Before each show, cabaret burlesque performer Amelia Mae Paradise sits at her vanity table in front of a giant mirror to primp.
Surrounded by eccentric outfits and velvet hats, she wears costume jewelry and pairs it with a long, thin fuchsia dress that flows as she walks. There are vanity drawers lined with cosmetics, one dedicated entirely to fake eyelashes. Using a foundation brush, Paradise applies makeup carefully to avoid getting excess powder on her beard. The short, sandy-brown curls on her chin are what most people might notice first and part of what draws audiences to her unique performances.
Mills students may remember the topless dancer from the third annual Sex Positive Fair in February, striding provocatively across the Student Union to “Come Sail Away” by Styx, wearing sparkly silver pasties and waving two white feather fans.
At 35, ‘The Brazen Amelia Mae Paradise,’ as she’s known in the Burlesque community, has been a performer all her life. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1998 with a degree in Flamenco dancing. She lives in Oakland with her fellow bearded lady performer and wife of three years Sarah Paradise, better known as ‘The Rambunctious Sir Loin Strip.’ Paradise gets in shape through yoga and, because she doesn’t own a car, daily walks.
Having worked many corporate jobs, Paradise said she was not aware that burlesque dancing could be a career. The realization came to her after a long period of time working in various fields.
“I thought I was just giving an opportunity to the women of my community to get really sexy, take risks and get into costume,” Paradise said. “As I went along, I realized I had a natural talent in production and bringing people together.”
She is the founder, director, choreographer and what her Web site describes as the “little-engine-that-could” of Diamond Daggers Productions, the Bay Area’s longest running queer burlesque troupe and production company. Created in April 2003, it’s mission is to be “a united force of fabulousness” by showcasing a variety of queer starlets and cabaret performers.
“We wanted a name that [evokes] sparkle, glamour and old-school burlesque,” Paradise said, pointing out that the word ‘diamond’ pays homage to classic showgirls. The word ‘dagger’ is an “implement that is sharp and powerful [reflecting] edginess, queerness, gender bending, feminism, dykes and lesbians” and reclaims the derogatory term for butch women ‘bulldagger,’ Paradise said.
Diamond Daggers is Paradise’s brainchild, which she has raised and expanded to include other ensembles and styles such as circus acts, belly dancing and live music. They specialize in highly-costumed comedic burlesque, musical theater and vaudevillian aesthetics.
“Every moment in every dance is choreographed,” Paradise said, separating her troupe from others that are more improvisational. She takes pride in the precise detailing of her outfits, making every lace, gem or fringe up the ante in entertainment.
“[Audiences] expect to see it all. I’m known for bringing in the physical environment — really decorating and creating a whole experience [with] singing, dancing, drag and comedy meant to please all senses,” Paradise said, recalling a past country Western-themed show filled with hay bales, gingham and Southern-style food.
“I know I hit my mark when I look out and people are smiling,” Paradise said.
The Diamond Daggers’ hallmark is to bring joy, and Paradise hopes, to make people think. She often mixes feminist ideology into acts, for example, having the troupe dance in pig costumes to symbolize male chauvinism. By presenting performers of different backgrounds and identities, the Diamond Daggers wish to challenge the status quo of white female entertainers to demonstrate that artists of color and those who identify as butch or lesbian are just as sexy.
According to Paradise, the riskiest, most exciting stunt the Diamond Daggers has ever pulled was at the Tease-O-Rama Burlesque Convention in 2008 at the San Francisco nightclub Bimbo’s. With her wife and former Dagger Fannie Fuller, Paradise performed a three-number sailor-themed set that culminated in a feather fan dance. At the end they revealed Sir Loin Strip, a six-foot tall butch everyone assumed was a man who surprised the audience by unzipping her jacket to reveal one pasty.
“The audience went insane and we got a standing ovation. It was such a moment of gratification, a feeling like people were really getting what we were doing,” Paradise said. “I was able to book us an entire European tour last summer because of that one moment.”
Being a woman with a beard has caused countless reactions for Paradise, ranging from hatred to warm embrace. Although she said she sometimes feels conflicted about choosing not to remove her facial hair, she revels in self-love and finds comfort in knowing she has support. Children, she said, are the most accepting.
The Diamond Daggers are also involved in charity work, performing in fundraisers for nonprofit organizations such as CounterPULSE, a community center that subsidizes rehearsal and rental space for local creative projects. Although the troupe is not a huge money-making venture, Paradise often teaches dance workshops to supplement her income.
She envisions the troupe becoming larger and more theatrical, and she wants to apply for grants and work in a more established environment to support artists.
For now, the Diamond Daggers are willing to try new approaches.
“[We’ll] make money out of rhinestones or something,” Paradise joked.