BEING BLUE IN NOLA
An intimate conversation with Bella Blue about identity, style, and personal growth.
By: Midori Tajiri-Byrd
The outspoken Bella Blue is known for her unique androgynous style along with her fearless approach to life and the business of burlesque. She is a New Orleans fixture; a powerhouse burlesque producer and performer who has forged her own path. She created the New Orleans School of Burlesque, has headlined major national and international burlesque shows and produces numerous events a month under Bella Blue Entertainment with her partner Ajay Strong. While her extensive resume and captivating stage presence speak for themselves, it is her blog that I find so inspirational and moving.
As a public figure, particularly in an industry like burlesque, I understand her need to maintain barriers of privacy, which makes the honesty and vulnerability of her personal writing even more brave. Awhile back, Bella posted about vulnerability, “the thing that we must do to open ourselves up to receiving and giving the most amount of love is the one thing that leaves us completely unprotected. It feels like such a grandiose request to experience something so amazing. We have to take chances on each other and just trust that perhaps that energy and love will be equally reciprocated. But without vulnerability, we’ll never actually know the full potential of what could be. I still struggle with accepting where I am in ‘the process’ of my growth”, she added, but it's good advice for both one’s life as well as one's career, to be willing to take risks in order to improve.
Another of her recent blog posts touched on the issue of ambition in a female dominated industry. The Burlesque scene is largely owned and run by women, which can be very empowering. But sometimes we find ourselves tangled in the ingrained patterns of behavior that society dictates is appropriate for women. Men seem to take competitiveness in stride while women sometimes harness themselves with false humbleness. How many women find it hard to accept a compliment? Or think it's wrong to be ambitious? Or rude to say that you want to be the best? There is nothing wrong with ambition as long as you maintain integrity.
Bella wrote, “[Wanting to be] the best isn’t a bad thing. [Wanting to be] the best at the expense of someone else is a bad thing. Using people as ladder rungs to grow your career is a bad thing. Holding people back from succeeding is a bad thing.” Becoming successful requires opening yourself up to criticism. But once you accept that you can’t please everyone you can at least rest in the knowledge that you have spoken your mind, and the outspoken Bella Blue is known for her articulate and sometimes controversial opinions. In one of her posts she quotes Eleanore Roosevelt, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Bella continues, “being [your] best takes a lot of work. It’s an investment. It means taking classes, it means hearing very honest critique about your work, and it means always upping your game.”
In New Orleans, as a performer, it takes hustling and honing your craft 24 hours a day to keep up with the high level of talented peers surrounding you. The plus side is that being surrounded by talent inspires the rest of us to up our game and be better. As an artist, Bella continues exploring, experimenting, practicing and taking risks with her craft. Thanks to her early training in ballet and modern dance she has the versatility to perform both classical numbers on point and dramatic conceptual numbers in a face obscuring bodysuit.
When I first asked her about her approach to fashion she laughed, stating, “I’m not sure how much I can share about fashion, I only wear black." While black is very chic, I’m also interested in the ways that one develops the style for their stage persona and how that influences and contrasts with one’s offstage identity. Some performers create a separate identity on stage but for others, like Bella, her stage persona is more an extension of herself as well as another cathartic form of expression.
As we talked about style influences she described a time during childhood when her mother sat her down in front of the TV as she socialized. The movie that happened to be playing was Labyrinth. Although she was only about 6 years old she recalls vividly how fascinated she was by David Bowie. Although uncertain as to the gender of his character, she was drawn to his confidence and the duality of his nature, “I didn’t understand if he was a boy or a girl, but I felt an attraction to him, as much as you can [at] that age”, she explained. This childhood crush remained a source of inspiration for her over the years as she sought to emulate him, performing to his songs and creating androgynous looks both on and off stage.
By the time she began burlesque, she had a lifetime of ballet and modern dance under her belt and her stage style was very classic. She had long, black hair done in a vintage pin-up style, and performed mainly to jazz songs under the name “Jazzabella Blue”. While the style was beautiful, she began to find that identity limiting and began branching out to other kinds of music and styles. She then shortened her stage name to “Bella Blue” and cut her signature long hair into the edgy, androgynous style she is known for today.
Quite often, major life dramas play themselves out through our personal style and haircuts . I wondered if there were times when she made drastic style changes as a result of issues in her personal life. “As a child I felt responsible for my mother’s feelings” she said. She felt concern for her mother’s approval over her appearance and her career choices, but after she passed away, a stage of the mourning process also involved a kind of freedom that was both scary and liberating. “The last thing [my mother] ever said to me was ‘have so much fun’. I’ve taken her words literally and applied that to my life in pretty much every aspect”. After, Bella reflected stating, “I finally felt like I could be more openly ‘myself’, like I could finally really ‘go for it’ with my career.' Upon giving herself that permission, gradual changes took place and both her performance style and her personal style began to evolve, through taking bigger risks and living a more openly authentic life.
Today, Bella is busy, raising her children, producing shows as Bella Blue Entertainment, preparing for major competitions, teaching at her New Orleans School of Burlesque and reigning as the Unicorn Queen of 2016 with the Mystic Krewe of PUEWC in the Chewbacchus parade during Mardi Gras.
- Midori Tajiri-Byrd
To read more from Bella Blue's blog, along with a calendar of her upcoming performances, visit http://www.thebellalounge.com/.
For more information about attending classes at The New Orleans School of Burlesque, visit http://www.nolaschoolofburlesque.com/