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June 6th, 2007 Elizabeth Armstrong Moore | News Stories
 

Naked Ambition

Two tales of strip city.

     
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Zoë, who is 6-foot-1, towers over the bar in clear platform shoes that recalibrate her height to 6 feet 6 inches. She wears a no-frills pink bra-and-panty set that appears to be made of spandex.

She is 23, blond-haired, blue-eyed and bronze-skinned, and wears just a trace of makeup, the kind that makes people wonder if she is wearing any at all and, if not, how it is possible for someone to have such clear skin and dewy, sparkling eyes. She moves with her left hand on her left hip, which is situated just below a flat, tight, eight-pack stomach, and her eyes focus directly on the people seated closest.

A few songs later, Matilda, who is 5-foot-5, moves with frenetic delight around the tall, brass pole. She is 22, sports about a dozen tattoos and has fiery red hair that highlights the spunk in her step. Foundation and powder and rouge cover her face and prompt frequent Rita Hayworth comparisons.

She wears 8-inch black platform shoes, and when she is lying down she likes to spread her legs far apart and bring her feet together quickly in a sudden, loud, threatening crash. This usually gets people's attention.

Zoë has been stripping for five years, Matilda for three. They both work at Sassy's on Southeast Morrison Street, they both make $50 to $500 a shift, and they're both enrolled in classes at Portland Community College.

The similarities pretty much end there.

Zoë started stripping to pay high-school graduation fees, Matilda because she'd fallen in love with the idea of it. Whereas Zoë is a health fanatic and avoids any contact with drugs or alcohol, Matilda says she recently had a bit of a coke problem, drinks regularly and has tried meth.

While the local sex industry includes street prostitution, scores of escorts advertising on websites such as eros-portland.com, and massage parlors known as "jack shacks," the public face of the industry is most certainly the strip club. The metro area is home to at least 40 such venues, arguably more per capita than in any other city in the world. In fact, strip clubs are so common here that Portland doesn't even boast a designated "red light" district—just about every neighborhood offers up access to "live, nude girls."

"Portland is the most oversaturated strip-club city in the world," says Rob Schatz, who has booked dancers at about 30 clubs for the past 13 years and married a stripper.

With so many strippers in town, do any of them defy the stereotypes of drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and poor self-esteem?

This reporter spent six weeks in more than a dozen Portland strip clubs, talking to strippers, bouncers, bartenders, managers and club owners. They range from classy operations like the Dolphin, whose dancers prance about in satin nighties, to dives like Dream On Saloon on Southeast Stark Street, where the floor is sticky and the dancers seem more strung out than erotic.

And while the stereotypes do play out—a lot of girls use coke or meth, laugh at the idea of paying taxes or opening savings accounts, and admit to habitual one-night stands—some club owners claim that as many as 30 percent of their dancers are working their way through school. This reporter talked to two strippers who attend Reed College, another who is a mother and a librarian during the day, and yet another who is a communications major at Portland State University.

But Zoë and Matilda may be the perfect bookends. Each illustrates the reasons women get into this business, why they stay and what the appeals and hazards are. And yet their personalities and lifestyles couldn't be more different.

Zoë, who does not want her real name used, is working toward a degree in medicine at PCC. The first time she ever stripped was when she needed the money to graduate from high school in Vancouver.

She was slotted to finish 30th in a class of 500, but then came the news that, between the cost of a cap and gown and various other fees, graduation would cost $350. Zoë had to come up with a way to make more money—fast. "I wanted to walk," she says. "I wanted to show everyone I could do it."

Zoë had been living on her own off and on since she was 14, after surviving an abusive home life and, for a few weeks in sixth grade, a group home in West Vancouver. It would be easy, Zoë admits, to pin those circumstances on her parents. For starters, she was the product of rape, raised by parents who tried to make it work despite such violent beginnings, and she would eventually be sexually abused by a female relative.

But Zoë refuses to blame her parents. "It's hard for me to talk about my childhood," she says slowly. "I have a really hard time sharing anything that sheds negative light on other people. Those are things you can't ever take back. Both my parents did the best they knew how to do."

The day she found out about graduation dues, she drove aimlessly around Portland, where she kept an apartment (she was able to attend public school in Vancouver because her permanent address was still listed with her mother), in her 1973 Mercedes convertible, which she'd emptied her savings account to buy. A regular churchgoer, she remembers asking God for guidance. Then she drove by the Sugar Shack, a strip club in Northeast Portland that she says would later come under fire for dancers pulling "extras" with customers.

"I didn't think I was going to do it," she says about the hours leading up to her audition. "I wasn't a club girl. Everyone teases me for how I dress—I dress classy but very modestly. I was a size D in high school with a 24-inch waist"—she is now a C with a 25.5-inch waist—"but I would never show my body off." She'd never been naked in front of anyone, not even her boyfriend of two years (yes, she was both a virgin and a stripper); how could she shed her clothes in front of strangers?

"It was just horrifying," she says. The place was slow, it was quiet, and she was very nervous. She would later be teased by other dancers about the black Victoria's Secret lingerie she wore, and it would be a year and a half before she would work up the nerve to take off her underwear, something that is expected—and at certain clubs required—of dancers.

After her audition in 2002, Zoë treated a few friends to a late lunch at Shari's. Hovered over the table, they counted $430 in tips. A month later, she held her head high in one of the front rows at graduation, rows reserved for top students. As she walked across the stage beaming, classmates threw dollar bills at her feet. She was stunned. Word was out, and it was vicious.

Today, she works several shifts a week at Sassy's. The laid-back, friendly neighborhood kind of a place suits her well. The lighting is red, the bar and two stages and 10 tables are all close together, and the pool table by the entrance is usually busy.

On a recent Wednesday, during her first rotation of the night, Zoë entered stage left to Outkast's "The Way You Move." No one was watching, so she moved slowly, languidly around the pole. By the end of the song a man and a woman pulled up to the rack, and within a few minutes three more guys were seated as closely as possible.

Now Zoë made small talk as she strutted about, took off her strappy black bra, fake-stroked the neck of a beer bottle, and bent over to shake her ripped gluteus maximus, which was barely covered by little black Hello Kitty shorts. The dollar bills started to fly.

When Zoë walked off the stage she pulled her black bra on and beelined over to a twentysomething in a black shirt and buzz cut who'd been watching from a few tables back. Within five minutes of conversation they disappeared behind a shimmering red curtain. When they re-emerged one song later (table dances are $20 a song), both were smiling.

In addition to stripping and attending PCC, Zoë is also a personal physical trainer. She bartends at the Grand Cafe on Sundays; volunteers at her nondenominational Christian church, Living Hope, and as a basketball coach for Special Olympics; and likes to lift weights, jog, bike, rock climb, or hike at least five days a week.

And in stark contrast to many strippers, Zoë had until two months ago been with the same guy off and on since she was 14. They married shortly after high school. When her husband, a Marine, came back from Iraq emotionally distant, they tried to explain away the absence of sex in their relationship as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. But because of the growing divide between them, Zoë broke down and asked for a divorce in January. Old friends, they continued to live together, but when she found out he was seeing another woman, they agreed it was time for him to leave.

"I'm at my lowest right now." Zoë divulges this quietly, with a catch in her throat. "I've never been so unhappy in my entire life. Everything is falling apart. My relationship. I've been in this program [at PCC] for three years now, and since all this happened in January, I got my first D—I'd never even had a C before—so I'm on probation at school. And then I got hit and my car was in the shop. I had some big medical bills. It's just been literally one thing after another."

Zoë says she has become more vulnerable of late, and strangely she has been making more money stripping. In the past two months, she has pulled in $300 to $400 per shift regularly, more than twice as much as usual, and over the course of one week in early May she made $1,800.

"Now I'm carrying some of my insecurities to work, so I seem more vulnerable, more hurt. And guys like that."

But she does feel conflicted at times: "I work Saturday night, get a couple hours of sleep, and get up and go to church all day Sunday. And there are times when I'm sitting at church and I hear things that make me feel it would be nice to find another way to make money.

"God paid for us with his son's blood, so we measure value by what someone is willing to pay for something, whether it's materialistic or human flesh or whatever. And it's easy to do that when you're a dancer, to put value on what other people are willing to pay you. If you have a bad night, it's easy to walk away feeling empty, whereas my morals tell me I shouldn't get my values from my job but from God."

Zoë admits that at times she enjoys the sexual attention at work, but she's careful not to indicate she is interested in anything beyond tips. "I'm not having sex for a year," she confided the other night. "I'm going through a divorce, and I'm honest with people that I'm not dating right now. I need to get past this, to focus on myself and move forward."

As she moves around the bar, double-fisting bottles of water and disappearing backstage to do homework on her laptop, you can almost see Zoë calculating priorities. This is no time to play. This is work.

In her living room on Northeast Alberta Street, Matilda has hung framed black-and-white photographs of her face and legs on walls her ex-girlfriend painted a stark, bloody red. A floor-to-ceiling brass pole, which her landlord didn't know about until recently, stands in the center of the room. Her 100-pound dog, Mishka, a Leonberger-German Shepherd mix, follows her every move.

Over the past few years Matilda has worked at 22 strip clubs and been 86'd from about eight. Her temper has earned her a reputation as a wild child. She's torn up dollar bills in front of customers if they piss her off, but she's not totally above the money. Once, when she ripped up $80 in a memorable fit of exasperation at Magic Gardens, she got down on her hands and knees after the guy left, took the pieces to the dressing room, and taped them back together.

"I can be a real bitch," Matilda says. "And that's pretty entertaining for most people." But she is not without remorse, not to mention self-deprecating humor. A recent post on her MySpace blog titled "Hangover Haiku" reads: "I totally did/ embarrass myself last nite/ it was not worth it."

Matilda, who pulls five to six shifts a week at Sassy's as she works toward a degree in sociology, was raised on the outskirts of Boston by well-educated parents (her father, an accountant, majored in English lit). She had several imaginary friends, all of them literary, and by age 7 had read Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. "I don't remember much, except that I thought Estella was a badass," she says.

Matilda developed an early fascination with sex, and by middle school she was interested in both boys and girls. She also dabbled in anorexia as a plea for attention, which she says her father dealt with by sending her to the mental ward of Bradley Hospital, a children's neuropsychiatric facility in Providence, R.I., when she was 14. After a week, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, released and then treated daily as an outpatient for another week.

The episode so infuriated her that she stopped talking to her father altogether, and she says their relationship has never fully healed. "They're not very good communicators," she says of her parents. In fact, she last talked to her dad around the time she sent him her paper on stripping, which she got a 100 on. (Her grades, however, have been slipping lately due to truancy; she recently took three weeks off of school because she has been working so much.)

Matilda insists her relationship with her father did not push her into stripping. She's been fascinated by the sex industry since she saw Evita as an 11-year-old. Her mother, Karen Glass, with whom Matilda moved to Portland when she was 16, has been supportive since Matilda began stripping.

"I've evolved from looking at it from the outside to looking at it through her," her mother says. "I thought she would be powerless, but she and the people she works with take power. She's one of the strongest feminist women I know. The things that she tells me about it, the really odd slimy men, and the clubs are not exactly supportive of dancers...it's not a situation that I would want her to be in whether she was getting naked or not. But I think that she sees it as a limited thing, not something she's going to do forever."

Matilda has a tendency toward unabashed openness. She is one of the few strippers who use their real names onstage, and after she and a friend stripped to their underwear at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Cambridge when she was 16, she told her parents. Her father was furious.

But Matilda didn't care. True, she was reading Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, but she also devoured anything about the sex industry. Her favorite books about the industry include Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor by Wendy Chapkis and the anthology Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance.

Matilda dreams of earning a master's degree in public health and advocating for occupational safety standards for sex workers. She has volunteered for Danzine, a now-defunct magazine started by sex workers in Portland in 1995. And she updates her MySpace blog regularly with colorful anecdotes about work.

But unlike Zoë, who admits to curiosity about dating women, Matilda uses work as a means of picking them up—yes, plenty of women hang out at strip clubs, too—for quick flings. One-night stands, Matilda admits, are "convenient."

"I've started picking up more customers and bringing them home," she says. "One-night stands are mostly what I do. It's good to just go and have sex, and then they're gone, and I don't have to worry about it. And I like having sex at the strip clubs I work at. It feels like I'm pulling one over on the customers."

But don't ask if she gets paid to take people home. She flinches at the mere suggestion: "A lot of girls take home one-night stands, but if they do get paid for sex they wouldn't talk about it. It wouldn't be the same."

Matilda regularly interrupts herself with little outbursts, such as, "God, I'm going to sound so stupid." But her openness is disarming. Last month, she dropped a large chunk of her monthly earnings on a wardrobe overhaul, switching from a 1950s librarian look to punk. She's also experimenting with veganism.

"I like to be really dramatic, I guess," Matilda says. "I like making scenes. I go to a bar, and somebody buys me a drink and changes his mind about it, I'll slap him." She pauses in a moment of introspection. "I've recently been looking at my behavior. It's kind of funny and it's kind of too much. I'm getting older, and it's not going to be cute for much longer. I'm trying to make a different impression lately."

For two years, until early 2007, she had fallen in with the coke crowd. It was just everywhere. Strippers would say they had a secret, or just something to say, and it was code to disappear into the bathroom together and hold the door for one another as they took turns snorting blow.

The first time Matilda tried it, she says, she was so scared of the idea of coke she thought she'd die, but within three months she was hooked. She could never achieve the original highs, and was constantly battling "the fears," her term for the come-down, which she nursed with alcohol.

"It's totally after-school special," she admits. "I had developed my little idea of who I wanted to be as a stripper, and it's such a community. Once you're in the drug culture, they're there for you—they helped me with rent and stuff—but once you're in it, it's hard to leave. And it doesn't leave you any time for anything else. You're getting it, and then you're doing it, and then you're recovering from doing it. You go to work just to fuel your habit. It's really gross."

With most of her money going up her nose, Matilda got so desperate at one point last year that, to come up with rent, she clocked in a morning modeling for Portland-based PainToy.com. She says the site is run by a couple who hire a dominatrix to hurt women, capture it on video in their house, post the images online, and charge members to view. Matilda says they had to finish by 2 pm, when the couple's preteen daughter would come home from school.

Matilda remembers being spanked, beaten, whipped and nipple-twisted to the point of tears. She took home $500 that day—$100 more than she'd expected—because she broke into a sobbing fit at the end. It was the pay equivalent of three average shifts in just three hours. Two of her photos were posted until recently on the site's public "Samples" page, in which rope is wound tightly around her breasts and clothespins are clamped to her labia. She wears a look of tearful determination.

But even this experience doesn't seem to irritate her the way customers on the job can: "There were these two bikers yesterday, and they kept asking me about my tattoos. It's my big pet peeve. Most guys will say, 'Well, you put it on your body, why can't we ask about it?' And I usually say, 'Well, you've got a receding hairline, but nobody asks about that.' Guys will always comment on you."

Still, in the end, the work isn't so bad. On this Matilda and Zoë agree. They get to choose where to dance, how often to work, what to wear, whether or not they are sober while they work. And it's hard work, true, but it's work they've both chosen of their own free will.

And for now, it pays the bills. Neither is sure how long it will take to get their degrees, or how long they will ultimately strip to pay the bills, but neither has plans to quit school or stripping anytime soon.


In Oregon, strippers may dance completely nude, whereas in most U.S. cities they must wear panties and sometimes pasties unless they work in alcohol-free rooms.

While most clubs require that dancers be 21 or older, a good number allow 18- to 20-year-olds to dance as well.

Strippers operate as independent contractors and are often charged stage fees ranging from $5 to $20 per shift by the clubs. In addition, they are expected to share tips with the bartender, bouncer and deejay.

"Since all the girls are independent contractors," says club booker Rob Schatz, "you have no power over them, so if they party and decide not to come to work, and you fire them, big deal, they go to the club next door."

 
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