One for the Dagger

THERE are hundreds of people staring at her as she glides across the darkened stage, a haughty and ethereal apparition, tall and disturbingly pale.

Slowly the ghost begins to disrobe, ancient lace and ragged finery fluttering to the floor in a spectral striptease. Eventually, with nothing more than the remains of some scant briefs to cover her modesty, Chelsea Dagger – the muse whose titillating performances inspired one of the best-known rock songs to come out of Scotland in the past decade – flits off back into the wings as silently as she appeared, leaving a delighted crowd behind her.

As the next risqu performer comes on, I push my way through the crowd to wait for Chelsea backstage at – incongruously – the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It is here Club Noir, the self-styled world’s biggest burlesque club, which attracts up to 2,000 people at each event, is hosting a one-off Fringe show ahead of this weekend’s Connect Festival special.

When she eventually appears she apologises for keeping me waiting, but she’s been trying to remove the worst of the white make-up that had created her ghostly appearance: “It takes me more than two hours to put on. But I guess that’s because I want to get it exactly right.”

So she’s a bit of a perfectionist then?

“Yes,” she laughs. She’s a tall and curvy blonde (a size 12 she tells me later) and is a lot friendlier and more open than her aloof performance would suggest. But she’s got that slightly edgy, distracted air of someone who’s still on an adrenalin high from being on stage.

The next time we meet, over a sneaky lunchtime glass of chenin blanc on the balcony of a bar-cum-restaurant in Glasgow’s Ashton Lane, Chelsea – real name Heather Donnelly – is looking a lot more relaxed.

We’ve been blessed with a rare moment of August sunshine and her fitted, summery red gingham dress causes more than a few heads to turn as she arrives. She’s come from her new house just round the corner which she and her husband, John Lawler, lead singer of The Fratellis, have recently moved into. She’s pleased with her new home, although not with the lack of wardrobe space – this is a woman who loves dressing up and seriously likes her clothes.

She also likes taking them off: “I love doing cheeky normal strip tease reminiscent of the old performers,” she says. “But these ones, like the ghost, that are a bit different, are a bit more challenging. To come on and be sinister and still get people to pay attention to you, you have to be a bit more dramatic about it.”

It’s three years since Donnelly, who graduated from Glasgow University with an MA in theatre studies and history of art, first went to Club Noir with friends. There she met the club’s organiser, Tina Warren, and was persuaded to join the increasingly popular world of burlesque.

“I spent my time at school being really shy but harbouring this ambition to be on stage,” says Donnelly, now 29. “My mum encouraged me and sent me to dance and drama lessons and that did help me to come out of my shell, but it’s only as I get older I have this feeling that I’m not going to hold myself back anymore. That’s why Club Noir was such a turning point.

“I could have walked away,” she says of the day she was invited to take part. “The first time, I thought I was going to die of a heart attack. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But it’s like any performance. And it sends the adrenalin the other way. You dread it all day and then as soon as you get off stage you wish you could do it five times over. It’s a love-hate relationship with performance.”

She also talks of the camaraderie between the girls who take part in the show and the experience of being in the company of women who are supportive of each other rather than critical or competitive about each other’s appearance.

But what about her husband – how does he feel about seeing his wife take her clothes off for other people’s entertainment?

“Tina did ask me when I started if I had a boyfriend, because they’re always a bit worried about boyfriends or partners saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m fine about you doing that,’ and then coming along and seeing it and saying, ‘Actually I’m not fine at all!’

“Obviously there must be a part of John that thinks a bit like that, but he sees it, as I do, as a performance. It’s a character that’s going on stage and it’s not me.

“It’s very much like preparing for acting. I’m very thorough with it all and do a lot of research otherwise it just wouldn’t work. You’d feel too self-conscious if it was just you going out there as yourself – well, I would anyway.”

Despite her glamorous image, she says she doesn’t see herself as a “sexy performer” and prefers routines that are more tongue-in-cheek: “As long as you keep it fun and light-hearted that’s what works. When people try to take it [burlesque] too seriously or be too sexy it kind of backfires a bit.

“My favourite ever was the very first one I did. I was Cleopatra and I did this really cheesy Egyptian dance and a strip tease. It was hilarious, but I loved it. I’ve never done it again, but I absolutely loved it.”

It was seeing her perform as the Egyptian queen that inspired John to pen the song Chelsea Dagger. The couple had been going out for a while and he came along to support her in her first performance.

“He came along and said, ‘That would make a really good title,’ and the next thing I knew it was a song. He’d heard the name before, but there was something about that night, the whole experience of being at the club.”

Yet she doesn’t really feel the song is about her. “I think John got a bit of fiction. He exaggerates and tells a story, so I don’t really think of it being related to me. It’s great seeing the crowd’s reaction to it when they perform though. It’s a brilliant song.”

Still, she does get fed up when people assume she lifted the name from the band: “I give him trouble all the time for calling the song that, because now everyone thinks I've stolen the name from him.”

So where does the name come from? There are loads of rumours on the internet, but it turns out it all goes back to a student prank.

“This name’s been kicking around for about ten years. When I was at uni with my friends we’d decided we wanted to be performers. We had a fake band called the Flaming Stilettos and Chelsea Dagger was one of the members and Trixie Cha Cha was the other. When we got dressed up and went out at night people would ask us what we did and we used to tell them this was our band. It was funny because people would say, ‘Oh I’ve heard of them’. It was like taking on a persona.

“So when Club Noir came about I did think about choosing another name, but then I thought that this was what it’s always been intended for, a stage performance.

“I don’t really know [what inspired the name], it got decided after a few beers. Maybe I should invent something with a more exciting story, it’s not as exciting as I’d like it to be. My friends have known me as that for ages, so they find the song hilarious now.”

She obviously takes immense pride in her husband’s work, and she accompanies him as he tours the world. But doesn’t she resent not having more time for her own career?

“We keep our careers very separate, although I do go to see all his shows. I just really enjoy going to gigs. But most of the time when I’m performing he’s away, so he misses it.”

She follows the band on their foreign trips so she and John can spend time together, but when they’re in the UK she stays in Glasgow, giving her time to perform at Club Noir.

“I thought I would be [jealous] watching him perform, but actually I wasn’t. I’m more excited. I like to go out into the crowd and see their reaction [to the band], that’s really exciting. I’m proud of what he does. I think they’re brilliant and an amazing band.

“This is what he needs to do just now, so when that dies down I’ll get to concentrate on other things more. Because I get to do Club Noir when I get home, that keeps me going. I do put a lot of time and effort into my show, thinking about it and rehearsing.”

Trips to America with the band give her lots of chances to indulge her passion for rummaging about old vintage clothes shops in search of costumes. And while her feminine style might seem to clash with the hell-raising image one might have of an on-tour rock band, life with The Fratellis is not like that at all she says.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to travel. I’d never been anywhere before this. So I feel really privileged. We’re very lucky to travel with a brilliant crew of lovely people. Everyone gets on. It’s a family atmosphere and if I bring friends backstage they always comment on how friendly it is.

“I’m really spoiled; I don’t have to go out in the mud or anything at festivals. I love dressing up and wearing my heels. I hate wearing wellies. I can see everyone else rolling their eyes and going, ‘Oh my God,’ but that’s what I love doing, dressing up, it’s so much more fun.”

So given her mistrust of muddy festivals, how does she feel about her upcoming performance at Connect this weekend?

“I’ve never done a festival before, so I am a bit nervous about how the crowd will react, but I think it will be good,” she says.

And after spending two years of hearing festival audiences chant her name for someone else’s performance, it’s surely about time the original Chelsea Dagger got a taste of that adulation for herself.

&#149 Club Noir performances will feature in the Unknown Pleasures tent at Hydro Connect, Inveraray Castle this weekend. For tickets and more details, visit: www.connectmusicfestival.com