You’ve seen her before. But the lovely Danielle Colby, of the History Channel’s “American Pickers,” is more than a one-trick pickin’ pony. The tattooed-all-over lady owns a clothes boutique in LeClaire called 4 Miles 2 Memphis, and she’s the foundering member of a burlesque troupe called Burlesque le Moustache.
AND she’s a sword swallower. Did we mention she’s badass? She’s badass.
TSJ talked to Ms. Colby about pickin’ antiques, shimmying onstage, and things carny.
The Smoking Jacket: So how did you first get involved with ”American Pickers”?
DC: Mike and I have been friends for about 15 years and he just asked me to help him out with some stuff. I had a little D.I.Y. punk shop down on the main street in LeClaire and I used to fix a lot of the stuff that he would bring in, like leather jackets and stuff like that that would need repairs. So that’s how this portion of our business relationship started. He just asked me to when the TV show came around he needed some extra help, he wanted someone to be involved who understood antiques but at the same time also had a fresh perspective on them.
Danielle Colby and her “American Pickers” posse.
TSJ: Have you always been a scavenger? Finding cool stuff and fixing it up?
TSJ: Yeah, me too.
DC: When you grow up poor that’s what happens. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Danielle Colby on “American Pickers”
TSJ: True that. Did you ever think you could make a living doing it?
DC: I had already been doing it with 4 Miles 2 Memphis, I was supporting myself and my two kids, and it just kind of grew exponentially when Pickers started up.
TSJ: Tell me about your burlesque dancing. When did that start up?
DC: I started the burlesque troupe about a year before Pickers. I’m just self-taught. But I had been looking for someplace to learn, and in Iowa, at that time, there was nothing for burlesque. When you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, you have to figure out shit for yourself. I had some friends in Chicago — the Chicago Starlettes are amazing. And you know, they’ve been really helpful to teaching me to becoming a better burlesque artist.
TSJ: Your costumes have a real vintage, sort of circa 1930s era feel to them. Are they actual period pieces or are you recreating them?
DC: I pick up a lot of stuff from that era but I don’t usually wear that stuff on stage — one slip and the whole costume falls apart! I try to recreate, to match the stylization. I try to give it some kind of a modern twist so that not only is it a throwback to [old school] burlesque but it’s kind of grabs people by the balls because it’s a combination of the modern and the vintage put together.
TSJ: Are you making all the costumes yourself?
DC: Yeah, I do. I have a girl who helps me out who’s been sewing with me for a long time. Her name is Becca Clerk — she’s actually our stylist for the troupe now. She and I will sit for days on end and sew feathers onto a cape…
TSJ: Has humor always played a big role in burlesque? Is it something that’s part of your work?
DC: Burlesque is definitely about the art of the tease. But it’s also about playfulness. So as far back as I can remember, from like the Bird Girl or the Tarantula, there are these burlesque artists who are pretending to be birds or frogs or spiders or all these crazy things. And you do have to move your body in a comedic way, and you have to have really good comedic timing in order to pull something like that off without looking just weird.
TSJ: Are there any burlesque artists that inspire you?
You have Dita Von Teese, who’s a bombshell, but you have Dirty Martini, who’s a godsend to women who are beautiful but at the same time just have this awkwardness about them that makes them more approachable. Little Brooklyn, she’s another fantastic comedic performer. I love her to death.
You also have your vaudeville-style humor that’s thrown in with the entertainment.
TSJ: In the acts I’ve seen of yours on YouTube, you do a lot of work with fans. Which is pretty, but it’s also a tease. What’s the appeal in not showing everything at once?
DC: I think the sensuality in sex comes from the anticipation. And I think that’s what the peek-a-boo thing is about, it’s about the art of the reveal without the reveal. There are so many burlesque performances where you don’t even notice the performers are stripping — you don’t even notice that they’re naked until all of a sudden they are, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s a boob!” That is amazing. It’s definitely tongue-in-cheek in that respect.
Colby’s troupe is featured here in The Dirt Daubers’ music video “Get Outta My Way”
TSJ: So was there any awkwardness at all when you first started doing your routines on stage? Or was that cool from the get-go?
DC: Hell no! Hell. No. I felt completely awkward when I started. I really think, though, that no matter what kind of performance you’re doing, at first you feel insecure and not really sure of what people are going to think. But I think the beauty of what we do in burlesque is we celebrate the — my sister refers to it as the celebration of the female form in all its perfect imperfection. And I could not put that more beautifully.
It’s the ability to go up on stage and be the average joe who’s had two kids and has just worked a job job, scars all over from roller derby and stuff, but you can still go onstage and be an absolute bombshell. Flaws and all. And that’s where the true power comes into burlesque. That’s where the true art form comes in — presenting yourself as yourself. And at the same time taking on another persona and taking it to the next level.
I don’t think anyone ever goes on stage their first couple of times and feels totally secure. But it doesn’t matter how skinny you are or how perfect your body is — everyone has insecurities about their bodies. So I think more than anything it’s about grabbing hold of that and putting it on parade in a way that it makes other people feel at ease with themselves. Because really burlesque is very much like “American Pickers.” It’s not about us. It’s not about who’s on stage. It’s about the audience. It’s about the interaction and making them feel empowered and strong and excited about who they are.
TSJ: When you look at really old-school pornography, like those 1920s black and white cards and stuff, there’s a particularity to the women in those pictures that’s so great — there are all different kinds of bodies getting kinked up. Do you think we’ve still got that appreciation for a variety of types of beauty these days?
DC: I think that with the American standard of beauty there’s a really intense jealousy, there’s a competitiveness that breeds among women and what we’re trying to do is kind of quell that and just bring back the fun of sexuality. Honestly, when you’re in a sexually intimate position there’s so much that could go wrong. And it’s better to laugh and enjoy it than to feel badly… because we’re all imperfect. And that’s the beauty of it.
TSJ: Do you have any circus arts or vaudeville-y things going on with the le Moustache acts?
DC: We have one of the girls from the original Circus Contraption lineup. She’s an aerial artist and she’s incredible. We’re really blessed to have her.
I’ve been practicing sword-swallowing for a while, and we have another girl who — her name is Cheeky Rouge — she does fire. Fire tassles and fire fingers and stuff.
And we also have a gentleman named Chaddelack, and he doesn’t strip but he does amazing sideshow stuff — we just sent him to sideshow school. So he came back with all these amazing tricks, and helped me forward myself with the sword-swallowing. So we’re definitely really appreciative of that culture.
TSJ: So. Sword swallowing. How likely is it to have accidents with that business when you’re just starting out?
DC: I really hope it doesn’t happen! I guess it’s pretty easy to have an accident with that if you’re not careful. but there are a lot of rules you follow and you just make sure that everything is clean and well-maintained and use a lot, a lot of caution. And get help from somebody who is a sword swallower. Which is very hard to do because people are very secretive about how they do their routine. I was helped out by a guy named Eric Auditorium, who is just incredible.
I don’t know man, it’s a crazy world, but it sure is fun. It’s sure exciting.
TSJ: Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by Diane Arbus’ pictures of freaks and carny acts — especially the albino sword swallower. I don’t know why, but I think it’s pretty awesome.
DC: It’s because you’re not supposed to put swords DOWN YOUR THROAT!
TSJ: Yeah! Exactly.
DC: It’s dangerous! I get the same way with the fire-eating stuff. Every time I see Red or Chaddelack to a routine I think, Please don’t inhale that because I love you and I want you to be around!
TSJ: There’s something to that isn’t there — doing what you shouldn’t be doing onstage.
DC: Exactly. You have to have a strong sense of adventure and you have to have a strong voyeuristic side in order to do cirque or burlesque.
Check out the act live!
September 16 at the Adler Theatre
Doors at 7 pm, Show at 8 pm