Burlesque candidate strips away stigma in Portland school board race

Posted July 19, 2012, at 7:23 a.m.
Last modified July 19, 2012, at 8:13 a.m.
Chris Busby
Chris Busby
Holly Seeliger is running for a seat on Portland’s school board, representing the West End and Parkside neighborhoods. She is a registered Green Independent and a burlesque performer.
Holly Seeliger is running for a seat on Portland’s school board, representing the West End and Parkside neighborhoods. She is a registered Green Independent and a burlesque performer.
Holly Seeliger
Holly Seeliger
Holly Seeliger
Holly Seeliger

For most politicians, performing a striptease in a YouTube video marks the beginning of the end of their public-service career. For Holly Seeliger, it may be just the beginning.

Seeliger, who turned 26 last weekend, is running for a seat on Portland’s school board, representing the West End and Parkside neighborhoods. Currently a burlesque performer, she graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in political science and hopes to return to school this fall to get certified to teach high school history and social studies.

A registered Green Independent, Seeliger is a high-profile activist with OccupyMaine. She has co-hosted several installments of “Occupy ME TV,” a half-hour propaganda program on Portland’s public access station. She has also been active in the West End Neighborhood Association, or WENA, a more politically conservative but no less feisty organization.

It’s not uncommon for childless twenty-somethings to win school board elections  here. (There are two on the nine-member board at present). And young Greens have had considerable success running for municipal office. Voters in this district have elected Dave Marshall, a young Green, to the City Council twice in the past six years.

So Seeliger would seem to have a decent shot of winning this November. But then there’s the whole stripping thing. Portland’s a liberal town, and the West End may be its most lefty enclave, but there are limits.

For the past three years, Seeliger has been performing in burlesque shows under the stage name Holly D’anger. She doesn’t get naked during these performances, but on stage and in some of her pin-ups she gets damn close.

Burlesque experienced a resurgence in Portland about 10 years ago — the “Nutcracker Burlesque” is now a holiday tradition — and there are at least three local troupes that regularly put on shows in local bars and theaters. D’anger has danced with them all.

To her credit, Seeliger is not trying to hide this side of herself. In a recent post on her campaign blog in which she criticizes the way magazines and other media portray the female form, she cites her burlesque experience as a reason she’s running.

“I believe that the image of women in media and politics needs to be re-examined,” she wrote. “Far more must be done to promote positive body image and a more attainable standard of health and beauty.”

During a recent interview, Seeliger said her other big issues are improving school nutrition and expanding vocational training opportunities. “I was a student of Maine public schools and Maine colleges,” said Seeliger, who attended high school in Berwick. “I feel like I am very aware of the challenges to young people and students looking for work in this state.”

Seeliger doesn’t think D’anger will endanger her chances at the polls. “I think any kind of community involvement and artistic expression is a positive thing to have,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to be who they are and be transparent about that.”

But there are voters who consider Seeliger’s tendency to get transparent on stage an abhorrent quality for someone overseeing their child’s education.

A minicontroversy brewed six years ago when Stephen Spring, then this district’s school board representative, ran a campaign advertisement in a local paper that cheekily proclaimed him to be “Gay, Green and Gorgeous.” Two weeks before election day, Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz took Spring to task for using “sexual innuendo as a campaign strategy.” Spring lost the race and moved to Texas.

Earlier this month, when the current incumbent announced he wouldn’t seek another three-year term, Seeliger was the only person who’d taken out nomination papers to replace him. That prospect seemed to spook some people.

In a mass email sent July 9, WENA President Rosanne Graef noted this turn of events and strongly encouraged someone to step in and challenge Seeliger. Since then, two more people have taken out papers to run for the seat, turning an uncontested race into the most competitive in the city thus far.

Seeliger said she didn’t take Graef’s email personally. Graef made no mention of burlesque or racy photos. And besides, Seeliger said, some WENA members have attended her shows.

“I feel like Portland is pretty liberal, and people can look beyond a snap judgment [they] might make regarding someone’s art or interest,” she said. “If anything, it will benefit my ability to communicate with people in the city.”

I don’t know about communication, but she’ll certainly get their attention.

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.

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