Leigh Hopkinson was born in New Zealand and lives in Melbourne where she works in publishing as a writer and editor. But her previous career was as a stripper. It was harder work than she imagined but it was exhilarating and lucrative. For two decades the strip club became her familiar and reassuring workplace.
This first chapter of her memoir tells of her flight from her small New Zealand town and her accidental fall into the pole dancing world,
Two Decades Naked is Hopkinson’s first book.
IT WAS A MONDAY AFTERNOON IN OCTOBER 1993. I should have been studying for my first year political science exam. Instead I was parked across the road from Blondies massage parlour, killing time till my 4 p.m. appointment. Although I had fifteen minutes to spare, I wasn’t about to take a walk around the block. I was wearing black heels from my school ball, a scarlet miniskirt and singlet from an op shop, and matching lingerie bought with the money my grandma had sent for my eighteenth birthday. I’d never applied for a job as a stripper before, so it was hard to know if I was under or overdressed.
I checked my reflection in the rear-view mirror. Eyes rimmed jet black, lips painted fire hydrant red; it was my best slut impersonation, tried and tested on private school boys. I looked smoking hot, confident and in control. But my sweaty palms betrayed me. So did the butterflies in my belly. Winding down the window of my brown Vauxhall Viva, I lit a cigarette and peered up at the parlour.
Blondies was on the third floor of the historic ANZ Bank Chambers building, which sat like a wedge of forgotten cake on a corner of downtown Christchurch. Its pistachio-green paint was flaking and in places the fire escape had popped its studs. A hand- painted sign hung from the sagging verandah: ‘Blondies’ in hot- pink script, with a silhouette of a wild-looking woman, the kind that embellishes truck mud-flaps. A row of bare bulbs pulsed above the side entrance; a flight of crooked stairs led heavenward. As I sat there smoking and taking this all in, a voice in my head that sounded suspiciously like my mother’s demanded to know just what I thought I was doing.
What I was doing was looking for a new part-time job because I’d stopped getting shifts at the Cotswold Hotel. Two afternoons a week at KFC wasn’t enough to pay for food and booze, or fill the days a full-time arts degree left empty. Both bored and broke, I had been trawling the local paper, The Press, for a few weeks. There weren’t many jobs for a school leaver, but I kept seeing the same ad: Lingerie dancers required. No experience necessary, full training provided. Flexible hours, fantastic money.
What did it involve? Could I do it? It certainly sounded promising. (I didn’t yet know that if something sounded too good to be true then it probably was.) Girls like me weren’t supposed to parade around in their undies, but as the days ticked by the ad grew on me. It became an itch I longed to scratch, like an ingrown pubic hair.
That morning I mustered up the courage to make the call. My housemate Helen’s fat tabby cat Gibson was shunting my hip with his head, egging me on. I felt light-headed in the way you do when you’re about to do something slightly dangerous. I did it anyway.
‘Blondies,’ a woman said flatly. ‘I’m calling about the ad in Saturday’s paper,’ I said. ‘Which one?’ ‘The one for lingerie dancers.’ She sighed. ‘You know we want strippers, don’t you?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Is that all right?’ I thought quickly. ‘I suppose so.’ ‘We need to see what you look like. When can you come in?’ ‘Anytime.’ ‘Well, give me a time!’ she said irritably. Taken aback, I stammered, ‘Um, four o’clock today?’ ‘Four it is. Ask for Craig.’ The phone went dead. I replaced the receiver, grinning like a champ. In between making the call and parking on High Street, I discovered – courtesy of the Yellow Pages – that Blondies wasn’t a strip club, but a massage parlour. Taboo of all taboos! The opportunity for a sneak peek into this gated realm was too good to pass up. When I finished my degree, I planned on becoming a journalist. Perhaps one day I would write about this escapade! It would be like an undercover assignment – only my cover would be coming off. And I’d be getting paid.
A soft-bellied, balding man appeared in Blondies doorway dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. He was an unmemorable bloke.
He was also my first glimpse of a ‘sex industry patron’. I’ll admit to being disappointed. I don’t know what I’d expected, but he looked … boring. Blinking furiously into the late afternoon sun, the man shuffled out onto the street. Then a dark skinned girl in jeans and a t-shirt emerged and bounced down the stairs and up the footpath in the opposite direction. These were ordinary people, behaving as if they’d been running errands not transacting in illicit sex! Now I was even more curious.
I butted my cigarette and checked my reflection again, gave my shoulder-length strawberry-blonde curls a tussle. Then I got out of the car, strode purposefully across the road and through the doorway, took two steps and froze. It was simply too dark to see. The air was damp, rank with mould. As my eyes adjusted, I saw the stairs were turn-of-last-century narrow, worn down in the middle. Up I went, up and up. The higher I zigzagged, the more breathless I became and the more warped the stairs. (I stopped to check it wasn’t me, off-kilter in my shoes.) Even the walls slanted inwards. They were lined with hand-painted posters: ‘XXX Entertainment!’, ‘Half-price Massage Mondays!’, ‘Oil Wrestling!’ Oil wrestling?
I turned a corner and came face-to-face with a glossy black door and a small sign – Ring buzzer and wait.
I tried the door, it was as immobile as a bank vault. Through a tiny plexiglass window in the adjacent wall I spied a bench with a kettle and a neat pile of folded, clean white towels. Then I rang the buzzer. Its echo was met by a clatter of high heels that grew louder until the prettiest woman I’d ever seen was staring at me coldly through the glass. She had a halo of platinum hair, a heart-shaped face and the high cheekbones of a porcelain doll.
‘Yes?’ she mouthed. ‘I’m here to see Craig,’ I said loudly. The door jolted open. I stepped into a triangular-shaped reception room, once grand, now dilapidated. Clouds of cigarette smoke hung in the stifling air. Although the sun was streaming in, the windows were closed and the heaters pumping.
I could see straight up the man’s towel at his wrinkled penis, lying on one pale hairless thigh. My eyes widened. Noticing, he smirked. It was like a car accident.
Three black vinyl couches formed a U-shape around a low glass coffee table. Perched on the nearest couch was a scrawny brunette with wet hair. She wore a faded black singlet dress, had a cigarette dangling from Mick Jagger lips and looked at least thirty-five. Opposite her, two Polynesian girls were curled into the armpits of a man who seemed awfully pleased with himself and who wore nothing but a towel. The two girls looked younger than me, half his age. Appalled, I stood there staring. My friends would have run a mile from this guy, but these girls didn’t seem at all grossed out.
The blonde clattered over to the middle couch and plopped herself down. She was immaculately dressed in a cream trouser suit, suggesting she wore the pants in this place. ‘Have a seat. Craig’ll be here soon.’
I sat next to the brunette and wished I hadn’t. I could see straight up the man’s towel at his wrinkled penis, lying on one pale hairless thigh. My eyes widened. Noticing, he smirked. It was like a car accident: I found it hard to look away.
‘What’s your name?’ asked the blonde.
‘Leigh,’ I said. Hers was Jacinta. Jacinta introduced the girls but not the man, her shell-pink mouth soft but her blue eyes glacial. In my nervous excitement, I remembered only her name and the brunette’s, which was Candy.
A gunshot rang out. I jumped, then realised it came from the TV. Everyone turned towards it. Craning my neck, I could see an old western was on with a young Clint Eastwood. On top of the TV, a goldfish swirled lethargically in its bowl.
‘I don’t watch telly,’ said Candy. ‘It’s bad for you. Nothing but sex and violence and more sex and violence and shit like this.’
‘Hah!’ Jacinta snorted. ‘You just sit there and smoke one cigarette after another – like that’s not bad for you.’
Candy, appreciating the irony, snorted and lit a second cigarette from the first. Ash tumbled down the front of her dress. She scraped it away and twisted the butt into a fast-filling ashtray.
I could feel Jacinta’s eyes on me. I fixed mine on the dust particles slow-dancing in the toxic air. Despite its neglect, the wedge-shaped room was stunning, with high windows, a corniced ceiling and a tiled chequerboard floor. My dad was an architect and I knew he would’ve appreciated the attention to detail. I also knew he would never see the inside of this room. There was a semi-circular balcony at its apex, with french doors and a 270-degree view. I longed to check it out, but doubted I could stand up without flashing my knickers at the towelled man. If I didn’t want to do that then what was I doing here?
Jacinta was still eyeballing me. My neck had begun to ache and sweat was pooling behind my knees. Towel man whispered in one of the girls’ ears, she giggled. There were more gunshots.
Just as I was thinking up an excuse to leave I heard raucous laughter and footsteps pounding up the stairs. Jacinta rose to open the door. A thickset man in blue denim barrelled in, barking into his mobile phone. The cuffs of his jacket were rolled up and his free hand hung like a slab of meat, each digit sparkling with a gold-and-diamond ring. He had a black mullet, a bulbous nose and sharp blue eyes that darted about but showed no sign of what they saw. This was Craig.
‘If you didn’t smoke so much fucking dope, you dumb prick, you’d remember,’ he chuckled into the phone. He eased onto the arm of the couch and elbowed Candy in the ribs. She sighed and shuffled towards me. Craig’s expression narrowed. ‘Listen. Sort it out.’ He snapped shut the phone, nodded at towel man with a conspiratorial grin, then shot him down. ‘Put on some clothes, mate. This isn’t a fucking bedroom.’
As Towel Man heaved himself up, one of the girls stood too. He slid his arm around her and they disappeared through a side door.
‘Girls, girls, girls!’ Craig grinned again and spread his hands, preacher-like. He cocked his head at me. ‘Who are you?’
‘This is Leigh,’ said Jacinta. ‘She wants to dance.’
‘Good, you showed up. I’ll need you Thursday to Saturday.’ Craig turned back to Jacinta. ‘How are we going today?’
She shrugged. ‘Okay. A bit slow.’
Craig twisted one of his rings, nodding thoughtfully. Then he glared at Candy. ‘Go and dry your hair, you old slag.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going,’ said Candy, making no effort to move. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, confused, ‘where will I be dancing?’ ‘You don’t know?’ Craig frowned at Jacinta. Then his mobile phone rang. Answering it, he beckoned for me to follow him. I did – through the side door, into a hallway reeking of chlorine and wet carpet, past an alcove with an empty spa, down another corridor with six numbered doors, into a back room. Craig flicked on the lights.
The rear windows had been blacked out, with packing crates stacked up to the sills. Opposite the doorway was a bar made out of corrugated iron. In front of it stood a life-sized cardboard cowboy with pop eyes and a devil grin. The narrow stage – a five-metre- long platform – hugged the front wall and had a single pole at its centre. A handful of tearoom-style tables and chairs were scattered about, along with a few upended wine barrels. It looked like what it was: a converted storeroom, trying but failing to go country.
My face fell. I’d never been inside a revue bar, but thought ‘lingerie dancing’ would be glamorous. Lisa Malcolm had made it sound better than Broadway. We’d both been in the same production of A Chorus Line at Rangi Ruru private girls’ school. She’d been a senior when she began lingerie dancing in her lunch-hour at topless club Route 66 and word of her antics had spread faster than athlete’s foot in the shower room. Fed up with being good but not very good at being bad, I’d been awestruck by Lisa. Unfortunately her extracurricular activity had been short-lived. Issued with an ultimatum – the pillar of society or the pole – she had opted to finish high school. Now I was about to follow in Lisa’s footsteps and unleash my inner extrovert … only I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it here.
While I hesitated, Craig yabbered into the phone, something about police and liquor licensing. I had the good sense not to interrupt. Besides, he was a fascinating distraction. Beneath his jacket, Craig’s t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘Blondies massage parlour’, had its neckband ripped out. He also had a third-trimester-sized paunch. No adult in my world had a potbelly, hacked up their clothes or sold sex. Craig was also the first person I’d met who owned a mobile phone.
Craig hung up and thumbed at the stage. ‘This is it. Wear what you’re wearing – it looks good. Bring some raunchy music and think of a fake name for yourself. Something exotic, like Candy, Paris or Frankie.’
Frankie sounded suburban, not exotic. I chewed my lip. ‘Don’t you want me to audition or something?’
Craig burst out laughing. ‘You haven’t got two left feet, have you?’
‘No.’ His mobile rang again. ‘Thursday eight o’clock, yeah?’ ‘Okay.’ Craig turned away. I found my way back to reception and murmured goodbye. ‘See ya,’ said Candy. Wordlessly, Jacinta buzzed me out. Not until I’d pulled out into the rush-hour traffic did I realise I was drenched in cold sweat – and I’d forgotten to ask how much I would be getting paid.
When I got home Helen was still at work, so I didn’t need to explain why I looked like a whore at 5 p.m. on a Monday. We lived close to the University of Canterbury in a two-bedroom unit owned by my parents. Helen had moved in three months earlier, after my best friend Sonia moved out. Sonia and I had argued because I chop carrots the regular way – in circles, not sticks. Before I knew it, she had left for a share house in the city.
I was sad and perplexed. Sonia had been my bestie since I was twelve. We both had the same unruly blonde hair, were exactly five feet six (1.65 m) and came from Greymouth, a small town on the west coast of the south island. ‘The Coast’ is known for its wild seas and lush rainforests. It’s the birthplace of the New Zealand labour movement, a place that breeds resilience, where it takes an outsider twenty years to become a local.
I distinctly remember Mum saying, ‘If you stay in this town you’ll end up barefoot and pregnant at fifteen.’
I grew up on a hobby farm twenty kilometres from town, surrounded by native forest. It was a quiet, mostly idyllic upbringing. We had a few sheep, several goats, a cat and a dog. Two boys lived next door for my younger brother to play with, but they often excluded me because I was a girl. I thought that was grossly unfair. After school I kept to myself, read books, wrote stories, climbed trees or hung out with my pet goats. (They were my true friends and when each one died, I was devastated.) On Saturdays Mum drove me into town for little athletics where I tried to beat the other kids, especially the boys. Soon our family holidays were geared around my regional athletics championships or Dad’s yachting regattas.
Mum was a primary school teacher, committed to us kids, and Dad was always going somewhere exciting – business trips, yachting or skiing. He taught my brother and I how to ski and I adored spending time with Dad, when he had the time. Being grounded from these adventures was the ultimate punishment. And by age twelve, I was getting grounded a lot. Mostly for being a highly competitive, overachieving classroom nuisance, often inspired by the more experienced Sonia.
I distinctly remember Mum saying, ‘If you stay in this town you’ll end up barefoot and pregnant at fifteen.’ The idea of procreating at all filled the child-me with horror. I yearned to be out in the world, not bound to small people in country towns. So when Mum asked if I wanted to go to boarding school in Christchurch I said yes. I couldn’t wait to get out, and Sonia was going too.
Boarding school, however, wasn’t the adventure I’d been looking for. Quite the opposite: it was strict, institutionalised living. Sonia found creative ways around the rules, but I couldn’t seem to. They weighed heavily – so did the hierarchy and the privilege. I was surprised to find I missed the bush, my pets and my solitude. I even missed the boys next door.
For me, boarding school felt like a prison sentence: each year served was one closer to getting out. I set myself a rigorous extra- curricular routine of study and sport, tried not to be miserable, did my best to be good. Sonia was kicked out of the boarding house for smoking a joint. I finally got kicked out in my senior year, when they caught me sneaking back in after seeing a movie with my boyfriend Ben.
I’d met Ben skiing. He was quintessentially tall, dark and good looking, a quick-witted private school boy destined to become a lawyer like his father. Ben’s mother had an open-door policy and I spent many contented hours at their house, reading poetry and trying to appreciate his parents’ jazz records. Deep down, though, I felt too uncultured for Ben, so I broke up with him – and broke his heart – before he could do it to me. And I instantly regretted it. Since then we had been on-again off-again, mostly off. Ben was busy with his new law-student friends and share house living.
I had hoped to share a house with my friends Kim and Kate once university started, but my parents refused, concerned I would be ‘distracted’. They bought the flat and, fortunately, Sonia agreed to move in. Unfortunately, we disagreed about almost everything. Our lives were taking us in different directions – hers to art school, mine … well, I wasn’t sure anymore.
In the wake of the 1990 Gulf War, I’d busted out of school wanting to be a war correspondent, convinced that if enough atrocities were reported, the world would surely prioritise peace. But journalism wasn’t part of undergrad studies at the University of Canterbury. Neither, it seemed, was independent thinking. During my first politics tutorial I openly disagreed with the tutor and was told I didn’t understand the material. But I understood it fine. Surely a point of disagreement was worth discussing? I complained to Ben’s mother, one of the few adults I trusted and felt got me. ‘Sadly, no one is interested in what you think until postgraduate level,’ she explained. ‘It’s a case of doing your time.’
Fuck it, I thought. I’d been doing time in boarding school for years; I didn’t intend to do anymore. I vowed to cruise, and turn my naked ambition elsewhere.
On Thursday at 8 p.m., face painted and scarlet outfit on, I was ready for my nudie debut. Over my shoulder was a backpack containing some mix tapes and a muesli bar. Like my first day of school I was preened, prepped and bursting with nervous excitement.
Jacinta met my big smile with a cold stare. ‘You can go straight out back. I’ll send Candy through.’
The back room was empty but the overhead lights were on, tinting the corrugated iron piss-yellow. The room was even dingier than I remembered. It smelled dirty and yeasty, like my grand-dad’s pot plants the Christmas he served up his undrinkable homebrew. Nevertheless, I tried to keep positive.
I dropped my bag, teetered up the raw wooden steps of the stage and surveyed the empty room. Who would occupy the tables and chairs – a procession of towelled men? God, I hoped not. I had no idea what to expect – a full house or a single unit.
Nor did I know what to do with the pole. Gripping the cold steel, I tried spinning around but spun out, landing with my legs splayed and my head reeling. I picked myself up and was holding the pole at arm’s length (number one no-no in pole mastery, I would discover) when Candy walked in wearing the same old black dress.
‘Hey, you look great up there,’ she said. ‘Thanks, but I have no idea what I’m doing.’ ‘I can show you a few moves. Mind you, I’m not very good.’
Candy clomped up the steps and pulled aside a tatty piece of black fabric tacked across the sidewall. ‘This is where we wait to go on stage.’
A hole had been sledgehammered out of the plasterboard, opening up the space between the retaining walls. Three Occupational-Health-and-Safety-defying steps led down to a girl- sized mouse-house. A portable tape deck sat on the floor; an ashtray and a couple of glasses had been tucked into the wall studs. It was as much a dressing-room as a portaloo was an ensuite. Screwing up my nose, I stepped back from the dusty hole, and from Candy who was standing too close. She reeked of rotting lilacs.
‘How long have you been stripping for?’ I asked.
Candy let go of the curtain. ‘I’m not really a stripper; I’m a working girl. But they don’t have enough strippers right now, so I’m helping out.’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t mind, and it probably helps me get booked.’
Staring into her unblinking brown eyes, I wondered how many men had held those long, lean limbs – had poured themselves into her, hour after hour, night after night. I wanted to know, but didn’t know how to ask. ‘Do you like it?’ I said finally.
Candy stared at me warily. ‘It’s better than some other jobs I’ve done. I work for myself, you know, and I get to be at home with my kids.’ Her expression lifted. ‘Two of ’em are all grown up, but my precious wee angel, she’s nearly three.’ Candy smiled a toothy yellow grin. ‘Do you have any kids?’
I shook my head.
‘Then you can work as much as you like! You’ll get a lot of bookings here.’
Did she think I was a hooker? Shocked, I stammered, ‘I’m only going to strip.’
‘Oh. Well good for you! You could do anything you want; you’re real pretty.’
‘You too,’ I lied, trying to be nice.
Candy frowned, then realising I wasn’t being nasty, clattered over to the pole. She showed me how to grind and how to spin around without losing control. It was a bit like gymnastics – which I’d embraced too late at fourteen. Attempting to land a basic spin, I heard Craig’s juggernaut footfall.
‘Girls! How are we?’ ‘Good,’ we chorused, filing down from the stage. ‘I’m gonna put you on in a minute,’ he told me. My heart rate doubled. Craig jerked his head at the bar. ‘Cue up your music and give it to whoever’s behind there, two songs each time. First song, take off your dress. Second song, take it all off – but don’t flash us your cunt, it’s illegal. Fuck knows why.’ He pointed to the makeshift curtain, diamonds glittering. ‘Wait back there till you hear your music. Got it?’
‘Got it,’ I said, more confidently than I felt.
A solid girl with frizzy hair and thick glasses trudged in, went behind the bar and flicked on the sole stage light, a red spot trained on the pole. She was wearing tramping boots, jeans and a polar fleece. There was just enough time to wonder if this was a disguise to ensure she never got asked for sex in here, ever, before ‘Legs’ by ZZ Top blared out.
‘Go on, go,’ said Craig.
I grabbed my pack, scrambled backstage and began to cue my tapes. During the week, I’d bought Madonna’s single ‘Fever’ and the soundtrack from American Gigolo, which included ‘Call Me’ by Blondie – my idea of an in-joke. I’d also decided to call myself Holly (not realising it was a mash-up of my first and last names). We were approaching the festive season and the prickly plant with its bright red berries was lovely to look at, but not to be touched. Just like me in my scarlet ensemble, I hoped. Said ensemble was about to be plucked from the proverbial bush, but how? While I’d busted out a few moves in the living room – carpet-burning my knees and scaring the cat – I hadn’t thought to make up a routine. Now it was too late.
Clattering out with the tapes, I was astonished to find two tables already occupied – and relieved to see said occupants fully clothed. The two men wore jeans, t-shirts and needy expressions. They were chugging down beers with a thirst I sensed alcohol wouldn’t satisfy. Each guy had a female companion at his table, overdressed by comparison. One was a dead ringer for Paula Yates. She wore a short crimson dress and let her customer hold her hand. They sat frozen in awkward silence. The other woman looked like a happy Morticia Addams. Her raven locks were matted in what I would come to recognise as wig hair. She wore a black gown and chatted with her guy, a pack of cigarettes and a clutch purse in her lap. The scene looked like a sad, middle-aged dating debacle – with me as the inept distraction.
Presiding over this was Craig, swaggering like a modern-day Al Swearengen from Deadwood. He flashed me a grin. ‘Knock ’em dead!’
I grinned back, handed my tapes to Miss Polar Fleece and prepared to face the music.
Moments later I stood backstage, wiping my hands on my skirt and thinking panicky thoughts. What if I couldn’t get my bra undone? What if I tripped over? What if I fell offstage?
Too soon the guitar riff of ‘Call Me’ blasted out. Would someone call me? I waited. Nothing.
Taking a deep breath, I clambered up the steps, tossed aside the curtain and plunged onto the stage with a gymnast’s fervour, headed straight for the pole – a glinting anchor in a sea of red. I smiled brightly and didn’t dare look at the judges. Apparatus in hand, I demonstrated my dry-humping ability, then two-stepped around the pole. I was so busy mentally undressing myself I almost forgot to do it for real.
Leaning back against the pole, I eased one arm out of my singlet then the other, tugged both singlet and skirt down over my hips and wiggled like an epileptic caterpillar. Gravity did the rest. Carefully, I stepped out of the clothing pooled at my feet. So far, so good.
Although a size twelve and polar white, I didn’t feel self-conscious in my red bra and G. I’d worn very little on stage before and lingerie this gorgeous deserved to be seen. Having successfully removed not one but two items of clothing, my confidence ballooned. While Debbie Harry repeated the chorus, I took a stab at pirouetting the length of the runway, lost my bearings and reeled out of the spotlight, dangerously close to the edge of the stage. I pulled up just in time. When the dizziness abated, I toddled back to the pole, threw a half-hearted kick and told myself to calm down.
‘Fever’ began and the slow, sultry song was an instant corrective. I started grinding in time with the music instead of rocketing around. And I got lost in the words. Just like at my primary school concert when I’d lip-synced ‘Like a Virgin’ into a deodorant bottle without knowing what a virgin was, I imagined I was New Zealand’s answer to Madonna. That gave me the courage to unhook my bra. As it fell to the stage, there was a smattering of applause. This surprised me: I hadn’t really done anything.
Wow, I’m topless in public! I thought. Why isn’t this bothering me? Instead, my exposure felt delicious: the air cool, the spotlight warm on my skin. And my body knew instinctively what to do.
Daring to glance at my audience, I saw Candy wolf-whistling, the ladies clapping and the men eyeing me like a dog does a bone. Then I high-kicked some more – not a smart move without a bra on.
Wow, I’m topless in public! I thought. Why isn’t this bothering me? Instead, my exposure felt delicious: the air cool, the spotlight warm on my skin. And my body knew instinctively what to do. It felt exhilarating and frightening and, although I didn’t understand why, primal in its significance. This was bigger than me. At that moment stripping ceased to be an act of defiance. I felt truly alive.
As ‘Fever’ came to an end, I peeled off my G. The applause grew. I strode to the pole and ground at it until the song faded out. Then I gathered up the scattered pieces of clothing, floundered with the curtain and descended backstage. ZZ Top started up again.
Lathered in sweat, my mouth tinged with the metallic taste of adrenaline, I was gripped by a post-provocateur moment of shyness. I couldn’t put my clothes back on fast enough. Just as I pulled up my skirt, Craig poked his head around the curtain. ‘Come out when you’re ready.’
The ladies and their customers had gone; Miss Polar Fleece was clearing the tables. A glass of lemonade bubbled on the bar.
‘Not bad,’ said Craig, handing me the glass. ‘Try and slow down, all right. And look at the people you’re stripping for. Eye contact is important.’
I met his sharp blue eyes, sipped the cold drink and nodded, disappointed he hadn’t found me brilliant.
‘From now on, you don’t need to get here till ten. Shifts are ten till one, Thursday to Saturday. If you can’t make it, call, all right? Pay is forty dollars a night, plus you get to keep all your tips. Monday is payday. You can pick your pay up from reception anytime after two.’
I nodded again. Forty dollars wasn’t ‘fantastic money’, but it was better than KFC and I could feasibly work both jobs. If I didn’t like Blondies, I could always leave.
‘Basically, the guys are here to have a root. Parlours aren’t supposed to serve alcohol,’ Craig winked at me, ‘but we can provide a little striptease, get the guys worked up so they stick around. Weekends are busier, so you’ll need another outfit and some more music. I liked your songs, they were good. Any questions?’
‘What do I do now?’
‘Hang around till the next lot are ready.’ Craig grinned and sauntered off.
The bargirl disappeared too, leaving me alone with the cardboard cowboy. I wondered if I should pretend to look busy. At first, I practised the pole. Then I ate my muesli bar. Eventually I sat around smoking, trying not to think about what my friends and family, especially my family, might say if they knew where I was. It was cold in the back room and I couldn’t help but feel excluded. Reception with its overcooked air beckoned like a hearth with a roaring fire, but if I were propositioned for sex, how could I say no without sounding like a snob?
I stayed where I was.
I stripped three times that night. With each six-minute ‘set’ the likelihood of me tripping over my knickers lessoned, but I didn’t learn a lot from studying Candy’s two strips. Mostly, she leaned against the back of the stage with her head to one side, thrusting like a disjointed stick insect and looking like she wished everyone would just go away.
My last set was at midnight. Afterwards, I dawdled backstage like a mouse in the wall, waiting for more cheese. It didn’t come. By ten past one I decided to leave. Even as I teetered down the wonky stairs, I half-expected someone to yell out, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ No one did.
Driving home I felt drained, as much from the downtime as the show time. Still, I had performed panty-free in public! It wasn’t just what I’d done, but that I had decided to do it. I hadn’t asked anyone’s permission. After years of being told what to do and stifled by rules and regulations, it seemed I had found a way out.
At 9 a.m. the next morning I ached all over, from ankles to temples. Forcing myself out of bed for a lecture, I arrived late and absorbed little. Afterwards, I drove to Riccarton Mall to shop. The black bra and matching G both had a single diamante – dazzling by nineties New Zealand chain-store standards. They cost one night’s pay but I figured it was worth it. I planned on wearing the lingerie with a short flip skirt.
Then I called into Sportsgirl to see Helen, who was the manager there. Helen had mahogany hair, wore platform wedges, chain- smoked rollies and said ‘no problemo’ a lot, even though she wasn’t Spanish. And she was the only size sixteen I knew who looked sensational in stretch denim.
Her boyfriend Rich was an easy-going guy who spent his nights watching TV at our place and his days learning to play guitar (I suspected to impress Helen). Then there was Gibson, whose mere presence turned the house into a sort-of home. I wasn’t sure my parents approved of Helen, but I liked her a lot.
Seeing me, Helen beamed. ‘Ooh, what did you buy?’ She reached for the bag. ‘Classy! He’ll love it.’
I opened my mouth to explain then closed it again. I didn’t think Helen would mind me stripping, but I couldn’t be sure after Saturday night when I’d had impromptu ex-sex with Ben. We’d been so noisy we’d unknowingly woken her. Convinced an intruder was dismembering me, Helen fled the flat and locked herself in her car. When I’d gone for a post-coital cigarette I’d found her there, crying and waiting for the police. One shock this week was probably enough. Besides, Ben was the perfect alibi if Helen were to check on my whereabouts.
That evening I hacked twenty centimetres off my flip skirt, put my outfits in my backpack and wore jeans and a jumper to work. As I walked up High Street in the dark, carrying my covert life like a snail shell, I felt purposeful. The passers-by had no idea I was part of a small, select club. No one did. Stripping was my juicy secret – for now.
My second and third shifts at Blondies were challenging. Candy wasn’t in Friday or Saturday, so I danced five sets both nights. I tried my hardest, making eye contact as Craig insisted, but the men were unresponsive. I wanted acknowledgement – generous applause, if not a tip. So I began leaving the stage and dancing around the tables, gyrating hopefully at the air. It wasn’t quite begging, but it wasn’t far off. My efforts went unrewarded.
In between sets, I attempted small talk while the couples finished their drinks. ‘Nice to meet you,’ I said politely. ‘How are you?’ In response, the men would ogle my breasts while the working girls looked peeved. Realising I was both cutting in and suggesting I was up for grabs, I went back to my mouse hole.
Luckily there was some reprieve. Both nights a girl from ‘the club around down the road’ did a set. Friday’s girl was six feet tall (1.82 m) with a magenta pixie cut. Violet wore all black: a fringed suede jacket, a mini-skirt and a lace teddy. She greeted the working girls without moving her lips, which were deep purple and hung open non-compliantly, slashed across her porcelain skin like a blackening wound. Violet stripped to heavy metal, shuffling self-consciously, her eyes downcast. She was scarily fascinating to watch.
Saturday night’s stripper was Lauren, who was slight with a hawkish nose and brown curls. She too wore all black, but didn’t acknowledge anyone, handing over her cassettes with a scowl. Lauren wasn’t a pretty girl, but she was a beautiful stripper. Her limbs were lean, her breasts full, her stomach flat. She came alive at the pole, moving fluidly to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, dancing for herself as much as for her audience. I was transfixed. For the first time I became aware of the paradoxical nature of stripping: Lauren appeared soft yet hard, open yet closed, abandoned yet contained. I’d never seen anyone move like that and hoped one day to dance just as sensually.
Truth was, I had no idea what I looked like. There weren’t any mirrors and the only feedback I received was from Craig. And that wasn’t encouraging.
Around midnight, four young guys stumbled into the back room, rowdy and drunk. I was instantly on guard, but Craig materialised out of nowhere and sat in on my set. Grasping this opportunity to show my new boss how much I’d improved, I shimmied around the tables in my underwear, throwing in a few gymnastic moves. After the guys had staggered out into the corridor, Craig squinted at me. ‘What do you call that flip thing you just did?’
‘A forward walkover,’ I said proudly, thinking him impressed. ‘Don’t do it again.’ He squinted at me. ‘You know why?’ ‘No.’ ‘Because you can’t do it properly. Until you can, don’t do it. It made you look fat and unprofessional.’ True, I had put on weight since joining KFC and I hadn’t done a walkover in years – and never in heels. Still, I pouted at Craig, offended.
He took no notice, distracted by the noisy drunks in the hall. He stormed after them. ‘Fuck off, ya cunts!’ I heard him bellow. That was the last I saw of them – and the last walkover I did in heels. I understood that no one was going to tell me what to do, only what not to do. I would have to find my own feet.
I don’t think anyone really expected me to stay. Each night the working girls looked astonished to see me. I didn’t have any idea that technically I was self-employed, that there were better places to strip or that sex workers were often unreliable, migratory birds. I had been schooled to stick out what I started. But I might not have, if it hadn’t been for Jacinta.
When I left on Sunday morning, she smiled beatifically and said, ‘Thank you for everything.’ I thought it odd – until Monday, when I collected my pay. With her customary coldness she handed me a brown envelope marked ‘Holly’. I waited until I was in my car before opening it to find two twenty-dollar notes. I stared at them uncomprehendingly. Where was the rest of my money? I got out of the Viva and climbed the stairs again. My heart was thumping so loudly with the fear of confrontation that I thought I might crack a rib.
Jacinta buzzed me in. ‘Yes?’
‘There’s only forty dollars here,’ I said. ‘There’s supposed to be a hundred and twenty.’
‘Didn’t Craig tell you?’ Jacinta said, saccharine-sweet. ‘The first week, eighty dollars is deducted from your pay for training. From now on, you’ll get forty dollars per shift.’ Her demeanour was pure business, but her eyes gave her away. Jacinta was daring me to challenge her.
I stared back, unable to think of anything to say. I returned to my car and burst into tears. It was so unfair! Why would she do that? Then, thinking some more, I stopped crying and started getting angry. Paying for training hadn’t been mentioned and I felt Craig had been straight with me. Jacinta, I suspected, had pocketed it in the hope I’d go away.
Jacinta wasn’t working on Thursday or Friday, but Craig wasn’t around either. On Friday around midnight, just as I was tossing up between asking for his mobile number and leaving, he strode in and out of the back room, evidently busy.
‘Craig!’ I hurried after him. He stopped in the doorway. ‘What is it?’
‘I only got paid forty dollars this week. The rest was deducted for training.’
‘Who told you that?’ ‘Jacinta.’ Craig’s eyes narrowed. ‘Leave it with me.’ On Monday I sweated all the way up the stairs, but Jacinta wasn’t there. An unfamiliar receptionist handed me my envelope. I opened it in front of her. Inside was two hundred dollars in twenty- dollar notes. Two hundred dollars! That was more cash than I’d ever held. Until then, my relationship with money had been mostly out of my hands. My parents paid my living expenses, while KFC was my spending money. That cash was a tangible and multiple victory: over Jacinta, over the gymnastics coach who’d told me I wasn’t good enough, over the tedium of university and the burden of my own meekness.
Two weeks in, and I thought I could smell independence wafting towards me on the cheap-perfumed, sexed-up breeze.