What’s in a name? Well, if burlesque proves anything, it’s that stage names are intended to evoke everything about the type of performer you are.
And burlesque is full of them. There’s the iconic, like The World Famous BOB and Dirty Martini or the silly like Ms. Tickle and Kalani KoKonuts. Then there’s names like Little Brooklyn and Miss Clams Casino, evoking both a place and a feel. There’s the slightly to definitely scandalous like Peekaboo Pointe and Immodesty Blaize. Then there are those whose names are reflections of how balls-out as gender-as-a-performances can be with titles like Tigger! and Leroi, The Girl Boi. The possibilities are endless. Names are important. They define who you are as a perfomer, or at least give your audience a taste of what’s to come. Names transform you from gal on the street to someone whose name commands an authority over the crowd. It’s like a blessing from the ghosts of burlesque and drags queens past, an indictment of who you know your wild self to be.
I’d been struggling with my own stage name. A stage name is at once supposed to be accessible– not too hard to spell and if referential, hopefully something most folks can get. There was the danger of the burlesque trap, aka, creating a name that had either Miss, Kitty, Cherry, or Rose in it. It wasn’t that these names weren’t good, it’s that they were too good– everyone wants to use them or is using them. I could play up the Southern aspect, but there was already the famed Georgia Sothern and Southern Comfort (a name that while I was bummed I could not make my own, belongs to an amazing performer from New Orleans). I had played around with an exercise we had done during the first week of class that involved creating a name by way of first name as a flower and second name as a cheese (behold, the gal who was Buttercup Cheddar for a day). I made lists of my favorite things, looking for the perfect combo of words that would roll off the tongue and give the viewer a sneak peek at what I was exactly all about. I Googled names all to hell, but, alas, I still was left lacking in a name that felt like the perfect fit.
Then, last week, the one and only Etta James passed away. James was an icon to many, a personal hero of mine, and a woman who, like most of the women in the who dare to grace a stage, had a painful past that pushed her to go beyond and create amazing art that touched on sex, death, beauty, and sadness. “I’ve learned to live with rage,” she said in her autobiography, Rage to Survive. “In some ways, it’s my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago. With it, I got a lot more songs to sing.” It’s an unadulterated sense of honesty, one that I find myself relating to, considering we live in a world that values power over fairness and conquest over equality. To tap into such a strong emotion, one that is chaotic and burning, and use it to create something beautiful, to me, is the very definition of burlesque.
In his moving obituary to the legend, writer Kenyon Farrow talked about James’s fraught relationship with her mother, her addiction, and her close ties to the LGBT community, stating that they were the ones who stuck by her in the lowest points of her life and career. He also spoke on the crafting of James’ look and how it informed her presence: James’s infamous blonde-yellow hair and black eyebrows that she was so recognized for, were stylistically emulating the street-based sex workers and drag queens that she was intimately connected to. It was an exaggeration of femininity, one that both was gorgeous in its own right, and yet, mocked atypical beauty by turning it into a hyper exaggeration. As James described it:
“I [was] serious about turning little churchgoing Jamesetta into a tough bitch called Etta James”¦ I wanted to look like a great big high-yellow ho’. I wanted to be nasty.”
It was like lightning struck the very nerves embedded in my spine. Etta James had in one brief sentence described the feelings I wanted to use to create who I would be on stage and really, who I often do not have the courage to be in my own life (to be frank, I do not know if it is an act of courage to have a sailor’s mouth at the 9-5 cubicle job, but you get my drift). Jamesetta was a part of Etta that while important, hid away the other part, the one that didn’t give a damn about what was proper or not.
“I wanted to be nasty.” The words echoed in my head. I did want to be nasty. This is why I’m thinking it’s a good idea to on stage in front of a bunch of people and strip down to a g-string and pasties, because I want to be nasty. But let me be clear, because when I say nasty, I do not mean Webster’s Dictionary nasty. I mean the hard knock, say and do what she wants, take no shit and look fly as hell bitch-goddess nasty. I mean nasty as an action, as a verb, as a state of being. I mean nasty as a reclaimation. Janet, Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.
So as our last basic class came to a close and I am handed my certificate of completion, I’m asked, what’s your name? Nasty. Coco Nasty. It rolls off my tongue with a confidence and joy that is almost overwhelming. It’s like a spoken vow to doing this thing I keep talking about doing. I am at once terrified and thrilled.
Say my name. And then say it louder. Because its going to be a rip roaring good time up in here, and I’m learning to like this.