Pansy St Battie was your average kid growing up in San Francisco. When she was a teenager, she was diagnosed with joint hypermobility syndrome or Ehler-Danlos syndrome. She has been using a wheelchair for the past five years. Pansy has also been bitten by the ‘show biz’ bug. She is a model and a burlesque dancer. With the spirit of a rebellious teenager, Pansy did not let her disability define her or her dreams. Her father says that Pansy has always had ‘fire in her belly.’ Melinda Chilton and Shelly Rohe, from ABILITY, had the opportunity to see Pansy St. Battie perform in the ‘Beauty of Burlesque’ show at the Globe Theater in Los Angeles. The show is produced by celebrity burlesque performer, Miss Tosh.
Miss Tosh had this to say about Pansy St. Battie. “Pansy St. Battie is a performer who represents what Beauty of Burlesque stands for. Pansy is an enigma, constantly creating powerful imagery and evocative stage shows that are visually stunning while simultaneously tearing down social stigmas and redefining, visibility & ability on stage. I am so proud to work with Pansy and watch her grow as an artist. Our friendship has made me feel less alone when facing my own challenges with Pseudo-seizures & endometriosis. Pansy is truly inspirational and a total badass!”
After the show Melinda and Shelly had a great chat with Pansy, her father, and her sister. Pansy is a strong, smart, talented and determined young woman. Her fire and commitment to make a space for herself in this world as an artist and a veterinarian, will inspire you.
Melinda Chilton: Your name is Pansy St. Battie?
St. Battie: Yes, yes.
Melinda: Is that your given name?
St. Battie: No.
Melinda: That’s your stage name?
St. Battie: It’s my stage name, yeah.
Melinda: How did you come up with the name?
St. Battie: I don’t really remember entirely what the process was. I was looking for a stage name for pin-up and burlesque. A stage name is a fun thing that a lot of people have, but also because I’m putting myself out on the internet. I don’t want people who are odd to come back and Google me. Luckily most people in the world are nice, but not every single person is.
Melinda: Well, that’s smart.
St. Battie: It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Melinda: You are, just so our readers know, a model and you recently became a burlesque performer?
St. Battie: Yes.
Melinda: Let’s start with your modeling.
St. Battie: I did my first shoot when I was 17, which was a birthday gift to me.
Melinda: How fun!
St. Battie: I wasn’t at all intending to get into modeling. I had some classmates who were studying photography. They started taking pictures of me. I realized I really enjoyed it, so I kept building it up until I had a proper portfolio. I did a lot of cold-calling, emailing clothing brands and makeup brands, and then it just kinda took off.
Melinda: What kind of modeling are you doing?
St. Battie: I mainly do fashion. I still do pinups occasionally.
Melinda: Tell us about performing burlesque.
St. Battie: I wanted to do that for a very long time. I’ve been a big fan of burlesque since I was quite young. Obviously you have to wait until you’re 18. At that point it was also a matter of trying to figure out where I would start. A lot of shows and classes are inaccessible. So, I ended up working with a teacher, who teaches burlesque in San Francisco. I had her come do private lessons at my house. We practiced together. We worked on our first act together and she put me onstage. After that she was kind enough to follow up and put me onstage a few more times.
Melinda: WOW. She sounds like an angel of a teacher. Lets talk about Miss Tosh, who produces “Beauty of Burlesque”. Shelly Rohe and I saw the show last night. We got to see you perform. You are such a showgirl and quite the entertainer. I loved your act. Your wheelchair is totally bejeweled and bedazzled! Did you create your wheelchair for the show?
St. Battie: Since I’ve had a wheelchair, I’ve wanted to bedazzle it. The first wheelchair I had was from a charity organization, so they will return and recycle wheelchairs once you’re done using them. I couldn’t do anything permanent to it. So, I used to put flowers and stuff on that one. I really wanted to have a rhinestone wheelchair. I’m a huge fan of rhinestones and sparkles.
Melinda: Your rhinestones were sparkling from the stage last night, for sure!
St. Battie: I love it and I’ve wanted to do it forever! When I finally got a custom-fit chair, I was like, “I’m going to do this.” The second I got the chair I spray-painted it. I spent three days rhinestoning it. (laughter) I made the cushion covers. I was like, “I did it! I’ve been waiting so long to do it, and I did it!”
Melinda: I love Miss Tosh’s show. She came out on stage last night and explained how the show is all about diversity.
“At Beauty of Burlesque everyone is a STAR in a Galaxy of Glamour. The show is about inclusivity & celebrating the diverse qualities that make everyone unique. As the producer, my mission is to create an authentic and inclusive platform for diverse artists to shine. I put artistic expression first and cast entertainers from around the world that reflect a strong sense of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent.”
Melinda: What are the challenges of performing burlesque in a wheelchair?
St. Battie: I think the biggest challenge is finding stages I can get on. Even at the Globe Theater, the stage isn’t necessarily accessible. Miss Tosh and I worked together on figuring out how we would get me onstage. We worked together to find a place for me to get dressed, because the dressing room is downstairs. It takes a producer who is willing to take the time to have those conversations. Not every producer is, of course.
Melinda: Miss Tosh really took the time to help you. This is your second show with her?
St. Battie: Yes. She’s fantastic.
Melinda: Tell us a bit about her.
St. Battie: We became friends a few years back. She followed me on Instagram. I was a huge fan of Miss Tosh, and I was like, “Oh, my God, thank you so much!” We started talking and we found out that we both have pseudo-seizures.
Melinda: What are Pseudo-seizures?
St. Battie: Pseudo-seizures mimic epileptic seizures. The theory is that they’re caused by a miswiring of your brain with stresses. As much as people know about neurology, people don’t know much about neurology. So, this is a working theory. It’s difficult to manage because we don’t know what causes these seizures. I started talking to her about my theories. I talked about how I am figuring out what the triggers are for me and how to avoid those triggers. We bonded over that and the experience of going to doctors and not knowing what’s going on. It can be a struggle.
Melinda: And frustrating.
St. Battie: Yeah. So that built a very strong friendship between us from that shared experience. We were friends for a little while before she started producing “Beauty of Burlesque.” She did her first show and I went to see it.
Melinda: She also stars in the show.
St. Battie: Yes. Oh, yeah.
Melinda: She’s a burlesque dancer herself in all her splendor.
St. Battie: She’s an amazing performer. She is a very amazing performer. So, I went to see the first show and she was like, “Hey, you should be in this.” I was like, “I would love to!” The Globe theater has such a cool stage. It’s such a cool theater. A lot of the times when you’re doing burlesque you’re doing it in smaller clubs or bars. This is a proper theater with all the lights and backing video and lasers and you can basically come up with any idea you want and they can make it happen.
Melinda: It fits the burlesque world. The Globe Theater in downtown Los Angeles was built in the early 1900s, so it’s very Art Deco. I felt like the theater was part of the show. It was a character in the show.
St. Battie: Oh, it really is! Tosh found out after she did her first show at the Globe, that her great-grandmother hosted a vaudeville show there many years ago. So, in a way, she carried on her great-grandmother’s legacy.
Melinda: Wow! I love stories like that. Speaking of family, your dad and sister are here.
St. Battie: Yes. This is my dad, Sunil and my sister, Raina.
Melinda: Thank you for joining us. Raina is currently in school here in Los Angeles. Dad lives in San Francisco, where you two sisters were born and raised, correct?
St. Battie: Yes.
Melinda: Raina, what do you think of your sister, Pansy?
Sister: She’s the coolest ever. (laughter) I’m constantly showing off her pictures and what she’s doing to my friends, because I’m also in the entertainment industry. She’s one of those people who inspires me. It’s very cool to have a sister who can be a role model in that way. Being a minority in entertainment, it’s hard to feel like there’s a place for you sometimes. She’s someone I can talk to whenever and get advice on how to handle those feelings or how to handle anything. Ever since she was, like, three years old, she has had the best advice.
Melinda: Who is older?
St. Battie: I’m older.
Sister: She’s older.
Melinda: Oh, Pansy is the big sister! (laughter) Yeah! Dad, what do you have to say about your daughters?
Dad: For me, kids take you in directions that you never anticipate going in. (laughter) It’s to go with the flow. There’s a poem that was written in the 1700s by Kahlil Gibran where he compares parents to a bow. God is the archer and the child is the arrow. He says you just have to be strong. He bends you in all types of ways. If you’re strong, the arrow will go where it should go, but you can not own their thoughts. That is because you don’t live in the world they live in, which is the future. My whole thing is to just let them know that they always have a net and to let them fly. Both of them are much more expressive, much more articulate than I am. They’ll do their own thing. The great thing I love about them is that they have fire in their bellies. It’s not me encouraging them to do anything. I facilitate it. I drove Pansy down here. I don’t get very involved. I don’t know much about burlesque. They get upset that I don’t know that much.
St. Battie: I don’t get upset! I appreciate you coming.
Melinda: Do you go to Pansy’s burlesque shows?
Dad: Yeah, we’ve been to them, but that’s happenstance. If her mom was to bring her down, I wouldn’t come. I’m facilitating it.
St. Battie: Both of the times I’ve been in “Beauty of Burlesque,” my dad has come. The last one I was in I think was his introduction to burlesque and drag, which was cool. I don’t think he has seen anything like it before. He has never come to my shows in San Francisco.
Dad: Actually, I never knew or I didn’t even think whether I wanted to attend a burlesque show. The thing I was thrilled by was that everybody was having such a good time.
Melinda: The audience was so enthusiastic.
Dad: Yeah! It’s a great way to spend a few hours, especially with all the constant bombarding of all the negative stuff.
Melinda: What a good dad you both have!
Sister: Oh, yeah, he’s lovely.
Melinda: And your mother is supportive too?
St. Battie: Yeah, yeah. I always say I’ve been shocking my parents for 21 years. Every single time they’re like, “OK, whatever you want.” (laughter) “As long as you’re happy!” (laughter) Now they just expect it, I think, which is cool. They’re both really supportive. It’s really nice.
Melinda: What’s been some of the challenge, Dad?
Dad: One of the things that is there as a parent, is that no kid is born with a user’s guide. It’s interesting that when kids face the type of challenges like what Pansy has faced, there’s a lot of reading on the medical side. There is a lot of medical professionals you can talk to. But, there’s no playbook to say how a parent gets engaged, how a sibling gets engaged, or how the family can get engaged, the neighbors, the friends. That’s a missing piece. A piece that I think is something that would have been nice. But, you just have to do the best you can.
Melinda: What advice would you have for parents of a child with a disability?
Dad: I don’t know if I have any real advice except—
St. Battie: Can I say something?
Dad: Yeah, you should.
St. Battie: One of the things in my experience is, I have a genetic disorder but it didn’t become debilitating until later in life. It wasn’t a problem when I was a child. Occasionally my mom would take me to the doctor for something I couldn’t really explain, but it didn’t get in the way of me doing things. When it finally started to get in the way of me doing things, I was a teenager. That was hard for my parents. We were both learning how to do this, but I was doing it as a teenager. When you’re a teenager, you’re supposed to be learning how to exist in the world and you have space to do that. In some ways, that was easier for me because I had that room to figure it out. My parents were trying to figure it out without that space. That can happen when you are in the caretaking role.
Melinda: That’s a good point.
St. Battie: And a big part of that is to give yourself, as a parent, some room to listen to and learn from your kids. All we do as teenagers is learn how to be people, whatever that is, whether it’s regarding a disability or not. I felt like it was easier for me. I picked up on some things a little bit faster on the basis that I was prepped to do that. That was where my brain was at.
Melinda: That’s a good point. I never thought about that. When you’re a teenager, you’re totally trying to figure out life. You are trying to figure out who you are and how you fit in.
St. Battie: Even the most normal teenagers are trying to figure out how to exist in the world. That’s something we’re not prepared to do as adults. We don’t give people space to do that as adults, even though we do need to keep learning and changing. There’s definitely something to be said for giving yourself that kind of space. It’s like saying, “I’m going to be a teenager again. I’ll have to learn to adapt to a completely new situation and a new world that I don’t know how to live in.” Be patient with that and have room for that.
Melinda: Wow. Those are very wise words.
Shelly Rohe: You talk openly about your condition. Can you tell me the name of it again and how it affects you?
St. Battie: Yeah. I have a connective tissue disorder. It’s called joint hypermobility syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, depending on which doctor you ask. For me, the biggest effects are frequent dislocations and subluxations. I have difficulty with weight-bearing. I have some comorbidities, which are issues with the digestive tract, fatigue, and mental illness. Some of it is figured out, some of it not entirely. The biggest ways that I am affected physically, are fatigue and the fact that I have to use a wheelchair.
Shelly: But you can bear weight, you were saying?
St. Battie: Yeah. I weight-bear in physical therapy, but doing it without my physical therapist is difficult. It’s quite painful. When I’m weight-bearing I dislocate my hips pretty frequently. Being in a space of physical therapy you have someone watching you to make sure you don’t lose your balance. Also in physical therapy, you don’t have obstacles like having to maneuver around something or step over something like you do in the real world. That’s very difficult for me. I can do it in short periods in physical therapy. I try to do that to maintain my muscle mass. In my day-to-day life I don’t. It’s a little more challenging when you don’t have a physical therapy-designed walkway. If only the world had that!
Shelly: How long have you used a chair?
St. Battie: I think for about five years now.
Melinda: What has burlesque and modeling taught you about yourself that you didn’t know before?
St. Battie: The biggest thing is, I never thought I’d like anything like that. I was very much not the type of person who likes fashion when I was a kid. I was not a person who liked being in photos. I was not a person who liked attention at all. (laughter)
Dad: It’s interesting, she had a very funny personality when she was very young that supports this. We thought she was shy, but then in fifth grade she said she wanted to run for publicity director of the school.
St. Battie: Yeah, I was on student council.
Melinda: Wow, so much for the shy side of you.
St. Battie: It’s funny. I get so nervous talking to small groups of people. When I’m performing, it’s like a whole different thing for me. It’s easier for me to perform in front of a big room full of people, than at a dinner with only ten people.
Melinda: I’ve heard a lot of entertainers say that. They’re great onstage, but put them in a backyard barbeque and they get nervous.
Shelly: Who are your role models?
St. Battie: There are tons. I could list names all day. I’m a huge fan of Betty Page and like everyone else, Marilyn Monroe. Currently, of course, Tosh and Dita Von Teese are huge role models of mine.
Shelly: At ABILITY Magazine, we’ve interviewed a lot of people with different disabilities, who work in the entertainment world. Who, with a disability, inspires you?
St. Battie: There are tons and tons of disabled activists and artists and creators and entertainers who do amazing things. In the burlesque world, Jacqueline Boxx is another wheelchair user who does burlesque. The first time I met with my burlesque teacher for my first lesson, she asked, “Have you heard of this person?” I said no. She showed me the videos and I was watching them all night. She’s so fantastic. She’s done great acts that talk about disability and some of the things you deal with as a disabled person. And of course there are a lot of disabled models who are doing wonderful things: Aaron Philip, Gillian Mercado. The first time I saw her on TV, I was like, “Oh, my God!” I could list a ton of people.
Melinda: Let me ask you this question. It’s the year 2020 and people are very passionate about the women’s movement. There’s #MeToo, equal rights, the women’s marches at our nation’s capital and all around the world. How do you feel the art of burlesque dancing fits into the women’s movement of 2020?
St. Battie: In my perspective, the women’s movement is always going to include the freedom to express ourselves safely, however we want to do that. With burlesque, the biggest issue you face is the same as with traditional stripping. There are a lot of laws regulating it and it’s primarily a women-run business. I’ve had plenty of people tell me, “You shouldn’t be doing this. This is anti-feminist.” For me, I feel that no type of sex work is anti-feminist. Everyone should have the right to do things the way they want to and they should have the freedom to do it safely. A lot of the people who do burlesque are women and a lot of the people who consume burlesque are women. This is because, in burlesque, sharing your body and your sexuality is an art form. To be able to have the freedom to feel safe and comfortable creating whatever it is you want to create is very important.
Melinda: What’s something that this freedom has given you?
St. Battie: Well, I was never into fashion, never into being photographed, never into being the center of attention, but I’ve always been an artist and a bit of a rebel. It was during my first photo session that I said to myself, “This is art. This isn’t just about your face in a picture. It’s about creating art.” I can be insecure about my looks, but at the same time I still love modeling and looking at my pictures. That’s because I look at my pictures from the perspective of an artist. How is my body shape working in this space? What am I creating? What story am I telling? What emotions am I expressing? I realized it wasn’t about being pretty. It was about creating something. I learned a perfect way for me to express myself.
Melinda: You are a very sharp young lady. You have talked about how much Miss Tosh has inspired you. I am quite confident that you also have inspired people. You have definitely inspired me.
St. Battie: I hope so. My favorite thing is hearing from parents of kids with a disability. The parents will say, “I was scared when I found out my kid had a disability, because I didn’t think that they’d be able to pursue certain things. Now I see that they will and I feel comforted.” That’s a big deal for both the parent and the kid.
Melinda: It’s a journey together, right Dad?
Dad: Mm-hmm. My role has been getting out of the way. (laughter)
St. Battie: I think both you and my mom had a lot of fear that it would stop me from pursuing the things I wanted to do.
Dad: Yeah, that’s always the fear. That can be one of the hardest decisions you have to make as a parent. The decision of knowing when to push and when not to.When Pansy stopped walking, some doctors said, “You’ve got to put her into this program and she will be back walking in a month.” This was Stanford. Then we had other people at Stanford saying, “If you pressure her—” So the parents have to decide which thing they’re going to do. Then stick by it once you’ve made the decision. Those are hard decisions.
St. Battie: We live in a world where disability is very segregated. There are so many places we can’t go. Schools and a lot of events aren’t made for us. A person who doesn’t have a disability or doesn’t have someone in their immediate circle who has a disability, can go their whole lives without seeing anyone with a disability. I mean, aside from maybe passing them on the street. When you don’t see it in the world around you and suddenly you or a family member becomes disabled, you’re like, “Where are they going to fit in? I’ve never seen this here.” You worry that there won’t be room. I feel like I’ve been able to help people with disabilities and their parents see that they can make room for themselves, because I have made room for myself.
Melinda: You sure have! You definitely put ‘ability’ into ‘disability’.
St. Battie: You do have to push to find a place, but you can do it. It’s worth doing it.
Melinda: What would you like to say to people who feel like they have no voice or community?
St. Battie: The biggest thing is that we’re a very strong community. We know a lot about ourselves. We talk a lot with each other. The biggest thing they can do for us is to listen. There are a lot of disabled people who are working very hard to make our voices heard. To amplify those voices and to include those voices in the things you create, if you’re a creator, is a big deal. Listen to us and consider what we are saying in your daily life.
Melinda: What advice do you have for a person with a disability, who has a passion or a dream to do something in the performing arts?
St. Battie: For me, becoming a dancer was about becoming the type of dancer that worked for me. I adapted my dancing to me. The biggest part is trying to make the thing you want to do fit you. Not trying to make yourself fit the thing you want to do.
Melinda: I love that. I once heard a 92-year-old yoga instructor say, “Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.” I think that can apply to everybody.
St. Battie: Yeah. There are a million burlesque moves I can’t do. I’m doing the ones I can.
Melinda: And you’re doing them well. You’re doing them with heart. I saw you doing those movements. You sold them!
Dad: The other thing which I think she’s doing, is she is also focusing on another side. The other side being her vet stuff. It keeps her focused.
St. Battie: Oh, yeah.
Melinda: So, in addition to everything else, you are studying to be a veterinarian?
St. Battie: Yes. I study online. I’m studying to be a vet tech. Specifically I want to do rehabilitative medicine for animals, post-surgery care, and work with animals with disabilities.
Melinda: You are amazing! Maybe you could help an animal be a burlesque dancer. (laughter)
St. Battie: My pets have gotten pretty in on it. They watch me rehearse and they will follow me. One of my dogs and my cat know my dance routine.
Melinda: Where can people find you on social media?
St. Battie: My Instagram is @PansyStBattie.
Melinda: It has been a real treat chatting with you. Thank you for joining us.
St. Battie: Thank you!