Tempest Storm is fuming. Her fingers tremble with frustration. They are aged, knotted by arthritis and speckled with purple spots under paper skin.
But the manicure of orange polish is flawless and new, and matches her signature tousled mane. She brushes orange curls out of her face as she explains how she's been slighted. She is the headliner, you know. She is a star. She is classy.
"I don't just get up there and rip my clothes off," she says.
Indeed, the 80-year-old burlesque queen takes her clothes off very slowly.
More than 50 years ago she was dubbed the "Girl with the Fabulous Front" and told by famous men she had the "Best Two Props in Hollywood." Since then, Storm saw the art that made her famous on the brink of extinction. Her contemporaries — Blaze Starr, Bettie Page, Lili St. Cyr — have died or hung up the pasties.
But not Storm. She kept performing. Las Vegas, Reno, Palm Springs, Miami, Carnegie Hall.
Her act is a time capsule. She knows nothing of poles. She would never put her derriere in some man's face. Her prop of choice is a boa, perhaps the occasional divan.
It takes four numbers, she says adamantly, four numbers to get it all off. To do it classy.
But the producers of tonight's show, just kids, they want her to go faster. She gets just seven minutes.
"I did seven minutes when I started," she says.
They gave her trouble last year, too. They even cut her music before she finished.
There may not be a next time for this show, she says. The threat lasts just minutes.
"No, no. I'm not ready to hang up my G-string, yet. I've got too many fans that would be disappointed."
A favorite of the stars
Stardom and fandom feature prominently in Tempest Storm's life — and in her neat, two-bedroom Las Vegas apartment.
Visitors are greeted by photos of a young Elvis, her favorite rock 'n' roller and, she says, a former lover.
He met her after her show in Las Vegas and fiddled with her skirt as he introduced himself. The relationship ended about a year later because Elvis' manager didn't approve of him dating a stripper, she says.
But she could not change who she was. Stripping already had made her famous.
She dated some, just danced for others. The evidence is framed and displayed on tables and the living room wall.
That's Storm and Vic Damone. Storm teaching Walter Cronkite to dance. Storm and her fourth and last husband, Herb Jefferies, a star of black cowboy films who swept her off her feet in 1957 when such unions were instant scandals. They divorced in 1970.
"When I look at this picture I say, 'What the hell happened between this gorgeous couple?'" she says.
The moment is brief.
Storm is rarely wistful. She has no doubt she still is what she once was. Although she performs just handful of times a year, she would do more, if asked. She chides those who think age takes a toll on sex appeal.
"Ridiculous," she says.
There are just as many recent photos in the room: Storm and her daughter, a nurse in Indiana. Storm and her fiance, who died a few years ago. Storm and a beaming older gentlemen, just a fan who approached her for a photograph.
In others, the petite beauty with the long lashes and glamorous hair is alone, out of focus, in full makeup and smiling wide. In one, she is perched on her living room couch in a red hat and low-cut black suit.
"I took that picture of myself," she says proudly. "I have a self-timer. I took these, too."
This ‘walker’ needs room to move
"That stage saved me," she says as she leaves a sound check hours before the night's performance. She had been expecting a much smaller space and she is relieved. She's a "walker," she explains. She needs room to move.
It is a direct and once-racy style, the signature work of Lillian Hunt, the choreographer at the Follies Theater in Los Angeles where Storm became a star.
She was Annie Blanche Banks then. The 22-year-old sharecropper's daughter had fled sexual abuse, two loveless marriages and poverty in small-town Georgia, she says. She was working as a cocktail waitress but wanted to be a showgirl. First, she needed her teeth fixed.
"Do you think my bust is too big for this business?" she asked Hunt at her audition.
Hunt put her in the chorus line, told her not to gain a pound and called a dentist.
In Storm's telling, she didn't stay long in the background. She got a new name. ("I really don't feel like a Sunny Day.") She took to the spotlight quickly. Then and now, she blossomed to the chorus of hoots and cheers.
The trick is having a warm presence, an inviting smile, she says.
When she takes the stage, she lets her mind float back to "Georgie." She imagines herself as a little girl, in her best dress, running down the road to meet her daddy coming home from work.
"I feel that I am that little girl dressed up out there. I got a picture in my whole mind of it. I can see that little girl," she says.
On stage, the image is frozen there.
But it's not the end of the story Storm tells. If she plays out the memory, the little girl is stopped in her tracks as an aunt blurts out a truth that pains her today.
"That's not your real father."
Never stop doing what you love
On Sundays, Storm tunes in to a televangelist who tells her anyone can overcome odds. It's the only religion she's ever taken to.
She believes this is the lesson of her life. Be a survivor. Never stop doing what you love, it makes you who you are.
"If you want to get old, you'll get old," she says.
There have been men who disappointed her, financial strain, brain surgery.
After it all, she sits on her couch and exercises in front of the television on a small stationary bike. She doesn't smoke or drink or eat much.
"I'm just blessed, I think. And I know when to push myself away from the table."
If some might see all this as chasing after lost youth, she says she cares little. Younger dancers tell her she is an inspiration to them, and she has no reason not to believe them.
"I feel good about myself. And I enjoy it," she says. "I have fun when I'm onstage, and the audience loves it. Nobody ever said it's time to give it up. Why stop?"
Still basking in the cheers
Indeed, no one is dreaming of telling Tempest Storm to give up stripping when she slithers onto the casino nightclub stage for her seven minutes.
"Something in the way she moves ..." pipes through the speakers. Her live drummer, the Ringo Starr on loan from the Beatles tribute show on the Strip, picks up the beat.
The burlesque queen emerges stage right. A slinky purple gown hangs off her shoulders. A rhinestone necklace envelops her decolletage. The snakelike boa pours into her hands.
For a few seconds, her face flashes her nerves.
And then she hears the cheers.
When she performs, Storm smiles, leans back and walks on her heels, leading with her pelvis. Her hands float back and forth as if in water, until they fall below her hips and sweep up in tandem with a full frontal thrust.
More cheers. Whistles.
The boa disappears stage right.
The next number picks up the tempo, letting Storm cock a hip on the down beats. She loses the gloves and steps off stage to put on the negligee. It's gone almost as quickly as it came.
And with two flicks of her orange fingernails, the dress goes, too.
Two-finger whistle. Hollers. Applause.
Staring up at the 80-year-old woman in fishnets, a sheer rhinestone bra and a G-string, a young woman turns to a young man and declares:
"I want to look like that when I'm her age."