If you have been paying attention to this project for the last year or so you probably have a pretty good idea of who I am and the kind of person I am striving to be. This particular post is one that I knew I would have to write at some point and I have been looking forward to doing so if only to make some things clear before the doc comes out. Hopefully getting it out into the ether to subject it to commentary, respectful discourse and maybe even some thoughtful debate, might make it possible to get it into the larger conversation about women, a conversation that I believe is vital. This post may be the first in a few parts as it is a story that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to brevity. I apologize in advance if it’s too long to read during your smoke break.
I was a stripper.*
Dun dun DUN! Kinda hard to follow up a fire-cracker of an opener like that but there it is. For most people this little fact about me is not a secret but just another quirk – like how I don’t have pierced ears or that I worked as a white water river guide – that makes up my sitcom-esque back-story. I’ve never kept my past hidden but it’s not necessarily an Emily Post-approved conversation starter so if you’re only just learning this about me for the first time, or even if you’ve known this for awhile, please hear this one thing: I am not now, nor have I ever been ashamed of being a stripper. I’m not defensive about it either. I don’t labour under any delusions that it’s a stellar career choice for a woman, but I am not now, nor have I ever been a typical woman, whatever that may be. I prefer to define my own terms.
I realize that some of you may be puzzled by my decision to become a stripper. It’s not like I didn’t have other options in my life or that this was the only thing I could do to get out of debt or a sub-optimal living situation. I recognize that many women who enter this profession do so out of necessity whereas I did it by choice even though there were many other choices I could have made. I can’t deign to speak for all strippers and Santa Claus** knows I would never try. I can only speak to my own experience and how it shaped me and my life. If you’re hoping for some kind of dirty little tell-all or – Claus forbid – tips and pointers, you will be sadly disappointed by this post. If you’re expecting the hackneyed tale of a middle-class girl slumming it in the seedy underbelly of the adult entertainment industry in order to gain some grit and experience to further her career as a writer you’re on the wrong blog too. My story is unique and some of you won’t want to believe it, and if not please feel free to become a stripper yourself so you can amuse us with your own enthralling anecdotes. Until then I’ll keep talking about me.
I was weeks shy of 21 when I moved to Ontario from B.C. in April of 1994 and into Mum’s Orleans basement with plans to save enough money over the summer to move back out for ski season. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of almost four years and was single in the biggest city I’d ever lived in. Donna, my bestie from high school, was in similar straits so she moved in too. We would remain comically inseparable for the next five years but for one fateful weekend. For much of the summer we collected unemployment and drove around in a sexy but unstable VW Cabriolet. We spent our days passing out resumes at restautants and bars all over town but were rebuffed for lack of experience. In 1994, Ottawa was the vortex of an unprecedented tech-industry boom. Expense accounts were run up in the thousands on pretty much a daily basis (yes, that’s what really happened to your stock) which meant bartenders and waitresses were making a vulgar amount of tips. Not only were none of them quitting, but a manager wouldn’t even look at your resume unless you ‘knew somebody’ or had at least five years experience. Until then all of my experience was in the kitchen, a part of the industry I was loath to re-enter. This severely limited my options.
Donna and I scoured the want-ads religiously (pre-internet ubiquity, people) and one ad constantly stood out. Do you want to make $1000 a week? Uh, yes please! Get paid to dance at Ottawa’s finest gentlemen’s clubs! Um, no thanks. But the ad was in there every day, taunting me, and the more I thought about it the more I felt I could do it. I considered the facts: I was definitely attractive enough and would have no problem taking my clothes off in front of strangers (for reasons I will soon explain), I had always had very healthy relationships with men (which is incredibly important not just as a stripper, but as a woman), I didn’t use drugs, and I was smart enough to not get myself into a situation where I’d end up chained to a radiator in a basement somewhere (pre-Roofie ubiquity) and I really, really needed the money. Sure, I could have gone back to being a kitchen wench and I would have made a decent enough salary, but in reality I wanted a little adventure in my life. I’d always been the good student, the good friend, the good daughter and my life was pretty predictable and safe. I was ready to shake things up a bit.
The way Donna tells it, she went home to her parent’s place for the weekend and when she came back I was a stripper. But Donna didn’t know then that I had been obsessing about the possibilities for weeks. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to take my clothes off for money. I knew this decision would be one that I would have to live with for the rest of my life. I knew I might lose some friends over it but I reasoned that if anyone really knew me they would know that I was still the same person. If someone wanted to stop being my friend because of my job so be it. I made a few rules for myself that I followed for the entire two years that I danced. I wasn’t a smoker or a drug-taker but I did enjoy my tipple so I knew I wasn’t going to drink when I was working. If I had to be drunk to take my clothes off it meant I was ashamed, and if I was ashamed about my job then I shouldn’t be doing it. Which is why there was no way I was going to lie to anyone about being a stripper. So I had to tell my family.
People like to make ‘daddy-issue’ jokes about strippers, and I suppose that stereotype exists for a reason, but I had a positive relationship with my father while he was alive. Would I have been a stripper had my father not died when I was eleven years old? Who knows. I’m sure I’d be an entirely different person simply because my father’s death was the single most defining moment of my life up to that point. I was a different person the second I heard my mother on the phone to the ambulance that cold, February morning in 1985 and whatever my life was supposed to be up to that point changed irrevocably. Plain and simple. So no, I don’t have ‘Daddy Issues’, but I fully admit that I have ‘Older Brother Issues’, which – especially if you were a guy that ever dated me – is in it’s own way more problematic. My brothers are 12 and 8 years older than me and are largely responsible for my tastes in music, movies, comedy and my basic social upbringing. To say they raised me would be hyperbolic – Mum did that – but they certainly left their imprint on my psyche. That sounded less Deliverence-y in my head.
Telling my family wasn’t easy but as far as I was concerned there was no other way. The worst enemy a lie has is time. If I lied and they found out, it would be damaging in a way from which we might never recover. Mum said, “I’m not happy with your decision and in no way do I approve of your choices. But they are your choices. I gave you life, operative word being gave. It’s your life not mine. I know I raised you to be an intelligent, thoughtful, decent person so I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about the element of people that kind of job attracts. I just want you to be safe.” The brothers were silent. I didn’t get outright dissent but I didn’t get approval either. I’m pretty sure imagining their little sister – the same one with childhood baldness they teasingly referred to as “Cancer Kid’ – on the pole wasn’t an image that was easily digested. Nor should it have been. But as a testament to how utterly progressive and cool my family is, I was free to live my life as I chose without fear of reprisal or condemnation. I like to think Dad would have been proud of that at least.
It’s hard to imagine in 2012 where stripper culture is mainstream, that there was a time when you couldn’t buy g-strings or stiletto heels at Walmart. Remember, this was still only 1994. The scant exposure I’d had to strip club culture was from 80’s movies which were broad satirizations of women jumping out of cakes wearing pasties. Looking back, I think my somewhat clueless naivete made it easier because I had no preconceived notions about the stripper existence. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but having spent time in dressing rooms with models I knew I wouldn’t be shocked. When I walked into the club that first time I was nervous, but not about taking my clothes off. I was more nervous about interacting with a group of women, something I had never really had to do. As a model, I was an old lady at 19 compared to the 15 year old kids around me. But being in a group of women, especially when they are all competing for men’s attention quite literally as though their lives depended on it, was utterly terrifying for me. Taking off my clothes? Pfft. No problem.
I’ve never had an issue with nudity and have never felt awkward or ashamed about my body. To me real nakedness comes from baring your soul, telling people your deepest secrets, not from taking your bra off in front of strangers. I’ve just never been shy about being on stage or in front of a group of people and stripping wasn’t any different to me than giving a speech in high school or taking a free throw in the big basketball game. In some ways it was easier because I didn’t really care what the strip club patrons thought about me personally because they didn’t get the real me anyway. They got ‘Jenna’. When Jenna finished her shift and walked out the front door in jeans, a t-shirt and flats she wasn’t Jenna anymore, she was Di. And Di belonged to me. Jenna wasn’t all that different from me except she didn’t talk as much as I do. She went to work, did her job and went home. She wasn’t there to make friends but did anyway. Before you get all psycho-analytical on me, no, I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else in order to ‘endure the ordeal of stripping‘. It wasn’t an ordeal. I didn’t endure it. In fact, I enjoyed it for the most part although it had its share of boredom and annoying co-workers and tedious rules just like any other job. Using a fake name was just easier and safer and kind of fun, and I had to choose Jenna because Porscha-Amber-Mercedes-Lynn was already taken. I know, Stripper Problems, right?
For the first few of weeks of my stripping ‘career’ I danced at a couple of clubs until I was so very fortunate to get to work where every dancer in the city wanted to work. Fanny’s wasn’t a strip club, it was a cabaret, not that I was savvy enough yet to know the difference. I had to audition to be a ‘house girl’, a coveted position, which meant I had a set schedule and got paid and fed and treated just a bit differently than the freelancers. Freelancers still had to audition but didn’t get paid by the club. Freelancers had to work a minimum four hours and had to pay a fee to the bar and to the DJ, which meant they were already in debt the minute they walked out of the change room. But this place was worth it.
Over the years I’ve tried to describe what Fanny’s was like and the best description I can come up with is to imagine it as a ‘Mom & Pop’ strip club, as bizarre as that may sound. It was a family business and we, from doormen to janitors, were like one big family. I’d heard some horror stories from other girls about lesser clubs and how lucky I was to get to the top right out of the gate. At Fanny’s all the girls were treated with respect and yes, dignity. We were the most valuable part of the business and were treated as such. I didn’t know it right away but the people that ran this place were to become, and still remain, some of the most important people in my life. Something I never could have predicted when I first tottered up onto the stage, and it sounds crazy I know, but I found my extended family at a strip club. I doubt many people can say that.
I’m trying to imagine the questions that might be floating around out there and I’ll attempt to address them all in the second part of this post. If you have anything specific you want to ask about it, now is your chance. Leave a comment. If you’re thoroughly disgusted and turned off by me and this project now that I’ve revealed this part of my past, well that’s too bad for you but I get it. If you decide to read no further I will leave you with this simple fact: For two years I got dressed to go to work to take my clothes off and the only obscene thing about it was the amount of money I made. The hardest part about being a stripper for me has always been the stigma attached to the job and not the job itself. I think everyone gives up a part of themselves in order to make a living and I just chose the most literal way to do that. To put it in perspective, I gave up my clothes not my soul.
*Personally I prefer the term ‘Burlesque Engineer‘.
**My second favorite imaginary patriarch.