Burlesque's Kiss & Tells Respond to Social House II Controversy


  • Photo by Carrie Meyer/Insomniac Studios
  • The Kiss & Tells
On Wednesday afternoon, Sugar Kane, a performing member of the Kiss & Tells burlesque troupe, got a message from a friend: "There's an article in the RFT that you should look at."

The article was not welcome news, Kane recalls. It included photos from a November 2015 Kiss & Tells performance at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, which the RFT had covered at the time. But it put the photos in a totally new, and unexpected, context.

In the story, published that Wednesday, I reported that the burlesque performances had become "exhibit A" in a fight between University City and a new bar, Social House II, that hoped to open in the Loop with servers wearing only body paint from the waist up. The bar's attorney, Albert Watkins, had questioned why U. City leaders (including Blueberry Hill's owner, Joe Edwards) had lined up in opposition to Social House II — while not saying a peep about the burlesque performances.

But rather than leave it at that, the famously quotable Watkins took a few shots at the Kiss & Tells. His sixteen-page letter included a graphic “compare and contrast,” pairing images of servers at Soulard's Social House with photos from the Duck Room performance. And then he characterized the Duck Room shows as "oversized women partaking in cellulite and stretch marked accented burlesque."

The performers were stunned to find themselves thrust into a fight they'd known nothing about. And they were both horrified that the RFT had apparently granted Watkins use of the images and angry at our publicizing his cheap shots at their bodies.

(For the record, we did not grant anyone use of the images — we were as surprised as anyone to see them included in Watkins' letter, though we wouldn't argue with his right to use them, for reasons you can read about online if you're so inclined. We would argue with his cheap shots, but we're not his editor.)

"We were completely in the dark about any controversy whatsoever," Kane says. "All of sudden there were images from the show put in a letter with nothing we'd want to be associated with in any way."

To the Kiss & Tells, it also didn't help that Watkins seemed to be conflating several different burlesque troupes — they're not the only ones who've performed in the Loop or even at the Duck Room, which his letter didn't make clear. She says, "There were a lot of different levels of messed-up-edness in that letter." 

I talked to Kane on Thursday, and I get why the troupe is angry. They didn't ask to become part of this fight, much less to have someone take potshots at their appearance. 

"We are all proud of what we do," Kane says. "We're not ashamed of any of these photos. But we didn't want our bodies held up in a comparative argument by a man who doesn't know us and can't even get the details of our troupe right."

The Kiss & Tells is a relatively new troupe. The group formed just about two years ago, Kane says, and its eleven members (eight women, three men) share the goal of putting on original plays that include a burlesque element — more like musical theater with burlesque routines embedded in it than a typical revue.

"We're still very much in the growing stages," Kane says. And while they have performed at the Duck Room in the past, and intend to do so in the future, they're also looking for other venues, for reasons that have nothing to do with this controversy. Like any savvy entertainers, they simply want to expand their audience.              

And ultimately, that's how they've decided to respond to this situation. They aren't going to try to argue with Watkins; they're simply going to use the negative attention to bring more awareness to their message of body positivity and the funny, interesting shows they're mounting.

They still aren't thrilled with the RFT, and I get that. They asked that we publish a letter online explaining their position further, and I am happy to oblige. It's pasted in its entirety below.

For the record, we do not intend to alter our original story, but we will add a link to their letter so that as people continue to follow the Social House II controversy, they'll also think about the other people who've been affected — smart, brave performers who didn't ask to be dragged into this but, now that they're here, want to use the attention for good. 

And that, I'd hope, is something we can all get behind. They've got a show at R-Bar on March 26. I'm hoping I'll see you there.
Dear Editor,

We are extremely disappointed that the RFT would use its position as a news source to give a platform to such a negative story in your recent article “Social House II Lawyer Fires Back at U. City, With Burlesque Performances Exhibit A”. We were all greatly distressed to read this, given that the RFT has previously stated that they support the burlesque community, the real story should be about how a local lawyer is using body shaming tactics as political business maneuvers.

Let us be clear: - we do not stand in opposition to this restaurant or the concept behind it - we DO stand in opposition to the body shaming tone of the open letter written by Albert S. Watkins - we DO take issue with the RFT bringing attention to this article without consideration for how it would affect the subjects of the photographs and the larger community.

The photos in that letter were taken by an RFT photographer. We understand that as performers, we will have public images available for consumption. AND WE ARE NOT ASHAMED OF THOSE PHOTOS. It is the manner in which they were used, the language of the letter, the distortion of the photographs, and the comparative nature of the side by side photos that is completely unacceptable.

The Kiss & Tells have intentionally cultivated a message of body positivity for 2 years in St. Louis, and appreciate the opportunity to contribute to an overall body positive encompassing performance community. This being said, it is appalling and abhorrent to us that this letter supports the larger culture that tells us all that women are to be valued based purely upon their image.

As a performance troupe that creates art and influences culture, we know that our actions and words have real world effects. Similarly, this letter written by Albert S. Watkins and the RFT article that features it have real world effects that reinforce harmful beauty norms that tell people EVERYDAY that they are not good enough because of how they do or don’t look. Because of this, it is our opinion that both Albert S. Watkins and the RFT issue an apology not only to The Kiss & Tells, the entire burlesque community, and the St. Louis region, but to women everywhere.


The Kiss & Tells

We would also like to express our eternal gratitude and love for the overwhelming support we have received from producers, performers, fans, friends, business owners, and fellow humans. It means the world to us. We will continue to spread our message of body positivity and all bodies are beautiful despite this attempt to disparage us, our members, and our bodies.

Want to get better acquainted with us and learn what we're truly about? Come to Pop a Pastie...or Bust at R-Bar on Saturday, March 26!

#bodypositive #thekissandtells #burlesque #ppbust

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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