Sukki Menon is no stranger to Singapore’s entertainment scene. Renowned for her groundbreaking work in forging the path for the art of burlesque performance in Singapore, she was the first burlesque artist to be invited to tea at Buckingham Palace in London, by the Royal Household; met celebrities the likes of Jimmy Choo and David Beckham; and made history as the first professional burlesque dancer in Singapore.
Having spent her childhood in Singapore, she left for the UK to further her education. Her career in burlesque began with an audition at a cabaret theatre in the United Kingdom, in 2011. She was working in the information technology (IT) sector at the time, and heard about a local theatre that was opening auditions for burlesque performers to close its comedy nights.
“I’m a firm believer in fate and karma, so I immediately took this to be a sign. Myself and my friend marched on in, and managed to convince the owners that they should hire us,” she says.
“To my horror, they said ‘Start next Friday’, so my introduction to burlesque was having seven days to teach myself it, off of YouTube, to an audience of around 300 people!” she recalls.
While there were mishaps during the performance, the audience loved it, because “the spirit of burlesque is [to be] playful and to entertain”, says Sukki. Her striking performance with her friend led to regular gigs at the same theatre on Fridays and Saturdays.
“IT geek by day, burlesque artist by night. That’s how it all started,” she quips.
What followed was a four-year journey of campaigning for burlesque to be legalised in Singapore. She founded The Singapore Burlesque Club and Society in 2012, and started her career as a professional burlesque artist a year later, eventually making history by becoming the first woman to perform a full burlesque performance in Singapore, in January 2015, when burlesque was legalised locally. Within the same year, Sukki was also inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the only museum in the world dedicated to the art of burlesque, in recognition of her efforts as a Mover, Shaker & Innovator for burlesque.
Sukki is no stranger to accolades, having been nominated and shortlisted for the United Nations Women’s He For She Awards in 2016. She also accepted the Generation T Award in 2017, as one of the 50 most influential people changing and shaping society in Singapore. The award honours young leaders who are making significant contributions to their respective fields.
Her shot to stardom was cemented when the opportunity for a television debut came knocking in 2019, in the form of Singapore Social, a Netflix Original docuseries revolving around the lives of young Singaporeans and their journeys with their relationships, families, and careers.
Calling herself a ‘geek’, Sukki credits her experiences in the IT industry for helping her to plan her career as an entertainer: “You can be the most talented person in a room, but if you’re not able to figure out how to get logically from A to B, then you rely on other people to spot you to succeed,” she explains. “I’ve never lived by this. I’ve always figured out where the right room is, and actively put myself in it.” She currently divides her time between Singapore and Los Angeles.
But entertainment is not her only passion; Sukki is also a dedicated humanitarian and activist. Since 2013, she has been a global ambassador for UK-based charity The Sharan Project, which offers advice and support to vulnerable women, in particular those of South Asian origin, who have faced or are facing the risk of being disowned, as a result of abuse or persecution.
Last year, she was also nominated as a finalist for the Women Of The Future Awards 2020, which recognises the achievements of women in the UK, and aims to connect, inspire and support female leaders.
The biracial, multi-talented star is an incandescent force to watch, and here, shares her journey with burlesque, her passion for activism, and who inspired her growing up.
(NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Sukki Menon: When I was a child I was really inspired by film icons like Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Michael J Fox and Robert Downey Jr. There was something about people who had experienced and then overcome pain that resonated with me, even from an early age. I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I suppose looking back, film icons played a huge part in my life, so I think the direction I’m taking now was almost inevitable.
TheHomeGround Asia: What was the turning point that made you decide to embark on a career in burlesque?
SM: Growing up I always felt a bit out of place as a biracial child (she was born to a Singaporean Indian father and an English mother). I felt like I was too brown to be fully British and too pale to be fully Indian Singaporean. It was something that was constantly brought up, with the most common question being: ‘What are you?’, to which I’d want to reply: ‘human’. The turning point for me was discovering vintage fashion. In the vintage scene it didn’t matter what your race, gender or background was, it was all about the pinup aesthetic. It felt like a community where I could finally fit in. Of course, you can’t go far in the vintage scene without hearing about burlesque, and that’s exactly what happened. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to do it. It was a huge lightbulb moment where I was compelled to immediately think: ‘Where do I sign up?’ The rest is history!
THG: You founded The Singapore Burlesque Club and Society in 2012. What were some challenges you faced in establishing it?
SM: Founding it wasn’t really the challenge, because so many people in Singapore were interested, and wanted it to happen. The real challenge came in operating it. Burlesque at the time was not only controversial but it was a grey area in terms of perceived public indecency, so the club had to become a safe space [in] society for those wanting to express themselves. At times that was difficult.
THG: How would you say that the burlesque scene in Singapore has evolved since then? How would you describe the social attitudes towards burlesque today?
SM: Wow, the burlesque scene has completely changed since those first rocky days. We’ve gone from an underground, alt movement seen as perverse and sexual, to a celebrated form of entertainment in many venues in Singapore now, like Lulu’s Lounge, Employees Only and of course Marquee. Through every step of my journey in representing and portraying burlesque in Singapore, I made sure I passionately did it through a feminist lens, and I think that really helped shift opinions from scandal to celebration.
THG: Has the art of burlesque been gaining traction locally?
SM: Absolutely. We now get enquiries every week for burlesque to be included in events or occasions. I think burlesque is – on the most part – no longer seen as a taboo, but something sensual that can genuinely empower and provide a meaningful, glamorous addition to many scenes here. There’s also been an influx of people wanting to learn burlesque, women and men, and that’s been beautiful to see. Now the floodgates are open, it feels like an incredible explosion of creativity. It’s exactly what we needed in our arts.
THG: Do you think there are still any misconceptions about burlesque?
SM: Of course, there are still misconceptions about burlesque. The biggest one being that it’s some kind of seedy, sexual, male-placating strip performed in a dingy and dodgy club, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think people are seeing that now. Burlesque performances are in fantastic venues and theatres, and in fact around 80 per cent of the audience are women. It’s by women for women, and I think that message is finally being heard.
THG: What should newcomers to the world of burlesque expect, and what should they look out for?
SM: Body confidence! Empowerment! The great thing about burlesque is that you don’t have to want to be a burlesque performer to try it. It’s about empowering you to be more confident in the skin you’re in, and own that in your everyday life. For those wanting to pursue it professionally, I’d say take the moment to own your identity; create something unique and authentic and you’ll shine. There’s so many opportunities now to perform, and Singapore definitely needs a bigger burlesque scene! So go for it!
THG: What does it take to be a good burlesque performer?
SM: I think the key to remember is that it doesn’t matter if you’re the best dancer on that stage, what matters is stage presence, enjoying the moment, and truly engaging with your audience. Burlesque inspires others to grow outside of their comfort zones. That’s what I love about it.
THG: How did the pandemic affect your growth as a performer?
SM: It gave me a chance to pause and reflect, and gave me space to head towards the direction I knew I wanted to venture into eventually. The biggest shift was when I dyed my hair from rainbow back to my natural colour. It sounds silly, but at that point I sat in the energy of my deconstructed self and it felt powerful and fresh. From there on, things started to slot into place.
THG: As a global ambassador for The Sharan Project, what inspired your passion for activism, particularly with vulnerable women?
SM: Fighting for what is right, and wanting to help those in need, is something that I’ve always had within me. I have a strong moral compass, and I can’t bear to see injustice. It’s hard for me not to want to help every cause, but The Sharan Project was one that really resonated with me, and in parts mirrored my own journey. No one should be disowned or experience pain for being them, or for choosing the life they want to live.
THG: You also started the campaign Create for Kindness last year, which aims to support artists who were affected by the pandemic. Could you share what inspired you to embark on this project, and what you hope to achieve through it? What was the response to the campaign like?
SM: Create for Kindness actually started with a hashtag #CreateForCorona. It was around the time that entertainers were losing their jobs, and venues around the world were closing. The arts scene was momentarily obliterated. I wanted to create something that helped build the morale of all of us going through this, and encourage performers to continue to create from home. Together we released a video piece of performers around the world, and that evolved into a greater mission of creating for kindness. Throughout the campaign we encouraged people to donate to the WHO’s (World Health Organization) covid relief fund to help end the pandemic.
THG: Are there other communities that you wish to work with in the future?
SM: There’s always more as individuals we can do to help. I’d love to return to India again, when it’s safe to do so, and help children there struggling making brave choices to pursue arts. That and so many other things. Where I can help, I try to do so.
THG: What are some upcoming projects you look forward to?
SM: Right now I’m set to release my second NFT (non-fungible token) collection, which is very exciting. I love the combination of arts and technology, as you can probably imagine with a background in IT! I’m also excited to head towards film and television. The moment feels right, and I’m looking forward to seizing it.
THG: What would you like to be remembered for?
SM: Being a kind person who made a difference.