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Showgirl glamour

Michelle Zhu
Michelle Zhu • 12 min read
Showgirl glamour
SINGAPORE (June 25): Pushing past the double doors of 1880, a private members’ club on the third floor of Quayside @ Robertson Quay, I realise that I have walked in on Sukki Singapora — whose real name is Sukki Menon — in the middle of a photo shoot
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SINGAPORE (June 25): Pushing past the double doors of 1880, a private members’ club on the third floor of Quayside @ Robertson Quay, I realise that I have walked in on Sukki Singapora — whose real name is Sukki Menon — in the middle of a photo shoot. Most famously hailed as Singapore’s first-ever burlesque performer, she is instantly recognisable from metres away. Menon’s svelte silhouette is shrouded in glittering sequins and faux blooms. Perched atop her head is an immaculately coiffed swirl of multicoloured hair, which she later says took her no longer than 10 minutes to fix herself.

Menon, who recently joined 1880’s ambassador programme and staged her first performance there on International Women’s Day earlier this year, is not distracted and continues to strike various poses for the camera. She transfers her attention to the viewfinder on only a couple of occasions, murmuring precise instructions to the photographer before he resumes his stance to capture the perfect shot. Minutes later and finally satisfied, she thanks the photographer before politely excusing herself to change into “more appropriate attire” for the interview.

When she reappears, she looks just as picture-ready as ever in a fuchsia A-line dress and oversized rhinestone earrings. Even up close, the 28-year-old of Singaporean-Indian and British descent resembles an anime character of sorts, with larger-than-life eyes framed by voluminous lashes and a dazzling smile worthy of a toothpaste advertisement.

Walking work of art
Much to my incredulity, Menon affirms that the vision before me is what she looks like just about every waking hour. Her imaginably extensive wardrobe includes only one pair of jeans — and there has never been a day that she has ever stepped out “dressed-down”, at least not over the last five years since she took on the identity of Sukki Singapora, the burlesque artist.

“I’ve always taken pride in my style. I see myself as an artist, and the way I express myself is as if I am a walking piece of art… There are no two sides to me; I am just consistently like this,” says Menon as she gestures to herself. Blessed with a curvaceous hourglass figure, which she thanks her British mother’s genes for, she shares that she hits the gym about five times a week — not with the main goal of staying in shape, but rather to maintain stamina needed to keep up with her demanding performance schedule.

The only part of her body that has been dramatically modified is her waist, which can fit into a corset as small as 17.5in in diameter after years of tightlacing — the practice of wearing a progressively tightly laced corset. Contrary to popular belief, this form of extreme waist-cinching does not actually change the size of one’s waist permanently, she explains, but only its ability to adapt to the shape and size of a corset’s limitations. “I started with 24in or 25in, and now the smallest I use is 17.5in, which is smaller than my head,” says Menon. Noticing my grimace at this point, she is quick to dismiss the notion that tightlacing could be painful, and instead describes the feeling as similar to “getting a really firm cuddle”.

“The thing is, you have to get a corset that is made to measure such that it follows your actual waistline, so you’ll never be squeezing anything in the wrong place,” she says. “Getting used to it is a thing as well. One time I thought I could run for the bus, and fainted, because your lung capacity is reduced with a corset on. That was the first lesson I learned: Never run in corsets. But aside from that, it doesn’t really hinder my daily life.”

Menon claims her extensive wardrobe includes only one pair of jeans — and there has never been a day that she has ever stepped out ‘dressed down’, at least not over the last five years since she took on the identity of Sukki Singapora, the burlesque artist

From IT geek to ‘It Girl’
It was an interest in vintage style and fashion that first led Menon, then a university student in the UK, to unwittingly discover burlesque and establish a determination to master it without any formal training: “I was Googling ‘vintage fashion’ and you can’t do that without seeing the word ‘burlesque’, because these two go hand-in-hand. I’d never heard of [burlesque] before, and when I finally stumbled upon it, my initial thoughts were: ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible. Where, when and how can I do this?’”

That was when Menon applied on a whim to audition with a friend at a cabaret theatre, albeit with a white lie that she had “years of experience” in the performing arts. Armed with just a week’s worth of knowledge and experience from watching YouTube videos, Menon unabashedly describes her first so-called burlesque performance in 2011 as “wrong” and “awful”, even though she eventually landed the job.

“But the spirit of burlesque is not to take oneself too seriously, as it is very tongue-in-cheek. So, even though it was kind of awful, the audience loved it. And because it went down as such an accidental hit, my friend and I ended up being asked to come every Friday and Saturday to perform. I guess you can say that the first-ever live burlesque show that I attended was actually my own!” Upon graduating, Menon spent a year juggling a career in IT with her budding but clandestine identity as burlesque performer in the UK. “I was always the weird, kind of gothic, geeky one in the corner at work. You could say I was one of the guys, but I did tend to push the boundaries of my male-dominated office in terms of my style. Once I came to work in a PVC mini skirt and was told off because it wasn’t considered office-appropriate, and that’s when I began to think that a corporate environment was probably not the place for me,” she recalls of her stint as an IT programmer for the British Cycling Olympic team. “Like burlesque, programming was something I decided to pick up myself,” says Menon, who majored in Geography in university.

It was not long before the cat was eventually let out of the bag — or box. Menon says she did not end up resigning from her day job to pursue a full-time career in performance art, but that her hand was, in a sense, forced. “While I was getting better at burlesque, I came to realise that I needed professional costumes. So I ordered some original, vintage 1950s costumes from a store in the US and thought I’d get them to deliver to the office because it was to sign for. I made explicit instructions to the sender to mark the package as ‘vintage clothing’ or ‘vintage fabric’ because I couldn’t have people at my office know… But instead, the box came marked in big, capital letters: BURLESQUE COSTUMES,” she exclaims between cries of laughter. “It completely transformed the atmosphere for me at the office. Suddenly, I wasn’t one of the dudes anymore. I realised at that point that I had no choice but to hand in my resignation, which was probably just as well, as I was being offered more shows at the time.”

Fresh and feminist
It was following Menon’s departure from her IT job that her patriotic stage name, Sukki Singapora, was established — along with the rapid evolution of her non-traditional approach to the ancient practice of burlesque, whose origins can be traced back to 16th-century performance art. Kalani Kokonuts and Barbara Yung were some of the icons she looked up to during her transformative journey as an artist, during which Menon began to introduce both inspired and original quirks such as traditional Chinese fan dancing and, more recently, hip-hop elements into her routines.

I thought was cheesy, tongue-in-cheek, pin-up style burlesque, everything I thought burlesque ‘should’ look like. But because burlesque didn’t have many Asian faces that I could refer to, I also felt like I didn’t have to follow any rules while I was picking it up. My interpretation of burlesque is now something that is really representative of myself as a person, and not a carbon copy of some of the styles you see in Hollywood,” says Menon.

“Most people would think of burlesque as a tired business. They see it as just cabaret, corsets, black and red, and lace… And that, to me, is a yawn-fest. I really want to make [burlesque] cool and quirky and fresh. That is my biggest focus right now,” says Menon of her next goal. This follows the success of the four-year campaign she led for the legalisation of burlesque in Singapore, which eventually saw Menon stage her — and Singapore’s — first-ever legal public burlesque performance in the city state in 2015.

Some purists might baulk at her ever-modern approaches to staging her shows, or even argue about the non-existence of an overly modern interpretation of burlesque, given its vintage roots. Menon insists, however, that it is a progressive rather than traditional art, one that is intrinsically feminist in spite of its sexual connotations. “I’ve always approached burlesque with a feminist view. The two [burlesque and feminism] are just so intertwined that there is no way you can perceive my approach to burlesque as anything but feminist,” she states.

“Burlesque is still very misunderstood, especially here in Singapore even though it is now finally legal,” she continues. “But really, that is one of my favourite misconceptions because I love shooting it down and explaining to these people that burlesque is not an overtly sexual activity because it’s always about the tease, and not the reveal. It’s all about learning body confidence, feeling comfortable as a woman and really expressing yourself. The majority of my audience is actually made up of women and couples, so I believe it is really an art that is for women, by women.”

Coming into her own
Burlesque is a theatrical art form originating from Europe in the 1800s. Derived from the Italian word burla, which means “joke” or “ridicule”, it is generally used to describe a literary, dramatic or musical work with a comedic or parodic intent. It was only in the early 1900s that the strip-tease tradition became popularised in burlesque theatre to compete with film and other entertainment art forms.

Menon attributes much of her poise and enviable confidence today to burlesque, which she says has helped her to express her sexuality and art in ways that she would never have been able to fathom before the birth of Sukki Singapora.

“Growing up, I was so insecure. I was never one of the cool girls, nor the pretty girls. In fact, part of me still feels that way, even today. I’m still very much the weird, studious Indian girl with glasses and braces who never felt particularly attractive back in school,” she admits. “Burlesque has actually helped me to become much more confident in a sense that it has enabled me to experiment a lot more with fashion and style, even though I still don’t feel like one of the cool, pretty ones right now.”

Showgirl glamour and friendly exuberance aside, Menon, who hails from a family of doctors, spent her entire childhood and teenage years living by traditional Indian values. As the eldest of three sisters, she recalls sporting a long plait during her days as a student because her parents discouraged short hairstyles, as well as keeping all of her relationships firmly under wraps as dating was strictly not allowed.

“I never told my parents about my decision to switch careers. My mum only found out after Googling me. I think they were very unimpressed and shocked at first because I was doing what they believed was seen as risqué. Plus, I am the only Menon that isn’t a doctor, a lawyer or in the army,” states Menon, when asked about her family’s reaction to her vocation.

“Ultimately, I know my parents just want what’s best for me and even though they still ask me when I’m going to get a ‘real job’, I think they have now come to terms with me as a burlesque artist and — maybe, just maybe — they’re… perhaps even a little bit proud? But I don’t know whether they would admit that to me just yet,” she giggles.

Tantalising takeaways about Sukki Singapora

  • She has a sweet tooth. Menon claims that anyone who knows her personally would have heard of her obsession with cake and Nutella, which she eats out of the jar with a spoon. Dessert is her favourite thing in the entire universe.
  • Her cat is named Seven of Nine after the Star Trek character. Aside from Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and Babylon 5 are just some of the television shows she is a big fan of.
  • You will never take the IT geek out of the showgirl. According to Menon, she gets a “nervous sweat” in the presence of malfunctioning gadgets. She also used to be an avid player of Eve Online and Oblivion before she got busy being Sukki Singapora.
  • She will never make the first move. Menon says she is way too shy to consider ever asking a stranger for a phone number, much less a date. She is currently single.
  • Rap and hip hop are her jam. Cardi B and Nicki Minaj are her favourite artistes, just to name a few. She is good friends with US rapper Too Short, who has also massively influenced her work.

This article appeared in Issue 836 (June 25) of The Edge Singapore.

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