I‘ll admit, I’d never heard of Tristan Risk until I saw the movie American Mary, in which she played Beatress Johnson (yes, “Beatress,” not “Beatrice”), a stripper who had 14 surgeries to become a real-life Betty Boop look-alike. She gave such a striking performance, hers was the first name I Googled right after the final credits rolled ….and that’s saying something because American Mary was full of memorable female characters. It also has the makings of a potential cult classic.
Tristan has been described as a “corsetier, chocolatier, baker, ta-ta shaker, hip-swayer, tight lacer,” and a “troublemaker.” While all of that’s true, first and foremost, the Vancouver native is one of the best-know names in neo-burlesque, incorporating fire-eating and vaudeville-style magic into her act. She was originally recruited by the producers of American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska, as a choreographer for the film’s dance numbers. The role of Beatress had not yet been cast since none of the actresses who’d read for the part so far, seemed to understand the character. When Jen and Sylvia decided to give Tristan a shot and saw her audition, they knew they’d found their Beatress and the rest is history.
After doing a bit of research on “Little Miss Risk,” I sent her a link to the piece I wrote on the female cast of American Mary and told her I’d love to do and interview with her sometime. When she promptly replied, saying she’d love to, I was flattered, feeling that she was an admirer of my writings. However, it turned out, Tristan’s a self-admitted attention whore and relishes any chance to talk about herself and her doings at great length. Certainly nothing wrong with that but I was a little disappointed that my journalistic qualifications didn’t play a role in getting her to agree to this interview. Anyway, regardless of her reasons for doing this, I’m proud to add Tristan to my list of lovely interviewees. Above photo by Black Opal Images.
CHRIS CHARLES: Thanks for doing this Tristan! I know you often get interview requests and I’m flattered you accepted mine. I’ll try not to ask you the same ol’ questions you’ve been asked before by other interviewers.
TRISTAN RISK: Thank you. As something of an attention whore, I’ll be the first to readily admit that I adore being asked to do interviews, and in fact, I’m pleased you’re letting me indulge myself by allowing me to talk about myself and my projects at great length. So, in a way, I apologize in advance if I get off on a bit of a tangent, as I want to do.
CHRIS: Please feel free. First off, I have to admit; I hadn’t heard of you before I saw you in American Mary, but immediately after I saw it, yours was the first name I Googled. These days, are you getting contacted by many people who first became aware of you from that film?
TRISTAN: I’m fairly certain when the opening credits ran, people looked at the cast and went, “Recognizable name, I know him, I remember this person from such-and-such ….who the hell is Tristan Risk?” I don’t think you were unique in that. Coupled with the fact that I wore such heavy duty make up, wig, etc., people were intrigued by what I looked like or if that was my real face. So I think a Google search was a common thing. Most will turn up links to my blogs, articles I’ve written or photos of me either naked or slightly drunk. Out of a morbid curiosity people have located my Facebook and Twitter and kindly written me messages about Mary, how they find the characters relatable, or the odd penis photo to my email. With the latter I’ve started a collage.
CHRIS: If American Mary goes on to become a cult classic, would you be okay with it if you became best known for your role as Beatress Johnson?
TRISTAN: If Mary does become a cult classic, I’d be delighted if Beatress was what I was known for. I’m sure there are a handful of folks out there who don’t want to get typecast and such but to have been given a role that left such an impression, then that’s something that’s bigger than me. It’s what, potentially given cult druthers, is what drag queens dress as and emulate, cosplayers wear to conventions, and people wear at midnight screenings. As a fan of cult and underground films myself, it’s pretty much an apex to think that something you’ve worked on would be held in such a high regard. Anyone who’d roll their eyes when you mention a character that’s loved by so many that they are best known for don’t deserve the honor, because lots of people would be grateful to have that.
CHRIS: According to the film credits, IMDb, and Jen and Sylvia themselves, the character’s name is spelled “Beatress,” but I’ve seen quite a few other sources give the spelling as “Beatrice.” Was there a spelling change made at some point or is it just a common error made by some?
TRISTAN: I went and checked my copy of the script, yes, I still have it, complete with doodles of raccoons in the margin and notes, and it’s “Beatress.” Jen mentioned it as a joke; “Beatress Johnson” as in “beating your johnson,” which is appropriate for a stripper, no? Likely that’s a little joke that a few people might have picked up on.
CHRIS: Ah, I see. When I heard the name spoken in the movie, it sounded like “Beatrice,” but when I saw it in the credits, I did think that was an unusual spelling and wondered if something were behind it, and now I know! So, was the character Beatress already well-defined when you were cast or did you help develop her?
TRISTAN: The Soskas had written a great character. I could practically hear the way she talked and her natural cadence when I read the script. Coming from a dance/theater background her movements and gestures seemed natural for that character. Once MASTERSFX had my face on, it just all fit together. I like to think that the group of us all kind of helped birth her and make her the final product you see on film. I think the Soskas had a strong idea of what they wanted from their creation and I was the well-suited host system that helped make it walk, talk and jiggle.
CHRIS: How long were you in the makeup chair getting transformed into Beatress?
TRISTAN: Two hours in the chair in and one hour out. Todd Masters of MASTERSFX was the designer of the piece, but every day Lori and Amelia from his shop were there before everyone else, myself included, and last to go after gently coaxing the mask off of my face. Given that this was after I’d be moving, eating, sweating, etc. in it all day, that was an assault on their senses. But they were kind, worked very well, and were also tolerant of me falling asleep during application and removal.
CHRIS: Are you a Betty Boop fan?
TRISTAN: I dig the old Boop cartoons. They were pervasive for their time, with this super sexy little cartoon lady and her pet dog, her boyfriend who IS a dog, or a clown, and talking about “gipo” which is slang for any number of intoxicants. What’s not to love about a cartoon outlaw?
CHRIS: Well, I love Betty. So, what are Jen and Sylvia like to work with?
TRISTAN: Amazing. Working with Jen and Sylv as directors for my first feature is akin to having the most amazing, passionate sexy lover when you lose your virginity. They shall forever be the yardstick by which I measure all other directors, and judge them. The three of us gelled so well it wasn’t like work in the slightest. Watching them work with others was interesting. I don’t know how single directors do it. Because we were under the gun to get the shots in the days we had there were only three takes of anything. So while one would talk to cast, the other would talk to crew to maximize time and minimize the bullshit. And they pulled it off, too. I can’t imagine now how any production is allowed to drag on for weeks at a time, wasting vast amounts of money. I say fuck that, hire the Soskas. Get it done and get it done right. Suffice to say, I love them both from the marrow of my bones outward.
CHRIS: You’re currently with Sweet Soul Burlesque. Are you a founding member?
TRISTAN: Sadly, not. The original founding members are Crystal Precious, Cara Milk, Cherry Ontop, and Babalicious. I met them since we were all doing burlesque around town in our various scenes and hadn’t met yet. Keep in mind this was before Facebook or MySpace so they had their website and I had mine. Where we originally met is fuzzy in my mind but we kept getting booked for the same shows. Crystal Precious eventually said “Fuck it,” and we became really close friends, and invited me to be part of the Looking Glass Burlesque Show and none of us looked back from there. We gained some members and lost some over the years but the current line up of myself, Cara Milk, Crystal Precious, Lola Frost, Rita Star, and Cherry Ontop has been solid for a while now.
CHRIS: Love those names. Tell me about some of the other dance troupes you’ve been with.
TRISTAN: Apart from Sweet Soul Burlesque, I used to tour voraciously with myself and one other dancer under the titled The Voodoo Dollz. We were part of a band and burlesque show that toured twelve different countries in Europe and North America. I wasn’t a founding member of that group either, but I ran it for six years until I retired from the band in 2010. It was time. It gave me the chance to perform with a long list of Vancouver dancers: Starlet Bourbon, Eva Destruction, Lola Frost, Bloody Betty, Lydia DeCarllo, Nicky Ninedoors, Camaro Luvroc, Lillian Luvroc, Darla Devine, and Whiskey Rose to name a few. I was also part of Bloody Betty’s Deadly Sins for a time as “Lust” and also part of Sex At The Circus, a burlesque/sideshow multimedia extravaganza.
CHRIS: Do you have any influences from the heyday of burlesque?
TRISTAN: Oh, wow. How much time do you have? From the old school Dusty Summers, (nude magician), Satan’s Angel (fire tassels), Tura Satana, Tempest Storm, Lilly Christine, Gillian, who performed with Kiki The Dolphin at the Moulin Rouge in 1971 ….the list goes on.
CHRIS: How about among neo burlesque performers?
TRISTAN: Some of my more modern influences were Dita Von Teese in my early days and for pure amazing theatrics for his time the great Alice Cooper. I’ve oftentimes joked I’m the illegitimate offspring of Edwige Fenech and Alice Cooper, though that’s only my fancy.
CHRIS: You’ve performed in over a dozen countries. Ever experience any cultural shock, either while on of off stage?
TRISTAN: Of course. In one memorable instance in Italy while I had live fire during a number at a punk rock festival I got grabbed and pulled offstage by a rowdy. I was shocked and reacted, um, unfavorably towards him. I seemed to recall through my red mist that some other gentlemen took him out back for a little lesson on social etiquette. I find that I thought people generally dressed better in Europe. In America it was always a little shocking when it came to food, for me coming from Vancouver where we like our organic, healthy options to see these HUGE portions of food and drink. It was tradition for me, after any tour, to lock myself in my house and not emerge for a day until I was a little more relaxed. It was a bit of a coming-down process but through kind and understanding loved ones, I only had to get rid of a few bodies. There were great things though; being able to drink a beer in the streets in Germany, wine with all meals in Italy, the friendliness of Midwesterners, listening to the French trill their liquid language with great big puppy eyes, and being something of a novelty being a) a striptease artist and b) a Canadian. All of it one brilliant adventure.
CHRIS: Which country has been your favorite?
TRISTAN: I loved Germany, in Berlin, Flensburg, Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lubeck. I adored Italy in Rome and Palermo ….so gorgeous! France had me spellbound with both Paris and Dijon and I would plunge a dagger in my own thigh to return to the little jewel in Switzerland that is Thun. One day, I promise I’ll get my butt back there. Oh, yes, and ALL of the UK. You’ve been warned to hide your booze and lock up your everything.
CHRIS: In a lot of your photo shoots, I notice how striking your eyes are. Reminiscent of the silent-era actresses, who would convey emotion with their eyes rather than with words. Would you say you’ve been influences by any actresses from that time?
TRISTAN: Oh yes! Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Joan Bennett, Pola Negri ….their expressions all from fragile to fierce has served as great inspiration. The act of “smizing” which is smiling with your eyes only and not your mouth was first started on screen, with no sound. These women had to convey a great deal of emotion without uttering a sound. From a dancing standpoint I feel it pushes the envelope as an artist. Actually, I felt that Katherine Isabelle did a very effective job as Mary in this regard, as she had no inner monologue, no superfluous dialog to get her thoughts and feelings across to the audience. Her strong performance was with everything that was unsaid.
CHRIS: Like Scream Queen Debra Lamb, whom I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing, I understand you’re an accomplished fire-eater. Where did you learn to do that?
TRISTAN: Trial and error. You learn not to fuck that up, but you also push yourself past your personal limits. I did a little research and tried it at home, much to the distress of my Sweet Soul at our studio. Like anything else, having to do it on the road night after night honed my fledgling skills to an acceptable level where now I don’t think twice about it. I won’t lie – when I see other performers do it, it still sends a thrill through me so the romance there is far from being over. I didn’t know that Debra Lamb was also a fire eater. Makes me kind of want to do a live demo duo if ever we grace an event together. Maybe she’ll let me teach her how to spin fire tassels.
CHRIS: I’m sure she’d be game for that. I’ll pass the word on to her. So, ever had any mishaps on stage?
TRISTAN: Everything from falling off a stage to accidentally punching the other dancer in the face. My list of mishaps are likely just as long as my hat tricks. One of my favorites was we were doing a fire number and the other dancer, her first tour ever, accidentally set the headstock on the upright bass on fire. I was once doing a grinder number and the sparks gave me a little series of burns that looked like I had inflamed freckles for a few days. “Stripper knee” was a common ailment where you throw yourself down on your knees so hard you bruise in the pattern of your fishnets. I can safely say there was rarely a dull moment on the road. But luckily nothing major ever occurred that warranted a trip to the hospital or police station ….for now.
CHRIS: I hear you’re a Monty Python fan. Me too. What are your favorite sketches?
TRISTAN: My favorite Python sketches are both “Fish License” and “Spam,” as they both end in songs that I annoyed my family with throughout my childhood. Not to mention ALL the Gilliam animations, the grumbling caterpillar in particular.
CHRIS: I would have also guessed “Barber Shop” that leads into the “Lumberjack Song.”
TRISTAN: Those are all great Python sketches too. So is the “Argument Clinic.” Those guys were all geniuses. But then again, I LOVE British humor. I remember reading that when they tried to do “Red Dwarf” for the USA, they had to axe most of the jokes because the US audience wouldn’t get them. That must have been maddening. To this day All Creatures Great And Small and BBC Mysteries are my go-tos for alone time viewing. I can’t help it. Actually, if I ever relocate anywhere, the UK would be ahead of the pack. I might have to marry a Brit.
CHRIS: You also know your way around the kitchen. Any creations you’re particularly proud of?
TRISTAN: I do a lovely chocolate cake that bleeds raspberry coulis when it’s cut. My specialties are oftentimes of a more decidedly aphrodisiacal nature, incorporating tastes to provoke different senses and elevate the mood. I can incorporate kale into almost anything. I adore fancy baking. I’m guilty of luring people to my house in order to indulge my own foodie whims and feed them my experiments. But ever since Vincent Price horror folk and foodies have gone hand in hand together.
CHRIS: Wow, you make baking sound so erotic. (No, I didn’t consider making a baked-goods sexual innuendo using a “pie,” “buns,” or “icing” metaphor here.) So, from your writings at you blog and the Huffington Post’s British Columbia edition, you’re very connected to Vancouver and its history. Would you ever consider making any other place your home?
TRISTAN: I’ve thought about it. For a long time it wasn’t an issue as I was on the road so often. I felt like Max from Where The Wild Things Are. I’d run off, join the Wild Rumpus, only to long to return to where someone loved me best of all. The “someone” being Vancouver. She is my mistress and I love her dearly. If a relocation became necessary then I’d do it but my heart would remain ensconced in Vancity. I’m open to other adventure of course, but like a lover who you’ve been with there is comfort and intimacy in having a long term connection that allows a more intense depth of love. I feel that one can have this with a place, and if I’ve not moved for any reason when I shuffle this mortal coil, I don’t doubt my spectre will join the ranks of ghosts that already inhabit this city space.
CHRIS: Well, thanks again for doing this Tristan. It’s a feather in my cap to have you featured here. In closing, any plugs, or shout-outs?
CHRIS: Oh, just one last question: Do you actually prefer the puffy Cheetos over the crunchy kind, or was it just because the puffy kind looked better for the photo shoot? TRISTAN: Oh, definitely the puffy kind, without question. The hard ones don’t moosh onto the body in the same regard and even then the puffy ones still acted as a violently orange exfoliant. Perfect before a big date to deal with any dead skin cells or snack attacks.
From another shoot with photographer Shimona Henry.
One of a few underwater shoots Tristan has done.
A “no-caption-necessary” shot by Voodoo Bill
In front of Save-On-Meats on Hastings Street in Vancouver. Tristan said of this shoot; “I was
worried they’d tear down the iconic pig sign in the background and wanted to immortalize
my time in Vancouver, Herzog-style. We also, too, ate this bikini after we shot in it.”
Tristan Risk’s Lullaby. Shot and edited by Brice Ferre. (Check out his website and blog.) Hair and Make-up by Bloody Betty. Music by The Cure.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chris flirted with the music business there and in Nashville before joining the U.S. Army and serving in South Korea. He remained in Asia for several years afterwards, teaching English, traveling, and covering the regional entertainment scenes. Currently in a mindset between Seoul and San Francisco, besides Idol Features, you can also catch his writings in the print edition of the monthly magazine, Effective.
Actress and model Arielle Brachfeld was brought to my attention by award-winning writer and filmmaker Staci Layne Wilson. Staci sent me the recent press release for her upcoming film Good Family Times, in which Arielle
The above circa 1940 video of Chinese-American burlesque queen Noel Toy performing her famous fan dance, makes it clear to see why she was was often billed as “The Chinese Sally Rand.” Undoubtedly the most