Hoechella debuts in Columbia, SC, at New Brookland Tavern August 26-28. Hoechella’s goal is to raise awareness for slut-shaming, rape culture, and unjust legislation that affects people’s bodily autonomy. As we count down the days to Hoechella, check out Mandy Bloom, owner and operator of Bloom Healing Arts Studio, also known as Sugar St. Germain, her body-positive burlesque persona.
Hoechella’s goal is to raise awareness for slut-shaming, rape culture, and unjust legislation that affects people’s bodily autonomy. How does Sugar St Germain work towards this goal?
I hope to lead by example as far as body positivity and sexuality. Burlesque is where I found the ability to demand respect, both from myself and for myself. This art form is one of expression, reality, and empowerment, in place of fantasy and exploitation. Burlesque was literally born out of sexual oppression. Public nudity or semi-nudity was illegal. People had to get creative and hide behind props and creative costuming in the beginning. Some of the performers were arrested if they showed too much skin. It’s sad that we are still fighting these archaic laws 100 years later! Oppression, shaming, and hate are still very much alive. In order to have bodily autonomy, we have to start with acceptance of human sexuality. Take, for instance, the double standard of breasts. Breasts are glorified and sexualized in our culture, but shamed if they are exposed to breastfeed a child. So, you’re either the Madonna or the Mary Magdalene, as if those two things must remain mutually exclusive. Our government deems the female breast pornographic and sexual and refuses to see it any other way. I challenge that by being a burlesque dancer that is also a mother. The more I get out there and embrace my own sexuality — and that I can do that with all of my “imperfections” — the more others will feel compelled to embrace their own body and sexuality. Shaming happens when someone is trying to draw attention away from their own insecurities. The shame cycle stops when we embrace who we truly are and become confident with that person. We become less concerned with our neighbors when we are happy with our own lives. Like the song says, “I’m not sorry. It’s human nature… Express yourself, don’t repress yourself.” So, I support this by teaching people that this sexual nature is part of people that they don’t have to hide. It’s about living your truth, and letting others enjoy theirs. It’s a big FUCK YOU to a society that tells us all that we aren’t allowed to be who we are.
Why is Hoechella important to you?
The name of the game is empowerment, for me. This is creating a supportive and celebratory environment for people who have been made to feel “less than” because of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or sexual nature. It’s about taking back and reclaiming what has always been ours, and always will be. It’s about creating a safe space for those who have been told who they are is not allowed or accepted. I have been shamed for so many things in my life that I’ve lost count, so to have a festival dedicated to the empowerment of people who have been made to feel any sort of shame is a very beautiful thing. I knew the second that it became a reality that I had to be involved. It’s about raising awareness so that more people feel comfortable standing up for issues that affect what we can and cannot do with our bodies. It’s about sexual reclamation and education. It’s about your body and boundaries, and respecting other people’s bodies and boundaries. It’s about bringing all of these issues to the foreground and turning the hate and shame into something positive. It’s important because women, queer people, people of color, and trans people need a place where they can be open, wear whatever the hell they want, and be themselves without judgement.
If you’re comfortable, share an experience where you’ve been affected by slut-shaming or rape culture, or a time you were acknowledged for your body or your appearance rather than your person or talent.
I grew up in Columbia, and as you can imagine with college towns, slut-shaming and rape culture abounds! Sadly, the biggest slut-shamers I have encountered were other women. It’s the Mean Girls mentality out there, and I have been ripped to shreds by other women for what I’ve worn, or been talked about behind my back because of my choice of sexual partners. Women have been the meanest to me for being so open about my body and sexuality. I remember a whole group of people at a restaurant I worked at who talked shit about me and called me names behind my back because I didn’t wear a bra! In that case, my male friends played advocate and told me about it. I have to admit, I was hurt that that was why no one liked me at my job! Pretty dumb reason to talk smack especially since I was flat-chested! There have also been lots of experiences I’ve had with males, though, that were unpleasant. Males have tended to feel like they can just reach out and touch or take whatever they want. I’ve been touched inappropriately by males in all sorts of different settings, even on a subway. I’ve had a director smack my ass and tell me if I get rid of it, I could be headlining shows for his company. Also, if there is alcohol involved, it’s all fair game, and that’s a very sad part of rape culture. If you drink, you must want it. If you’re drunk, that’s an immediate yes. I have a strong belief that one of the biggest precursors to rape culture is repression. When you’re told you can’t have something or be a certain way, most people have a tendency to repress it for so long that they eventually seek it out in some unhealthy way. When we are allowed to openly be who we are, and know that it’s normal, we can establish healthy relationships and boundaries. The more people are allowed to explore and celebrate their authentic self and live in their truth without judgement, the more I think new patterns will emerge and evolve, and I think we will start seeing a decline in rape culture. It’s a new type of sexual revolution that will lead to a new sexual sociology, in my opinion. It will take a long time, because we have a lot of repression and condemnation still happening, but events like this keep the wheels of change turning.
How did you get involved with burlesque?
Burlesque was something I had always been curious about. I worked in Vegas and a few other places as a showgirl, so it was a kind of parallel art form. I was familiar with the glitzy burlesque, but I started to see people doing it in SC and NC, and I realized that wasn’t the only side of burlesque. I found a seedier, more artsy, nerdy, primal, side of burlesque at a festival in Asheville. It had some crossover with sideshow and circus performers, and ran the gamut of what I consider the true spirit of burlesque. I had seen our local belly dance, circus, and sideshow troupe in Columbia and wondered why we didn’t have burlesque! I knew I wanted to be the person that started it, so I started doing my research, and was able to be a part of a large and glitzy stage show that was put on by two of my friends by way of a local theater. It was huge, sold-out, SRO, hundreds of people, so that showed me there was a market for it here! Everyone ate it up! People asked me afterwards about classes and troupes and I started teaching shortly after. But it’s difficult to build a troupe or community when you’re just one person. Luckily, we have some other folks around who are helping to build a community and do more shows, but local laws have proved to make that difficult. I think it could definitely happen pretty quickly, so I’m looking for the right space now to hold my classes and keep building! We definitely have a lot of support as far as the audience goes, but I think people are a little timid to take the classes. The classes I teach never require clothing removal! They’re actually more about body positivity and self love and acceptance. The confidence level I see in people after a class has become my reason for doing this. It’s less about getting out of your clothes, and more about getting out of your own head! I’m a mother of two, with tattoos, stretch marks, and cellulite, and if I can do it, anyone can.
What are your influences and inspirations in Burlesque?
I always tell my students that it’s about knowing your own strengths and “non-strengths.” That’s the first step in creating your “character.” When I look at Sugar St Germain, she is just a magnified version of parts of me. I’m definitely inspired by performers that are larger than life, like Bette Midler. I sing live in a lot of my numbers, and a lot of them are theatrical and campy. But I have begun to weave in a little more of my dark side as I evolve as a performer. I’ve been inspired by a lot of local-ish performers. Siren Santina is a gal from Tennessee that I just adore! She is a classically trained singer as well, and does campy operatic numbers and truly thinks out of the box. I adore some boylesque performers as well. Buster Britches is consistently an inspiring and hilarious performer. Russell Bruner is a riot onstage and I love his aesthetic. I’m always in awe of Armitage Shanks, the Carny Preacher. He is just the best mentor on and off stage for anyone who performs in any facet. He is just an amazing and humble performer and emcee. And I cannot forget the amazing Dita VonTeese. She is the master of the classic strip tease, with a budget I would die for! She seeps glamour and sensuality from every pore. I have had the privilege, not only of seeing her perform live, but meeting her one-on-one and chatting with her for a few minutes about doing burlesque in a town where there are no other regular performers. She told me not to give up and that what I was doing was so important. I don’t usually get starstruck, but I definitely was in that moment and there is photographic evidence. I was ridiculously giddy!
Do you have any Southern women influences?
Oh, gosh . . . I have to pick just one? My southern female influences are so broad. I’m inspired by Maya Angelou so very much. You just look at her and see wisdom beyond this lifetime. Her words speak with 1,000 voices and even if you never met her, her energy was just palpable. What a comforting soul. I feel less alone reading her words. I’m also about so many female musicians from the south. Y’all know I love my Indigo Girls! Their music raised me and I have fond memories of seeing them play. They play and write with such beautiful and intricate musicality and were pioneers in the realm of queer women in the music industry. I also have a huge respect for female chefs. Kitchens are so male dominant, so a female who works back of the house is usually a force to be reckoned with. I’m a damn good home cook and I love to eat and entertain! A few female chefs of the south I am loving are Sarah Simmons, Vivian Howard, and Katie Button. Their stories are all not unlike my own, where they’ve gone off and traveled the world, but eventually brought their talents back to share here in the south. When you’re raised in the spirit of family get-togethers, church picnics, and intimate gatherings, as most of us are down south, it’s hard to not crave that when you leave. I always missed the sense of family and community when I was out traveling and that always brought me back and made me feel like whatever I did was better appreciated. There’s no place like home!