Seven years ago, several years before she became a familiar face to national TV audiences thanks to "American Pickers," Danielle Colby got into burlesque.
"I feel like I'm on this journey and learning burlesque," said the Davenport native, who has lived in Chicago the past few years. "Right about the time I was living here and doing it, I was so much into figuring out how to go about maneuvering in the burlesque world with the notoriety from 'Pickers,' which can be very difficult."
She was not immediately greeted with open arms.
"People definitely have that mindset of, 'Oh, now she's a little famous and wants to be a burlesque artist,' when I've been doing this for seven years," she said during a lunchtime interview this week in Davenport.
Colby brings the second Iowa Burlesque Festival to the Adler Theatre next weekend, as well as the debut of the American Vintage Market in the neighboring RiverCenter.
It's not meant to counter the haters, she said, but she made a decided switch two years ago in the way she performs.
"I've learned a lot in the last two years. I'm going a different route in burlesque," she said. "American burlesque is so dance-heavy and European burlesque is so costume-heavy. I'm trying to stick to the American style of burlesque, where it's focused on the dance portion, the entertainment portion."
As her burlesque alter ego Dannie Diesel, she'll perform during the festival to the music of George Thorogood and the Destroyers' "Bad to the Bone," starting out in a simple evening gown and setting aside her more elaborate costumes.
"I'm really learning the classic movements of bump 'n' grind. The more that happens, the happier I feel about my stage presence and the more I'm in touch with my audience, not in my head, worrying about the next move," she said.
"Right now I need to focus on the bare bones of what burlesque, American burlesque, is to me," Colby added. "When I feel like I have that down, I can focus on the Swarovski crystals."
Colby has made it a mission to perfect her act, spending four hours a day dancing, not counting any other exercise.
She's learning from some of her burlesque heroines, including a New Orleans dancer she meets up with once or twice a month, and a dancer from Helsinki, Finland, who gives her lessons and advice via Skype.
"I'm just more excited to learn the dance portion of it and get that down," she said. "I'm continuing to grow. I'm not remotely where I want to be yet."
She's also learning belly dancing from a neighbor in Chicago, which, she says, helps her get in better touch with her body.
Colby said she didn't realize how far she had to go until she was a judge at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas earlier this year.
"I had never seen so many insanely talented competitors in all my life," she said. "I was humbled. I was grateful for the experience and realized I have a long way to go, but I've come a long way as well."
Colby also felt she could be a conduit between the fans of the art form and the dancers.
"It also taught me I have a voice within this industry that matters," she said. "The best thing I can do is advocate for people who are learning and just starting and encourage them to keep going. It's like anything else. With burlesque you get to a point where you feel like you know it all with your routines and your movements and you get defensive. And then you have somebody who is world-renowned break it down for you."
Colby said she tries to do that at her Dannie Diesel's Bump 'n' Grind Academy, which she opened in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
But she still feels like she has a lot to learn.
"I don't think I'll be the complete package till I'm like 80," the 38-year-old said.
Festival, year two
While the inaugural year of the Iowa Burlesque Festival was a celebration of the classic style, Colby said, she wants to explore the different varieties of performances this year.
Those include neo-burlesque, a more avant-garde form; nerd-esque, for fans of Comic-Con, sci-fi and superheroes; and boy-lesque, with male dancers.
"The funny thing with the male performers is that you expect them to be a little bit on the feminine side, but these guys are guys," Colby said of the performers who are recognizable names in the industry, including Matt Finish, Russell Bruner and the Baron of Helsinki.
"There has to be a magic about it that pokes fun at itself while at the same time embracing the audience idiosyncrasies and little -isms," she said.
A burlesque show favorite coming to the Quad-Cities is an act called The Magic of Dante, who's an illusionist rather than a clothes-shedding performer.
Colby said that's part of her effort to get back to the retro style of burlesque.
"Burlesque originally was variety acts, and in the '70s it kind of turned to just straightforward strippers," she said. "It ushered in a dark era of burlesque, but that's what we're reclaiming right now, reclaiming that vintage, times-gone-by era of burlesque by inviting all of the varieties into it.
"We want to run the gamut and bring it back to what it originally was," she said, by inviting such names as Ginger Valentine, Iva Handfull, Poppy Daze, Elle Dorado and Minnie Tonka to both perform and give workshops.
Colby also will host the new American Vintage Market, taking place in the Mississippi Hall of the RiverCenter.
More than 100 booth spaces have already sold out, with an attempt to make more available, featuring items that include high-end home decor, vintage clothing and "more approachable price-tag items," she said.
"If someone walks in and all they have is $20 to their name, they can find something," she said. "If they're looking for a vintage prom gown that costs hundreds of dollars, they can find that, too."
Colby will be in attendance, as will "American Pickers" favorite Hippie Tom, a collector from Wisconsin, and Rob Wolfe, the brother of "Pickers" star Mike Wolfe.
"There'll definitely be a 'Pickers' presence there," she said.
"American Pickers," which marks its fifth anniversary on the History cable TV channel in January, has made reality-show celebrities out of Colby, Wolfe and fellow Davenport native Frank Fritz.
Several "Pickers" marathons per week are par for the course on History, and Colby's mother-in-law, who lives in France, reported that the show has recently begun airing there.
"The ratings are just as strong as they ever have been," said Colby, still slightly amazed at the show's popularity.
"I feel like we're great Sunday TV," she said. "It's great for the family sitting around, having dinner, whatever. You don't really have to think too hard about it, but it is an educational show. It's not about our lives, it's about our householders, the people we pick from and our audience.
Colby refuses to refer to herself, Wolfe and Fritz as "stars."
"We don't see ourselves in that light," she said. "We see ourselves as Iowa folks who love what we do and like to teach other people about what we do. I think there's an easy, laid-back coolness that resonates with that."
Upcoming episodes, she said, show her playing more of an active role on the road with the men, not just waiting by the phone at Wolfe's business, Antique Archaeology in LeClaire, for televised calls.
"It has taken a very long time to just get to where I am," she said. "I want to show women there is a place for them in a man's world, and History is a man's world network."
Pickers vs. burlesque
Her presence in social media shows which Danielle is more well-known, Colby said.
There are about 450,000 followers for her "American Pickers" life, and 175,000 for Dannie Diesel. She could have more for either, she said, but she doesn't want to pay companies to inflate her number of friends and followers.
"My fan base is not necessarily a burlesque fan base, but my fan base is pretty new to burlesque because I have a 'Pickers' fan base because of the show," she said.
Colby said her toughest critics and most encouraging coaches are her two children, an 18-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter.
"I feel comfortable when I go through my routines with my 13-year-old," she said of her daughter, who is also her backstage assistant. "She tells me when I'm pushing a boundary she's not comfortable with.
"If something happens they're not comfortable with, they're the first ones to tell me."
Colby said she's having "an insane amount of fun" with burlesque.
"Every single time I perform now, it's more and more fun, and that tells me I'm headed in the right direction," she said.
"The reason I do what I do is because I love my audience so much. I want them to feel that sense of empowerment, that sense of pride in who they are and being at peace with their body type, their personality, but primarily with their character," she said. "A lot of us, as women, hold ourselves back and apologize for our awesome moments — 'Oh, that's nothing!' — but we need to embrace them and have more awesome moments."