Hogtown Stories is a series of portraits and short stories about Torontonians by Jeremy Korn, a photographer and urban planner. Find more photos of Reena and past stories at hogtownstories.com.
Most of my childhood, I wasn't that popular. In general, I preferred the company of books to people. The other kids weren't that nice to me.
I grew up on a farm in Kingston but moved to Toronto after university. When I moved here, I wrote reviews for a video-game magazine, played Dungeons and Dragons two nights a week, did World of Warcraft raids on Thursday nights and participated in some live-action role-play. Then, out of nowhere, I started working in nightclub promotion. And stripping.
All of a sudden I became a "downtown Toronto socialite." It was weird and awkward, and I honestly didn't like it that much. At the time, I was hanging out with the people that would have been mean to me in high school. But because I could look like them and act like them, they treated me as if I was one of them.
One night in early 2007, I met a burlesque dancer at a party. She invited me to see a show at the Gladstone, and from there I dove headfirst into it.
Burlesque combines a number of arts – theatre, dance, circus and striptease. Burlesque performers have power over the audience, which has really helped me grow as a performer and as a person.
As a kid, I used to avoid conflict. At the most, I would be passive-aggressive when someone didn’t treat me with the respect I deserve. But through burlesque, I have learned to put on a mask of confidence at times when I’m not feeling confident. And through performing regularly, I have developed real confidence in myself.
I also started the Toronto School of Burlesque. I rented a wonderful studio on Augusta Avenue in the middle of Kensington Market a few years ago. Finding this live-work space for a reasonable price was marvellous and improbable, in a city as expensive as Toronto. I invested a lot – financially and emotionally – into my studio.
We used to hang out with fire spinners in the park and then go for dim sum afterward. That was our standard Tuesday. And I regularly leave the house wearing a rhinestone dress in the middle of the day. No one even bats an eye.
In Kensington, it appears that anything goes. But sadly, that isn’t true in my case. After a legal dispute, the school can no longer stay. I wish I could make it work here, but I know I’m lying to myself thinking there’s still a possibility that it will.
Reena Smith regularly performs and teaches burlesque as Red Herring in Toronto.
This interview has been edited and condensed.