Student Spotlight: Cruel Valentine

Student Spotlight: Cruel Valentine

Photo by Sainteven Photography.

Cruel Valentine is both an accomplished burlesque performer and a first year Master of Arts Management student. Read on to learn the role Columbia College Chicago has played in their burlesque business, the unique challenges the novel coronavirus presents to performers, and advice for managing a successful business while in school.

How did you first get involved with burlesque?

In 2006, when I was in my freshman year of undergrad at Columbia studying musical theatre, I learned a bit about burlesque and its critical role in the history of musical theatre and performance art. I was instantly intrigued. That winter break, I had the opportunity to attend a burlesque show for the first time, and it changed my life. Just a few months later, I booked my first burlesque audition, landed it, and began a wild and winding career in the niche industry of burlesque and variety arts.

As I learned more and more about burlesque’s history, inspiration grew and grew; then, when I finally got to see that first show and I learned more about the revival of burlesque, my motivation to be a part of the art form exploded. The freedom and uninhibited creativity I saw on that stage forever changed me. I saw young performers who were just blossoming and finding their stride, and burlesque legends who had been performing since the 1960s. The acts ranged from political to hilarious to adorable to heart-wrenching. I was in awe. I made the decision then and there that I wanted, no, needed to perform burlesque, and I knew that it was destined to be a huge part of my life.

What services and products do you offer?

I’m involved in many different areas of the artistic and creative industries. I tour internationally as a burlesque performer and performance artist, I produce burlesque and live events, I work in adult entertainment, I paint, I teach burlesque and movement, and I create pasties, jewelry, and other burlesque costuming (both standard handmade offerings and custom creations). I also offer creative consulting services for artists and small businesses.

What led you back to Columbia College Chicago to pursue this Master of Arts Management degree?

After returning to Columbia to complete my B.A. in 2018, I felt impassioned about higher education once again. I decided that I wanted to pursue a degree in some area of business to help enhance the work I was already doing. Having built my business independently from the ground up, I was pretty much completely self-taught in all areas of business. Self-education has always been a sharp skill of mine, but returning to Columbia for this program has allowed me to explore alternate approaches to business, gain new perspectives, and collaborate with an amazing cohort full of fantastic people from all backgrounds and industries, who have a wide variety of passions.

My courses in the MAM program thus far have enabled me to really refine my branding and marketing efforts, and I’ve also gained a more enriched understanding of many legal aspects of business that have been immeasurably helpful not just to me, but also to my clients. I’ve also gotten a lot of practice collaborating outside of my industry and medium, which has been incredibly helpful and eye-opening. Additionally, I’ve been able to hone my delegation and project management skills in new contexts.

In my time here, I’ve also become motivated to pursue my education even further after I complete my M.A. degree. Joe Bogdan’s Management and Licensing of Intellectual Property course last semester ignited in me a new passion for entertainment law, particularly surrounding contracts and I.P. licensing. This topic represents a major hole in the industries I work in. Intellectual property theft and mismanagement is a huge problem in burlesque and adult entertainment. While I’m not interested in dropping everything and changing careers, I do think the pursuit of a law degree would be endlessly helpful in my management of my own work, as well as being a priceless asset in my consulting work. I would love to be a part of independent artists and small businesses learning how to better protect themselves.

How have you had to shift your burlesque business in response to the novel coronavirus? How is that going?

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the performance industry has been decimated, and then some, since there is absolutely no room under the guidelines of social distancing for in-person nightlife events. Many events have moved to online formats, but this is uncharted territory for most of us, and the marketing of online events is vastly different from that of in-person productions. That, in combination with the mental and economic stress in the current landscape, makes it a daunting and complex task to build, promote, and make profitable these sorts of shows.

Many people have been generously tipping or making donations to artists during this time, but while this is a lovely representation of the community coming together to support those in need, this is not a sustainable model that will help artists rebound and regain stability long term. We’re all doing the best we can to create viable, lasting solutions, but it’s a very difficult time for many of us, myself included. March, April, and May are historically my most profitable months each year.

Between lost income from cancelled performances, lost merchandise sales both online and off, cancelled shoots, and lesson and consulting bookings being down, I’ve already lost a substantial chunk of my annual income, and gauging the continuously shifting estimations of how long social distancing measures will be in effect, I’m likely to lose a projected 87% of my 2020 income if I’m unable to to make it up via other hustles. I’m already enacting a diversified plan to pivot into this new world and stick it out for however long is necessary. I view this challenge as an opportunity to expand my business by building new revenue streams that will last beyond the current crisis, remaining and likely growing when some sense of normalcy resumes in the world. I see in all this darkness the chance to create, innovate, and connect in new ways, and that gives me hope.

I mention all this not to solicit sympathy, but to illustrate how serious this crisis is for artists, small businesses, and marginalized people. My case is hardly unique in all this. So many people are unemployed or underemployed at this time. If you have the means, support your friends’ art and businesses both monetarily and through promotion and recommendation. We need to care for ourselves and support one another as much as possible, not only through the initial threat of COVID-19, but through and beyond its aftermath, as the implications of this catastrophe will be staggering and have a long-lasting impact.

What advice do you have for students who are juggling starting a business while in school?

Start small! Create safety nets for yourself, maintain contingency plans, and diversify your streams of income as much as possible. It’s important to work on developing new skills and gaining new knowledge, but never discount that which you already know. Everyone has strengths, and you may very well be able to apply many aspects of your existing skill sets to your new business. Your experience and instincts have the power to take you far.

When building a business, it is absolutely crucial to listen to your heart, body, and mind. Burnout is very real, and it can have lasting effects on your health and your livelihood. Take care of yourself. Don’t overwork yourself. Prioritize projects in a way that allows you to take care of other personal responsibilities and also have a life! Be good to yourself, especially during difficult times like the one we’re enduring right now.

When working on personal development and growing your business, I implore you to consult with creatives in both your industry and others. Pay them for their time, ask their opinions, and soak up their insights. Learning from the successes and mistakes of others is one of the most important investments you can make in your business and yourself.

Always remember that failure is just a part of the process. Don’t let it rattle you. Grieve your losses, but take what you learn from them and apply it as you work toward your next win. You have something uniquely you to offer the world. Don’t squander that power. Celebrate your successes, and reinvest in yourself. You got this.

Where can people connect with you?

Appearance schedule information, class and consultation bookings, as well as my online store can all be found at Custom order requests, questions, and media inquiries can be directed to