08/21/2019 12:37 EDT

Why This Queer, Middle-Aged Burlesque Dancer Wants You To 'Be Shameless' Too

"Remember, there's going to be more people that like you and appreciate you than people that hate you," Jo Weldon said.

It’s hard not to be in awe of Jo Weldon. As a world-traveling, seasoned burlesque performer and headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, she has gathered decades’ worth of experience in the sex work space.

But it wasn’t always easy for Weldon.

“I did not thrive at first,” the 57-year-old said. “I survived, and not everybody does in the situations I was in.”

Growing up in conservative Georgia, Weldon said she was often beat up and bullied for being queer — so much that she had to change schools. Still, she remained open about her identity and found ways to express herself, from reading magazines to learning about the history of burlesque to wearing vintage clothes.

Rebecca Andersen Classic
Jo Weldon, author of "Fierce: The History of Leopard Print," in her signature print in 1978.

In the 1980s, she found refuge in the underground nightlife of New York City, and attending live renditions of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and punk rock concerts and strip clubs. There, she felt safe to be herself.

It was at a live “Rocky Horror” show that Weldon first tried burlesque — a combination of “strip tease with theatricality, mischief and style,” she said. Over the years, she worked as a stripper, dominatrix and burlesque performer. She has also authored multiple books, including “Fierce: The History of Leopard Print.” Now, the 57-year-old teaches other people about the art of burlesque as the Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque. 

“It’s been beyond my wildest dreams,” Weldon said. “If you had asked me if teaching striptease and burlesque was a career, I would have said ‘no.’ Now, I have a book about it. I have DVDs about it. I’ve traveled all over the world.”

Bettina May
"My main goal as a sex worker was always just to say, I’m a human being,” Weldon said. “I’m not ashamed of what I do. I don’t wish I was somebody else.”  

Weldon began experiencing ageism and sexism early on in her career. Customers at strip clubs would tell her she’s too old to strip, even when she was just 25 years old, Weldon recalled.

Despite society’s expectations of older women, Weldon said she takes pride in being a middle-aged strippers and loves introducing people to other women who have done burlesque since the ’50s and ’60s.

My main goal as a sex worker was always just to say, I’m a human being,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of what I do. I don’t wish I was somebody else.”

“If I could recommend one quality to any young, queer, or just outsider people, it would be: Be shameless,” she added. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry about who you are, enjoy it. Find other people who like it, and focus on them.”