Lynn Sally was always a bit of a wild child, but she also went to a Catholic high school where sex education was virtually MIA. Today she’s an author, scholar and burlesque performer, known as Dr. Lucky.
Learn about Lynn’s journey into the sensual artform that examines female sexuality, gender and more – plus empowering ways to benefit from stripping in your own life — in this week’s Girl Boner Radio episode!
“Burlesque, Sexuality and Empowerment with Lynn Sally (aka Dr. Lucky)”
a Girl Boner Radio transcript
Intro music that makes you wanna dance + voice over: Are you ready to arouse your life? To experience more pleasure, more connection, more realness, in and outside of the bedroom? I’m August McLaughlin, and this is Girl Boner Radio.
Lynn: Taking your clothes off in front of an audience changes you in some ways. I mean, you just have this confidence. There’s an empowerment to it, to just show to an audience ” this is who I am” and here I am.
[encouraging, acoustic music]
“A smart, feminist tour de force that strips away the stigmas, social, and legal bullshit surrounding burlesque, and gets down to the nitty-gritty of this sacred art form and the potentially deeply inspiring experience it holds for performers and audience alike.”
That’s what artists and authors, Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, very aptly said about Lynn Sally’s book.
It’s called Neo-Burlesque: Striptease as Transformation, and it offers an inside look at the culture, history, and philosophy of New York’s Neo-burlesque scene.
As a performance studies scholar and acclaimed burlesque artist herself, Lynn — also known as Dr. Lucky — has been immersed in the culture of burlesque for two decades. And she says she’s seen something that difficult to quantify. Women, she writes, come to burlesque for a host of reasons, but they leave transformed to their core.
Lynn grew up in Oakland, California. The public schools weren’t great back then, she said, so she ended up going to a Catholic high school — and sex ed bordered on non-existent.
Lynn: I don’t recall learning much about sex in school when I was younger. I remember getting lesson plans on abstinence.
Catholic school or not, though, Lynn was not going to be contained.
I always have been a little wild. I’ve always been free thinking independent. I used to go places all the time by myself when I was in high school. And I would go to City Light Books, and I don’t know how, but I discovered Karen Finley when I was like a senior in high school.
Karen Finley is a performance artist and writer who teaches at New York University. And she’s known for using nudity and profanity in her work.
Lynn: She was very influential on me because her writing was very explicit, but she had a political purpose to her work.
And so when I got to college, my freshman year, I decided to take an acting class and I saw they were holding auditions and I don’t why I thought this was a good idea, but I went in with a monologue from Karen Finley about yuppies and, shoving, yams up their ass. And, you know, it’s just so ridiculous.
And, you know, I went, I went to go to the casting board to see what plays I got into. And, ah, can you believe that no one cast me after my amazing Karen Finley explicit monologue? (laughs)
August: (laughs) I dunno, I think I would have hired you on the spot, or given you your own show.
Lynn: Well, that’s funny you say that that’s actually why I started taking acting classes, was to do a one woman show. So thank you for reminding me about that.
When she went to college, at UC Berkeley, a class on women’s reproductive health turned out to be influential, too.
Lynn: And as one of the final assignments for that class, we were asked to do something that was a service learning project or something that went back into the community.
She decided to create a sex ed lesson plan.
Lynn: And I went back to my Catholic high school and taught the kids. I call them kids, but they were a couple years younger than me. So, but taught them. About sexually transmitted diseases. I taught them about self-pleasure, you know, they giggled in class when I talked about masturbation.
At one point I remember very specifically saying, you know, if you don’t wanna put your fingers in your own vagina, you probably shouldn’t have put someone else’s dick, or I might have said penis at the time, penis or tongue in it, and everyone just kind of gasped.
Not only did she not get in trouble for reaching about sexuality and pleasure at a Catholic school, but –
Lynn: Believe it or not, I was invited back.
August: That is so beautiful. And how did people respond? Did the people at the school, did they just freely allow you to talk about self pleasure?
Lynn: Well, of course I had to submit a lesson plan ahead of time. And it did get approved. So I guess that they saw some value in it. I don’t recall discussing it with my family. At that point, I wasn’t living at home anymore. I was in college. But I do remember getting to go into the teacher’s lounge and seeing one of my old teachers and telling them why I was there. And it was just this really kind of awesome punk rock moment for me.
[punk rock music]
August: People often ask me how I am comfortable talking about these topics when I didn’t learn much either. And so I relate to that desire to speak openly about these things we’ve been kind of hushed about. Is that something that’s just in you, like, did you grow up feeling curious about bodies? What led you to want to delve into these things and not only learn about it, but teach folks?
Lynn: Yeah, Well, I bloomed a little bit later. This was at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, so I was very aware of that. Safe sex was something that was very important to me. In early college I would say is when I really started to explore my sexuality more and have more partners and just enjoy the pleasure side of intimacy.
When Lynn was in graduate school in New York City, she started delving into the world of burlesque, as an academic and as a performer.
Lynn: And I actually studied historical burlesque for my area exams. And that was a very, very early beginnings of the Neo movement in New York.
The Neo-Burlesque movement aims to “restore a sense of glamour, theatricality, and humor to striptease,” according to Lynn’s book. Neo-burlesque performers strut their stuff in front of audiences that appreciate their playful brand of pro-sex, she writes, often with gender-bending feminism.
Lynn: There were a lot of shows popping up. you know, more and more performers and people were just, it was just a really exciting vital time. At the exact same time, my personal life, I was getting involved in night life.
As a performer, Lynn started out as a cigarette girl, carrying a tray candy for sale. She told me she’ll never forget the moment she was asked to take on that role cigarette girl for the famous Pontani Sisters.
Angie Pontani made Lynn’s shiny silver costume, which she would wear with a short platinum wig topped with a big, red rose.
Lynn: I was actually in my professor’s office, cuz I was a TA in the drama department at the time.
I probably shouldn’t say this cuz I still teach there, so I hope I don’t get in trouble. and I remember grading papers or doing whatever I was doing for the professor. They were not there obviously. And then getting into drag at his desk and putting on false eyelashes and a wig, and there’s like glitter flying everywhere.
And I like carefully scrape all the glitter off the desk into the garbage can, which we all know it’s probably still there. Glitter, never, ever goes, goes away.
From there, Lynn started doing shows with a company called Thirsty Girl Porductions…
Lynn: … who produces a New York Burlesque Festival with Angie Pontani and the rest, as they say, is history.
But going in, Lynn said, she didn’t know much about contemporary burlesque – there was no formal training.
This was in the late nineties. So, you know, there was, there was no YouTube. Obviously some people were taking video or photographs at shows, but it wasn’t q uite the same availability that we have today about choreography and moves and physicality.
So literally everything that people that they were creating at that time was what organically came from their body. I think that that’s super interesting that I didn’t actually go and study quote, unquote moves. I just, I do have a dance background. And I also have a background in acting.
And so I just used, the tools that I had to put together what I characterize as little, little playlettes to music, where one strips. [soft laugh]
August: I love it.
Lynn: Yeah. I’m probably not the best bump and grinder out there in the world. But at that time it really just came organically. How you moved is kinda, is kind of what translated to the stage.
Dr. Lucky is Lynn’s performer persona, which she created in such a writer-ly way: by diving deep into her character’s backstory.
Lynn: Sometimes people wrote little skits for shows. So there would be a narrative arc. This was not super common. Pinch Bottom Burlesque was a show that was fully scripted, but Angie sometimes would write these little scripts.
And in one of ’em she wanted to cast me as kind of like their old dance teacher who used to do burlesque. And now she’s kinda washed up and old and, you know, 30 at the time, it was hardly washed up and old. But, I played that character, you know, and sort of like, “well, let me show you kids how it’s done!”
And they, you know, scattered off the stage. And and I did my act and it was a fan dance. And Angie leant me a beautiful gown that I stripped out of. That was my first act as Dr. Lucky. And before I even stepped on stage, I actually went to the performing arts library and wrote an entire backstory.
I created this historically based, but fictional character that was a chorus girl. And I did this really elaborate chat book that had photos that I would like circle someone that looked vaguely like me and have an arrow pointing to it and they’ll be like, that’s me.
So everybody has different ways to prepare going on stage. Some people put all their effort into costumes and rhinestoning and some people are heavy choreographers, but I guess I’m a researcher and a nerd because I basically wrote a book about my character before I even stepped on stage, which is something I probably wouldn’t do today, but that’s okay.
August: Yeah. I love that. Do you remember any of those, personal details about this backstory?
Lynn: Yeah… Oh, I’ll send it to you. I still have a copy of it. It’s pretty spectacular.
A lot of the narratives about burlesque performers are that someone got started in an unexpected way.The whole invention of strip tease is oftentimes told as a mistake or an error. So you know, there’s a story about one performer who was leaving the stage and she wanted to save a little money on her dry cleaning bill. So she took off her cuffs and the crowd went wild.
So I thought it was kind of interesting. I wanted to pick up on this idea. That this is not necessarily a field that, people at that time went into, but that when they came into it they oftentimes would find their voice and find an alternative to, if you think about what was available then for women, it’s like factory work,, maybe working in a department store there just really weren’t a whole ton of options.
And so I just thought it was interesting to create this character that kind of learned along the way and became a star.
I took a look at that backstory Lynn created and it really is pretty spectacular. It includes everything form Lucky’s astrological sign — an “Aquarius, through and through,” — to how she became known as “Lucky, the great fire of Chicago.” It honestly reads like a novel.
August: Oh, that’s lovely. And how have stripping and burlesque impacted your sexuality?
Lynn: I mean, taking your clothes off in front of an audience changes you in some ways. I mean, you just have this confidence. There’s an empowerment to it, to just show to an audience ” this is who I am” and here I am. And so I think that that definitely leaks into one’s personal sexuality.
At the time I got married in my early thirties, so I might have been married. So I wasn’t at that point you know, playing the field. But I do wanna just say one thing about that question. Burlesque is ultimately it’s a theatrical art form. And so I think that the explicit sexuality and the implicit sexuality which you see on stage is an important part of it, but it’s oftentimes used as a tool Byles performers to tell a story or, you know, to make a commentary on society.
There are performers who are very tantalizing on stage and that’s kind of their objective-
But for many others, tantalizing turn on isn’t the point.
Lynn: I do think that burlesque allows women to explore their sexuality in theatrical ways. And that’s the point that’s really important to drive home to me is that this is a performing art. And so just like any type of theatrical experience, you might go to a show and feel titillated, or, you know, you might be turned on by what you’re seeing. But the next act you’re gonna be laughing your ass off. So I think that , sexuality is kind of used as a tool, which may or may not tie into one’s personal sexual explorations.
And the confidence a performer gleans may come from far more than the actual stripping.
Lynn: You get confident when you are getting applauded for presenting your body in its state on a stage. and remember burlesque performers, they are doing all aspects of the performance, so it’s not just a naked body on stage. The person also choreographed the act. They probably made the costume. They probably booked the show themselves. They probably handle all their own promotion. And they directed their own pieces. And so there is like a confidence around I can do this, and to get applauded for it, to get paid for it. It just really boosts your confidence that you and your body and who you are, are worthy.
Because I think so often we are shamed about not fitting into a stereotypical mold of what a woman’s body is supposed to look like in our society. And beauty is really, it’s marked as, as white and it’s marked as thin and oftentimes blonde. What we categorize as conventional attractiveness, and burlesque just lets like any and all bodies get on stage.
And so I think it’s unavoidable, that that kind of leaks into your own sexuality and the way you look at your own body. And that to me is one of the things that’s most powerful about it.
[ Encouraging, acoustic music + ads]
Lynn’s book, “Neo-Burlesque,” is full of fascinating stories and history, tied into some of these themes. And writing it basically surprised her.
Lynn: I actually didn’t mean to write this book, to be honest, I have been working on Dixie Evans memoir, a creative nonfiction book about Dixie Evans and Dixie Evans was the curator of the Exotic World Museum, which later became the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
I was having some problems trying to land that project. So , I decided to write this other book about burlesque to sort of help establish me as quote unquote, one of the experts. And this is a really not the greatest way to get your creative projects off the ground is to spend half a decade on another one. But I firmly believe that that was the right path because I am so glad.
I wrote this book, regardless of reactions to it or, book sales or anything like that. Cause I, I feel like it’s documenting a moment in New York city when the Neo burlesque movement emerged and offering ways to look at burlesque.
Each chapter, rather than being a historical overview, features case studies about seven performers. I asked her which one in particular she wanted folks to know about.
Lynn: You know, all of these people I think are really fascinating, important people. But the one chapter that I found really interesting to write about was a chapter about Ms. Tickle. And she does this act, it’s so unexpected. She comes out in a full like Hollywood glamor, wiggle gown, waving to the audience, waving to the audience, and she peels out of that and you realize like her fake, plastered on face was actually a mask and she peels out of that and she comes out of her gown as a blow up doll, like a life size blow up doll.
So her physicality changes, the costume’s really well done because she also is a costumer and a prop maker and she actually works in Vegas right now as a professional costume maker. And at the end of the act she gets out of her blowup dress outfit, her blowup doll outfit, skin tight vinyl suit.
And is finally liberated, right? And she’s got on a tiny G-string and, baby bottles on her nipples and she’s like luxuriating in her own body. And she digs into her underwear and pulls out a lipstick and writes on her body “for sale.”
So obviously the piece is all about the objectification of women across all of those iconic symbols that she’s representing, but I started thinking about that for sale, right? And her literally writing on her own body.
The full-color photos of Ms. TIckle in the book alone are really really striking. I can only imagine watching that transformation live. And Ms. Tickle’s transformation really illustrates a frequently asked question.
I always get asked the question, is burlesque empowering or does it oppress women? This is the question I always, always, always get asked that a lot of burlesque performers get asked. And I started thinking about, well, how do I explain that you can be tapping into or emulating images that historically have oppressed you at the same time that you can write your own story and be empowered. You can write your own story of empowerment on top of those.
So this “for sale,” I started thinking about the explicit body as a palimpsest. And I know that’s kind of wordy, but a palimpsest it’s just a, like back in ancient Greek times, like when they didn’t have paper quite as prolific as they do now, they used to um, Use leather as writing and they would scrape the surface clean to write something new on top of it.
And I thought, oh, that’s it! The palimpsest that you can still see remnants of oppression, you know. Taken out context that image might not empower someone or someone might react to it in a particular way. But that to me was the perfect way to explain how you’re not transcending all of the stereotypes in society.
You’re not gonna fix all that you’re not gonna make, you know, all women get paid the same amount as men. Us stop getting, you know our bodies attacked constantly in many, many ways. But it became a way for me to think about that. that, That to me is kind of one of the neatest ideas that I think I came up with is thinking about how you could be as Carolee Schneemann puts it, how you can be both an object and a subject.
Carolee Schneemann was an artist who used her nude body as ”visual territory,” to examine the role of female sensuality, sexuality and gender. She also as Lynn mentioned, explored the female body as both subject and object of art. She died in 2019 at age 79, and she’s considered not only a feminist trailblazer, but one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
She’s also credited with one of the relatively few positive self-pleasure quotes I’ve found. In a book she wrote called Imaging Her Erotics, she said: “Drawing and masturbation were the first sacred experiences I remember.”
[encouraging, acoustic music]
If you would like to bring empowering aspects of burlesque into your own life, Lynn suggested this:
Lynn: I mean, definitely go to a show. and I encourage people also to, to go to commercial strip clubs, to go to burlesque shows and see, you know, what resonates with them.
But you don’t have to hit the clubs to benefit.
I encourage people to find an object in their closet or in their home that gives them pleasure. It could be a silk robe. It could be a really nice lingerie set. A feather fan. If you’re more into kink, it might be, you know, tail whip or whatever brings you some semblance of pleasure.
And then just to your favorite song on and put it on a loop and play with that object and see how it makes you feel, see how the music impacts how you interact with that object. And then just think about playing around with it in different ways. And so that’s my suggestion just for like a little home tip, you know, thinking about where you’re at and working with what you have, because we strip a couple of times every day, usually. Right? So how to turn your strip into a strip tease that gives you pleasure even perhaps if no one else is watching. And I think that that will leak into you know, the way you walk down the street, the way you honor your own body, the way you pay attention to the things that give you pleasure and figure out how to just live in that pleasure zone.
Learn more about Lynn’s work at lynnsally.com. Her book, “Neo-Burlesque: Striptease as Transformation,” is available as an audiobook as well, and she especially encourages folks to order it directly from the publisher or your local independent bookstore.
Lynn: Besides all of that, I also produce shows. I just did a show in Coney island in New York city. And I do a resident show at the Hotel Andaluz, in Albuquerque. so you can join us on stage or at least see us on stage several times throughout the season. So please again, if you’re, if you’re not in New Mexico and can’t go to that show, I really encourage you to see what’s happening in your scene and to support live performance and live entertainment. Now that we have the absolute pleasure of being able to do that again.
[Encouraging, acoustic music]
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