Mister Junior is the self-proclaimed queen of boylesque and Chicago’s own hairy chested heartthrob. His dance style is informed by a range of styles including go-go dancing and flamenco. He first performed in a burlesque show with mentor Miss B. Sharp at Cobra Lounge in Chicago in 2009. One fateful day, he answered a Vaudezilla call for performers and joined their monthly roster of bar shows. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s a pretty exciting history including his stellar performance last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art. You can spy him around town in Vaudezilla productions or performing with Naughty Little Cabaret. He is also co-host and cultural critic on a new web series called THE QU, a panel on contemporary queer issues and culture.
Mister Junior // Alberto Ramon Gutierrez
Interview by Kristina Daignault and Michael Soto
Inspiration and Glitter
Defining Gender, Queer, and Beauty
Kristina: What kind of artist are you? I feel like your answer is going to be extensive because you’re all kinds of artist. So tell us about that.
Alberto: OK, that’s great. So, my name is Alberto Ramon Gutierrez. I’m probably most commonly known by my burlesque stage name, and that’s Mister Junior. But I’m a multi-disciplinary artist. I’ve been trained as a costume designer, couturier, an interior designer and decorator, a furniture designer, an industrial designer, and what other things do I do–dance! I also was a flamenco dancer.
Art therapy is probably the largest occupational branch that I’ve been a part of, which I incorporate now as an instructor of burlesque. There are a lot of therapeutic components to being a burlesque instructor. It’s sort of a vulnerable art form. People are exposing themselves–literally, their physical bodies to audiences, and there’s a lot of cultural baggage that gets unpacked when people do that.
K: That’s true. Do you get a lot of people who’ve never tried burlesque before?
A: A lot of people that have never tried and a lot of people that have never done any form of dance before. There’s also an element of teaching basics of movement and rhythm as well as being comfortable with the physicality of their living body.
K: Do you enjoy that?
A: I think that’s probably the thing I enjoy most [about] being a working artist is being an instructor.
K: Poking people out of their shell?
A: Exactly. People come to life after taking a class in burlesque in a way that I have never seen people grow in any other art form.
K: And you work with Vaudezilla?
A: Yeah, I work with Vaudezilla productions, and that’s the main company that I’ve worked with for the past just over three years now. And I also work with this newer company called Naughty Little Cabaret.
K: That sounds exciting.
A: And they’re a branch of VIP bachelorette, which is this…
K: Uh oh, trouble.
A: …exactly, bachelorettes are trouble. But a friend of mine produces this really great show with some of the top burlesque and drag performers in the world, and it’s really great to be a part of that.
K: I can’t imagine being in those continuously with screaming girls.
A: It’s really weird, especially considering what I do. That’s where I do my work as an artist and less as a performer. They’re expecting this sort of thing, and they get Mister Junior, this hairy glittery man in high heels, but they love it. They love it, and after every show, I’m trying to leave, and I have women run up to me, like, “You were the best one! You’re so glittery! Can you teach my husband how to dance in heels?” I’m like, “Yes! I will! Have him sign up for my class.” That’s why I think breaking those expectations. Because it’s attractive. Heels are like a symbol of…
K: Sexy power?
A: Sexy power. Any anyone can use the sexy power.
K: You also mention on your website that you invite people to see what burlesque is about even if they’ve never experienced it before. And there’s a little caveat, “If you’ve seen the Christina Aguilera movie, it does not count.”
A: It does not, no…
K: Why does that movie not count?
A: That movie is not an accurate portrayal of the real life subculture/culture or lifestyle of burlesque artists in the United States. I don’t know about globally, I have friends that I know around the world.
K: I’ve never seen that movie, but I was curious why you’re like, “Not this one.”
A: It’s not like that! It’s more gritty. There’s more of a DIY component to burlesque.
Inspiration and Glitter:
K: So I saw a magazine put out a list of top 50 burlesque performers in the country, and Red Hot Annie of Vaudezilla is on this list! It must be really exciting for you guys.
A: It is!
K: Is she a good director of your team?
A: Oh man, Annie is an amazing director! I call her my burlesque fairy godmother.
K: Oh my God, that’s a great name!
A: Yeah, she’s my burlesque fairy godmother, because before, I was the little Cinderella, just like, “Whatever, I’m just covered in ashes…”
K: She gave you a bunch of mice and a wand, and that was it?
A: Exactly. She gave me a few strands of sequins and fringe, and then a stage to dance on, and was like, “Here you go.” So she’s great, and really to me, one of the most innovative business people I’ve ever met, because she really believes in the core heart of artists and allows people to do what they want to do and gives them a place to do that.
K: So where do you get your dance inspiration from? Your dance style?
A: I like to try to keep up with the trends in dance clubs. A lot of my friends are DJs around the city or around the country, and so they’re coming up with a lot of the music people are dancing to, and I’ll go out and see how people are dancing, so that influences my moves, but I was also trained at a flamenco conservatory, so I have that background that’s sort of the base of my movement, as well as African Dance. And then modern dance and other contemporary dance that some of my colleagues use and teach.
K: You could say you’re a modern dancer.
A: I would say more contemporary dance. That’s the classification.
K: What’s the difference between modern and contemporary?
A: Modern is a certain aesthetic of ergonomic rigidity in movement. If you think of modern art or modern architecture, there’s a certain easily recognizable form. The same with dance, so dancing in a modern aesthetic is about a function of the body in space. And contemporary dance can incorporate ballet, flamenco, break dancing, which is something that I don’t do very well, but I try to. More of a blend.
K: I wanted to ask you how you picked out your songs that you perform to? Is it just the beat you’re feeling that day? Tell me a little bit about your process.
A: Ooh, that’s a cool question. So my process usually starts with… it comes and goes, there are different ways. Sometimes, I’ll think of something I want to do or be on stage. Like, “I want to be a big cloud on stage.”
K: Did you really have that one?
A: I did. So I had this big giant cloud, and I danced around, and rain. That one actually started by hearing this song. So usually, I’ll hear a song, and it’ll inspire some vision or some strange thing that I’d like to be–a creature or some kind of mood or attitude from a song–and I like to pick songs that are sometimes really popular songs or are really hip right now. Sometimes sort of obscure songs that are culturally relevant to me, and that’s really important–the cultural relevance of a song in general, and how I as an artist will subvert the imagery the song conveys. Or how I can illuminate the imagery a song will convey.
K: How do you rain on people?
A: How do I rain? With glitter.
K: I want to ask you about glitter, because it’s everywhere.
A: It’s everywhere.
K: Literally everywhere. I’ve noticed it listed as one of your specialties.
A: Oh yeah, glittering.
K: And I saw performances where you take off your socks and there’s glitter inside of them. I want to know your performer’s secret on how to get glitter off of yourself. Because I don’t see a tiny bit of it anywhere right now.
A: Well, recently, I’ve tried… I do this thing where I challenge myself to use different materials and break away from customs and traditions, and a lot of burlesque is glitter and sparkle. So what I’ll try to do is use less glitter, so what I try to do is use confetti instead. So instead of glitter, sparkly confetti. It’s like glitter, but larger shapes. But my secret for getting glitter off is really just a good shower and a good scrub down, or a couple of them because it gets stuck in my hair, my body hair, so one or two good showers will get the glitter off.
K: Alright. You don’t have, “And then you use vinegar,” or something crazy?
A: I have heard, actually, that using baby powder on the skin before you apply glitter helps it come off easier.
K: Interesting. That was just a silly question. Also on your website, you talk a lot about your shows talking to or breaking the molds of gender and sexuality. Do you think about that during every performance that you’re putting on? Always in your mind, or that’s the framework for your show.
A: That’s definitely what I think about every time I go on stage, and what’s great is because the shows that usually the company I work with produce, the theme isn’t ever really about gender or challenging those notions, and that allows me to do that sort of covertly. It’s almost like people are getting this message about gender or attraction that kind of sneaks into their subconscious. So I’m always aware because of how I present the costumes that I choose to wear or the dance influences I put on stage.
K: Would you say you like to fuck with expectations?
A: I do like to fuck with expectations.
K: I do want to ask a little bit more about who is your favorite, besides yourself, burlesque dancer performing in this era of time.
A: Oh my gosh, it would be… Po’ Chop. She’s part of my troupe, and even if she wasn’t, I would follow her around and go to all her shows, and I do anyway. She and I are also close friends, so that helps too, and we collaborate. She and I talk about being gender warriors.
K: Gender warriors?
A: Gender warriors. What we do is we present things that break those expectations we talked about. Po’ Chop has a really unique style that mixes African-inspired dance movement, hip-hop dance movement, and some more classic burlesque style seductive movements. And also really interesting portrayals and mixing of gender. Sometimes Po’ Chop will present in a really androgynous way, and that’s really empowering to me to move from one gender presentation to another within the same burlesque piece.
Defining Gender, Queer, and Beauty:
K: On the topic of gender, where is the line for Burlesque and Drag. How do you personally decide where you fit?
A: So, there are two main distinctions between drag and burlesque: gender impersonation and strip tease. My embodiment of burlesque most frequently includes elements of strip tease, removal of costume pieces, and the reveal of the human body beneath. I present a mix of genders as Mister Junior, a queer body that might be indistinguishable or gender ambiguous; my body hair immediately eliminates me from categorization as a drag performer, as impersonating a typical woman is not as convincing with a beard. I don’t present or perform as fully within either end of the gender spectrum.
K: “Queer” is a word that I hear a lot to apply to so many things. What does the word Queer mean?
A: Queer is a term that describes the community efforts of people living in ways that are against the status quo, often people that abandon rigid gender roles, hierarchies, and other oppressive norms through critical engagement with the systems that enforce them.
K: Can you tell me more about “Definitions of beauty?”
A: That is a great serious question. Definitions of beauty. I think that’s really at the heart of burlesque: what beauty is and what beauty means to each individual person.
K: Performer or audience member?
A: Both. Definitely as an audience member, seeing an array of bodies that are usually hidden or shamed in other forms of media that we’re sort of inoculated or hypnotized by. We see bodies that are large and small and hairy and not hairy. There’s cellulite and huge boobs and big asses and thick beautiful bodies and thin little bodies, and a variety of bodies, and the definition of beauty is expanded when a person sees a burlesque show because each of the people on the stage exudes this confident nature to be exposing their own unique beauty to the masses or to an audience, and not being ashamed. And if they are ashamed, they just throw some glitter on it and go out there, and then the shame disappears.
M: Did you come to Chicago for SAIC?
A: Yes, so I came here to SAIC to get my art therapy degree, and I did my clinical practice in a psychiatric hospital in a community center. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot, but one of the things that I learned was that the type of art that I do and the type of people I want to serve with my art aren’t in those sorts of environments. I felt that I would be more impactful doing what I do as a teacher and as a performer. I would like to return to art therapy again in the future sometime, I think maybe when the world is more accepting of naked bodies and less judgmental and shaming of that sort of expression. I think that time will come.
K: Sure, I think always the time is going to come for something. But it’s too bad you have to wait for it.
A: I’m trying, I’m making it happen. A little bit at a time. I [was] part of a performance art conference at Northwestern called In Bodies We Trust. All these interesting performance scholars want to see what burlesque has to offer in that realm of performance. So it’s happening. It really is happening. People are like, “Oh, burlesque is a real legitimate, helpful, socially important art form.”
K: Do you think other cities have a vibrant out cropping of burlesque performing?
A: Yeah, I’ve travelled a bit in the US, and more and more states are putting together burlesque festivals for the very first time. I was accepted into the Michigan burlesque festival, the very first annual. I think Wisconsin just had a first annual. I think it was probably in Madison or Milwaukee–one of those big cities in Wisconsin–but burlesque is definitely growing in popularity.
K: So if somebody came to you and said, “You are the most amazing performer I’ve ever seen. Here’s a million dollars to put on a show of your dreams,” what do you think you’d do?
A: Oh my gosh, a million dollars? Holy smokes, well, I would take that million dollars, and I would purchase a venue so there could be more than one show, first of all. I’d purchase a really great venue, and I’d make it really nice, and have it up and running, and probably have some huge opening night extravaganza and probably invite all of my favorite performers.
K: If someone were interested in having you design a costume for them what should they do?
A: They can like me on Facebook, send me a message or email me, and you can go to Vaudzilla.com and get my email address there. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.