Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Sex and the séance room

This article first appeared in Fortean Times issue 233, March 2008

Kittie Klaw, nipple tassle-twirling, fan-dancing Queen of Burlesque is one of Britain’s best known burlesque and striptease performers, as well as a manager of other burlesque acts and a tutor of striptease skills through her Ministry of Burlesque agency. She’s famous in the fetish scene as a cover model on the front of ‘bondage’ magazines, and as a performer at fetish clubs such as London’s notorious Torture Garden. But – stop tittering at the back there! - I wanted to talk to Ms Klaw about her other passion – parapsychology.

Kittie was celebrating the runaway success of Victorian Values when we met. This is her theatrical-length music hall revue, which sends up the dark side of Victorian hypocrisy, and which had its debut at the suitably grand old Hoxton Hall in East London’s Shoreditch last August. Victorian Values sends up the Victorian séance, and features girls who can carry off that Victorian look well, and who look the part in period ‘tight lace-up corsets.’ Kittie directs and plays several characters in the show, including the two de Winter-Fairbottom twins, Kittie and Lilly. One is a bit of a prude, the other is ‘more experimental.’

Of her plans for future productions of Victorian Values, Kittie says that ‘a West End theatre performance is the Holy Grail at the moment.’ At the time of writing, there was a possible TV adaptation in the pipeline in collaboration with Robin Ince, who is part of Ricky Gervais’ writing team and who appeared in The Office. Meanwhile, a shorter, stand-alone sketch taken from Victorian Values, that ‘sexualises’ aspects of the Victorian séance, is doing the rounds as part of Kittie’s regular repertoire. See for updates.

We began our chat by discussing the connections between Victorian music hall and Spiritualist séances. The expression ‘knocking shop’ to describe a brothel originally comes from the table-rapping spirit world of the séance. The preoccupation with death and ‘the other side’ was often a code for another taboo that couldn’t then be spoken about at all – sex. ‘Sex sells, death compels,’ says Kittie. The hint of eroticism around the séance – sometimes it was more than just a hint – was justified by an ethereal veil of Spiritualist respectability. If you said you believed in the afterlife, you had an explanation when the police came calling and found scantily-clad women in the dark behaving strangely.

Then there’s the example of famous 1850s girl medium Florence Cook (See Fortean Times 179: pages 30-37), who used to disappear into the ‘spirit cabinet’ in séances and give rise to the materialisation of ectoplasmic ‘spirit form’ Katie King, a bawdy character from a pirate family who looked remarkably like Cook, and who would move among the sitters and touch them with remarkably solid hands, and who seemed to enjoy letting the sitters touch her too.

Accordng to Kittie, ‘there has always been a crossover between music hall-style entertainment and belief. Burlesque plays on this.’ Some of the most famous stage mediums, especially the phenomenally popular Davenport Brothers, who started their act in 1859, acknowledged that they were always showmen and never claimed to be mediums. But the Davenports were caught up in the burgeoning Spiritualist movement of the time and their show was hailed as genuine proof of spirit phenomena.

Kittie’s Victorian Values sends up the ‘elaborate farce’ of the Victorian séance. The play’s protagonist, Lord Dashwood, estranged cousin of Queen Victoria, is based on the real Francis Dashwood of the Hellfire Club. In Kittie’s revue, Dashwood is running a fake séance when Queen Victoria walks in, looking to make contact with her dear departed consort Prince Albert. Lord Dashwood panics, but it would be giving away the plot to tell what happens next in the ensuing procession of fake and real phantoms and pint-sized, flapping vampires. Victorian Values also sends up the erotic appeal of Gothic Horror. Kittie describes Gothic Horror’s enduring erotic appeal as ‘legitimised S and M,’ with ‘lots of Freudian sex and death.’ For example, ‘Dracula is the perfect hybrid of Mr Darcy and the Marquis De Sade – ideal husband and depraved sexual mentor in one’.

Victorian Values takes the art of burlesque, which until recently enjoyed a somewhat smutty reputation, back to the traditional burlesque form. Kittie is one of the longest performing artists in the traditional form of burlesque, a tradition for which she vigorously campaigns. Traditional burlesque is a British invention from the 18th century, and to ‘burlesque’ (the word can also be a verb) means ‘to send up, satirise and parody.’ The very first burlesque acts were short operettas, which inspired Gilbert and Sullivan. Trad burlesque could be Blackadder-type historical satire. Napoleon was a favourite subject. P.G. Woodhouse’s Jeeves and Wooster are in the tradition of burlesque, which also mocked the class system as well as history, and told a funny story whilst it satirized taboos. The humour also included what Kittie calls ‘body satire.’

How, then, did the association with American strippers come in? The British burlesque performer and former pub landlady Lydia Thompson, after reaching the pinnacle of the British burlesque world, took her successful act to the US in 1868, with her troupe, the British Blondes – ‘none of whom were actually blondes.’ They may in fact have been among the world’s first peroxide blondes. They were dressed as boys, which meant they could show their ankles.

A variety of complex factors led to American burlesque dropping satire. The Depression, and Prohibition complicated US theatre licensing somewhat, and ‘there was no-class system’ to satirize in America, or at least none that Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes could easily discern. Striptease took over the American burlesque genre, but it was still called ‘burlesque’ because the strip acts alternated with stand-up comics.

Kittie, like Lydia Thompson, came to the performing arts early. Kittie was a professional child ballerina until the age of 12, and some of her burlesque dance routines are en point – right up on tiptoes, ballet-style. But from an early age Kittie showed strong academic achievement, which her school keenly cultivated her science talents. ‘As a girl, if you were one of the few who happened to excel in science, you were automatically pushed to have a career in science.’

A four-year Honours degree in Psychology at Glasgow University followed, with a thesis on ‘remote staring detection,’ in which Kittie felt she got ‘little or no support’ from her department. Glasgow University had just bid unsuccessfully for the Koessler Chair in Parapsychology, (see (See Fortean Times 201: pages 32-39), losing to traditional rivals Edinburgh. While an undergraduate, Kittie was active with the Scottish Society for Psychical Research (SSPR), along with astrophysicist Archie Roy. Kittie took part in investigations of a few a cases of hauntings and related phenomena, but never found anything that was convincing beyond someone’s ‘emotional needs.’

Kittie graduated from Glasgow in 2003 with a good mark in ‘straight’ Psychology and was taken on as a student under the personal supervision of Professor Bob Morris, who headed Edinburgh University’s Koessler Unit, to study for an MsC/PHd in Parapsychology.

Her only year at Edinburgh University was ‘the most difficult year of my life.’ The ‘exorbitant’ fees meant she held down a part-time job alongside her full-time research position, and had to scratch around for bits of funding here and there. She set up the Ministry of Burlesque agency at the turn of the 21st century, but the re-emerging burlesque ‘scene’ was still only in London, and she was travelling to and from London from Edinburgh twice a week to perform. She toured student unions and Scottish venues as one of the dancing girls for local cult band Hugh Reed and the Velvet Underpants. As one of the band’s dancing girls she often dressed in a makeshift burkha, which she would rip off for some appropriately costumed comedic belly dancing in the style of Carry On Up the Khyber. Her other dance routine was ‘naughty Nazis, satirical comedy rich in ironic slap-dancing and wrestling, very tongue in cheek.’

Meanwhile, Bob Morris was very supportive, and Kittie has fond memories of ‘many an eccentric chat, end of term parties at his house, (Bob) in his inimitable style, extremely charismatic.’ But Kittie’s research project was dogged by strange mishaps and coincidences.

The experimental part of Kittie’s Masters/PhD research followed from ‘remote staring detection,’ in the area of Direct Mental Interaction with Living Systems (DMILS, pronounced ‘dee mills’). ‘You don’t want to say “ESP,” it’s a wee bit “woolly”. It’s a loaded phrase, full of implications… The DMILS research is the examination of a communicative phenomenon which could easily be completely normal but not yet understood. Perhaps even evolutionary.’

At the Koessler Unit, Kittie looked into ‘anomalous transfer of information between creative individuals.’ She found acrobat twins and lifelong double act jugglers from the Edinburgh festival. There were reasonable questions raised by Koessler Unit staff about the definition of ‘creative,’ but Kittie says ‘nobody bothered to point out that the computer system was suspected of being broken at the time. Only after I reported it, did anyone offer the knowledge that it had been acting up for some time, unbeknown to myself or Professor Morris.’ The research seemed to be going OK. It involved one person in a ‘creative’ team meditating on impressions seen by the other in a different room, when they were being shown a random sequence of scenes on video. Kittie became convinced that the sequences weren’t showing in a random order, that they were in an organised pattern.

The department had to take apart the ‘broken’ computer system, to eliminate the possibility it was a computer fault leading to this apparent non-random pattern in video sequences. Instead, Kittie and Bob had to use slides from the 1970s, which were difficult to run, and the subjects they’d brought in for the original experiment with the video begun to move on as the festival left town.

Then ‘the rest of the equipment started to fail.’ Monitors and light bulbs started to go wrong, a computer cable melted. There were so many electrical faults that it became a running departmental joke that Kittie was jinxed. Bob showed her books on people whose very presence messes up experiments. Kittie was ‘trying to be cheerful’ about all this bizarre equipment failure. She called Bob, joking, after the third projector/hardrive/general systems failure: ‘One of us isn’t going to make it to the end of this,’ she told him. And then Bob died suddenly in August 2004 (see obituary in (See Fortean Times 192: pages 26-27) In the time leading up to his death, Kittie had prophetic dreams of attending Bob’s funeral. She took his death as sign that ‘I’m not meant to be doing this.’ Her performing work was taking off by then, and she decided parapsychology was something she could always come back to…

But the paranormal had come into Kittie’s life long before she chose a career in parapsychology. She had a near death experience aged 10, as a result of an allergic reaction. Another childhood experience she describes was a ‘bizarrely accurate vision of the death of Princess Diana a year before she died… A black shadow from the North West coming over Paris, the sensation of being trapped in a tunnel at high speed,’ the feeling that she should ‘watch her back.’ Kittie has also had shared dreams with people, or witnessed other peoples’ dreams as they dream them.

She grew up in East Kilbride, south of Glasgow, although she didn’t know at the time it was a UFO hotspot. The sky round her house would be full of the searchlights of helicopters chasing escapees from the mental hospital over the moors. She remembers one night watching a searchlight moving around in the sky above the woods for ten minutes, ‘then I realised there was no sound beyond the rustling of trees, I couldn’t see a craft, just the light – not a source.’

Kittie’s interest in Ufology extends to a friendship with Ufologist Nick Pope, who got in touch with her after reading her interview in a UFO magazine. Says Kittie of Nick Pope, ‘he’s a lovely gent.’

Fortunately, Kittie saw the funny side of Ufology, as evidenced by the three-minute alien abduction burlesque routine, written by Kittie but still awaiting a debut. This skit ‘burlesques’ (sends up) The X-Files with a chorus line of aliens. It’s got ‘a medical Carry On style sequence, complete with alien surgical clichés referencing what people actually report. Although, as it is a burlesque, we don’t show any of the more “intimate” horrors.’

On a more serious note, Kittie says ‘I still have a problem with electricity… I once famously crashed the whole library network at Glasgow University.’ Bob Morris saw her apparent allergic reaction to electricity, which Kittie’s business partner and fiancé James, an IT expert and world-class programmer, can confirm. Says Kitty, ‘I go through laptops at an alarming rate, I have been known to interfere with TV signals, I get headaches and rashes when vacuum cleaners and computers power up. Light bulbs rarely last around me, cameras often don’t work and I have allergic reactions to the London Underground (seriously!) – I’ve often wondered if it’s the electricity… I get dizzy, over-hot and develop that peculiar rash.’

Then there was the time she participated in an experiment in Glasgow in which electrodes were attached to her head, and they didn’t pick up any data from her at all. This is supposed to happen ‘only if you’re dead.’

BBC Scotland once engaged Kittie as a ‘psychic detective’ as part of a programme that followed young paranormal investigators working in the reputedly haunted Britannia Panopticon Music Hall at Glasgow’s Trongate. At 150 years old, the Panopticon is Britain’s oldest surviving intact music hall. It’s said that it didn’t burn down -– like all the other Glasgow music halls – as there was so much urine soaked into in the wood. Stanley Laurel debuted at the Panopticon aged 16 in 1906, and Kittie has done fundraising gigs for the venue.

The ‘proper investigators’ of Kitty’s SSPR team started with some serious archive research and then set up equipment in various parts of the Panopticon – ‘TV cameras, infra-red cameras, mini-disc digital recorders to record EVP, absolutely nothing happened.’ The BBC team suggested focusing on a mediumship demonstration from a circle of people who believed themselves to be psychic. The result was ‘wordy, incongruous to facts and rather dull actually. It wasn’t data that we could use.’

While Kittie’s team was setting up, there were – understandably given the age of the venue – ‘knocking noises from the pipes (which the BBC got excited about and filmed three times). The suggestion that it was in fact plumbing was vetoed.’ The whole investigation was a ‘non-conclusive event. Those who went in believing came out believing, those who didn’t were unchanged.’

Kittie stressed that the SSPR have many mediums among their members and on its council. SSPR mediums attended the Panopticon vigil as part of the SSPR investigation. For this investigation, ‘myself and a few colleagues were approaching from a scientific viewpoint and had designed the vigil as such. Were at loggerheads with the (other) mediums who showed little regard for the importance of protocol and ignored our requests for structure.’

After the death of Bob Morris, strange stuff continued to happen. During a photo shoot for a fetish magazine at the Erotic Museum of Hamburg, Kittie was posing with straw and porcelain Victorian theatre dummy, when a soft, masculine voice came to her in German, and the dummy’s eyes appeared to look at her. ‘No way! I’ve not enough sleep,’ Kittie told herself. She ‘didn’t tell anyone for a few hours, (thinking) it could be lack of sleep.’ Then she found that the incident coincided with the failure of the photographer’s camera, and her boyfriend said that at the same time he’d chased a light up the museum’s stairs, the same stairs which fellow fetish glamour model Morrigan Hell fell down on a shoot shortly before. ‘So many people had experiences’ of the space, Kittie found out. Photography equipment seizing up on Kittie Klaw modelling shoots is, she says, something that happens often.

For the moment, being a global burlesque glamour phenomenon pretty much precludes a return to professional parapsychology any time soon. Kittie says she remains a sceptic in the academic sense, ‘I haven’t yet formed a firm belief’ one way or another. How does Kittie’s grounding in the science of parapsychology inform how she feels about the strange things that keep happening to her? ‘Studying parapsychology keeps me rational about it. To say that I’m only going to consider certain possibilities, that’s ridiculous… I’ve always maintained my interest in the paranormal… I’m a sceptical enquirer in the academic sense, but a fascinated enquirer with a desire to be convinced.’

‘Sceptic,’ according to Kittie, is a word that has come into disrepute over the years, like ‘burlesque’.

See also

© Matt Salusbury 2007

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