Despite its title, there’s not a ton of burlesque in “Burlesque River,” a new romance novel set in the Quad-Cities, penned by veteran burlesque performer Kitty Bardot.

There are key club scenes — at the start and near the end of this beautifully written book (part of a planned series) — that reflect the raunch, playfulness, camaraderie, the yearning to be someone different and glamorous, and the ecstatic high you get on stage with an appreciative audience.

But the bulk of the 173-page debut novel, released in April by Boroughs Publishing (which specializes in romance fiction), lovingly reveals a lot of heart and soul through a central, sensual relationship. It details a dark history and passionate present between protagonists Amanda (who dances as Bunny Demure) and boyfriend Mike, the club’s “silent partner.” They share an intense bond, and lots of explicit sex, in “Burlesque River.”

The busy, friendly author is a 39-year-old Davenport native (born Andrea Stueve), who graduated from Davenport North High and has written since she was a kid.

“I’m a creature motivated by love and affection,” Bardot, a married mother of three, said recently. “I understand people and I understand relationships.”

“I feel like through my writing, I can help people to understand each other better,” she said. “So often, not just in romance, but in literature in general, there’s so much strife. None of the characters stop thinking of themselves long enough to see where the other characters are coming from.”

“I want my characters to have more understanding of themselves and a more open mind to embrace their lover or partner fully, and to take them, trauma and all, and to hold them,” Bardot said. “Another ultimate goal that I have with my work is to write romance that men will enjoy as well. After all, they are part of the story as well.”

“Kitty Bardot was the first warm, welcoming hug of burlesque family I experienced many years ago,” her friend Lilith St. Scream, another Q-C burlesque vet, said.

“She is – without a doubt – the most grounded, practical human I’ve ever been around, but in the same breath this beautiful dreamer of all things sparkling and uplifting,” she said. “She has a very captivating way with words, both in person and in print, which reading her book and knowing her in life created this hyper-realistic vision page after page.

“It’s an amazing journey to take with such a close friend,” St. Scream said. The book is not so much about burlesque but “the relationship dynamics that can develop between people over time, and what happens when personal strength, empowerment and growth is achieved,” she said. “It’s a fun read for sure, and I am beyond proud of her.”

Bardot said she hated her plain given name while growing up, and re-named her burlesque self after famed French actress and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot.

“She’s beautiful; she’s one of the most stunning sex symbols that could be,” Kitty said of Brigitte. “Why wouldn’t I want to use her last name?”

High school was terrible for Andrea and she was shamed mercilessly (at times called “whore” or “slut”). “As soon as I came of age, I was not ashamed of having boyfriends and wanting to do things. I knew what I wanted, and I wanted to have fun,” she said. “It wasn’t an ideal thing to be in high school. I think things have changed since then.”

“I didn’t listen to what I was told to do, or who I was told to be,” she said, noting her mom was 17 when she got married and had her when she was 20.

Bardot took a couple semesters at Scott Community College, including the culinary program, and decided if she was going to work in restaurants, she didn’t need a degree for that, instead learning on the job. She’s been working in kitchens on and off for 20 years and two years ago started her own catering company (Quad City Custom Catering), after catering her friend Lindsay O’Brien’s wedding.

“I create menus based on what the client wants and what their budget is, what they’re looking for,” Bardot said.

She spent 10 years as a Hooters line cook, and for the past five years has worked at Augustana College’s dining center during the school year.

“I’m the type of person that doesn’t sit still easily,” Bardot said. “I like to be active, I like to be busy. If I don’t have 20 projects going at once, I’m probably really uncomfortable. Most of them are unfinished, but I have them.”

Falling in love with burlesque

Bardot started performing with the second show of Burlesque Le Moustache in April 2010, at Davenport’s Capitol Theatre, after seeing the first production. “It was just fabulous – a whole new world. Beautiful and brilliant, sparkles,” she said. “I fell in love and I auditioned.”

Of the 1920 downtown theater (shuttered now several years), Bardot recalled: “It was beautiful and overwhelming. For who I was at the time, it was like the biggest thing I could have possibly done. I believe we had 1,500 people in the audience that night and it was my first time performing in front of an audience.”

“I was hooked from that moment on,” she said. Burlesque Le Moustache briefly performed at RIBCO and then The Speakeasy in Rock Island. Bottoms Up Quad City Burlesque branched off to form its own troupe, which Bardot joined and directed for nearly four years.

She and her husband Nick live in Buffalo, Iowa, with their children – ages 16, 11 and 7. Bardot was pregnant with her youngest (a daughter) in her first year as Bottoms Up, and performed pregnant up until a month before she was born. “She’s quite the little ham now; I can’t imagine why,” Bardot said.

“Bottoms Up was my baby. I loved it so much, I couldn’t walk away, Like ‘I’m pregnant now, I can’t do it’,” she said. “I wanted to stick it out. Also, performing is an addiction and I didn’t want to walk away.”

“We were selling out every show, we had such a great following, it was the best time,” Bardot said. “Ask anybody that’s been in burlesque in the Quad-Cities and that was the time to be in burlesque – the first couple years with Bottoms Up, absolutely phenomenal.”

“The female body is beautiful and to put it out there, as I grew, got bigger and bigger, and be celebrated, it was really an amazing experience,” she said of her last pregnancy.

“Applause is an amazing thing, the energy when you’re up there,” she said. “There’s something about burlesque, especially when it’s done well, the audience is so fully engaged in the moment, there’s just this exchange of energy – that’s the addiction there. And when everyone leaves at the end of the show, they’re all grinning ear to ear, and shaking your hand, sometimes hugging you, asking for pictures, it’s just phenomenal.”

Who is Kitty?

True to her French, feline namesake, Kitty Bardot aims to be “the embodiment of sex and luxury,” she said.

“She is selfish, but not in a bad way. Vain,” she said. “She looks in the mirror and loves what she sees. She’s everything I wish that I had been in high school. As much as I embraced who I was, I was ashamed. Society will do that to you, especially when you’re young and impressionable.”

Kitty is the idealized version of herself. “She’s the essential oil of me, if you would,” Bardot said. “She’s that part of me, just intensified. It’s really amazing to have a stage persona and at times, I wish I hadn’t made her so much who she is, because it kind of keeps me from being able to be more dark.”

Her first burlesque routine was a straitjacket escape. “I immediately went to the cheesecake, the sweet, sultry,” she said. “Burlesque performers call themselves dancers, as they should, because they dance and they’re beautiful. I am a poser, not because I’m pretending to be a burlesque dancer. I walk and I pose.”

“I don’t dance; I’m incredibly clumsy,” Bardot admitted. “I topple easily. I don’t wear heels higher than two inches.”

“A lot of my performance is in my face – it’s all about the eyes, the expression, the connection with the audience,” she said.

“I was raised to be pretty, but also quiet and proper and good, and every message you get as a woman about your body is so convoluted,” Bardot said. “Because you have to be so many things all at once. They’re always contradictory – beautiful and sexy, but sweet and demure, and you have to be all of these things, to be a good girl.”

In the tight-knit, body-positive world of burlesque (all sizes and shapes have value), “You find this group of people and they all embrace who they are, completely, with all of their flaws and their sexual nature,” she said. “We embrace who we are – sexually, fully, which to me was another huge thing. It’s hard to be a woman and be a sexual creature and embrace it.”

It was also difficult to juggle her day job, night job, and parenting simultaneously.

“It’s an exhausting task to hold together a group of folks that are so interesting, colorful characters,” Bardot said of her time as Bottoms Up director.

“I was trying to keep everyone happy, everyone well, and kind to one another. It was like I had a much larger family,” she said. “It became an enormous tax on someone’s energy. I stepped down and stayed on as a performer.”

She’s really stepped away from performing in the past few years, as her book took shape.

Navigating the “Burlesque River”

Bardot started working on the “semi-autobiographical” tale four years ago, sent it to publishers, and got many rejections. She did a major overhaul (with the help of her older brother, a published author who has a master’s in creative writing) and sent it back out. She was going to start another project, and got an e-mail Dec. 21, 2019 from the publisher accepting it.

“It’s inspired very heavily by my life and my time on the burlesque stage, but it is 100-percent fiction,” Bardot said. “There are a lot of things that people will recognize, who are in the scene.”

The book’s troupe, Burlesque A La Mode, is based at The Speakeasy in downtown Rock Island (like Bottoms Up), and also performs in Chicago.

Bardot borrowed her real husband’s occupation (a self-employed diesel mechanic) for club co-owner Mike, who rescues Amanda in a dramatic breakdown scene. The paperback is available for $10.49 at Amazon (among other online retailers).

Her husband Nick called the book “Nick and Andrea fan fiction.”

The publisher wants many more in the series, and she’s now writing the second one, “Burlesque on Bourbon,” to be set in New Orleans.

“The characters in the book are really fun and you want to know what happens with them,” Bardot said. The second one will focus on Amanda’s best friend Bridgette, and every book will follow a different character, and always including Mike and Amanda.

She called “Burlesque River” like “brain candy. It’s sweet and fun. It’s enjoyable, and it does have depth,” Bardot said. “But it’s real world. It’s not fantastical.”

She’s interested in writing science fiction and fantasy.

“I have like 10 more stories, series ideas that I’ve begun, in different genres,” Bardot said. “I have a dystopian future one I have to write. It’s been in my notes for 20 years.”

Is the current “stay-at-home” pandemic conducive to writing?

“I’ve actually hit a wall, and I don’t want to blame my children because that’s an easy scapegoat,” Bardot said. “But they are home and it’s hard. What I did before, I’d have a couple days off while they were in school, every other week, and those would be my days for writing.”

Now, there are many more distractions at home. “And it’s really hard to write love scenes when you’ve got a seven-year-old on your arm, and she can read,” she said.

Does Bardot become Kitty in real life?

“My husband actually married Kitty,” she said. “What happens is finding her a place and a voice, and a stage to be seen. I was able to become Andrea, who I am.”

“It changed my life; it made me who I am,” she said of burlesque. “It enabled me to find who I am. Kitty Bardot was this perception of the woman I was supposed to be. In letting her out and giving her an outlet, I was able to really, truly become who I am now.”

“In fully expressing her, creating this persona and allowing it to be exposed and out there, it made room in my mind and my spirit, for the other things that wanted to come out,” Bardot said, citing her writing as an example.

She’s embraced holistic, natural healing, and read a lot. “I let the sex monster, who is Kitty Bardot, out, so that I could bring so much more in,” she said. “Having a daughter changed a lot.”

She recalled when her daughter was three, she didn’t sit at the dinner table, but she served everyone. “Because I’m the only other woman in the house, she wanted to serve the boys the way Mommy did. I realized I was teaching her to be submissive, to serve boys,” Bardot said. “You can’t do that when you have a little girl. She has to know you have to be an equal.”

“That’s when I stopped doing that and they started serving themselves,” she said, noting her kids all know she’s in burlesque.

“I’m proud of what I do, so I shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed of them knowing,” she said.

Bardot planned to do book signings before everything shut down, and misses people – on and off stage.

“There’s something about the instant gratification of applause,” she said. “With writing, it’s like, I gave everybody my book, I sold so many copies, and nobody’s clapping.”

Advertisement

Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.