My sister has been over to watch shows as well. They are very, very supportive. I guess I was very lucky to grow up in an environment where I was encouraged to dance, etc., whereas my mum grew up in an environment where that wasn’t really possible for her. So I’m very fortunate to have a very supportive family. And winning a trophy in Vegas, I think it’s a mark of achievement for them to enjoy – girl done okay!
H: It’s obvious that you have a real passion for London and love living here. What’s your everyday life like in London, and what is it you particularly love about it?
L: I just love the diversity; there are so many different kinds of people who live together on the same road. I love that about London. In the little road we live in here in Kentish Town, they organise a garden party every year and everyone turns up, all from different walks of life. That’s why I love being here – it’s so very open minded and you get to know so many interesting people. Culturally as well – the theatre here is incredible. It’s just such a vibrant place to be in. And I love the sense of humour! Because I moved here as a teenager and I didn’t know anyone, I have chosen the people that I hang out with and I’m very attached to London because I’m very attached to the people that I’ve chosen to be friends with, if that makes sense. So yes, I have a really personal connection to London.
Holli: We’ve touched on the fact that you draw a lot of inspiration from some of your heroes from the MGM era of musicals and so on, but who else inspires you on a day to day basis, contemporary or past?
Laurie Hagen: I guess there are quite a lot of people – and now my mind goes blank, of course! [laughs] There are dancers, singers, actors, people who can do it all. Being on the cabaret circuit, you get to meet and watch so many amazing performers who create their own material, and that’s something I have a lot of admiration for. People like Sarah Louise Young, Dusty Limits, East End Cabaret, Frisky and Mannish, Fancy Chance – all these people who are writing their own material as well as performing it and touring it. These are the people I feel inspired by on a daily basis because I’m so fortunate to get to hang out with them and perform with them. They are the people I really look up to.
H: And you must be constantly inspired by new things and new people all the time in that environment…
L: Yes, absolutely. I’ve only written one song so far, so I would love to have that gift of being able to write my own material; I have tremendous admiration and respect for that. People who really put their heart and soul into their work – it’s theirs and there’s no hiding behind anything.
H: Currently, you, Polly, Kitty and Yaya are working on Between the Sheets together at The Hippodrome, and there has been quite an evolution which I have loved observing over the years. It must be satisfying to reach this point together. Do you really feel that sense of progress and evolution?
L: It is such an evolution and feels like such an achievement, definitely. To be working with three of your closest friends in a show like this, and with such genuine chemistry between us which people have remarked on and is what sets the show apart from others. We are genuinely really, really good friends who put on a show together, and we do group acts as well as solos, which I think can be so powerful. To have a group act with people who really love each other and know each other inside out is something that really comes across.
H: It does – it really shines out.
L: Yeah, it’s lovely to be a part of something like that and it’s lovely that it translates and people can see some genuine friendship there. It allows us to be successful and put on a regular show.
H: It must be so satisfying. I remember coming to see you guys at the Leicester Square Theatre years ago, and since then you have built up such a strong reputation that gives you so much freedom now. You’ve been handed the reins to create this show exactly as you want to…
L: Exactly, yes. It’s an incredibly fortunate position to be in and such a great venue as well, without the pressure of having to do a small run and sell a certain number of seats in order to make a little money back or break even. It’s such an incredible opportunity to be given a license to create new things. We don’t have to show any acts in advance – we just do them and hopefully they come across well. And yes, it is very satisfying to be putting on a show with people you genuinely feel so much for.
H: You essentially get to go to work with your best mates every day – it’s the dream, isn’t it?
Holli: As someone who has recently created an act that many people consider to be an extremely innovative and a refreshing addition amongst all the more conventional classic burlesque, I wondered what you think of the London burlesque scene. Do you see it as a predominantly struggling or flourishing scene right now – are there things you would like to change or see happen?
Laurie Hagen: It’s interesting because I joined it about seven or eight years ago, and already back then people were saying, ‘It’s going to finish soon; you’d better get it out of your system now because burlesque is on its way down here.’ And it’s sort of a running joke here as you know – people say it all the time. I think there are more and more people who want to do it, so perhaps the quality of burlesque is not always what it should be, in my opinion, but it’s definitely not dying out. People have a genuine interest in it and want to watch these shows; I can’t see it dying out – and certainly not cabaret. There will always be a place for cabaret. People will always be interested in having a really interactive experience, I think. As an audience member, feeling like you are almost part of the show is something that people are always going to crave, and the danger element makes it an exciting environment to be in. I can’t see that element going and people getting bored of that experience.
H: Obviously there’s quite a lot of merging between the cabaret and burlesque scenes in London. Do you think they need each other almost; do they need to merge to retain innovation and energy?
L: I think so. I love watching a show with a lot of variety, and despite how different one burlesque act can be from another, getting a singer, and then a hula hoop, and so on – I really thrive watching a show where I’m not sure where it’s going to take me. I really love that. So I would say burlesque and cabaret are perfect partners, for sure.
H: With your recent US experience in mind, would you like to see more innovation in the UK burlesque scene – in London or more broadly? If you took the versatility of some of the cabaret performers away, do you feel that there’s a lot of innovation left?
L: I definitely need variety. There are only so many fan dances you can watch, one after the other, you know what I mean? I think everyone has to up their game. It’s interesting the response you get as well: in London, it’s quite hard to get an enthusiastic response from an audience, because everyone has seen everything already, so you really have to work hard to come up with something that is a fresh take on whatever you’re doing, but it’s important. As soon as you start going out of London, where perhaps there is less burlesque and cabaret around, people are much more receptive, but I guess it’s good to be in London because you know that if someone is giving you a genuinely great response then you are doing something right.
H: Maybe that’s another reason your reverse strip is so well received in London – it’s something unexpected. Do you have hopes that this act will inspire more innovation and encourage people to think outside the box and take on something more challenging?
L: Gosh, that would be amazing. I never dreamed that it would have such an impact, but yes, that would be the greatest compliment.
H: A few final things then. Any future ambitions on your mind at the moment?
L: Well, I want to keep trying to improve things and keep going. I’m an actor as well as a burlesque and cabaret performer, so as long as I’m working and living off it I’m very happy.
H: As someone who is so versatile, what about a one-woman show? I can imagine you doing something like that…
L: Well, a few people have talked to me about that, and although a few years back that would have been far too daunting a task, I think that’s the next step. It would be terrifying and challenging, but I think that’s what you need to do in order to grow – go out of your comfort zone. So I suppose that is the next stage… Gosh, that’s scary! [laughs] I think, first, I need to write more material; it’s fine doing covers, but I think if you’re going to do a show by yourself there needs to be a lot that is yours. So that’s the next immediate challenge – to write stuff and make it worthwhile.
H: But it’s a challenge you relish, I’m sure.
L: Oh yes, for sure. I mean, a few years ago I said I would never, ever host, and now I’m hosting, and a few years ago I said I would never do a one-woman show, so perhaps that really is going to be the next thing, yes!