Soho on a Sunday found Jason Holmes meeting up with Immodesty Blaize, the premier showgirl rightly credited with spearheading the return of burlesque to mainstream Europe
She lifts the coffee cup to her lips and looks at me with her light eyes, her face a beautiful blade, all mouth and Apache cheekbones. 'I'm Croatian and Russian on my mother's side,' says Immodesty Blaize when I ask her about her antecedents, shrugging off her fur-trimmed cape and touching her vintage Karl Lagerfeld earrings with her fingers as if to check they're still there.
The ash blue of her blouse acts as a beacon, a small beret just so upon her head. The pavement outside Bar Italia is busy and people watch her.
But she's used to that.
'I'm naturally a shy person, but when I get up on stage, I can't be shy. I have to perform and come out of myself. I have no other way of expressing my creativity. I don't think it's a case of me saying "Look at me!" but rather "Look at what I've been working on".'
Immodesty's metier is burlesque, which derives from the Italian word burla, meaning joke or mockery, and can be a literary, dramatic or musical work. The term has been commonly used in the US to refer to performances in a variety show format, something which irks her. 'Burlesque is being reduced to something that it is not, which is often a girl in suspenders doing a kind of 1950s pin-up thing,' she says. 'So for my new show, the Venus Tour, I needed to shake things up.
'My job is 24/7 at the moment with the tour. I've been a burlesque performer for 15 years. It wasn't something that was in careers at school,' she says. 'I had an urge to create things when I was young. I was always painting or drawing. Later on, I worked in film production for many years. I gave up that job when I won an award for a commercial I had directed,' she says, laughing at the recollection. 'I was performing on the side throughout my day job, but then I decided to concentrate on it. I never knew there was soon going to be a demand for burlesque.
'I started in London in clubs around Soho, or Brick Lane, where performance artists worked. Cabaret is an old tradition in Europe that never experienced a drop off in popularity, like it did in Britain. But I don't want to be pigeon-holed within cabaret.'
Does she seek the mainstream? 'I'm not interested in being acceptable to the mainstream,' she laughs. 'I'm interested in being entertaining.'
Immodesty has performed in venues such as London's Royal Opera House, the State Theatre Sydney and the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, and won the title of 'Reigning Queen of Burlesque' in 2007 at Las Vegas's Burlesque Hall of Fame. 'It's essentially the burlesque Olympics,' she says. 'There was a lot of respect and camaraderie. The genre was founded by people writing their own material, so the respect is similar to that which can be found among musicians.'
The Venus Tour begins on 15 November in Europe, before it transfers to the UK. 'I'm working with one of the ex-principal dancers of the Rambert. We're introducing ballet and opera in an attempt to blur the lines between high and low culture. There's a notion that nudity in ballet is acceptable, but in burlesque it is not.
'I've produced so many forms of my show, such as taking it into the West End, using vocalists like Marc Almond and using a big band, that I feel now I must try something else. Having always made music integral to my shows, such as working with Alison Goldfrapp, Gloria Gaynor or Nick Cave, I now want greater integration of music into the production.'
Is it difficult to find suitable venues for the show? 'I've sought venues that are big but which manage to retain intimacy, like Koko in Mornington Crescent and Manchester Opera House. Burlesque doesn't translate to enormous venues because it requires a smaller, more intimate audience.'
Branding is essential, I posit. 'I'm not a huge fan of it. I want to grow as an artist and not have to stick within the guidelines of a brand. It stands to reason that my work has my stamp on it, so it possesses a natural hallmark.
'I've never just been an act. I reinvest my resources in my shows and I've always produced shows with a vision that's bigger than just wanting to get up on stage to do a turn. I design my own costumes and create the mise en scène myself; I also write some of the music alongside arrangers and composers.'
Surely a logical extension of burlesque performance is acting? 'I'd like to act because I'd like to play someone other than myself for once!' she says. 'But I want people coming away from my show feeling energised, not shocked and appalled...I think that would be a different kind of show, one you can see, perhaps, in Amsterdam,' she smirks.
'I like my own company. I like going on research trips, and work intensively on my own. I believe in "transmit and receive". I transmit on stage, and when I'm off stage, I try and take things in.
'I went to an all-girls convent school in Hertfordshire, so perhaps my interest in theatre comes from attending church when I was young. I can appreciate the theatre of church-going, with its rituals and costumes, and the altar as stage.'
So how comfortable does she feel in her waist-cinching costumes? 'If I feel really, really uncomfortable on stage, then I know I'm looking great and have made an effort. Once, one of my dancers asked if I was alright because I'd gone a bit green. I just about managed to tell him I couldn't breathe,' she giggles. 'But when you're feeling uncomfortable, you know that you've made the most amount of effort. Everything's preened and primped!
'And as long as I'm fit and healthy and my body works the way I want it to, then I'm happy. I have an hourglass shape, and I'm not going to change it. I don't want to lose weight, but I eat carefully and work out to tone myself. If I do indulge, I'll go to the gym to rectify things. My penance in the gym. It's the Catholic guilt again,' she laughs.
Her exoticism is rare, even in modern Soho. 'London is my home, but I do feel more naturally at home in continental Europe. I feel I belong in Europe. I have a house in France which allows me to relax and roll around in the hay for a few weeks, so I can feel the grass under my feet!'
But there's one question I haven't asked her: what are her favourite nipple tassels? 'They're a star-shaped pair Alison Goldfrapp brought me from Trashy Lingerie in LA. They're comfortable and lightweight.'
'Ah, but don't forget,' I say, 'if you're feeling uncomfortable on stage-'
'...I've made the most amount of effort, correct!' she says, finishing my sentence for me with a grin.
Confirmed UK dates for the Venus Tour are:
Sat 01.12.12 Electric Palace, Bridport
Sun 02.12.12 Empire Theatre, Liverpool
Mon 03.12.12 The Empire, Belfast
Wed 05.12.12 Vicar Street, Dublin
Fri 07.12.12 Queens Hall, Edinburgh
Sat 08.12.12 Institute, Birmingham
Sun 09.12.12 Koko, London
For further tour dates and information on 'Immodesty Blaize: The Venus Tour' visit: www.immodestyblaize.com
Photographs of Immodesty Blaize by Simon Emmett (headdress) and Susie Ovens
Follow Jason Holmes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JasonAHolmes