VIDEO STAR (In which I learn how to talk dirty, how to wear makeup like a professional, and how to fuck on film.)
I clearly had not been born a stripper, but after a couple dances at Valentino’s, there was no going back. Something inside me had changed. I could feel it when I walked, when I went on dates, when I needed to be charming on command, when I needed to act sexy, or when I needed to be cute. It might have taken me a long time to figure out the power that sex entailed, but now that I’d found it, I wasn’t letting go.
I’d always been the girl guys forgot about on Friday nights. The one without a date for Prom, much less for football games. My high school was pretty typical in the sense that the cheerleaders were on the top of the totem pole, and girls like me were pretty much ignored unless someone needed help on a math test. I know it’s a total cliché, but clichés originate in truth, and that was my truth. I kept busy during high school, on the debate team, on the literary magazine, in those math classes, so that no one would notice I didn’t have anyone to eat lunch with, so that I wouldn’t feel as lonely on those Friday nights.
My mother even took me to a therapist once, my junior of high school, because she was concerned about me. She tried to talk to me herself, but that was a disaster, so I just changed the subject every time she tried. Which is how I ended up sitting across from Ms. Ramirez as she tried to convince me to find the joy in high school. The joy in high school? Was there even such a thing?
I explained to her that I’d long given up trying, and that now high school was merely a preparatory phase for college. That I was going to use every ounce of energy I had to make myself as stellar a candidate as possible so that, in a year and a half, when I walked away with my diploma, I’d be heading to the college of my choice.
She lectured me on the ill-advised nature of “postponing joy,” but I just kept my mouth shut, like I had learned to do when my mother or the school’s guidance counselor got concerned about my lack of friends or propensity for wearing black. This was, mind you, years before goth was cool and available at your local Hot Topic.
Ms. Ramirez didn’t have a clue what my life was like, how it felt to have my stomach churn when third period ended, and everyone ran enthusiastically to the parking lot to grab their Sbarro pizza and hang at the food court. She didn’t know what it was like to sit after school in school’s newspaper office, prepping layouts, forgotten by the girls beside me who chattered on about this guy and that guy and what kind of kisser he was and know that I’d never been kissed and that none of these boys were even contemplating doing any such thing.
I know it sounds like I was a total emo headcase, but I wasn’t. I’d actually gotten, contrary to Ms. Ramirez’s suggestions, really good at postponing joy, and it was working for me. I channeled any angstful energy I had towards getting the hell out of that small town and as far away as possible from the classmates who didn’t notice me.
And it worked. I got into the posh liberal arts college of my dreams, on a full scholarship no less, and I felt vindicated. Once I got there, I even fell in with a group of kids who also had hated high school (to think there were more of us!), kids who also had never fit in or been understood or noticed. I felt like I had found my people. Of course, these boys still didn’t want to kiss me, but I was so used to that by this point that I didn’t expect otherwise. All that mattered was that I had people to eat lunch with.
I did end up finding a guy, something even the most awkward usually end up accomplishing in the hormone-driven world of the college campus, but David was a nice boy, and any fantasies that had been fueled by my high school eavesdropping did not manifest. We kissed and held hands and sometimes had sex, but not very often. David was the kind of nice WASP sort of boy who didn’t get too emotional or too passionate about anything. But I appreciated the niceness, and the hand-holding, and I was grateful that there was a guy out there who wanted to kiss me.
Until he graduated and told me that he needed to focus all his energy on medical school, and that was the last I heard from him. All of which left me, senior year of college, as my fellow classmates were running around, soaking in every last moment of freedom and alcohol, kind of where I’d been in high school: studying.
Since I had completed most of my academic requirements, taking more courses than my colleagues each term, my senior year left me with a lot of options. Keg stands were not one of them, so I just took more classes. I figured this was my chance to take classes outside of my major, which was how I had ended up in that sociology class.
When it came time to do the final paper, I knew what my topic would be. I had known for a while, as fascinated by these girls as by my high school classmates who had dates every weekend, and boys passing them notes in class. I knew I wanted to write about strippers.
There had been a strip club located not far from the Washington, D.C. metro station I used during the summer, when I commuted to the law library where I shelved books for paralegals and corporate litigation attorneys. Every evening, as I was headed home, they were headed to work, and I would watch them, the ease they had with their bodies, the way they laughed, their costumes in duffle-bags and small suitcases. Even before they put their stage outfits on, I knew who they were and what they did, and I coveted their abilities. Not only did I crave the attention they received, but I wanted to know what to do with that attention when I got it.
During the spare time I acquired after David dumped me, I started reading about these women. My favorite texts were the first-hand accounts, by revolutionaries from the Lusty Lady, brazen women who combined their sex appeal with an articulate and critical mind. It was fair to say I was obsessed.
Still, if you had told me that I was going to end up on that stage some day, I would have ignored you the same way I ignored Ms. Ramirez. There is intellectual curiosity, and there is courage, and I had a lot of one and very little of the other. But yet, due to a random combination of events (I blamed Candy), it had happened, and now there was no going back.
I now knew my own worth, literally and figuratively. I became hyperaware of the way men watched me, of the power I had over them with a few right moves. I had learned how to make them watch me, I had learned how to control them with the same basic moves, and I wanted to keep doing it.
Like a drug, I needed to feel the thrill of easy money and endless desire, but I could never return to a place like Valentino’s. A fancier place, on the other hand, might not be too bad, although I wasn’t sure if I could handle the personal interactions. I wanted to figure out a way to fill my power cravings without having to distract myself with more depressing confession-style conversations. I had to admit that I loved to dance, but I didn’t so much love to talk. And I was still terrified of being asked to do a lap dance.
I wasn’t doing it just for fun either—I didn’t like being poor. I wanted the independence and security sex work gave me, the feeling of success that was proportional to the number of zeroes in your bank account. Manhattan rents were demanding on my meager bank account, not to mention the fact that I needed to feel that rush again. I needed to push myself somewhere new. I needed to figure out how much I could handle, how far I could go. I had opened the box on this new side of myself, and I wasn’t ready to put her away again.
I scoured the adult ads at the back of the Village Voice, wondering what my next step should be. Online porn seemed like a good option—lucrative, antisocial, and something I hadn’t tried yet—but I hesitated to take the plunge. And then one day, walking home from a job interview, I saw it. The ad was taped up on a post in my neighborhood, partially covered, ragged edges peeling off, exactly the way these things are in the movies. Most of the numbers had been ripped off, but there was one left for me, fate eager to push me in my predetermined direction. I took it impulsively and shoved it into my bag. It was time for phase two.