'I went from size 10 to 18 but I'm happy with my body and I wish more women could feel the same'
With gyms and diet clubs full of people desperate to shed the effects of the Christmas celebrations, Belfast burlesque dancer and plus-size model Laura Firby tells Lee Henry why she embraces her curves
While many begin the New Year with resolutions to achieve a slimmer version of themselves, one Belfast 20-something is on a mission to prove that bigger is better - for her at least.
"Why do we do it to ourselves? Why can't we just be happy in our own skin?" That is the contention of burlesque dancer and occasional plus-size model Laura Firby, aka Soup Du Jour, who has made a profession out of embracing her curves and flaunting them.
And you won't catch Laura on the daily treadmill of spin class and flipping tyres until she drops. Rather, 2017 begins as 2016 ends - with a smile on her face and a spring in her step.
"I am comfortable, confident and happy with my body, and I wish more women were," says the 28-year-old, who regularly performs in venues throughout Belfast and is the host of the increasingly popular Tease-O-Rama burlesque night at the Black Box. It is an especially refreshing point of view, given society's mounting obsession with the size 10 ideal.
"I haven't always been the size I am now," she points out. "I have gone from a size 10 to 18 over the past number of years, and being a burlesque performer means that I'm confronted with photographs of myself wearing very little clothing on a weekly basis. I see the changes occurring in my body very clearly. But most of us go through lifestyle changes in our 20s.
"Our metabolisms begin to slow up, work takes its toll, and in my case a back injury has stopped me from exercising as I used to. I could eat a bit better, and drink a bit less, but I'm happy to confirm that life doesn't end when you put on a few pounds."
Laura points to her fledgling modelling career as proof of the positive effects her body-proud philosophy. Although she modelled when size 10, she continues to find work in the plus-size sphere, and with an increasingly diverse range of clients.
"I'm not a model by trade, but it is very common for burlesque performers to do photo shoots, and over the past decade I have completed modelling jobs with bands, costume makers, hair stylists, Gay Northern Ireland magazine and, most recently, Curvy Chic Bridal, the bridal boutique for plus-size women.
"Don't get me wrong, I would love to find more work as a model. It's difficult, especially here in Northern Ireland, to find work, full stop, never mind as a size 18. But while I think that the fashion industry, in particular, has embraced plus size models, I'm not entirely comfortable with the label plus size model. Why can't we all just be called models?"
There is, sadly, still a way to go before such distinctions are done away with entirely. She admits to having experienced fat-shaming online in response to her modelling and burlesque work. "A comment on one of my YouTube videos read: 'She should run, fatty.' And that was when I was a lot slimmer."
Laura also regularly receives what she calls "backhanded compliments" from those who observe her in action. "You get people saying, 'Oh, but you have such a beautiful face', or 'You looked amazing on stage, even though you're so curvy'. I know that people mostly mean those types of comments as compliments, but they could just say I'm pretty, or I'm confident, and leave it at that.
"I think that there are still small changes that need to be made to stop the day-to-day nagging culture and encourage young women to see natural beauty for what it is. We are all humans, all equal, but those who find faults and insecurities in others are ultimately part of the problem. If enough people stand up to it, this negative culture will become the oddity and respect for women of all sizes the norm. Thankfully, I am lucky to be surrounded by independent, creative women in my work."
Laura is originally from Leeds, but moved to Belfast in 2012. Dance has always played a part in her life. She studied choreography at Darlington College of Arts and "fell in love with burlesque" in her late teens. Her first shows took place at the now infamous Kinky and Quirky venue in Torquay.
"Burlesque is exciting. Knowing that each performer will remove clothes and end up with very little on is exhilarating. The tease and reveal, the use of comedy and humour, the beautiful and dazzling costumes. It's all live and happening in front of your eyes. For me, it's like no other form of entertainment. I've had many highs during my career, and a few lows. One of the worst performance experiences I can remember took place during a talent show.
"I was scheduled to perform my alien neo-burlesque routine after an eight-year-old girl sang Amazing Grace. As you can imagine, the room was mostly made up of parents and family of the little girl. I got not one ripple of applause. Cue tumble weed and a swift exit, stage left."
She subsequently moved to Berlin, a Mecca of sorts for burlesque dancers the world over, where the modern form of this type of dance arguably originated. It was there, after all, during the Weimar era (unofficial name given to the German state between the world wars) that artists began to add a risque element to what had previously been considered standard cabaret performance. In Berlin, Laura learned the ropes as a performer in the Berlin Burlesque Festival and elsewhere.
"It was there that I met my first real burlesque family, people like Frau Feeger at Rose Transformation Studio, who makes beautiful costumes and very spiritual and ethereal performance pieces. I worked at Agent Provocateur during the day and honed my act in the evenings. Tease-O-Rama is a manifestation of everything I learned during that period."
Since relocating to Belfast, she has made the city her home. She is an extremely active member of the burlesque culture here, and the founder of the on-going Belfast Burlesque Festival, which takes place in November each year and welcomes some of the world's most revered and outlandish performers in the art.
Laura also travels around Europe and further afield performing as Soup Du Jour, a nom de plume she adopted to reflect the comedic content of her act.
"Lots of performers refer to food in their monikers, like cherry, candy, cupcake, but I wanted something that wasn't particularly sexy. Soup does the job."
Her travels do not always go smoothly, however. "I was once going through an airport," she recalls, "and had to get my hold bag checked. It was like a sketch from Mary Poppins. You can imagine the assortment of props I was carrying with me; fishes, feather fans, magic wands, metres of red fabric, an alien head. In the end, it was a toy gun that was the problem.
"As burlesque dancers, our lives are filled with odd assortments of objects. Martini glasses on top of poles, bathtubs, exercise balls, fold-up beds and LED hoops. The list goes on, but mostly we rely on glitter. Bucket loads of the stuff. You can never have enough glitter in burlesque."
As her career develops Laura relies on the support of her family, with her sister Natasha also resident in Belfast, studying for an MA in management. She helps with organising the Belfast Burlesque Festival, as do a wealth of friends and fellow performers. The positive reaction to her shows from Belfast audiences is also an enduring source of inspiration.
"Belfast crowds are incredibly loving and supportive," she says, "especially with regards to the newcomer competitions that we run. They get right behind the newbies, which is amazing. I love how fun and raucous the nights are here. It's so invigorating. When I have performers over from the UK, they always say how much they love the audience at Tease-O-Rama.
"It is a very small scene in Northern Ireland, but we have a great group of burlesque dancers, singers, magicians, sideshow artists and circus performers here. There is some great talent in Belfast. It is important to nurture that talent as best we can."
The prospect of paying to watch a series of women gyrate and strip and squirt cream over themselves is not to everyone's taste, of course, but Laura is very much of the opinion that burlesque can be empowering to women, both performers and audiences alike.
With misogyny seemingly more blatant - thanks in no small part to the behaviour of incoming US President Donald Trump - Laura argues that women of all ages, sizes, backgrounds and beliefs should come together in as many arenas as possible to "encourage and educate" one another and ultimately put paid to negative stereotypes.
"All of my routines have underlying messages and bases in feminism, and I hope that women who see me perform take inspiration from my confidence. Confidence not only in my size and looks, but also in being a woman, enjoying being funny and not hiding any part of my personality. We should not hide who we are.
"My advice to women who are lacking in confidence is, maybe try not wearing make-up for a day, see how that makes you feel. Wear a dress that's maybe a bit over the top. Don't be passive for fear of being labelled as a rude or loud. And don't ever let anyone tell you that women aren't funny."