She won the title of Princess of Burlesque in the 2018 Miss Exotic World Competition and has been in the top 10 of the 21st Century Burlesque Most Influential Figures of the World. Meet Jessabelle Thunder, a performer and pin-up model who’s been unleashing a powerful storm on stages across the globe for more than a decade.
The Los Angeles native found herself unexpectedly thrown into this performing art when a boyfriend signed her up for a burlesque class in 2009. She stuck with it, diligently working to perfect her craft. Fast-forward 10 years later and Thunder continues to set the scene ablaze with her presence. Her gift for performing and devotion to the art form are evident when you watch her in action.
The dancer has been featured in a multitude of shows and venues, including the Hollywood Burlesque Festival, Viva Las Vegas Showcase, the Cocoa Butter Club Underbelly Festival in London, Tease If You Please! and productions by renowned performer Dita Von Teese, to name only a few.
I first saw Jessabelle Thunder when she performed in Dita Von Teese’s Strip! Strip! Hooray! revue at The Yost theater in Orange County, California. One can’t help but be mesmerized by her brilliantly colorful and ornate costumes, plus sizzling movements. There are no words to properly capture the fierce energy she radiates when she dances; her moves are seamless, titillating and playful.
I had the privilege of interviewing Jessabelle Thunder for more insight on her involvement in burlesque.
Q: In other interviews you’ve done you explain that it was a past boyfriend that surprised you by signing you up for your first burlesque class. What a surprise! Before that happened though, you had already had a fascination with burlesque, so what initially introduced you to this performing art form?
A: My initial introduction to burlesque was a club called Forty Deuce. I have an obsession with finding new and fun things to do in LA, even though I’ve been born and raised here. I used to go through magazines to see what the hot spots were, then write it down and try to tick it off my list. Well, Forty Deuce was the happening place to be years ago, so I knew that when I turned 21, I was going to go there and try to look cool. Well, cut to the year I turned 21 and the Forty Deuce in Los Angeles closed down. The only one left was in Las Vegas and I had to go experience it.
When I arrived, I was blown away by, for lack of better words, how cool it was. The live music! The girls dancing around the room and literally on the ceilings! The drinks! The sparkles! The vibes! I didn’t really have any idea what burlesque was before that, but from that moment on I had to find out more ‘cause I fell in love. It was the physical manifestation of how I always wanted to be growing up. After returning home from Vegas I researched burlesque shows in LA and found first and foremost “Devil’s Playground Burlesque.” The rest is history, lol!
Q: As you progressed along your journey, how did your signature style develop? Did you have an idea of the on-stage persona you wanted to embody?
A: I never thought of creating a persona. I didn’t think I had to develop a character. I just wanted to be me on stage but the me that I’ve always wanted to be. The me that I know is deep down inside of me wanting to come out, but my everyday self tells her to shut up because no one will like me or care.
As far as my style, I thought burlesque had to look a certain type of way—vintage, high glam, and vintage 60s and earlier music. I literally had a playlist of burlesque songs which included “Fever,” “Summertime,” “Honey Rock” and “The Stripper.” It wasn’t until I took a class with Lux LaCroix that I found out that I could dance to whatever I wanted to. That blew my mind and opened up a whole new world for me. Music is the most important thing to me; it’s how I connect with my act and the audience; it’s everything. So my style just came about naturally by choosing the music that makes me happy, the music that makes me want to create. And whatever feels right in my body is what I do. I never sat down and thought, this is the kind of performer I’m going to be, this is who I’m going to embody. I guess it’s all just me, but elevated and unleashed.
Q: You did a very insightful interview with Miss Marquez of Empowerment in Heels regarding racism in burlesque. You discuss how there needs to be a stronger presence of Black performers in shows. What changes would you like to see happen in burlesque regarding diversity? Do you feel any progress has been made in the industry over the past year now that there’s more awareness surrounding systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement?
A: What I would definitely like to see is more Black performers in shows and more Black performers in headlines and featured spots and with bigger images on show flyers. I want people to know that there’s no such thing as people thinking a show is an all-Black show and only for a Black audience if there are more than two Black performers in it. There’s no such thing as too many Black performers. There’s no such thing as someone seeing a large photo of a Black person on a flyer then thinking, “Oh, it’s not for me, it’s only for Black people.” That shouldn’t be a thing and if it is a thing, it’s up to us to shift that thinking by challenging it, in a way. I wonder sometimes if people assume that Black burlesque looks one way, so they don’t hire more because they want a mixture of different styles??? I dunno. But what I do know is that Black burlesque performers possess a wide variety of styles from super classic, cheesecake, parade and peel to Neo burlesque.
Has there been progress? I think so and hope so. More people are starting to reflect and notice things and call things out BUT only time will tell once we fully get out of this pandemic and back in live action.
Q: You have an impressive list of accomplishments under your belt…or shall I say garter belt. In your years of performing, what have been some of your favorite moments or career highlights?
A: “Under…the garter belt.” I love that! In the forefront of my mind are all the places, internationally, that I’ve gotten to see and experience because of burlesque. A goal I’ve always had has been to travel the world through burlesque, and pre-covid I was really starting to do that. I’m praying that it continues when things go back to a new normal. Burlesque finally took me to my favorite place in the world, London, and it keeps me going back.
Another highlight has been all the people I’ve met and befriended because of burlesque. My best friends are performers, and I wouldn’t have met had it not been for finding burlesque. Another career highlight was performing at Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender multiple times, then finally winning first runner up in 2018. My fave moment from that was hearing my name be called, being utterly shocked, then running to my bestie Tito Bonito to hug him before accepting my award. Lastly, performing with Tease If You Please, one of LA’s biggest burlesque shows, annnnnd performing with the one and only Dita Von Teese—twice! I could probably go on and on, but I guess I should stop.
Q: Costumes are central to a burlesque performance and yours always look stunning! What’s the process like for you when choosing pieces to wear for a number? Do you implement a lot of DIY when it comes to your stage wardrobe?
A: Oh my gosh! Costuming is not my strong suit! Thankfully, I have very talented friends to help me out like Angie Cakes and Penny Starr Jr. I‘ve thrown ideas at them and they completely understand what I’m trying to do and then produce it. As I mentioned before, music is the most important thing to me and I basically let the music dictate my costuming. Some people do costume first then other things come into place. Not I!
Q: In addition to performing burlesque, are there other creative endeavors you’d like to pursue?
A: I really would just like to be a better dancer overall. Burlesque can incorporate various forms of dance and while that’s fun and great, I do want to be well versed in various forms of dance. Growing up, I wanted to be a dancer in music videos and musicals so badly, but my parents never put me in classes. It wasn’t until my 20s that I began taking dance classes like ballet, contemporary, bhangra, etc. I’m 36 years old so I know I can’t really be a professional dancer, but I can kinda try. Other than that, I don’t think I have any other creative endeavors.
Q: Any teasers you can drop to readers about future projects you have in store?
A: Follow Marvelous and Melanated on Instagram. Myself, Sheila Star Siani, Egypt Blaque Knyle and Simone Del Mar and a production team are trying to put together an all-Black burlesque revue eventually and hopefully at an actual venue. We did one show already, virtually, and it did quite well. I really want Marvelous and Melanated to be more than just a show some day. I want it to be a company who helps events, TV, film and music videos book performers, among other things. But yeah, we’re working on a second show right now and pre-covid chatted about how to get a show into a venue. Keep an eye out!
Find out more about the performer at the Jessabelle Thunder official website.