Pleasure, power, instinct, and desire—the Pro/creative series considers visual culture via the bodies that make it. In this issue, Fiona Duncan gives us “strippers’ lessons.”
Charles Manson apparently had a hand command—I picture it a trigger—the sight of which would spur his female followers to “strip and suck.” He’d make it in the company of outlaw bikers and other men he sought to pander to or peacock before; the girls would get naked and go down on them. One of these men was Terry Melcher, a record producer (he put out The Byrds’ early albums and several Beach Boys singles) and Hollywood insider, son of Doris Day. Manson wanted to be a rock star, of course. To be looked up to. High, lit, worshiped. Rock stars were godly in ‘60s Cali, and Charlie was only 5’2”. He’d already convinced his cult, the Manson Family, that music stardom was his fate. He also convinced Melcher to audition him before them. This was before the murders that would make the Family famous, when they were living an underground fantasy on a plot in Los Angeles County called Spahn Ranch, once a Western movie set. The audition was scheduled with enough forewarning for Charlie to direct a show. He had his core girls choreograph an erotic striptease, a backup song and dance barely more developed than the moves he’d trained them to make from a single hand signal.
At Sapphire, Sarah would say that strip clubs would be great were it not for the male clientele. Her erotic magazine, Adult, which I still work for, hosted two events at the midtown Manhattan “Gentleman’s Club” circa 2013. Sapphire is one of those clubs with an adjacent steakhouse where blockheads gorge and uniformic femmes, never too tattooed, thick, dark, old or vocal, circulate, loosening ties and welcoming drink offers, juicing the feeders for their immanent foray to the other side; where there are poles, pink lights and girls, girls, girls disrobing on stages, tables and laps, whispering big spenders into backrooms, dollar bills stuffed between neon string and belly rings; plastic platforms, plastic tits, laser beams, and bottle service. Pamela Anderson helped with the press for the place. She was photographed at the opening, sitting between two actors from The Sopranos, Vincent Pastore and Steve Schirripa. They played Tony Soprano’s underlings, the thickest of the goons who hung around that fiction’s go-go bar, the Bada Bing!
Girls, girls, girls disrobing on stages, tables and laps, dollar bills, plastic platforms, plastic tits, laser beams, and bottle service.
Jumbo’s Clown Room isn’t what it used to be. When Bobby took me there in 2011, the Hollywood Blvd. bikini bar was Lynch-like proper: red walls and checkerboard floors, bored-faced freaks reflected in wall-to-ceiling mirrors. The set hasn’t changed a tile. What has changed is the hype, the clientele. Whiteness is more than skin tone—it’s a culture, one that asks if their buddy can buy you ladies a round, or what you do for a living, or if you come here often. I hate to be mean, so I tried to stay quiet. I faced the stage. That Friday evening, just a few weeks back, the dancers all modeled a similar look: frames cut for pale Insta-fame—you know, no fleshly excess—long hair, American Apparel or Agent Provocateur knock-off lingerie. The look is like Kate Moss in the Sofia Coppola-directed White Stripes video for “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.” The women of Jumbo’s are stronger on the pole than Moss, though. They at least can kick and flip. The crowd goes wild when they go upside-down, especially when they hold their heeled feet on the mirrored ceiling and let go, wingspan akimbo. Philip-Lorca DiCorcia photographed a blonde in fishnets doing just this at Jumbo’s as part of his 2005 stripper portrait series “Lucky Thirteen.” Goddess squatting, his subject looks like a spider; the mirrors, her web.
Bobby bought me my first lap dance. Toronto West, November 2015. Pick your favorite, he said. It was my goodbye party before moving to LA. The place was called Paradise. She called herself Coco. In one of the five clapboard booths, Coco showed me her pussy. I wasn’t expecting this. She was petite like a gymnast, like FKA Twigs, whom she resembled from hair to toe. I was so incredibly grateful. Paradise is a dive, a far cry from Exotica, the strip club in Atom Egoyan’s Toronto-set film of the same name. In that club, the girl who played Jenny, the moody writer on The L Word, unfurls amidst seashells like Venus, a goddess. At Paradise, you can smell the fries. I was moving to Los Angeles to pursue a boy and a book. He kept calling: “Baby I need you.” Our romance dissipated shortly after I arrived. Still, it’s one of the greatest I’ve known. Did you know you can cum from just kissing? I’d read about this in Barbara Carrellas’s book Urban Tantra. She writes about working as a stripper on Wall Street. One day, a cowboy came in. She danced for him from a distance and they both came—from eye contact, energy exchange. She calls them “energy orgasms.” You can surge from a kiss, a gaze, thrusting air.
I wonder, was it a wave, a flick, a curl of pale fingers? How exactly did Manson enact his power? Karina Longworth, in her Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, claims that Manson targeted women with abusive fathers. Insecure girls. What girl isn’t insecure, I wonder? If you grew up as I did, aware of self-erected and socially-confirmed dickhead Godheads like Charles Manson, Tony Soprano and Julian Schnabel (and Roman Polanski, Silvio Berlusconi, Harvey Weinstein, Terry Richardson, Mark Zuckerberg, et al.), and saw in this some real evil, and also a need for it, desiring it, to feel safe from within—by succumbing to—their mighty, wanting delusions? Even more fucked up is how we want to fuck them. That’s the turn-on of The Rolling Stones song “Under My Thumb.” Is it Stockholm Syndrome or some twist of nature? Why do I get wet for men who clearly resent—or, sexier still, don’t seem to recognize—that women exist beyond them?
The Matthew McConaughey character has a touch of evil. It’s in the eyes, burning yang. In the first Magic Mike movie (based on Channing Tatum’s real-life “I was a male stripper” story), McConaughey’s “Dallas,” the stripper troupe leader, trains “the Kid,” a 19-year-old yahoo, to undress and seduce. They’re in a gym. Dallas wears a yellow belly top. The Kid is topless, a cross tattooed across one pec. Dallas has the Kid swirl his hips in a mirror. Fuck it, he says. Fuck that mirror like you mean it!
That’s how many strippers seem to look: out at us, but really at themselves. Our gaze is their reflection. And then there are mirrors. Strip clubs are rarely without mirrors. Mirrors mean more flesh, more cash. More ways to look. The mirror in Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure, a 2014 life-sized humanoid animatronic sculpture, allows her, this underworldly Barbie, to look at you, the viewer. She’s got evil eyes, manic brown like Charlie Manson’s, and tiny, pointed teeth; pink lips, white flesh, a green witch mask and a Jessica Rabbit bust. She reminds me of a succubus, a female demon lored to be responsible for wet dreams. My roommate Dean says the scariest part of Jordan’s sculpture is the pole. The dancer (she moves to Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” among other songs) is affixed to a wall-mounted mirror by a pole impaling or extending from her solar plexus, from the heart-center spot Carrellas says the cowboy helped her cum through. The pole, I gather, is mechanically necessary. It’s also, though, aesthetically on—of same gloss and width as a stripper pole, but horizontal, like a dick, or a stake, jutting or cutting just two chakras up. Bound to the mirror by it, she’s bound to face herself.
Femininity as a state of hypervisible unknowability, natural performativity, independent subservience.
A woman curator is said to have said that Female Figure represents, uncannily, what it feels like, for her, to be a woman in the world. I’ve felt this before of many representations of sex workers, especially strippers. Femininity as a state of hypervisible unknowability, natural performativity, independent subservience (or subservient independence); a fearsome draw, set-up, onstage, body wanted and shamed, bipolar magnetism, superficial schisms, depth, the void, avoided, and so there. Something of this mystery, I suspect, is what I seek to uncover in the club. I love watching women strip. I become bare, too, in there, my mind less cluttered with referents and judgments. It’s easy to make analogies and aesthetic semblances, to layer apparent meaning—like saying Wolfson’s Female Figure looks like a Jeff Koons sculpture from 1991 starring Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, a Hungarian-Italian porn star and politician, and the artist’s then lover. Titled Dirty – Jeff On Top, he is just that, naked and thrusting in missionary. She’s laid below him on a rock bed, in black thigh-highs and a bustier of the same mold as Wolfson’s woman. Like the Female Figure, Jeff and Ilona are dirty. It’s as if they’ve all slid through the same garbage shoot or chimney, sooty. The bustier is like that of the first ever Barbie, ca. 1959. Or like Madonna in Gaultier. Rihanna looks like that era Madonna in the music video for “Pour It Up.” Strippers back her there, as she reigns on a throne, mime licking dollar bills. RiRi gets cash in the face again in her “Needed Me” video, after she shoots a man in a strip club side room, bills flying from his hands. Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch, she sings. Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?
A note on a mood board in a photograph of one of Marlene Dumas’ studios: “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” Dumas paints exotic dancers in bruising colors. She obscures their faces under hair or blur. I came across that note in a monograph at Amalia Ulman’s apartment. Amalia does pole. She has one mounted in her home. I wrote this piece sitting in front of one she erected at mine. I could go on, drawing constellations out of chaos. Chaos is controlled in the club. Like church, I frequent places like Paradise, Jumbo’s and Sapphire for the reassurance of expectations met. Social codes provide order. Salvation. This is what Charlie Manson promised his followers. It’s the allure of the dictator. It’s why—I fear—I write. To have my fears cradled and voids filled; mind spellbound, infinite fixed. Control like that is illusive. And that is why my favorite act of the show is the end, when the music wanes and the women crouch to collect their cast-off clothing and their pay and walk off the stage.
All images: Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. Tennille, 2001; Hannah, 2004; Juliet Ms. Muse, 2004; Asia, 2004; Sin (II), 2001