All Tied Up

Inside London's Underground Burlesque and Fetish Scene

Los Angeles may seem like the land of excess and debauchery, but it’s got nothing on London when it comes to kinky nightlife.

08.12.14 9:50 AM ET

LONDON — “I am back, bitches,” yelled the yellow-haired drag queen with starched black eyelashes who looked like Goldilocks wearing a Super Woman ensemble put together from the contents of local garbage cans. She’s paired thigh-high, red-rubber boots with a yellow wooly leotard that matches her over-dyed locks.

She is addressing the “over-priced rent boys” in the Friday-night audience at Boylexe, an alternative burlesque event with a gay twist in the huddled basement of The Shadow Lounge.

The acts at Boylexe look nothing like the burlesque I experienced several years ago at the 40 Deuce club, an insider venue in Los Angeles where the audience was all glamorous, cool Hollywood types in shades watching the subtle female seduction on stage, a la Dita von Teese.

Photos from The Stage at Cafe De Paris Saturday 22nd February 2014 by Tigz Rice Studios.

Tigz Rice Studios

Dancers at Cafe de Paris.

At the entrance to Boylexe, on the other hand, a campy bronzed man with a mustache and red-and-white skin-tight circus pants and a naked chest stands smoked into the night, like a lost circus trouper hoping he has found a new home where he can fit in with the mischievous behavior and unruly antics.

The London burlesque scene is something entirely different from L.A.’s—wilder, irreverent, daring, and provocative in an untamed kind of fashion. I had decided to explore what the debauched night scene had to offer under the direction of James Drury, publisher of the Burlesque Map of London and the Fetish Map of London, two fold-up guides published annually.

“The city was crying out for it,” Drury said. “People don’t know where to go for this information and these events.”

Each year, he recommends dungeons where one can go to play; premium latex shops; bondage events like Bound at The Flying Dutchman; transvestite nights, including The Way Out Club in the East End; and good-old fashioned burlesque nights, as well as their more alternative sisters like Boylexe.

Boylexe is a spin-off of a show about women in burlesque called Burlexe, which likewise mixes striptease, monologue, and song. At the Friday night show, a man decked in a velvet outfit and feathers hen pecked a colleague in the ticket booth, attempting to dress him properly. It looked like a rooster squabble in a tiny bird’s nest with the feathers flying.

A naked dancer held a towel around his waist as he slicks back his hair in the ladies toilets. “Oh, sorry,” he says. On stage later, he appeared dressed in a military uniform to do a seductive dance with an unidentified flag whipping around his firm butt. When he turns around, he revealed an American flag worn like a thong.  

During the break, I spoke to a group of young men who broke into a discussion about their favorite fetishes after hearing about the maps. “My fetish is penises,” declared one before the show started up again with a leather boy stripping and some dreadful singing from the host.

As I was pondering my own fetish (perhaps men in suits, especially the Savile Row variety), the evening culminated with the feathered host, dressed like a troubadour whipping the audience into a hysterical mantra: “If you don’t want to fuck me, I don’t fucking care.”

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The next stop on the map was in the suburbs at the home of Bruce Esinem, who teaches and performs Shibari, an ancient form of Japanese rope art, or bondage. “It is like Tango with ropes,” Esinem explained as he tied up my hands behind my back in an artful, intimate engagement of bodies and ropes to the Tango tunes playing in the background.

Esinem has worked on Tom Ford’s Bondage collection and photo shoots for the A to Z of magazines. With his partner, Nina, he runs Bound, the Shibari event at The Flying Dutchman, where he demonstrates his art while people socialize.

“Bondage is becoming quite respectable. WykD tied Lady Gaga and there is the photo of it in the Louvre,” Esinem said.

It was a sensual and erotic experience combined with a sense of caress and control that was definitely worth exploring more, I thought, as I hopped on the bus back into town.

The following night was the Saturday night mainstream burlesque event at the 90-year-old club, Cafe de Paris, on Leicester Square.  (Fridays are darker and more alternative.) A fat Russian ballerina with a beer belly swore at his new recruits, macho men from the audience who were made to dance Bayadere like decaying fairies, their arms drooping hopelessly above their heads.

From left, Meth and Randolph Hott at Boylexe.

Magnus Arrevad

From left, Meth and Randolph Hott at Boylexe.

Then came a bisexual diva who pressed the faces of men and women into her chest, before trying to chat them up and running off with the champagne bottles on their tables, singing about finding a lover who was rich and old. A more than voluptuous dancer in a gold glitter outfit took to the stage and stripped to “Goldfinger,” wobbling like a belly dancer with her boobs in gold nipple tassels, which were on sale during the break.

Franco Milazzo, editor-in-chief of This Is Cabaret and a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s burlesque and fetish culture, agreed that the scene varies on either side of the pond. And he thinks London is definitely more kinky.

“The general feeling I get is that it seems to be that London is more accepting of kink, more tolerant of performance art and far less conservative in general,” he said.

“Any fetish fan coming to London should consider nights like Torture Garden, Antichrist, and Kinky Salon. More mainstream but no less fun is the Torture Garden offshoot Belle Epoque Dark Circus,” he said, adding that Torture Garden, Antichrist and Kinky Salon include cabaret acts to greater or lesser degrees.

It’s Your Funeral, on the other hand, shows how kink and fetish can explore societal taboos. “This evening fits right in with its sexed-up take on death. It is still a very young production finding its feet but I’d like to think the idea has legs,” said Milazzo.

“Not exactly kinky but still utterly amazing are the legendary White Mischief events,” Milazzo adds. 

Held three times per year at the Scala, a large venue outside Kings Cross, White Mischief features an entire room full of cabaret acts as well as other performers, puppeteers, and interactive theatre people who are stationed around the three-floor building. This year, White Mischief is taking a break from its usual big productions and having a number of more intimate soirees.

“The best thing about the nights is the costumes, which are fabulous homemade steampunk-inspired creations to fit the night’s theme,” said Milazzo.

For S&M, the legendary gay pub and cabaret venue The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is worth checking out, especially for the occasional Barelesque shows which are all about the charity…and the nudity. The stage manager is a rubber-clad domme and there are various S&M happenings through the night.

Other recommendations from Milazzo include The Double R Club, a monthly night with its own distinct, dark Lynchian vision and structure. Veronica Blacklace is also worth seeing. “She works on two shows which are unusual and kinky,” Milazzo said. Blacklace also hosts nights for Killing Kittens, a sex club of sorts with cabaret acts held at venues around the U.K.

Literature and fetish is also a popular combination. The Velvet Tongue is an erotic literary soiree held by poet Ernesto Sarezale. “You are always guaranteed to see Ernesto whip off his towel in the name of performance art,” Milazzo said. There’s also the popular Naked Boys Reading and its female variety, Naked Girls Reading. Think no clothes and “books held in strategic places.”

“The nature of the burlesque scene in London is as diverse as burlesque itself,” said Howard Wilmot, creator of Boylexe/Burlexe. “It is a fabulous scene.