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Meet Bryce Bordello — and the Fine Art of Boylesque 

click to enlarge Jace Jones onstage.

Carlos Restrepo

Jace Jones onstage.

Jace Jones remembers the first time he appeared onstage wearing nothing but his underwear.

Not only had he never previously been naked in front of a crowd, but he had never performed on a stage. Ever.

He was skinny and bald — the latter by choice. At the suggestion of a hairstylist friend, Jones had decided that shaving his receding hairline was better than the bowl cut he sported as a redheaded kid, or the fauxhawk he tried in his twenties. He also stuttered, and he had been picked on in school. It left him with low self-confidence.

Yet Jones, a forklift operator for an alcohol distributor, decided to take off his pants in front of an audience for a musical adaptation of the movie Natural Born Killers.

"I had never been depended on in my life," Jones says. "I had an average life. This was the first time in my life people wanted me to be the focus of something, and I didn't want to let them down."

When his pants came down, a new Jace Jones was born.

click to enlarge Jace Jones in high school. - COURTESY OF COOKIE JONES
  • Courtesy of Cookie Jones
  • Jace Jones in high school.

Today, under the stage name of Bryce Bordello, he seeks to inspire other men to get in to the art of male burlesque dancing — boylesque — in St. Louis.

Growing up in Joliet, Illinois, a city 40 miles southwest of Chicago, Jones was a normal kid who liked the Cubs, playing baseball and collecting cards.

His life turned upside-down when he was fourteen and his parents moved to the southern Illinois town of Jerseyville, population 8,000.

When he says "Jerseyville," a sigh follows.

"It was your typical high school experience with the kid that gets picked on," says Jones. "That kid was me. It was very subtle, but annoying. I didn't really fit into any group. I was this city kid. That was a problem to some kids."

He was into comic books, but he was never an artist. He was into sports, but he was never a star athlete.

He got bored.

After high school Jones attempted college, but two years into studying computer science at Lewis and Clark Community College, he realized it was not for him. He wanted more out of life.

Jones didn't know where to find it, but he knew Jerseyville wasn't the place. With the help of his sister and future brother-in-law who lived in west county, Jones moved to St. Louis.

"There wasn't really a plan," says Jones, now 34. "I just wanted to get out. I needed to be in the city."

click to enlarge Undergoing transformation prior to a performance. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Undergoing transformation prior to a performance.

Jones celebrated his thirtieth birthday at Just John Nightclub: "St. Louis' Premier Gay and Lesbian Bar located in the heart of The Grove." Jones is not gay. However, he credits St. Louis' LGBT community for welcoming him and making him feel at home.

"I hooked up with an old friend of mine who took me to a bar called Attitudes for the first time," Jones says. "I started meeting people and making new friends. This whole world had been right there the entire time, and I didn't know of it."

Although rainbow flags and gay-friendly clubs are fixtures in the Grove, the mile-wide stretch of Manchester Road between Kingshighway and Vandeventer is home to an even broader eclectic community. On any given weekend night, blacks, Hispanics, whites, hipsters, cyclists, punks, burlesque performers, hippies, gays, straights, drag kings and queens, and any other number of others can be found walking (and stumbling) from club to club.

The people he met — at Attitudes, and then at other bars in the neighborhood — expanded Jones' universe. He made new friends. He even had a girlfriend, an old friend he reconnected with.

She wanted to try burlesque.

Jones paid for her classes. He loved seeing her perform.

"She was so confident and happy," Jones says.

click to enlarge Jace Jones as Bryce Bordello. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Jace Jones as Bryce Bordello.

The relationship only lasted about a year, but Jones remained friends with her and several burlesque performers. He offered to help backstage, but never thought to get involved as a performer himself.

"I never wanted to be looked on like that. I was still coming to terms with who I was, and the confidence wasn't really there yet."

At one of those shows, Jones met Bam Bam Bambi, a doe-eyed performer who enchanted him with her self-assurance.

"Her personality was everything I wanted to be," Jones recalls. "She was confident yet sweet in the way she interacted with people."

Both his ex and Bambi encouraged Jones to get onstage. At first, it was only for a play; Jones' ex connected him with his first show, an adaptation of Natural Born Killers, three years ago. It was Bambi who hooked him up for his second performance — a burlesque adaptation of the musical Chicago.

"My ex unlocked the doors of burlesque for me," Jones says. "Bambi kept them open."

In Natural Born Killers, Jones played Mickey Knox, a psychopathic killer who, along with his wife Mallory, goes on a murdering spree. During one of the scenes, the killer couple has wild sex after murdering someone — and that meant Jones was "90 percent naked," he says.

The play's adaptation, produced by Teya King, relied more on comedy than its big-screen counterpart.

"Still, it wasn't for the faint of heart," Jones says. "It was outside the box — more risqué, more vulgar, and at times, more awkward. I never thought I would do something like that."

About a month after Natural Born Killers, Bambi invited Jones to perform in Chicago.

"It was a burlesque show, but I actually did not have to take off my clothes," Jones recalls. "I had to dance while other performers undressed me during the 'Cell Block Tango' scene."

A career of getting naked onstage was born.

"Apparently I did it well enough that other people wanted me to do it."

Aside from the corsets and makeup, modern burlesque is a far cry from the days of Paris' Moulin Rouge, or the vaudeville performances of the 1920s. Although sensual dances and skits are still at its center, burlesque in St. Louis is less about seduction and more about being an all-inclusive affair, according to Charlotte Sumtimes, a St. Louis burlesque producer.

In modern burlesque, Sumtimes explains, everyone is beautiful.

"I have received letters from women thanking me because coming to these shows showed them that people of all sizes and all shapes can be beautiful — with the right attitude," says Sumtimes. "They tell me that the shows transformed them, and that is beautiful. My motto has always been: all shapes, all sizes, all sexes, all colors."

And burlesque shows are frequent occurrences in St. Louis. From the R Bar in the Grove to the Way Out Club on Jefferson Avenue and the new burlesque-focused Seven Zero Eight on Laclede's Landing, business owners increasingly see burlesque as a way to bring in customers.

Sumtimes has even developed a partnership with Rumors and Ice, a bar nearly an hour south of St. Louis in Crystal City.

"Somehow, she brings all these people together and convinces them to strip," Jones marvels.

It was after meeting Sumtimes that Jones' career as Bryce Bordello exploded.

"I was looking for some male talent for my show, The Last Saturday Strip [at R Bar], and I really wanted to see a man on that stage," Sumtimes says.

Sumtimes is always looking for new material — and performers.

click to enlarge Jace Jones, prior to his transformation. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Jace Jones, prior to his transformation.

"She doesn't stick to the basics," Jones observes. "Every single performance is a variety show. Typically, for example, drag kings and queens do not perform burlesque, because their art is not in getting naked, but wearing clothes and makeup to maintain an illusion. Charlotte will get them to strip. I've seen circus performers, singers, dancers, fire throwers — all of them got naked for Charlotte."

And what could be more unusual than male burlesque? But for all of the variety in her shows, before Jace Jones became Bryce Bordello, Sumtimes didn't have any straight men willing to strip, dance and learn the art.

"Boylesque is not Chippendales," Sumtimes says. "A man has to sell more than sex on stage. He cannot be some jerk guy taking his clothes off. He has to charm the audience. He has to be confident yet humble, and you have to be a man who is willing to perform in front of any type of audience, be it gay, or straight, or both.

"A man like that is hard to come by."

A few months after Jones' first nude onstage appearances, he had his first solo boylesque gig at the Gray Fox, where he did a hip-hop breakdance routine.

He was hooked.

"Wow. Holy crap. This is awesome," he thought.

He adds, "I got onstage, and the crowd is going crazy. It was the crowd that made me fell in love with it. I become someone I had never been."

"I think what the audience loves about Bryce is that they can see how much he loves to perform," Sumtimes says. "He is a sexy guy, but he is friendly. He is the kind of guy who you think, 'I'd love to have a beer with him.' He has what I call an accessibility factor. When you have that accessibility, men love you and women love you."

Even his mother has come to watch Jones perform — a testament to his ability to make the audience feel comfortable.

"I never expected I would one day go to a burlesque show to see my boy strip," Cookie Jones says. "But they weren't stripping, they were teasing you; they are interacting with you. It was beautiful to see the artistic side. When I saw Jace having fun and getting all of this attention, I was very proud of him."

click to enlarge superfinalejace.jpg

Jones only knows of a few other straight men who perform boylesque regularly in St. Louis.

"A lot of them will get started, learn the dance, the moves, and then I don't know what happens," Jones says. "Maybe they just realize it was not for them."

Dick Nail-Em is one of the few who has stuck to boylesque. An engineering student who declines to give his real name, he is also under the tutelage of Sumtimes.

"I'm a heavier guy, and I never thought in a million years I would do this," Nail-Em says.

Prior to finding boylesque, Nail-Em was having a rough time. His mom was battling diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease; his studies were stressful.

"Burlesque saved me. It gave me purpose," Nail-Em explains. "To be on a stage and in front of a crowd makes me happy. I've learned a lot about myself and have made so many friends in the last two years that I'll always be happy for the chance that I got."

click to enlarge Jace Jones. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Jace Jones.

Both Jones and Nail-Em say they hope to inspire more men to give boylesque a try.

"In places like New York or Chicago, boylesque is much, much bigger," Jones says. "In St. Louis, we are a rarity. It's sad."

Jones still loves his Cubs, and still obsesses over comic books and sci-fi. From time to time, such as when he's speaking too fast, a mild stutter develops. It all goes away when he is onstage.

There, he says, "I am not the goofy nerd anymore. My voice drops a little bit. Bryce Bordello is everything I wanted to be when I was younger. He is that person in high school you kind of envy, because they were confident, suave, smooth."

In late September Sumtimes gave Jones the lead to produce his first show, Comic-Kazi — a ComicCon-style burlesque event at the R Bar. During its run, Jones was able to show off both his offstage persona and his boylesque alter ego.

Before an audience brimming with Marvel and DC character costumes, Jones played "The Nerd." He took the stage stumbling and stuttering, wearing glasses, and carrying a backpack full of his favorite comic magazines. This performance was an homage to all Jones was, and all he is, both under the red lights of the clubs and the dawn of his mornings as an average guy.

His two worlds collided: He took off his clothes to reveal loose Superman shorts.

The audience went wild.

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