True Stories

True stories: "We get paid to play pretend"

A burlesque dancer, a stand-in bridesmaid, and a queue-sitter tell us about their double lives

For these women, secret side-gigs bring in more than just a little extra cash. It's a way for them to expand their social circles, smash stereotypes and make other people happy. 

This burlesque dancer makes people see that beauty isn't just one body type

Photo: Kairo Snapshots 

By day, 28-year-old Toralina* works in the creative industry and as a freelance artist. Her usual attire consists of maxi dresses, button- down shirts and jeans, but a couple of times a month, she strips down to her lingerie in front of a group of 50 to 70 strangers. They don’t get to see what she looks like, because Toralina wears a mask in the shape of a fish head, so her conservative family won’t find out that on the side, she’s a burlesque dancer.

In 2016, Toralina (it’s her stage name) came across a Facebook post by drag queen Becca D’Bus, who was looking to form a troupe of burlesque performers with different body types to perform at the annual M1 Fringe Festival. Toralina, who is 1.7m tall and wears a size 20, felt drawn towards the cause. For her, it’s personal. Growing up, she always felt like a fish out of water. “People think Asian girls are cutesy and petite. I’m the complete opposite of that,” she says. But things changed after a four-year stint studying for a degree in the US. There, she noticed that women – regardless of their size – seemed comfortable in their skin and wore whatever they liked. Leggings, cropped tops, loud prints – nothing was off limits. Toralina resolved to be more like them. “Now, I’m like ‘this is me, you take it or leave it’,” she says.


Trying out burlesque dancing was nerve-racking. Toralina recalls her first time stripping down to her underwear at a workshop to prepare for the performance. “We had a little dance with some upbeat music. We were all on the same level of nakedness, so it made things a lot less awkward,” she recalls. The nerves returned when she was about to go onstage. “But as soon as the spotlights came on and I heard the roar of the crowd reacting to my costume, it fi lled me with joy, and that energy drove me to perform.” Now, Toralina is a regular performer at nightspots like Lulu’s Lounge and Kilo Lounge.

She had never been a dancer, but burlesque forced her to work with her body rather than against it. She found ways to move that felt natural and looked good onstage, drawing attention to her boobs and curves – parts of her body she’s most proud of. She learnt to make movements that were sensual, which grew her confidence and made her feel beautiful in a way she never thought possible. Being bigger and bolder onstage means she no longer feels apologetic about taking up space. “I was a little self-conscious in the past, especially when I sat on the train and my hips or thighs touched the passengers next to me,” she says. “Now, I know I have just as much right to sit on the train, and if someone else is uncomfortable, it’s their issue.”

Although she wears a mask to dance, she’s proud that she doesn’t look like a typical burlesque dancer. It’s encouraged women to come up to her and applaud her for stripping off. So will she ever take off her mask? Toralina doesn’t rule it out. “Perhaps one day I will, if I move overseas,” she says.

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