Burlesque artist Nina LaBelle tells Shelley Marsden how her granny fleeing from Cavan led to her own career choice…
Nina LaBelle, 22, from Essex, is a burlesque dancer who in the short time she’s been performing (less than a year) is creating quite a stir, her explosive bombshell figure perfectly suited to an act that channels the golden age ‘femme fatale’ of film noir.
Given her heritage (her late Irish grandmother Jean McConnell escaped a tough, strictly religious upbringing and fled to England) it’s interesting that she spends a lot of her time scantily dressed and batting eyelids and props coquettishly. Her grandmother’s escape and subsequent fresh start across the water is something that fascinates Nina.
A spirited Irish gran
Nina’s grandmother came from Bailieborough in Cavan. Aged just 12 her mother died. Her father a raging alcoholic and unable to cope, he immediately sent Nina’s gran and her two siblings to his brother Jack and sister Lizzy, who ran the family farm.
“Apparently, Lizzie was the spiritual director of the house and ‘gave out’ the Rosary every night”, says Nina. Her beloved gran and her siblings had to work hard even at that age to earn their keep on the farm. It was not an easy life.
The only happy memory Nina recalls her gran ever sharing was of a lovely coat she bought in her younger years, which she adored and would wear everywhere.
“When she was sixteen she fled to England, to this day I’m not entirely sure why, possibly just the hardships and claustrophobic family life she had in Cavan. She changed her name, too – from Anna Jane to Ann Jean.”
But hard times continued in England, Jean contracting TB almost upon arrival, and having to stay in a convalescent home for two years. It was there she met Nina’s granddad, while training to be a nurse in the army medical core.
Says Nina: “She kept in contact with her brother, and years after leaving Ireland, her old Catholic priest tracked her down and visited her, but again I don’t know why. I wish I knew more, her secrets and memories of Ireland died with her.
“There’s something dramatic about her teenage years and her wilful transformation into a ‘free’ woman that I like to think I share with her! I definitely love a good party like she did; she was always the life and soul. She was so bubbly; I think I must’ve got my giggliness from her.”
What she would have said about Nina’s burgeoning burlesque career (she thinks she’d probably have got a cheeky wink) is anyone’s guess but her parents, she says, have always been very supportive about her flashing the flesh. Her dad was the one that first planted the idea, telling her when she didn’t even know who the star was that she reminded him of Dita Von Teese.
“My mum and her friends love coming to my shows – they have such a good time when they come along. It’s nice to see them having a laugh when I’m performing.”
Her boyfriend of four years also seems relaxed about what his other half does, taking his mum to see her do her thing when she performed at last year’s London Tattoo Convention. If he worries about anything, she says laughing, it’s that one of her props fails or “something that’s meant to come off in a routine gets stuck!”
A hobby gets serious…
Though she began dabbling in burlesque at 16, it was just a hobby until Nina began university and seriously started considering a career as a performer: “In my third year I started part-time modelling and worked in a vintage clothing shop. I wrote an academic and ethnographic dissertation on Burlesque whilst I was crafting my first act.”
That first act, which took her six months to craft, she entitled La Femme Dangereuse, and she debuted it after finishing university. Her debut was a daunting one, she says, as she was drafted onto the cast-list of the Arundel Festival’s Cabaret Night – performing alongside established artists like Coco Deville.
She recalls: “The audience was around 500-strong, including (unbeknownst to me at the time) a group of my colleagues from the vintage shop I worked at! But I instantly loved it. From that point, on I never looked back.”
It’s not stripping
For Nina, the important differentiation to make is that burlesque is NOT stripping but rather, a theatrical spectacle which she and her peers often put many months of preparation into – from costume to character, music, choreography and theme.
“Of course, it all depends on the performer what they make of it”, she says, “but I personally like to think I provide my audience with an erotic but not sleazy display of glamour, desire and fun. Burlesque is about tease, it is concerned with the journey, not just the destination.
Her imaginatively-named idols include Satan’s Angel, Dita of course, Immodesty Blaize, Missy Fatale, Sophia St Villier, Elizabeth Taylor (technically not burlesque but she is inspired by her) and Mosh.
“I love it, especially when the crowd are positive”, she says of being up on stage. “It’s great when I’m performing acts that I know very well; when they are new it makes me nervous because of potential costume malfunctions and so on. Funny, I never feel self conscious on stage at all, performing is a great confidence boost.”
Nina is a petite size 10, but boasts a curvaceous figure, and another thing she loves about burlesque is its celebration of the female form – in every manifestation.
“It’s not about exclusion, it’s about acceptance and admiration, and I adore that about it, it’s empowering. To be honest, burlesque is not as much about the body shape, face or clothing of a performer as it is the confidence. The sexiest and most appealing thing a woman can wear is confidence.”
For the full article, pick up a copy of this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue June 7 2014).
See Nina in action at www.youtube.com/user/theninalabelle. Follow her at www.facebook.com/ninalabelleofficial.