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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Leslie Zemeckis: On Making Emojis From Her Film, Plus A Lady & A Tiger

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

It’s fitting that Leslie Zemeckis is in Italy when we decide to do an interview, because the word burlesque is derived from Italian roots in “burla,” meaning mockery, to poke fun yet shine a spotlight on sexuality.

Actor, writer, documentarian Zemeckis has just come out with a line of burlesque emojis inspired by a project she did on Lili St Cyr, among other performers, but the line from her Showtime documentary BEHIND THE BURLY Q to the digital portable images is hardly a straight one. And there’s a tiger, specifically a lady tiger trainer in between, but hold that thought for now. Her line of emojiis is called Burlyqji.


“If there are guidelines to creating a killer app or emoji, like everything else I seem to do - I have no idea. Just plunged in and asked questions later,” Zemeckis admits.

“I’m always looking to bring the history of burlesque to the "main stream" and it seemed like a fun, easy way to do it. Everything started with my film Behind the Burly Q, and my continued research, collecting burlesque items and giving talks and lectures on the subject.”

“I have many images of burlesque and oftentimes judge burlesque festivals, so I have access to many images and ideas about current burlesque and ‘old-time’ burlesque.”



Some would argue that the real origins of burlesque go back to Greece with Lysistrata by Aristophanes, the sex-withholding premise whereby the wives of Greek officers schemed to end the Peloponnesian wars by deprivation.

Thus a good striptease had its power.

Proof of the Hellenic origins could be found in the official word for one who strips: ecdysiast. Ecdysiast is from the Greek word “ekdusis” meaning to shed, plus a truncated version of enthusiast.

Truth be told, H.L Mencken, the great social satirist, made up that term in the 40’s to dress up the art form in respectable verbiage.

The current crop of emojis come on the heels of her latest documentary MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER, which is Zemeckis’ homage to Mabel Stark (1889 - 1968) who was one of the only, perhaps the first, renown female tiger tamers from the 1920’s. Stark was famous for the line “I want to be killed by my animals,” and with 16 tigers, it was a real possibility.


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey billed her as “Miss Mabel Stark; Intrepid Lady Trainer Wrestling The Now Friendly And Willing Once Terror of The Jungle.” The parallel between men and tigers is implied.

Ironically, the phrase “the lady or the tiger” from the 1882 Frank Stockton short story of the same name, came to symbolize an unsolvable problem, which could be applied to gender relations between men and women.

MABEL, MABEL TIGER TRAINER is important in remembering a woman whose passion for wild encounters in public in the circus can really be considered a form of burlesque.

The filmmaker, now emoji-maker, says she makes it a point to explore the lives of “pioneers, misunderstood, and stigmatized women.” Many of whom were “hugely popular… but forgotten today.”

Thus converge the through-lines from movie projects to emoji. Leslie Zemeckis signs her email follow-ups with “Sent from somewhere on the run ... Usually in stilettos.”

She began collecting memorabilia from burlesque at a time when it was unexplored, and turned it into a way to help fund the dancers and performers who’d once worn the items - kind of full-circle, giving back and preserving the tradition at the same time.


But she’s also good-humored about the whole subject, a far cry from current scant-dressers in the pop culture world who seem to take themselves way too seriously. Zemeckis is supportive of the new generation, however.

“We all evolve, and are trying to do our best to discover our authentic selves,” she adds.

Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek nod to human sexuality that is burlesque via her emojis is what’s missing from the dreadfully sincere sexploitation of reality show personalities these days.

No matter, all you have to do is paste an emoji on the message, reminding people there’s an empowering wink in there somewhere. All for ninety-nine cents, no less.


Alan Alda, featured in this clip, grew up in Burlesque with his father on stage.

Official Word on Burlyqji

Exclusive emojis made for lovers of burlesque, pinup and old Hollywood. From the director of the Showtime documentary "Behind the Burly Q" and the book of the same name, and her follow up bestselling book "Goddess of Love Incarnate" about Lili St. Cyr, Leslie Zemeckis has created a line of glamorous, fun and sassy emojis for those with an appreciation of pop culture and beautiful women.

Find the emojis here on iTunes, and learn more about Leslie Zemeckis on her website.

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About Quendrith Johnson

Johnson Quendrith

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