“It’s like that classic horror trope,” the performer known as Fancy Feast told The Huffington Post, “where the kid buys a mask from the creepy costume shop and the mask won’t come off. I’m not portraying somebody else when I’m onstage. That is me.”
Since she was 3 years old, Fancy, like many young kids, was drawn to the spotlight. Her parents, to this day, rehash memories of their daughter leading adults in improvised tour groups around the local aquarium. Also from a young age, Fancy, a conservative, Jewish girl growing up in Washington, D.C., liked to take her clothes off ― a perhaps less common, or at least less commonly-discussed, predilection.
Today, Fancy is a burlesque performer, which means she combines the art of striptease with other modes of vaudevillian entertainment ― comedy, short skits, perhaps a poem or political rant ― all executed with a sparkling, campy gravitas.
“When I really want to get out of conversations with people, I say I do short form experimental feminist performance art,” Fancy joked in the documentary “Fancy Feast ― The Fat Burlesque Performer,” by Leon Chase.
“I take my clothes off for money, just not a lot of money,” Fancy told HuffPost, an accomplishment she has worked toward since doodling showgirls in her elementary school notebooks. It’s the distinction of “not a lot,” she believes, which makes mainstream culture more accepting of burlesque than traditional stripping ― which is far more lucrative, and as a result, more reviled. “We’re all selling our bodies, we’re all selling our labor. Saying that stripping is sleazy but burlesque is art is ignorant and offensive.”
The stage name Fancy Feast is derived from the gourmet cat food brand ― a side-eyed wink to the burlesque tradition of sexy cat-inspired names like Kitty and Pussy Cat. As Fancy explains in her documentary, the name is partly a joke ― what is less “fuckable” than globular chunks of sopping fish-meat? But removed from their cat food connotation, the words “fancy” and “feast” conjure an image of luxury, pleasure and abundance ― an extravagant bodily banquet, served hot.
The moniker is mighty appropriate for a performer whose acts juggle vulnerability and artifice, beauty and ugliness, humor and gravity, desire and taboo in her every quixotic movement. Inspired by drag culture, Fancy performs femininity, sexuality and herself, her fabricated presentations soon toppling any distinctions between the carefully choreographed show and the so-called original.
Fancy, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, performs three nights a week on average. During her off time, she moonlights as a sex educator. But it’s her time onstage when Fancy feels like she is most herself, her identity and stage character having fused, “The Mask”-style, into a heightened persona that melds fantasy and reality.
“The character is me — just amped up a bit,” Fancy told HuffPost. “My values onstage reflect my values in real life. Once you get to know Fancy Feast, I always say, you don’t have to know the ‘me’ that goes to the gym or drinks a smoothie. The wishes and dreams of myself in my day-to-day life play out onstage. That’s who I am.”
In the performance that won her the Miss Coney Island 2016 burlesque beauty pageant title, Fancy ― donning a floor-length gold, sequin gown and feather headdress ― recited a poem that discussed her childhood dreams, tainted by the societal dictate that fat women don’t deserve to feel sexy or be seen. “I stood behind this very curtain and curtailed tears of joy for younger me who thought she’d never see a stage because she did not deserve eyes to look at her,” she said.
After the poem, Fancy slid out of her evening gown to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework” ― well, the first line, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”, remixed and replayed over and over again. Fancy then shimmied and strutted in a handmade bikini made from plastic cat food bags, becoming what she called a “trash queen.” The act ended when Fancy, clad only in plastic bag pasties, pulled a plastic bag out of her vagina and put it atop her head, to the audience’s wild applause.
“When my mom saw me perform for the first time, she said, ‘to be honest, you have always danced this way,’” Fancy said. “When I was a little girl and I had my Discman, I would listen to different songs and imagine a different image or movie for each one. Everything was very visual to me when I listened to music and I still feel that way.”
Some of Fancy’s acts stem from events that occurred in her life, or conversations she’s had with other performers. Often, an idea will originate as a preposterous passing whim that she then feels an odd compulsion to follow through to completion. Additionally, every year Fancy forces herself to do one thing she’s afraid of onstage. This year, for instance, she challenged herself to do a classic striptease, devoid of the comedic and narrative elements that normally characterize her routines.
Fancy pushes beyond her comfort zone not only in terms of what she performs, but where. She hosts a monthly showcase in Bushwick called the “Fuck You Revue,” but makes sure to venture beyond the Brooklyn art scene for crowds that may never have encountered burlesque ― or nude, fat bodies ― before.
“When I started performing, I made sure I was in a safe place to do that,” Fancy explained. “The first audiences I performed for were in the queer nightlife scene. It felt really wonderful, but I also felt like I was preaching to the choir. I thought, these people know me, they agree with my values, is this really what my goals are as a performer? I want to perform for people who have never seen burlesque before, who have never seen a fat person on stage. I need to get that message out to those people.”
Regardless of where she’s stripping down, Fancy still gets nervous before going onstage. In part, she attributes the persistent butterflies to the burden she bears as one of the few fat women in her line of work. “I do feel the need to do well as a sort of ambassadorship on the behalf of fat girls everywhere,” she says in Leon’s documentary. “Which is a joy and a piece of shit burden.”
In the film, Fancy discusses her use of the word fat, a term she finds still catches her fans and critics off guard. “I use it deliberately, because I know it is a shock to the system for many members of a culture where, for a woman, there is nothing worse you can be than fat,” she said. Although she doesn’t consciously choreograph numbers around themes like body positivity or representation, the ideas end up wheedling their way into her audience’s brains and loins alike.
However, for Fancy, the magic of burlesque rests not just on sexual arousal or a debriefing on the beauty of all bodies. “For me, when it’s done right, burlesque is an art form that creates a dialogue between the performer and the audience,” she said.
“The audience and the performer ultimately are not separate; there is an opportunity, then, to experience joy in community,” she added. “My fear is not being able to make that happen. I think of the transformation that goes on in a striptease as a metaphor. There’s armor coming off successively in stages. I’m revealing my body but I’m also revealing something else. There is a vulnerability in someone seeing you, seeing something beyond your body.”
There is plenty to unpack in Fancy’s hypnotic performances, which employ humor and arousal to help audiences shed their preconceptions as she peels off each layer of clothing. Countering the assumption that nudity is something authentic and true, while makeup is bound up with the fabricated and pretend, Fancy reveals how our masks are just as authentic as our flesh.
Check out Fancy Feast in action at the “Fuck You Revue” on March 21, 2017, and every third Tuesday of the month at Bizarre Bushwick. And watch the documentary on Fancy, by Leon Chase, here.