We were very lucky for burlesque legend, Dee Milo, who’s still performing at the age of 81, to grant Burlexe an interview with her. Here’s her story…
Dee Milo Burlesque Legend
How did you get into burlesque? I got into burlesque because I was told I couldn’t do it. I was tending bar at the Barbary Coast, in San Francisco, California and they were hiring dancers. I said, “I could do that.” They said, “Oh no you can’t.”
So I went to New Orleans, learned how to dress and dance for burlesque by a famous mistress of ceremony at a club on Bourbon Street. I returned to San Francisco and the Barbary hired me on the spot.
From there, I worked at top theatres in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, etc. As well as Japan and Mexico. In between the feature bookings, I also worked clubs all over the U.S. I had a fantastic agent who insured that I had the best travel accommodations and hotel rooms for every booking.
What did burlesque teach you? Burlesque taught me independence, resilience and to not trust anyone. Because of this, I didn’t follow anyone or make any friends within the business.
Basically, when you were a headliner, everyone wanted to take your place and it could get very cut-throat. So, it was important to be cautious and careful. Right now, however, burlesque is wonderful and the performers’ self-confidence is amazing.
What was your most triumphant moment? My paydays. I was very well paid! Being the feature attraction at all those famous theatres was also very rewarding.
And your best routine? My most famous routine was an undress to a re-dress, done to the music of ‘Sentimental Journey‘. The lyrics to the music tell the story. This was in the early 1950s and World War II was over. I’d come out on the stage in street clothes, carrying a suitcase. Then, the undress would begin.
I’d take a negligee and gown out of the case and put it on and then have the gown drop from under the negligee. Then a handsome, young man would enter and approach me as we slowly glided down onto a bed, as the stage lights went out. The audience went wild and would scream, “More, more, more!” It was a long number-10 to 12 minutes. Nowadays, you only get around three or four minutes for a routine.
Were you happy burlesque dancing or did you aspire to be an actress, for example? Being an actress at that time was horrible. The couch was always waiting for you: “If I do this for you, I expect you to do this for me.” I’d tell them, “Go get lost, I don’t need you and what you are offering.”
I was very independent. For me, it wasn’t at all important to be an actress or a special dancer. At that time, what I was doing was working just fine
Why did you give up? In 1964, at the urging of my mother, I decided to return home to Salt Lake City, Utah and take up the city’s foremost religion. I felt it was probably time for a change in lifestyle and that I should put down roots and be with family and have a place that you could stay forever.
Watch the Burlesque Hall of Fame, Walk of Fame starring Dee Milo alongside other burlesque legends:
What was your life like when you were burlesque dancing? Usually, the jobs were two week contracts. A theatre was 1 – 2 weeks contract and I already had my next destination booked.
My agent took care of everything. I didn’t have to do much thinking about where I would be working next. Many of the gals didn’t have a good agent, got into trouble, and were taken advantage of. I had a good luck charm or whatever you want to call it.
What were the audiences like at burlesque shows? If it was a mixed audience, they were very appreciative and accepted burlesque. Burlesque wasn’t just striptease, there were other acts as well.
If I featured in a nightclub, I was the only burlesque act there. Otherwise, I worked with singers, hypnotists, magicians, comedians… It was more like vaudeville.
The restrictions on what you could take off and how you could move your hips were different in every state. In Mexico, you couldn’t show your legs on the marquee or in ads promoting the show. They had to be covered
Was there still the debate about whether burlesque was stripping or an art form? Yes, there were two sides: those who appreciated it for the art form it was and those who thought it was shameful.
My mother thought it was horrible and evil; however, she enjoyed the money I sent her from my performing. There are always two sides to everything in life.
What’s been your greatest challenge? Staying healthy and correcting the abuse I had done to my body when I was performing. I worked nightclubs and I did like to drink quite a bit!
The challenge was to keep my body functioning. When I returned to Salt Lake City, I felt I needed to do some correction and healing of my body, so I learned reflexology, studied acupressure and massage therapy.
I had a lot of body pain, then. Where I’m at now – 81 years old – I think I’m doing very well, considering the abuse I put my body through, over those years.
Why did you get back into burlesque dancing? I was asked to perform at Exotic World, by Dixie Evans, at her annual burlesque show in California. This event includes past and present performers and I thought it would be fun to return to my “burlesque roots,” so to speak.
It has been fun to participate each year and everyone has been so gracious and wonderful, gals and guys, alike, have spoiled me rotten. This time around, it’s more friendship and association. That wasn’t there before, as I have mentioned. Now, it is totally different. It’s camaraderie, buddy-buddy, friendship, whatever name you want to call it – but no performance money.
What advice would you give the girls today? To love and accept yourself as you are. Don’t worry about changing anything. It isn’t all about how skinny you are, or how big your boobs are.
It’s about having the guts to go on stage, remove your clothes and give a fantastic performance. There are many beautiful full-figured performers out there, now, as well as petite or tall – the audiences love and appreciate them all.
Do you still have any ambitions? I have dedicated my life to becoming the best healer and shaman in the country. My goal is to help people feel better in their bodies.
I want to keep myself healthy, my thoughts on the positive side and not get tied up in the fear and negativity that surrounds us so much these days. Stress is the worst enemy. It targets the body and mind. Believing in yourself is essential.
I know that if I keep myself centred, I can help someone else feel better and more comfortable inside their body. If I can reduce their pain by at least 50%, I feel very successful. If I can relieve it by more than 50% – I’m elated!!
Enjoy the amazing story of that Dee Milo red dress.
You can also watch our video on what burlesque means