Sukki Singapora is an Ambassador for The Sharan Project, which fights against forced marriage. She’s also founder of The Singapore Burlesque Society, which promotes and encourages Asian women and men within the Arts. Connect with her on: www.sukkisingapora.com and Facebook: www.facebook.com/SukkiSingapora
What made you want to become a burlesque performer?
It was actually very much an organic development which came about as a result of being a child of mixed race. Growing up with an Indian Singaporean father and British mother I always felt a sense of “not quite belonging” in either country. As a result I took to vintage fashion as a way of expressing myself and feeling part of a strong identity. Through that I heard about burlesque – as vintage fashion and burlesque tend to go hand in hand. It was at that moment I was hooked! With a background in classical ballet, it was the perfect marriage.
Whilst many people have heard of burlesque, I know that it’s widely misunderstood and confused. Why is burlesque an art form?
It’s a question I’m frequently asked, especially in Asia – isn’t burlesque just another way of describing a “seedy, hyper-sexualised and male-placating activity?” The answer couldn’t be a bigger no. Firstly, everything else aside, Burlesque is by women for women. Over 80% of my audiences are female! That’s because the emphasis is on the Art: the creation, the costume, the body-confidence and the “feel good” factor. Unlike stripping, burlesque is a non-nudity performance – yes there are elements of striptease – but this doesn’t define the performance. Unlike stripping, each routine is also the result of months, sometimes even years, of planning, choreography and composure, which all come together to create a visual feast on the stage. That isn’t to say that men don’t enjoy it as well, but the performances are not created for the benefit of anyone else but the Art. I also believe that unlike many American performers, Burlesque doesn’t have to be a striptease for it to be burlesque. However, if striptease is involved, it’s to inspire women to be confident in their skin – not to serve the desires of any sexual agenda, as is often misconceived. Of course, that isn’t to say I don’t have the utmost respect for women in the adult industries – I believe every woman has the right to choose her own path.
Do you feel that more Asian women would take an interest in burlesque having seen your work?
It’s definitely caused an impact – every week I get letters from Asian women across the world saying that they’ve been inspired to give Burlesque a go, or even just follow their dreams and pursue the Arts. It’s something I’m extremely passionate about fighting to promote. It’s not about whether or not an Asian woman doing burlesque is a “controversial” topic, it’s about standing up for having the choice to do whatever we want. I don’t use the term flippantly when I say I hope what I do can truly empower other Asian women to follow their dreams.
Do you think that Asian women are “put off” by a creative career? If so, why?
I think there’s no doubt that Asian women are put off, and in worst cases, fear a creative career. It’s important we acknowledge that the pressure to become doctors or lawyers still exists – despite the cliché. It can be stifling on a young creative and talented woman. There’s a generation forcing us to believe that the Arts aren’t a stable and respected choice, which is nonsense. It’s why I work so hard to get where I am. Burlesque for me isn’t just about the glamour and the “showbiz”, it’s about taking seriously the fact that if I can succeed, I hope I can inspire other Asian women to know that they can too.
With regards to your work, how much does your Asian identity and heritage influence you?
My Asian identity plays a huge part. When I entered burlesque I was determined to redefine the genre in a way which reflected my culture and heritage. Every stage outfit, for example, has a sari woven into it so I am literally wearing my cultural background on my sleeve – so to speak! I also infuse Bollywood ‘intonations’ into my routines as a nod to my ancestry. As the world’s first burlesque performer from Singapore, I think it’s important to stay true to my roots. Too many performers entering into the industry now think that they need to be a carbon copy of the American burlesque stars.
What have been your biggest challenges to overcome?
Gosh, I don’t think we could fit them into one interview! It’s been a very hard journey, and that difficulty hasn’t stopped. It was always going to be hard, especially as the taboo burlesque has within the Asian community. I suppose my biggest challenge really is to change perceptions of burlesque within Asia.
Many women are particularly self conscious about their bodies, their looks which thus affects their confidence and self-esteem. What would your advice to them be?
If there’s anything I can say for sure, it’s that burlesque transformed my ability to love my body inside and out and as a result I became so much more confident. As women the more confident we are about ourselves, the more we will exude confidence to others, as I think the most attractive thing about a woman is her smile. There’s nothing wrong with pampering yourself, and treating yourself without guilt every once in a while just for you, and no one else. Love yourself more; because you are beautiful.
What has been the best bit of advice ever given to you?
It may sound ludicrous, but a family member once said – “don’t reach for the stars, or you’ll hit a tree.” As in, always choose the safe path. I don’t think anything in the world has made me more determined to reach for the stars than that…! When someone says: don’t jump, I say: how high and why not.
For many creatives, it is notoriously difficult jobs-wise and many of us lose heart in what we do. What kept you going?
As well as the desire to be the best in the world at what I do, a huge turning point has been the support I’ve had from women – and men – across the globe. When I first started burlesque, I knew it was going to be tough as an Asian woman, but I had no idea of the significance it may have had globally. I had no idea I was about to become the “first” at something. It was only when letters started pouring through telling me that I’d inspired other young women to “follow their dreams and pursue Art” that I realised the weight of what I was doing. It would be easy to lose heart, to give up because there’s no ignoring the fact that, not only is it so hard as a creative, but it can also be so upsettingly and unnecessarily branded as ‘controversial’ by our community. What keeps me going, is the fact that if we carry on, if we fight through it, we’re not only succeeding for ourselves, we’re forging the path for literally thousands of women counting on our shaky first footsteps. We’re fighting for their right to choose. We have a role to honour that obligation.