Nikki DaVaughn, founder of Fat Bottom Cabaret, refuses to shrink herself for inane beauty standards in her home city.
By Nikki DaVaugn, Photos courtesy of Nikki DaVaughn
W hen I was 4 years old, I walked up to a stranger at the washeteria that used to be on the corner of MLK and Chicon, introduced myself and asked the man for a ride home. Six months later, he proposed to my mom and began what would be a 42-year marriage. To say that East Austin is in my blood would be an understatement. I grew up in Austin when you could walk to school and along the way see the same neighbors on their porches, getting ready for work, working in their gardens or playing music in their front yards.
East Austin was a crazy mix of people of color, hippies, struggling musicians and poor white folks. Everyday I walked home from school waving at large beautiful women laughing or talking, and oftentimes fussing. There was always music playing from someone’s house and familiar smells of whatever dinner was cooking. I remember buzzing from the energy and feeling simultaneously safe and strong. Felt an innate ownership of the city back then. I saw myself everywhere everyday.
Fast forward to high school and college, and my love of people and the energy I got from them evolved to a love of performing and the shared energy with an audience. There was never a shortage of opportunity for me to entertain in this city, whether it was in church, school or random gigs. But over time I noticed the audience changed. I went from plays and musicals with diverse casts and scores to male-dominated cover bands in shitty frat bars. My neighborhood sounds started to be less gospel mixed with Motown and more indie rock mixed with construction and sirens. Little by little, I was starting to feel invisible.
“Enough is Enough!”
It was in 2008, while emceeing at yet another burlesque show where I was the only person of color and the only person of size, when I finally said, “Enough is enough,” and Fat Bottom Cabaret was born. It started with the idea that surely there were other fat women like me that loved performing; they just hadn’t found the right stage yet. I was determined to create that stage. By 2014, Fat Bottom was performing all over Texas, winning titles in burlesque festivals and selling out shows. That was around the time the gentrification of East Austin really became noticeable.
My way to deal with the increasing disappearance of diversity in my neighborhood was to increase the visibility of the women I grew up seeing. Not just increasing visibility, but celebrating [them]. I was determined to celebrate the bodies that I grew up with, the body I was growing into: full, dark bodies that I was seeing fewer of in the world. I wanted to pay homage to those bodies by loving mine and encouraging others to do the same. Showing beautiful brown women of all sizes on stage was the perfect inspiration.
By 2017, things started getting real. Our audience got bigger, as did our reach. The diversity we started seeing at our shows was the perfect catalyst to spread our message like wildfire. Our shows, social media and audience communication were all used to drive home the idea that every body is beautiful and worthy of not just visibility, but celebration. Whenever I had a mic in my hand, I made it a point to push this home. It was especially important to me the more whitewashed and gentrified the east side became.
Take Up Space, Raise Hell
The necessity to celebrate specifically brown bodies in Austin felt crucial. The bigger the city was getting, the harder it was to stay seen. Our show started to feel like an act of rebellion. Rebellion against the cookie-cutter sameness that society seemed hell-bent on creating. I wasn’t having it, not in my city. Not in a city that was once so full of life, diversity and that special crazy energy. I would put a hundred fat brown women onstage if I had to, and (let’s face it) I likely will!
Fat Bottom Cabaret is barreling toward its 10th year, and I’m in awe of what we’ve accomplished. This crazy thing I started has definitely grown into something I couldn’t have imagined, largely thanks to this gang of fierce, confident Austin women that took a leap of faith. Visibility with intent isn’t always easy, especially when society is doing everything it can to erase you; but the brown women in Austin are a special breed. We rarely shrink ourselves and don’t give in easily. Fat Bottom is proof of that.
Representation of big-bodied WOC in this city is a hill I will not only die on, but will dance, sing, strip, bump and grind on. There’s no room for bullshit beauty standards in a city like this. We’re too dynamic. So, for as long as I’m strutting around Austin with a mic in my hand, my message will be the same: Celebrate and love yourself at every version it comes in. Take up space, represent and raise hell. You’re worth it.