Danielle Colby has a lot on her mind.
She’s climbing up a mountain somewhere in Puerto Rico when I reach her by phone earlier this week and the conditions, reasonably, cause our connection to be lost several times.
Each time, thankfully, Colby called back and continued conversation exactly where she had left off, her train of thought traveling from her ongoing relief work to how “American Pickers” has changed her life to her resolve to be unapologetically herself.
Our conversation starts with what she’s doing in Puerto Rico and why: She and her boyfriend, Jeremy, have raised $60,000 to provide supplies for people in the months after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island.
“People are rising up and helping each other, and that’s the beauty of being here,” Colby, who has vacationed there for several years, said. “Puerto Rico, man, they are very strong people.”
Colby has a thing for strength. She has shown it, boldly, in various stages of her life, like when she first put on skates and elbow pads and learned how to get knocked down, and get back up, during roller derby matches and when she had to learn how to fight back against body-shamers.
Before we get to that, though, I ask Colby what comes after her Puerto Rico trip.
“I’ll be going back home,” she said. “And back to my day job.”
That day job, is of course, is how many know Colby: Since 2010, the Davenport native and self-proclaimed history nerd and "herstory" advocate has starred in History Channel’s TV hit, “American Pickers.”
Before she was the “Queen of Rust,” though, found a long-lasting passion in burlesque.
“People don’t always realize that burlesque came first for me,” she said. “I fell into ‘American Pickers’ because of my love of it and its history. My love of that drew to me to the job that pays my bills.”
While she’s in the Quad-City area, Colby will be bringing a Halloween burlesque show, featuring local and regional performers, to the Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island on Thursday, Oct. 11. It will be her first hometown performance in several years.
With hate, comes change
Both burlesque and “American Pickers” — which she calls a “huge blessing” — remain big parts of Colby’s life, though, at first the mixture proved, as she puts it, “to make things weird.”
Sometimes, it was more serious than that. Inappropriate, or obsessive, comments rolled in on her social media pages and in person. She said her home in LeClaire was broken into more than once during the show’s early seasons.
There were people who didn’t like her and people who liked her too much. That is still true, she said.
“I had some weird interactions and there were people that would take it too far and become stalkerish,” Colby said. “And then there was a lot of body shaming and people criticizing what I look like.”
Plus, Colby was learning how to “have the same conversations about the same thing” almost every day with strangers who recognized her from TV.
“It made me feel weird or like there was something weird about me,” she said. “You start to think of yourself as some sort of freak. Or you think you’re more important than you are.”
Soon, Colby even heard it from her two children: Things had to change.
“It’s a weird thing to not be able to walk through your hometown anymore,” she said. “You just have to learn how to change and how to acclimate, and that's OK.”
They moved to Chicago, where things felt safer and, logistically, it was easier to travel for the show. That was about six years ago and Colby said she is still learning and still having to flex her strength.
“I still get a lot of hate and that’s fine,” she said. “People are learning, too. When you pull people out of their comfort zones, it can be a slow, strange thing.”
'Why I do it'
For Colby, burlesque began as a way to explore her more feminine side. Soon, in performing, she found a rock-solid confidence in her body and how it moves.
“I’m highly aware of my flaws and that’s why I don’t fix them,” she said. “I feel like what I do when I get on stage is a statement to that. It’s about appreciating what you do have, how your body works, how it gets you through the day.”
So, no, Colby wasn’t going to give up her passion because of what other people thought or wrote on Instagram.
“It’s a way for me to speak my mind and reminds me that it’s OK to be different,” she said. “That’s why I do it.”
If anything, she leaned more into the artform and made it a personal goal to bring burlesque events to the Quad-Cities. She has performed in several burlesque shows here, at the Adler Theatre and the Capitol Theatre, in recent years.
“I consider that one of my prized accomplishments,” she said.
Often, Colby finds herself having to define — or defend — burlesque as an artform.
“A lot of people still have a limited view of it,” she said. “Burlesque comes in a lot of different forms. It’s like pizza. I love sexy burlesque and I love nerdy burlesque. I love wearing vintage costumes. It’s all just really fun and full of impromptu moments. It’s not hyper-sexualized and it’s not to be taken too seriously.”
At 42, Colby said she has no plans to stop performing.
“The reason I keep doing this is even if a woman is standing in front of you completely naked, you have no right to comment on her body,” she said. “You have no right and you’re probably going to get smacked in the face with the way things are now.”
She hopes things will get better the longer she performs.
“Maybe in like 40 years, things will have changed,” Colby said. “And people will be like, ‘Really, she danced in that and people got upset?’ For now, we as women, are having to fight back and say that we are not going to be objectified.”
'Be the best weirdo you can be'
After a fourth failed call near the end of our conversation, Colby quickly rang me back.
“We made it to the top of the mountain,” she said. “So, service should be good for a few minutes now.”
She tells me she’s getting ready for a new stage in her life: Coming back home.
After spending time away from her parents and sisters, Colby, with her boyfriend and kids, plan to live closer to the Quad-City area for the next few years, “to make up for some lost family time.” She also has more trips to Puerto Rico planned.
She still loves her hometown, though she needed time away from it.
“It’s not the first thing you see when you look at the Quad-Cities,” Colby said. “But it is full of so many interesting and different kinds of amazing people with so much heart.”
On that subject, something else comes to Colby’s mind and it comes out in the form of a pep talk to, well, whoever may need it. And it sounds like something she wished she would’ve heard years ago.
“It’s not an easy thing,” says the woman who just climbed a literal mountain, and has overcome so many others. “But, if I could say anything at all, I would say, to anyone who feels a little weird or different, I want them to know that’s OK. Be weird. Do it with style. And be the best weirdo you can be.”
She pauses, and says, “Yeah, that’s all.”