When Marilyn Bersey, 74, stands on stage and removes her last piece of clothing to reveal her nipple tassels, she triggers the pyrotechnics. From the audience there is “the admiration, the affirmation, the claps, the whoops, the cheers”. Well, she explains: “When I retired, I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those pensioners who sit and knit.”
Becoming a burlesque performer may seem an extreme form of resistance to this stereotype, but Bersey, who lives in warden-assisted accommodation in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, had finally stabilised a huge weight loss. At the same time, she was adjusting to life without her second husband, whom she had cared for through Parkinson’s disease. She was searching for a form of exercise and self-expression that would fit the new shape of her life.
Bersey was 70 when she saw the advert for a local burlesque group. “I thought: ‘That sounds a bit risque. I wonder if I could do it?’” She phoned the instructor, who said: “It’s for any age, any body size.” Bersey “just loved it from the word go. Routines, getting your leg over the back of chairs. I thought: ‘What’s this feeling I’ve got?’ I felt really glamorous and I felt really sexy.”
Bersey has always loved to perform, but burlesque felt different. In her amateur dramatic group and then in four years at Manchester School of Music and Drama, she had never auditioned for a leading role. “It was common knowledge that Marilyn would be the comedy part. That’s what I did. I was always the fool. I think the accolade I got from an audience was the love that I never got at home … But I always wanted to be the leading lady. I’ve always felt inside there was a glamorous person.”
Even if others didn’t see her that way. “Picture a fat kid with glasses,” she says of herself as a child. Her weight rose with her age – 15st at 15, 18st at 18. One day at school in Radcliffe, Lancashire, she was bullied by a girl who poured salt from her crisps into Bersey’s hair.
Bersey’s mother took her to the doctor, who prescribed slimming tablets. Her weight crashed by 5st. But after a withdrawal period, it rose again, and she yo-yoed all the way through her first marriage, two children, into her early 40s.
“My childhood was not a good time. I’d hide behind comedy. I’d make a fool of myself so it didn’t hurt as much when people bullied me,” she realises now.
Bersey’s late mother had yearned for a son. But after Bersey was born, she needed a hysterectomy. The sense of loss heavily tinged Bersey’s childhood. “She always said: ‘Oh, you’ll never amount to much. If you’d have been a boy you’d have done this. If you’d have been a boy, you’d have loved me more …’ Chip, chip, chip.”
Having previously worked as a cook and swimming instructor, Bersey later trained in therapeutic arts and psychodrama, perhaps hoping to understand her mother. “Now I can see where it’s come from.”
In her mid-40s, shortly before she met her second husband, something changed for Bersey. She lost weight gradually through Slimming World until, in 2013, at the age of 66, her loss reached 6st 7lb and she “called target”. But when her second husband died the following year after a long illness, Bersey realised: “I had lost myself. I was no longer anyone’s mother – I was, but not needed. I was nobody’s wife. I was nobody’s daughter. Who’s Marilyn?”
Burlesque has given her an answer. “I know exactly who Marilyn is now,” she says. “She’s Foxy La Mer.”
Bersey’s bedroom “looks like a boudoir”: wigs, feather boa, Hollywood mirror. She doesn’t stop to wonder what her mother would think. But her son, an electrician, does her pyrotechnics; her daughter has seen her perform.
Her “burlesque granny” and Ghostbuster-themed routines rely on comedy. Is she still hiding behind those tassels? “Probably,” she says, before deciding: “I don’t think I feel I am hiding.”
Regardless, she feels sexier than she has ever felt. “And I’ve got the confidence to accept that’s how I’m feeling … Who’s there to tell me that I can’t feel like that in old age?”