Innocent doe eyes and bright-blue hair - if that sounds like a stark contradiction, wait till you hear what Sukki Singapora (that's her stage name) does. The soft-spoken 28-year-old dubs herself the first professional Singaporean burlesque dancer.
Most of us may think of sleazy striptease acts at the mention of burlesque, but Sukki vehemently disagrees. "Burlesque is a highbrow form of striptease, where the emphasis is on the tease, not the strip," she says. "It is not sexual or erotic; it is a sensual dance that is performed for the purpose of satire."
Burlesque originates from satirical theatre, which pokes fun at highbrow actresses and high-profile figures of the era - in the 1950s, for example, a burlesque performer called Dixie Evans performed burlesque parodies of Marilyn Monroe. Wearing a corset or other fancy vintage clothes and glittering accessories, the burlesque performer would tease the crowd and slowly perform a tantalising striptease. Sukki, though, never strips completely - she strips down only to her lingerie by the end of her routine.
The sensual dance is still considered a taboo art form in Singapore and is performed only at closed-door events, like a recent charity ball organised by The Singapore Repertory Theatre, where Sukki performed for 300 guests, and the enticing one-night performance by American burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese at Zirca (a now-defunct club) in 2011 to promote Cointreau, a liqueur.
"In 2011, I started a campaign on Facebook telling others what burlesque was, and I instantly got messages from other Singaporean women who were interested in taking it up," says Sukki, who declines to reveal her family name.
When the clubs she approached rejected her request to perform, Sukki started The Singapore Burlesque Society in 2012, which now boasts about 200 members. She recalls that she used to conduct workshops in secret, teaching members how to do a striptease (including techniques on removing stockings) and be sensual.
"We had to masquerade as a yoga class and there was even a bouncer," she says, explaining that the owners of the venue were uncomfortable with the idea of a striptease class under their roof.
Sukki shares that while most of The Burlesque Society members are women, there are a handful of male members - men who are interested in boylesque, the male form of burlesque.
In 2012, Singapore-born Sukki - who has performed on her own in countries such as the UK, the US, Malaysia, Japan, France and Greece - set up The Singapore Burlesque Club.
The club gives its almost 600 members - a mix of burlesque fans and professional Asian burlesque performers from around the world - the chance to perform the art after they learn it.
Humble start as an IT support staff
Sukki, who is of Indian-British descent, has been fascinated with burlesque ever since she discovered vintage fashion as a teen; the timeless glamour, Sukki feels, discriminates against neither gender nor race.
In 2011, the geography major, who was then working as an IT support staff, booked her first gig as a burlesque dancer. She was in Chester in the UK when she ventured into a comedy theatre and boldly told the managers there that she was a professional burlesque dancer.
Sukki was, of course, lying, but she was hired on the spot and given a week to prep for her maiden gig.
Although she is trained in classical ballet, she had to learn her burlesque dance moves through Youtube videos. "I was like Clark Kent," she says as she recalls those days. "By day, I was an IT geek and by night, I was a sexy burlesque dancer; my spectacles came off and my geekiness vanished."
Unsurprisingly, Sukki's first show was not perfect. "Some clothing wouldn't come off [easily], but the audience loved my act," she recalls. "So Sukki Singapora was born."
Sukki quit her IT job shortly after that performance, and these days, her hours are spent rehearsing or choreographing. She performs in a different country every month and co-produces her own shows, one of which is the annual Asian Burlesque Spectacular held in New York (she declines to reveal how much she earns from these gigs).
She also designs all her costumes - on which she sews gemstones, such as Swarovski crystals, bought from India or Singapore - which are then put together by a UK corsetry company. When she has time to chill out, she spends it with her two cats.
Her boyfriend and close friends are understanding about and supportive of her job, but her conservative parents haven't come round to the idea yet. "When they first found out I was doing burlesque, they were devastated; they thought it was disgusting and pornographic. Now, they think it's a phase I'm going through and choose not to discuss it with me," she says with a resigned laugh.
What keeps her going, she says, are the hundreds of letters she receives every month from Asian women, some of whom attend her performances and some of whom follow her career on Facebook.
"[These women] want to learn the dance, [but] more often than not, they're too scared to try it due to their strict family backgrounds. [They] feel they have no one to talk to except me."
Some women also write to tell her she's an inspiration. "I had no idea I was making such an impact... I realise it is my responsibility to be the best role model I could be."
An art form that empowers women
Interestingly, almost 80 per cent of the audience at Sukki's shows are women - a firm demonstration of female empowerment, Sukki says. "Burlesque is a performance by women for women. It's about women banding together and celebrating the female form."
And it seems that even the Queen of England might be a fan - in a nod to her contributions to the arts scene in the UK, Sukki received an invitation to tea from Buckingham Palace in 2013. "It's an honour to be acknowledged for my work as a burlesque performer," Sukki says. "If the Queen of England says this art form is okay, then it is okay."
That same year, Sukki was (one of 50 women) nominated for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards, which recognises Asian women in the UK for their outstanding contribution to the arts and other fields.
Aside from giving talks and raising funds, Sukki has also been kept busy with her role as the global ambassador (since December 2013) for the Sharan Project, a UK-based charity that provides support for and advice to South Asian women who have left home voluntarily or by force - the charity has also created a forum for these women.
"Performing burlesque is an ongoing fight for me," she says. "If I can do it, then it's only natural for me to become an ambassador for a charity that encourages women to choose the path they want in life."
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