Montreal burlesque star Lavender May goes mushroom hunting
From burlesque to boletes: How Lavender May reconnected with a part of herself—and invented puffball poutine
When Lavender May saw a picture of herself foraging mushrooms, she laughed so hard she cried.
She was head-to-toe in drab blue, save for her shabby, mud-stained running shoes, backwards camo cap, and a canvas bag hanging like a bindle from a long stick on her shoulder. “I laughed so hard because I don’t recognize this girl,” she said.
The woman in the photograph is far from the one who reigns over the glitzy world of Montreal burlesque. A veteran of the stage, the 29-year-old has opened for AC/DC and been named the city’s best burlesque performer three years running in Cult MTL’s Best of Nightlife rankings.
As a performer, May projects dazzling confidence. Her costumes, often shimmering, can be luxurious even when made from scraps of broken necklaces and brooches. At times when her outfits border on outlandish, she retains an immutable feminine glamour.
She has toured Europe performing at events such as the London Burlesque Festival, the continent’s biggest. Until this spring, she could most often be found at Old Montreal’s Bord’Elle, where she is often accompanied on stage by an aerialist.
While May was able to return to live performances for a time, Bord’Elle is again closed due to COVID restrictions.
When Montreal first descended into lockdown due to the pandemic, May embraced virtual shows but missed the energy of a real audience. “Having a response is part of burlesque,” she said. “Making people react.”
Without all the excitement of show business, May found herself in a reflective mood. She watched old videos and appreciated how far she’s come as an artist. Yet, she found the need to reconnect with another side of herself, a side she associates with the name her parents gave her.
“I need to take care of Marie-Sophie, not just Lavender May,” she said.
May grew up visiting her parents’ cabin outside of Trois-Rivières. She never realized the pines of Saint-Boniface were packed with mushrooms until this summer, when her boyfriend developed an interest after going mushroom hunting with his dad.
The couple tried foraging on their own and started by picking everything—a beginner’s mistake, May said. Still, their confidence grew as they immersed themselves in online forums and identified many edible boletes.
“We went every week, and I was really excited,” May said. “I was dreaming about mushrooms. I was dreaming about mushroom hunting. When I’m at the cottage, I can’t wait to get up and go into the forest. It’s like a treasure hunt.”
Her new hobby brought her respite from the realities of 2020. “When you’re in nature, you forget all of this happening, and you need to do this at some point,” said May. “You need to feel free from this pandemic.”
May, also a producer and costume designer, traces her career back to her days of making prom dresses for other girls in high school. It wasn’t until she discovered burlesque that she realized this is what she had been making all along.
She grew up in Deux-Montagnes, but she knew her crowd was in cosmopolitan Montreal. She was working at a vintage clothing store in the Plateau 10 years ago when burlesque performer Tigerrr Lili approached her to perform in her show.
Before long, May had immersed herself in the city’s burlesque scene, making costumes and selling her creations at festivals. “For me, it’s a way of expressing myself,” she said.
“She’ll have flights of fantasy,” said fellow performer and former roommate Lady Josephine, who owns the Arabesque Burlesque dance studio.
Josephine recalls a trailer to promote Cake fête, a birthday show May produced in 2015 when the two lived together. “It just meant that we all had to dress up as naked Marie Antoinette and throw cake at each other. She just fully decorated our living room and had everything set up with a camera crew, and it was just so extra, and it was really fun.”
May has not always been so confident, she said. She recalls her first solo performance, at a restaurant, as a lesson in humility.
“I was selling cotton candy and nobody wanted to buy any from me, so I would throw all my cotton candy into the crowd and get naked,” she said. “That was my concept. But people were not expecting to get cotton candy in their spaghetti.”
The crowd had been muted as her song’s lyrics—“It’s oh so quiet. Shh! Shh! It’s oh so still”—resonated in the dining room.
“When you’re in nature, you forget all of this happening, and you need to do this at some point. You need to feel free from this pandemic.” — Lavender May
Even at the peak of her career, there can still be challenges. At Bord’Elle, a 1920s-themed bar and restaurant where she most often performs, diners are not always prepared for her brand of neo-burlesque—a genre that can incorporate LED lights, extra-terrestrials, and Star Trek.
“Sometimes people are just like, ‘Oh, what is she doing? Oh my God, she’s taking her clothes off,” she said.
“Even after 10 years, it still happens. That’s what I tell my students all the time. Don’t. Give. A fuck,” she said. “[...] Don’t wait for the applause.”
Still, the crowd’s reaction fuels May’s love of the stage. She gets her kicks from making people laugh. Burlesque, at its core, has always been about humour and exaggeration, she said. “How extraordinary is it to make people react just by taking a glove off?”
The COVID shutdowns have forced us to look at our identities, said Josephine. “It’s really lovely to see [May] digging deeper into Marie-Sophie, who has always loved nature,” she said. “I’ve been to her parents’ cabin with her, and it’s a beautiful place.”
Another friend, a fellow mushroom hunter who visited the cabin, described the surrounding woods as a “mushroom paradise.”
“You have to be open and let the mushroom spirit guide you through the forest,” said May.
Still, foraging cannot be taken lightly. Mushrooms can be dangerous, even deadly, and many varieties can look alike.
“My boyfriend is the one who decides what we eat and what we don’t eat,” said May. “He’s the one that is more mature and wise. Me, I’m like, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ He’s like, ‘No. No, no, no.’ That’s something his Dad taught him: Be humble.”
On the mycology groups she’s found online, the community doesn’t like when people simply ask if a mushroom is edible. It’s important to take the time to understand the classifications and nuances of identifying species. “There are a lot of people that are poisoned by mushrooms every year,” she said. “It’s not a joke.”
The pines surrounding her parents’ cabin are nevertheless rich with many safe varieties. May finds the parasitic lobster mushroom particularly interesting, but her favourite is the marshmallow-like puffball. It even inspired a culinary innovation: the puffball poutine.
“I’m definitely trademarking this if you put this in your article,” she said. “It’s definitely my idea. That was delicious.”
Diving in head first is nothing new for May.
Josephine recalls May becoming obsessed with organization when they lived together. “It was like weeks of separating boxes of beads and nails and safety pins and sparkles and rhinestones all mixed together, but then in that project she was just as focused and meticulous as in her art-making,” she said. “So I just remember seeing her shift into this extreme organizer. And then, invariably, it got messy again.”
Josephine describes May as a true artist, saying she’s seen how a dream or a spark of an idea can launch her friend into a flurry of creation.
It’s no surprise May’s new passion has found its way into her art. She finally completed an Alice in Wonderland on magic mushrooms concept she started in her first year performing. The time she’s spent in nature has also inspired a brand new show, which will be centred on ocean projections. “I want to make people more aware of the disappearance of the coral reef with a burlesque act,” she said.
While May looks forward to a return to normalcy, Montreal’s descent into the red zone this fall has muddied the path forward for burlesque in Montreal.
May was in the late stages of putting together a troupe called Les Amuse Girls when the city shut down in March. She worries a commitment to burlesque could wane for some, but she comforts herself with the knowledge that there are others like her—truly passionate.
“She really has a lust for life,” said Josephine, “grabbing everything she can get and building life as art. Artist who lives their life as artist—I think she really embodies that.”
This article originally appeared in The Food Issue, published November 3, 2020.