Montreal’s Bagel Burlesque Expo Unfolds With High Emotion and Glitter

Canadian Burlesque Star Judith Stein Tells Her Story

Host and drag artist Uma Gahd performed her catwoman piece. Photo Bree Rockbrand

Is there a better way to experience the glittery, strange, extravagant, and sometimes absurd neo-burlesque scene in Montreal than to visit the Bagel Burlesque Expo?

On April 26 and 27, the Bagel Burlesque Expo’s fourth edition welcomed between 250 and 300 burlesque enthusiasts, and hosted workshops, and two evenings of performances. The name makes a cheeky allusion to Montreal’s claim to fame, from its infamous bagel to the 1967 Expo.

“Neo-burlesque is different for everybody,” said co-producer Lulu Des Belles Mirettes. She added that everyone has their own definition, and that for her, it’s a blend of comedy, geekiness, and overall absurdity.

Judith Stein

To start off this year’s festival, I headed to the workshop “My Story—Life as a Canadian Burlesque Legend” given by Canadian performer Judith Stein.

On the Saturday morning, light was pouring in through the windows of the studio on Ste. Catherine St. Stein sat with a coffee by her side, dressed in a classy black suit, neat blue ascot tied loosely around her neck and patent leather heels for that peep of glitz.

Stein has seen it all and bared it all. She’s been a topless waitress at an Oregon restaurant in the late 60s and early 70s, and made her way to Guam, dancing for Japanese soldiers.

She told us the tale of how she was almost caught smuggling cocaine into the country, and of how life on the road meant short-lived love stories with other touring artists she would never see again.

After 20 years of performing worldwide, Stein went into retirement in her 40s. She chose to retire by the mountains and calm lakes of Nelson, B.C. to make nightgowns.

Bibi Lolo Bang Bang graced the stage with a gender-bending drag performance.

Now in her 60s, Stein is back to performing around the world, giving talks and tips to newer burlesque performers. She was pleasantly surprised to find the world of neo-burlesque, where anybody can get up on stage and bare it all.

“Stripping is political,” said Stein. Neo-burlesque doesn’t hold prejudice. It is for all genders, every body type, and, as Stein has proven, for every age.

Lillian Bustle

One performer who advocates for diversity and inclusion is Lillian Bustle. On the Saturday night performance, she came onto stage donning nothing but a black housecoat.

The self-professed “fat-activist” campaigns for beauty in all shapes and sizes, bringing her politics into her performance.

A single spotlight shone onto Bustle as she slowly stripped, revealing the word “NO” written on her body. She sustained a fierce gaze—the moment of vulnerability was poignant and raw.

After a few moments of a gaze shared between her and the audience, the music rolled in, charged with intensity. Bustle scrubbed the “NO” off her body, then proceeded to write “YES” across her chest, and the crowd went wild.

She ran into the audience, throwing pens across the floor. We locked eyes, and she nodded her head. Instantly, I launched towards a pen, grabbing it. Audience members begin to write the word “YES” all over her body.

Her arms were open wide, and she is smiling big in a moment of release and liberation. The energy—the excitement, the kindness—was palpable.

She made her way back onto the stage, the spotlight shining over her one more time. She smiled, put her hands up in the air. She received a standing ovation, I felt shivers run down my spine.

“Stripping is political.” — Judith Stein

Bustle was just one of over 20 performers in Saturday night’s show.

“We try to make sure we get a variety of performers and genres”, said Lulu Des Belles Mirettes. The festival gets over 200 video submissions each year, and the jury has to go through them together.

“Because we are a jury, we each get to pick what we like,” the co-producer added. “Some of the performances this year were not something I would have picked, but somebody else likes it. This way, we know we are getting variety.”

The performances’ themes are diverse, and many performers are local, while others came from as far away as California just to dance on stage for one song, network with other performers and meet fans.

Bibi Lolo Bang Bang

A gender-bending drag performance, Bibi Lolo Bang Bang dressed in drag as a macho-man, with muscles and mustache, sporting a flirtatious grin.
The whole bit unfolded with the performer trying to pick up a heavy weight that didn’t really exist. “I chose this idea because I had this costume,” explained Bang Bang by email. “I was inspired with the concept of laughing about men who really want to look strong and have muscle because they think it’s really sexy and important. But it is just superficial.”

Drag is something that was explored a lot in the burlesque realm—Bagel Burlesque’s host Uma Gahd is a drag artist. Montreal showcases drag king burlesque (a show Manspread, taking place at the Wiggle Room a couple times a year)—this gender-bending performance discusses notions of hypermasculinity.

“I think the general message from all this act is: Inside every strong man there’s a strong woman,” added Bang Bang in a final message.

Vivian Van Guard

Vivian Van Guard’s performance told the tale of a lonely military wife, home alone awaiting her husband’s return from the army. She bounced across the stage in a 50s dress, eventually stripping down an army-inspired lingerie set.

Dr. Orifice and Shaanlesque

One of the weirdest performances of the night was delivered by Dr. Orifice and Shaanlesque. Have you ever wanted to see Shaggy and Scooby hit the bong, rip a face off a man, then proceed to pull his limbs apart in a raining cascade of red confetti before helping each other strip down to pasties and thongs? I didn’t think it was exactly what was missing in my life, but it was.

Fairy Floss performed a birth scene with old-school roller skating.

Gigi Marx

Montreal’s own Gigi Marx performed a rendition of Macbeth. Dressed in Shakespearean garb, the dancer ebbed under red light, flowing across the stage in an interpretive dance-like strip-tease. Dramatic and theatrical in the low-level lighting, Marx took up the whole stage with her captivating moves.

Fairy Floss

Fairy Floss, another Montreal favourite, performed a birth scene, and included old-school roller skating. Nestled in a pink egg, she slowly unfurled from the inside, gliding across the stage in feathery-pink wings.

Fairy Floss’ performance felt alien yet somehow comforting, commenting on the absurdity of coming into being.

April O-Peel

Vancouver’s April O-Peel revived the age-old “lonely housewife orders pizza” fantasy. Clad in a luxurious, feathery housecoat, the performer ordered a pizza, only to have it come to life as she relished in it, falling to the ground and passionately communing with two slices.

The infamous Judith Stein ended the night with her “long pants” act, in which she asked a member of the audience to pull her pants off for her, revealing a glitzed out red lingerie set.

After a night of over 20 performances, the cast members took a final bow. The night had offered a little bit of something for everyone.

In a previous version of this article, Bagel Burlesque’s host’s name was misspelled as Uma Ghad, when it is in fact, Uma Gahd. The Link regrets this error.