Advertised as ‘the burlesquer they tried to ban’, Leyla Rose is bold, beautiful, and out there. From Vampira to Mermaids; whatever escapes your imagination, Leyla will have a dance routine to match. But with so many stage personas united in one woman you wonder: Who is the real Leyla Rose?
Luckily for you, Leyla has agreed to give an interview about just that.
Tell me about your childhood. How was it growing up in Northern Ireland?
I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 80s with two sisters, a brother and a large close extended family. It was a very troubled place as everyone knows. My parents worked hard at a life that luckily turned out to be comfortable for me and my siblings, so we were not as exposed to the tougher side of the troubles. But we lived with concerns that weren’t normal, like bomb scares when you went to town on a Saturday or concerns about not walking on a certain side of the street in some areas. I went to an all-girl convent school near where I lived and girls came from all over the city to attend it. Some of them lived with the tougher side of the troubles on a daily basis. With so much poverty and no investment, Northern Ireland was not the land of opportunity. But, and probably because of that, there were great little pockets of artistic culture. It still has one of the most exciting music scenes. Escapism and expression becomes even more necessary under hardship.
Did the love for vintage and burlesque happen at the same time, or was it completely separate? Would you still dress vintage if you had not pursued a career as a burlesque artist?
I don’t remember the first time I encountered burlesque. I feel I always knew what it was and I always wanted to be part of it. Vintage style always appealed to me and I loved forties fashion in the movies I watched as a kid. But I don’t consider [myself to] have a strictly vintage look. I love classic shapes as they suit my figure but I am fond of a bit of everything from most periods in fashion.
I would still dress the way I do regardless [of my profession] as I think I know what suits me, but the burlesque career encourages me to indulge it a little more. I am very lucky to be sponsored by Vivien of Holloway and so I have many beautiful pieces of retro clothing from her that happen to fit me perfectly. I also love Freddies of Pinewood. There is wonderful vintage shopping to be found off Byres Road here in Glasgow and it is nice to find the odd treasure.
Talk me through an average day.
I don’t really have one. It does involve a lot of organisation and I never seem to be at home for long. There are always emails to deal with regarding forthcoming shows, plus whatever interviews I am doing or bits of promotion. If it is a show day I usually have plenty to do [during] the day but I try to wrap it up in time for costume gathering, hair and make up. I have friends and family in many different cities and I travel to see them as much as I can.
What does dancing mean for you?
It meant initially a platform whereby I could act the way I wanted to and express my imagination. I fell into burlesque really – I have been very fortunate. On my first big club date I met Missy Malone, my best friend and dance partner, and we started to work together immediately. Like many burlesquers I had a big imagination as a child and was quite a misfit. Burlesque gives me the outlet for all my energies that I can’t express in everyday life. I get to show off and strut about and have fun with it. I always perform [as if] me and the audience are sharing an in-joke. I have trouble taking myself seriously as a truly serious artist. I work hard but burlesque is still mainly about having fun for me.
What is your most recent obsession?
Katharine Hepburn. It has taken me to this age and stage in life to appreciate [her] fully. I watched Adam’s Rib on the plane to LA in November and became intrigued. Then I started reading a biography of her in a library when I was killing time between appointments. I kept going back. She, and the characters she plays, represents the woman who put herself and her career first. I had always loved other actresses of that ilk, like [Marlene] Dietrich or Bette Davis, but Hepburn has captured my imagination. Her intelligence, insouciance, boldness, energy, sharp wit and feminine vulnerability are firing my imagination right now.
At a time when bellydancing and burlesque was not on your mind, what did your future look like?
I wasn’t thinking of my future then. I was still young and I was living a very comfortable life with a wealthy guy. I always liked to stay busy so I did what pleased me. I only knew bellydancing was too narrow a field for what I wanted to express and I wanted bigger audiences and more rock n roll. It is big business now. So many are into it and there is more scope for different kinds of expression and greater audiences. But by then I had moved on to burlesque and found what I wanted.
What does your future look like now?
It looks good. I have many shows coming up, more workshops with Missy [Malone] and a lot more travel. But I am planning on returning to university to study law and have been accepted. My life will take a more sober academic turn but burlesque will continue for as long as I am wanted.
What makes you nervous?
Performing a new routine in front of a small intimate crowd. Not getting my much-needed four hours alone per day. Spiders.
What would you change about the burlesque scene?
I would like to see performers value themselves enough to charge proper fees across the board, I’d love to see some burlesquers receive much more recognition and reward for what they do and I’d like to see an end to the misconception that everyone can do it for a living if they try, and that it is a good way to ’empower’ yourself. It is not therapy; it is a job, a skill, or an art form. You bring your talents and skills and personality to the stage. You must have all of that formed and intact before you don a pair of pasties. A crowd is there to be entertained, not fill the gaps in your self-esteem.
Suppose you got a new manager, and they told you to slim down. What would you say to them?
Plain and simply that it wasn’t going to happen unless for very very exceptional reasons, for example, to play a thinner girl in a movie or something. But I am no actor. I’m a burlesquer and my size has never been an issue.
Antonia Landi for Trisickle.