Interview with Cutie Whippingham

If you’re part of the pole dancing or performing world, the name Cutie Whippingham will most likely fill you with awe. Why? Because the alias associated with Leila Davis – a professional pole performer, instructor, model, movement coach and brand inclusion consultant, director of Blackstage LTD, pole studio manager, pole consultant and interior styling and make-up enthusiast – is synonymous with some of our industry’s best talent and activism. Sadly, I couldn’t attend her January 2022 trailblazing Blackstage London show, so I wanted to celebrate Leila’s work in a different way – which is why I’m incredibly honoured to interview her on the blog today.

Cutie Whippingham’s pole dance and modelling career

Cutie Whippingham has been pole dancing since September 2014, so for seven years and five months as of February 2022.

At the time, she had just graduated from the Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of music and dance, where she spent five years training in Contemporary dance, ballet and creative choreography, before starting intermediate and advanced ballet classes at English National Ballet.

Despite coming from a Contemporary dance background, Leila says she had wanted to be a stripper since the age of fifteen, but was so focused on her Contemporary training she didn’t really consider taking up pole. She says:

“When I was 18 and had just gone through a breakup I ended up watching a documentary about plus-sized South American women pole dancing as a way to feel empowered. A few weeks after that, I typed in ‘pole dance classes near me’ into Google and took myself to a class that very same day.” 

@cutiewhippingham

In 2014, after 11 months of pole, she decided to take an instructor training course before going to university. She passed her course and headed off to The University of Sussex to study Psychology… but mainly spent every waking moment in the Pole Society, where she was a teacher, performer and Vice-President bringing home several pole and dance championship titles in her final year.

Her ‘real’ pole career started in 2018, when she graduated and was offered her first pole modelling job. Since then, Leila has gone on to make a name for herself as Cutie Whippingham, the multi-talented artist we know and love. She credits a 2018 Redbull gig as the one that put her on the map, introducing her to a set of people who then accelerated her pole dance career. She raises collaborating with Pxssy Palace (an international club night celebrating and centering queer women, trans, non-binary and intersex BIPOC folx) for their Survivor party in 2021 as another career highlight. “It was the first PP after lockdown,” she says, “I performed for over 1,000 people and the energy was insane. Those are always my favourite kind of gigs.” Thanks to her work with Pxssy Palace, Cutie Whippingham even ended up collaborating with British Vogue for their Pride series.

It doesn’t end here. She was too modest to mention them all, but I’m giving you a highlight reel.

Cutie Whippingham was selected by Adidas’ global team to model for the Adidas x Stella McCartney collection based on her pole dance work and artistry. Pictures of her went viral, so much that I saw them on leading Italian newspaper La Repubblica‘s IG feed.

She worked with Burberry, creating pole dance content for their digital platform in 2020.

And last but not least, Leila was Nike’s 2020-2021 ambassador, introducing the brand’s followers to pole dancing with a series of editorials, before becoming an official Nike partner in 2022.

Blackstage

However, it’s her baby Blackstage that Leila is proudest of.

Leila has always been extremely passionate about race, Queerness and their intersection. She pinpoints 2015, when she started attending regular talks and panels with Consented magazine, and reading Black, Queer Feminist literature for the first time, as the beginning of her activism.

“I’d say that was my switch moment, I was in my first Queer relationship and I wanted to know more about Black Queerness in particular and all the knowledge blew my mind wide open,” she says. Looking back, that passion was the seed of Blackstage: “Most of my friends are Queer, Trans, Non-binary and BPOC so having that community reflected in pole felt like such an obvious necessity.”

Blackstage is a project that exists to showcase Black pole dancers and Pole dancers of Colour in the UK. Cutie Whippingham created it by pooling together pole dancers on the Blackstage Instagram, sharing their work, partnering up with brands to gift them pole goods during hard times and then getting funding to put on a stunning show on January 29, 2022. Leila says:

“I created this space because I recognise that the pole industry is an unfair place for BPOC pole dancers, it erases us, it inflicts harm on us both intentionally and unintentionally, it gaslights us when we challenge the racist status quo, it generally causes harm to a lot of us. So I created a space that centres BPOC, that strives to give BPOC resources beyond those imaginable in pole competitions, it gives them access to a community that validates them and sees their worth, it basically loves on them hard and lets them know they deserve the world.”

@cutiewhippingham on @blxckstage

“I did this because I know what it’s like to be oppressed and I know what it’s like to have spaces that heal us and I wanted to create one,” she adds.

As part of Blackstage, Cutie Whippingham paid performers a starting fee of £680 plus ticket sales top-up. She covered their travel and accommodation, providing them with food by Black businesses, paying a majority Black events staff, hiring a Black film crew and gifting literally everyone working on the showcase – including the pole cleaners – a big Nike duffle bag full of goodies from a tracksuit and trainers to yoga mats and blocks.

As if this wasn’t enough, Leila had award-winning podcaster, activist, influencer and studio owner Kelechi Okafor host the event.

Cutie Whippingham says about Blackstage:

“Seeing the vision I had for Blackstage physically materialise, seeing all of the performers laying their souls on the stage and the audience had an energy like i’d never seen. I am still struggling to find the words to explain how sensational the show was and how much of a historical, ground-breaking moment it was.”

@cutiewhippingham on @blxckstage

Cutie Whippingham’s advice for pole performers

Leila has become a master at managing and getting paid for her time, thanks to years of experience as a freelancer. While she initially used to struggle managing her freelance commitments when she worked five shifts a week in a restaurant, now she has restructured her jobs to mainly just manage the Kelechnekoff studio, accepting other freelance jobs around that.

Picture by @ray.marsh

Alongside her performing career, Leila has been fighting for better pay and more education for pole dance performers. She argues that because of a lack of knowledge, few performers are paid what they’re worth. She says:

“The pole industry and community aren’t very transparent about how much we earn because we exist in this culture of shame surrounding money, and gate keeping information relating to success. Therefore, newbies on the scene and even people who have been in the game for a while often don’t know where to start when setting prices and work boundaries.”

@cutiewhippingham

As a result, Cutie Whippingham says many of the industries employing pole dancers exploit them with the offer of exposure over money, because they assume we don’t know how to navigate freelance work, or to financially quantify our work and time. She adds: “When you know better, you do better but if the information isn’t accessible then how can you ever know better? This is why I wanted to do the talks.”

Thanks to what she learnt, Cutie Whippingham now shares her tips in a series of lectures targeted towards pole performers, something you can find advertised on her IG. For starters though, she says that her number one advice for performers looking to better manage their time is to write everything down: “My calendar does get filled very quickly so my main strategy is putting it all in the calendar as soon as possible, so I can know what my days/weeks/months look like and whether I can actually manage.”

However, no matter how good the job looks, Leila thinks you should “[n]ever compromise your integrity for a bag.” She adds:

“Sometimes it can be hard to say no to an opportunity when the morals of the organisation don’t align with your own because the opportunity might seem great. However, you lose a bit of yourself each time you compromise on your values so it’s not worth it. Always try and stand by your values, better opportunities will always come along if you remain true to yourself.”

@cutiewhippingham

@casa_de_modelei

When I said Leila was multi-talented, I wasn’t joking. The interiors Instagram account she shares with her partner, @casa_de_modelei (below), gives me major house envy. “I just love the feeling of creating a home,” Leila says about the now successful account, which is constantly featured in lifestyle magazines.

“I’ve always been into styling spaces, especially since moving to university, I used to draw up floor plans for my rooms before I’d even moved in.” Home is, for Leila, “a creative space that is cosy but you can also feel proud of.” She says: “I love thinking of new ways to be creative with the space and make it look beautiful so I love sharing content of the things at home that make me smile.”

Where to find Cutie Whippingham

You can now mainly find Leila at Kelechnekoff studio, the studio she manages and teaches at. She sounds almost apologetic when she lists the “few” (but, to me, many) things she’s got going on: “All I’m doing at the moment is private gigs, brand consulting/partnering and a workshop with Bristol Uni because I’m getting married in less than two months, so I will be doing loads of wedding related stuff until then.”

She adds: “I promised my partner I’d try and take it easy because I’ve worked so hard this year already and it’s only February.”

Remember what I said at the beginning of the interview? That Leila fills everyone with awe? Well, exactly.

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