Golden Girl

After 20 years, burlesque legend Tiffany Carter dons the catsuit again.

Back in 1965, a Corvallis native named Teresa Sandford took her first dancing gig. She was underage—only 17—and she’d been booked as a go-go dancer in Anaheim, Calif. She danced twice before her husband found out and “had a fit,” she says.

In between shifts working as a telephone switchboard operator, she took modern jazz classes. "When I turned 21, I took that headpiece off and said, 'I'm out of here,'" she says. She found an agent in Hollywood who rechristened her "Tiffany," and later a Boston producer switched her surname to "Carter." She worked for years at Hollywood's Pink Pussycat and then in Las Vegas, eventually winning a nude beauty pageant in Toronto in 1975. One of her signature costumes? A catsuit with light-up claws.

Carter hung up her tassels in 1989—"burlesque died out in the '80s," she says—and moved to Beaverton. But with the burlesque revival of the past decade, she's reintroduced herself. Now 66 and living in Las Vegas, she's considered a legend, and will perform Friday at local showcase Bergamot Burlesque. She tells WW she'll do another catsuit number, but this time with whiskers that light up.

WW: How has burlesque changed since you were in your 20s?

Tiffany Carter: One of the biggest differences is, we all perform together now. We've got a variety: the guys, the girls, the group numbers, the comedians, the musicians, maybe a singer in between. When I was doing burlesque in my 20s, it was mostly male audiences, and we were strippers. We didn't say that word much, but that's what we were.

What prompted you to return to burlesque?

I went to the Miss Exotic World Pageant in Las Vegas in 2006 and saw all the girls and costumes. Then I went to the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in 2007, and I was asked to perform, but I wasn't quite ready to do it again. But in 2008 I was ready.

Why weren't you ready?

I felt I was too heavy, and I wanted to be more in shape. When I first performed, you had to have a perfect body. Today you see a much broader span of people: heavier people, people of all different sizes and shapes. Years back, you would never see that.

Do you ever feel self-conscious?

Sometimes, depending on where I'm performing. As I get older and things get out of shape in different ways, it's harder for me, so I truthfully don't know how much longer I will perform. I'd rather teach.

What can you teach younger performers?

Shows today are so short. We used to do 25-to-30-minute shows. Girls aren't teasing and being sensual enough with their clothes when they take them off. For instance, they'll be doing a stocking act, and they'll take a shoe off and just throw it. I'll show them how to take a shoe off sensually, and put it back on if they want to.

Have your kids seen you perform?

My daughters came to see me perform in 2009 for the first time at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and they cried. It was amazing. My son will never come.

How much do you take off?

At first, I wouldn't take my top off. I didn't think it was necessary. But now I will. I'm not blatant about running around like I used to, but I will take it off.

How else is your performance different now from when you started?

I used to dream about my shows, and I still dream of things I want to do or redo. Of course, in my dreams I'm going a lot faster than I am in the videos.

And you're deaf now, too.

Right. I take my hearing aids out when I perform, so everything is more by feeling. I have to know the music real well because once I take the hearing aids out, I'm profoundly deaf.

So you can't hear the applause?

No! The first time I got applause in 2008, someone ran to the dressing room and asked me if I could hear it. But I can see when I get a standing ovation. 

SEE IT: Tiffany Carter is at the Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., on Friday, July 18. 7 pm. $16, $25 VIP. 21+.