Lili VonSchtupp makes her way toward the stage at a past performance of the… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
The first time, when the spotlight beckoned, she backed away from the stage.
She was nearing 40, a size 14, her body "long instead of perky."
"I think we have a runner!" the emcee yelled. A group of dancers blocked her way.
And then, to the brassy notes of an old show tune, they nudged her onstage to strip.
Eight years later, here in this land of the thin, blond ideal, the woman who changed her name legally to Lili VonSchtupp draws crowds to a dive bar in Hollywood to celebrate real women with real bodies.
The troupe that takes the stage just before midnight at VonSchtupp's Monday Night Tease calls itself the Rubenesque Burlesque.
For four minutes, the women shake, bounce and bump to a hip-hop song, eventually stripping down up top to black leather bras. When those come off, the crowd at Three Clubs erupts. The audience hoots approvingly at these dancers, each of whom weighs well over 200 pounds.
VonSchtupp, now 45, cheers loudest of all.
"It doesn't matter if you have cellulite, it doesn't matter if you're a little overweight or you're a little too thin or a little too angular or whatever," says VonSchtupp. "Burlesque allows you to be a dream girl for a minute."
"It's about being OK in your skin," agrees one of the Rubenesque dancers, who performs under the name Juicy D. Light. "It's not easy being a woman in a body, especially a fat body. But it's like, you can't hate your body or hate yourself when a crowd of people is screaming your name."
Audio slide show: A burlesque show that takes off
Monday Night Tease is the longest-running weekly burlesque show in Los Angeles. It's known as a venue for dancers of all shapes and shades, as well as for its cheeky humor. (One crowd favorite wears a bra made out of two juicers — and while undressing, she squeezes herself a drink.)
A crimson-lit bar lurking in a strip mall, between a gas station and a cheap motel on Vine Street, Three Clubs has the feel of a rock 'n' roll bordello.
It's nothing fancy.
For a dressing room, VonSchtupp and the other dancers squeeze into a back storage space crowded with cases of beer and economy-sized jars of maraschino cherries.
Some of the women preen in front of a mirror, rouging lips, while others listen to music through headphones as they practice their dance steps. Make-up bags overflow with nail polish, glitter and garter belts.
In case anyone forgets anything, VonSchtupp packs an emergency kit with fish-net stockings, spare pasties and an extra g-string thong. She calls herself the "den mother of the best sorority ever."
It's a sorority she always longed to be a part of, but for years she didn't have the nerve to join.
Growing up in Florida, VonSchtupp used to steal her father's Playboy magazines. She thought the models were glamorous — feminine and strong.
Recently she apologized to her brothers, who were wrongly punished for the crime. As an adult, while running a day spa and producing a radio talk show, she amassed a large collection of ashtrays, playing cards and other kitsch featuring women in pinup poses.
She also started using the name Lili VonSchtupp — a nod to the saucy Lili Von Shtupp played by Madeline Kahn in "Blazing Saddles."
She says she saw striptease as a kind of liberation, but one best suited for young women with "perfect Hollywood bodies."
Soon after she moved to Los Angeles for the radio show in 2003, her boyfriend at the time spotted a Craigslist ad for a burlesque class and said, "Hey, isn't that the stuff you're into?"
Like many other cities, L.A. was in the midst of a full-on burlesque revival. The 19th century vaudevillian art form, which had all but disappeared in the 1960s, had been reborn, and in many ways remade, in the 1990s.
Some acts bordered on performance art. Others had the do-it-yourself ethic and aesthetic of punk rock. And in a major shift from the old days, most were produced by women.
In classes, VonSchtupp learned the tricks of the trade, like how to shed her costume without accidentally shedding her underwear. After that first performance, she was hooked.
At Monday Night Tease, comedian Mike Schmidt starts the night off with a promise.
"I will not babble so much," he says. "We're all here to see the beautiful ladies take off their clothes."
Nursing cocktails at a few dozen small tables that circle the stage are married couples, single men and a boisterous group of college girls out for a ladies night.
During intermission, one crowd member cannot stop gushing.
"It's not a strip show," she said. "It's like real girls having fun."
Phil St. Vincent, a tattooed bassist for the band Spiders and Snakes, is one of several regulars. He says he likes Monday Night Tease because "beauty isn't what you're being force-fed."
"This is liberation from the archetype that most people consider sexiness," he said. "If you go to a strip club, guys do not want to see a size-12 girl with an hourglass figure."
Audio slide show: A burlesque show that takes off