In a former strip club in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood, the Cabaret Playhouse has combined two of society's most difficult art forms—stripping and karaoke—to create a rowdy party with an increasingly devoted following. We sent a reporter to...
All photos courtesy of Alana La Rose Dancoste.
Strip Karaoke, aka Bareoke, is just what it sounds like: you choose a song from the songbook, go up on stage, and perform a striptease while you sing. It happens the second Thursday of each month at Cabaret Playhouse, a former strip club, in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. I crossed Strip Karaoke off of my bucket list earlier this year, and learned that there’s more to stripping than meets the eye. People saw my boobs, but they also felt my transformation.
My friend, Leigh Keenan, had told me about their experience. She said it made her feel confident and sexy, and I wanted to know if everyone left the stage feeling the same... so I got myself into the strip-zone, despite feeling unusually self-conscious and timid. When I arrived around 11 pm, Cabaret Playhouse was already packed. This was the biggest Bareoke so far, with about 150 attendees compared to 40-50 in earlier editions. I loitered around the venue for 20 minutes before grabbing a slip of paper from the DJ booth. Pen in hand, I perused the thick songbook. With over 20,000 songs, I realized that the 40 minutes I had already spent looking for the perfect one was a procrastination tactic. I settled on “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin and submitted myself to the experience.
Francis Lebel, Keenan’s boyfriend, said that he got righteously hammered the first time he performed in Bareoke. “It helps to shed the layers of social interaction,” he explained. Taking his advice, I ordered beers and whiskey shots, and after a while I forgot that I had even signed up. I was too distracted by watching people perform. The first performance that caught my attention was from a voluptuous and bold lady named Lesley Reade, who burst on stage (and out of her clothes) with a confidence I found inspiring. When she left the stage, she immediately joined the crowd, cheering and clapping for the next performer. It turned out that Reed is a member of local burlesque troupe Glam Gam, and after chatting with her for a bit, she introduced me to the concept of “body positivity,” which she described as feeling comfortable and confident in your own skin. It’s a notion that Bareoke encourages by allowing people to express themselves through performance. Reed had done some nude modeling while in art school, and was comfortable with getting naked in public. Getting up on stage at Bareoke was different, though, because it meant exposing her fear of performance, and of being judged.
Speaking with her made me notice the audience at Bareoke. No matter who was up there, the crowd responded positively. Three young girls got up on stage together, and I could tell they felt vulnerable by their rigid movements and barely-audible voices. However, the crowd was engaged, attentive and enthusiastic, and by the end all three girls had stripped down to their bras.
“There was one woman who performed earlier that you could tell—she was shy,” Reed recounted. “But everybody was cheering her on so much that she just
to take her clothes off. Even if you’re feeling bad about yourself, you will still want to get up there and show yourself off because for some reason, it makes you confident.”
Lesley Reade at Mile End's Strip Bareoke.
As the night progressed, I tuned in to how open and accepting everyone was. I'd seen plenty of bush, boobs, and boners, but some people removed only a few tantalizing layers before making their exit. There’s no pressure to strip, and after one particular performer took the stage, I realized that there’s no pressure to sing, either. Luc-André D’Aragon is a regular who has attended the last 11 consecutive Bareoke nights. He doesn’t really sing, but rather strips off all his clothes within the first 30 seconds of the song and spends the remainder waving his member around like a flaming baton. Even though his clothes come off in lightning speed, D’Aragon still prepares a special outfit: he wears two golden G-strings for each performance. He comes alone, sticks to himself and, as he told me, just loves to strip.
By midnight, 27 people had put their names on the list. A little while later, Paquet announced: “It might not happen for everyone tonight, but we’re going to try our best to let everyone go up one time.” I breathed a sigh of relief, because although I’d taken the step to sign up, I might not have to go up after all. Fate didn’t work out in my favour though, around 2AM, I was summoned to the strip stage. Luckily I had been sipping a cup of straight brandy, so when I got up in front of the crowd, I was inebriated enough to let go of my insecurities and face my fears. Under my clothes I had on a lacy black thong with a crochet lingerie top, but even as I climbed on stage I was still convinced that getting nude would be too far outside my comfort zone. I starting singing, very badly, and looked down in horror at the realization that I had forgotten to remove my boots. Thus ensued several awkward and unsuccessful attempts at unlacing them—bending over, standing back up, removing one sweater, repeat. Each time it got to the chorus, I sang, “Take another little piece of my heart, now baby!” and took off a piece of clothing. Suddenly the song ended, and I was standing there, having stripped down to my lacy top, with pants and boots still on. The crowd was cheering and egging me on, and I felt like I hadn’t given enough of myself. I pulled off the final top layer, unleashed my boobs into the spotlight, threw my hands up, and looked to stage right where my friends were watching. I saw their proud faces, gaping smiles. They were clapping and cheering. I felt liberated. I built this moment up in my head so much that I was prepared to allow fear to dictate my decisions. It was the crowd at Bareoke that helped me break through that way of thinking. I showed a whole crowd of strangers my tatas. I did something I never thought I would do.
After gathering my scattered clothes, I walked off stage and was welcomed by Keenan, who had bought me a beer. I felt empowered, elated and confident. I felt sexy and accepted. A short, mustached man walked over and handed me another beer, and said my performance was great.
“Just so you know, that’s one of the creepy guys that’s been standing off to the side and eyeing women,” Keenan said. I thanked them for the heads up. At the end of the night, 15 or so people climbed on stage for a free-for-all singing-strip dance party. The same man who bought me a beer appeared and urged me on stage, so I followed. As soon as we got on the stage, he grabbed my shirt and tried to yank it off. I resisted. “Did I say you could take my shirt off?” I asked him. “Everybody’s doing it!” he replied. When I said that I didn’t want to strip again, he turned away and joined the crowd, leaving me alone.
Inappropriate behaviour isn’t common at Bareoke, but there have been instances where people have taken the event out of context and made people feel uncomfortable. McCarthy and Paquet have succeeded in creating a safe space for people to get naked in public, but it takes consistent effort and an open dialogue to ensure that it's maintained. There aren’t too many rules at Bareoke, but respect and consent are values the organizers think everyone should embody when they walk through the door. Just because someone took their clothes off on stage, doesn’t give someone else the right to make assumptions about their intent. As McCarthy and Paquet later pointed out, it’s neither a sex party nor a naked party. Sure, people get turned on, but the intention of Bareoke is to entertain and be entertained. It’s not like at a strip club, where the line between performer and audience is clearly defined. At Bareoke, everyone can experience both sides of the coin.
People who attend Bareoke have a strong sense of how special it is. The event welcomes all ages, colours, body types and genders, and is committed to keeping the cover cheap so that no one feels excluded. “The space that we’ve created is a place where everybody can enjoy a strip club,” McCarthy pointed out. “There are no hierarchies existing there. Everybody’s there to have a good time.” The concept may be simple, but the effect runs deep. This, McCarthy and Paquet confirmed, was intentional. “The first time that I ever performed and decided to take my clothes off on stage, it was an extremely powerful experience,” Paquet revealed. “For me, as a fat girl who often suffered from body image issues throughout my life, all of a sudden I felt powerful and sexy and accepted. I gained so much confidence through performance and I thought that this could be just as transformative for other people.”