Arts & culture

Burlesque or Bust

Growing up among strict religious evangelists, international burlesque performer Sapphira felt overwhelmed and unable to find her place in the world. She was hospitalised after a catastrophic breakdown and marked as one of the worst cases of psychosis the doctors had ever seen. Here, she writes about how burlesque helped save her life

I am standing apprehensively at the side of the stage in a blue feathered corset dubbed ‘The Kylie’, as the famous Australian songbird was touring her Showgirl production. I had an inkling that what I was about to do in this cosy South London speakeasy was going to catapult my life out of the mundane and into the extraordinary – like a rocket with its engines burning about to be propelled with a huge explosion into space. I had no idea how profound the next ten minutes would prove to be, and to be honest I was just hoping my tit tape would do its job and preserve my modesty as I prepared to tassel twirl half-naked in front of a room of strangers for the first time in my life. There was something deliciously naughty and indulgent about the whole experience. This was the new me and I was being reborn in the spotlight as Sapphira.

Unlike my Church baptism, where I had been swathed in white and submerged head to toe in a bathtub in front of chanting, fanatical Brethren Church members, this was more of a baptism of fire. Years of believing my sensuality would see me damned to hell, and the self-loathing I had experienced being ex-communicated by people who were as close to me as my blood relatives for being a ‘wanton woman’ had left me broken. I was locked in the high dependency unit of a psychiatric hospital where I had urinated in a pillowcase on one disturbed night, deranged with hysteria which had left me convinced I was somehow cursed. This was all about to change.

One advantage about relocating from the provincial town of Melbourne to the glittering, heaving metropolis of London was that I could start my life with a clean slate; the other was that my well-meaning, highly conservative parents and ex-church peers were tucked away somewhere on the other side of the world in a different hemisphere. The distance was healing my soul.

Suddenly my music booms through the speakers and… there I am. I wiggle, I sway, I tease and all around me the crowd are in raptures. Layer by layer my costume comes off and the applause is uproarious. I am on cloud nine. I wished that moment would never end, and in many ways it has been the driving force behind my crazy, hemisphere-hopping life ever since.

Burlesque and the stage gave me back ‘me’. I wanted to teach this to others, so I quit my day job, took my part-time classes into a full-time business called Sapphira’s Showgirls and began using my corporate skills in advertising to launch burlesque festivals and events. I also hurled myself into self-development and escaped into the mountains on deep spiritual retreats. I wanted to uproot the negative beliefs I had and reprogramme them with something new. This lifestyle literally consumed me and burlesque enhanced my biggest dream to be a songwriter. It has given me an edge and a gimmick to be a quirky, theatrical stripper alongside my original music.

I am pleased to have reached a number of my idols such as Sir Richard Branson, Dita Von Teese and Maxim from The Prodigy because I have a message of positive sparkle to share with the world. I have been involved with many women and toured globally, witnessing this artform liberating many of us – male and female – around the world. Having the opportunity to write my book Burlesque or Bust has been a joy, and I hope I can reach more people and encourage others to grab a pair of satin gloves and try burlesque for the sheer enjoyment of adorning your body and celebrating it just as it is. I am perfect just as I am. I always was, but it just took a long time to remind myself of that, and if burlesque helped me, it can help you too.

Burlesque or Bust (£11.99, Trigger Publishing) is available to buy from Amazon and all good bookstores

Image credits: Tas Kyprianou