Franki Markstone, although not a household name, is notorious in the world of Florida burlesque. Co-founder of one of the first burlesque troupes in southern Florida, Thee Vaudevillians, Markstone uses her tassel-twirling skills and dazzling smile to win over audiences across the nation. The Minaret was lucky enough to get a personal show from Markstone, as well as her insight on stripping, alter egos and self empowerment.
How did you discover burlesque and decide it was something you wanted to do for yourself?
When I was much younger I started out stripping in clubs. I needed money quickly to get a car and find a place to live, and having no skill sets that young, it seemed like the quickest way to accomplish those goals. I took to pole dancing very quickly and really enjoyed the entertainment factor of it. So over time I began writing little routines for when I went on stage. Eventually I moved to a larger upscale club, and saw my first feature dancer. The costuming and choreography really grabbed me. I thought to myself , “Now that, THAT is what I need to be doing!” I ended up being sponsored by one of my regular clients at the club, he sent me off to a program that basically taught girls how to be a feature dancer in the adult industry. After that I had my first photoshoot done, scraped together some small merch and began touring the country with my own feature show. I didn’t have anything to my name that was a draw, so it certainly wasn’t huge over the top venues. But I did have a great show, and the crowds liked me, so I got a lot of gigs via word of mouth and many repeat shows. When I moved here to Florida I met my best friend Vita Devoid. She was bartending at a dance club where I was a gogo dancer. She mentioned that she wanted to start up a burlesque troupe. I was like, “great, whats burlesque?” *laughs* I mean thats all a featurette is really, a tiny burlesque number, but I had never heard the word before. So I did a little research and gave it my best shot. I suppose we did alright in the early days because we are still here! Thee Vaudevillains produced by Vita, and Co-produced by myself still book all over the US. So considering the beginning club days to now, I’ve been performing for 16 years now.
What inspired your burlesque name?
I’ve had a few burlesque stage names. Originally I was using a name that I had from my days in Pro Wrestling. I had been working by Ana Mosity for about 5 years , so it seemed natural to use it, since it had pull and I answered to it. But after our first season of shows I changed it after realizing that I was in breach of the contract I wrote up for our show. “No member of Thee vaudevillains shall use their stage name outside off VV events.” So I changed it to Veronica Kelley. Which I thought was terribly clever, since that was the name of Velma Kelley’s dead sister in Chicago. Unfortunately no one got that reference but me. *laughs* Cast members, the audience, friends, continued to use my club name, “Franki”, so I finally settled on just using that name. My drag mother, Alicia Markstone, eventually adopted me and the two names together, just worked together for my personality. And so Franki Markstone was born.
Stage names are very important because they are the first and last thing the audience gets from your character, performance, all of it. Your name should clue them into what you are about–what they can expect for your character. If you have a cute-clever-cheeky name, its pretty safe to assume that your performances (for the most part) will also be cute, clever and cheeky.
Can you explain the difference between neo-burlesque and classic burlesque? Which do you consider yourself?
To me, classic burlesque is a nod to the first bawdy glamorous over top shows from back in the 30s and 40s. The good ol’ Bump and grind, the fan dance, the gimmick shows. Neo burlesque is more geared towards the younger crowds. The music is more modern, the costuming can be anything. The dance is more contemporary. I competed last year at the Texas Burlesque Festival. At the end I was talking with Jett Adore, from the Stage door Johnnies. I had asked him what he thought of my performance and he gave me possibly the best compliment I’ve ever received. He said that what I did on stage was difficult, that by my costume and choreography there were obvious elements of true classic burlesque to my number. But in the way that I revealed, the interaction with the audience, and my musical selection I had performed a neo piece. He said, “ To combine these two styles is very difficult, but you pulled it off flawlessly. I was very entertained. You just performed a neoclassic piece. You made a new genre.” I immediately began crying and hugged him because for years, when asked this question, I tell people I’m a neoclassic stripper.
In burlesque a lot of dancers will become a character for their act. What characters or themes have you performed? What are yours or the crowd’s favorites?
I have a few very specific alter egos on stage. One of my most requested performances is my “Magic Man” act, a nod to the Harry Potter series. I come out in all gold and burgundy, it’s a very cheeky routine, and I usually switch my hair to blonde in a huge bouffant wig. ‘Her’ name is GoGo Gryffindor. I have another routine where I dress as Amadeus and turn the piano into a bed of nails and lay on it. In my darker, sexier routines I dawn long black hair, very striking makeup, and over the top drag lips. You can usually tell what you’re in for in the first few seconds of my act by the styling of my hair and make up.
What was your first burlesque stage experience like?
Oh man, my first time on stage was not like others, I suppose. I had stripped nude in clubs for so long that to strip down to smaller clothing didn’t really phase me. It’s difficult to do anything onstage in front of people, but to do it naked is something else. I’m sure for some performers the experience can be pretty jarring. But for myself, I like being naked, I like performing for people, so to be naked (so to speak) and performing for people just comes pretty naturally.
Have you ever had a significant other or personal experience hold you back from dancing?
It’s very difficult to date a performer, of any kind. You really need to have your head screwed on tight. It can seem like we give the majority of our time, love, effort and attention to complete strangers. Holidays, birthdays and the likes are usually spent on stage, and jealousy and insecurities in a partner are quite common. I have had a few that just couldn’t handle my dancing, and I did quit for them. Not because I felt I was doing anything wrong, but because I cared for them. Looking back now I see that was a mistake, because if they truly care for me, they would understand that THIS is part of who I am. And nowadays, anyone who wants to be with me will have to take it all or leave it all together. I am who I am and I, nor any other performer, should have to change for a partner’s love.
A lot of people get burlesque and stripping confused. How would you explain the difference?
Burlesque and stripping are both unfairly judged and confused by the general populace. I live in both worlds. To me, the stripper is just another evolution of burlesque. The shows used to be hugely over-the-top productions in theaters with huge casts, then to a smaller show of just a handful of performers at private shows, where they were encouraged to mingle with the audience, flirt and rev up champagne sales…..Well sheesh, doesn’t that sound like a strip club to you? Of course there are still big differences in club and stage stripping, but to me the differences are based in costuming, stylization and choreography. Theres a great performer by the name of Paco Fish who said, “The difference in burly q and stripping is this: The stripper as we know her today presents herself on stage as the object of fantasy to be projected upon. The burlesque dancer projects her fantasy onto the audience.” I like that a lot.
Would you say that as a burlesque dancer you’re toeing the line between objectification and self-empowerment?
I dont feel like im being objectified on stage at all. Of course people are going to be looking at me. That’s WHY I am on stage. But if I’m doing my job up there, they are going to be looking at me feeling or being affected the way I WANT. As a performer you are telling a story or taking the audience for a little journey. Yes, I’m using my body to do it, but not in a sexual way. It’s a sensual interaction. The same way opera can make you cry. I’m up there to make you feel something, anything, that’s not real life. And if I achieve that, how is that being objectified? I’m in control. And in that thought pattern, yes, burlesque is very empowering. You can use your body, your creativity, your expressions, hell, sometimes your own breathing patterns to really move an audience. That’s empowering.
The word burlesque, in many different translations, comes from roots that mean to joke, to scoff at or to make fun off. Burlesque is about satire and comedy. It was never meant to be serious and heavy. I myself can only hold down sexy for about 5 seconds ‘til I do something goofy. It’s like, yeah, everyone is gorgeous and taking their clothes off… but what else ya got? I think the silly and fun aspects of burlesque are a major part of its appeal.
What would you say burlesque dancing does for one’s self-esteem compared to other forms of dance or activity?
Burlesque has this amazing ability to lift a performer to new heights. Like I said before, to do anything for a crowd is nerve-racking. I’ve seen gals shaking like a leaf during the intro to their number and come off stage dawning only pasties and a thong, grinning from ear to ear, ready to take on the world. There’s an energy that you get on stage from a great routine. Seriously, even an act gone wrong can still leave you feeling like a million bucks.
What is your favorite trick or dance move to perform?
My favorite move is my most recognized move– I’m a tassel twirler. I can move them by isolating my pectoral muscles. I’ve been doing it for so many years so now, but I’m still learning new tricks. All my fans will tell someone new about “this thing she does with her boobies,” or they will wave their hands over their chest and try to describe it. It’s pretty funny.
How would someone get started in burlesque today?
The best way to start in burlesque is to get educated: Learn about the history of this art form, learn about the amazing performers that worked really hard to legitimize this industry. Burlesque is a huge part of americana but its basically been left out of the history books. There’s so much more involved than pretty clothing and prancing about. It takes money, time, effort, skill and talent. My advice is to find workshops and demos, and read blogs from the superstars and headliners. Really put effort into learning about burlesque before approaching anyone in the industry and saying, “Gosh that looks like so much fun, how do I get booked?”.
What’s your opinion on the movie “Burlesque” that came out a few years ago?
Oh mother Mary of unholy hell….That movie didn’t have jack squat to do with burlesque. It was ‘Cabaret 2.0’ or should’ve been called “Let’s listen to Xtina sing”. It was an okay movie, but it didn’t have anything to do with this industry.
The popularity of burlesque seems to fluctuate over time. What do you think the future holds for burlesque in Tampa?
I truly believe the Florida burlesque scene has nowhere to go but up. Our community is strong and the shows available are fantastic. Our audiences are wonderfully supportive. I remember there being nothing really like this when I started and I’m excited to see everything happening now. I cant wait to see what happens in another ten years.
Photos by Ellis Catalan.
Selene San Felice can be reached at email@example.com