Meet Sukki Singapora, the woman who Desmond Tuttu referred to as wonderful, and who has turned burlesque from seedy to spectacular and fought to make it legal on home soil, all in the name of female empowerment.
Love or loathe her, you can’t ignore Sukki Singapora’s presence and larger-than-life personality. That colourful head of hair, hourglass figure and scintillating choice of outfits betray this artist’s talents, yet barely hint at her endeavours towards legitimising burlesque in Asia. But that’s exactly who she is — a force of nature who has over 160,000 followers on Instagram and no qualms about addressing the elephant in the room, whether it’s the sexual misconceptions surrounding burlesque or the traditional Asian mindset she constantly tries to battle.
Part Singaporean Indian, part English, Sukki stumbled upon burlesque by chance during a search for vintage Asian fashion role models. “Growing up, I was quite rebellious, non-conformist and very aware of my sexuality. So, discovering burlesque was as if this huge door had been opened to an art which was really made for me,” she reveals. Calling it “unquestionably feminist, empowering and appealing to my love for dance,” the 29-year-old left her job in the IT sector to hone her craft as a cabaret dancer. It didn’t take long before solo gigs came streaming in, opening the doors to the world of burlesque and unveiling her personality to the world.
Each of her theatre-like performances sees Sukki decked out in sheer, sequined outfits that sparkle brightly across the dimmed stage. Her glamorous, provocative appearance is accompanied by flamboyant moves that border on striptease, with elements of Bollywood, cabaret and vintage music peppered throughout. There’s zero nudity involved, and how the audience interprets her routine is entirely up to them. Sure, there are critics, but Sukki is unfazed. “A huge part of my passion and drive comes from having to go against what was expected of me, especially culturally as an Indian Singaporean. Having to challenge the stereotypes of sciences having more ‘value’ really pushed me to become fiercely passionate and prove a point when it came to my art,” she explains.
Any assumption that the burlesque image might shed when she’s not performing can be quickly dismissed. Sukki remains a bundle of energy, with the only change being her shyness in real life. “For some reason, when I’m up there on stage, it’s as if I’m filled with this rush of electricity.” Her commitment to the cause is apparent in the significant milestones she’s reached. For one, the legalisation of burlesque in Singapore finally came about in 2015, following four years of lobbying and cloak-and-dagger workshops held behind closed doors. The opening of the Singapore Burlesque Society in 2012 was another highlight of hers.
Ever the power performer, Suki has now gone international, splitting her time between live shows around the world, filming performance content, rehearsals, training and activism. This artist’s even been invited to Buckingham Palace and is the global ambassador of 1880, a private members’ club. She shuttles between Singapore and Los Angeles, counting the latter as a “completely different universe” and an inspiration for her to reach higher, even if she rarely has days to herself. “It’s hard to take time off when your job is the one thing you love doing most in the world,” she adds.
Sukki feels that burlesque’s message is timely. Forget any negative connotations of sexual, seedy performances reserved for men. Today’s burlesque scene associates itself with the sensual, and women make up the majority of audiences. “A huge part of dispelling those myths is how you present yourself when it comes to a sensual art form,” Sukki tells us frankly. “If I’m going to put up sex-positive material, or imagery, I’ll always accompany or surround it with strong feminist, or body confidence rhetoric.” That includes inspiring other women out there to throw caution to the wind, own their confidence and celebrate their rights through the freedom of expression.
Sukki’s schedule may be packed, but this self-professed workaholic still has plenty to do. New acts and aesthetics will “rock the boat and set the tone for burlesque to develop and evolve. The age of the mysterious femme fatale is over, it’s time for burlesque to deliver someone real.”