"Self Portrait as Nico. Counting Money in Dressing Room", 1995
In the winter of 1995, I was sitting on the cold tile floor of the dressing room in a strip club in Rockland County. I was doing what I did every night--counting my money midway through my 4pm to 4am shift. I was tired. I needed a dancer's working vacation in the sun. I set my sights on Hawaii since my friend, Kaylani and a friend of hers named Bella were going out there anyway. I had my dark hair cut into a bob and had it perfectly tinted a shade of blond that realistically matched the color of my olive skin or at least I thought so. I decided to go from the harsh east coast stage name of "Nico" to the softer and more cutesy name "Jesse" to fit my new hairdo.
Over the next 10 months, I flew back and forth from NYC to Honolulu about 3 times, breaking up my time between the two cities as if I was living between two neighboring states. For months at a time, I lived out of an inexpensive high rise hotel with a weekly rate on the less touristy side of Waikiki.
It was sunny everyday in Hawaii with the classic rainbow over beautifully volcanic chiseled mountains and yet, my mood remained as sallow as the color of the room where I lived. With or without my dangling chili pepper lights, candles, incense and the magazine cut outs, that I had plastered all over the walls to make it feel more homey, my days before running off to work felt like I was living in solitary. In a room, full of beige and orange interwoven cushions on furniture to match the variant bedspread, I felt the lingering presence of some malicious hotel interior designer who thought it would be the most practical to maintain an aura of hideous ennui for many many years to come.
The following Polaroids are bits of my personal treasure-trove, memories of working in a "theatre" strip club in a strip mall on Kapiolani.
Two of the photos are from Queens and New Jersey, but all have one theme in common. I decided to have a "fan photo" taken with various feature dancers as a mimicry of customers who often paid for the same service, in order to take a token of the nights evening, and the dancer, away and home with them.
"Jesse with Unknown Feature Dancer #4", 1995.
The following is an excerpt from my book, "Lapdancer" from powerHouse Books, 2003.
"The stripper lifestyle has its own comforting and predictable routine. Sleeping until 11:00 a.m. (or later, as the week progresses), I drag my tired body out of bed across my studio apartment. A sore body is a reminder of a night well spent, money made, counted, and stashed in forever changing hiding places. Mysteriously browned and callused knees and elbows offer further evidence of my nightly pursuits. Some mornings, I awake still brooding over a night when I have fallen below my average, and berate myself for my lack of motivation on the job or some other possible personal defect that might explain falling short of my quota.
A shower would follow, then a walk into the daylight to a local restaurant where I would sit alone, ponder my future, and reward myself with a sensible non-fattening meal in my trendy Manhattan neighborhood. I hardly had time to hand wash my costumes. They smell of cigarettes, sweat, and the sweet perfumes customers complement me on. Instead I opt for a nap, awake, pop three Advil, and an hour later pick up a double espresso on the run, toting my work duffel bag filled with my best moneymakers—a tight leopard-print dress, a silver Brazilian bikini, a sequined mini, and stiletto heels. One might have thought I was just another ballet dancer running off to a class in the middle of the day.
At first it was buses, trains, and taxis; then later, private drivers like Aman, the yellow cabbie who doubled as my therapist, forever bolstering my spirits like a trainer with his boxer before entering the ring. We would make the usual stops: coffees, brownies, bottles of Jack Daniels. Several blocks before arriving at the designated club, I would let out a sigh. No, I don’t want to go. I’m too tired. I’m sick of the men and I’m even sick of the girls.
He teases me, “Do you want to go home?”
“No,” I reply.
Next came Aramis, the crazy-eyed driver from Uruguay who charged less than Aman, but with him there would always be the risk of getting into some sort of collision, like the time we hydroplaned across three lanes on the Westside Highway, hit a marker on the side of the road, and flipped his Suburban. But the price was right and I was determined to keep expenses low, even at the risk of dying next to a man whose conversational skills consisted of “Hi, Nico.”
The structure I’d created for myself was satisfying for the most part because I immediately saw the results of my hard labor. Here I was, an unskilled worker, earning double what my friends in “straight” jobs were making.
I loved the music, dancing on stage, and the instant connections I made with fellow dancers—and at times, even with customers. For eight hours on nights I danced, I was taking a break from my own complex and contradictory life. In reality I rarely dreaded going to work, unlike with other jobs I had had in the past. Dancing felt emotionally cathartic, empowering, and at times just like another creative extension of myself. I developed my dancing style partially by mimicking other dancers and partly through trial and error. I performed five days a week to a normally adoring public. Sometimes it felt like being a rock star, or what I imagined being a rock star might feel like: discounts on hotels, personal drivers, and makeup."