“Intelligence is very sexy!”— Matt Knife
If it seems like burlesque is everywhere again, particularly in New York City (This is the Naked City, after all…), it’s not your imagination. It is! Why are so many people discovering this new-but-old form of entertainment? My humble theory is that we Americans are searching for new ways to appreciate and enjoy our sexuality. Just where do you go in the digital age, where we have lost our shockability once and for all, and where satisfaction of any sexual craving is available at the click of a mouse? Back to “old school“ sexiness, of course! Many admirers of both the male and female form may agree that performers who leave something to the imagination– some vestige of fantasy– can often be more sexy than those who show it all. (Although I do admit, I’m partial to both!) Put another way, the essence of eroticism is often gauged by what is NOT shown. However, anyone who knows about burlesque knows that this art form is about more than just showing skin. True, the sexual thrill is a big part. Burlesque, however, also incorporates style, comedy and– dare I say– intelligence into the mix as well. With its focus on pageantry, spectacle, raunch, a little bit of glamour, and the art of striptease, burlesque had its heyday in the early 20th century before languishing in the 40’s. By the sexual revolution of the ’60’s and ’70’s, it all but died out as audiences moved to more explicit entertainment. However, burlesque not only survives but is newly thriving in a particularly vivid underground subculture in New York City, where it is sometimes called “neo-burlesque“. It is vastly appreciated… by audiences who are inclined to appreciate it!
If the new burlesque movement is a relatively neophyte phenomenon, then boylesque is still in its infancy phase. New York City native and aptly self-described “Renaissance man” Matt Knife is hellbent on ushering it into puberty. His monthly boylesque show Homo Erectus, at Manhattan’s legendary Stonewall Inn, will be enjoying its one year anniversary this June. In addition to creating and performing in Homo Erectus each month, Mr. Knife has also proven to be one of the busiest guys in New York City. He has plied his titillating trade at events all over town, from the Second Annual Boylesque Festival last April to such testosterone-heavy gatherings as Urban Bear Week and the popular Bear party Furball at New York City’s LGBT Center.
The fiercely self-styled star spoke to me about the art form of boylesque, what he finds sexy, and why every guy should run out and buy a kilt!
JR:Hi Matt. Thanks for meeting me! So, your monthly show, Homo Erectus, has the distinction of being the only regular boylesque show in New York City. How did it start, and where did you get the inspiration to do it?
MK: It was after taking Go Go Harder’s class. A bunch of my classmates and I were addicted to burlesque, and we wanted to keep performing. But, being new performers, you have to establish yourself, and you have to convince the producers that you can do it, which is understandable. They don’t know you, and they’ve never seen you before. I have a BFA and an MFA in Costume Design, so production is sort of my thing. We started talking– and realized that there was no regular show and there’s all these talented performers… so I was like: Why don’t we just do it, and make it happen? So, that’s where it sort of came from. And once it started, it really started taking off because the community really wanted a regular boylesque show. Everybody just sort of jumped aboard. I do run a tight ship, which is not common in nightlife. I take this seriously, because it does have my name on it I feel like I have to bring that professional edge to it. We are doing this for a paying audience. That fact that it is a Stonewall is really thrilling. I feel what we do needs a good solid foundation.
JR: Well, you do seem to be acquiring a legion of loyal fans. The last show that I went to was packed. What was the reaction by the people who maybe don’t understand burlesque or boylesque, or don’t know what do expect at a “Homo Erectus” show?
MK: It’s been mostly positive. When Stephen Merritt came to his tribute show, he wasn’t 100% sure what to expect! He was telling me this, and I was like, “Oh, that’s great! I love when people come here and they DON’T know what to expect, because honestly, I don’t know what to expect”. What you can expect to see is talent, fun costumes, sexy men, and lots of fun.
What is “boylesque”? What is “burlesque”? It’s still being defined. Burlesque, as far as humanity is concerned, is a relatively new concept. Its like 150 years old… so if you compare it to ballet, which is several hundred years old, that’s relatively recent. So where still in the definition period of what “burlesque” is… and then “boylesque” is burlesque, but is this new little sub-genre which is still being defined as well. So, that’s the reason why I love this. We’re helping that vocabulary along. So… I’d say that the reactions are mostly positive. We have let a couple of people in from the downstairs level of Stonewall who didn’t know what the show was, and they sort of get confused and even angry, because they maybe were expecting “Magic Mike”, Chippendales, or Greek Gods. The reaction to that confusion sometimes is anger, and sometimes rejection and negativity thrown at the person. Luckily, those things have been few and far between… but it does create that dialogue. I hope that those people go home and think about what they saw and how they reacted to it. If somebody doesn’t want to see that, then I’d rather they don’t come. The more genuinely you put your true self out there, I think that people are open to that and appreciate that… and then it also empowers THEM to do the same! It has been positive because I think NYC is thirsty for a drink of something new, fun, friendly, and sexy!!!!
JR: You mentioned how some people may compare burlesque to “Magic Mike” or the Chippendales… but classic burlesque has never been solely about sexuality. There are also elements of comedy, and pageantry involved.
MK: I love all this conversation about semantics! I have to disclaim this is all my take on this. There is nothing wrong with “Magic Mike” or Chippendales. I would say “theatre” is the difference. Burlesque is a theatrical art form. We put “Sex Work” on the top of the chart: You’ve got porn, you’ve got strippers, and on the fringe you do have burlesque/drag. So then I’d say you have “strip club” and “burlesque”. I wouldn’t say that one form is superior to another– because I do think that they are married– happily!– but I think that what burlesque brings that stripping does not is a theatricality, a story, comedy. When burlesque declined in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and go-o started… and the producers didn’t want any clever stuff. “We just want you to take your clothes off and dance!” My style of Go Go is what I call “geisha style”, where I go out and I talk to people. I would engage people intellectually and socially while I’m standing there in a jock strap. I was talking to someone about Salvatore Dali or something like that, and he said something like, “Wow, that’s way too smart for a go-go boy.” People that see Burlesque want to be mentally stimulated as well. The cleverness is part of the fun! I think intelligence is very sexy.
JR: I’ve always thought so!
MK: So have I… but some people believe that they are mutually exclusive. I never understood that… because sex begins in the mind. You have to stimulate someones brain first, and get them to start thinking about stuff. Once their imagination starts running, then really fun things start happening… and can happen later!
JR:How true! So, I know that you’re one of the busiest guys in New York City. What is it like being a true independent New York City artist?
MK: Thank you for that… because I do believe that I am an artist first, and I don’t mean that in a pretentious, “artist-with-a-capital-A”, being here with my pinkie raised kind of way. I have been embracing the term “Renaissance man” more and more… because I relate to it. I work really hard to stay informed and to nurture my curiosity of the world. it amazes me what things I was interested in when I was eight that are feeding me now. “Oh I’m obsessed with the Titanic. Now I can do a Titanic number!”… or “Now I’m obsessed with Greek mythology!”
JR: Do you have any icons in burlesque?
MK: Yes, I do… but I also have icons, period. In burlesque, of course one of my icons is Tigger. Tigger was at the very first show I ever went to, he was at my debut. Tigger is the godfather of boylesque. He has been very supportive and a wonderful Host at Homo Erectus. He has also been an invaluable resource. And of course, there’s Go Go Harder, who taught the Boylesque 101 class. His class was the best thing I could have done for myself. Harder is so talented, a great teacher and costume designer. We jokingly call him “Drag Daddy Harder”. You also have to look at the female performers. Women are the ones who started this… and as gay men, a lot of us do emulate women. So, we have female icons whether or not you take that on yourself. There are so many: Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz… Cherry Pitz I am a big fan of… Minnie Tonka, I absolutely love. She’s one of those people who when I am around, I just learn so much. Her performance in my January show was incredible. and educational. Jo Boobs Weldon, of course, wrote the handbook… but she’s another good resource too: someone I feel very comfortable reaching out to. As far as non-burlesque icons, I am a big fan of Salvador Dali, and Morrissey, Depeche Mode, Freddy Mercury, and Steven Merritt, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Quentin Crisp.Tori Amos is a big influence… and Bjork!. I could right Thesis on both of them. You think I am joking, I am not. Some of these are very stereotypical gay icons (Laughs), but these people did form my aesthetic and my philosophy towards art.
JR: Indeed! Now, sex is still a big part of burlesque…
MK: Thank God! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Yes! So, what do you personally find sexy in a guy?
MK: Calamity Chang told me once, “Burlesque brings the tease back to striptease!!” (Laughs) That’s the thing. Sally Rand, a fan dancer, would be naked, but she was covered by these huge ostrich feather fans… and it wasn’t so much about what she showed as much as what she DIDN’T show!
I’m sorry… What was the question? Oh yeah… “What is sexy?!” (Laughs)
People try to figure out what my “type” is, and I don’t really have a type! My type is human, you know? Burlesque has really challenged me. There have been times when I have been really turned on by female performers, and thought, “You know, if she tried really hard, she would convince me to sleep with her!”… because, it’s the human body. The higher self is sexless. So, I don’t necessarily think that sexiness comes from wanting to fuck someone. The thing I love about burlesque is that sexiness is timeless. Like, we live in a very ageist culture– and gay people are even more guilty of that than the straights. I’m over 30, and thank God, because I’m finally into guys who are my own age now! I always liked older guys, but wouldn’t kick someone who was younger out of bed either. I do like Bears, but I wouldn’t reject someone who was smooth or skinny either. I think it all depends on personality and confidence. Confidence, I think, is really what people think is sexy… not to be confused with arrogance. I definitely do not think arrogance– or entitlement– is sexy! I think it’s really a “Twilight Zone” “Eye of the Beholder” kind of thing. One person may say “fat”, while another may say “Venus de Milo”. There’s a pot for every lid. You just never know what pot and what lid might fit together! I try to keep an open mind. In my show, I don’t cast what I think is sexy. I have to admit that with “My Furry Valentine”, I wanted to do a hairy man show. I selfishly wanted to be backstage with a bunch of hairy naked men, because that’s what I wanted to see! (Laughs) But then, I also know that there’s a market for that… so I knew that I was not just being self-indulgent! I was actually trying to pay tribute to guys who I find sexy. I don’t want to have to fuck someone to cast them in my show. If you’re a good performer, that’s the first thing… and then if I think you’re sexy, then that’s an added bonus!
JR: That’s great! So, you mentioned age before. Let’s say there was someone who was on the older side who was thinking about going into burlesque. What would you tell them?
MK: I’d say that if they want to do it, do it! It’s just like everything else. If you want to learn Japanese flower arranging, then just do it. You don’t have to be Japanese or be a woman! I actually know a guy who’s super into that right now. Like anything else, I think you just have to give yourself permission to do it. Once you’ve given yourself that permission and opened yourself up to it, then you’ll be amazed at the response you’ll get. You do have to be prepared for it to be positive AND negative. You may be in a room full of people where you’re the lid that doesn’t fit on their pot.
JR: I’m sure you must get hit on a lot!
MK: People are kind of afraid of Matt Knife, I think. I can be a little shy, and I think that shyness sort of projects a “Don’t talk to me!” kind of vibe. I mean, I do OK (Laughs)! Don’t cry for me, Argentina! But it’s an interesting dichotomy. Mainly I am at a show to entertain the audience there. If I meet nice people, that is an added bonus.
JR: Along those lines: What age do you think that a guy or girl should just hang up their G-string once and for all?
MK: When they’re dead! (Laughs) When they just can’t physically do it anymore! And even when they can’t physically do it any more, some people do it. Why not? There’s a burlesque performer named Satan’s Angel who’s is a mature women still going strong. Its timeless. It really is. But you’re also talking to someone who is attracted to maturity and attracted to wisdom. Again, it goes into the fact that the brain is connected to the penis: This person’s wisdom is sexy! This person’s experience is sexy! That’s the thing I love about burlesque: It really does force you to accept people, flaws and all– even if they perceive their age to be a flaw.
But, to answer your question: Yes, death is when you should stop! But also, when you stop having fun. That’s my first rule about Homo Erectus or any project I do: If you’re not having fun, then you’re not doing it right. You’d be breaking my first rule there, and then you should be like, “Maybe I need to be doing something else!”
JR: I’m a firm believer in having fun! So, let’s talk about the Bear community, since I know you’ve performed at a lot of Bear events. A lot of guys believe that their identifying as a Bear has to do with reclaiming their– and I am going to use another buzzword here– “masculinity”! Meaning, it’s a rebellion against that over-polished, over-groomed image of gay men. How do you feel about that?
MK: It’s interesting. I think I’ll disagree that the Bear community dislikes labels… because I actually think that the Bear community LOVES labels! (Both laugh.) I feel that labels are prisons. It’s like, “Oh, you’re a Bear!”, and I’m like, ‘Bear’ can be a loaded word for some people, because some hear ‘Bear’ and they think ‘300 pound guy’… and someone who’s not a 300 pound guy but who’s hairy may not want to be lumped in with that group of people… but, you know what? “You are, Blanche!” Some have called me a Bear, and thank you, because I feel that that’s the closest thing I am. “Otter” never fit with me. I’m not an otter! I am not a little animal that…breaks shells on my belly (Both laugh.) “Satyr” works for me, because I’m hairy from the waist down and I’m also Pagan. I think that it more accurately describes the kind of body hair I have. I don’t know. I’ve watched some documentaries about Bear culture, and I think that they have become worse than the community that they were rebelling from. I mean, some of the tone that these people use: that we eschew femininity, or that you have to drink beer, or be a specific kind of gay person. I have a beard because I like it… but I also like to wear eye makeup… and I like to sit with my legs crossed…
JR: Well, you HAVE to if you’re wearing a kilt! (Laughs)
MK: (Laughs) I have a dick, so I feel that anything I do is masculine… and I know some pretty masculine transmen who don’t have penises, and they challenge even THAT definition. As I said, the higher self is genderless. Gender is social. It’s a conditional thing. It’s a clothing thing. The costume designer in me gets frustrated because everything we wear is a costume… and the Bear community is like, “This is to show everybody that I’m a man! I’m gonna wear my sleeveless shirt and cargo shorts…” No, sweetie. You’re in a uniform. You’re in a costume. You’re in your “Bear drag”! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what I do think is wrong is when you’re not AWARE of that! The awareness of the fact that it’s a costume is one thing, but then when you say it’s a lifestyle choice and that it has to be this way, then I feel bad for you: You’ve really dug yourself into a hole… and I want to try to help liberate people from that. If you want to wear a sleeveless plaid shirt and cargo shorts and you feel sexy in that, then do it. But don’t think that you’re more of a man because you do it this way, and I’m wearing a kilt with painted nails. It’s ALL drag… It really is! I am a man, and it takes balls to be Matt Knife.
JR: Speaking of the kilt…
MK: Wear a kilt, because they’re hot, and they’re comfortable. Guys. you’ve never known the joy of peeing until you’ve done it in a kilt. Women find it sexy, and men find it sexy, and you have easy access, and it’s warm… It’s just wonderful. Men in skirts. Just do it!
JR: Well, I’ve always said that a guy in a kilt is always sexy! So, lastly, where can we see you next?
MK: The next Homo Erectus will be on May 23, which is our Steampunk Show, which I’m really super excited about. The Goth kid and the dress-up part of me is gonna come out… and I think Steampunk is very sexy! June 13th is our year anniversary show. We started June last year during Pride, and World Famous B*O*B was our hostess… and she is reprising her hostess role this year too. She is honoured to do it, and we are honoured to have her. Add World Famous B*O*B to that list of people who have been really supportive from the start, but “realistically” supportive… and that will be our “Duet” show. That’s something you don’t often see– a whole show of duets– because it gets expensive. But it’s our Pride show and our Anniversary show, so it’s worth it! There’s gonna be a lot of women in that one, because I’ve been overwhelmed with the response from the female burlesque community. We usually have one spot in our show for a female performer, and I am open to having a woman host. As a gay man I just love watching women perform, I feel that the normal formula is usually a lot of women and one man, and we kind of flipped that around: a lot of men and one woman… and also to Honor our foremothers.
JR: Sounds like fun! So, is there anything else you’d like to tell the masses? Besides “Come to Homo Erectus!”?
MK: Yes, come to Homo Erectus… but the bigger thing outside of burlesque is: I feel that artists are an incredibly valuable resource in American society… and I think we’re incredibly DE-valued… so I would really encourage everybody to support their local artists in any capacity: painters, live performers… Somebody doesn’t have to be on “American Idol” to be talented. They don’t have to be anointed by media or the powers that you perceive being above that. If you like someone’s art, then support them. They need your money and you’re support… And that’s what I’d like to leave off with. (Pauses) Sorry, I didn’t mean to get on my soapbox!
Whether it’s on a soapbox or on a big black box at a nightclub, Matt Knife ALWAYS makes a statement! See more about Homo Erectus at their Facebook page, http://www.Facebook.com/NYCBoylesque.
Top Hat Photo Credit: Kaz Senju
Heart Photo Credit: Dick Mitchell
Matt Knife Painted: Francine the Lucid Dream