It’s my last night as a stripper, only I don’t know it yet. The night starts out like every other. I put on my makeup while drinking a flask of rye, and take a taxi to the pub near the club where I work. I drink four doubles and chain-smoke until 9:15. We have to be on the floor by 9:30 or we are fined for being late.
I have never seen the inside of Cabaret Chez Pierre with the lights on. When I get there the lights are dim, the music is on and the disco ball is set to automatic revolve. Wafts of patchouli musk, lavender, baby powder, forgotten G-strings and Chanel No. 5 sting my nostrils as I walk to the dressing room.
Here, under these dim lights, I become someone else. A hustler named Kate O’Donnell. Other girls choose names like Tiffany and Sapphire. But I prefer Kate O’Donnell because it sounds like the name of a good solid girl. Which is what I want to be: a sweet girl in a place where men least expect to meet her. Lonely men who come in by themselves are my specialty—happy to find a nice girl willing to listen to them and be a little naughty.
Stripping is addictive. There is a feeling of power in commanding the attention of an entire room. It’s that attention—negative or positive, I don’t care—that I’m starved for, but hate myself for needing. Pretty soon, though, the adrenaline wears off and you start to notice things like disinterested eyes looking at everything but you. You grow bored of the music and your own repetitive moves. You start to drink more to notice less. Five drinks on a shift isn’t partying, it’s maintenance.
I started dancing when I was nineteen. I had just finished my first year at McGill University in Montreal and I had no intention of going home for the summer. A friend of a friend was working at a place called Club Millionaires. The thought of dancing felt outrageous and exciting—everything that I was not. I showed up with a borrowed neon bikini. They put me on the day shift as, clearly, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t make very much money that summer, but I kept at it and made enough to live on.
I like that stripping flies in the face of the suburban conformity that I was raised in. I grew up just outside of Ottawa, the youngest of six in a devoutly Catholic family. For as long as I can remember I have craved attention, was desperate for it. But I never learned how to ask for it. I was pathologically shy. Separated from my siblings by a substantial age gap, I grew up as an only child. An only child to old-fashioned parents who believed silence was good behaviour. I learned to make myself very small, to segment myself, live in different worlds—reality or my own fantasies—whichever one was easiest.
Tonight, I change as quickly as I can, as Simone and Tamara are my only company in the change room. They are hard as nails and make a sport of terrifying me. Last Halloween I dressed as a bunny. Simone came dressed as the devil and whenever I walked by her, she’d bang her pitchfork on the ground and chant, “Kill The Bunny, Kill The Bunny.”
I apply body glitter with a small paintbrush using thick, artful strokes. My wig is thicker, fuller and prettier than my real hair could ever be. With my false eyelashes and painted-on rosebud mouth, everything is exaggerated. It’s the perfect mask. Every movement on stage will be calculated. Here, you are what you project. No one is ever going to look deeper than that.
At twenty-four, I’m now dancing about two nights a week at Chez Pierre’s while studying at the University of Alberta. I’m studying to be an actor. I’m in an elite program that accepts twelve students from across the country. The classes ask us to connect with our vulnerable emotions and to concede control. But stripping is all about control. Connecting with one’s vulnerability while dancing is an emotional liability. I have discovered Kate O’Donnell—or she has discovered me—and I am certainly acting. But Chez Pierre’s is definitely not what my professors have in mind. I think I’d be asked to leave the program if they knew.
By now, I’ve made an informed decision about what I’m doing. It might chip away at me emotionally and psychologically but, at twenty-four, I still don’t know that some damage is irreversible. Dancing leads me to believe I am independent, which is a great way to avoid learning how to ask for help. I like being a stripper because it is my own personal secret—proof that no one really knows me. Or can judge me.
Living a double life is seductive, but it’s also a trap. The student world tells me I’m normal and I like to pretend that I am. But the reality is that I don’t want to be normal. I want to be desired. Having spent so much of my life trying to be invisible, this is where I’m finally seen. Or at least, part of me is. I know more about who I am in the club than I do about myself in the outside world.
I take a final look in the mirror. Kate O’Donnell stares back. She leaves the dressing room and goes to work.
Cabaret Chez Pierre opened as a regular nightclub in Edmonton in 1970, and transformed itself into a strip club the following year. Now, there’s a stage show every half hour. Drinks are six bucks and are served in paper Dixie cups—the kind you find in bathroom dispensers. Chez Pierre’s has no dishwasher and no liquor license.
The club is set up cabaret-style: tables and chairs around a small stage, with thick overstuffed armchairs and couches lining the walls. Countless men have sat here smoking countless cigarettes while gyrating table dancers count the minutes going by. Minutes equal money. Each song is three minutes long—even if they’re playing “Stairway to Heaven,” the song will cut out at the three-minute mark.
At Chez Pierre’s the only money the girls make is from $8 table dances. The house gets $3, we keep $5. A bouncer keeps track of how many songs a girl is doing just in case she skims a little off the top, which we all do. On a good night, I’ll take home around $250.
Table dances are done on squat metal boxes placed in front of a customer’s chair. The boxes have shag carpets stapled to the tops that look like breeding grounds for chlamydia, gonorrhea and herpes. Dancers carry their own towel so their feet (or anything else) never touch the carpet.
Chez Pierre’s has its own set of written and unwritten rules. Customers with freaky demands don’t get any private dances. No “toonie tossing” during the stage shows (some guys like to turn their tips into projectiles that hurt like hell). And there’s the standard “no touching” rule, but everyone knows that rule is up for negotiation. Sometimes a table dance is just one extended negotiation. If a dancer is caught breaking the rules—caught being the operative word, because everyone breaks them—the other girls will intimidate her or badmouth her in front of customers.
I’m out on the floor now. A few men have spilled into the club, but no one is interested in a table dance this early in the evening. When it’s slow like this, girls gather together in groups of two or three. But I prefer sitting by myself. It’s a chance to have a smoke and one more drink while waiting for the rhythm of the night to establish itself.
Rochelle and Shyanne are deep in conversation near the stage. Rochelle is a short redhead and Shyanne an improbable blonde. They are daughter and mother. But no one is allowed to talk about that. Bad for business.
Rochelle sometimes tells me stories about being a little girl, and going to meet her mom as she worked the circuit—only ever seeing her in lobbies of small-town hotels. She smoked her first joint with her mom. Shyanne couldn’t find any rolling papers so she used a Tampax wrapper. They are my two favourite people in the club. They are straightforward, warm and full of fun, tactful advice. They exude confidence.
Chez Pierre’s is mainly a repository for older strippers like Shyanne—former marquee dancers who, once upon a time, toured the country’s finest peeler bars, but whose stripping shelf life has expired. (Here, only six girls including myself are in our early twenties.) Sometimes the old pros trot out a long-abandoned routine, if only to break the monotony. Ginger once stripped to “Xanadu” on roller skates. Every Christmas, for the ten years she’s worked at the club, DeeAngelo puts on a Santa hat and hangs candy canes off her nipples.
You can tell a good strip club by the relative brightness of the lights. In general, the darker the lighting, the older the strippers. Lighting is a stripper’s best friend. In the dark you don’t notice the frizzy ends of bad wigs or scars from boob jobs and C-sections. Dark shadows mixed with the haze of half-heartedly smoked cigarettes make Chez Pierre’s a kinder place.
It’s midnight and the club is crawling with horny men. Sasha takes the stage with a Jeff Healey song to back her up. It’s an old Top 40 classic, the only kind of music that’s ever played here. Sasha is in her forties and is incredibly limber. She drinks a lot, has a throaty laugh and is the club’s House Mother—an official title.
I think we’re supposed to go to her if we have any problems. But she doesn’t look like she has a maternal bone in her body. And other than punching someone out, I’m not sure what her problem-solving skills would be. But she is a good dancer.
Sasha’s pectoral muscles are incredibly well developed, so when she’s on stage she takes turns flexing them. She makes her breasts jump up and down—first in opposition to each other, then in unison. The guys love this.
I see him waiting. He’s on a sunken sofa pushed up against the wall. He’s been coming in for the last three weeks and always asks for me. I can’t remember his name. “Honey” works just fine.
He seems like a sweet guy. He spends at least a hundred and gives me a huge tip. “Honey” doesn’t want me to dance for him, just take my clothes off and rest my knees on his thighs. My feet stay on the box: it’s legally necessary to keep at least one part of our anatomy in contact with it at all times. I’ve seen girls take some pretty creative approaches to this.
I focus all of my attention on him and talk animatedly about whatever he wants. When I run out of things to say, I make things up. In this moment I know exactly who I am: his.
Every now and then he checks the meter by asking how many songs we’ve done. When he decides to call it quits, he gives me his phone number along with a stack of twenties. My heart sinks. He doesn’t understand that I will never call him. The stripping, the piercing gaze, the heat of my body so close to his—the connection that he feels occurred in a vacuum. Outside the club, this world does not exist. He’s an easy client. Too easy.
But for every nice guy like him, there are at least five who make me want to peel off my skin right down to the bone. The worst are the ones who try to give you directions: “Bend over again,” or “Closer, I said get closer.” These are the ones with the wandering hands. They dismiss you after one song, when they find out they’re not allowed to grab. They don’t understand the touching rules and that only the dancer can break them.
A customer willing to spend money might notice a lingering touch or unexpected pressure: the great tease. The more money, the more contact a dancer may choose—“choose” being the operative word—to initiate. If I could stomach being caressed, poked or prodded by any of these men, I’d be in a line of work that would make me a hell of a lot more money.
Some men who frequent strip clubs argue that the dancers have all the power. I’ve never understood this. We have power over their hard-ons—maybe—but throw commerce into the mix and the balance of power changes completely. Money teaches us our place.
We are all exploiting fantasy. The customer wants you to find him attractive. Going all out during the first dance makes him believe that you do. That way, you keep him paying for an hour. You’re beautiful. He wants you. The look of disdain only creeps into his eyes when you tell him how much he owes you. Fantasy fini.
The traffickers of fantasy are blameless. We were never selling anything real to begin with and, despite their desires, customers know this. Feelings of indignation, self-righteousness, being cheated or simple loneliness are not our responsibility.
The men aren’t the only ones trying to mislead themselves. I pretend that nothing matters, that searing moments of fear and self-loathing never happened and aren’t churning my stomach right now. In my fantasy, I am Shannon Quinn and she is in charge, choosing when the mask comes on and off.
Sometimes I worry stripping is teaching me to dislike men—all of them. Chez Pierre’s is my baseline. My reason for believing sexual objectification of women is the norm. I haven’t had enough experience with men outside the club to show me otherwise.
Even drunk, my senses feel extra alert tonight and I’m aware of movements in the farthest corner of the club. I can hear Tiffany making her rounds. She’s a hard worker, relentlessly mouthing, “Would you like a table dance?” It’s the same bass monotone that street people use to ask for spare change.
“Would you like a table dance?”
It’s getting late. Crystal Dawn is dancing onstage. She is unquestionably the most boring dancer in the club. She walks. She smiles. She lies down. But that’s enough to make her a fortune. She has the largest breasts in the club, double-D implants. Dancing for her is kind of the side show.
Rochelle waves me over. She’s sitting with two youngish customers: they look like they just got off the oil rigs. She’s trying to hustle some dances. One of the guys offers to buy me a drink. A drink? I don’t need to be asked twice.
An unanticipated intrusion is about to occur. Two plainclothes policemen have just been served rye and Cokes in their Dixie cups—in an unlicensed establishment.
Six cops storm the entrance.
One of them bellows, “Keep your hands where we can see them.” Another cop runs into the dressing room. We hear him fumbling with the microphone. The music cuts out. The lights come on. Fantasy fini.
The dancers are herded onto the stage—aging ladies in nothing but G-strings, clutching change purses and packs of smokes. The police take our real names and real ages and tell us we can go. Their beef isn’t with the dancing, it’s with the bootlegging. We leave through the back door while the customers skulk out the front. There’s a rumour that a TV crew is waiting outside, ready to embarrass the customers and to show Edmontonians that their streets are being cleaned up.
The club will be closed indefinitely. This is our first night of unemployment.
Shyanne suggests we gather here, in the parking lot, each night to see if any customers show up. That way, we can all pitch in to rent a hotel room where we can table dance. She doesn’t get any takers on that proposal.
I’m not concerned about my own financial situation. It’s end of term and I have money in the bank, but some of my co-workers have mortgages to pay, kids to feed. Some have worked here for the past ten years.
In some ways, I am amused to be part of something as nefarious as a bust. But as the weeks go by, I realize I’m avoiding looking in mirrors. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to see that Kate O’Donnell—that hustler with a drinking problem—is the only person staring back.