For Singapore's own burlesque performer, Sukki Singapora is somewhat maligned. While her job requires her to maintain appearances—both on and off the stage—there's more to her beneath the surface.
The burlesque performer can sometimes fall into gross caricature—ample décolletage, callipygous, waist tinier than the circumference of her head. It’s an easy stereotype to whip out, a generous brushstroke across a canvas.
But during coffee one morning, Sukki Singapora, 28, Singapore’s first burlesque artist is far from the boilerplate. Now, she’s in motorcycle pants and a tracksuit; her eyes eclipsed behind sunglasses, her fruit punch hair stretched back into a messy bun; her glamour stripped from her.
This isn’t the image that Singapora wants people to see. Usually.
“When I started,” she says after sipping her coffee, “I didn’t want people to know how much of an emotional struggle I had in carving out my burlesque career.” To showcase this is to expose her Achilles heel; it leaves her vulnerable.
But her opinion started to shift last year when she moved to LA to further her career. There, she discovered that she was a minnow among sharks in the entertainment industry. In Singapore, she gets stopped in the streets for a selfie, but in LA, no one gave a toss. She had to begin from zero once more. This setback proved interesting. “When you say you’re from Singapore, that holds people’s attention in Hollywood because that’s a story they’ve never heard of before.”
Can that be seen as fetishising though?
Singapora thinks for a beat. “That’s always the case for Hollywood, especially when you’re an Asian woman. But I’m not the typical aesthetic of what an Asian or Singaporean woman should look like.” She highlights her racial ambiguity as an example—it helps, in terms of not pigeonholing her into a safe category, thus opening her to more opportunities, but it hinders as well, as she has to justify her race and nationality. “That’s always one of the first few questions they ask me that usually detracts from my work,” she says, rolling her eyes.
To be fair, it’s not just in America that she experience this; she gets the same treatment in Singapore but after a while, people come to terms with it. Singapora avers that it’s the appearance of the new wave of mixed-race Singaporeans that helped. But this and other struggles are what Singapora wants to connect people to. “This time round, I just wanted to let [the public] know that success doesn’t happen overnight.”
Luck might play a hand in it but for the most part, it’s about the sweat, blood and tears. And sometimes, the obstacles can come in the form of family.
Five years since she broke into the local conscience as Sukki Singapora, her extended family is still in the dark as to what she does.
“I know, it sounds impossible but the only images they have of me are [the ones of me before I did burlesque],” Singapora explains. “The last time I visited them, I wore a headscarf so they don’t know what my hair colour is. They can’t reconcile the thought of me now and their memory of their dark-haired grandchild.”
While her grand-relatives are oblivious to what she does, there was one person in the Menon clan that Singapora had to be careful with—her uncle.
Specifically, her dad’s eldest brother, a retired colonel in the Singapore army. The man is principled; strict but fair. During her childhood, she remembers him as “jovial” but everyone had much respect for him. For someone who is headstrong and free-spirited, it seems odd for Singapora to be considerate of her uncle’s feelings. “Probably because it meant so much to my dad that I didn’t want to just bulldoze my relationship with my uncle.”
As 1880's global ambassador, her duties include performing at the club and partaking in the venue's salons throughout the year. "Rather than just me being a performance artist, now I have a platform to share my view on things." It's refreshing for her to allow people a glimpse into her head, to see how her mind works.
Two years ago, around Christmas, her two uncles— including her militant uncle—flew to the UK to spend the holidays with them. The second uncle, the one Singapora’s father had revealed that she was a burlesque dancer, took to drink. With the screws on his inhibition loosened, he started joking to Singapora about when she was “going to give us a can-can?” Red-faced, she tried to obfuscate the babble, hoping her militant uncle, who was talking to her mother, wouldn’t overhear. After a while, the militant uncle excused himself to use the loo.
Not wanting to have her coming-out come from her inebriated uncle’s loose lips, Singapora decided that tonight would to be the night to tell him. “The jokes that [my tipsy uncle] was making are not how I wanted burlesque to be painted as,” she explains. “I want burlesque to be presented in a really respectful manner.” So, she went upstairs and waited for him to exit the bathroom. The scant minutes he spent in there felt like the eternal ticks of forever. When he emerged to see his niece, sweat pinpricking her forehead and upper lip, she told him, mirthlessly, that she needed to talk to him. This set up a wall in him. He retaliated with questions. He was not making it easy for her. His countenance didn’t waver; his face was stony, like an indomitable cliff.
Singapora dragged him to his room and told him to sit on the bed. He insisted on standing. Even though he had retired from the army, there remained the soldier in his stance. Like he was primed for an attack. Singapora told him that she had quit the IT game. He considered this, then let out an “okay”. She continued, saying that she hadn’t worked in IT for two years. He remained stoic, worse, maybe even unimpressed. He replied with another perfunctory “okay”, a sign for a quiet anger set to a simmer.
The deception of the whole situation worsened as she told him that she hadn’t told him sooner because she didn’t want him to think that she had failed. He didn’t respond so she pressed on, telling him that she was now in entertainment, that she danced professionally, that she travelled the world performing. He remained silent.
Then, finally he said “okay” again, but this one was riddled with resignation. “You do what you want with your life,” he added, before leaving the room.
The rock she had been carrying around had rolled away and in its place was a bare patch in the middle of a verdant field. Singapora wondered if the cost of the truth was too much to pay for. The mood remained awkward for the rest of the holiday.
Bralette by Versace, bodysuit by Burberry
Eventually, he warmed up to it. During the recent Woman of the Future Awards at Hilton Singapore, he turned up to witness Singapora present the Arts & Culture Award with Jimmy Choo. “It’s really emotional because not even my mom and dad supported me this much to even attend this awards show.” But on the evening itself, he called with an apology, citing that he didn’t realise that the occasion would be held this late and now he won’t be able to make it. He added that even though he wasn’t there he wanted her to know that he is with her all the way. That was enough. It was all she ever wanted him to say to her.
To further thaw this hibernating relationship, she decided on a more physical approach, hugging her uncle whenever she can. He doesn’t really reciprocate but she thinks that he secretly he likes it. It’s a work in progress, she says with steel in her voice.
Singapora is the newly minted global ambassador for 1880, a private member’s club. The journey to that position began with her performance at the Formula 1 after-party. It was with Boudoir Noire and in this inaugural showing, Singapora was its guest star and among the audience was Marc Nicholson. After the show, he approached her and was effusive with his praise for her act. “He told me about this crazy idea of creating a creative venue in Singapore, which is a member’s club. Then, he said he knew that I should be the global ambassador of it.”
That was two years ago. Now, as 1880’s global ambassador, her duties include performing at the club and partaking in the venue’s salons throughout the year. “Rather than just me being a performance artist, now I have a platform to share my views on things.” It’s refreshing for her to allow people a glimpse into her head, to see how her mind works.
There are a couple of concepts that she’s working on. “Obviously the typical one is ‘how does it feel to be an artist in Singapore’ topic, ‘how do you inspire young girls’, and ‘is burlesque feminist or is it not?’ But it’s never been about burlesque; it has always been about how a woman can have autonomy in her life… that’s the message behind what I do.”
When the dam that was sexual improprieties in Hollywood broke, Singapora left America to return here. She wasn’t harassed, she wasn’t taken advantage of, in fact, she left with fond memories of her time spent in LA. “The women who came before me experienced a very different entry to that industry than I did,” she says. “Of course, there’s always sexism in every industry, and of course, there’s always gender politics within any entertainment industry, but I’ve never felt like it’s worse with the circles I move with in LA than it was anywhere else.”
When allegations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct started to mount, she thought the charges would blow over. “In terms of women fighting against the behaviours of men in Hollywood, I admit I thought it’s gonna be a thing where we make a big stir about it and then nothing changes.” But with the accusations came the coverage, then the outrage and suddenly the karmic wheel started to turn.
There was a sea change and everybody in Hollywood could sense it. The perpetrator’s tool—fear—had turned on its wielder. The hunter was now the hunted. While this irony is delicious, Singapora hasn’t stopped at just deserts; predatory behaviour still exists in other areas, like the office. “When you’re a woman and you wanna get promoted, do you feel like you have to dress a certain way? Do you have to wear a trouser suit? Why is thinking about what to wear crucial to getting ahead, d’ya know what I mean? I feel like the problem is still prevalent but less so. I think, in Asia, we have the most [number of ] female CEOs in the world, which is phenomenal but that behaviour is still around. It’s going to take time. It’s a process.”
"In terms of women fighting against the behaviours of men in Hollywood, I admit I thought it's gonna be a thing where we make a big stir about it and then nothing changes." But with the accusations that came the coverage, then the outrage and suddenly the karmic wheel started to turn.
Days after the interview, Singapora rose at the crack of dawn, game and ready for her photo shoot. The location is at Punggol beach, where boulders dot the shore and the tide laps against the smooth sand. The photos look great.
Near the end of the shoot, Lenne Chai the photographer espies a long-legged wading bird perched on some rocks. Let’s shoot there, came the offer. Singapora carefully makes her way out among the rocks. Chai fires away. Then, Singapora moves her leg, weight is redistributed, traction diminishes over the smooth surface of a stepping stone, and Singapora falls prey to harsh gravity.
After the ambulance ferried her to the hospital, the doctors told her that the scratches on the side of her thigh would leave noticeable scars due to her pigmentation. The impact upon jagged rock removed bits of skin from her feet and right palm. If the injuries weren’t painful enough, perhaps her ego was slighted, embarrassed that this occured.
Two days later, Singapora will put on a show that was planned in advance. She will grin and bare it, shooting pains in her feet trapped in high heels, her cut leg limiting her motion. When asked why she would continue with this, even with her injuries, she says simply that the show must go on. She might have to scale down her work due to the laceration, she might have to seek cosmetic advice for her legs. No one will know the extent of the injury or how she has to limp when she walks; her Instagram will showcase the glamour. This life, this show of hers, will continue.
Photography by Lenne Chai at ADB Agency
Styling by Eugene Lim
Hero image: Top and dress, both by Prada; bodysuit, Singapora's own