Backstage At Paris' Lido Cabaret

Emma, Girl No. 16, at the Lido, Paris' long-running cabaret
Emma, Girl No. 16, at the Lido, Paris' long-running cabaret

Behind every tourist attraction there are personal stories that the out-of-town visitor rarely sees. Take it from Sunday Morning contributor David Turecamo, Our Man In Paris.

Well, it may be Sunday morning in America but it's already edging toward evening in Paris, and if you've seen the other monuments in this city, there's one Parisian landmark open only at night: the Lido, one of the world's most famous cabarets.

But if you want to get backstage at the Lido, you've got to know someone, and in my case the someone is Emma.

Oooh-la-la! What a job I have …

Anyway, if among the scantily clad you have trouble picking out Emma, to keep them straight, you need a system. Even the wardrobe lady has one:

"Connaissez-vous Emma?" I ask. (Do you know Emma?)

Salli-Anne respondez, "Oui, Emma's c'est la seize." (Yes, Emma's number 16.)

Yeah, she's number 16, but one of the stars of the show because the Lido's fame rests on the 58 dancers, some of whom (like Emma) work partially nude.

When I met her she'd already been at the Lido for eight years.

"Eight years this month," she said. "It goes very quickly."

The Lido first opened 71 years ago, and every Parisian knows it well. It's the place you take your relatives when they come from out of town - you go for dinner and for the two-hour show. Currently playing is the revue "Bonheur," about a woman's search for happiness - through leather bars, India, and … I don't know what they're searching for here, but anyway, it's a $10 million extravaganza, for the costumes alone - regardless of the fact that there's not a lot to some of the costumes.

It's probably the male fantasy that there are women in the world who want nothing more than to dance half-naked in a nightclub.

Except for Vicki, who came to Paris to audition for the Lido: "This was my dream."

"No kidding?"


Most were more like Emma, who said, "To tell you the truth, I didn't really have many dreams, but one of them definitely wasn't to be working on stage at the Lido. Not at all."

Or like Justine (number 14!) who's from Australia and was a ballerina. In fact, she spent four years in Russia with the Kirov Ballet but then broke her foot. "Life changes" brought her to the Lido.

These women have been dancers all their lives - Emma since she was four years old - so of course I wondered about dancers' attitudes towards cabaret.

"Oh, I think everybody's different," Vicki said. "I was at a party last night and there were some dancers who are in 'Swan Lake' and they look down on cabaret, you know, because they do 'proper' dance."

And since only some of them work semi-nude, I wondered if they had any choice in the matter.

"Do you have a choice? I don't think I really had a choice at the time," Justine said. "I think Pierre just went: 'Nude.'"

She's referring to Pierre Rambert, the artistic director of the Lido.

Justine said it all depends: "Taller? You go in the nudes. Obviously if your boobs are nice you go in the nudes."

And if you were wondering why the majority of dancers at the Lido are British, it's because British women are taller, and you have to be at least 5'9" to work there. But it also means they've left family and boyfriends behind, in a strange country.

21-year-old Vicki has a boyfriend back in England and is very lonely. "I just feel like I'm kinda too young to do all this."

"When I came, it is lonely, which is why you depend on the people that you work with to be your family," Emma said.

Look, I know what you're thinking: I cooked this story up just to get backstage at a partially nude cabaret revue. But actually I met Emma by accident while shooting a fashion show, which is where Emma is on her time off. At the Lido, the dancers make about a hundred a night for two shows, six nights a week.

"We work right through Christmas and the holidays," Rachel said. "But people see it on stage and it's quite glamorous."

So between the schedule and the Lido's high standards, most dancers don't last very long.

"It changes every year, they come and go," Salli-anne said. "It happens a little too much."

Look, it's obviously a good place to work. Some of the stagehands have been there forty years.

And Salli-Anne, the wardrobe lady? "Dix-neuf ans!" (19 years!)

But when Emma says it goes very quickly, she's not kidding. Because for the dancers, when they turn 35, they're out.

"What are you going to do after the Lido?" I asked Emma.

"I've asked myself a lot of times: 'What am I going to do? What am I going to do?' I have ideas but basically I would like to stay here as long as I can, as long as they will let me, as long as I look good on stage still. And by then I hope that maybe I'll be married; maybe I'll have children."

So these are the stars of the Lido, even if their names are never in lights. And there is a happy ending to this story. I heard recently that Emma did get married, to a guy who also works at the Lido. So for someone who never had many dreams, at least one has come true for Emma.

So maybe it's enough just being Girl Number 16.