Lauren Ashley Jiles is a global burlesque superstar celebrating her Indigenous roots

“When I told my grandmother about my dancing, she said, ‘If you’re going to do it, be the best at it’”

In 1991, my parents and I moved to Kahnawake, a Mohawk community across the St. Lawrence from Montreal. I was just five, but being a military kid, I had already lived on bases in Schweinfurt, Germany, and Fort Riley, Kansas. All that moving around had made me incredibly hyperactive, so my parents decided to enrol me in an Indigenous community-theatre class that only accepted children aged seven and up. They lied to get me in, and then I told people I was seven for three years straight. I was too young to realize it then, but those classes would shape the rest of my life. 

I danced, performed in musicals and learned to sew and make costumes for the next 13 years. When I was 18, I left my community to pursue a health sciences degree at nearby Dawson College. I stopped doing theatre to focus on my studies, but I slowly became depressed without it. In 2005, a friend encouraged me to audition for a burlesque show. It sounded like what I’d been doing, but with a provocative twist. A few days after my 18th birthday, I signed up to audition for the Blue Light burlesque troupe at Café Campus on Rue Prince-Arthur. I wore a pink men’s suit and a black hat and did a chair dance to “Stop This World” by Diana Krall in front of 300 people.

I remember hearing cheers and claps when my number ended, but a part of it felt odd: there was a sexual element to burlesque that wasn’t included in Indigenous community theatre, and my time in Catholic school did little to make me feel comfortable removing my clothes in front of an audience. And yet I felt more at home on that stage than I did conducting experiments in a lab. The venue asked me to sign a contract to become a monthly performer, and I was hooked.

Soon, I was booking performances several nights a week at clubs around the city—the MainLine Theatre, Café Cléo and lots of random bars. I didn’t want to give up on school, so after finishing my degree, I did two years of law school at McGill, then studied art history and film at Concordia. I was still nervous about what my colleagues and family might say if they found out I was a dancer. One night, I was performing at an off-campus fundraiser for legal and medical aid for sex workers, and I heard someone shout from the crowd, “Hey, it’s Lauren!” A bunch of my classmates were there. I was mortified, but they thought it was cool that I had a hobby that had nothing to do with academia. When I told my grandmother about my night job, she said, “If you’re going to do it, be the best at it.”

By 2012, I decided to see if I could make it as a full-time dancer. I did local shows, so I wasn’t making that much money, but I took solace in the fact that I was at least doing something that I loved. When I gave birth to my daughter two years later, making more money from burlesque became top priority. I invested tens of thousands into my act— costume pieces like boas, ostrich-feather fans, competition-entry fees and bus tickets to venues farther and farther from home. It wasn’t glamorous: I left my daughter with her father on weekends to take 12-hour buses to New York City. From there, I’d take another bus to Long Island, where I’d perform in local steakhouses. 

Those Long Island venues were pandemonium, with back rooms full of costumes and tons of performers—mostly from Manhattan—trying to make it big. It was classic burlesque: opulent productions combined with gritty off-stage bedlam. I’d get ready in a public bathroom with six other girls and run through the back kitchens to the stage. One time, I nearly got splashed with cooking oil.

My near-burn moment is a good metaphor for my first years in the business—I did what I had to do to stay in the game. Sometimes, when you’re trying to monetize your art, you’re faced with compromises that test your integrity. At festivals and corporate functions, I felt like I had a better shot of being booked if I did well-known numbers instead of creating original pieces. At other events, producers would fixate on my Indigenous roots and ask me to do a Pocahontas-themed act. Those requests weren’t common, but they were certainly demeaning. I refused to work with those people. I wanted to control my own act.

The 2018 New Orleans Burlesque Festival was a pivotal moment: I entered the Queen of Burlesque competition and did a spider-queen dance wearing a skirt with extra legs and a butt reveal. I had straps tied to my back that I used to swing my body into the air at the end of the striptease. I won that contest with a costume made by designer Christina Manuge. A lot changed for me after that. I had a bunch of run-ins with celebrities, for one. I did a private dance for Jason Momoa. It was just his people and me, hoping I wouldn’t forget how to take off my clothes. There was a new liberty that came with success. Thanks to my newfound notoriety, when I asked producers what they wanted my act to involve, they’d say, “You’re the performer, do what you want.”

I felt like I had more freedom to explore different themes. One of my newer acts was about the decolonization of Indigenous sexuality. My costume has classic burlesque elements, like a feather duster and corset, but the beadwork is the real highlight. The entire outfit is purple, which is an important colour to Iroquois people. The reveals aren’t bodily, but cultural: I remove my head covering and my hair falls to the floor in braids. I lift my skirt to reveal moccasins, not heels. At the end, I look joyful, a depiction of Indigenous people that’s not often seen in the media. It’s a very emotional dance for me to perform. In 2019 and 2020, I was named Canada’s number-one burlesque performer. Last June, I won Miss Exotic World—the Olympics of burlesque—and soon after, I was named the second-most-influential dancer in the world by 21st Century Burlesque magazine, which felt like the cherry on top. All of that coincided with a massive reckoning across Canada, exemplified by the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools. These atrocities weren’t news to my community. Representation has always been a mission of mine, and I don’t want to make “comfortable” art, so if my shows spark conversation, that’s a win in a different way.

My recent success has triggered a massive moment of now what? I still intend to dance until my knees give out, but I’m shifting away from competitions and toward giving back to my community. I’m about to start working with the Burlesque Hall of Fame in a production role, but I also recently started teaching at Anowara Dance Theatre, a Montreal-based Indigenous dance company run by Barbara Diabo. I remember how isolating it was to be a new artist, let alone an artist of colour. But I don’t know if any of this would have come my way if I hadn’t performed as my true self. I’m wearing many costumes these days. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As told to Alex Cyr 

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