The first time I saw Jackie naked was the first time I saw Jackie. It was a Friday night at New Haven’s Catwalk Club, and she had taken the stage just as my male escorts and I sat down in some straight-backed chairs off to the side. She immediately ditched her tiny plaid skirt and began to undulate her narrow hips, mouthing the words to the loud, bass-driven hip-hop song my friends and I were trying to shout over. Her knee-high patent leather boots suggested an interest in S&M, and as she squatted in front of a young, giggly guy in a baggy thermal shirt and round glasses, she slowly teased her simple black G-string to one side. Then she abruptly stood up, locked her knees, and did some weird, jittery thing with her lower body in what I think was an attempt to shake her tiny butt. Her string bikini top quickly proved itself an unnecessary burden. Giggles tossed some crumpled $1 bills on the stage.
When her three-song set was over, she dropped all pretense of sex appeal and crawled around on her knees to collect her tips, still absentmindedly singing along to “Unstoppable” by Kat DeLuna. On her way offstage, a customer stopped her — perhaps to say, “You looked great up there,” or, “I thought your unorthodox interpretation of Lil Wayne really emphasized the poststructuralist tendencies of his latest album.” Either way, she accepted his compliment warmly, with a friendly smile and an enthusiastic “Thank you!”
It’s been a long time coming, Jackie tells me one customer-free Tuesday evening at Catwalk, but she’s finally learned to shake her ass. Having seen her attempt this foundational element of contemporary exotic dance, I’m skeptical, but I don’t want to spoil her triumph.
Jackie — whose real name, she confided to me the first time we met, is actually Nicole — has wanted to be a stripper since the eighth grade; she says she always loved school dances and thought lingerie was cute. After graduating from Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Connecticut, last spring, she found herself bored and lonely, with no idea what she’d want to study in college. She started to consider pursuing the interest she’d developed from watching T-Pain music videos and late-night TV, and a friend recommended Catwalk. His dad owned a place in Bridgeport, but Catwalk was the only strip bar he knew that didn’t permit contact or “extra stuff.” Now she’s been working there for about nine months. Not only is Catwalk the first and only strip club she’s ever been to, it’s the first and only job she’s ever had.
Although she’s never taken a dance class, Jackie says her audition was easy, and she started work the same night. Ian — a bouncer and manager at Catwalk who spends slow nights like this one reading James Joyce under the front desk — describes the club’s lenient hiring policy to me like this: they try to avoid the kind of girl you see at the beach and think, “‘Eh … she probably shouldn’t be wearin’ that bikini.’”
Besides a bit of stubble dotting her toned lower abs, Jackie is very much bikini-ready. Throughout our conversation, she plays with her sapphire belly button ring and complains about the itchiness of her newest tattoo, a generic floral design on the side of her torso that’s still red from the artist’s needle. She has real, normal, Hostess-Sno-Ball-sized breasts, and her butt, though cute, is also pretty small. I expect her exercise routine to resemble my own complex regimen of graduated-interval running for cardiovascular health and athletic skinniness, lightweight training for Gwyneth Paltrow-tone without Cameron Diaz-bulk, and intermediate power yoga classes for flexibility and an artsy, free-spirited persona. I’m surprised — and jealous — when she says stripping three days a week is the only workout she needs.
Jackie’s repertoire combines pole work, floor work, and a surprisingly playful “style,” which lends itself to jokingly whipping her hair back and forth, should a performance necessitate it. She’ll begin a set with the ass-shaking thing, or the hip-gyrating thing, or “the one where you move your legs in and out so your butt’s in their face.” Then she’ll move to the pole.
She’ll quickly inch-worm her way to the top, grip it between her small, muscular thighs, and bend over backwards until her legs stick straight out and her belly button ring flops over onto her tight, tan stomach. With one arm under her body to control her descent and the other gracefully extended outward, she’ll slide slowly down the length of the pole, her long auburn hair hanging below her. To avoid slipping, she never wears lotion and sometimes dries out her hands with Purell. Although I was ladylikedly embarrassed the first time I visited the hotbed of moral depravity that is a strip club, my discomfort quickly turned to respect when I saw what Jackie can do on the pole. I was even more impressed when she told me she learned it all by watching.
“At first, some of my moves were terrible. Oh my God, my butt would not move!” she says, laughing. “I just had to practice over and over and over again. I would put music on when I went home and try to move my butt and dance while I did the dishes. I always wanna be working on something new to get better. I think it looks so good when girls just do their moves, and it’s just whatever, and you can’t even tell it’s hard.”
Before meeting Jackie, the last time I’d thought about strippers was in high school, when my boyfriend informed me he was going to “Southern X-posure” with his friends. As he hopped into his buddy’s used Honda Civic with an about-to-exercise-a-rite-of-passage smile on his face, visions of giant-breasted boyfriend-seducers pole danced in my head. I began to see strip clubs as reprehensible venues for the open objectification of women; also, icky.
I imagined all strippers fit into one of three categories. The first is the obviously intelligent philosophy/Russian literature student, whose former-life decision to dance was based on some now-apparent combination of daddy issues, bad influences, and the desperate need to pay for graduate school; although the experience may have been harrowing, it has at least provided her with kick-ass material for an angry, yet poignant, memoir. The second is the historical re-enactor, the burlesque dancer whose day job as a waitress funds her self-proclaimed “obsession” with vintage corsets and traditional tattoos. The third is a prostitute, whose work supports a drug habit.
“I used to stereotype people, too,” Jackie tells me. “I would be like, ‘Ew, that’s so fucking gross — you get naked and let guys touch you.’ But once you work here, you actually get to see what goes on and what doesn’t, and you know how it really is. I’m not a friggin’ drug addict. I’m not doing any extras. I’m not having sex with guys.
“We’re born naked anyways, and we have sex with people naked,” she continues. “You make amazing money for guys to not even touch you, just to look at you and worship your body.” She absentmindedly pushes the edges of the “Love” tattoo on her stomach to distort the image. “Don’t tattoos look weird when you do this?”
At the end of our Tuesday evening gab sesh, Jackie and I plan to meet at her apartment in West Haven later that week. From there we’ll go to a restaurant called Bao’s Kitchen — which is, oh my God, so good — for lunch. She’s excited to introduce me to her favorite food, a type of mall Chinese cuisine called “beef on a stick.” I’m excited to cross “Eat a Sexually Suggestive Food with an Exotic Dancer” off my bucket list.
The symbolic possibilities in a 19-year-old stripper who says her favorite food is “beef on a stick” are just too good to be true. First we can nudge each other and raise our judgmental eyebrows when I make a joke about how Jackie probably enjoys a different kind of beef on a stick when she’s on the job, if you know what I mean. On the flip side, we can also frown at the state of gender relations in the 21st century when we consider the alternative: when she’s wrapped her taut young body around a shiny stripper pole for the chauvinistic male customers of Catwalk to ogle, Jackie resembles a piece of meat on a stick herself.
The stigma of stripping stems from a long tradition of push and pull between society-sanctioned squeamishness and the natural instinct to get grabby at the sight of a naked woman. The prudishness of Christianity meant sexual dance flourished in the East long before it arrived in Europe and America, but colonialism finally brought sexy-lady-dancing to the West in the late 18th century. After what I’m sure were a lot of boring nights spent at home playing solitaire, Westerners saw the relatively tame belly dancers of India and North Africa at world’s fair exhibitions, and we’ve been romanticizing the sensuality, mystery, and curry-infused cooking techniques of Eastern culture ever since. Out of this fascination came dancers like Mata Hari, the Dutch performer who created an entire imaginary Eastern persona for her act, and the idea that striptease could be both entertaining and profitable.
In “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” Rachel Shteir defines the “golden age” of stripping as the years between the Jazz Age and the Sexual Revolution — the period of time it took for striptease to go from “a powerful symbol of twenties decadence and the New Woman’s sexual liberation” to a powerful symbol of the objectification of women. Genres such as burlesque, gown-and-glove, and fan dance are just a few ways dancers would put the “tease” into “striptease,” grounding their appeal in the removal of clothes rather than the reveal of what’s underneath. Often fetishized today, these retro styles rested on the notion of seduction, and their performers would often excite audiences with the mere turn of a particularly elegant wrist. When women did bare all onstage, it was in a very controlled way — complete with the real-life enactment of the kinds of ridiculous, antiquated laws now only recorded in books intended to be read on the toilet. At London’s Windmill Theatre in the 1930s, for example, full-frontal nudity was permitted only if dancers remained completely motionless. Even Jackie’s unremarkable ass-shaking would have been considered too much for the wide-eyed gentlemen in the audience.
According to Catwalk’s bouncer/manager Ian, now you’re lucky to get 30 seconds of “tease” before the strip. Except for a larger-than-average percentage of body-piercing patrons amongst their ranks, the belly dancers of yore have little in common with “exotic” dancers like Jackie, who favors Playboy bunny paraphernalia over elaborate costumes. Seasoned club workers warn girls that taking it all off too quickly will earn them $1 in place of the $10 they could expect to get by waiting, but Ian says the instant gratification of the Internet has made both customers and employees impatient for their due.
Combined with the unavoidable fact that the sex industry is not the most wholesome of enterprises, this creates the prevailing perception of stripping — and strippers — today. Strip clubs make headlines most often when they’re busted for selling drugs or sex, and many countries are considering stricter regulations on sex workers or eliminating strip clubs altogether. In 2010 Iceland’s formidably named Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir helped pass the country’s historic law prohibiting any business from making a profit on the nudity of its employees. Responsible for effectively removing her country from the long list of popular bachelor party getaway destinations, Sigurðardóttir is the world’s first openly lesbian state leader, and much has been made of the connection between her sexuality and feminist policies. She and the even more unpronounceable liberal politician Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir explicitly cited the objectification of women as the primary cause for the ban.
The risks of Jackie’s job — not the ones associated with sliding down a 12-foot pole using only her inner thigh muscles, but the ones related to what the sight of naked women does to inebriated men — necessitate strict rules and surveillance on the part of the club. Adjacent to an appropriately desolate industrial complex, Catwalk is housed in a brick building with tall, heavy wooden doors and windows that remain covered to close off the crime-ridden neighborhood from the regulated looking-but-not-touching that goes on inside. Enter, and you’re immediately confronted with a long list of things forbidden in the club: hats/do-rags, tank tops/jerseys, white tee-shirts/camouflage, low-slung or saggy jeans/pants, sunglasses, hoods, head gear of any kind, chains, colors, drugs, weapons, and re-entry after bar-closing (which is, apparently, doubly important). If a customer spends too much time reading this list — or if a customer is found to be furiously scribbling this list in her notebook as she waits for her cab — the stern New Haven police officer on duty will raise his own judgmental eyebrows and ask if there’s a problem.
Manning the cashier’s desk is one of four equally intimidating men. His job is to check your ID with a black light; collect your $10 entry fee, the antique cash register ka-ching!ing as you glimpse the flashing, multicolored lights around the corner; frown as he emphasizes the two-drink minimum; and scare the shit out of you.
Liquor licensing laws in Connecticut stipulate that nude entertainment venues cannot sell alcohol. (That would be sinful!) So that two-drink minimum means you’ll be spending $8 on soda, juice, or bottled water. Still, the club is legally BYOB, and drunk customers always cause problems. Dale, a Catwalk DJ, tells me that seeing the kinds of men who frequent the club makes him feel better about himself. The way he sees it, a Catwalk client fits into one of five categories: the college guys, who are what you’d expect; the lonely guys, who are pathetic and crave human interaction; the fetish guys, who ask girls to pee in cups so they can drink it; the assholes, who get more pleasure out of being able to make girls show their tits than the sight of the tits themselves; and the perverts, who are gross. The dancers are conditioned to be suspicious of everyone, and men like Ian and Dale — huge, hulking guys who tower over women in even the tallest of heels — see themselves as protectors, knights in shining gold necklaces and black button-downs. They make sure a dancer never goes home with someone she meets in the club, and they often give girls rides to and from work themselves. The closest a customer can get to a stripper is in a private VIP room, where a hefty fee grants them access to “boobs and butt.” As the lucky guy (or gal) finally achieves the special kind of ecstasy that I imagine must come with paying hundreds of dollars to fondle nice boobs, a bouncer on duty monitors a security camera’s feed, making sure that’s all he gets to touch.
It’s 2:15 in the morning, and Dale calls Jackie’s name for her next three-song set. When the “ghetto black people music” Jackie likes starts to play, all the night’s customers remain at the bar or are otherwise occupied. Surveying the empty room, Jackie starts her performance with a couple of exaggerated pelvic thrusts — a classic in any awkward situation involving music. Over the sound system, Dale asks her if he can tell me about the time they went “hooker-hunting.” Jackie doubles over in laughter — though she maintains an expert grounding in her precarious heels — and gives him a thumbs-up. A few young guys take seats near the stage.
Jackie had never realized the girls she saw walking around after dark were prostitutes until Dale began giving her rides home. “This whole world is very new to her,” he shouts to me over Flo Rida. “She’s fascinated by driving around and looking at them.” One night, they decided to pick up a girl at 7-Eleven. As Jackie circles the pole seductively, Dale shows me a blurry cell phone video of a tired-looking blonde going down on a giant black strap-on attached to none other than my stripper friend herself. Jackie, wearing a bright pink zip-up sweatshirt, giggles uncontrollably throughout the entire professional-quality blowjob.
The nocturnal nature of stripping means Jackie has her days free to spend with her 10-month-old son, Tyler. When I arrange to visit her at the West Haven apartment she shares with her 21-year-old sister Lindsey and Haley, another stripper, I first suggest coming at 11:30 in the morning; I know I’ll be hung over from a Halloween party the night before. Jackie, however, balks at this suggestion, whining in an almost accusatory tone that she’s “lonely” and “so bored!” with nothing to do but watch the baby. She invites me to come earlier, so with a pounding headache and smudged eye make-up, I pull up to her house at a painful 10:30 instead.
Her apartment is on a wide, residential street — the kind with mildly friendly elderly neighbors and couples who go on walks together every evening. I knock on the door, and Jackie shouts from inside that it’s open. I step over a car seat and empty shopping bags to follow the sound of her animated voice into her bedroom. Her walls are a nice shade of eggplant that matches the purple-and-black zebra print comforter sitting rumpled on her full-sized bed; an elaborately bordered black mirror hangs on the wall between two purple-curtained windows. It would be kind of sexy, but with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and a wooden crib in the corner, it looks how the bedroom of any normal 19-year-old stripper/mother would look.
Dressed in Abercrombie and Fitch sweatpants and a white v-neck t-shirt that’s sheer enough to reveal her polka-dotted bra, Jackie hugs me hello and lifts Tyler out of his crib. Her respectably solid biceps bulge slightly as she swings him playfully into the air. She puts him on the floor so he can crawl around, and he immediately finds an empty Tupperware container to fling across the room. Jackie flops onto the bed and starts texting. Tyler and I share the Tupperware container, and I twice keep him from putting his pudgy fingers in a non-child-proofed electrical socket. He’s really adorable, with small, wide-set eyes like his mother’s.
Jackie got pregnant the first time she had sex with Brandon, her bodybuilder boyfriend of almost two years. Although she considered getting an abortion, her decision to keep the baby earned her respect from Brandon’s mother, whose house she’d been sneaking in and out of for weeks. As she explains the unlikely circumstances of her pregnancy — she’d been on the pill and switched to the NuvaRing, and the transition period was not long enough to keep her 99 percent not pregnant — she gets a Facebook message on her phone from a high school friend. The girl was watching Jerry Springer, and, don’t take this the wrong way, but one of the strippers on the show looked exactly like Jackie … or, rather, Nicole.
Producers for The Jerry Springer Show often recruit at Catwalk, and Jackie had just started working there when she got her medium-sized break. Dale asked some of the dancers if they’d be interested in going on the show, and figuring it might be fun, Jackie ended up on an episode entitled “Stripper Pole Showdown” that aired this October. Although all participants are required to sign paperwork confirming their stories are true, Jackie, Dale, and another stripper, Alana, made up something much more exciting: Jackie had naughtily begun “paying extra attention to the DJ” who, while in love with his girlfriend Alana, was attracted to Jackie because she “actually talks.” The girls fought. Jackie, having done a brief stint on her high school’s wrestling team before getting pregnant, easily dominated the more waifish Alana, and the clip ended with a heavily made-up Jackie kissing Dale in a fit of fake-boyfriend-stealing ardor and showing a pixilated version of her Hostess-Sno-Ball-sized breasts on national television.
At the time, Jackie thought none of this was a big deal. She used her stripper pseudonym when she appeared on the show, and besides, who watches Jerry Springer, anyway? Although she and her boyfriend had lived together in the past — both in his mother’s house in Milford and in this West Haven apartment — they decided that living apart was the best thing for their relationship right now. Revealing a heart-shaped tongue ring and a white but endearingly crooked set of teeth, Jackie’s smile is genuine when she tells me she and Brandon have been doing “really good” since then.
Although I’ve known her real name since the day we met, I can’t bring myself to call Jackie anything but “Jackie,” or, if I’m trying to be funny, “my stripper friend.” However, Brandon knows her only as Nicole. He thinks she’s a bartender at Stella Blues, a club in downtown New Haven; at 19, he can’t set foot inside to confirm or deny this. When Jackie mentioned her sort-of-lifelong dream of becoming a stripper, Brandon got angry, but she “went and did it anyways.” She doesn’t plan on stripping forever, and his overreaction seemed pretty typical.
Jackie tells me it’s not just the getting-naked-in-front-of-strangers-in-a-sexual-manner thing that would bother Brandon; it’s also that she makes a lot more money than he does while doing it. Dancers at Catwalk are paid exclusively in tips, and they have virtually unlimited — and untaxed — earning potential. Each night they work, the girls must pay the DJ on duty $20 — the amount they make from one single-song lap dance. Because the DJs’ contracts stipulate they must earn at least $100 a night, the manager usually lets dancers work whenever they feel like it. Lap dances are pretty lucrative; if a guy’s into you, he’ll usually pay for more than one song. But the real money is in VIP clients — the ones who will shell out hundreds of dollars for a closely monitored one-on-one interaction with a woman required to pay attention to them. For $220, Very Important People can book a private, 15-minute session with Jackie in one of Catwalk’s small cubicles. For an extra $30, they’ll get the club’s enormous “Moroccan Room,” decorated with exotically maroon satin throw pillows, the authentic musk of old oriental rugs, and the mystique of modern striptease’s belly-dancing predecessors. Catwalk requires the girls to charge a minimum of $150 and $175 for these rooms, from which the club will earn $50 and $75, respectively. But, as Jackie says, “You have to raise the price, or you’ll only make $100 for fifteen minutes.” Although you can’t predict when a guy will request a VIP room — you could get three in one week, or one in an entire month — it’s likely others will follow once he does.
All this adds up to a decent chunk of change. Jackie usually earns between $1000 and $1200 for working around 30 hours a week; that’s a range of $4000 to $4800 a month, or $48,000 to $57,600 a year. When Brandon gets excited about his $600 heating-and-cooling specialist’s paycheck, Jackie describes it as “cute.”
Jackie decides not to worry about the Jerry Springer thing right now; whatever’s meant to be is meant to be, and we’re hungry. She changes out of her sweatpants and into a pair of denim shorts in front of me. I’m surprised, until I remember I’ve seen her more naked than this, like, five or six times. She locates her imitation UGG boots under the pile of clothes Tyler knocked onto the floor, grabs his diaper bag, and we’re ready to go.
The employees at Bao’s Kitchen are happy to see Jackie, a very regular customer, and she introduces them to Tyler, who throws his spoon on the ground. We decide to take our order to go.
As we clear a space at her cluttered kitchen table for our feast of egg rolls, pork-fried rice, “General Chow’s chicken,” and two orders of beef on a stick, I notice Jackie’s autographed black-and-white photo of Jerry Springer watching over us. My first reaction is one of jealousy; I want that hilarious conversation starter in my kitchen. Then I get concerned. What if Brandon sees it?
Jackie once told me her job was like “getting paid to party.” Without an expensive coke habit, she doesn’t find it difficult to pay for rent, or health insurance, or frequent runs to Bao’s Kitchen. When I ask her if the need to provide for Tyler contributed to her decision to start stripping, she responds with an emphatic no, the end of the vowel rising and falling in that nasal New England accent outsiders say makes everyone sound mean. A far cry from the act of desperation Demi Moore in “Striptease” made it out to be, Jackie’s job seems like a win-win-win: she isn’t ready to start college yet; she makes more money than I, a future Yale graduate with a “passion” for writing, probably ever will; and she loves it. Sometimes she makes it sound so good that I’m tempted to start stripping myself.
But then I worry. What happens when Brandon turns 21? What happens when he heads to Catwalk for a Friday night out with his friends? What happens when he starts to ask questions about why his girlfriend has an autographed Jerry Springer headshot on display in her kitchen? I realize I could never do it (and not just because my boobs are too small). I’ve come to like the idea of being comfortable, confident, and empowered enough to disrobe in front of strangers. But after seeing all Jackie has to cover up at home, I can’t help but think that she is never truly naked.
Note: At the subjects’ requests, some of the names in this piece have been changed.