In the long, slow climb back to her feet — quite literally, after she was struck by a van while leaving her job at Merle Norman Cosmetics at Knoxville’s West Town Mall in December 2011 — Laura Mullaney set her eyes on a singular prize:
“One more good year,” Mullaney told me recently, during a phone conversation to chat about this weekend’s headliner slot at the Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival. It’s being billed as her retirement show, and although she’ll do one more in October as a “funeral” for her stage persona — “Hellcat Harlowe” — it’s the end of an era for the fringe arts in East Tennessee, which were practically nonexistent before Mullaney introduced burlesque to local audiences starting in 2005.
At the beginning of 2012, however, she wondered if her entertainment career had come to an abrupt end.
“All I wanted then was one more good year to go out on my own terms, but last year marked more time in burlesque post-accident than pre-accident, so that’s a big milestone,” she said. “I got my one good year in, and then I thought, ‘Let’s see how long I can ride this out.’ Now, with my prior career in fetish for 11 years and now 14 years in burlesque, that’s 25 years — pretty much my entire adult life. And as much as I love it, I kind of like the idea of doing other things.”
A 1993 graduate of Heritage High School and the daughter of Gail and the late Pete Mullaney, Laura was a self-described goth kid who credits several early influences, including retired Heritage/Maryville High teacher Sherry Petrowski, with encouraging her in speech, drama and forensics. On stage, she emerged from her shell, she said, and a hellcat was born.
“It’s pretty amazing: I was a misfit kid from a small town and a small community, and here I’ve gone on and done all these things I never would have dreamed I would do,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing I want to leave people with: If someone feels like there’s not a place for them and that they don’t belong, sometimes you have to make your own place.
“I think Blount County is more progressive than it gets credit for — there’s a sizable LGBTQ community, and the recent Blount Pride event, even though I didn’t get to go, was very successful. My ancestors are from there, and they’ve always been live-and-let-live people.”
While burlesque — true burlesque, which takes its cue from old vaudeville shows and emphasizes sensuality more than sexuality — was always one of her interests, it became a passion when she took a trip to Las Vegas and visited Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce, a high-profile burlesque club at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. She met the owner, picked his brain and came back to East Tennessee determined to form a local troupe. Within four months, she had recruited eight ladies and established White Lightnin’ Burlesque, which performed at venues as diverse as clubs hosting goth dance nights to wine-and-cheese soirees at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
After bouncing back from her accident, she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2014, where she became heavily involved in that city’s burlesque scene as well. The city eventually lost its charm, however, and earlier this year, she returned to East Tennessee.
“When I moved back, the only plan I had was to regroup, and I knew it was getting close to time for me to retire from performing, because I had done everything I wanted to do, and there’s not a big market for classic burlesque in Knoxville,” she said. “I knew I would be welcomed to perform, but it’s not sustainable to do it regularly. And I’ve had a really good run at this, so I’m ready to give somebody else time in the spotlight.”
Everything seems to be coming full circle for Mullaney, who still makes it over to Blount County occasionally to see her mom or visit with old friends. She’s now an instructor at her own alma mater, the Tennessee School of Beauty, and she’s excited about the opportunity to mentor young women in ways similar to what she’s done with burlesque.
“I really enjoy helping them in some of those formative years, when they are struggling with things like self-esteem and body positivity,” she said. “I was 30 when I started burlesque, and at the time I thought, ‘I’ll maybe do this for 10 years, because nobody is going to want to see me take my clothes off when I’m 40.’ But boy, was I wrong — and I’m glad I was wrong!
“Sexy is not an age or a number on a scale or a perceived gender. You can be sexy and be anything you want to be. I like being an example of that, and as far as teaching goes, I like being that person who can make a difference.”
It’s fitting, then, that her “retirement” performance, which takes place on Saturday at The Bijou Theatre, is part of a festival that owes her pioneering efforts a debt of gratitude. While she’s grateful to have played such a role, she’s also quick to point out: “A lot of people put in a whole lot of hard work making it what it is now,” she said.
“When I knew I would be backing off and deciding to retire, I contacted the producers of the festival and said, ‘Hey, is there something coming up where I can do my final performance,’ and they said, ‘We’ve got to have you at the festival!’” she said. “We’ll be doing a classic gown-and-glove routine, and then on Oct. 5, I’ll be at the Erotica Bizarre ‘Season of the Witch’ show on Oct. 5 at Broadway Center for the Performing Arts to go back to my gothic roots a bit.
“So people will have a chance to see the elegant side of gown-and-glove at the festival, and then see the Hellcat we all know and love who’s the bad girl on Oct. 5. It’s all going to be bittersweet, but I’m happy.”