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A Life as a live! nude! girl!
Updated: 2004-06-03 10:10

"Look, you can't kiss your kids with the same mouth that comes in here and takes a dollar," Trixie says. "You put on your war paint, you put on your attitude." [nytimes]

Strippers work three shifts at U.S strip bars: the 5, the 8 and the 10 p.m.

New girls tend to work the 5, which means they sometimes sit around an empty club for hours, playing video games, buying themselves $11 whiskeys or $8 rum and Cokes, clicking up to the stage in high heels for a two-song show and getting naked for nobody but the D.J., a few other lonely strippers and their own reflections on the mirrored walls.

The best shift is the 8. The club might be filling up by then, promising dancers the most cash for the least time spent crawling across the stage, grabbing bills slipped into cleavage and G-strings, swinging around a pole or writhing in someone's lap for $40 a dance in a dark room behind the bar.

The stripper, Trixie performs druing a show. [nytimes]
Trixie works the 8. It's a seniority thing, and Trixie, a dancer at the Palomino for two years now, is the queen of her house, as she likes to say. That means, for one thing, that she is in good standing with the club's owner, a former cop from California known to the dancers as Mr. H. That kind of protection is no small thing in the potentially treacherous Las Vegas stripping world. It also means that so far Trixie has figured out how to survive, even thrive, as a stripper here.

Trixie is her stage name. To customers who demand to know her real name before they lay down a tip, she's Jennifer. But her real name is Stephanie — Stephanie Vowell, 32, a small-town Midwesterner, a self-described "big fake blonde" who stands 6-foot-3 in her 7 1/2-inch heels with a fake blond ponytail, fake eyelashes, fake green eyes, a fake tan and fake breasts.

Being big and fake and loud is Trixie's way of standing out in Las Vegas, where it seems a million other girls do what she does.

"If you're going to work in Vegas, you have to have something that will set you apart from everyone else," she said one night at the Palomino. She fidgeted with the strap on her white heels, describing a painful condition she calls "stripper foot." "These are not happy shoes at all," she said. "But they do wonders for you. I like to be able to stand up and look a man in the eye when I'm talking business. In these shoes, they see me above everybody else."

Dancers like Trixie, who grew up in a small cornfield of a town with no stoplights in Illinois and moved here from Naples, Fla., three years ago, are flocking to Las Vegas from all corners of the country. In the last 10 years, dozens of new clubs have opened here, and experienced or first-time strippers can usually get a job instantly at one of the 40 clubs in town, although many dancers say the competition is getting fiercer.

Trixie had been dancing for a year in Tampa, Fla., when Tampa cracked down on its clubs, introducing a "six foot rule," which basically meant no touching the customers and consequently a lot less money for the strippers. She decided, she said, "If you're going to be a stripper, you might as well pack up and go to Vegas."

She says stripping can be a springboard to something better or an abyss of drugs, alcohol, abuse and prostitution. Sometimes stripping is just a living, the rent. And plenty of dancers say they love what they do, if not for the money then for the attention, or the power they wield over men "stupid enough to pay to see you naked," as one Palomino dancer put it.

But most dancers at the Palomino, Trixie included, say they aspire to be something else - an actress, a model, a good mother, a child psychologist, a veterinarian, a teacher, a rap singer, a lawyer. They may not have real plans yet, but they all have hopes.

The big success story of the Palomino bar this spring was Maggie, a relatively new dancer from South Carolina. She was a veterinary technician who moonlighted at the club for only a few months - making up to $2,000 to $3,000 a week - before she was promoted to manager at her veterinary clinic. A lot of the other dancers said Maggie, the other house dominatrix who was known for whacking out-of-line customers with a riding crop, got really lucky.

The Philosopher Stripper

Ms. Vowell is, by her own estimation, near the end of her stripping career. Her knees hurt. She has had three breast implant surgeries; one went so badly she was out of work for nine months, and the last one left her with a large dent in her left breast. Paying for the surgery was the reason she got into the business in the first place; she felt she was out of proportion with an ample rear end and B-cup breasts.

"When I first came here, it was good for me," Ms. Vowell said one day at her apartment, where she was smoking cigarettes and applying tanning lotion. "You get into that mind-set to be able to be on the same page and to help people have a good time. But I miss the beach. Here, you feel like you live in a bathtub, because of the mountains all around you. I love the ocean, I'm on the end of the world, and it's like therapy. I've noticed the people who are born and raised here are really twisted, a strange breed. Can you imagine growing up in Sin City?"

She was an only child. Her mother was pregnant with her at 16. She was a tomboy growing up, perhaps because her father wanted her to be a boy, even long after she was born.

"I was raised as a boy," she said. "I got a double-barreled shotgun for my first birthday and a motorcycle for my fifth."

She worked in property management, fitness training and restaurants in Florida, where she had attended a small Methodist college. She moved here with a boyfriend, then broke it off. Her new boyfriend wants to go to Hollywood to become an actor. He is 24 and works at a male revue on the Strip. They share the apartment on the west side of town. She calls him Daddy and says she will go to California when he does.

Trixie operates with a kind of stripper survival guide, an unwritten manual for getting out of the business with her body, self-esteem and dignity intact, and with enough money to make it all worthwhile. She is generous about sharing with other dancers what she knows of the art of stripping and the cold science of milking the customers for everything they've got.

"It's just like predators, just like in the rest of human nature. You can approach it one of two ways: You can hate the guys, I mean really hate them. Or you can look at it like a big study on human nature."

"You train them," she added. "You condition them like Pavlov's dogs." That includes warning them to keep their hands on the couch during a lap dance (or get a stripper heel in the forehead) and making them believe she is the prom queen who ignored them in high school.

She sizes up a customer in less than a minute. "No. 1, I'm trying to determine what I'm dealing with," she said. "No. 2, how much time it's going to take me to deal with that person. And No. 3, how much money I'm going to get out of that person. Maximum money for minimum investment."

Trixie is not just a stage name, it's a persona that safeguards Ms. Vowell's psyche and gets her better tips. Trixie is a dumb blonde with no college education. She is "extra, extra silly friendly," greeting customers with a bubbly "Good morning!" no matter what time of night it is. "Are we having fun yet?"

"Trixie is an entertainer, a caretaker," she said. "You don't ever want to meet Stephanie."

Stephanie would not wiggle naked in front of strangers for money. Stephanie is boring. Lost at the moment. Grumpy.

At home, she watches "The Simpsons" and "That 70's Show" and reads best sellers. She is a homebody. Stephanie is so plain that "I wouldn't want a lap dance with her," Trixie said. Stephanie can fix cars better than any man she knows. Stephanie has other plans. She will write a book about stripping and use her real name.

One night in the locker room, when the dancers were talking about their stage personalities, Trixie turned to Kat, a mother from Salt Lake City who commutes to the Palomino on weekends.

"Look, you can't kiss your kids with the same mouth that comes in here and takes a dollar," Trixie said. "That's why you put on your makeup, you put on your war paint, you put on your attitude."

The Palomino is a two-story building in a desolate part of North Las Vegas with a red-and-white sign that says "Palomino Club: The Best in Burlesque." It is one of the oldest strip clubs around, opened in 1969, and the only one that features totally nude dancers and also serves alcohol. It is smaller than many strip clubs, with 50 to 100 dancers working in a given week and 20 or so there on the busiest nights. Many of the dancers have worked at clubs with 200 women on the floor each night, where a dancer can feel like a piece of meat in a cafeteria. They describe the Palomino as a comforting place to work, a kind of family of dreamers and orphans.

In the Locker Room, Ladies Only

Trixie shares her shoes with other dancers and sometimes lends slinky outfits. She gives out advice in the locker room, over menthol cigarettes, Doritos or McDonald's and - if she is in the mood - a drink the dancers call the Incredible Hulk, Hennessy cognac mixed with a blue liqueur called Hpnotiq. She also has Vitamin C tablets, to prevent or treat bruises from pole tricks. "I got tired of looking like my boyfriend beat me," she said.

They all keep baby wipes in their lockers, but if they run out, she has extra. "Anyone need decontaminating?" Trixie shouted one night, after another stripper emerged from a lap dance with a particularly foul-smelling customer. "Detox!" Trixie is also the house supplier of "anti-lick," spray-on deodorant that lets customers find out the hard way that tongues are not welcome on skin.

The locker room is a safe bubble inside the club. Men are not allowed, although Mr. H. sometimes drifts in, and there are old vinyl couches and showers. Trixie sometimes holds what she calls "booty shaking classes" there, teaching new dancers how to isolate and wiggle key muscle groups. It is her way, she said, of repaying her debt to the dancer in Tampa who taught her pole tricks. She will not, under any circumstances, take sides in a "stripper fight," whether it is about stealing lap dances or other violations of stripper etiquette, or the temptations of prostitution, or God and the Devil.

Several strippers got into it over the prostitution question one night in the locker room. That was after two dancers had been fired in three weeks. One, the house dominatrix, had told an Asian dancer with imperfect English to "use a dictionary," and they had had it out. The dominatrix was fired.

When the prostitution question came up, everyone had a story. Several Las Vegas clubs have been under scrutiny recently for illegal activity; prostitution is legal in much of Nevada, but not here in Clark County.

"I say keep the whores in the whorehouse and the strippers in the stripper house," said one dancer, a seven-year veteran whose stage name is Dolce. "You got to tell people that at the Palomino, there is no sex in the Champagne room."

It was 1 a.m., and they were all getting tipsy except Trixie, who had decided not to drink for a few days. One dancer said she had once taken $5,000 to accompany a customer to Hawaii and have sex with him.

" A lot of girls say, 'I would never do this, I would never do that,' " she said. "But please, girl, go put it in their face. Everybody has sold a piece of ass."

Dolce said no. "I've taken their money, gone out with them, met them somewhere, taken cabs and met them at a casino or wherever they are. But I am not selling it."

As the dancers argued, the D.J. announced, "Dolce, Stage 1! Tamara, Stage 2!"

"This is one of the stickiest subjects in all of stripping," Dolce said.

"I have God in my life, so it goes beyond that," the dancer arguing with Dolce said.

"God can't save you from the Devil," Dolce said. "Can I get a witness, Trixie?"

Another stripper walked in, flustered. "I'm hyper tonight," she said. "No one wants me."

Trixie was silent, trying to stay out of the argument. But finally she said: "I don't believe in God. Don't ask me."

At that point, Dolce and Tamara were up on stage. Trixie had not made much money that night, maybe a few hundred dollars. She had an hour to go, but she was tired, she said, and starting to burn out. April is the worst month for stripping, she said. It's tax time; no one wants to spend. And all those spring bachelor parties take a lot of work on one guy, for a small stack of bills.

A few nights later, she was sipping Champagne at a hotel bar, debating whether to work that night or take care of her boyfriend, who had just had his wisdom teeth out. She was on the schedule, but Mr. H would let her switch if she wanted to.

"I told myself I would do five years when I got in the business," she said. "The catchphrase is: get in, take advantage of what you have while you have it, maximize your earning potential, make a ton of money, keep your head clear of drugs and alcohol, put all your money away, and get the hell out of Dodge when the ride's over."

(courtesy of New York Times)

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