Burlesque model Bettina May always dreamed of making it in New York City. As it turned out, she had to first prove to the U.S. government that she possessed unique qualities.
The former University of Victoria student must have made quite a convincing case. After a two-year struggle, during which the 33-year-old Brooklyn resident got by on a weekly food budget of $8, May's application was finally approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - under the same classification once given to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
May, who performs under a stage name for privacy reasons, earned her Green Card on the basis of her expertise in the field of burlesque dancing and pinup modeling. Not only is she one of the first models of her ilk to be granted such a status - roughly 2,500 people of "extraordinary ability" are given Green Cards each year - the U.S. government affixed her with an uber-cool official new moniker: Alien of Extraordinary Ability.
"I've got that in print," May said with a laugh, on the phone from her family's home on Mayne Island.
May, a Chilliwack native who moved to Victoria in the late 1990s, was back in B.C. last weekend for a quick but overdue visit two years in the making. She submitted her Green Card application in December 2010, with help from a lawyer she retained shortly after her arrival in Brooklyn. Her temporary work permit stipulated that she could not leave the United States at any point, nor could she find work in other fields, until a decision was made on her status as an immigrant.
May was told she could stay while her application was being processed, as long as she continued working as a burlesque dancer, pin-up model and makeover instructor.
"I moved to New York with a little bit of money, just enough to cover what I knew was going to be atrocious rent for a couple of months, and almost all of that was spent interviewing lawyers. I felt hopeless," she said. "This is not a lucrative field. I'm one of only a few people who actually make a living doing this and who doesn't have a day job."
May's toughest task was proving to government officials that burlesque was a worthwhile art form. She secured letters from top burlesque performers in the international community, explaining what they do and why it's relevant. With no professional organization representing burlesque, May was told to expect the worst.
"A lot of people I talked to said, 'Good luck - it's not gonna happen.' So I had to not listen to those people and say, 'Well, it hasn't happened yet...' "
When her application was approved in August, May immediately booked a trip home to see family and friends. Though she was only here through the weekend, she managed to host a private, sold-out pin-up makeover class in Vic West, in which she taught women how to do their hair and make-up in the Bettie Page style.
May considers herself incredibly lucky to make her living through burlesque and associated fields. She was always interested in pin-up style and "vintage everything" growing up, but it wasn't until she finished her political science degree at UVic that she became involved in photography and modeling.
At first, her experience was limited to photo shoots with local musician Lily Fawn, a good friend. May then began designing fake-fur fashions, and founded her own line, Coquette Faux Furriers, which supplied garments for burlesque performers. The company's big break was a hat and stole request from Dita Von Teese, one of the world's most recognizable burlesque dancers and models.
When she became recognized as the Garden City's go-to promoter of burlesque acts (May was the first to book touring artists in local venues), former Lucky Bar manager Liam Lux suggested that May start performing herself.
Without hesitation, she formed local burlesque troupe the BettiLu Bombshells in 2003. "I already had all these outfits and loved the costume part of it, so it was a piece of cake to get on stage and start dancing."
She grew increasingly savvy about the burlesque business. "I was getting more requests than I could take, and it was crazy that people wanted burlesque, but there [were] not enough performers to go around."
After a "formal meeting of the minds," she and 10 other local performers formed Capital City Cheesecake in 2006. The Victoria-based company (May is no longer involved) has been re-dubbed Cheesecake Burlesque Revue and performs at events worldwide.
May's frequent touring, which kept her on the road for long stretches, helped to further establish the Bettina brand. But when it came time to fish or cut bait, she knew moving from her beloved Victoria was the obvious, though difficult, option.
"This is definitely my home base," she said. "I love New York and I'll live there as long as it supports me, but there's a special place in my heart for the West Coast."
She landed in New York with loads of ambition but little money. After stints in the Bushwick and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods of Brooklyn, she has settled in Williamsburg, a hipster haven for Brooklyn artists and musicians. May's ruby red hair and vintage wear blends in nicely among the beards and horn-rimmed glasses, but her Canadian accent can stop a Yellow Cab on a dime, she said.
May said she has grown accustomed to feeling out of place, if only because it reminds her of where she's from.
"It was a real immigrant experience coming into New York, like my ancestors had," she said. "That's what I love about New York. It's a really ambitious town, and everyone goes there to make their dreams come true. When you can go there and do that, it feels great."
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