When Priscilla Yuki Wilson, 28, takes the stage, she’s Madame Bessie Snow, a sultry burlesque dancer that exudes unapologetic joy. When she shimmies out of a curve-embracing dress to tassel pasties and a thong, it’s a celebration of the female form. More than anything, though, it’s a celebration of Wilson’s power as a queer, femme, woman of color with more than five years of sobriety.
“There are a lot of queer people in the scene, femme people,” she said. “I think [burlesque] in general has always had this notion of being for the male gaze, but that’s not who I’m doing it for; I’m doing it for me. I find it a little funny with men; I’m like, ‘You won’t have me.'”
Wilson’s sexuality — which she describes as liking “anyone who looks like Justin Bieber” — is often misconstrued, just like her racial and ethnic background.
“I definitely love that people automatically assume I’m a straight woman before they meet my partner,” she said. “What you see is not what you get; it’s the same with my race. It’s private and internal.”
“I think [burlesque] in general has always had this notion of being for the male gaze, but that’s not who I’m doing it for; I’m doing it for me. I find it a little funny with men; I’m like, ‘You won’t have me.'”
Her dad is black and her mother is Japanese. In fact, even her stage name — referred to as a “muggle name” in the burlesque community — celebrates her family; Bessie was the name of her paternal grandmother, a singer in Louisiana who died before Wilson was born. Yuki is her middle name, which her grandmother chose; it means “snow” in Japanese.
“Both of my grandmas are badass women in their own ways, and my grandma from my mom’s side is one of the strongest people I know,” she said.
Wilson has always been a dancer and an artist, but only started burlesque dancing last August. She took a series of solo classes and helped out with “kittening” — cleaning up after shows.
“I didn’t really know anything about burlesque; I thought it was just glamorous stripping,” she said. “The moment I started, it bit me. I feel like I’ve found a fusion of dancing, acting, being pretty and glamorous, and naked — I love being naked. I think that helps.”
In the past year, Wilson has performed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, including at San Francisco’s Hubba Hubba Revue with the Fishnet Follies burlesque troupe. In addition, she won her first competition in April at Nudie Nubie’s SF, a monthly burlesque competition. In August, she’ll be competing in the next round against other winners.
“I didn’t really know anything about burlesque; I thought it was just glamorous stripping. The moment I started, it bit me. I feel like I’ve found a fusion of dancing, acting, being pretty and glamorous, and naked — I love being naked. I think that helps.”
Despite her newfound success, Wilson remains humble. Just like sobriety, she knows that nothing is guaranteed. Instead, Wilson relies on her ability to remain vulnerable. In fact, she remembers going to a 12-step meeting when she had 15 days sober. At the meeting, a woman celebrating a decade of sobriety received a cake. After blowing out the candles, the woman said, “That’s 10 years of feeling every day, motherfuckers.”
“I’ve felt every feeling these past five years,” Wilson said. “The gift has been the willingness to really go that deep. I’ve always been spiritual, but now I know what it means really climb inside.”
While a lot of burlesque shows are held in bars, Wilson said she had a “good footing in sobriety before I started all of this.” In addition, her partner is sober, and they’ve been an integral part of her performance; in fact, they go by Blix Snow, and they help with everything from sound to clean-up.
“People like the fact that I’m sober,” Wilson said. “Blix and I are out and about more than people who drink.”
Just like sobriety, she knows that nothing is guaranteed. Instead, Wilson relies on her ability to remain vulnerable.
Plus, Wilson is able to stay focused on her craft, weaving history, storytelling, and depth into her pieces. She was born in Sapporo, Japan — “No, I’m not a military kid,” Wilson wrote on an Instagram post — and will occasionally wear a summer kimono, also known as a yukata, that her great-grandmother made. She calls this act “Geisha’s Paradise,” a transfixing act where she eventually strips down to her tassels and thong more than halfway through the routine.
For Wilson, “Geisha’s Paradise” is a celebration of her culture. It’s also an invitation for more diverse performers on the burlesque stage.
“There aren’t a lot of women of color in the burlesque community,” she said. “Creating more space for people of color is important.”
Plus, Wilson has witnessed a certain amount of cultural appropriation in the burlesque world.
“I’m really struggling right now with being a witness to someone who’s not a person of color but looks racially ambiguous do cultural pieces that are not their culture, and participate in brown girl activities,” Yuiki said. “It’s interesting to me; burlesque and sobriety has taught me these identifications, these are things that I want to be held accountable, and keep other people in check, too.”
However, Wilson recognizes that as someone who is biracial, she has a certain type of privilege, particularly when it comes to ambiguity. In fact, she analyzed this concept in 2014 by sending photos of herself to Photoshoppers in 18 countries. The project went viral.
“Everyone should either go to a burlesque show or try it themselves. It’s awkward and sexy, and if you find your niche, it’s a beautiful art form.”
“Being a person of color and constantly being mistaken — I’m not what most people think,” she said. “Most people think I’m Latina, and I could probably get away with Spanish-inspired pieces, but I’m not going to do that. It takes a certain amount of education and wokeness, if you will.”
It’s part of that complexity, though, that draws Wilson to burlesque. While people frequently mistake her for the wrong sexuality, ethnicity, or race, she knows that’s part of the wildly complex nature of being a human being. And in her sobriety, Wilson has found burlesque as a way to express these intricate truths.
“Everyone should either go to a burlesque show or try it themselves,” she said. “It’s awkward and sexy, and if you find your niche, it’s a beautiful art form.”