Interview with the Chameleon of Burlesque - Silla Black
While tough lockdown restrictions continue in Melbourne, I thought I'd reach out to some more performers to talk about their journey into the live entertainment world. This time, I chat with Silla Black, a matriarch in the dance, pole, burlesque and competition worlds. She tells all from her beginning in dance, how the performing industry has changed over time, judging competitions and what the future holds for her. Plus she gives some great tips for performers, so make sure you read all the way to the end!
1. You have been a part of the performing arts industry for a while, when did you start performing? And what prompted you to begin? I'm like an old bottle of wine now. I am not sure if you get better with age but you do get wiser! I started in my early 20s. I was at University and I met an amazing older student who asked if I was a dancer. That simple question started me on a very interesting path from dancing in men's clubs to becoming a dance mum or madam to a showgirl and then into burlesque. I've been part of the community for just shy of 20 years and in burlesque for a decade. I worked in Kings Cross at the time when the clubs were owned by the underworld. We got changed in dark dingy public bathrooms and I was exposed to many sides of the industry. Things I would not want my daughter to see at that age. It was a very interesting time and thankfully a lot has changed since then. Thanks to some amazing Australian burlesque performers, legends, that took on the owners and demanded standards. I look back on my time within the community and sometimes it is like my life belonged to someone else. I was brave. Wild. Strong. Independent. Those traits kept me safe and ensured I survived and thrived! 2. That sounds like such a magical, crazy, wonderful experience you have had so far! You have the tag line 'Chameleon of Burlesque' - was this bestowed upon you or did you choose it? The 1st time I was called a chameleon was at the start of my modelling career. I was never the prettiest girl. But I had a gift that most do not have, I can be changed to look like anyone. From red, blonde to black hair, with makeup and designer clothes or kmart bargains, to op shop purchases; I can fit in and look like I belong. A very good friend of mine, calls me "the spy" due to my constant changes in looks throughout my 20s. When I arrived in Adelaide in 2010, I was nicknamed the Chameleon by Corri Fett, a local event photographer. This stuck and I was introduced that way at each monthly Dr Sketchy's by the owner Miss Direction. I spent over 1 year as their principle performer. It was a fantastic time. I truly love Adelaide! So, what do you think is a good way to get a tag line? The best tag lines I've seen are ones that truly belong to the performer. That highlight something about them that is unique. Those tag lines are memorable. No one wants to be just another tassel twirler or fire artist, we want to be recognised due to our distinctive skill set. 3. I totally agree with you, you have to find your niche, what makes you unique as a performer. You said you have been in the industry for 20 years, how has it changed since you began performing? Its strange really. The industry has and has not changed. Its more like a circular motion. We return to a place similar to where we were before yet as performers have come and gone, we rarely learn from previous experiences. The biggest thing I notice is the competitive nature of the industry. In some cases, there is no competitive recruitment process, like in standard business, producers hire mates. That leads to seeing the same performers on stage each and every month. It results in a click. A group that work a lot and the rest, those that aren't part of the click. I watch performers link together not from friendship but bitterness. I sit in venues as myself not in character and I hear the natter, the gossip and the nasty side of the industry. Its very sad that after 20 years this has not improved. Our worse trait is ourselves. Yet there is the good side. Over 20 years I have seen so much innovation. Props have been developed that never existed. Acts have come to stage combining the genres from magic to other forms of dance. It is mind blowing and this is the reason I attend shows. To watch performers bring a part of their mind to the stage. For a few minutes you get a small glimpse into the way a performer thinks, what they think about and what moves them. 4. Glad to hear it's not all bad! What styles of performance do you do? Which is your favourite to perform? I'm known for taking taboo subjects and pushing them onto the audience to generate discussion. My most favourite acts include Lilith, which is directly related to the church and the control of women's sexuality. Memories, where I deal with being overlooked as a older showgirl. Wishing you were here, that dealt with the loss of a partner and trying to move on. Talk Back, took on the subject of dealing with an addict and the toll it takes on the loved ones. Equally I have the fun side where I take rather eclectic ideas to the stage. Where I get to be free. I feel most at home when doing exotic dance shows. Where you can fully reveal your sex appeal on stage and for a moment completely release that energy into the audience. It is an out of body experience. 5. I love that you use the artform to piush boundaries and make people think! You are well-known as a competition judge in the industry, what is the most challenging thing about judging? Conversely, what is the most rewarding? I started judging over 5 years ago as I had been approached multiple times by competitors that had not placed whom were upset by the feedback they had received or were concerned there was bias or favouritism. I approached some well know producers and opened a dialogue about what I had heard and what I thought was a good way to deal with it noting I had produced Miss Burlesque Australia NSW, SA, the Grand Final and Mr Boylesque. Sadly, I was met with hostility. However in the exotic dance industry I was welcomed. They were experiencing problems and wanted to work with someone to build a reputable industry. They took the feedback seriously and they have worked hard to improve the way competitions are managed. I am very lucky to have judged Miss Burlesque World, Miss Nude Australia, Miss Firm Australia and Miss Nude World. All are elite competitions, run professionally and offer huge prize pools for the winners. Through this process I have been openly welcomed by the Australian Amateur Performer Competition that covers pin up, inked, pole and burlesque. I have worked closely with Bella Doll, a respected pole instructor, school owner and producer to ensure all competitions are run to standard and there are clear and concise rules in place. I find judging both heats and finals hard as you have seen the act previously and must try to look at it with fresh eyes and wonder, like opening a gift for the first time. You need to feel that excitement. My judging extended to DIY BurlesKoala that is produced by Mae De La Rue, which started in 2019 and is a very innovative competition that sets a $100 budget for the performers to develop a new act. I was blown away by what the performers produced and this competition was so well run and professionally managed. This is what I find most rewarding about judging, sinking my teeth into an event and being enthralled by the performers. Recently, I developed a position description for a dance judge. This is available on my Striplesque website as well as other tools I use to ensure I work within a clear set of guidelines. I undertook a presentation for Muse School of Burlesque on what I look for as a professional judge. This is very enjoyable as helping performers is something that I enjoy and makes me feel like my time in this industry is worth something.
6. Do you have any advice for competitors that are participating in competitions this year? Do you have any words of wisdom for performers who would like to become a judge in the future? How long do we have... Congratulations for putting yourself out there! My advice centres around you. Be kind to yourself. Don't over analyse. Have someone you can talk to both within the industry and outside. Get help. Don't do this alone. It is very stressful. Practice makes progress, it wont make perfection. Have fun. This is meant to be enjoyable. Laugh. Look for the silver lining. You are worth it. You are unique. You are you! I am here. If you need any advice. Reach out. 7. Great advice! And that could be taken in the day-to-day of performance as well as comps. What are the main things that you look for in competitors/what makes them stand out from the crowd on stage? I mark according to the instructions provided to the judges. What categories are marked and what forms part of those categories is set by the producer. The marks any competitor receives is directly related to how the competition is set up and quality of the instructions / directions given to the judges. However some things I look for are facial expression, posture, clear timing, balance, foot work, costuming, lines, poise, smooth transitions, fluid movement, confidence, musicality, characterisation, and audience interaction. The X factor is a characteristic that is often judged on. Most performers can overlook this. The X Factor is a set of unique qualities that differentiate this person from everyone else. That is normally the difference when judging. You have have a set of amazing performances from a number of competitors, and all would score equally on the score sheet. The X Factor is what sets them apart. 8. Some good ideas to have in mind! I heard you're pretty good with making things look great on a budget...Please teach me your thrifty ways! What are some tips you would give to performers who want to create but don't have the big budget? Thrifty skills are a must in any industry. Burlesque is no different. The cost of costuming can be extreme. My best tips are: 1. do your homework first, write a list of what you need for the act? 2. work out from the list what you may have already and can reuse? 3. Of the pieces you need to buy, find out is anyone selling anything on the list? 4. For the things you need to buy off the shelf, hit ebay and etsy. Don't be afraid to talk to the sellers and explain your budget. They may have other options which are less decorated or use different material that meets your needs. 5. Sequin can be as good as swarovski, you don't need to spend thousands on rhinestones. 6. Using a mix of swarovski and DMC can save on cost but still get the result you require. 7. For props you can use a base and add to it to make a unique prop. Hit $2 shops, and thrift stores for options. 8. Buying 2nd hand dresses for gown parades is a fantastic way to save money. Don't be scared to add feathers or rhinestones to make it unique. 9. Think about what the audience sees most. If you remove items quickly, spending hundreds on them, will give little gain. Spend the money on what the audience sees most. Normally, what you 1st walk out in. The wow factor or audience gasp, is normally either received on a gimmick or at the beginning when the lights hit the costume. 10. rhinestones won't win you a competition 9. Great advice, and some I really need to take on board myself! Since the pandemic began in March, things have been pretty tough for performers. What do you find most difficult about being a performer in isolation as a result of COVID19? How do you think the entertainment industry will change moving forward? I normally judge from July to November each year. This year I was scheduled to perform at the New Zealand Burlesque Festival in May. It would of been my second time. I love going across the ditch. Sadly, all my work from May on wards has been impacted by COVID. I miss seeing my Adelaide crew and doing photo shoots and meeting all of the competitors in the competitions. I miss travelling with my daughter and introducing her to new places and new people. However I do not rely on burlesque for cash flow. For those that do, this has been extremely hard. Businesses have folded and schools have closed in pole dance. Burlesque has equally been impacted. I was amazed by how quickly we went online and it has been wonderful. I have attended a number of online classes. OnlyFans has been a great platform for those within our industry to keep connected with their fans and make content available for them to purchase. Some performers are doing really well on OnlyFans and they have been able to keep themselves afloat. Post COVID I hope to see shows continue to sell out, when the numbers return to normal. I hope to see the success on OnlyFans continue. I hope the online classes become standard for those that can't attend a face to face class. Most of all, I hope to see that everyone is healthy! 10. Are you working on anything new whilst in isolation/iso-projects that you can share with the readers? I have been continuing to work on my Lilith Sceptre to ensure it really stands out on stage for the Australian Burlesque Festival. I have also entered ChromeFest which is an amazing pin up competition. You can follow all my antics on my instagram - https://www.instagram.com/chameleonofburlesque/ There will be 4 videos including a fashion parade being featured on their facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ChromeFest/ It has been fun to push myself to do The Burlesque Blender produced by Lydia Grim who sets the theme and a number of performers select sections of the music and produce 20sec skits for the entire act. It has been so much fun and we have done themes from cake to cats.
11. What is your proudest moment/highlight in the industry thus far and why? That is easy...In 2013 I was near 5 months pregnant with my miracle rainbow baby when I went to New Zealand and performed at the NZBF. It was such a mind blowing experience to be onstage with my daughter kicking inside me. I was very emotional. Second to this was being crowned Miss Burlesque World Runner Up and Performer of the Year as a mum. I flew into Perth to compete and out the next morning to return to my daughter. I was tired but Miss Burlesque World had only come to Australia once before and this was my last chance to compete in this elite competition. The amazing Strawberry Siren took out the title. I have always looked up to Strawberry since before she won Miss Burlesque Australia. 12. What legacy do you want to leave behind? What a question...That you can do it all. You can have a child, be a single mum, run a successful business and career as well as be a respected performer, producer and judge. That what I did, made a difference to just 1 performer. 13. What are your future plans/goals as a creative, post-covid? To get back to judging and keep plugging along with industry improvements.
I can't wait to get back on stage as Lilith for the Australian Burlesque Festival and hopefully return to New Zealand in 2021 for NZBF.
To continue to create in my home and have time on stage as a 40+ performer.
Inspire my daughter to be creative.
And more than anything to enjoy watching the next generation of performers.