Viva Valezz seductively strips off her full-length opera gloves and black gown to Peggy Lee's "Fever." Slowly dancing as she removes each piece of clothing, Valezz finishes the number in pasties and a G-string. She raises her hands in triumph; the crowd roars.
That was the scene at last year's Fierce! International Queer Burlesque Festival, in Madison, Wisc. Valezz, 48, of Morningside, is both a performer and the producer of Fierce!, which for its third year comes to Pittsburgh. The annual festival runs April 30-May 3 at three local night spots, with about 100 performers from all over North America and a new headliner each night.
Burlesque — the art of the striptease — has been around in its current form since the mid-19th century, and in recent years has experienced an underground revival. But it's not all about the nudity. "It's basically like performance art that incorporates stripping," says Valezz, whom Ohio's Columbus Alive newsweekly once dubbed "the glitterific goddess of Columbus burlesque."
"It always has some type of big reveal at the end, though," she says. "Most girls reveal their boobs. For me, I think it's the reveal of a message or of a joke or a political statement. It's not just about tits and ass. It can be, but it can be more than that."
Fierce! is certainly a lot more. While there are dozens of burlesque festivals in the U.S., and almost every major city has its own annually, Fierce! International Queer Burlesque Festival is the only one catering specifically to the LGBT community, and the only one that travels, says Valezz.
"Burlesque itself tends to attract a lot of people with big and different personalities, so naturally a lot of queers tend to fall into burlesque. I really wanted a way for people who are queer-identified or allied to be able to get together and celebrate. This may not be necessary in larger cities, but in smaller cities I think it really is," Valezz says. The festival has also been staged in Columbus. Next year, it hits Denver.
"Pittsburgh is a great city. It's small, but it has a big-city vibe. It's kind of grungy and dirty and sexy," Valezz says. Grungy, dirty and sexy are three adjectives that also pretty much perfectly describe Fierce!, which kicks off April 30, at Lawrenceville's Blue Moon bar. While most burlesque festivals include only cisgender female performers, Fierce! showcases a menagerie of genderfuckery, from traditional pin-ups to drag queens. The opening-night headliner is local trans performer Janet Granite, a former Miss Blue Moon.
"Pittsburgh-based weird-cabaret singer Phat Man Dee will host the Friday showcase, at Cattivo's show bar, featuring Nina La Voix from New York City. GiGi LaFemme, a queer-identified vixen with a rockabilly twist, headlines.
One of the biggest draws will be Saturday host World Famous Bob (the performer's legal name). At the forefront of the neoburlesque scene, World Famous Bob is an over-the-top performer known for drag-inspired shows. Saturday night, at Cruze, features New York City's Poison Ivory; Columbus-based Michael J. Morris; and draglesque performer Flare, from Toronto. Valezz herself also performs. The weekend concludes with a Sunday brunch at Cattivo, hosted by local drag queen Georgia Bea Cummings.
"I try to incorporate as many queer venues as possible," Valezz says. "I've had political people come to me and say, ‘Why aren't you making this more of a political statement? Why is it just a party?' To me, just us getting together and getting naked all over town is enough of a political statement."
While Valezz was more behind-the-scenes in the creation of Fierce!, she's a big festival draw onstage, too. Valezz started performing burlesque at age 41 but has made a name for herself in the scene.
"We were going to have to make this happen for ourselves," she says about targeting an older, queerer demographic. A trained professional belly dancer, Valezz says dancing "was very empowering for me. It helps you identify your own sexuality and be able to express yourself in a way you wouldn't necessarily in everyday life."
"[Valezz] has a great vision and a strong passion," says Angela Joy, one of the Fierce! DJs. "Without her, the festival wouldn't exist, and people are definitely coming out to see her perform."
Sitting for an interview in a Starbucks recently, Valezz was wearing a cheetah print. A passerby approached and said, "Miss, you look very pretty today." Rather shyly, Valezz responded, "Oh, well thank you. You too." She seems almost embarrassed. But you can see another side of her this weekend.
Editor's note: The online version of this article was updated to include festival program information not available at press time.