About a month ago, my girlfriend took me to "World Famous *BOB*,"
an hour long, one-man show at a non-profit performance art space about a girl who had to become a drag queen to learn how to become a woman.
Um, I know.
Being newly gay (and absolutely intolerant of any experimental theater), it sounded like total hell to me. But I am a good girlfriend, and in the interest of sounding cultured and well-rounded, (i.e. pretending I don't spend my free time watching DVDs of "Dawson's Creek"), I agreed to go.
70 minutes of monologue later, I was laughing, crying and watching a grown woman strip naked in front of a sold-out audience to thunderous applause. At the sight of her bedazzled vagina, we leaped to our feet for a standing ovation.
I spent the next few weeks stalking/researching World Famous *Bob.*
I took her Ultimate Self-Confidence Workshop at the New York School of Burlesque, and eventually bribed her with an iced coffee and the promise of life-long devotion into talking to me for Lemondrop. Below is our dazzling hooha of a Q&A.
LEMONDROP: You spend a lot of time naked in your workshops and on stage. Is that scary for you?
The World Famous *BOB*:
When I was younger I didn't identify as a woman. Even though I was born a biological woman, at the age of 15, I chose to identify as a homosexual male. During the day I was very androgynous, and at night I dressed as a drag queen. I felt more comfortable impersonating females than being one!
There was a lot of shame around my body and a lot of disconnect. I wasn't comfortable with being naked at all, ever. On top of that, I had weight issues as a child. I was really tall as a kid and I started developing breasts at the age of 8. I got my first period at 10, so basically by the time I was 10 I was in a bra and could be pregnant.
My biological experience of womanhood was traumatic; I didn't embrace being a woman. Between that, and my gender identity displacement, I would have never thought that not only would I be naked on stage, but teaching workshops exclusively for people who are identified as females.Is The World Famous Bob really your name?
It is! Do you want to see my ID? [Pulls out driver's license] I love showing it to people! They're like, "No you don't have to," and I'm like "can I?" I'm like chasing people down the street, "Can I please?" You know, on NY State IDs they put your last name first, so here I am "Bob, World Famous."
What was the turning point for you?
The turning point for me was burlesque. I started doing burlesque on accident 13 or 14 years ago. Before every show I would find myself backstage with a group of really over the top women who looked like drag queens. They were really supportive, and really confident, and not competitive or fearful. I had never been around women like that; I had never seen women interact with each other in that way. And we happened to be, by the way, naked! Eventually, you're just like "I don't really care," it's not an overnight thing. One day you just realize, you're pulling up your pantyhose in front of somebody. It was baby steps and it was really being supported in that environment.
What advice could you give to those of us who are uncomfortable with their bodies and don't have the benefit of learning to be naked in front of a crowd?
You know, there was a point in time when I wouldn't take off my clothes and look in the mirror. This physical body that carried me through every day of my life, I wouldn't even give the acknowledgment of a glance. I think one of the very first steps towards being more comfortable with your body is being easy on yourself. I don't believe in tough love with body image issues. Go into being more comfortable with yourself and who you are in your own skin with a sense of patience and a sense of sweetness towards yourself. Part of our distorted self-image is that we're hard on ourselves: whether it's comparing yourself to another person on the street or comparing what you actually look like to what you think you should look like.
So we should try feeling better naked alone?
Don't get me wrong, I know when you leave the house, it's reinforced through billions of dollars of advertising, through the fashion industry, everywhere you look in America -- it's about being young, and it's about being thin. I'm proactive about my health and I do feel people should focus on being healthy, but that has nothing to do with my size. How you think about yourself and how you speak about yourself is going to change the way you act. Start to make notes of whenever you think poorly of yourself; whether it's how you look or who you are, or oh I'm stupid, I can't do that, what's wrong with me? All those comparative ways of thinking are really organic to human beings, but I think we are also gifted with the ability to be aware.
So you can you permanently cure negative self-image?
No, but you can notice the negative pattern and say to yourself "I'm not going to talk to myself that way today; I think I deserve better." It might sound cheesy or new age, but I don't care! There's no pill, there's no surgery that's going to give you confidence. The true, unshakable self-confidence is something that you have to build from the inside ... It's a work in progress. It's not about ignoring your feelings, it's about driving your feelings to a place where they work for you, and not against you.
I left your Ultimate Self Confidence workshop feeling like I'd just joined a cult! In a good way! I literally could not stop talking about it. Tell me about the workshop, without spoiling any of the surprises.
It's a two hour mind, body and spirit workshop that I created about 5 years ago. I like students to come to my workshop with a clean slate and without the cloud of expectations. The workshop is a series of exercises that takes place in a safe space with 12 women or less. Each of these exercises encourage each participant to open up, to share with one and other, to take chances and do things you wouldn't have thought of on your own.
I like each student to create a courage reference. A courage reference is simply a moment of courage that you can refer back to in times that you're afraid. Two hours is not a lot of time -- I can't teach someone how to be self-confident in two hours, but what I can guarantee is a chance for the participant to create a courage reference for herself, and that one courage reference can build after they leave the workshop if they just duplicate the exercises from the workshop, they can build as many courage references as they want.
What about those of us who don't live close enough to take the class -- can you give us kind of a distance-learning takeaway?
The fact is, we share so many fears; that's the one thing that blows me away every time I teach the workshop is how similar women's fears are, especially in relation to their bodies. I teach some mental exercises that are really easy and can be done in public or in private, to bring a level or awareness to the participant and give them a choice in how they think.
You don't always have to make the right choice, but you have a choice, which is much more empowering than having a knee-jerk chain of reactions throughout the day. In the 5 years I've been teaching the workshop, there's been only one person who said "I can't participate in this." There is also, on the physical level, a wonderful snack break. Pessimists are welcome to take my class [laughs], but I'm warning you: you might smile.
I'm going to Sweden in October for the Stockholm Burlesque Festival, headlining the festival and MCing the main event. I'm a celebrity judge for a breast cancer benefit: a tassel twirling contest! I'm really, really excited because I love boobs and on top of that anytime when I can be of service, how amazing is that? I love judging people, but I'm not a competitive person myself so it's exciting for me to be a judge because it's so foreign to me. I also love attending other people's workshops, reaching out to get different points of view, to bring those to my students.
Do people have body issues in Sweden too? Or is beauty subjective from place to place?
In California, where I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, there was a very specific sense of beauty that was all about having really big hair, but everything else should be smaller. I moved to New York fourteen years ago and I remember the wave of relief that washed over me the first time I walked down the street in Brooklyn, that I'd finally moved somewhere where big butts were cool.
You came home!
Exactly! Like if you didn't have one, it was OK, but if you did have one, it was great. It was like "Hey this is Brooklyn, anything goes!"
The World Famous *BOB* is a regularly scheduled guest speaker at NYU and has performed and appeared at over 20 US Universities including Harvard, Yale, and Bard. She is also a teacher at The School of Burlesque specializing in Drag / Showgirl Transformation & Ultimate Self Confidence.
Lillie McSmith lives in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn where she is learning, for the first time ever, to cohabitate with roaches. She loves YA literature, bike riding, artichokes and body acceptance. According to her five year plan, a debut novel is forthcoming.