A GIANT mass of pink feathers sits centre stage, quivering gently to the sound of jungle drums. Two beaked heads on long necks poke out and begin pecking at the pile of fluff, which suddenly springs up to reveal itself as a single, giant flamingo, wings flapping dramatically.

But wait, it’s not a bird – it’s a Marilyn Monroe lookalike in a flamingo headdress, and with a few beguiling twirls and hip thrusts she’s down to nothing but a diamante bra, g-string and pink feather fan, and the crowd is going wild.

This is Sydney’s Imogen Kelly, and this is Australian burlesque in 2013.

Until last weekend when she passed the mantle on to a competitor from Finland, Kelly was the “World Reigning Queen of Burlesque”, crowned after that stunning flamingo act stole the show at the 2012 burlesque Hall of Fame awards in Las Vegas.

Kelly’s win not only highlighted Australia’s burgeoning burlesque scene on the world stage, it helped to legitimise the performance – often derided as “stripping for posh people” – as an art form locally. Now more Australian performers are beginning to don sequins and tassels and step into the global spotlight, and more international acts are sitting up and taking notice.

As co-founder of the nationally touring Australian Burlesque Festival, Melbourne performer Rosy Rabbit, 28, says the art form has never been more popular.

But what actually is it?

“Essentially burlesque is a tease,” she says.

“Generally it’s striptease but I’ve seen other acts where a performer doesn’t take anything off except a glove and has the audience absolutely wild.

“But it can also take in multiple genres, from dance to theatre to song to comedy. It’s extremely diverse.”

Now in its fourth year, Rosy’s festival has grown from being a mainly local showcase to including some of the world’s top burlesque performers – this year the line-up includes Kelly alongside international stars Indigo Blue, from Seattle, and Canada’s Roxi D’Lite.

“Definitely in the last two years burlesque has really come into the public focus,” Rosy says. “It used to be that you’d find burlesque in dingy little bars, but it’s a bit of a phenomenon now and we’re not actually sure why people are so attracted to it.

“I think it’s partly that it’s so wonderful to go to a show and see these artists that are so comfortable in their art and in expressing themselves and their sensuality on stage, which is really inspiring.

“In general day-to-day life there’s so many difficult things with body image and sexualisation of the body, and it’s just a really beautiful thing to have a celebration of that instead of judging it all the time.”

Starting in Melbourne, the festival will bring a rotating line-up of stars to 10 cities and towns around the country throughout this month, with Rosy, Roxi, Indigo and 11 others coming to Adelaide’s Nexus Theatre on Thursday.

Adelaide’s line-up also includes two “boylesque” performers – Perth strong man The Astonishing Johnny Domino and local lad Pretty Boy B, who performs in nothing but roller skates and a g-string – which may go some way to explaining why the majority of burlesque audiences are female.

Another Adelaide performer joining the tour is Luna Eclipse, 25, who runs Peaches ’N’ Gin burlesque troupe, holding monthly shows and weekly burlesque classes.

As one of the many inspired by Kelly – she got into burlesque in 2009 after seeing her perform at the Adelaide Fringe – Luna has seen the art form’s “striptease” stigma slowly fade over the years with mainstream audiences.

“Burlesque is more about the journey towards nudity, I guess, whereas a strip show is about the destination,” she says.

“It’s a fun and naughty experience that women can relate to, it’s a bit of adult entertainment that doesn’t feel geared toward the male eye. It’s a bit more sensual and the costumes are usually fabulous.”

First published in SA Weekend, June 8, 2013.