12/13/2006 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Britney's "Knish" & The Lost Art of Flashing

Recently there has been a proliferation of tabloid celebrities going sans underwear and "flashing," a practice not unique to our current celebutants but in fact used by the burlesque queens of the early 20th century in order to give their audience a thrill and spread word of their skill. But instead of being busted by the censors or the cops, as the original peelers were, these contemporary flashers like Brit, Linds and Paris are splashed across pages of scandal sheets, increasing their public profile, for better or for worse.

Over the last ten years I have spent researching and documenting the last generation of American burlesque queens, I learned a trick or two about the art of flashing. Now keep in mind these ladies of the stage did not go commando but rather were well attired in both inner and outer g-string in addition to an outer costume consisting of up to ten pieces. Rather than offering photographers a free peek while exiting cars, the original queens of burlesque flashed with skill and attitude--and always for the price of admission to the theater.

Zorita.jpgZorita, one of the most unique burlesque queens, well known for stripping with two eight foot long boa constrictors in a number called "Consummation of the Wedding of the Snakes," was perhaps the first queen to fill me in on the practice of (in her words) "flashing your knish." She recalled, "There was a red light in the orchestra pit and when the red light was on, it meant the cops were in, so play it safe. When the red light went out, all bets were off. There were times you would work in the theater and you might do two shows and be covered, and the third show the red light was off and so then you flashed. And your customers were so used to that, and they knew that if they saw that you didn't flash, the law was in. And so, they just usually sat over for the second shift or came in later on that week. Some of the customers came in and saw the show two and three times."

Zorita's anecdote marks a major difference between the flashing style of the classic burlesque queens and that of the current paparazzi favorites. The queens performed live onstage and no cameras were allowed into the theater. Only if you were lucky enough to be in attendance, you might be privy to a peek of your favorite queens' privates. In our web-obsessed culture, Britney and Lindsay's full frontal exposures are posted for billions to drool over (in lust or disgust), again and again, as screen savers in dark bedrooms across the world.

Just as gratuitous photographs of Britney's beaver are selling millions of tabloids, the original burlesque queens had similar reasons for giving a peek. I once asked Zorita if she ever flashed for the extra applause. She said it got your "name known more . . . You flashed all the time, as much as you could. Everybody had their own system and style. I had elastic on my G-strings that I could pull between my legs and pull it way up, but if I saw that the police were in I could just spread my legs and the G-string would pop right back up and cover me, and I was home free."

Fellow burlesque queen Sherry Britton, commenting further on Zorita's inventiveness, told me that Zorita customized a fox fur g-string by shaving it down the middle and dying it to match her hair, so it resembled pubic hair. "She had different color g-strings [for different hair colors]." Zorita recounted an incident in Toledo, Ohio, where she was arrested for flashing. She claimed this to be a false charge as she had seen the cops on her way in the club. "Knowing they're in, wouldn't I be stupid to flash? And they busted me for . . . flashing. And they said that they could see hair. I said, 'That's impossible, I haven't had a hair on my knish in years.'"

Of course, many queens didn't succumb to the pressure to flash. Lois de Fee, a queen whose gimmick was her incredible height (6'4") and her "ladylike" strip, said there were "only two jobs I ever walked out on, at the Zebra and the Empire Theater in Newark. The boss got fresh at the Zebra. And at the Empire Theater, Meyers, who was the manager of the theater came back and told me, he says, 'You know, you could work stronger.' I said, 'I don't work any stronger.' He said, 'Well, we have those little red lights in the pit when the cops are in. When the lights are off, you can do anything you want.' I said, 'But I don't do anything else.' And he said, 'Well, you know . . .' And I said, 'I'm not even shaved.' And he sent me a razor back the next show. So I left."

The appeal of burlesque performance and the key to a stripper's control is the element of tease--the audience can look but cannot touch. Zorita explained that it was part of the fun to give "everybody a hard-on and they can't have it." It seems that Paris and company are hardly thinking with such measure about their actions; they only project the message of sexual availability, "flaunting" their genitals to be preserved on film and the internet for posterity.

It is precisely this kind of behavior in my mind that makes it ever more relevant for young women to be reminded that there was once a time of restrained sexuality--a moment when flashing required more skill and cognizance than simply exposing oneself without method nor measure.

An era when the reveal of a shoulder, or, even earlier, a lady's ankle was entirely erotic because it left more to the imagination. Perhaps our tabloid princesses could learn a trick or two from the burlesque queens of old and learn that it may be prudent to keep it covered when the photogs are keeping watch. After all, a lady (no matter how loosely defined) must maintain a bit of mystery to insure her allure.

Liz Goldwyn's book, Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens (Regan/Harper Collins), is in stores now and available on Amazon. Read more about the project here.