As someone born in the late 1990s, women exploring their own sexuality and finding freedom within themselves feels like a fairly new concept. But I realise that it’s not new, and is also something that those working in cabaret and burlesque have always done.
My personal experience with these crafts doesn’t extend beyond the 2010 Cher and Christina Aguilera movie Burlesque. However, cabaret producer and performer Selina Helliwell has opened my mind to something all together more inspiring.
After leaving drama school with a feeling of disconnect from her body, attributing this to the distinctly personal criticism that comes along with being part of the acting world, Helliwell began to find herself again through burlesque.
“I did aerial hoop classes and they had burlesque going on as well,” says Helliwell. “And I just got obsessed. I was in love [with burlesque] and it was really helping me reconnect with my own body.”
Flash forward to 2021 and Helliwell had created a burlesque alter ego, Ember Travixen, inspired by her own red hair and a 90s video game. It wasn’t long before the line between Selina Helliwell and Ember Travixen began to blur. The self-confidence, the liberation and the empowerment Ember felt soon became Helliwell’s own.
“When I’m her I do feel more like ‘everyone here wants to see me take my clothes off and that’s what I’m going to do’, I think that does seep into you. It just makes me feel better and you do feel more self-confident. I’m not saying it can fix mental health problems, but I do feel a lot better in myself mentally and with my self-esteem.”
The male gaze – the image of a woman seen through the eyes of the man – has been well documented. Helliwell describes feeling liberated from this gaze, learning to own her sexuality and take control of it through Ember.
“In society where women are sexualised through the male gaze, it is empowering,” she says. “You do feel like you’re taking control of your own sexuality.”
As a young woman working in the arts myself, albeit in a different discipline, it’s fascinating to speak to someone who is so in tune with themselves and their craft. Helliwell sees the vision in her head, what she wants the show to represent, casting those who fit bill but still remaining open enough for the art to take on its own life.
“Sometimes I have a specific vision, but then I’ll watch the people who have applied, and the vision will change according to what I want and what I’ve seen.”
Some self-discovery and a one-woman show later (she produced and starred in her own show, The Formidable Lizzie Boone), and Helliwell is about to stage her own cabaret, Ember and The Vixens, at Manchester Art Gallery.
For the event, the gallery’s atrium will be transformed for, among other things, an evening of jazz, burlesque, poetry, and music.
“My good friend Jas Nisic is hosting, she owns her own production company in Manchester called To Bee Productions,” says Helliwell. “We’ve got Lady Wildflower who is in the top 50 burlesque performers in the world. And Cherie Bebe who is a really big name in the Manchester burlesque scene, and three really incredible poets.”
Helliwell is keen to promote the idea that cabarets are for everyone. I agree with her, but why not check it out for yourself?
Main image: Darren McGinn Photography
Ember & the Vixens is at Manchester Art Gallery on April 22, 2023 . Click here for tickets and more information.