By David Lida. Photograph by Federica Gama.

Lyn May has the tiniest of waists, strong legs, wide hips and an admirable bosom (the latter the result of an operative intervention). Unfortunately, some years ago a charlatan posing as a medical authority promised her the appearance of eternal youth and injected baby oil into her face. The result was something approaching the monstrous, later to some extent relieved by the reparative efforts of two surgeons. Today, like Mickey Rourke’s, her countenance has more or less “settled” after so much interference. If you talk with her for a few minutes, you recognize discernible, and even sympathetic, expression.

She began her career in her teens dancing onstage in a bikini – an activity she continues to this day in certain venues around Mexico, principally for an audience that remembers her from her 1970s heyday. May, who made her fame in a series of soft-core sex comedies, as well as singing and dancing on television, in theatres and principally in cabarets, claims to be sixty. Due to spectacular genes, a lifetime of exercise, a diet heavy on fish and vegetables, and – for better or worse – reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, she appears ageless. She wouldn’t go under the knife any longer. “At my age it’s complicated. I would be frightened of the anesthesia,” she says.

When I first moved to Mexico City, in 1990, I saw Lyn May dance at the fabled Teatro Blanquita vaudeville house. In an almost nonexistent costume she moved to the cha-cha, the rumba, the cumbia, and other traditional Latin American rhythms. She was also a spectacular contortionist, able to lift her leg straight up behind her neck while standing, and rotate her body in circles in this position. At down-and-out movie theatres with kernels of popcorn on the floor that dated to the era of Pancho Villa, I saw scratchy copies of some of the movies she made in the 1970s and 1980s, which had titles like Love Babies, Hot Chile, School of Pleasure, and Crossed Legs.

May was known as “la china de Acapulco” – the Acapulco Chinawoman. Women of her generation, who sang, danced and acted a little, but were principally known for the proud display of their bodies, were known in Mexico by a French word – vedettes. Without a doubt May leaves a strong physical impact, but during a recent interview she also impressed with her genuineness and apparent lack of bitterness.

She was born Lyn Mendiola May in the port of Acapulco at its most glamorous moment – the era when Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher married there; John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot all worked on their tans along the beach; and John Wayne and Erroll Flynn threw their emptied Tequila bottles into the ravine of the Hotel Flamingos.

Her parents were Mexican, but her maternal grandparents were Chinese immigrants. The males of the family were impoverished fishermen who sold their daily catch at bargain prices to neighbors as poor as they. The women – including May herself, from the age of six – sold souvenirs to tourists along the beach. One of her earliest memories is being sexually abused by an old man who had ostensibly come to court her widowed grandmother. Her father beat her mother, her five siblings and her.

Does she have any happy memories of childhood? “Going to the river to wash clothes,” she says. “There were many other children washing. For me it was diversion, like going to the movies or the park.”

Given these dispiriting beginnings, it should come as no surprise that May left home at age fourteen, whisked away to Mexico City by a man she describes as a “handsome sailor.” By seventeen, with two children to support by herself, she was back in Acapulco dancing at a nightclub called El Zorro, headlining with stars like the Cuban exile Celia Cruz and the romantic trio Los Tres Ases. There she was discovered by Raul Velasco, the host of Siempre en domingo, a TV variety show which dominated Sunday nights in Mexico for thirty years. He recruited her to be one of the dancing girls.

Soon she had graduated to singing, dancing – and stripping – in cabarets. “You made more money if you took off your clothes,” May explains flatly. Cabarets were sensational enterprises in the prosperous Mexico City of the 1970s. Along with strippers and showgirls, all of the top Mexican entertainers performed in them, as well as international stars such as Josephine Baker, Charles Aznavour and Louis Armstrong. Entertainers like Lyn May were expected to do more than a rudimentary bump and grind. Among her contemporaries were Gloriella, who wore a minuscule bikini underneath a fur coat, Angelica Chaín, who bathed in a giant champagne glass, and Olga Breeskin, who played classical violin dressed in little more than feathers.

Mexican women were not allowed to vote in presidential elections until 1954. In the 1970s, few women worked in the professions; most who labored sold food on the sidewalk, toiled in domestic service or took in washing and sewing. A successful vedette earned more money than perhaps any other women who made a salary from legitimate means. The top earners made about $250 U.S. per day, with admirers – politicians, athletes, businessmen – lined up to try to impress them by paying for their costumes, musical arrangements, wigs and shoes. May says that her devotees also gave her jewelry, a car, and a mink coat.

Due to successive economic crises and resultant devaluations of the peso, throughout the 1980s most Mexicans lost much of their discretionary income, and cabarets their luster. By the end of the decade, they were glorified burlesque grindhouses with an almost exclusively male clientele. Lackluster shows, a handful of jaded musicians, and world-weary waitresses who served drinks were adornments to the principal activity of watching striptease.

The kiss of death to Mexican cabaret came in 1992, just before the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, when the first table-dance bar opened in Mexico City. Suddenly, not only could a customer see a naked woman, he could also pay her to sit in his lap while she writhed and twisted. For such a client, cabarets became irrelevant. Owners of table-dance bars saw their earnings climb into the stratosphere: they took a commission from the dancers’ income, plus profits from their clients’ astronomical bar tabs. As the women danced to piped-in pop songs, it was no longer necessary to pay musicians. These bars multiplied exponentially, and today there is no longer a single old-fashioned cabaret in Mexico City.

If her glory days are long past, today Lyn May is an object of sentimental nostalgia for fans of her generation, for whom she still performs in theatres, from Cancun to Tuxtla Gutierrez. To younger people, she is more of a figure of kitsch, best remembered for her movies, which are still broadcast on TV.

May has been married seven times. The matrimony of longest duration – twenty years – was to a Mexican of Chinese descent named Antonio Chi, owner of a successful Cantonese restaurant (now closed) called 4 Mares. The briefest marriage lasted three months, to a man May would prefer not to name. “He was too jealous,” she explains. “He told me I had to wear all my clothes on stage.” She has three children and five grandchildren.

After Chi died, May married a widower – one of her admirers from the cabaret days, Guillermo Calderón, who despite his 93 years is of a spry and gentlemanly temperament and still enjoys his whiskey before lunch. They live in a house with a pool in a well-appointed section in the south of Mexico City, and travel frequently to Las Vegas and on cruises.

She says she is planning a farewell performance at the Teatro Blanquita, still a stalwart of downtown Mexico City after more than fifty years. One should perhaps not take the “farewell” story too seriously – some Mexican personalities spend decades saying goodbye to their public.