There comes a point in every Cigarette Girl’s life when mom needs to know. Brandi Christiaens remembers that moment well.
“My mom had been aware that I was doing something a little different involving theater,” said Christiaens, known on stage as Mamma Ry, one of the original members of the Missoula-based troupe of women performers. “I told her I was doing burlesque, but she didn’t know what that was. So I asked her if she’d ever heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, and she said, ‘Are you a stripper?’ I told her, ‘I guess, yeah, sort of.’ ”
In case the troupe’s name isn’t clear enough indication that this is not G-rated family entertainment, the first point that should probably be made about the Cigarette Girls is that they are, yeah, sort of strippers.
But then come the necessary clarifications: No, these are not strippers like one would encounter at Fred’s Lounge or the Fox Club. Yes, skin will be shown, hips will be shimmied, kisses may be blown from the stage. No, you won’t see much more than you might see during a hot day at the swimming pool.
Suggestion, rather than raw skin, is the order of the evening whenever the Cigarette Girls take the stage. Humor, theater and music, too. And do not expect every girl in the show to look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
“The part that I think resonates with the audience the most is the different body types we have on stage,” said Christiaens, a former University of Montana theater student who wears her plus-size with pride. “We have girls that are tiny, girls like myself that are really curvy. I’ve been approached by several folks who think I’m so brave for getting up there and being proud of who I am.”
Pride and personality lie at the heart of what the Cigarette Girls are about. Formed about a year and a half ago as a one-off act within the “contemporary circus” show Bellatrix, the Cigarette Girls have since taken on a life of their own, appearing on the bill of local nightclub shows by the Johnny Cash tribute act Cold Hard Cash, modeling for figure-drawing at the Missoula Art Museum’s Artini event in February, and anchoring much of Bellatrix’s Wilma Theatre show on Valentine’s Day this year.
Next weekend, the troupe will present its first-ever solo production, at the Crystal Theatre. The show’s title, “Meet the Cigarette Girls,” might seem a little post-facto for the troupe’s growing base of fans; after all, past performances have covered – or, more to the point, uncovered – plenty.
But, explained Cigarette Girl Meg Hänsen – aka Stella Pearl – this show aims to fill out stories only previously hinted at.
“We amongst ourselves have had these characters since day one and it has always affected what we do, but we’ve never had the opportunity to properly present that to the audience in a way that really explores each character individually,” she said. “I’m excited for the fans who’ve been following us since the beginning, to see if the lightbulbs start to go off.”
Hänsen’s own character, for example, has an entire back story that may not be evident to those who have seen previous Cigarette Girls shows.
“Stella Pearl is from Manhattan, her mom is a social climber who married for money because status is very important to her,” she explained. “Stella is really a daddy’s girl and wants to be a star, but the problem is, she doesn’t have a lot of talent. So her dad buys her way into any production that she can’t sleep her way into.”
Needless to say, much of Stella’s story is pure theatrical fantasy for Hänsen. But the character is also born out of exaggerated elements of her own personality.
“I get to be ditzy, clumsy Stella, which takes the pressure off me because if I mess up, that’s just what Stella does,” she said.
For those whose ideas of eroticized entertainment are limited to strip-club stereotypes, clumsiness and striptease might not seem to fit together. But in a way, that combination reflects the deepest history of burlesque, a form of entertainment that dates at least to the time of Shakespeare.
Historically, burlesque shows have generally featured skit-based, short-form entertainment in a variety of idioms, including music, stand-up comedy and satirical theater. Only in America, and only over the past century and a half, has the form become so inextricably tied – at least in the public’s perception – with striptease.
Today, burlesque is enjoying a renaissance around the country, with popular companies from Boston to Seattle and celebrated performers such as Dita Von Teese (known to many as Marilyn Manson’s one-time wife) combining traditional burlesque elements with rockabilly music, tattoos, fetishism and a shot of grrrl power.
All of that can be found in performances by the Cigarette Girls.
“When I get on stage, yes, I’m probably gonna take my top off; but first you need to know who I am and why I’m doing that,” said Hänsen. “That’s really the difference that defines what we do.
“For us, it’s about the journey and not the destination.”