Alyssa Kitt moved to New York in 2021 with just her cat and five boxes of costumes and rare books. The Australian native came to the the city to pursue a doctorate at CUNY Graduate Center by day and performed as a burlesque dancer around the city in places like The Slipper Room at night.
A few months before, Kitt, 34, was trying on her favorite red lipstick at the MAC makeup counter and noticed there was something wrong with her face. “I have a very signature lip snarl and I went to do it to put this lipstick on and my face didn’t work on the left hand side,” she recalled.
At first, she was misdiagnosed with Bell’s palsy, but when her face began to look worse and become painful, she went back to the doctor and was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma in her facial nerve. In June, she had a 15-hour surgery to remove the cancer and part of her face, and undergo a nerve transplant. The Bed-Stuy resident called the burlesque community in New York “family” and gushed about the support she received from her fellow dancers while she was in the hospital.
“I literally had Dirty Martini and Tigger, Gigi Holliday, Medianoche, The Evil Hate Monkey, Darlinda Just Darlinda, Jo Boobs, Jonny Porkpie on the phone with me, coming in to see me in the hospital, bringing in letters from fans and friends,” she said.
“I got sent a massive bouquet of flowers from a wonderful duo called Faggedy Randy and P No Noire. Friends who work at The Slipper Room, sound and lighting technicians would literally just come and bring movies in for me to watch and just sit there and hold my hand, wipe my a-- because I couldn’t do it myself.”
Her first time back on stage–now with a cane and a shorter set of heels–was in October for this year’s Golden Pasties Awards, part of the New York Burlesque Festival. Kitt received the Elvis Award, given to the dancer with the best lip snarl. “And I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I do have a pretty f-----g award-winning snarl now.”
As an undergrad, you double majored in journalism and history. How did you get into burlesque?
I was indeed a news journalist and worked in documentary making, as a researcher and associate producer. And then I worked freelance in magazines. I did my master’s in publishing and worked in reality TV for a while. I was working at strip clubs as a club stripper in 2007. Neo-Burlesque in Australia didn’t have the same kind of timeline and trajectory that we talk about in the U.S. When I started, there were maybe 20 to 30 people who identified as burlesque performers in Australia at that time, so it was very niche, very underground, very punk. We didn’t know what we were doing; we were just stripping.
When did you first start noticing that something was wrong with your face?
My God, I remember it perfectly. I was at the MAC makeup counter trying on my favorite shade of red lipstick. And I joked with the makeup artist there and said, “I think I had a stroke. Am I smiling to you?” And she’s like, “I think you should go to the doctor.” I went to the doctor and they just said, “This is Bell’s palsy. It will get better on its own. You just got to wait it out.”
What made you go back to the doctor?
Well, my face was starting to look worse and worse. It was drooping more. My left eye was starting to bulge and bug out like a fish eye in a bowl and it was just starting to present with pain. I was a little bit used to feeling like I had brain fog and feeling a little bit dizzy at the end of the day. And I would just be like, “I’m tired” or “I’m staring at the computer screen too much for my PhD” or “[It’s] general Zoom drain” or “Maybe it’s symptoms of COVID.” I got to January and made New Year’s resolutions and “Deal with my face” was number one because I was getting to this point where I could barely look at myself in the mirror; it was just starting to look so bad. I’m a big believer in accepting your beauty as it is in its diversity, but the pain was also starting to be a real thing. So I figured that America is pretty good at plastic surgery, so surely they could just tack this s—t up and be done with it. I started looking in Bell’s palsy plastic reconstructive surgeons and they have an amazing team at NYU Langone. I went to make an appointment and they took one look at me and just said, “We’re gonna send you for some more tests because you do not have Bell’s palsy.”
You got diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma in April. When did you get surgery?
I went in for surgery on the 14th of June and it was one major surgery. They did everything in one fell swoop. They took out the cancer; they removed the entire facial nerve, my gland, 34 lymph nodes, a bunch of cancer in my ear. They had to take out some bones and replace them, so now I’m also half deaf. They did a nerve transplant; they took the entire facial nerve and they just kept having to hack back until there was no cancer and this tiny little stub left. They then took a long tendril of nerve from my calf that they attached into the right side of my face and then attached that over my top lip to that stub. So as the facial nerve will regrow, which it does very slowly, in about six months to two years, it will reanimate. They’ve taken out a large bulk of my face, temporal bone and parts of the back of my head. They had to rebuild that from muscle and skin tissue from my leg, so I couldn’t walk. It was in this massive 15-hour surgery and they worked with six different specialist surgeons and maybe 20 doctors underneath. I swear my surgical suite was as big as my apartment.
How long were you out of work for?
My university is really wonderful and very supportive. I did the surgery over my summer break, where normally I’d be teaching, performing and touring. I wasn’t out about my cancer or my surgery until the day before, where I dropped this social media bomb on everyone. Someone said, “Just set up a GoFundMe campaign.” And I didn’t want to be asking for money, but I did realize I’d be out of work. And when I opened it, I’d opened up $8,000 worth of people sending in money for me. That basically was as much as I would make over the summer. That was all burlesque community and family and friends.
Tell us about this year’s Golden Pasties Awards.
The Golden Pasties was my first time on stage after all of this, wearing a costume that I had had in a box since my cancer. Since my face started going south, I just didn’t really want to perform or make art. I do walk with a cane now, so I walked on stage with my cane, wearing a very short set of high heels and got to announce an award and win an award as well.
To learn more about Alyssa, visit www.alyssakitt.com and @missalyssakitt on Instagram