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Celebrating burlesque in Paris

Top burlesque performers gather in Paris for a Serge Gainsbourg tribute.

PARIS — He’s been called the “Quasimodo of Pop” and when he was alive, Serge Gainsbourg shocked and courted scandal with stunts like setting a 500-franc bill on fire and propositioning the singer Whitney Houston in the crudest terms. In spite of his looks and his manner, the persistently drunk French crooner successfully romanced a string of beautiful women: Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, and Brigitte Bardot, among others.

Nearly two decades after his death from a heart attack, Gainsbourg is still inspiring beautiful women. At a Paris cabaret recently, female performers strutted, shimmied and then gradually stripped to his music in a burlesque tribute befitting the pop star.

“Everybody has a misconception of what burlesque is, that it’s sleazy, that it’s dirty, but it’s not,” said Garrett McConnell, 40, an American burlesque performer visiting Paris and one of the many women in the audience. “There’s intent; there’s a story line.”

The Gainsbourg tribute brought highly-regarded performers from Britain and the U.S. to Paris, where organizers hope to revive burlesque, which they insist is about the art, not the striptease.

While the performers stripped down to tasseled pasties and g-strings, the audience enjoyed a musical journey through Gainsbourg’s life and loves: from his celebrated “yeah-yeah” pop period through his Lolita-inspired phase; from his darker days when debauchery had hit a particular high note, to the eroticism of the “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You … Me Neither”) finale. Gainsbourg re-recorded the breathy tune in the late 1960s with Birkin, his wife of 12 years. It features simulated sex noises culminating in the sounds of an orgasm. The hit song was banned in parts of Europe when it was released.

For that final number, Agent Lynch (born Kate Rawlinson), a 24-year-old model, seductively smothered herself in blue water-soluble body paint and, in a nod to the artist Yves Klein, rubbed herself against a giant French flag in order to add the missing color.

“I’ve never done that; it was really fun,” she said after the show. “I kind of want to do it again.” Her alter ego is a 007 secret agent Bond-girl type from the 1960s with a “license to thrill.”

Fellow dancer Cherry Shakewell was clad in a red and white costume with dangling cherries for her performance to the song “Les Sucettes” (“The Lollipops”). Gainsbourg wrote the tune for a young singer named France Gall who was not aware of the overwhelming sexual innuendo until after she’d recorded it.