Mary Elizabeth Johnson, trained dancer and fine artist, has an alter ego. By night, she's Mary Contrary, vixen and tease, leather/lace-clad frontwoman for the all-lesbian neo-burlesque troupe, the Dirty Dolls.
“Mary Contrary is just me,” Johnson explains, “but enhanced. When I came up with my character, I put so much thought into it. I wanted to use my own name. It’s very closely based on myself, but really intensified.”
Yes, the Dirty Dolls’ show is decidedly sexual —they appear, scantily clad, walking the walk and dancing the dance, once a month at Club One—but it’s not really a grindy girl-on-girl strip act.
Nor is it old-school burlesque, with balloons and feathers. Neo-burlesque, Johnson says, “is about celebrating being sexy, being beautiful, feeling beautiful. If you look at all the different things that are popping up, go-go-classes, pole fitness classes, burlesque classes, there’s all these different things that one can do. Because anybody feels great when they feel sexy. It’s empowering.”
A native of Arlington Heights, Ill., Johnson—who’d studied ballet and modern dance in her hometown—arrived in Savannah 11 years ago to study painting at SCAD. Once she got her BA, she went to work as a go-go dancer at Club One.
“It always felt natural, because I like entertaining people,” she says. “When you see people light up just because you’re there, that’s the best feeling. You can completely change their mood.
“Even little things like remembering somebody’s name, or if they just got dumped, they feel special. It means to much to them that you remember them. I’m just a normal person, so for it to mean that much, it’s really great.”
She was invited the join the Florida-based “drag king” company Spikey Dikey & the Aftermidnights, and her first performance in the all-gay troupe was in front of 3,000 people for Pensacola Pride.
“I’ve always been told that I was sexy, even when I was quite a bit younger,” Johnson explains. “This is a natural thing. People are always like ‘Isn’t it awkward taking your clothes off onstage?’ Even the first show, it wasn’t uncomfortable. I wasn’t nervous about that. I was nervous about not tripping over something on the stage.”
Lesbian burlesque has an enormous fan base in the South. Two years ago, Johnson started working with Orlando performer Ivy Les Vixens, and they still dance and play together, week after week, throughout Florida and Georgia (and beyond). Ivy, in fact, is a co-founder and frequent member of the Dirty Dolls Burlesque revue.
“It’s really hard to find girls who fit what we’re looking for,” says Johnson. “Because you have to be able to dance, you have to be gay, you have to be able to travel ... and you have to have your own vision, because nothing’s more annoying than girls who want to be in the troupe, and they come in and try to be identical to me. The same music, and the same kind of costumes.
“That’s why Ivy and I get along so well, because we’re at exact opposite ends of the spectrum. But we totally get each other.”
Johnson’s partial to metal and other heavy music. “I only use music that’s really passionate for me, that I really love,” she explains. “It has to be something that I enjoy. They’ll say ‘How’s she going to do burlesque to Pantera?’ And it happens, and they love it.”
The next Dirty Dolls show at Club One takes place Friday, April 11. The audiences, Johnson stresses, are often quite diverse.
In other words, the fantasy show isn’t just for gay women. As with so many LGBT events, your preference is your preference, and that’s that. Define your own hot and sexy.
“So many girls ask me about starting to do what I do,” Johnson adds. “And I always say “You really have to love it, and love your audience.’
“I think that’s one thing that Ivy and I have in common that people pick up on—we really, genuinely enjoy it. And we enjoy who we’re performing for. It means the world to me that people can tell. Otherwise you can’t do it.”