When Wyatt Carpenter auditioned for a spot in his first-ever burlesque show, his only training consisted of a routine he memorized off the internet and hours spent watching the movie “Moulin Rouge” on repeat as a child. As he danced and slowly stripped in front of Deanna Danger, who would become his burlesque mentor, he didn’t even have a stage name yet.
Carpenter never considered burlesque a potential creative outlet for himself until he attended Purple Life in 2017—a dance party at Godfrey’s featuring a DJ, new burlesque performers every hour, and several group numbers. Within a matter of weeks, he was enrolled in Danger’s Boom Boom Basics Burlesque & Performing Arts Studio course and booked to perform at Purple Life. Under their tutelage, he learned to craft his own choreography and fell in love with the art form.
“What I really like about burlesque is that its history is rooted in theater and storytelling,” explains Carpenter. “Theaters were having trouble drawing people in during the Great Depression, and performers taking their clothes off really helped ticket sales. That’s why you want to have a story arc for your act, so there’s always a reason you're taking your clothes off. Your affect on stage has to relate to the story you’re trying to tell.”
When Danger asked for his stage name in the middle of a class, Carpenter was caught off guard and assembled his pseudonym using a formula to build a stripper name from an old "Will & Grace" episode: the name of your first pet plus the street you grew up on. For Carpenter, that equation delivered the name Bert Shaffer. His family roots out west and years of watching cowboy movies with his dad made him keep the name; Burt Reynolds was one of his favorites in those films and exudes the masculinity of a bygone era.
Like drag, burlesque can be either incredibly expensive or astonishingly affordable depending on one’s resourcefulness. “I enjoy costume making, so I make a lot of my own outfits myself using items I find at thrift stores and customizing them to fit my acts,” says Carpenter. “Many performers spend tons of money on professionally made costumes, but it really depends on what you're into and how sparkly you want to be.”
With an aesthetic he describes as “high glam, very sparkly, and effeminate energy mixed up with [his] very masculine presenting body,” Shaffer takes parts of Carpenter’s personality and turns them up to a ten. “I really enjoy making eye contact with people while I’m on stage and seeing their reactions,” he adds. “I wouldn’t say I'm a shy performer, to say the least. Bert is confident, sexy, and flirtatious.”
Those who witness Shaffer live on stage are likely to see high-energy dancing to early 2000s pop ranging from Beyoncé to Fergie—exactly those songs that inspired Carpenter through middle and high school when he was discovering his sexuality. As a child he loved dance lessons and ice skating but gave them up to avoid being ostracized as “the gay kid.” Performing “boylesque” allows him to tap into his long-suppressed feminine side and explore a fuller version of himself.
“Burlesque has given me the opportunity to go out on stage and be myself with confidence,” Carpenter says. “With my beard and body hair I appear so traditionally masculine, but burlesque offers me an opportunity to own my femininity and not shrink away from it but celebrate it.”
The burlesque scene in Richmond consists of a handful of troupes, shows every weekend, and a few dozen performers—but just a couple who do boylesque. As a project manager by day, Carpenter only has the bandwidth to do one show per month, but where he performs has gotten consistently fancier as his star has grown brighter.
Despite upcoming shows in D.C. and New York City, Carpenter hasn’t forgotten those upon whose shoulders he stands. “I’m really thankful to the Richmond burlesque community for welcoming me and booking me,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of all of these wonderful female performers.”
The next show you can catch Bert Shaffer in is “It’s Brittany, B*tch” at the Coalition Theater on Saturday, Aug. 13. Produced by Immodest Opulence & Ellie Quinn, the night will feature a range of hits and deep cuts celebrating the pop princess’ relatively recent freedom. With a pink fluffy boa and sparkly lingerie, Shaffer’s performance to “Make Me” is sure to bring the house down.
The show also feels like a full circle moment for Carpenter who has a distinct memory of being in awe of Spears each time he saw her perform on TV as a kid. “I remember sitting there, watching her 2000 Video Music Awards performance, and being in awe of how confident and cool she was,” he says. “Every time I perform I imagine I'm getting ready to go out on stage with Brittany.”
Immodest Opulence and Ellie Quinn present “It’s Brittany, B*tch Burlesque” at Coalition Theater, 8 W. Broad St. on Saturday, Aug. 13 from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Tickets start at $15 and are $20 at the door.
Correction and clarification: This article has been updated to correct a pronoun for Deanna Danger as they/them, as well as spelling out her entire business name.