From nuns to Hunter S. Thompson to sexual education mimes, the stripper-slash-artist is bringing a whole new meaning to performance art.
By Randi Bergman
“Every stripper’s got a story” certainly applies to Coco Ono, aka LA Native Kayla Tange’s darkly comedic alter ego. She’s got ‘em all and she’s making them into art. The L.A. based stripper/burlesque dancer/artist has been working the pole for a decade and during that time she’s been opened up to more than you’ve wept during your most soul baring therapist sesh. It all comes off at the club—from bras to perfunctory daytime masks—which she showcases in her piece, A Bare Witness. Dressed as a nun, Ono reads “confessions” she’s received from clients, all the while stripping down to her skivvies. And that’s only just a taste. We caught up with Ono to find out more.
How did you come about burlesque?
I started stripping when I was 22. At the time I was working a retail job and not making a lot of money. My friend and I used to dance in the mirrors and joke that we would one day audition. That day came not long after that and I never looked back. The burlesque performing began after I had worked in a few strip clubs. When I started dancing at Jumbo’s Clown Room, I met some producers who booked me for their variety/burlesque shows. The last four years I’ve been a part of the Bootleg Bombshells. We perform every Wednesday night at the Townhouse in Venice. It’s been nothing less than an incredible experience. I feel like it’s provided a safe space to workshop, perform and perfect ideas where we are free to interact with the audience, making them part of our art.
Tell us about yourself as a performance artist.
I enjoy performing for people. I enjoy choosing the right song, costume and movements. I’ve enjoyed being not only a sexual projection but also private confessor, however, although my work is sexual in nature, it is rarely about sex itself. I often use confession, sexuality and dark comedy to explore themes of love and longing, cultural stereotyping, societal taboos, boundaries and fetish. The motivation behind what I do is a strong desire for emotional connection and understanding of human behavior. I also enjoy the autobiographical, social or political story telling aspect of performance art. The overt or subtleties of how we decide to use this platform are can be incredibly powerful and at the same time entertaining. This is where I find magic.
What came first? You seem to blend both in your work.
I’ve always enjoyed the performative aspect of photography and what was possible to convey. In high school, my friends and I would set up elaborate photo shoots and do performances documenting our current emotions or inspirations. When you are young, you have these idols doing the things you could only dream of, not only embracing sexuality, but also conveying a message in the process. This was always fascinating to me – the art of transforming physically and storytelling through dance or imagery. I was unaware of the opportunities to do this as a career until I moved to Los Angeles and realized there were people doing both. I officially started with stripping and then slowly began incorporating aspects of performance art. Now I think it’s a spectrum. A lot of themes and costumes/props crossover.
Is it hard to straddle both worlds? Is there ever an issue with people taking you seriously as an artist?
It has been challenging at times, yes. I wasn’t sure where or how I fit in. In fact, I have two different Instagram accounts: one for my performance art and the other for stripping/burlesque, even though they are both me and I view both forms of entertainment as art. I think female sexuality still receives varying degrees of responses so I’m figuring out different ways to navigate this. There were and still are times I do wonder how my art is received due to it’s sexual nature. However, there is no way I can control how others view it. That is based on their upbringing and preconceived ideas. I know what I stand for and work very hard on evolving my performances. I feel very lucky to know such a supportive group of performers and venues that really facilitate artistic growth and collaboration. I was once told, “people go where they are loved.” I don’t necessarily mean to live in a vacuum, but I think it’s important to find your niche, find your voice and not accept the status quo as the only state of existence.
Can you tell me about your confessions project?
The confessions project began as a way to transform my decade of stripping into an interactive performance conveying the common thread that I derived from my experiences. I wanted to create a piece that represented not only how I felt, but also what many others wanted as well: connection. I found that over the years. many of the customers disclosed various secrets or emotions they had. I would often end up in the lap dance booth not even dancing, but just talking. I used to ask myself, “what keeps them coming back? What keeps me coming back?” I’ll confess I am an emotional voyeur. I enjoy being confided in. It makes me feel less alone in the world knowing that others house similar demons that I do. It doesn’t happen every night, but I have found freedom and connection in this place where sexual desires and intoxication are the norm.
The first rendition of this project was called Confession Box. It is a large Plexiglas box that I sit in, blindfolded for a period of time with a slit about eye level for people to place their confession notes in. After this period of meditation, I begin to read the notes and write them on the inside of the box anonymously revealing the fears and secrets we share, creating a dialog among the participants with a hope to unify us through our shame.
Confession Box evolved into a version called A Bare Witness. In this performance, I begin wearing a nun costume and end by stripping and reading back confessions that people have thrown. I wanted to create a performance that explored the multifaceted reasons that draw individuals to strip clubs and yet are simultaneously ashamed by their desires. A Bare Witness is a performance that focuses on confession as currency by throwing counterfeit dollar bills with their private confessions written on the back, while I shift from one socio-sexually sphere, celibacy, to the other. Here, the dollar bills are intended to signify the audience’s complicity and sexual fetish tied to stripping but, through their participatory confessions, their simultaneous desire to harmonize the two seemingly dichotomous and paradoxical worlds of virtue and lust.
From these performances, two zines were born and an installation at Coagula Curatorial gallery in Chinatown, called Confession Room. I also had an amazing opportunity to perform a combination of Confession Box and A Bare Witness at Art Basel Miami in December. I feel incredibly grateful collaborating with incredible artists and visionaries working in many different mediums, and hope to keep growing this passion project.
Tell us about some of your characters?
Some of my characters include: A substitute art teacher, sexual education mime, prom queen turned dominatrix, Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Prince (Nothing Compares to U (food). In this act, I chain myself to a rolling table of food and drag it around the stage with me ending up on the floor consuming the plate of food while the audience watches. I wanted this piece to represent my love for Prince while also highlighting my fetishistic attitude toward food.
You also wear a Warhol wig from time to time…
The Andy Warhol routine began when the Bombshells did a David Bowie tribute night after his passing. I chose to represent him as him playing Warhol in the movie Basquiat, I come out to David Bowie’s Andy Warhol and begin by taking Polaroids of the crowd. Occasionally I’ll take a selfie or pass the camera to an audience member and have them take photos of me undressing. At some point mid song, I hand out paint pens and invite people to paint on my body. After I’m covered in paint, I press my body on a canvas making a body painting of sorts.
What do you wish people knew about stripping/burlesque?
I’d like people to realize that we are entertainers. We are artists. We spend a lot of time and money making costumes, rehearsing and coming up with new ideas. We put our heart and soul into what we do. We perform when we are injured and would rather be at home in our sweats and snacks. We go through painful experiences, happy experiences with love and loss intertwined and still show up makeup ready with all of that pain repackaged ready to be communicated for connection–and still we entertain.
Photos by Michelle Mayer
Styling by Liza Ovakimyan
For more on Coco Ono, click here.