I’ve passed the big 5-0 and here I am at the Royal Festival Hall, the Clore Ballroom with a Hello Kitty toy stuffed in my large silky knickers. Beside me, cohort Salacious Sid rubs the bulge in his trousers. I am Fanny Malarkey and with me, model and burlesque performer Kitty Kane plays Sid, dragged up complete with a five o’clock shadow. I’m halfway through my act, my speciality, Spoken Word Burlesque.
It’s about as far away as I could be from my teenage years of self-hatred, when tough love for a disabled girl in a wheelchair was to tell her she would never be loved. Never be wanted. Because if you didn’t fit the norm, if you were too fat, too skinny, too spotty, flat chested, used crutches, had scars, if you didn’t match up to those people portrayed in magazines, on TV and in the movies – it was better, kinder, that you had no expectations of being much at all.
Punk broke that repugnant spell for many, as women found a space where they could be who they wanted to be. The dark peacock in me erupted in displays of glistening PVC, multicoloured hair extensions and fat lines of eyeliner.
Inside there still existed a shadow of shy unconfident Penny scarred by the old messages of uselessness, of never being good enough. But others had different ideas. I fell in love. And despite every insistence from those in authority around me that I could not, I moved to London and into a bohemian life of poetry, rock n roll and a growing sense of connecting to the power of my own body. I got a boyfriend, I made records. I shared my body as I wished to share it.
As a disabled woman, I’ve often hit the bottom of the worst pile of stereotype there is but I’ve always known my defiance will give me a strength to resist, as I realised my body is marvellous because it is mine.
Going naked the first time as a life model was not as scary as I’d imagined. Each artist will see you with extraordinary difference and those things you find uncomfortable become remarkable and unique. From nude to cheeky, I had the incredible chance to train with legendary Jo King who teaches burlesque in a way that leaves you loving your body. She gave me the gift of accepting and celebrating what I found a challenge and reminded me that flirtation and desire between human beings is a magical thing, a right that we should all experience.
So there I was a wheelchair user hurtling to 55 and taking my clothes off with the help of Salacious Sid and a whooping cheering audience. Who knows, I might just do it again when I reach the big 6-0.
Penny Pepper is a writer, poet, performer and disability rights activist. She arises the importance of having a proper disability perspective, informed by a political and cultural disability identity. A role model for many aspiring writers, both disabled and non-disabled.