Interview: Tempest Storm, Icon of Burlesque
Valued for her physical appearance in a world where women were denied a voice, Tempest Storm found safe harbour and social power with a little jiggle and a lot of courage
By Jay Stone
Annie Banks was born on Leap Year Day 88 years ago in rural Georgia, a beautiful young girl destined to have an unhappy childhood. Her stepfather tried to sexually abuse her. Her classmates teased her because she had a womanly figure even as a young teenager. She ran away from home at 14 to get married to her first of four husbands (the marriages variously lasted one night, two weeks, two years and 10 years.) She moved to Las Vegas to be a showgirl and got hired as an exotic dancer: she asked her first agent, “Do you think my busts are too big for this business?”
It turns out that there was no such thing. After a while, the agent decided to give her a new, more exotic name, Sunny Day. “I’m not a Sunny Day,” she said, so the agent came up with an alternative: Tempest Storm.
She got her first big break in 1951 at something called the Mickey Awards, a joking alternative to the Oscars. The hosts were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the comedy act that were at the time the biggest names in show business. Tempest Storm arrived to get an award for “the two biggest props in Hollywood.” Newspaper ads talked about her “44-inch Hollywood pleasure chest.”
That was the start of a life in burlesque and later, in the movies, although that career was cut short when she married Herb Jeffries, who was the singer for Duke Ellington’s band. Jeffries was black at a time when blacks and whites did not wed one another, and marrying him cost Tempest a promised film contract.
She was a headliner in a field that represented, at the time, the ultimate in public sexuality. Before girlie magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, before all-nude strip clubs, before the Internet, Tempest Storm and other striptease artists — women with such names as Gypsy Rose Lee and Cupcakes Cassidy —would dance on stage and carefully remove this and that item of clothing until all was revealed.
“I did not have the faintest idea that it would have an effect on my career,” she says today. “I would have done it anyway. (Jeffries family) were good to me and kind to me. I didn’t get that from my family or white people I connected with. These people were so polite to me.”
She was a headliner in a field that represented, at the time, the ultimate in public sexuality. Before girlie magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, before all-nude strip clubs, before the Internet, Tempest Storm and other striptease artists — women with such names as Gypsy Rose Lee and Cupcakes Cassidy —would dance on stage and carefully remove this and that item of clothing until all was revealed. Well, almost all: they wore G-strings and, in some jurisdictions, their nipples were covered with glittery “pasties.”
Along the way, she met and bedded many prominent people. The list includes John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley, as well as Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Vic Damone and Engelbert Humperdinck.
“I beg your pardon,” Tempest says over the phone from Toronto, where she is doing publicity for a new movie about her life. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was good friends with them. It wasn’t about their sexuality, it was about their greatness.”
Well, not quite. The documentary — directed by Toronto-based Nimisha Mukerji — outlines Tempest’s two most famous affairs, and she is happy to acknowledge them.
“Elvis was a real sweet southern boy. Handsome guy. I was 29, he was 22,” she says. She remembers the night they met in Las Vegas, where they were both performing. She was wearing a white lace gown and sitting at a table with three admirers when Elvis saw her from a nearby booth.
Elvis was a real sweet southern boy. Handsome guy. I was 29, he was 22…
“He came over kneeled down and he was twiddling with my skirt and he said, ‘Can I join you?’ I said, ‘Ask these three gentlemen.’ They said, ‘Of course Elvis, come on.’ The chorus girls were mad at me after. He left them and came over to my table. We got along well, being a southern gentleman.”
Was he romantic? “Of course he was,” she says. “He taught me, I didn’t teach him.”
Her affair with Kennedy began when he was a senator from Massachusetts. “I said, ‘You’ll be president one of these days.’ I saw him several times after when he was president. Of course, if he was around now with all this media, he would never get away with that. It would be all over the Enquirer.”
For one thing, Kennedy was married at the time.
“I’m afraid he was,” Tempest says. “But it was, as they say, an unhappy one. They always say ‘My wife and I don’t get along.’ They were getting ready to divorce.”
They always say ‘My wife and I don’t get along.’
Elvis and JFK both treated her well. “They both knew I was a classy lady so they had to treat me with class. I demanded that, otherwise they were out the door.”
There are another, less glittery stories in the Tempest Storm movie as well. It tells how she is trying to connect with her estranged daughter Patricia, who appears to resent her because Tempest often left her alone while she went on the road to perform.
“Maybe when movie comes out I think she’ll see the light really,” Tempest says in her soft Georgia drawl. “She’s a beautiful girl, very educated. I don’t know what happened with her all of a sudden. She became a different person than I know.”
In the documentary, Tempest is also trying to track down her natural father, another sad episode in her life. But she refuses to consider the tragedies of family.
“I couldn’t dwell on that or I would have been as crazy as they were,” she says. “You have to overlook things because if you dwell on terrible things that happened in your life then you can’t get where you wanted to go and respect yourself. I’m always there if they changed their mind. I wouldn’t say no.”
Meanwhile, she is enjoying the second half of her career. She was performing until recently — she took a bad fall on stage and broke a hip — and now she tours festivals devoted to iconic strippers and their history. Burlesque is enjoying a small comeback (another documentary, League of Exotique Dancers, also looks at hall-of-fame strippers) and Tempest is a heroine to young fans.
You have to overlook things because if you dwell on terrible things that happened in your life then you can’t get where you wanted to go and respect yourself.
“In Vegas I was autographing photos from my audience and this one girl came up, she was so very nervous, and she was sort of wringing her hands and all of a sudden she says, ‘Oh my God, it’s so nice to meet you. It’s just like meeting the Pope.’ I thought that was so adorable.”
I asked her the secret of her longevity.
“I like to say I did everything right,” she says with a laugh. “No, I’ve always strived for being classy and sexy and make people respect me even though you’re taking your clothes off. But there’s a way of doing that. If you choose to do it otherwise, that’s not classy. Burlesque can be classy: beautiful costumes, and respond to your audience, have a great personality on stage, great wardrobe, and have a great rapport with your audience, which I always had. They respected me and I respect my audience.”
She remains in tiptop shape — she still fits into her old costumes — and with her hair a blazing red, she cuts a sexy figure. “I never drank, I never smoked, I never did drugs, I never went out after the shows and mingled with people: I went home after my show every night. I took care of myself,” she says.
Her one regret is that she never got the education she wanted. She’s also disappointed that her marriage to Jeffries cost her a contract with a New York record company. Tempest had studied voice and wanted to be a singer, but she hasn’t given up on that dream. “I talked to guy in L.A. a month ago, and he said, ‘Why don’t we record a couple of songs and see what happens?’ Thinking about it, at this stage of the game if I was to get a hit record, I’d say, ‘That’s it. I’ve done it all’.”
And she pretty well has.
“My greatest accomplishment? Still being in the business at this stage of the game. At 22. I was born on a leap year, you know. I feel 22. I really do. I act 18 sometimes.”
Tempest Storm opens June 17 in Toronto, June 18 in Vancouver and throughout the summer in other cities.
Photo above: Tempest Storm photo illustration by Victor Bonderoff
THE EX-PRESS, June 9, 2016