“Describing myself as fat and then not immediately dissolving into self-hating foam is an indictment of a culture that demands apology and explanation for non-normative bodies,” Jewish burlesque artist Fancy Feast told Hey Alma in 2017. “Being fat isn’t scary, so the word fat isn’t scary either.”
At the time she spoke with us, Fancy was a rising star in the burlesque world, having just won the title of Miss Coney Island in 2016 and the Revolutionary Award at the 2017 New York Burlesque Festival. It’s been roughly seven years since she won those titles and quite a bit has changed: Fancy Feast has hosted burlesque and drag shows featuring the likes of Jewish drag superstar Sasha Velour, worn creations by Emmy Award-winning costume designer Diego Montoya and been featured in the likes of The Washington Post, NPR and Interview Magazine (in conversation with Bowen Yang).
And yet, even as Fancy’s acclaim has grown, she’s still just as proud of her fat Jewish identity as she has always been. Her book, “Naked: On Sex, Work, and Other Burlesques,” which debuted earlier this month is the ultimate testament to that.
In “Naked,” Fancy gets vulnerable with the audience — in some ways moreso than when she takes her clothes off onstage — through a collection of 12 delicious, sharp and poignant essays. From “Walkaround Gig” to “Call Girl,” Fancy Feast shares her insights on working as a sex educator, social worker and sex line operator and challenges misogyny, antisemitism, fatphobia and sex purity culture. If you’ve heard of a no-skip album, “Naked” is a no-skip anthology.
Fancy Feast recently sat down with Hey Alma again to chat about “Naked,” what it means to be a fat Jewish burlesque performer and finding creative, Jewish inspiration in Daffy Duck. (Yes, really.)
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
I loved “Naked.” I’m also like a fat Jewish person so it very much resonated with me. How did the book come to be? What was the writing process like?
When I was in college, I told my parents that I was going to move to New York and I was going to be a writer and I was going to fund my writing with my burlesque performance. Which is such a funny undergrad version of how the world actually works. This was right before the economic collapse, but I was like “I’m gonna make it!” So it was always an aspiration of mine to write a book. And I had gotten feedback, also during undergrad, from a screenwriter mentor of mine who was like, “Don’t write yet. Nobody wants to hear what a 21-year-old has to say about the world. Please live some life first and figure out what you want to say.” And I found that to be very offensive and very ageist and sexist.
But then I became a burlesque performer and then after I won Miss Coney Island in 2016, somebody from my college had reached out to me. He was like, “I follow you on Facebook. I think your statuses are great. I’m an agent, can I represent you?” So it was kind of handed to me. And so, my agent, Connor, asked me, “What would you want to write about? What do you have a book in you about?” And so we started developing this concept, but my agent was really the first person to see it before I did. And then the process of writing started from that moment, from the year post-Miss Coney Island, up until last year.
Do you have a favorite essay from the collection?
My favorite essay flip-flops depending on the day. I think the two that were the most vulnerable to write are the ones that I tend to return to the most. Those are “Doing Yourself” and “Call Girl.”
I loved “Call Girl.”
Thank you. That was the last one in the collection that came together. There was sort of a hole in the narrative and then that [story] just felt so urgent for me to think about and write about. So those tend to be my favorites. Even if they feel like they’re the scariest to share.
Diving more into the identity piece of the book, what does it mean to you to be a fat Jewish burlesque performer?
It feels inalienable from the core of myself, so it’s hard to self-report from inside. When we talk about the intersections of identity and how they inform one another, I see them all as pretty inextricable, that having a fat Jewish body is a very specific experience that is treated in a different way than other fat bodies and than other Jewish bodies. And then to have that be presentational, to have that be intentionally sensualized and sexualized is another choice that sort of enters into some stereotypes and then also flouts and refutes other stereotypes.
So there’s this sense of being sort of stuck between my own self-concept and the way that I navigate perceptions of others, which obviously, is a preoccupation of mine. It’s what the book is about. To me, at the very core of it, there’s a lot of joy, that being fat is a joy, that being Jewish is a joy, that being a burlesque performer is a joy. And there are ways that that joy is mitigated by the outside world and threatened by the conditions that we’re living in. But ultimately, it does feel like a great source of pleasure and meaning for me.
Does being a Jewish burlesque performer make you feel connected to Jewish performers of the past? When reading your book I couldn’t help but think of the Jewish women in Ziegfeld Follies.
Absolutely. Feeling connected to the Sophie Tuckers of the world or the way that bodies carry history is something that I think is really resonant and feels very Jewish to be obsessed with. I feel very proud to be part of a lineage of Jewish wayward women in vaudeville. That has always been a place for certain kinds of self-expression that feel like they particularly come from a Jewish imagination.
In “Mistress of Ceremonies,” you write “Hire me to host your next event: your wedding, your kids’ b’nai mitzvah, your husband’s wake.” I’m so curious what it would look like for you to host a b’nai mitzvah? What numbers would you do?
I don’t think I’ve ever been hired for a kid’s party. If I were going to do it, it would be a very mediated version of what I present. Oh, well actually, I did do art modeling for children at the Whitney Museum. I wore a full costume, full gown and full head dress. And I had kids just be like, “Oh, that’s like one of the princesses from ‘Frozen.’” And I was like, “Yes, absolutely. That’s me.” Because kids also deserve glamor and fantasy and make-believe. And so I imagined it would be something like that, slightly aged up for a teen set, but I would have to really coordinate with the family and the DJ.
How does your Jewishness inform the numbers and performances that you do?
It’s one of the things that, again, feels so close that I couldn’t take out the Jewish part of me to make acts from another place. Several of my acts are inspired by Daffy Duck who reads as Jewish to me. Have you ever seen the Looney Tunes short “Duck Amuck”?
Yeah, my sister and I watched that one all the time.
I have a burlesque act like that, the idea is that things keep thwarting me and I have to reconfigure what my act is based on that. But I also have acts that are directly about Jewishness. I don’t know if it’s in the book or not, but I have an act that I call “50 Shades Oy Vey” that is a BDSM act, it’s sort of Hanukkah kink fanfiction. I’ve performed that a lot for secular audiences as well as for Jewish-specific ones. Just this past summer, I produced an evening of all-Jewish burlesque at the Abrons Art Center, with collaboration from the Jewish Museum of Baltimore and Brooklyn Jews. So that specific tradition, the Yiddish theater district and vaudeville, is something that really lives in me. It’s a source of inspiration for where my acts come from, inevitably, I would say, actually, regardless of what I try to do. That’s what ends up coming out over and over again.
What do you want readers to get out of “Naked”?
The most cynical part of me is like, truly just buy it. Buy the book. If you hate it, you can pulp it. You can put it in your garden. You can blend it into your smoothies. I’ve had to really divest from the audience experience of my work, and I think part of that is just being fat and performing naked in public for many years. I’m kind of like, “Alright. Good luck, this is on you now.”
I hope for people who have not felt seen or represented and/or who exist in my corner of identities or my corner of interests, that there is a feeling of kinship. I hope that there is a feeling of knowing that other people are thinking and feeling about these topics as deeply as the readers may be. But also, if people end up just feeling titillated and excited, that’s great. I know that some people just end up developing a parasocial relationship. But it’s not a “tell all” it’s a “tell some.” There’s a performance of vulnerability that I hope people connect with. I don’t know. I hope they like it. I hope they rate it on Goodreads. It’s totally up to them.
Has your family read it? Or do they plan to?
So this has been a little bit challenging. They’ve been such supporters of my writing and have fostered a love of reading and writing in me. And they’re like, “You can do whatever you want.” And then what I want to do is write a book about stuff that really falls under a parent’s right to not know about their child. I used to joke that I was gonna give them a CIA redacted copy of the book. But I realized that was not very kind. So they have a copy. I gave them a list of the different essays and a content warning for them, including starring the ones that I thought might be particularly challenging for them to read. And they can choose to do whatever they want with that. I don’t want to police what their experience is of it. And that said, if they read the whole thing and have questions for me, I may set some boundaries around what kinds of conversations I want to have about it. But I hope they like it. I read them the least sexy essay about working in prisons and social work just to grease the wheels a bit.
I loved your essays about doing social work and sex education. Does that come from a place of tikkun olam for you?
Absolutely it does. It really has felt like the biggest through-line that I have. Part of what feels so important about the work of tikkun olam is an acknowledgement of the privilege of my existence and of the privilege of my privilege. It’s this ongoing work that never ends. And it’s done not out of this sense of obligation specifically, or guilt, but out of a sense of like, if I live in a garden, the garden needs weeding, you know? It’s a continual process.
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
Definitely. I’ve started working on my next book. This book, “Naked,” was on submission for a year and a half, which is way too much time. To contend with that I just threw myself into the next book project. So I’ve been starting to write a fiction book that’s Jewish horror, because I think horror is a great way to understand aspects of the Jewish experience. And then I’m still performing regularly. I have some upcoming gigs, but I’m not trying to take on any major production projects. For the time being I’m happy to appear in a show. But until this book is birthed in the world, I don’t want to take on too much.
“Naked” was birthed into the world on October 10, 2023. You can buy it anywhere books are sold.