Guest interview: Justine Quart talks to vegan burlesque performer Anja Keister  »

Please welcome guest-interviewer Justine Quart!

I love burlesque, especially if it involves a fabulous outspoken vegan performer, go-go dancer and pin-up model who reps compassionate fashion choices with style. In our chat, Anja Keister explains what’s is like to source non-feather glam and how the OG diva RuPaul inspired her to perform on stage.

How long have you been vegan?
I’ve been living fully vegan for about four years now, but I have slowly transitioned to this point since I was 15 (I’m 26 now). This slow transition was quite an internal journey over the past 11 years. I originally stopped eating beef at 15 because mad cow disease had been all over the media around that time and I was so disgusted the farm industry. I grew up on a farm, my father is hunter, at that point I saw no problem with it. I began to lessen my meat intake over the next few years for health reasons because I was overweight and high cholesterol runs in my family. When I entered college I stopped drinking milk because I was studying jazz singing and the mucus production that dairy gives you was causing problems. I also began to cut out pork and poultry at this point; by 19 I was cutting out seafood and by 20 I was calling myself vegan, but I was sloppy about it and still occasionally bought into the ridiculous “humane meat” idea when pressured by friends. It was when I entered graduate school (2007) that I became more active in the vegan community and began to really investigate my ethical stance and really started to move towards a completely vegan lifestyle. Now I have never been happier about my eating.

What’s your major reason for choosing a compassionate lifestyle?
With this long transition I’ve had many reasons: mad cow disease, factory farms, health/weight, animal compassion, physiological (the idea that human bodies aren’t meant to digest animal products), and currently animal rights. I can say that being an advocate for animal rights is the only reason that has really kept me vegan. With all the other reasons I found myself cheating because I could twist my thinking to make it justifiable. Coming now from an animal rights viewpoint, I can never see pain, suffering, or death of other living being as justified.

What first inspired you to get involved with burlesque?
I had always loved over the top glamour and theatrics, in fact as child I saw RuPaul on tv and wanted to be her. [The Adventures of] Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Cabaret were some of my favorite films growing up. The problem is I had no idea how to be that—I thought it was just something that the movies made up. My friend in Jim Thorpe, Penn., invited a few of us to her house for the Jim Thorpe Burlesque Festival weekend. I thought it sounded fun because there were dance and hula hoop classes so I went along. That made me realize burlesque had so much of what I always wanted in life! The dramatics, the glamour, the humor; I loved it all. My full-time job had squashed my ability to do performance art like I had done in college, so burlesque gave me a new avenue [for] my energy and I plunged right in. Two months later I was already performing.

How would you describe burlesque to someone who has never seen a performance?
A simplified way to look at it is “Stripping – Nudity + Playfulness/Comedy = Burlesque,” though that isn’t always true. That is one of the things that makes the world of neo-burlesque—a term used to describe the current wave of burlesque since the 1990s—so great. Sometimes it’s funny, sexy, dramatic, silly, artistic, it [makes] social commentary, or any combination of those.
I guess a general way to describe it is a person (gender non-specific) performs, typically under five minutes, to music and in the process they will teasingly take off their clothes till they are down to pasties and something covering their crotch. Another difference between Striptease and stripping is that strippers typically are performing for a patron, get their tip and then move onto the next patron. Burlesque is about performing for the audience as a whole, using the collective reaction as fuel for the performance. You wouldn’t try to put money in a burlesque performer’s g-string unless you want to get publicly mocked or possibly kicked out of the venue. One major thing I would like to point out is that in the neo-burlesque scene, much of the audience is women, and performers of all body types are accepted.

Are there other vegan burlesque performers that you know or perform with?
There are actually quite a lot of performers in New York that eat a vegan diet, but many of them wear animal products. While working on my blog, I found Bettina May, who is located in New York, as well as vegan performers in Scotland and Australia. I also got to work with Dale Rio, a vegan pin-up photographer located in Philadelphia who works within the roller derby and burlesque world.

What obstacles do you run into when maintaining a vegan lifestyle while being involved in a feather- and leather-loving performance scene?
I feel that feathers are an easy default. With the vintage look being popular, it is hard to find hair decorations that don’t involve feathers; featherless headdresses are even harder to find. I had to do a lot of searching to find feather boa substitutes, but they are out there! I can say that being involved in the burlesque world has made me a more creative performer and a stronger vegan, plus I found out that satin can sometime include silk fibers! I never knew that until I started working with a costume designer.

Any suggestions for places to find saucy vegan-friendly apparel or wares? has some amazing fabric boas which are great for burlesque. Coquette Faux Furriers, run by Bettina May, has some wonderful fake furs that can double as a boa or add spice to pin-up shoots or for a night out on the town. The vegan sex shop has some vegan-friendly sexy heels, but I typically buy my shoes from regular shoe stores after researching the companies online first. You can find some pretty schnazzy stuff on etsy, but it’s important to really work with the seller to make sure all the ingredients are up to vegan standards. I’ve also found working directly with creators can go a long way. I recently approached a burlesque hat maker in NY about creating a vegan hat for me, and we are now in the midst of figuring out a whole vegan hat line!

What would you most like to say to new performers or anyone considering burlesque?
Do it, whether on a stage or in the privacy of your own home. Take classes, go to shows, or if there isn’t a scene in your area, get together with some friends and figure out a way to bring some burlesque there.

What are your go-to vegan comfort foods?

Peanut chews, avocados with salt, brussel sprouts with nutritional yeast, and vegetable sushi.

Favorite vegan cookbook?
I use Veganomicon and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World a lot but I’ve also found some great recipes in Quick and Easy Vegan Comfort Food by Alicia C. Simpson. Oh my goodness, the coconut corn chowder in that book is amazing!

Most recommended veg-friendly restaurant in your town?
I would suggest saving up and taking a trip to Blossom Restaurant in midtown if possible. For a more casual dining experience, visit the V Spot in Brooklyn for some Latin-infused classics. If you need a quick bite, the Chipolte on 8th Avenue in Chelsea offers a fake meat option (ask for the “garden blend”), which is currently in a testing phase with the company. And finally, when you need to fulfill a sweet craving, Lula’s Sweet Apothecary in the East Village is a sweet shop and all-vegan ice cream parlor that makes their own flavors daily!

Anja is always looking for new people to work with either behind the scenes or on the stage. She recently moved to NYC and is looking for other vegan performers to do all vegan shows for animal groups in in the city. She says, “Neo-burlesque is about creativity, performers having control over their art, acceptance of all and the celebration that accompanies all of this.” Check out her website and blog for more info about shows and to contact her directly.

Justine Quart has a penchant for urban exploration and meditation, yoga and boxing, vegan food experimentation and a properly aged whiskey. When she’s not dreaming up the next big adventure, she can be found offering kick-ass vegan wellness services at local businesses, freelancing at the SF Appeal and the Bold Italic, or roaming the neighborhood with her partner in crime, el Jefe. Check her out at Dojo Wellness, Heavy Metta, and The Vegan Pin-up (coming soon!).

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