The Art of Artifice

How Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover are making a living—and a life—as modern-day vaudevillians.

Even without sequins or makeup, Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover can sure sell a number. In a sweaty, nondescript rehearsal studio in the Seattle Center Armory last month, the burlesque duo is polishing a routine before flying to Vegas to compete in the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

They launch into a number set to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” that kicks off with shared sips from a prop Drano martini—“A real disco Romeo and Juliet,” cracks LaRue. The energy in the room ramps up as the statuesque vixen and her diminutive drag king mark their steps. They clutch their stomachs as they spin and roll through the Hustle, miming the moments when rhinestone-heavy costumes are peeled away. Lou occasionally flashes a dazzling, guileless smile and Kitten can’t keep her acerbic, come-hither smirk—a Southern belle turned siren—from flickering across her face. It’s full-on lazzi—campy and hilarious, seriously crafted without taking itself seriously. They may be in schlumpy rehearsal clothes, but this isn’t a look at the “real” Kitten and Lou. For these stars of self-invention, sequins and makeup don’t mask their real selves. They magnify them.

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Susanna Welbourne, aka Kitten LaRue, grew up loving MGM musicals and studying jazz, tap and ballet in Ruston, a “100-pecent bible belt” town in the Northeast corner of Louisiana. After college she landed in New Orleans, home of the Shim Sham Club and the Shim Shamettes. The troupe drew on the raunchy old-school glamour of the French Quarter to revive burlesque in the late ’90s. The show featured a live jazz band, elaborate costumes and polished choreography, and its performers knew how to emphasize the tease over the reveal. “My mind was immediately blown, and I just wanted to be a part of it.” She landed a role, and Kitten LaRue was born. The opulence of the Shim Sham set a precedent for her lasting artistic vision for something that “fills that gap of Broadway in a city that doesn’t have Broadway, where you can go out, dress up, see this grand spectacle, laugh, cry and have fun.”

After the Shim Sham shuttered in 2002, LaRue relocated to Seattle and pitched the Showbox an act called the Atomic Bombshells as an opener for touring burlesque star Dita von Teese, before the Bombshells even existed. In a month she put together a troupe and pulled off a show. Ten years later the Bombshells are still going strong.

Hoover’s road to burlesque was more circuitous. After getting her BFA in dance from the University of Michigan, Ricki Mason moved to Seattle to dance for KT Niehoff and Velocity Dance Center around 10 years ago and quickly became an in-demand teacher, performer and choreographer. Several years in, the slow pace and high pressure of the dance world started wearing on her. “You work on a piece for two years and then you perform it for three nights and it’s kind of heartbreaking,” Hoover says. She performed one of her last pieces at On the Boards, and despite all of her preparation and belief in her work, she had horrible stage fright. “It was this feeling of, ‘I can’t live up to this’,” she says. Her remedy was to start performing as much as possible.

Mason was excited about the world of burlesque but didn’t feel good about joining it. She did shows as “a fancy lady” but something felt wrong, like she was putting on a front rather than revealing something about herself. Her artistic light bulb lit up when local actor/dancer/boylesque icon Waxie Moon asked her to join a boylesque show he was putting together. “I say yes to anything Waxie asks,” she says. “So I made a drag king character—and that first performance turned into what I do now with Lou Henry Hoover.”

Hoover had been anti-drag king in the past, because embracing masculinity as a drag king historically meant embracing a slapdash look. “Lou was interested in working as hard as a drag queen to create this glamorous artifice,” says LaRue, whose persona was also heavily influenced by drag. “It has always been my goal to explore and present this overblown version of femininity, this camp, exaggerated cartoon.”

Hoover wanted to explore ideas of masculinity in the same heightened way—changing her body shape, contouring her face, wearing wigs and sequins—lots and lots of sequins. “I was creating this thing that I hadn’t seen before,” Hoover says. “Drag kings don’t usually wear a lot of sequined onesies.”

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Once Hoover and LaRue were both fixtures on local burlesque and dance stages, they somehow avoided meeting for a year and a half—unlikely considering they had a mutual best friend in local drag favorite BenDeLaCreme. “The universe was keeping us apart,” Hoover says.

Once they met, the connection was immediate, but it took another year before they finally worked together. Hoover was busy with the surreal drag/dance/performance art act The Cherdonna and Lou Show, and LaRue was producing Bombshells shows. In 2010, one of the Atomic Bombshells dropped out of the troupe’s annual run in Provincetown, Mass. and LaRue asked Hoover to join them on the road. Hoover didn’t have the right kind of routines for the Bombshells, so she created them. “I was holding on to some modern dance angst in my burlesque work,” she jokes. “Like I was stripping because I was upset. Luckily, we got rid of that angle.”

Hoover joined LaRue’s group as the first “BOYshell” in Provincetown. One night, after “700 blueberry vodka drinks,” their summer showmance began. Their “just friends” lunches kept turning into dinners until Hoover finally laid down the law before LaRue went out on tour with her band the Intelligence. “She told me, ‘When you come back, I want you to move to Capitol Hill and be my girlfriend,’” LaRue says.

“And she did!” says Hoover. “So we started going steady and then we got married.” In July of 2013, Hoover and LaRue tied the knot in an “extravaganza of wedding eleganza.” The officiant was Waxie Moon.

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The Atomic Bombshells are now the old guard of Seattle shimmy. In a flooded burlesque market, the group is set apart by its high barrier to entry—these aren’t just people willing to take their clothes off or niche-y acts where gimmick takes top billing over skill. They’re trained dancers, performers who can tell and sell a story as well as they can twirl a pasty. Also unique is the group’s production value—LaRue isn’t kidding around when it comes to spectacle. As producer and artistic director, she oversees every spangly detail of shows like J’Adore! A Burlesque Valentine and the ’60s sci-fi-flavored Lost in Space. The Bombshells pay tribute to the Golden Age of Burlesque, perfecting the coy striptease and classic bump and grind, which for all its lovely, meticulous camp, leaves little room for surprise.

To create work outside of the Bombshells, BenDeLaCreme and LaRue discussed forming a production company of their own. Once they realized that “we don’t actually know how to make anything without Lou,” DeLouRue Presents was born. “Lou is a brilliant choreographer, DeLa is a genius writer and I’m in charge of spectacle, music and making sure we don’t end up in the poorhouse,” says LaRue. The trio fuses dance, theatre, burlesque and drag into sardonically candy-colored shows, with the help of Seattle talents like Waxie Moon, Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales, and Cherdonna Shinatra.

Yes, the shows are silly: in Homo for the Holidays, DeLa sings Christmas carols set to Lady Gaga beats as Lou prances in a skintight reindeer suit. They’re also rich with satire. The annual Fourth of July production Freedom Fantasia, which runs July 2–3 at the Triple Door, features an Agnes de Mille-inspired dream ballet in which everyone wears a covered wagon headpiece. There’s a cheesy number about baseball and apple pie, and there’s a chain-smoking, French-speaking Statue of Liberty.

“It’s a send-up of America and Americana, a ridiculous pageant about patriotism and what it means to be a patriot if you feel like an outsider in your own country,” LaRue says. “It has heart but it’s also hilarious and bizarre and surreal.”

Of course, living and working together takes its toll. “People ask us how long we’ve been together,” Hoover says, “and we say four years but really more like a decade.”

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Part of what informs Kitten N’ Lou’s collective vision is a fascination with the artificial and what it means to alter yourself to express yourself. “You start with you and a truth and you blow it up so much that it becomes this fantasy that’s even more real,” Hoover says. “As opposed to thinking of artifice as something that hides you, thinking of it as something that reveals, reveals, reveals.”

Testing the limits of artifice can mean employing traditionally schtick-y elements like lip-syncing for a higher purpose. By using a pre-recorded voice, Kitten or Lou can have exactly the voice they should have at any given moment, regardless of what they can actually produce with their own bodies. It opens the door to almost limitless reinvention.

“I like to think of my persona as this sort of superhero,” says Hoover. “It’s not just a piece of me, it’s everything I can do plus anything I can imagine.”

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Hoover reluctantly gave up teaching dance a year ago when her touring schedule became too much, but one of the things that’s kept her in burlesque is the payoff. No performer, except rock stars, gets such immediate love from an audience. “It’s like crack as a performer,” says LaRue. “Hearing that audience is an instant hit to your system, and it’s hard to compete with that.”

Since the day they after got married, Kitten and Lou have kept a grueling schedule on the “giant, sparkly, naked summer camp” that is the burlesque circuit. They headlined the Helsinki Burlesque Festival before going on a month-long European tour earlier this year. They returned to Provincetown and toured Australia with the Bombshells. As of last fall, they’re splitting their time between Seattle and New York, where they appeared in BenDeLaCreme’s show Terminally Delightful. Hoover just wrapped the show There Once Was a Man (in which LaRue also appeared).

A late June performance at World Pride in Toronto is the next stop in carving out the identity that is Kitten N’ Lou. They were asked to create a 20-minute performance as a duo, which will form the basis of their first full-length show together.

“Not many people even know our Christian names anymore,” jokes LaRue. That will only become truer as their visibility grows. Things have been left behind like a silk glove slowly tugged off finger by finger. They’ve shed parts of themselves to become who they are. The duo may look like a tease, but in the end, they’re all about the reveal.

Pictured above: Kitten LaRue (right) and Lou Henry Hoover. Photo by Steven Miller.