Two things kept going through Laura Mullaney’s mind as she was loaded into an ambulance in the parking lot of West Town Mall last December:
1) Whether the injuries she’d just received were grievous enough to warrant amputation of one of her legs:
“I knew I was hurt; I just didn’t know how badly,” she told The Daily Times this week over lunch at Tomato Head in downtown Maryville. “I had boots on, so I couldn’t see any gore, and I stayed still, but what was running through my head was, ‘I’m a dancer. Will they have to cut my leg off?’”
2) The other thing, the most telling thing about Mullaney’s commitment to the art of burlesque and her role as a modern-day pioneer of the style in East Tennessee, was this:
“I kept thinking, ‘If my leg is amputated, I’m going to need a new stage name,’” she said with a laugh.
Fortunately, her injuries weren’t so severe that she lost a limb. But it did impact, and continues to do so, her career as a dancer. After months of convalescence and physical therapy, she makes her return to the stage on Friday night at HottRods on Alcoa Highway, a show by the troupe she founded — White Lightnin’ Burlesque — that’s being billed as the triumphant return of her sultry alter-ego, “Hellcat Harlowe.”SClB“I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t do anything high-impact, so what I’ll be doing is slower and more sultry,” she said. “As my recovery has progressed, I’ve talked to my doctor and knew I’d be performing in a somewhat diminished capacity. My original goal was August, but he told me that as long as I say within the restrictions he gave me, I could perform. So I’ve modified my choreography, and I’ll be up there on Friday night.”
That’s welcome news for White Lightnin’ fans, who have been enthusiastic supporters of Mullaney and her fellow dancers since the beginning. The 1993 graduate of Blount County’s Heritage High School, the daughter of Gail and the late Pete Mullaney, has worked tirelessly over the past six years to promote burlesque as a tasteful, sensual art form. Occasionally bawdy, often funny and a throwback to a time when the suggestion of sexuality was a lot more provocative than the full reveal, burlesque has been a passion of Mullaney’s since she took a trip to Las Vegas.
Even before that, she said, she was raised in a household where an appreciation for the arts was instilled in her by her parents.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, when there would be book-burnings or record-burnings, my parents would sit me down and tell me, ‘This isn’t right,’” she said. “They would say, ‘This is someone’s creation. You don’t have to buy it or look at it or listen to it, but you don’t destroy it.’”
Although she was active in drama and art in high school, studying theater at the University of Tennessee left her unfulfilled, and she gradually moved into performance art. She also got involved working as a hair and makeup artist, which led to her trip to Vegas. Long a fan of burlesque, she had watch video clips of such classic burlesque pin-ups as Bettie Page and Tempest Storm, and she was also intrigued by the possibility of visiting Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce, a high-profile burlesque club at Vegas’s Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.
“I saw it as very sexy and entertaining,” she said. “It’s very classy in a retro kind of way, and I thought it was very empowering to women. I think a lot of people who know nothing about it mistake what I do for what goes on in a gentlemen’s club, but there’s a big difference.”
She had a blast at the Forty Deuce, introduced herself to the owner and picked his brain. An open invitation to ladies in the crowd to join the performers on the stage inspired Mullaney to get up there, and after a subsequent trip to Vegas and the Forty Deuce, she returned to Knoxville inspired to start a burlesque troupe in East Tennessee. That was in October 2005; by February 2006, White Lightnin’ Burlesque had formed.
She picked eight girls as the core members of the troupe, originally called herself “Miz Kitty, the Wildcat from Wildwood,” and got White Lightnin’ in front of a number of diverse audiences, from club shows at dance nights sponsored by the local goth scene to wine-and-cheese nights at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
“We get about 100 to 150 people coming out per show,” she said. “There are a lot of people in their late 20s and early 30s who enjoy what we do, and a lot of couples. We have a fanbase in the rockabilly and the classic car communities, and we have some fans who remember the old pin-up style of the 1950s.”
In addition to performance, another goal of White Lightnin’ has been to empower women — real women of all shapes and sizes, who pride themselves on looking good, feeling good about their bodies and having a good time. Over time, White Lightnin’ became an integral part of the Knoxville arts community ... and then in December, Mullaney’s world was shattered.
Due to pending civil litigation, she can’t go into many details. What’s undisputed is that she was leaving her job at Merle Norman Cosmetics in West Town on Dec. 18 when she was struck by a car. She didn’t see it coming but remained conscious throughout the accident, which fractured both of her legs. Throughout the holiday season, Mullaney — who lives in Knoxville — convalesced at her mother’s Blount County home (“She was a total sport with this endless parade of burlesque people who came to visit me,” she added) and pondered how her injuries would affect her.
“I was supposed to perform in Charlotte on New Year’s Eve, and for a while, every time I would think of that unfinished costume, I would just cry,” she said. “But really, I was just so grateful I was alive and not hurt any worse than I was that I tried to stay positive and focused. I’ve been frustrated, but I haven’t really been angry, because I’ve tried to think of worse scenarios. I’m not happy that it happened, but I would rather it happen to me than someone who might never have made a recovery.
“Every doctor visit I had, I would be in the waiting room with someone who had been through something incredibly worse — people who had the whole side of their body crushed, or head injuries that would affect them for the rest of their lives. It really puts things into perspective.”
She continues to heal — fans who appreciate her boots and high heels may be disappointed that this weekend’s show will feature a barefooted Hellcat Harlowe, and she’s having to ease slowly into her patented shimmy-shimmy-shake routine with a fringed skirt. But she’s on the mend. And on the move — she’ll remain in East Tennessee until the civil matters surrounding the accident are resolved, but she hopes to relocate to Charlotte by October. Not because she’s dissatisfied with East Tennessee — “I really consider myself from Blount County; I’m still the ‘Wildcat from Wildwood,’” she said — or with the White Lightnin’ fanbase.
But the area’s “blue laws” make it difficult for burlesque to reach the potential it does in a city like Charlotte, where she’s an official member of Big Mamma’s Productions and best friends with owner/operator Deana “Big Mamma D” Pendragon.
“Burlesque here is not considered on par with the rest of the arts community,” Mullaney said. “That, and the laws that were designed to govern gentlemen’s club and the serving of alcohol censor what we do, and I’m tired of it. We have to wear half-bras, because we can only expose a certain amount of breast, and two-thirds of the buttocks must be covered ... it’s ridiculous.”
Right now, the future of White Lightnin’ itself is up in the air. Many of her fellow dancers are moving away from East Tennessee as well, and tentative plans are to maintain the troupe as a traveling group. But one thing is for certain — whatever form it takes, it will endure.
“As long as I am in existence, there will be a White Lightnin’ Burlesque,” Mullaney said.