Veronica Varlow courts danger, or, at the very least, projects an image of a siren so alluring you simply can't resist her, even when you know you're headed straight for hell (or jail). She dreams of bank robberies and lauds pulp film vixens, cigarette girls, and femme fatales. With her 1950's-inspired clothing website Danger Dame, she seeks to bring out the inner Bettie Page in every woman. Giving her dresses names like "The Passion of Juliet" and "Pretty Poison Peg Skirt," Varlow also lives up to the lively personas she creates to sell these items on her site ("She was the type who brought a flask to school, and painted her lips hussy red! She carved her initials in the desk at homeroom with a blade she kept strapped to her thigh. She was a Hellbound Harlot!"). This makes sense when you consider that her beloved activities include burlesque and hula hooping.
But most beloved of all for Varlow is Revolver, a film she claims is "the very reason I'm alive." Having won a Golden Trailer award, it's still seeking investors for this tale about a cowboy named Pocket and a showgirl named Blue. Varlow also performs burlesque at various hotspots around New York City, and has modeled for her own site and a book cover. Here, the multi-talented, multi-tasking sweet n' vicious vixen talks to Gothamist about the incongruity of a punk rock ballgown, the connection between modeling and acting, Revolver's future, the joys of hula hooping, and entrancing her audiences.
You are a model, actress, burlesque performer and clothing retailer—is one of these the most important to you? Do you have a day job?
The thing that steals my heart over everything is my film Revolver. Burke Heffner and I co-wrote it and spilled our guts all over the pages of that screenplay. The day we shot the scene for its promotional trailer where I’m walking out after robbing a store in a blue latex dress was one of the best days in my entire life. The makeup artist, Joseph Dulude, put a beauty mark next to my eye for that scene and once the day was over, I didn’t want to wash it off—I didn’t want to give up my memento of the world’s most perfect day. So I went out and got it tattooed on my face. Which means, every single day—when I look in the mirror, I have this reminder of the best day of my life. And every day since then I take another footstep towards living that day again. Getting the funding for Revolver, as a feature length 35mm film, that is my job.
How did you get started in the clothing business, and what does the name Danger Dame mean to you?
I got started selling clothes on eBay and it worked well enough that I quit my job. Doing that made it possible for me to work from home and write the screenplay for Revolver with Burke. Then I wanted to do something beyond eBay. I wanted my own store, to tell my own stories, and Burke wanted to do creative photoshoots that captured the essence of what each clothing piece was.
The name Danger Dame is what I think of when I think of film noir femme fatales of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Strong, powerful, intelligent broads who would drive a man to drink from heartbreak. Fierce, sultry . . . the kind of girl who dreamed of robbing a bank years before she ever dreamed of kissing a boy. A vixen who’s on fire just from being alive. She is the underdog who wins in the end. The one who never gave up.
Is there a typical "Danger Dame" girl?
The Danger Dame girl is anyone who dreams of danger and romance. There’s something empowering and saucy about slipping into a Danger Dame dress. Danger Dames come from all over the world. I have a woman who writes to me frequently who’s 82 and from Texas, who loves talking about older fashions from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and who reads my journal and writes the coolest letters. And then there’s the fourteen-year-old girls from Australia who just bought my dresses for their school dance. I’ve had drag queens who have bought dresses and look better in them than I do. Danger Dame is about anyone, any age, any gender, anywhere around the world, who is interested putting a little glamour and danger in their life. Having a mind for world domination doesn’t hurt either.
What's sexy to you about the retro fashion look?
The tease. I’ve never met a man in my life who isn’t crazed by the mere sight of a stocking garter peeking out from the hem of a dress. It’s stylish. It’s classy. And it doesn’t give the whole damn thing away. Garters are hot. Especially when they’ve got a pistol tucked in ‘em.
One of the items you offer is a punk rock ballgown, a phrase that seems like nothing if not an oxymoron. Where'd you find this one, and what exactly makes a bustle punk rock?
Ah, the Sweet and Vicious Punk Rock Ballgown. My first musical crush was the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten used to wear bowties and plaid suit jackets all the time. I have a picture of some English punk rock chick in their audience wearing a rhinestone tiara with her eyeliner smeared all over her face. It was a mockery. It was, “yeah, the Queen of England? Piss off. I’m the queen.” I originally found that dress in a little hole in the wall store. I wore it all over the place . . . the bustle dragging in the gutter. I felt like a million dollars in that thing. I had to bring it to Danger Dame. And let’s face it, wearing a plaid gigantic bustle dress in a sea of hipster jeans and t-shirts IS punk rock.
What's your favorite Danger Dame item? What do you look for when selecting new items to stock?
I love them all. If I put something on and it makes me feel like I could drive Humphrey Bogart to ruins, then it’s a winner. I’m launching a new dress next week that will be a leopard version of the Pulp Fiction Vixen and that dress has teeth. Believe you me.
What's been your favorite photo shot you've done and why?
The shoot for the Lucy in Wonderland dress, for two reasons—it was the first photoshoot for Danger Dame ever, and I nearly was hauled off by the cops for trespassing. Burke Heffner (www.thingstolookat.com), my partner in crime, and I shot it in an abandoned pool in Williamsburg. The McCarren Pool is the ghost remains of this beautiful old mammoth public space that had its heyday in the 1950s. Now it is covered in graffiti and surrounded by barbed wire fences. Every time I passed it, I would stare in—daydreaming about exploring it. Little did I know, the day I would actually climb over the barbed wire fence, I would be in four inch heels with a crinoline dress and a 1940s I Love Lucy hairdo.
Apparently, I wasn’t the most inconspicuous of characters. About ten minutes into shooting, our lookout called and said we had company. I looked over from my little 50s picnic in the middle of the abandoned floor of the pool and there were two cops heading over our way. We got off. Who would arrest a girl in heels, crinoline, and a Lucy hairdo in the middle of a picnic? Not even the NYPD had the heart. They didn’t know what to do with a broad like me.
How did you get started modeling?
Burke and I would just play around with photos. Making up story lines, tossing around good ideas. He’s a genius. I never considered myself a model. To me the word “model” carries a connotation of being stick thin and looking pissed off constantly. And that’s not me at all.
When I first came to New York, to try and help my acting career, I was told to check out modeling agencies. And you know what? I was rejected by every damn one.
Funny thing, after I got attacked in the face by a rottwelier in December of 2004, that was when I felt the most comfortable in front of the camera. I had facial scars (you can hardly see them any more), but you could see them then, so there was no chance of me living up to what people want as that ideal image. I was just me, and I was sharing myself and my experience with the world. Facial scars and all.
So much of your fashion and outlook are influenced by the 1950's – do you feel like you were born in the wrong era, or that you have the best of both worlds by being able to take from the past but live in the present?
It’s a hard question . . .
Human freedoms are the most important to me . . . and that wasn’t really happening back in the 50s. So, I can take the freedom of living today and surround my self with the beautiful things from the past . . . the classic films, the burlesque, the style. If I lived in the 1950s, I woulda been run out of town. Or maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad . . . My life would have been the title to a really bad pulp fiction novel.
Can you tell me more about the movie you're working on, Revolver, which you've said is "the very reason I'm alive?"
The one-liner is: “A romance in exile . . . rumbling down the lost 2 lane byways, where a quiet cowboy’s promise strands him a thousand miles from home and hunted by the law, all to save a doomed New York City showgirl who has hitched a ride.” I can tell you that while we wrote it, there were days that I would laugh out loud with things that came out on the page, because they were so quirky and true. And there were days when my fingers would fly across the keyboard in a flurry as tears fell from my eyes. This screenplay cut a chunk of my heart from my chest. It’s more than just your average roadtrip film . . . it has something that we’re missing as a society, something that we’re looking for. Something wrapped in truth and keeping one’s promise. A feeling of home that we’ve all lost.
What's the status of the film?
We are actively seeking investors and putting together our dream cast. Those that are interested can view the trailer to get a glimpse of our world at www.revolverthemovie.com. Our promotional trailer, an underdog at the Golden Trailer Awards, came out with a surprise win. That helped us a lot. But it’s just recently that the buzz of it is really starting to come about. More and more people are turning up, looking to make it happen. We’ve just assembled our wish list of cast and are crossing our fingers. At our level, this whole business has a lot to do with luck. But I’m the only daughter of a professional gambler . . . so I’m feeling lucky.
One of your interests listed on MySpace is marathon hula-hooping. Where do you hula hoop? By yourself or with other people? And how long did it take you to get good at it? I can never seem to get the hoop to stay up!
I hula hoop in my apartment, or in the park when it’s nice out. I’m a loner in the world of hula. My record is 4 hours and 53 minutes in one standing. About 84 hours shy of the world record. But I was wearing heels. Maybe I can have the world record for marathon hooping in heels?
My mom is a drop dead gorgeous dame, who was a hula-hoop champion herself, and she could put a spell on someone with that hoop. The hula is a beautiful thing . . . random and strange and simple and it captivated me. Watching a girl hula is like watching sirens sing to sailors, luring them to their deaths. You give me an afternoon, buy me some tequila and I’ll teach you.
You also say on RetroKitten: "I will not be happy until I one day wake up in Vegas with a wedding ring on in a strange room with no recollection of what happened the night before." What's the most likely scenario right before this Vegas incident?
Bank heists, of course. Nothing says I love you quite like a bank robbery.
You perform burlesque all around town, with Starshine and other others. When did you conceive of your first burlesque routine, and what was it?
Okay. True story . . . I had a dream that I went to hell. In this dream, I was sitting at a table with a red-haired girl and eyeing a piano in the corner. I told her how much I wanted to play and sing. And she said to me, “Go over and play then.” I said I couldn’t, because I couldn’t sing and I only knew how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb on piano. To which she told me, very clearly…”You see, that’s why this is hell—if you think that you can only play Mary Had a Little Lamb . . . that’s all you’ll be able to play for eternity . . . and that IS hell. Or, you can go over there and play anything you want.” And I did. And I was surprised by how good it sounded. And how clear my voice sounded.
When I woke up, I realized I was afraid of doing the things I truly wanted to do, just because I was afraid of falling on my face in front of other people. And that is about the stupidest way to live ever. Who cares?
That dream changed my life. Three days later, I saw my first Ixion Burlesque show and approached the director and pianist, Albert Garzon, and told him I wanted to sing in his show. He asked me if I could sing. (I’ve never been a singer.) And I told him, “Of course!” And two months later, I premiered at the World Famous *BOB*’s New Revue. I wore a long 1950 girdle inspired dress and a black faux fur and sang my soul out to “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”
How has your performance evolved since then? What inspires you when coming up with a new burlesque routine?
The more I do it, the better I get at weaving spells on the audience. I want to tease an audience to death. I want to bring them into this sultry world and ruffle their hair a bit. I want to make them feel like they are going to die if they don’t see my bare elbow. I learned that from Jo Boobs. She can put you in delirium watching her take off a glove. I strive to have a very nail-biting, goosebump inducing experience with my audiences. This exchange of energy is the agony and the ecstasy. Those moments that you feel truly, truly alive—that is my inspiration. Well, that, and bad 1950s B-films.
A photo of mostly your back graces the cover of The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, though I don't imagine most people would know it's you. How does it feel when you see that image? Does it affect you in any way or is it simply yet another photo?
I am really attached to that image. I was working with people I truly love and respect. It was a very elaborate shoot day full of fun memories. I “drowned” in a public pool wearing a 1920s bathing suit. I bribed city officials with chocolate chip cookies I made. My friend, Anna, and I burst into giggles over the fact that I had a replica pistol hidden in the bureau drawer during the shoot.
Burke Heffner had come up with all these scenarios from the book, and we really put our hearts into shooting many different options for the cover. I love the one they picked. It’s a very mysterious, lost looking photo. The kind that Burke specializes in. And you’re right . . . I don’t think that anyone would know it was me. It’s my little secret—the day I got to be a 1920s book heroine. And even if they don’t know it me, it is pretty exhilarating to know it was all over a big pyramid of books in the front of every Barnes and Nobles in the country.
What's next for you?
You mean besides Revolver, bank heists and Vegas?
-- Photo by Burke Heffner
Visit www.dangerdame.com for more information about Varlow's clothing business and www.revolverthemovie.com to watch the trailer and read about the film Revolver. Varlow can also be found on MySpace and keeps a Danger Dame Diary.