The life of Tempest Storm is riddled with missing people. “I never saw Bettie Page after that movie,” she says, referring to 1955’s Teaserama, a striptease documentary made by the renowned bondage photographer Irving Klaw. “I tried through her attorneys, and they absolutely refused to let anybody see her. ’Course, I think she was in bad health, or she was in an institution for a while. I did go to her funeral.”
Born Annie Banks, the 88-year-old legend of burlesque—former girlfriend to both JFK and Elvis—has also suffered absence on a less mythic but more painful scale. She never knew her father, her mother was indifferent at best, and now she’s trying to make peace with her own daughter, abandoned by Storm when her marriage to Duke Ellington vocalist Herb Jeffries ended. Amid the archival footage and showbiz tales, this is the real thrust of Tempest Storm, Vancouver filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji’s feature-length tribute to the flame-haired performer, opening Friday (June 17). Talking to the Straight from Toronto, Storm acknowledges that she signed on to the experience knowing it would probably come with a considerable amount of distress.
“But,” she says, “I thought this would be a chance to reveal something that I really had hidden in the back of my mind. It would bring it out. In the beginning I thought, ‘Well, I’ve done just about everything.’ I thought it’s time for the people to really, really know what my life was like. Who I really am.”
The irony isn’t lost on Storm that she was comfortable with a certain kind of exposure for most of her professional life. Speaking to a camera about sexual abuse or decades of family dysfunction, however, turns out to be a somewhat bigger challenge—albeit worthwhile. Storm apparently has a clearer view of what motivated her to ditch her life in rural Georgia for a career that had memorable spells in Vegas and Hollywood, and shades of notoriety throughout.
“I think I was looking for approval,” she offers, adding, somewhat tellingly, that “my mother came to Atlanta, Georgia, to see my show. She thought it was beautiful.” No less revealing was an exchange between the exotic dancer and her abusive stepfather, who told her, “You’ll never get to Heaven doing that kind of work.” Storm curtly replied that she didn’t expect him to make it there, either. “But I said it in a funny way, not in a nasty way,” she recounts. “I always kept myself classy.”
To that end, there’s something honourable about Storm’s public display of accountability. Deserting her daughter, only 10 years old at the time, raises an obvious parallel with her own childhood traumas. The film builds to a climactic phone call between the two that’ll have some viewers shifting a little uncomfortably in their seats, but Storm doesn’t recoil from putting it out there, or from bringing some hard-won wisdom and patience to a situation that still requires a lot of healing.
“We all have forgiveness,” she says. “But you have to give that person a chance to forgive you.”