The Burlesque Queen Who Was Condemned For Finding True Love
February 13, 2018|Andrea Mejía
Following her heart almost finished her successful career as an exotic dancer.
Thankfully, these days interracial marriages are neither illegal nor uncommon. In this way, we can say that we have improved as a society because only a few decades ago these marriages were the target of social backlash, and in the worst cases, threats or even attacks from people who thought their views about race were more important than the love between two people. This is what happened to one of the most famous burlesque dancers of the twentieth century. Although she is now considered to be an icon of the golden age of burlesque, in her early years, following her heart and going against social taboos led to a media attack that almost ended her flourishing career. In her youth, she was known as Annie Blanche Banks, but later, she legally changed her name to her stage name, Tempest Storm, the Queen of Exotic Dancers.
It seems that her stage name was a fateful adjective to describe her career and life as well as her strength to go against all odds. She was born in 1928, and her childhood was defined by the Depression. She grew up in Newton County, Georgia, but left at a young age due to the abuse she endured, first from her stepfather, and later when five men, including a policeman, kidnapped and raped her. After that traumatic experience, she ran away from her hometown and married a US Marine, so that she would be completely free from her parents’ custody according to the laws at the time. Yet she quickly annulled the marriage and worked as a waitress until she was 17, when she finally decided to enter the world of burlesque dancing.
At the time, burlesque wasn’t as socially frowned upon as it would be decades later. Back then, it was common to consider burlesque dancing as a means of gaining fame and empowerment because it was a profession that deviated from those that were commonly associated with women, like being secretaries. Famous burlesque dancers were admired by many. However, to become memorable, Annie Blanche Banks needed a good stage name. After listening to some suggestions, her talent manager, Lillian Hunt, came up with the name that would make her skyrocket to fame: Tempest Storm. So, in the 1950s, Tempest’s fame increased to the point that she had several famous fans, including Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. But in her stormy (no pun intended) love life, characterized by multiple affairs and four marriages, one relationship would mark her life and almost end her career.
Now, you might think that her steamy love life and being a burlesque dancer would be a “good” reason for 1950s society to condemn her. Yet it was the racism of the time that led to true social backlash and almost complete banishment from Hollywood and Las Vegas. The reason? Falling in love and marrying African-American singer Herb Jeffries. When studios found out about her marriage, they tried to ban her from acting in films or performing in burlesque shows because many believed that the marriage between a white woman and a man of color was an abomination. Even though she had found a man she truly loved and with who she wanted to share her life and start a family, society attacked her because they thought that action was horrible enough to totally destroy someone’s career.
Despite the social backlash, in 1963, Tempest and Herb had a daughter named Patricia Ann. Sadly, this family story doesn't have such happy ending. There are different versions regarding the events led to the end of Tempest and Herb's marriage. According to the dancer herself, around that time, she decided to tour across the US to further her career, and she brought her daughter along to her shows. Nonetheless, when she received a menacing phone call threatening Patricia Ann, who was still a little girl, she decided to stop taking her to the shows. However, being away from her family and focusing on her career caused a crisis in her marriage that eventually led to her divorce from Herb, who kept her daughter's custody. That's why even nowadays, despite Tempest's attempts to reconnect with her daughter, they continued to have an estranged relationship.
Now, I don't really believe in coincidences, because curiously enough, Tempest's career boosted after that tour that was linked with her divorce, and she became the star she is nowadays. Perhaps the huge effort she made in her performances was successful and helped her fight media backlash. Nonetheless, I believe that her success had to do with the fact that she was no longer part of an interracial family; therefore, she was no longer blacklisted. There is no concrete evidence to prove this last theory, but it wouldn't be as far-fetched if we really see the events with a socially critical eye, because the media can determine who becomes famous or infamous.
As I mentioned before, Tempest Storm's life has been anything but easy. Now, she is an icon and she has overcome many obstacles to reach the place she has in history. Nevertheless, to reach that, she had to make many sacrifices along the way, including the love of her family, all because of society’s decision to attack them due to the racism at the time. Hopefully, nowadays, if things have really changed, stories like this one won't be repeated, and those who dream of fame and work hard for it won't have to give up other valuable parts of life, such as love and family, because of harmful prejudice.
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