By Jo Weldon July 29, 2008
There are several velvet-rope bars on Christie Street in Manhattan, in a section of the city formerly reserved for lower-income working class immigrants, especially Ukrainians, Italians, and Germans. The Europeans gathering on the outside of the ropes are hardly working class, however; everything they’re wearing is either designer or ironic, and the price they’ll have to pay a for bottle of champagne or vodka in the club is about what it would cost to have that bottle flown in singly in its own airplane seat.
At one of the newest bars, The Box, there is a sudden rush of circus-like characters who file out of the building next door, zip through the ropes and past the doorman, and surge purposefully into the club. Among all the outrageous costumes and surreal demeanors, two statuesque and identical blonde women stand out. They aren’t the Olsens; that’s for sure.
The circus folks, some of whom really are circus folks, are the variety artists—singers, dancers, jugglers, and indescribable cabaret personalities—who perform in The Box’s live show. Their dressing room is in that separate building, and in the winter it’s truly amazing to see them, some with dull coats hiding half their glamour but their theatrical makeup unmistakable, others determinedly scantily clad in the frigid air. Always visible in minimal costume, but somehow clothed in their otherworldly air, the pair of identical blonde women are always poised, insular, and stunning in their unfathomable glamour. They are a performance art duo called the Porcelain Twinz.
Formerly of Portland, now happily in New York, the Porcelain Twinz blend dance, fetish, striptease, and a sex-industry sensibility into their work, which they call “fetish burlesque.” And yes, they really are twins.
The Twinz are upfront about every aspect of their lives as if being exposed is not only a state they achieve onstage when they strip, but a goal they are determined to meet on every level of personal and public engagement. They are warm and charming, if occasionally unsettling when both of them turn with identical smiles and speak in chorus: “Hi, Jo!” You can ask them anything and they will tell you everything, inviting dialogue about everything from the definition of performance art to their reactions to being perceived as incestuous.
Their co-written autobiography is called Our Life in the Sex Industry, and begins with the Twinz imagining themselves together in the womb before they were born in Portland in 1976. They describe themselves as now “trying to reshape the way the public views nudity.”
After making it through their teens as tomboys, focusing primarily on riding horses and participating in sports together, Amber began stripping in Portland, where there are supposedly more clubs per capita than in any other US city (Las Vegas has about 6 clubs per 100,000 residents, Portland about 8). A month later, Heather had dropped out of Fresno State and returned to the city, and Amber invited her to join her onstage. Both of them were initially disappointed, if not repelled, by the rather unglamourous state of the clubs, but excited by the financial potential. They worked at the 505 Club, which featured a night called “Double Trouble,” during which there were two dancers per stage all night long—an irresistibly perfect concept night for the sisters.
A few years later they became involved in Portland’s fetish scene; in 1997, the Twinz told me, Fetish Night was the only venue for performance artists in the city. Their own performances at the time fell in between “stripping and obscurity,” and by 2000, when the fabled Dante’s evolved out of Fetish Night, they were ready for weekly performances and had the opportunity to polish and fully develop their acts. They honed their aesthetic into a Weimar-esque circus and produced a DVD, The Masked Charade, in 2006. The box cover describes the video as “a highly stylized, dark, decadent, and ambient film that captivates the audience with a foray of visual vignettes that take you through a dream-like voyeuristic fantasy with the Porcelain Twinz and their fifty erotic performers dazzling the screen.” It features original music from solely Portland-based bands, including The Dandy Warhols, King Black Acid, My Regrets, Television Eye, TV:616, Papillon, Vito Y Cocoa, Tea Secret Society, Sardonic Grin, Miss Behaven, and the Porcelain Dollz.
The Porcelain Dollz is the name of the Twinz musical persona. Currently self-produced, their music mixes an industrial feel with an ethereal solo-tonal quality—it’s relentlessly beat-oriented and deliberately ambient. “We create all our music electronically using keyboards, Korgs, and midi instruments,” they told me. “Technology has advanced so much that anyone can have an orchestra in their living room. It is pretty amazing what you can create. We started making our own music after becoming very frustrated with trying to collaborate with others, but not finding anyone who was really on the same page. We taught ourselves how to make beats. There are so many things to learn and we are expanding our knowledge and tapping into another side of our creative expression through the making of music. It’s something that has always been in us, and finding ways to bring it out is an amazing experience.”
The Twinz were introduced to Box owner and producer Richard Kimmel in 2007. “I remember our first rehearsal,” Kimmel says. “We had a huge fight when we suggested changes to their existing acts for the Box version. They were in no mood for direction and fur flew. We thought they might go back home that week. Thankfully, they persevered and grew to love our collaborative rehearsal process. Now the Twinz are a beloved and integral part of the Box family. Their fearless performances and unique presence have made the Twinz a signature element of our overall ambiance.”
Not satisfied to be performers, musicians, and film producers, the Twinz have yet another agenda. “The reality of being a stripper is that we are discriminated against, looked down upon, and could never list this occupation on a serious resume or application. In many instances, we had problems when trying to rent a house, obtain health insurance, and claim our taxes through an agent….We learned very quickly that this was job that we would have to hide from most of society if we wanted to avoid discrimination.”
Rather than hide and accept the discrimination, however, they boldly titled their joint autobiography Our Life in the Sex Industry. While it’s certainly true that sex sells, it’s also true that sex marginalizes, and the choice to identify as sex industry workers is less a marketing ploy than a declaration of their artistic and social roots.
“We take pride in having been in the sex industry, because it is an industry where only the strong survive,” they say. “If you can get through being in the sex industry without it chewing you up
and spitting you out, then you are going to be able to handle anything in life. Being in the industry has changed our whole perspective on everything in our lives.”
Recently the Sex Workers’ Art Show has toured colleges and art galleries, selling out shows across the US, and the resurgence of burlesque in various cities has opened up venues for elaborate vignettes featuring politics, nudity, and humor. The Porcelain Twinz recently did a shoot for Italian Vanity Fair at the Slipper Room, a few blocks from the Box, which has been featuring burlesque, drag, and other controversial performances for nearly a decade and is still going strong. While still a bit short of the mainstream, the presence of adult-oriented shows every night of the week in major cities suggests a newly widespread enjoyment of performance art and less-polarized discussions about sexuality and sex industry than ever before. The Twinz are evidence of the growing appeal of performance art and sexually oriented performance in the US, and, like Dita Von Teese, they have shown that an entrepreneurial edge can help sex-industry workers find a unique place in the performing arts.
While always perfectly in control of their business identity, the Twinz keep their eyes on the prize, the ability to express themselves in any artform they like. “Ultimately we create from inspiration with everything we do,” the Twinz say. “That is where all of our art comes from.”
It is an amazing time in the performing arts, when the women usually cast only as the inspiration —the models, the ethereal beauties of the Weimar Republic, the surreal circus lovelies—are able to claim their lives as their own inspiration.
And the most incredible part of it is that the viewer doesn’t even have to recognize any of this to watch them—the Porcelain Twinz’ performances work on so many levels, even the least sensitive patron at the club is going to remember their style and energy long after the credit-card bill for all those bottles has been paid and forgotten. And that’s what makes it worth getting behind those velvet ropes.
– Jo Weldon