Kitten LaRue has come a long way since her days in the Shim Sham Revue in the early 2000s as a part of the burlesque renaissance that emanated out of the Shim Sham Club on Toulouse Street. Moving to Seattle, she helped kick-start the burlesque scene there with the Atomic Bombshells. But the Ruston native has never lost her love of the Crescent City, so it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that her other project, Kitten N’ Lou — with her onstage/offstage partner, Lou Henry Hoover — actually was birthed on a dare at the Bourbon Pub in 2011.
“It was summertime,” she recalls over the phone at her home base in Seattle. “We were both living down there for a month or two, just because my sister is having her baby, and so I was spending the summer there. We weren’t married yet, and we just went and saw this drag show, and we met the Carnival Kings, who were performing, and we were like,‘Oh we’re performers, too.’ And they said, ‘You should do an act, and we just kind of threw together, a little fun, dance-y lip-synch act, and that’s kind of where it all started.”
The song? Big Sean’s “Dance A$$.”
And so began Kitten N’ Lou, which over the past five years has become one of the most original, funny and popular burlesque acts in the world. The couple was named Most Comedic Act at the 2014 Burlesque Hall of Fame festival in Las Vegas. Months later, they performed as showgirl dancers (along with burlesque star and friend, Angie Pontani and two others) backing up Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett in their “Cheek to Cheek“ concert as part of their appearance on PBS’s “Great Performances” series and from their duet album of the same name.
Kitten N’ Lou made a return to New Orleans in 2015, co-producing the “CREAM!” show with Bella Blue and held at One Eyed Jacks, the former Shim Sham Club, and hosted by their frequent collaborator, BenDeLaCreme.
“They’ve taken a combination of many elements of burlesque and then added their own flair to it,” said Bella Blue. “And they have also added an element of drag to it well with their makeup and costuming. Like if you watch their acts you’ll see dancing, tassel-twirling, striptease. Those are the basic elements. But, when you are dancing to ‘Last Dance’ in a 1970s-inspired costume with heavy choreography and camp and gender fuckery (Lou as a drag king), it makes it uniquely Kitten N’ Lou.”
And 2016 is off to an amazing start, considering that the duo was voted the most popular burlesque act in 21st Century Burlesque’s poll of the top 50 performers.
Now they’re back, bringing their first-ever full-length show, “OVEREXPOSED!,” to One Eyed Jackson on Sunday (April 17) at One Eyed Jacks. LaRue discussed the concept for the show, which plays on their married life at home and onstage, as well as their long-term plan to make New Orleans their home base, among many other topics in this edited Q&A.
Let’s start with “OVEREXPOSED.” This is your first full-length show, but it also incorporates some of your previous acts, and you get to extend those, or simply draw out everything a little bit more, and there’s also a little bit of a more thematic approach at work here as well, correct?
Yeah, that definitely is, so this is our first evening work as a duet, and it does indeed include some of our more icon acts that we’ve created over the years, but it tells a story. It’s sort of a show within a show. It kind of follows the ups and downs of being the world’s show-busiest couple, so to speak, what that entails, and there are some acts that are also new material, and theater, and all kinds of stuff in there. The premises is essentially that we start the show with one of our bigger acts, and then we quickly discover that we are the only ones in the show, and we didn’t get that memo until just now, so there’s a narrator (BenDeLaCreme, pre-recorded) who interacts with us, and speaks to us, and kind of guides us through. And so it’s really funny, and it’s has some serious moments as well.
And a lot of it is meta thing, right? Where your show-biz people are talking about show biz, but also there’s a lot about being a couple as well. You can kind of expand on that a little bit.
Absolutely, yeah. I mean it’s kind of a we sort of talk about how we artist to reveal truth, and our drag, and in our work. It’s kind of about who are Kitten and Lou without Kitten and Lou. What happens when you strip that away? What happens when the goal of success on the stage interferes with your personal relationship? It explores some of those ideas.
Is it tough being a couple, and performing?
Yeah, I mean it definitely has its challenges. It’s also obviously it’s like we’re the luckiest people in the world to get to do this together, and do it all over the world, but it’s definitely not without its challenges. We’re together like 24 hours a day, and you have to make a real group effort to carve out non-work time with each other. Where we’re just us, and this show supports that. What the concept of just us means, and it’s also at levels of exploring what it’s like to be a queer couple in the world. What that sort of otherness means.
You said something in the Huffington Post, I’ll read the quotes it says, “It’s really thrilling to get to bring to the stage both our biggest show biz acts, along with the kind of theater that only works in longer perform. And we use the duration in a way that doesn’t really work in a five-minute act.” And you expand on that a little bit, but I really love the idea of talking about making it thematic, cabaret act of where the length matters, so to speak. Pardon any puns, but you really get to kind of stretch things. What is the beauty in this stretching?
Within this context of a burlesque act, we’re trying to tell a story within five minutes. And that story has a beginning, middle and end, and you have to really make a lot of very clear vast choices of how to do that. With an evening length work we’re able to play with this idea of duration in that we can have awkward silences if we want to.
So there’s this section where I essentially like eat my feelings with a bag of potato chips for three minutes, and people really responded to it. That’s exciting, and that’s not something I can just do in the context of an act. I mean I guess I could, but it would not kind of work. There’s a section where Lou and I have a very uncomfortable, awkward picnic. Where we cast a beer bottle back and forth. And that has within the context of our show has different layers of meaning, and metaphor that we get to play with, and explore.
One of the things that really struck me, just from a very zippy, snappy highlight reel is everyone talks, and you talk a lot about theater and drag, and burlesque and more. What I got was that this extended time kind of brings a mime-style theater into the act more.
We both draw heavily from mime, and clown, and we’re both like deeply interested in the different levels of meaning that it can be found in a gesture, and a real economy of theater in that way. I mean we love like bringing the over-the-top element with our burlesque acts. It’s just over the top, but we’re also interested within this kind of work this evening lengths work were we’re exploring that sort of economy of how much can we convey within a single gesture, or movement or eyebrow raise.
You’re blurring so many lines in there, whether it’s burlesque, boylesque, cabaret and drag. Do you see a kind of (audience) acceptance of your blurring these lines more now compared to five years ago? In other words, do audiences get it more than they did five years ago?
I think they do, and I feel like in our world it sort of depends on what they’re looking at, but this is what we have found to be true for ourselves, and we can only really speak for ourselves is that what we aimed to do with our work was give the spoonful-of-sugar approach. So we’re sort of like of delivering these subversive notions, or these subversive scenes of queerness, and drag, and there’s definitely like political under-curtain in what we’re doing because of that, but we wanted to do it in a way that was just pure eye candy, and pure 100 percent show-biz entertainment so that a broader audience would be open to receiving that message.
I guess when you say spoonful of sugar, you’re trying to make it as fun as possible to get this acceptance shot through your own filter a little bit.
Exactly, the things that we come from, we’re all like the different musical-theater world, and Lou actually before Lou got into burlesque kind of career as a contemporary dance choreographer and performer (as showgirl Ricki Mason), so Lou is coming from contemporary dance world. I’ve been in the theater and burlesque world for years, and we’re really just kind of interested for the two of us in creating this sort of new kind of performance that wasn’t just one thing, and then actually pulled from all of our influences, and both of our backgrounds, and could appeal to a really broad audience that also all the while delivering the inherent subversive message of us being clear performers.
The other part of your life that I’m curious about is, how you as a person and your sexuality evolved, was something that, one became more apparent before the other as a performer? Or was that something that was always you was aware of as a younger person?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I definitely have always been aware of my queerness since I was a teenager maybe, perhaps even before that, but I just didn’t have a word for that because I live in a small town in the Deep South (Ruston, La.), so there weren’t really like a lot of examples for me to look to, or a lot of people talking about it, but I definitely had been aware of it for a long time. But your question about its relationship to burlesque was really interesting, I think, because burlesque definitely helped me feel more comfortable with my sexuality in general, as I think it does for many burlesque performers, and it also really helped me kind of discover a way to express femininity and to perform femininity in a way that felt comfortable to me.
And here you are discovering things either about yourself or your performances, and both seem to have been playing also and maybe an emboldening the other. Whether creatively or emotionally. I’m not trying to dimestore psychoanalyze you, but it just sounds interesting that your creative side, and your sexual sides were kind of able to really meet in these really cool places.
Well, actually because as a queer person trying to figure that out about myself, burlesque kind of helps you reclaim your sexuality and reclaim performing femininity in a way that’s not strictly about the male gaze. So it’s like using drag — first of all bringing drag into my performance plays with that idea of femininity as a construct. And femininity can be a fun, playful thing. and it’s not exclusively for the purpose of attracting male attention.
Right, but most guys think that it still is (laughs).
Yeah, well, I think that’s one of the reasons why in the burlesque world a lot of people have responded to what Lou and I are doing, is because there’s kind of like no questions that what we’re doing is not exclusively for men to look at. It’s like we’re clowns, and we’re obviously like queer women who are together and Lou is his own weird character. It’s not like it’s not for men to enjoy. It’s for everyone to enjoy, but it’s very clear when we are onstage doing what we do that this was not created to attract male attention.
Was winning Most Comedic Act at the Burlesque Hall of Fame weekend in 2014 a flashpoint that started getting you more and more attention, or were you already in ascendance when that happened?
We already had a lot of people excited about us, but there’s something about performing at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, where so many of your peers get to see your work in one place. They’re all there like Mecca for burlesque, so everyone is there and so, so many of your peers, so many producers are there watching you, and so doing our act on that stage for the first time really like brought our public profile up to a different level, and after doing that and winning that award we then got Lou to perform at like 15 festivals that year or something as headliners. And before that we were kind of maybe still like not people were aware of us. They didn’t really know what we did, but then after that event we started getting calls to headline festivals, which is really great, and then from that point on you have people from other countries or all over the world who become aware of your work.
The Internet obviously is a very useful tool as well. We now have people will go … We’ll be headlining a town we’ve never been to for example and we’ll have people say to us oh my God I’m your biggest fan. I watch all your videos on YouTube. They haven’t actually seen us even perform live, but they are aware of our work from what’s been posted on the Internet.
Was performing in “CREAM!” with Bella Blue at One Eyed Jacks over last year’s Southern Decadence kind of one of your bigger moments? Coming back to New Orleans to perform as Kitten and Lou?
For me, personally, it was so cool to come back to the stage that I started doing burlesque on. I have such a history with that stage. Just being on that stage, and being backstage, and there’s something really meaningful for me about producing my first big show in New Orleans on the stage that I got my start on. It felt really like a full-circle moment. It was really thrilling.
How did your involvement in the PBS show “Cheek to Cheek” with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett come about?
Lou and I were performing in Provincetown at the time, and we got a call from Angie Pontani, who’s a burlesque star …
And a pretty big one.
She was one of the originals, and we worked with her before, and she couldn’t even tell us what it was. She just said I have something really big on the horizon. She said send me all of your press stuff, and so we sent in our press stuff. Lady Gaga wanted five burlesque dancers, burlesque performers to be part of that show, and we were two of the ones chosen. We had just dropped everything, hightailed it to New York, and spent three very intense days learning like in the dance studio with Lady Gaga and her choreographer. Learning, like, three different dances, and then performing it to be taped.
And this was with Lou as a dancer …
A glamorous showgirl. It’s interesting they chose us out of all the people who submitted, because we submitted Kitten and Lou as we are — Lou, with the mustachioed character. But they still just picked us anyway.
So tell me about some of the meetings. What were the moments like?
The moments? They were very intense moments! Just a couple of highlights where in one of the rehearsals, the choreographer wanted Lou and I to be flanking Lady Gaga, to be on either side of her. So we were just standing next to her in rehearsal, and (the choreographer is) like, “Don’t stand so far away from her. Get in close like she’s your homegirl! So we kind of scooted up a little closer to her, and she just looked at us and was like, “Are you having fun?” I was like, “Yes, Lady Gaga, I’m having fun. Actually it’s like the most nervewracking job I’ve ever had in my life! (Laughs.) Another real highlight, which you can even see a little glimpse of on the TV special, is that it choreographed us to be doing a dance around Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. And they had one of the pieces of choreography was for us to be backing up, like with our backs towards up stage, and Tony Bennett was supposed to head and move to the side of the stage when we did that, but during the filming he didn’t do that. So I basically just like crashed right into him, because he was directly behind me, so that was a special moment.
That’s one way to meet a star.