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


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."

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Patriarchy Stress Disorder is A Real Thing and this Psychologist Is Helping Women Overcome It

For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.

As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.

Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.

What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein

This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.

Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.

Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.

In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.

"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."