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Naked girls reading? Burlesque turns a page

Michelle L'amour, creator of Naked Girls Reading.

It has to be the most provocative literary series in the world with a title like "Naked Girls Reading," but it's exactly as advertised. Burlesque divas remove the pasties and G-strings - those time-honoured barriers to complete nudity - and grab a book.

And it's an all-star international lineup of naked readers who kick off the five-day, third-annual Toronto Burlesque Festival at the Gladstone Hotel Wednesday night. NGR, in fact, is the newest phenomenon of the phenomenal burlesque revival.

The concept came out of a chance remark by Chicago photographer/writer Franky Vivid. He walked into a room and found his naked wife, burlesque superstar Michelle L'amour, in repose, reading a book, which prompted him to remark, "I like the image."

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We have an emotional connection to the pieces we have chosen.

And so the couple began thinking about NGR as a form of entertainment. They considered, then rejected a pay-per-view website as being too prurient. They then hit upon the idea of a tasteful, old-style salon. They also discovered that naked girls reading has been a favourite subject of painters and photographers throughout the centuries.

Says L'amour: "We hold the series every month at my studio. Each evening has a theme, and each girl selects her own material which can come from fiction, non-fiction, song lyrics or poetry. For example, for the "Independent Women" show, readings included Dorothy Parker, Mae West and Coco Chanel. We publish the reading lists on our website."

NGR came to Toronto this past March when the strip divas of Skin Tight Outta Sight Rebel Burlesque held their first salon. Co-producers L'amour and Vivid licence out the trademarked name after carefully screening the quality of the applicants. The format is generally four or five readers who take 10-minute turns, ending with a group read from a common book. The readers usually perch demurely on a chaise.

Skin Tight NGR themes have included bedtime stories, Mother's Day, and queer lit. The theme of the 2010 festival is MeTOPolis: The Future of Burlesque, and so the readings are science fiction. In fact, San Francisco's Lady Monster knows Leonard Nimoy/Mr. Spock personally and consulted him about her reading selections.Skin Tight's Sauci Calla Horra is the executive producer of the burlesque festival, and has performed in NGR salons. "It's all about glamour and presentation," she says. "You wouldn't think something naked would require so many clothes, but you have to decide on the proper jewellery, shoes, perhaps stockings and special accessories to fit the theme."

By the same token, each reader is far more vulnerable than when they are performing their burlesque routines. "The work is close to the heart," L'amour says. "We have an emotional connection to the pieces we have chosen." And from Horra: "When I do my routines, I'm speaking to everyone. When I'm reading, its personal, I'm doing it for myself."

Everyone concedes that many NGR first-timers come because of shock value, but to their surprise, as Horra says, they discover that pretty girls can read. L'amour points out that the repeat audience at her salons come because of the readings. "They've already seen us naked, so that's routine for them," she says. "They come to hang on every word."

For their part, the readers aren't nervous about the nudity, which is mother's milk to them, as it were. Rather, they worry about reading badly. Skin Tight's Tanya Cheex is the festival's NGR co-ordinator and one of the evening's readers. "I rehearse with my webcam," she says, "so I can find that eloquent manner of speech, and work on inflection, posture and timing."

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The women describe the NGR salon as magical, entrancing and enchanting. "It has a courtesan feel about it," Cheex says. "It's seductive, because we're naked, and, at the same time, comforting, like listening to your mother reading to you when you were little."

Horra adds: "In burlesque, we unveil our bodies. In Naked Girls Reading, we unveil our souls."

Naked Girls Reading is at the Gladstone Hotel Wednesday. The Toronto Burlesque Festival continues until July 25 at various venues.

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