There is a legend in the burlesque world named Big Fannie Annie. Now 63, she was 450 pounds at the height of her career in the '80s, when she made $28,000 some weeks by taking off her clothes. Annie is also the inspiration for philanthropist Kat Thomas.
Burlesque is equal parts fundraising and therapy for Thomas, who goes by Kitty Kat DeMille when touring with her nonprofit pinup shows, Pin-Ups for Vets and Workin' the Tease, a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood that's coming to Portland this Friday.
"We're really good at reining in money," Thomas says.
"There is more money in strip clubs than the classic theater or concert venues," says Thomas. The strip club industry averages $3 billion in annual revenue, matching the largest U.S. charity on Forbes' annual list, United Way.
It is no surprise that Portland is especially lucrative. "Portland embraces whatever you want to be. Sexual fluidity is more embraced there than anywhere I've been," says Thomas.
Related: Beauty tips from Portland strippers.
All around the nation, Thomas has toured with her pro bono burlesque, visiting places like Billings, Mont., where she worried that none of the rural, red-state residents would come out of the woodwork to benefit Planned Parenthood by watching a tattooed African-American stripper with crystal tassels swinging from her tits. To offset the cost of doing fundraisers, the girls perform straight burlesque shows as they travel through cities, including Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Spokane, Wash. "We like to introduce burlesque to places that might not have it," says Thomas.
"You can't take off your clothes on military bases," she says. Instead, Thomas just spent 35 days touring the nation's American Legion posts, which she says are perfect because they still have proscenium stages from the '40s.
It's not all about the money, though. Burlesque, in her ideal world, is both educational and therapeutic for everyone. "We go to spas and talk to people in their 60s," she says. "It's about finding self-empowerment by showing off what's underneath. It's about loving your body." In Vegas for the Burlesque Hall of Fame's biggest showcase this spring, she saw a 90-year-old dancer get a standing O. "In one show, you can't be onstage if you're under 60," she says, "and these women have been doing this since they were in their teens." Planned Parenthood employees get free admission to Thomas' shows. "This is our way to give back," she says. "After a shooting in L.A., half the staff was getting counseling because they were scared. So we went there to just give them a fun time and celebrate human sexuality and all that great stuff that empowers people."
Big Fannie Annie is great stuff. She broke the stigma against overweight dancers with her slogan—"450 pounds of pure sizzling sex"—and she is now a legend recognized by the Burlesque Hall of Fame.
"We're the misfits, the ones on the edges, taking off our clothes for strangers for money," says Thomas. "We're also here to show you the other side."
At Dante's, which Thomas identifies as "the place under the Keep Portland Weird sign," the acts won't just include dancers. "We have a standup comedian who plays the ukulele, Julia is our sultry songbird, and I do poi—those flaming balls at the end of a string," says Thomas, "but I can't light them on fire—for insurance purposes."
Instead, she says, "I have a set of LEDs that are very Burning Man." Therapy with feather boas and flashing lights. Annie would be proud.
See it: Workin' the Tease is at Dante's, 350 W Burnside St., 9:30 pm Friday, Aug. 19. $20-$35. 21+.