Feelin’ Phryne: An Interview with Jo Jo Stiletto
Written by GeekGirlCon Deputy Director Kristine Hassell
Kristine Hassell recently sat down with Jessica Obrist to discuss burlesque, nerdlesque, and their shared love of Phryne Fisher! Jessica is also known as Jo Jo Stiletto, fabulous burlesque producer, performer, historian, and the Professor of Nerdlesque – the leading authority on all things nerdy in burlesque!
KH: Hello Jo Jo!
JJ: Howdy and happy election week to you! [doffs cloche hat and bows]
KH: Let’s begin with an origin story to acquaint our readers. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into burlesque!
JJ: About 12 years ago, post college and struggling with my identity, I acknowledged that I was always afraid. I was afraid of change. I was afraid of my sexuality. I was afraid of literally falling down. So I joined roller derby and took burlesque classes. I fell down a lot and I took off my clothes in public a lot but along the way I found myself.
As my career as a performer and producer developed, I became an accidental historian and pseudo academic. I’m absolutely obsessed with exploring our creative relationship with pop culture and I focus that interest on examining fandom performance. Besides interviewing many burlesque artists, I’ve created burlesque shows exploring the works of Joss Whedon, the X-Files, and even a collaboration exploring the music of Tori Amos.
One of the greatest moment thus far of my career is when the production I co-created for GeekGirlCon, Bechdel Test Burlesque, was invited to the University of Oregon, my alma mater, to perform for students. It was the ultimate achievement unlocked.
KH: Now I know what nerdlesque is but can you explain that for those who aren’t in the know?
JJ: Popular neo-burlesque performer Miss Astrid once described burlesque as “exposing oneself unapologetically to the world.” I often describe nerdlesque as exposing oneself as a true nerd or fan unapologetically to the world. Think about all the fan art you love: the artist transforms the meaning of pop culture narratives to tell new stories. In burlesque we get to use our entire body to tell those stories. Or, perhaps, we can call nerdlesque fanfiction told with the whole body. As someone who lives in plus sized female identified body I can tell you it’s still a very political act to share this body with the world. I aim to misbehave.
KH: Nerdlesque really feels body-positive, bold, and beautiful. When you really see and believe that all bodies are valid, it’s a wonderfully freeing experience. We don’t usually see plus-sized or older bodies out there. When you add in the nerd/geek bits, it’s truly letting your nerd flag fly and I feel it’s also feminist as fuck to be unapologetic about one’s body and fandoms! Is nerdlesque a new concept or were there glimmers in our American theatre history?
JJ: If we go back to the late 1800s America and look at the legacy of Lydia Thompson and Her British Blondes. These women helped catapult these wacky “burlesques” to the top of American theater by being bawdy babes who made parody plays of other plays or operettas, wore trousers, poked fun at gender roles, and were generally “dangerous” bad asses. We have a lot in more in common with the godmothers of burlesque when we perform nerdlesque than we do with, I don’t know, the movie Burlesque.
KH: I’m going to shift gears and confess that this interview happened over a shared love of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries which ties in neatly with your next show! First, what about Phryne captivated you so much that you wanted to create a show around the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series?
JJ: Many a late night text from performer The Shanghai Pearl, who has a tiny dog named after Inspector Detective Jack Robinson, inspired me to start watching the show. I’m particularly fond “romantic detective genre” shows like Moonlighting, Castle The X-Files. What all those shows lacked this show has in spades: a confident, competent female lead that thrives in a world that pushes down against her, uses her status to raise others up and does so dressed to the nines. THOSE HATS! OH MY GOD THOSE HATS!
KH: The hats and the clothing! Props to Marion Boyce, the costume designer for the series. Those outfits are sumptuous and gorgeous. I read that there was an exhibition for the series three designs with events like a Miss Fisher lawn party and a behind the scenes tour of the costuming. Sorry for that outburst, back to the amazing Miss Fisher.
JJ: Yes! Phryne Fisher scales buildings, pilots airplanes, drives too fast, fan dances slow, and solves murders all without smearing her lipstick. She’s a rare woman on television: middle-aged, sexually active, and not waiting to be saved. While rare in media, in reality I’m surrounded by these women, especially in my burlesque world. Heck, even this month in Seattle there is a burlesque show in which the cast is comprised entirely of women in their 40s. I’d also like to tip my hat to the female showrunners behind the Miss Fisher production company Every Cloud, Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox. Can we get more please?
All of this is why she’s perfect inspiration for a burlesque tribute. As a clever co-worker told me, “costuming was such an integral part of the Miss Fisher experience. And sexuality. And transgression. And titillation. And social commentary. And And And!” Plus, there is such delicious tension and tease between Fisher and the Detective Inspector (the human not Shanghai Pearl’s pup). For one night only, at a very intimate theater built in the 1920s, we get to immerse ourselves in the world of “Miss Fishnet”. I already bought the most amazing flapper dress that FITS ME from GatsbyLady.
I’m also so excited to just get together with other fans. I recently reached out the ladies who do this amazingly well informed podcast called The Miss Fisher Philes and became fast friends. I can’t wait to share this show with them and others. It’s such a warm and welcoming cult fandom.
KH: I will have to check out that podcast! Thanks for the tip for the podcast and the website that sells flapper dresses.
We here at GeekGirlCon, love sharing our geekdoms. Other than Phryne Fisher, what have you been geeking over lately?
JJ: You must check out this new book from Sasquatch Books called Dead Feminists. It’s a gorgeous exploration of design, printing, history and feminism and it made me cry from its beauty. I’ve also become completely obsessed with fandom tea. Like, doesn’t everyone have a cupboard full of Sherlock and Harry Potter themed tea blends? And at GeekGirlCon I got to meet the lady behind one of my favs, a Darcy’s Delight, and found out she’d doing a kickstarter to open a local shop. I threw money behind that so fast. Especially because she’s aiming to create a safe space for everyone, especially trans youth. Nerds unite!
KH: Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into burlesque?
JJ: Get thee to a show, get thee in classes, just do it. There are so many different styles of performance. Explore what’s out there. If you want to go all in, this weekend is BurlyCon, the an amazing burlesque education convention in Seattle.
KH: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Jo Jo! Remind me again when Miss Fishnet’s Stripper Mysteries kicks off and how our readers can get tickets?
JJ: Just one night on Jan 27th, two shows at 7pm and 10pm. But tickets go on sale this week and we suspect they may go quickly. If they do, we may try to add an extension night or two.
KH: Don’t miss out, dear readers!
JJ: Good luck and we hope to see you there.