April 28, 2018

Sukki Singapora misses hot tauhuay the most when she’s away from home. And home means Singapore to the 28-year-old international burlesque star who is of local Indian and English heritage.

She’s the young change-maker who successfully campaigned for the legalisation of burlesque performance in Singapore in 2015, an achievement that was a culmination of 4 years of lobbying and countless illegal workshops for fellow enthusiasts. The classes had to be so covert they were disguised as yoga sessions and required security detail at the door, tribulations which now add to the charm of Sukki’s success—a fairy-tale ending for an unusual show in Singaporean spunk.

Dressed in a sheer glitter-specked blouse, the rainbow-haired Sukki stands out like sunshine through the rain against the dark atmospheric glamour of 1880—a private members’ club that recently made her their global ambassador. We speak to her about the art of burlesque, negotiating race, culture and feminism in her work.

Sukki-Art-2Image credit: Rachel Sherlock

HNW: What was your ambition as a child?

Sukki Singapora: I always wanted to be on stage from a very early age, whether it was singing, dancing or acting. I was born a performer and I really wanted to do that, but my parents were intent on me doing the sciences. I’m from what is basically a really traditional Indian Singaporean family. My parents were both doctors and in my family, those who aren’t doctors are lawyers or in the military. Art wasn’t encouraged—it was considered extra-curricular, like, it’s great that you’re good at that, but seriously now, let’s get a real job. So that’s how I ended up doing IT.

I understand that you didn’t tell parents about your burlesque work until they found out by accident, while googling you.

Yeah, I didn’t want them to find out because I knew that they wouldn’t be impressed. So I started learning in 2011 before turning full-time in 2013, and around the time when I began appearing in the news, my mother googled me and was like, “Sukki… Singapora?” I just thought: Ohhhh shit. [laughs]

Have they come around?

Even now, they still ask when I’m going to get a real job. I think they were shocked at first, and it’s been an incredibly long process for us. But seeing how I’ve conducted myself, they’re proud of the woman I’ve become. They still wish I did something else, but I think they now respect me as a person, rather than see me simply as their child. I pushed the boundaries and norms of our families and culture.

What first drew you to burlesque?

Growing up as a mixed-race child in Singapore, I never felt like I was either ethnicity. I always felt like this mixed Singaporean and I discovered vintage fashion, which was an identity irrespective of race or gender. Vintage fashion tends to go hand-in-hand with burlesque. I looked into it and thought: Wow that looks incredible! It was the combination of a “pin-up” look and dance which I’d trained in from the age of 7.

Provocation, sensuality and sexuality are also a big part of modern burlesque.

We’re traditionally very conservative in how we express our femininity and sexuality, and the arts isn’t particularly encouraged either. So it was my innate wish to use the arts to express myself, and to explore and embrace my sexuality as a woman—that is everything that burlesque stands for. I never did it for fame or because I wanted to be a role model; burlesque has been a very personal journey for me.

What motivated you to campaign for the legalisation of burlesque in Singapore? You had started your career overseas and was already performing internationally.

I obviously knew that doing burlesque as an Asian and Singaporean woman would be quite sensational, but I didn’t know that it would scandalous. It was not accepted by public decency laws and I was basically seen as a pornographic artist. It would have been easier not to fight. I was going up against my culture and my family for doing something difficult, and I was alone. But at that point, many women and young girls had started to message me to thank me for doing something different. I’d inspired them to dare to be different, and I started feeling a huge sense of responsibility. It felt like how when they say that ‘no one is free until we are all free’. It was my own fight against oppression, I guess. Not being able to perform burlesque, which is so important to me, in my home country felt heart-breaking and wrong.  Somebody would have to push for it, and I decided I would. I refused to let any ‘public indecency’ laws stop or repress the right a Singaporean woman has to express her sexuality and sensuality.

Sukki-Art-3Image credit: Rachel Sherlock

Some people might see what you do as going against Asian values.

I feel like that thinking feeds into an antiquated system with no logic behind it. They are repeating a rhetoric for the sake of “tradition” that we are too comfortable with. Yes, I express myself, but it’s not in a “loose” and overtly sexual way. Sexuality and morals are not connected and there is a cultural disconnect in understanding that. I believe there is a deep underlying patriarchy where sexuality and confidence within ourselves is considered taboo. You’re also seen as promiscuous rather than having body confidence, if you express yourself, and that’s a real problem. The way I see it is, I’ve always held my head high and conducted myself with decorum—I have made sure my values are never compromised in whatever I do.

Still, it’s never easy going up against the establishment.

The hardest part was going up against my family, against what was seen as appropriate. The main problem is the worry that you will bring shame upon the family. It didn’t feel natural for me to push my cultural upbringing. But it’s up to us to set examples for our parents that you can act in a certain way but still command respect. If we’re brave enough to go out and prove that—then we can create change. And just because I’ve done it doesn’t mean that it’s changed forever. There’s still a whole battle to be won.

Do you feel that you are representative of the average Singapore woman?

Visually, no. But deep down, yes. I might be more vocal than most, but I feel like what I’m doing is the direction that we all want to be moving toward. Many Singaporeans have come up to me saying: “Oh, I wish that I could be brave enough to do what you’re doing.” I think we’re all thinking the same way but perhaps we just need the confidence boost of seeing someone do it first and succeed, before telling ourselves that we can do it too. I hope I can inspire that confidence in others.

How is burlesque more than just a ‘flesh show’?

It sounds crazy but one of my favourite misconceptions is that burlesque is overtly sexual. If you just want to see a flesh show, and think burlesque is a male supplicating performance, then I guess you could. But for me, the onus and control lie with the woman. There’s no nudity in my performances, and some of my acts, like my fan dances don’t involve stripping. It’s not about the reveal, and if there is one, it’s really only a flash before it’s being hidden again. It’s all about the tease—the concept and sexuality of it. Control is typically seen as lying in the hands of the man, especially in other forms of adult entertainment. But burlesque is about the performance and the power is with the woman. You can decide whether to tease, or not.

Sukki-Art-1Image credit: Nick Delaney

Do you feel that the act of burlesque makes your body an object of desire?

Women are subject to objectification every single day. That’s something we all can’t shy away from. Even if you see me initially as a subject of objectification, accompanying that with a feminist rhetoric is a way of educating such that if a woman decides to undress or disrobe—even though I am comfortable with my sexuality and I’m sexually empowered—it does not make it okay for others to approach her inappropriately or overstep her sexual boundaries. Other feminists sometimes say that I’m not helping—that I’m taking us a step back from progress. But you can’t applaud a child for not stealing cookies when there are no cookies in the jar. You can’t say that men are better when you are telling other women to wear a full-body suit: then they’re really not educated at all on how to behave when we’re in control of our sexuality, and you’re just repressing yourself.

Is burlesque still an industry which reflects the androcentric nature of our society, i.e. the dominant male gaze?

I think it’s really an art form that was claimed by women. The modern interpretation of burlesque was created by women, and it’s a reclamation of our bodies and sexuality. And that’s why more women are attracted to burlesque: it creates an artistic space to reclaim your sexuality, rather than being about the male gaze.

What has been the greatest takeaway from your burlesque journey so far?

It wasn’t performing at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, or being invited to Buckingham Palace. But my first-ever legal performance in Singapore in 2015, when it was time for me to remove my bra, and everyone was waiting with bated breath. When I finally did, the electricity from all the women screaming in the room and getting behind me, was one of the most emotional moments of my entire life. I knew that I had brought about change in a way that would affect other people’s lives.

So how should a crowd best express its appreciation for your performances?

Not in silence! [laughs] Why I love performing in a space like 1880 is because it’s a more intimate crowd and you can engage with the audience better. They can’t really remain quiet because I’m right there, and if I’m giving you something, you’ve got to give something back. At the end of the day, burlesque is an immersive theatrical performance and the word literally means to ‘poke fun at’. So it’s kind of like a celebration of the performance, and engaging the audience is essential. Screaming, hollering, and being encouraging—especially considering that most of my audience is female—is desirable. It is women celebrating other women, women appreciating body confidence and empowering each other: how it should always be, not just in burlesque but in life and in business as well. I love that 1880 chose a burlesque artist to be their ambassador, out of all the strong businesswomen, because it’s really about not being afraid to be feminine and feel powerful. That’s essentially the spirit of burlesque—you don’t have to be power-dressed to be powerful in a dress. You can wear a dress and be feminine and still ‘shut it down’ in a boardroom.

Finally, what would you have to say to a 15-year-old Sukki?

Be a little less angry. Even though fighting against my family’s expectations is possibly the reason why I am so passionate, maybe I shouldn’t have been so angry. They essentially just wanted what they thought was best for me. There’s this quote by Banksy which says: “A lot of parents will do anything for their kids except let them be themselves.” And that’s how I felt when I was 15, but I understand now that you don’t need to have that anger behind you. Be more respectful while still pushing boundaries, you just need to have the passion.