Burlesque icon Tempest Storm stripped down to her inner core in Nimishia Mukerji’s eponymous documentary, opening June 17 at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto!
Tempest Storm is a complex portrayal of the legendary burlesque performer. Mukerji did a superb job creating a nuanced portrait of the 88-year-old woman, from her survival of sexual violence, to becoming a show-stopping star dancer touring around the US, to her own neglectful behavior as a mother.
I spoke with burlesque expert Dr. Kaitlyn Regehr, who wrote and produced Tempest Storm. This is her first full length documentary, opening June 17th at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto.
Seventh Row (7R): Is Tempest the oldest living burlesque performer?
KR: Tempest is the last remaining very famous burlesque dancer from that [1950s to 1960s] period. She’s 88 years old. We’re really dealing with the last of an era.
7R: Where did your interest in burlesque and sexuality stem from?
KR: One of my very first jobs out of theatre school was on a reality television show for the Slice network called Revamped in which I was the burlesque expert. That role in that show allowed me entrance into this community. The weird thing about television is that once they call you an “expert,” you are one. At that time, I was 22 years old, and my academic parents very quickly reminded me that I wasn’t an expert. It was through engaging with this community on an in-depth level that I decided to make that an ethnographic study.
7R: You just recently completed your Ph.D., making you a “real” expert.
KR: It’s probably fair to say that I did a Ph.D. in burlesque. I started my Ph.D. in 2011 [by] working with a group of exotic dancers that first unionized in 1955 and meet annually as a form of reunion, support group, and they perform. It was through my Ph.D. [research that] I met Tempest.
Tempest is actually chapter three of my [thesis]. Each chapter focuses on an individual’s interview and themes that arise through that interview. I had been surprised that a documentary had not been made on the life of [Tempest Storm].
7R: Since you had a chapter in your PhD dedicated to Tempest, is that how you approached her about a documentary on her life?
KR: With Tempest, I was not planning on doing a documentary. I met her in Toronto for the Toronto Burlesque Festival with her manager, Harvey. We had this long conversation about wanting Tempest to be able to tell her story. I was very aware that there were many images of Tempest Storm all over the internet that she doesn’t have the rights to. So I quite liked the idea of giving her a space where she could have control and her voice could be the focus instead of her body.
7R: How did you find a production team to make this film?
KR: After I talked to Tempest, I approached [director] Nimishia Mukerji. Nimishia had done a documentary about a friend of ours. I really liked that idea of having this story directed by a woman and particularly a woman who had done social issue films. For me, it would have been very easy to have this material exploited.
7R: Much of the film focuses on Tempest’s relationships with men. Why was this the case?
KR: The theme of the male figure and the female child has become [a] literal theme and metaphorical theme. Nimishia really pushed this theme forward. [Tempest] has this complicated relationship with her father; she believed that the man who was supposed to be her father was [actually] her step-father. She’s been on this hunt for her true father. She says that whenever she’s on stage, she’s just this little girl dancing for daddy.
As we were shooting it became a very crucial part of Tempest’s life: she was really reaching out to her [estranged] daughter. The relationship really started to deteriorate as we were filming her. It will be really interesting to see once the film is out whether the daughter does reach out to her again.
The husband [figure] is interesting because we also have this recurring relationship with men. She’s had many relationships with men, complicated and otherwise, in her life. She danced for men, and her actual financial work was based on [their] approval.
7R: Tempest had experienced a sexual assault early on in her life. Do you think there is a correlation between a history of sexual violence and seeking out an exhibitionist profession, such as burlesque?
KR: Yes, I’m going to speak to that in two ways. Tempest directly credits that rape and additional sexual assault with her chosen profession. She actually looks at it interestedly: when she’s on stage she has the approval of men, and there’s also this frame of distance — the literal proscenium arch of the stage. She is distant and in control of her body.
From research that has been done on exotic dancers, again yes, there is a known correlation between working in the exotic dance industries and ongoing abuse. Not to say all women who go into exotic dance have had abuse. Some women feel very empowered in this line of work and chose to do it. It’s not just the distance but reclaiming a sense of power around your body. And deciding to commoditize that.
7R: How does Tempest associate herself with the post-feminist moment of celebrating women’s sexuality?
KR: It’s very important to look at the term “feminist” in the historical lens in which we are working. If Tempest were dancing today, and the word feminist had those connotations, I believe she would identify as such. But she wasn’t. She was dancing in the 1950s, 1960s ,when some university second wave feminists’ groups were actively protesting burlesque theatres.
The term sex-positive feminism doesn’t emerge until the sex wars of the 1980s. This was the anti-porn versus sex positive feminism moment. But from the understanding that we have now, the new sex-positive feminists and the burlesque moment see her as a feminist icon: She worked when a lot of women weren’t working. She comes from a rural impoverished [background]. She was married off at 14. She was married a second time before she was 20. And she ran away and found a way to make money. That, to me, is a feminist. But that term doesn’t work [for Tempest].
7R: Why did you choose to use reenactments in the film?
KR: It was important [to provide] an opportunity to show dance and movement. Of course, we have archival footage, but because her art was so physical, it’s nice to shoot some of that. Also, to use the figure of the little girl — both representing the child she left and the innocence she lost at a very young age. What archival footage we had was very presentational. So it was nice to have the opportunity to film something that felt a little more personal.
7R: Lastly, for a more mainstream audience that has never heard of Tempest Storm, what do you want them to take away from your documentary?
KR: Tempest was someone who physically revealed a lot of herself, but personally, she was a very private person. I feel so fortunate that she has been so open and allowing us to tell her story. I hope a viewer will take away a sense of nuance around strippers and look at her as a very strong person and someone who made really tough decisions. It’s very easy to write off strippers, exotic dancers, [and] women who work with their bodies. I hope they look at them as real people.