HELENDALE, Calif. -- Daisy Delight, Queen of the Jungle, shimmies out of her leopard-skin robe and shakes her breasts at the crowd below, strutting down the runway in a matching leopard G-string, gold-sequined pasties and a belt of jungle beads. The audience shrieks and whistles with delight, and rightfully so; she's tall, leggy, blond and has, quite frankly, a great pair. It's not until she looks me straight in the eye from three feet away and grins that I notice she's missing a bunch of her teeth. But she's still pretty hot for a septuagenarian.
Welcome to the Miss Exotic World 1997 pageant at the Exotic World Burlesque Museum midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Like the old Route 66 signs and boarded-up orange juice stands on the way here, Exotic World is an echo of a different era, when Cadillacs had fins and strippers wore gloves, feathers and tasseled pasties.
Today, old-style burlesque is for all commercial purposes defunct, and the dancers of that era either dead or retired. When Dixie Evans -- whose striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe brought her fame and fortune as a stripper in the '50's and '60s -- took over the leadership of the Exotic Dancers League of America in 1991, the organization was washed up. "At our annual reunion about three girls showed up. One lady was in a wheelchair, the other could barely stay awake, and then there was me. I decided we better do something quick or else give up. So I decided we'd have a contest."
Evans sent out press releases announcing the first Miss Exotic World contest to every media outlet she could imagine. "I didn't lie or anything, but the announcement said that Tempest Storm, Mamie Van Doren and a couple other famous burlesque era dancers 'had been invited to appear,' which is true, I did invite them, even though I knew they probably wouldn't show up." Evans' PR strategy paid off. "We had television trucks, news crews and magazines from all over and it was a big success."
Since then, Miss Exotic World has taken place every June, on a dead-end road outside of Helendale, between Victorville and Barstow. This year, a reporter for the German TV network PRO7 wanders with his crew through the audience before the pageant begins. Straining to be heard over the thumping Ba-Doom-Ba-Dah of Link Protrudi and the Jayhawks, a self-described rock-'n'-roll burlesque band, the reporter shoves his boom mike toward a walrus-faced middle-aged man and asks, "Why did you come here today? What attracted you here?" The man rocks back in his seat, cracks open a beer in a foam rubber holder and smiles, "I came here because I like exotic women. I especially like them with very little clothes on. That's why I come here every year."
The microphone is shoved in front of the man's wife and the question repeated. "I came here for the same reasons he did," she says, blushing.
The 300 or so attendees can be broken down into three basic groups: The mostly middle-aged and older local residents of nearby Mojave desert towns like Victorville and Palmdale; hordes of journalists representing three different European TV stations, several newspapers, Detour magazine, Salon and several independent film or book projects; and last but not least, young, urban hipsters from Los Angeles and San Francisco drawn here largely by word of mouth or past years' media coverage.
When the first act, Julie Uto, a 40-something travel agent from Riverside who first started stripping in the 1970s, hits the stage for her bump and grind, class warfare nearly erupts. Whipped into a lather by the chance to capture this Real Live Authentic Slice of Americana on film, hordes of genuine and wannabe photojournalists, including me, have stormed the stage with everything from Steadycams and Hasselblads to disposable box cameras. The people in back, the real fans, go ballistic.
"Hey, sit down you media assholes! We can't see!" screams a blond-wigged woman in the back. "We're the ones who paid to be here. Sit the fuck down!"
Uto's act is a basic girl-with-a-chair gig ending with her in a G-string and not much else -- sexy, but hardly what we drove 100 miles through Joshua trees and creosote bush to see. Things take a swift turn for the weirder when the next "girl" takes the stage. She's Gloria Pall, aka "Voluptua," whose risumi touts a long list of movie credits, including "Jailhouse Rock" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Her shuffling routine involves a pink chiffon dress and hat with a marabou boa that ends with her wearing -- surprise! -- a pink chiffon dress and hat with a marabou boa. Later, Voluptua explained to me that she'd never worked as a stripper, only played one in the movies, and she was just here to show her solidarity with the other women.
In most strip clubs of the '90s, the dancers quickly bare as much flesh as local ordinances allow and then gyrate down the line hustling for tips. The erotic tension stems from having some sexy 20-year-old grinding her naughty bits inches from your face, although you know there's no crossing those inches -- unless, of course, you want some big guy throwing your ass out onto the street. But here at Exotic World, stripping is something else entirely. The erotic tension ebbs and flows with every wink, every garment dropped, whirling through the audience like dust devils blowing in off the desert.
"The difference," explains Dixie Evans, "is that the old girls take something off and do it slowly. If you're going to take a stocking off, you peel it down. Before you take off your top you play with the straps, make a couple false moves. Back in the old days we had so much wardrobe it was crazy, rooms and rooms full. But these days there's no revenue in a bunch of costumes and feathers. If a nightclub did only that kind of act, it would go broke."
There are several grandmothers dancing today, but not everyone on stage is ready to collect Social Security. A number of young strippers have turned out to put their new twist on this old art. Miss Catherine De-lish, a diminutive but stacked blond who won last year's Miss Exotic World with an act that ended with her splashing around in a six-foot tall champagne glass, outdoes herself this year by stripping from a black widow dress to a tiny G-string before climbing around on a 10-foot-tall spider web lip-synching to "I'm a Woman. W-O-M-A-N!"
Megan Lennon, an aspiring young journalist from New York who arrived intending only to write about the event, ends up baring it on stage while the resident Elvis impersonator sings "Love Me Tender." One of the older strippers convinced her to take it all off. Though it's obvious she's terrified and her act is a bit, well, slow (after all who can dance sexy to "Love Me Tender"?), the audience goes wild watching her initiation into the world of stripping.
But in the end, it is the older "girls" that everyone came here for, even the other young strippers. "It's wonderful that this even exists," says Harvest King, whose burlesque group, the Cantankerous Lollies -- five girls and a scary-looking clown named Paradox -- drove all night from San Francisco to perform here. "These older strippers are like heroes to us. We were wondering how they'd accept us just showing up here. Now we're walking on air. They were all so sweet to us."
Larry Clark, the event emcee, put his spin on the attraction, "People often equate nudity with sex, and a lot of women in stripping, when they get older, try to get rid of their sexuality. If these women are able to address and keep their sexuality, more power to them. God bless them."