While the gritty city may have strong roots in blue-collar industries, after dark its underbelly reeks of sex.

Words: Kristin Tolbert
Images: Laura Petrilla

Covered in street art, this “Rust Belt” city has old money roots. But once blighted by pollution, Pittsburgh has become a leader in eco-friendly infrastructure. The city is full of contradictions like these and it’s this paradox, that makes people very closeted. So while people go about their daily lives, everyone who is anyone here knows that Pittsburgh is for creeping and just how far it goes is anyone’s guess.

You’d be surprised just how many kinky parties and sex conventions take place on a given night for such a seemingly boring college town that is touted as a great place to start a family, and for young people—alike. In 2009, Forbes ranked Pittsburgh the 24th Best City for Singles. So while it’s not at the top, it’s not quite at the bottom either. And there’s more to it than meets the eye. There is a thriving fetish scene and these are not the parties listed in your typical city paper or event blast.

Pittsburgh’s alternative burlesque troupe, the BridgeCity Bombshells, are infamous for their zombie cabarets and fetish fantasy parties. Founder, Elizabeth Couteau, admits that while plenty of creepers have propositioned her, she’s no Heidi Fleiss. “We are not strippers!” she exclaims while putting on her couture pasties and sequins-embellished bra. As the ringleader of this deviant sideshow, you’d expect her to be dark and serious but she is bubbly instead. With lightning bolts tattooed up her side, Elizabeth keeps her audience attention with a slow, sultry reveal, harking back to traditional burlesque performers of yesteryear. Undressing, Elizabeth coyly smirks as she gyrates to the sounds of Portishead then turns around quickly to give the camera a shimmy-shake. A classic vamp, but she’s no bimbo.

With a degree in business from a reputable local four-year college, Elizabeth uses her savvy to make a stage for something that no one else is really doing in Pittsburgh. She started in 2006 as an assistant Dom (dominatrix) to Mistress Natasha Fiore of Elises Playground, founded by Miss Aileen Ruiz in New Orleans. But it wasn’t until after Hurricane Katrina, when the theatrical fetish company was moved to Pittsburgh that Couteau would join. Together they started picking up a fan base amongst the ghouls and goblins of Lawrenceville. But when Mistress Fiore felt it was time to move on, Elizabeth Couteau created something new. Hence The BridgeCity Bombshells, a burlesque company made up of cheeky dames who all have a different look, style and size. While they make their own costumes and go through a rigorous audition process, looking at their choreography, creativity and confidence, Elizabeth Couteau has gathered an unmatchable ensemble that is more like family than friends.

Macabre Noir, a dancer, artist and member of the BridgeCity Bombshells, is as her name suggests—a dark femme fatale. Very petite, her head half-shaven (the other half a long black horses mane), she looks at me with fierce pencil-drawn eyebrows. She explains that performing to Funk was really taking her out of her box, but that she enjoyed the vulnerability of the experience nonetheless.

While on stage, Noir starts out with traditional burlesque then transitions into fetish work. She pours hot wax on her bare skin from a burning candle. She even puts out a cigar on herself, but confesses that these sorts of demonstrations require a slight of hand. Either way, Macabre Noir is an in your face performance artist who gets off on making you uncomfortable. She thrives on reaction and laughs when explaining the grunts and other squeamish sounds her audience members make during her routines.

With an unnatural high tolerance for pain, Noir often gets a series of surface piercings along her chest and back creating a full collar, or “wings” as she calls it. The hollow needles are filled with feathers and then capped for full flexibility. Depending on the venue and how sanitary the space is, Macabre may remove the wings on stage in a semi-bloodletting performance. But she clarifies; it is not some sick sexual ritual. For her it is more like acupuncture and she feels a sense of release, a high when removing the wings. But if this is too intense, you can always enjoy Macabre’s fan dance, where she dons a black latex bandeau and boy shorts to entice the voyeuristic curiosity of her onlookers. Macabre Noir, a body modification sideshow performer, is exactly that. There is no conversion, no double life identity. This is who she is, day in and day out.

I asked Noir and Couteau about these creepers they mentioned earlier. Both feel creepers cheapen their performance. And while their safety and anonymity is no laughing matter, Macabre jokes, “God knows when you mix penises and alcohol shit gets crazy.”

The Bombshells make a point to educate people on the etiquette of burlesque and so all their shows are emceed. Phat Man Dee, a Pittsburgh jazz singer and friend, establishes boundaries, welcomes guests and clarifies that the girls are not for sale. They always have security present, and they have to. Each girl has had her fair share of inappropriate encounters. But Macabre is not scared, “I’ve been kicking ass since high school, street fighter style. That’s the risk you take when you do something alternative.” And neither is Elizabeth, “We’re small but we can scrap.”

On the East Side, Justin Strong, Co-Owner of Shadow Lounge and Ava, often books erotic events and finds where they are well received. Once a month, their Tuesday night open mics are taken over by local freaks, who just want to let their flags fly high.

These are his favorite nights because “it’s the nasty, erotic, sexual innuendo poetry that’s usually the fun stuff.” Last Tuesday at around 10pm, the crowd started to line up outside Shadow’s door. The orange room was dimly lit and its warm ambiance welcomed poets, singers, and listeners to sit, drink and eat. The open mic list slowly filled up as Hambone Jenkins, the house band, began to play. These nights require full crowd participation and Ezra, the emcee, demands it. Circling the room with the sign-up list, he prods people to write their names down to share something on stage. After adding a few names, he gets on the stage and welcomes everyone. Ezra calls on the crowd to perform anything: poetry, monologues, song or dance “as long as it’s not illegal and don’t burn the place down, you can get it going on in the Shadow Lounge.”

As Ezra calls the first performer on stage I notice people outside watching through the large glass windows, they stop as they walk past, some venture in, some stare for a moment and move right along. Either way, they can’t help but look.

After the first few acts Ezra gets on the stage and reads a poem off his blackberry to the sultry sounds of the saxophone. Much later Vernard Alexander steps to the mic and reveals that he will be telling someone else’s story and warns that a few people in the crowd may know who he is putting on blast. It’s essentially the week in the life of a new relationship. He describes how they go from first meeting to eventually becoming lovers. They fall in love, spend beautiful time together until one day it all goes to shit. She surprises him with lunch at his place, but “To her surprise, [she opens the door to find] her new man had some balls in his mouth.” The crowd gasps and shakes their heads as he steps off the stage with his hands in the air.

Mr. Kelly is a friend of the Shadow Lounge crew. I met him a few years ago hanging out in Ava and after getting to know each other better he invited me to a party. He explained that it would be an erotic event and told me to think it over. He emailed me later that week to give me more details. I soon realized that he was inviting me to a swinger’s event. Much to my surprise, Pittsburgh has a pretty big underground sex scene. As I am more of a voyeur than an exhibitionist, I did not end up going to the party but I later sat him down to find out more.

Mr. Kelly started swinging a long time ago. He was young, adventurous and confident in his sexual prowess. He was “attracted to the hustler, playboy lifestyle.” He explained that someone approached him also, but this person was a complete stranger. It was springtime, he was leaving a yoga studio and after a few blocks, he realized that a couple was following him. When he stopped, the man walked up to him and said, “My wife likes you, wanna come over?”

He soon learned this kind of proposition is not out of the ordinary. “The lifestyle is 99.9% about looks and everyone has their style,” he explains.

Most couples are looking for what is referred to as HWP or Height, Weight, Proportion. So if someone sees something that they like, they go after it. “As a single man it’s perfect, it’s a high,” he describes, especially because even though it’s customary for the man to pursue a new partner, in the act the husband fills more of a voyeuristic role. “A lot of people watch, very few got the balls to do it. I [have] been to so many parties where guys can’t even get hard because there are too many other dudes in the room. But when, I’m in my zone, I’m not worried.” He adds: “No homo,” just to clarify.

Lots of couples and interested singles use online lifestyle networking sites to meet other swingers. But there are also a number of venues in the western PA area as well as retreats specifically targeted to the lifestyle and some people even put ads in the paper. But the real scene in the city happens at private parties.

“I’ve hosted parties and they are a lot of fucking work.” Mr. Kelly apparently started running shit after a few years. He planned swinging events from about 2003 through 2010. On average you have about fifteen guys and eight to nine women. The screening process is pretty simple; he’s got to know you or be a friend of a friend. The execution was straightforward: he reserves a nice hotel suite and takes donations at the door. Although he and I were speaking over cocktails, alcohol was not served at any of his parties because he did not want anyone to feel compromised or lose their sense of boundaries. He recounts very matter-of-factly, “It’s a meet and greet and then people go to private rooms, and then its balls to the walls.” Literally…

It may surprise you that a mid-sized city with such blue-collar values would possess a thriving underbelly like the ones described. But really it shouldn’t. Sure cities like New York and LA have a plethora of options but places like Pittsburgh offer something more grassroots. Unpretentious and inviting, everyone one I spoke to was willing to share their world with me even though they knew I was looking in from the outside. Of course, preserving their true identities was a part of the deal, but once that was established they were open books. That’s something I have always appreciated about this city: true grit.

Images by Laura Petrilla.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

More from the Stark staff