Sue Gardner looks a lot like Walt Disney’s Snow White. Her face has the same chiseled heart shape, and her brown eyes have the sort of sweetness that could care for seven dwarfs, or catalyze a burlesque revival.
“This is the age of burlesque,” she told the Transom over coffee and an avocado salad in the shallow patio of the Cafe Mogador on St. Mark’s Place. “I think 20 or 30 years from now, people are going to look back and say, ‘That was the golden era for neo-burlesque.’ My timing just worked out really well.”
Ms. Gardner, perhaps better known by her burlesque moniker, RunAround Sue, has been teasing audiences with her burlesque performances since the spring of 2006, when the curvy Richmond, Va., native started her Sugar Shack Burlesque production company.
Ms. Gardner, whose performing has taken her up and down the Eastern Seaboard, has introduced such innocent places as Montauk and Bermuda to the forgotten art. She also brought burlesque to her hometown of Richmond, and considers herself instrumental in the city’s burlesque revival. Ms. Gardner hosts a weekly burlesque dance party, performs regularly all over the city, and is the founder of Bleeding Hearts Burlesque, which raises funds for various nonprofits.
This summer Ms. Gardner, 31, is focusing on her August shows at Sole East in Montauk. “We are going to blow Montauk out of the water,” she said. Sugar Shack Burlesque began performing in the farthest Hampton hamlet last year. The shows were an immediate success, consistently selling out and drawing a mix of third-generation sailors, hipsters on holiday and mother-daughter pairs with Hamptons summer homes.
Pieces of errant glitter-remnants of a recent performance-sparkle across her chest and face like disco freckles, one of the only hints of Ms. Gardner’s alter ego to surface. “We always say glitter is the STD of Burlesque-once you get it, you can’t get rid of it!” She giggled. “You can always tell where I’ve been because I leave a trail of glitter and bobby pins.” She was wearing a cotton leopard-print sundress cinched at the waist with a red leather belt. Save for a single sweep of mascara and kissed-in berry lipstick, she was makeup and jewelry free.
Ms. Gardner relishes her offstage anonymity. When not in costume, she said, she can walk by her regulars or even girls she has danced with without being recognized. “I barely ever wear makeup if I’m not performing. My face really needs a break.” Last year Ms. Gardner produced and performed in 270 shows.
On Saturday evening, before taking the stage as part of Vaudeville Nouveau, she fluttered into the audience of Manhattan’s Workshop Theater to say a giddy hello. Her natural hair was accented by a sumptuous hairpiece coiled into a neat beehive secured with a red polyester hibiscus. The Transom did not recognize her.
Many view burlesque as glamorized stripping, a naughty pastime and hardly a form of art. How will the growing popularity of neo-burlesque counter that? It might not, Leslie Zemeckis, director of the recently released burlesque documentary Behind the Burly Q, told the Transom. “Neo-burlesque focuses mostly on the stripping; it’s not a huge variety show. In a way, it kind of plays into the misconception of it, but it’s also keeping it alive.”
But Ms. Gardner, who says she always tries to book at least one variety act-a magician, say, or a sword swallower-to pay homage to the vaudeville past, countered, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with things being dirty. I think once you are an adult and you have free will, then the things that you expose yourself to or expose others to can play the full gamut of good and bad and evil.”
Ms. Gardner was quick to concede the often raunchy side of neo-burlesque. “Well, sometimes, especially in neo-burlesque, it’s not suggestive, it’s just put right out there. It encompasses girls who are getting completely naked and eating sand that somehow turns into pearls that they pull out of their vaginas. We call it ‘nature’s pocket’ in burlesque. I have yet to go there, but many performers do.”
After the advent of television in the 1950s, burlesque became an antiquated art, only regaining popularity in the past decade, said New York School of Burlesque headmistress Jo “Boobs” Weldon. Ms. Gardner was quick to point out its re-imagined place in popular culture, with high-end clubs like the Box, a burlesque scene in Gossip Girl and the discipline’s current prom queen, Dita von Teese.
“Dita von Teese did a lot for the resurgence of burlesque,” Ms. Gardner said. “She was very popular in the fetish scene, which is how I think she met Marilyn Manson.”
Ms. Gardner said that dating is a struggle and that she doesn’t have the energy for it now. In 2006, before she began performing, she was engaged to a man opposed to her profession. As soon as the engagement was called off-for other reasons-she said, “That’s it! I’m dancing.” Her subsequent paramour would come to her shows and become so uncomfortable that he would drink heavily. “Eventually I had to tell him, ‘You can’t come to my shows anymore,’ and what future is there in that?”
Ms. Gardner spent childhood summers with her father’s Navy buddies on their front lawn and remembers her uncle Jimmy making the mermaid on his forearm dance. “I learned to flirt when I was like 3. And of course I’m a burlesque dancer now!
“My mother left when I was 9. She was a pioneer of identity theft in the ’80s and ’90s. She’s wanted by the F.B.I. in five states.” Throughout Ms. Gardner’s childhood, F.B.I. agents questioned her whenever a letter was received or her mother moved to a new state.
“My mother was very charming. Her specialty was human error. She’d just charm everyone and take advantage of all the loopholes in identity theft. I was very scared to come into my own as a woman because the only real example I had was my mother, who had caused so much pain.
“On a deep, subconscious level, I had to be very public in my exploration because it was kind of not a concealed weapon anymore, it was right out there, and I think that’s why I’m so sincere and joyful when I’m performing, because I know there’s absolutely no way I’m going to jail.”
She laughed to show she knew how odd that sounded, but it was clear she was serious.
“No, no, I’m kidding! I mean, I might go to jail for burlesque, but I’ll know I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Why would she go to jail?
“Oh, you know, state laws are so funny.”
In Utah, burlesque dancers, like strippers, have to obtain a license identifying them as a registered sex worker. “And in D.C. the cops are very strict; sometimes the girls go down to their merkins, and in D.C. they don’t like that at all!”
Saturday evening’s performance did not see Ms. Gardner strip down to her merkin. She crooned a ’30s ditty called “Teasin'” that her pianist transcribed from an old record. The first thing to come off was Ms. Gardner’s black feather boa. Next, one-half of the top of her halter gown. Finally, she whipped off her dress with a flourish. “All of you should be knights of the garter,” she cooed. A torso-covering corset; elegant fishnet stockings; tall, patent-leather stilettos; and two red sequin hearts covering each nipple remained. “I’m T-E-A-S-I-N’ you!”