For a woman who takes off her clothes in public for living, Sara Carnell seems oddly uncomfortable being interviewed. "Intimidated" isn't exactly the right word—but she doesn't seem as nearly confident and commanding offstage as she does when she's on. Her kitchen is impeccably tidy; she offers me a cup of tea. "Thank you for doing this," she says. "Whatever... whatever this is."
It's an interview, a profile, purchased for Carnell (better known as Inga Ingénue) by one of her longtime admirers in The Stranger's annual Strangercrombie charity auction. Blond, perky, and petite, Ingénue has been one of the city's more popular burlesque characters since she joined the Burning Hearts Burlesque five years ago. Her stage persona has an unusually broad bandwidth—Ingénue began as a cute, wide-eyed naïf (I first saw her perform at the Pink Door several years ago, in a breezy Girl Scout cookie-selling routine). But time and experience have given her character more grown-up inflections. "The more Inga got into burlesque, the more she grew up," Carnell says between sips of tea from a delicate, old-fashioned porcelain cup. "A little jaded and a little bitchy—but only when she's in a bad mood or doesn't get her way. Which is a reflection of who I am," she says demurely, taking another small sip.
Many of Seattle's burlesque stars have passed through the halls of Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque, but Carnell learned the art of the tease the old-fashioned way. She attended her first burlesque show almost seven years ago and entered a few amateur competitions—"I lost them all"—teaching herself as she went, picking up tips from more experienced dancers.
"I had no idea how to take off a glove or tease or take a long time to do anything," she says. "Or the little things you might not think of, like oiling your zipper." She has dozens of routines, but only a few favorites at any given time. In heavy rotation these days: "Vinyl and Stockings, where I wear vinyl and strangle myself at the end with my stockings; The Hussy, which is a bored-stripper routine; and Rand, a modern-dance tribute to Sally Rand, which I do to a string-quartet cover of a Tool song. I use a five-and-a-half-foot balloon. It's bigger than me." And her Poodle Number, which involves a rhinestone doggy dish, a bone, and 100 balloons, which Carnell blows up (and then pops) herself.
Carnell lives with two other burlesque dancers—Fanny 'N Flames and Fuchsia FoXXX—in an old house. (The tattered skull-and-crossbones flag hanging from the balcony isn't theirs. "It belongs to the gay gamers upstairs," Carnell says. "Sometimes we can hear one of them get laid, and then they'll play video games afterward. It's cute.") Their shared quarters are a shrine to female superstardom: DVD box sets of old Hollywood divas, a Dolly Parton picture book opened to a (chaste) centerfold shot, and lots of rhinestones, fabric, and sewing equipment.
"I learned to sew when I was a kid," Carnell says, showing off her commercial-grade Singer sewing machine. "I'm five feet tall and my mom is four foot eight—she said I'd have to sew because I'd have a hard time finding clothes that fit me." Now she spends up to 20 hours a week building, styling, and repairing her costumes.
Burlesque is an expensive habit, but Carnell has finally been able to leave the world of day jobs behind and dedicate herself to dance, cobbling together a living off teaching, public performances, and private gigs. And she's beginning to push at the boundaries of burlesque, mixing in elements of modern dance, which she studied briefly at Oberlin.
Last year, Carnell formed an experimental-burlesque trio called Dance Belt with local gender-twisting dancers Marc Kenison (Waxie Moon) and Ricki Mason (Lou Henry Hoover). It began in Chicago, while they were on tour with the Burlesque Nutcracker and Beyoncé's video for "Single Ladies" was momentarily flooding American culture. The three learned the dance, choreographed an alternate stripping version, and began teaching it to others. They realized a whole world of pop-cult dance was out there—Michael Jackson, Madonna—waiting for them. Dance Belt burlesques in the old sense, parodying pop culture.
"With Dance Belt, I've re-realized that I'm a dancer," she says. "There's a whole skill set I haven't been using. And I have big plans for next year."