Sukki Menon on Breaking Boundaries with Burlesque
The multi-faceted star of Netflix show ‘Singapore Social’ talks about her Indian connect, her tumultuous journey and upcoming projects
Raised in Singapore and now based in London, Sukki Menon is an unstoppable young force that has left a powerful impact on the world. Menon, theatrically known as Sukki Singapora, is the first-ever burlesque performer from Singapore.
Simply put, burlesque is a bold performing art. It combines female sensuality through striptease with a comical, theatrical segment. Along with being a performer, an artist and an activist, Menon also recently appeared on Netflix’s popular docuseries Singapore Social. She is one of the strongest voices for desi Asian female representation and empowerment not just in this side of the world but also beyond borders.
One look at her would convince you that she has been doing burlesque for as long as one can imagine. However, Menon’s story is a little more convoluted than that. The self-taught artist didn’t have it easy from the get-go. Working at what was once an I.T. firm, she took her destiny into her hands when she plunged into the world of burlesque. So, where did it all start? She says, “In 2012, I found out that a local theater needed burlesque performers after their comedy shows… I marched down there, and I told them that I was a professional burlesque performer! I wasn’t!… I threw myself in at the deep end, but luckily more and more gigs started coming through after that and various international performances which ultimately led me to being noticed by Netflix who put me on the big screen.”
Menon harbors a rich triad of cultures from three different corners of the world — she is part Keralite, part Singaporean and part British. Thanks to the wealthy influence of three contrasting cultures, her unique ideas for performances and flamboyant costumes never run dry. “I design all my own costumes, and I try to incorporate as much of my desi heritage into them as I can,” she says. Talking about her inspiration, she adds, “Barbara Yung was a legendary Asian-American burlesque performer from the 1940s who influenced me the most… [She] made many of her costumes out of Chinese fabric, so when I made my own tribute to one of her acts… [we] sewed together bits and pieces from sarees my family had received from Kerala. So with those sari pieces in my costumes, even though I wasn’t accepted by my family at the time, I always carried a part of my family with me.”
Menon’s long-reaching strides for female empowerment through burlesque have made her a youth icon in Singapore. “Almost 80 percent of my audience is female. Burlesque is an art form that is done by women, for women… It is an amazing community that empowers female expression and lets them be who they want to be,” she says. This movement of sexual liberation looks societal norms in the eye as Menon’s new-age feministic ideals give burlesque a whole new meaning. She adds, “What’s dangerous to the old system is that burlesque gives women the power of having the right over their own bodies and what they want to show, or not… Burlesque empowers female sensuality and equality… [it] is a way for a woman to challenge gender bias.”
Menon founded the Singapore Burlesque Club to empower Asian and desi identities. The extraordinarily determined and charming young talent campaigned extensively to legalize burlesque in Singapore and was successful in her struggle. Her efforts landed her an invitation to Buckingham Palace in 2015. In the same year, she also got the opportunity to perform at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Since then, her persistent hustle has led her to be nominated for the U.N. Women’s He for She Awards in 2016. In 2017, she was honored with the Generation T Award for being one of the top 50 most influential people in Singapore. Menon says, “I think I was also in the right place at the right time where people started listening. I think if you shout loud enough about things that matter, and if you’re a good person who genuinely wants to make a difference, you can change the world.”
Her accolades don’t stop there. She currently is working extensively for women issues collaborating with non-profit groups like The Sharan Project, which provides care and support to vulnerable women. She also launched a campaign called Create for Kindness, in which she helped raise funds for those artists who lost their livelihoods due to the onset of the pandemic.
When asked about her future projects, the artist-performer is fully pumped. She says, “A reunion of the cast of Singapore Social is lined up and will be out soon. I also have a couple of film opportunities coming up, but that’s all I can tell you!” The multi-talented star wishes to work in the Indian film industry as well. She says, “I have grown up watching films of Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor, it has been a big part of my childhood. Also, Ranveer Singh, who is a total creative icon, is someone I would love to share the screen with, and Adil Hussain, who is a beautiful genius and a lovely person. I am really excited for everything that’s happening,” she says.
Before parting, Menon left a heartfelt message for young Indians starting out on their careers, “When I started on my journey… I didn’t have any support. I was working shifts in a tomato factory, cleaning the floors and putting tomatoes in boxes. If I can go from nothing to (being on) Netflix in six years, anything is possible… And those people who don’t support you, they end up coming round because they see you’re a good person in the end, and if they don’t, you’ll still end up happy because you’re following your dreams and living your authentic life. Don’t give up on that dream. Be brave.”