#SWAAYthenarrative

From Burlesque Dancers To Tiger Trainers: Leslie Zemeckis Brings Women’s Untold Stories To Life

People

Even though she grew up in sunny Southern California, Leslie Zemeckis has always been an inside kid. “Still am," she says. That means books and movies have been lifelong friends. “I've always been a voracious, well-read, different genre kid. To me, there is nothing better than a good story.


I love movies. I love getting lost in stories and characters. To me, there is nothing more powerful than art – and especially movies and books."

Zemeckis is one of those people who became exactly who she dreamed of being when she was a kid. She is now the writer and actor she longed to be because, she says, “It interests me. Who knows where the passion comes from. I'm just lucky and driven enough to make my passion into reality."

Writing and documentaries were Zemeckis' first loves to be sure. At one point early on in her career, she was doing a one-woman cabaret, burlesque-type show and quickly realized she didn't truly know what burlesque was.

After researching it, she was disappointed at how underrated it struck her as being. “No one had done anything about the women strippers in burlesque. I wondered where did they come from; what did their family think, what did they do after burlesque died. We're talking Golden Age of burlesque 20s-50s. There is a huge resurgence today all over the world."

She immediately felt compelled to tell the story of burlesque in the words of the performers themselves. She called a friend who had a camera and said, “'Let's go make a film.' And we spent the next couple of years traveling around the country interviewing and filming these elderly performers. So many have since died. I had so many stories I decided to write a book. And now I'm on my third documentary and third book. I found a niche. My work highlights and focuses on women, in pop culture who in their day were very influential, but have largely been forgotten today. All were mainly marginalized and stigmatized. I like to shine a light on just what they achieved and how they did it."

Zemeckis is one of those people who became exactly who she dreamed of being when she was a kid.

Zemeckis says seeing her work out in the world for the first time and watching and hearing people respond to it is nothing short of thrilling. “Even though I've won a lot of awards, and been on some best-seller lists, what remains the most important thing for me is to have eyes on my work."

"These women I showcase were extraordinary and I want to share them with as many people as possible. It's never about me," she said.

Writing and film are a vital part of Zemeckis' existence. She has to write, she says, to express herself. “People need to read more, learn things. Think deeper."

The greatest challenge she's faced in her career won't surprise most. She got told no – a lot. How does she handle it? “I don't hear it. Just makes me reach further. No one was interested in financing my film. But I went ahead and shot it and Showtime picked it up and ran it for years." Zemeckis says that just having this career is truly of the happiest surprise of her career. “The best thing is creating your own work, your own path and not waiting for the opportunity so when it does come from an outside source. I was just cast in a couple of films as an actress. It's a surprise." Opportunity and fairness are the biggest challenges that Zemeckis says she has faced in the industry. But, she adds, her life is better than she ever imagined.

Her latest project is the film “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer," which was just released April 10, 2018 domestically on DVD and streaming platforms (Amazon and Vimeo). The feature-length documentary tells the tale of Mabel Stark, “an outcast who was rejected by her family, escaped poverty and abuse in rural Kentucky, and ultimately found her true passion in the eyes of a tiger. Circumventing the chauvinism of her time, Stark clawed her way up the circus hierarchy."

"The feature-length documentary tells the tale of Mabel Stark, "an outcast who was rejected by her family, escaped poverty and abuse in rural Kentucky, and ultimately found her true passion in the eyes of a tiger."

With my many years researching burlesque, Zemeckis came across the name Mabel Stark. Before Stark became a tiger trainer she danced in the "cooch" show. It made Zemeckis wonder - what does it take to train tigers? She became obsessed by the rumors of Mabel's story. There was a lot of mystery surrounding her life and work, and so Zemeckis began researching. “I've become a master researcher. I found a relative of hers, her last protégé, footage that hadn't been seen in decades."

The basics of Stark's story are this, Zemekis explains. Stark was born in Tennessee to poor tobacco farmers; grew up with a great deal of adversity; escaped, and stumbled on a circus winter quarters in California where she absolutely fell in love with tigers and wanted to work with them. She was told that she couldn't - for no reason other than that she was a woman.

“Well, she didn't listen to 'no' - I liked her already - and worked up an act eventually working with twenty-one tigers in the ring. She was mauled many times by her cats, but she never blamed them."

"She worked with what is called the 'kindness method.' Gently, patiently, and with kindness. Her cats were everything to her, and she dedicated her life to them. She doubled for everyone in the movies during her 30s and 40s, including Mae West who was a big fan of hers. Mabel's career, though tragic and inspiring, was over fifty years long. She is a major icon of the circus."

"She worked with what is called the 'kindness method.' Gently, patiently, and with kindness. Her cats were everything to her, and she dedicated her life to them."

Zemeckis calls film the perfect medium to capture people for a couple hours and entertain them. Makes sense since she is so drawn to really moving subjects and powerful projects, which somehow she just seems to find as she moves through life. “I can't tell you what moves me. But after I obsess over something long enough I know I have to make a film about it." Ken Burns is a major inspiration for Zemekis when it comes to film, specifically because of his talent for telling a story cleanly and thoroughly.

As for whether she is already brewing on her next project, Zemeckis says, “Of course. I've been obsessing over it for a couple years now. I've already shot a sizzle reel, and after Mabel is out in the world I will turn my attention to it. More on what it is later. I also have a book coming out in October, about a couple showgirls from the 1930s. I'm super excited about it. I've been working on it for years."

Zemeckis hopes to continue to work, bringing interesting stories to film, TV, and books, and she has a vital piece of advice for women when it comes to pursuing their dreams. “Don't wait. Do what you can to create now, on whatever level it is. Don't believe no. Don't have excuses. Just do. And 'do' happily with passion and interest and kindness and be ethical in your work."

3 Min Read
Health

7 Must-have Tips to Keep You Healthy and Fit for the Unpredictable COVID Future

With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.

When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.

Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan

Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.

Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.

The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.

Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits

The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.

With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.

Tip 3: Start slow and strong

If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.

Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.

Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize

In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.

When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.

Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness

From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.

Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.

Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.

A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.

Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition

In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.

If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health

While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.

For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.

While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.