Old Catton girl becomes burlesque star

Burlesque is a mini fashion trend that is taking lace to new heights. With the much anticipated Burlesque film starring Cher and Christina Aguilera in cinemas now, Emma Harrowing talks to Norwich's very own small town girl who has discovered burlesque.

It's an act with the reputation to titillate, tease and amuse its audience with lace costumes that leave little to the imagination. So a sketch inspired by comic duo Laurel and Hardy is perhaps not what you would expect from a burlesque performance.

But it was an impersonation of Stan Laurel which clinched the award for Best UK Newcomer at London Burlesque Week earlier this year.

The accolade went to Ginger Blush, aka Emma Cooper, who was born and raised in Norwich.

'It felt amazing to win! I was extremely excited,' says Emma. 'I've always adored watching silent movies and seeing how the body automatically expresses emotion – the smallest glance can have the biggest reaction.'

Despite critics claiming that she is an English Rose on the burlesque scene, Emma refuses to be pigeon-holed and loves changing her image, performing as an Edwardian lady, a chicken and a builder.

'My signature look is that I don't have one,' says Emma. 'I like character-based acts so one minute I'm a man, then I'm doing a tap dancing medley, a chicken fan dance, the unicorn and the princess and on and on! At the moment I'm splitting my time between a deep sea diver and Queen Elizabeth I!

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'I don't think you can describe burlesque as one thing. The beauty of modern burlesque is that it can be performed in many different formats. It can range from 'traditional burlesque' emphasising the comedy and satire, to striptease burlesque where the emphasis is placed on the tease.

'Burlesque is pure theatrical entertainment with a bit of something for everyone.'

Emma has always had a passion for performing. As a child Emma and her sister would put on Christmas performances in front of their family in their Old Catton home.

After completing her 'A' levels at the Hewitt School Emma studied a degree in performing arts in London. It was here in the capital that Emma had her first tantalising taste of burlesque.

'I worked as an actress and in stage management from 2003 to around 2008 and understudied on West End shows including A Man for all Seasons and Pinter's People at the Haymarket,' says Emma.

'During the times I wasn't acting I always worked in theatre, either in stage management or dressing. One job was to dress the host on Immodesty Blaize's show in Koko, Camden. It was my first introduction to burlesque and I was lucky enough to see some of the best performers in the world. It was while watching them that I thought: 'I'm going to do that!'

'Burlesque encapsulates everything I love in life – being creative, performing, making costumes, theatre, comedy and fantastic friends. So I can't help but love it!

'It's also great to push the audience out of their comfort zone in order to open their minds and question their thinking.'

Emma has performed as Ginger Blush all over the UK, she has attended The Amsterdam Burlesque Festival last year and she has shows booked across Europe next year.

'It's all looking very exciting at the moment,' says Emma. 'I will be dancing in 'Gentlemen prefer Showgirls', produced by my burlesque and cabaret heroes Kiki Kaboom and Gracie, and I am thrilled to be part of a touring show called 'An Evening of Burlesque' touring venues up and down the country.

'We are even doing a show at the O2.'

Comedy is at the heart of Emma's performance and if she can make her audience laugh she knows that she is on to a winner.

'A tour bus full of dancers and performers always leads to comedy moments,' says Emma. 'We certainly turn some heads in our rollers at service stations! But for my performances I wouldn't say that comedy comes naturally to me. I have some very patient friends who I can practise in front of, but just because we are laughing doesn't mean an audience will.

'Giving energy to an audience makes a huge difference. If you walk on stage to have a good time then the audience will do too. My favourite shows are the ones that allow me to interact with people. When the stage is so close you can go and have a giggle with someone on the front row – that can often produce the funniest moments.

'Some of my funniest moments are totally unscripted. I remember hula dancing at Caf� in Paris, getting very excited and then realising that my bikini was around my ankles!

'Burlesque also has an element of tease and I really admire performers who can ooze sex appeal and have that natural tease. If I hear an 'oooo' when I am performing I think – I must do that again! I think a lot of teasing comes with self-confidence, thankfully this is something I have definitely gained a lot of in the last year.'

Fashion is also key to the burlesque performance. Traditional burlesque dancers use fans, feathers, whips and lots of diamante to titillate their audience. In her performance as Ginger Blush, Emma prefers to use everyday props such as a newspaper, an umbrella and even a builder's hard hat, pictured below.

Says Emma: 'I love looking at people or finding strange props and then making an act around them.

'This way I will always bring a bit of my own personality to the stage, that way there will only ever be one Ginger Blush.'

Audiences too are fashion-savvy. With the resurgence of vintage clothes many people who go to watch a burlesque show dress up in 1940s or 1950s glamour.

'Contrary to popular belief the majority of burlesque followers are women,' says Emma. 'Burlesque shows provide a great excuse to dress up and the trend for vintage is producing some wonderfully glamorous followers.'