New Orleans has a textured and macabre history when it comes to the sex industry, particularly regarding house moms–that hybrid of manager, referee and babysitter. One story involves a double murder-suicide, love triangle between two house moms who worked at Scarlet’s in July of 2005. Patricia Tipton and Julie Carreras ended an eight-year relationship and had words with their lover, stripper Lark Bennett, and it ended in their deaths by gunshot wounds fired during the fight in Carreras’ home.
But, house moms are not out for blood. Like strippers, they survive on tips that they accumulate from dancers for the items and care they provide the girls backstage. House moms are hired by strip clubs to enforce the club’s rules about the dress code, schedule and conduct. They’re entrusted with a dancer’s cash, secrets and belongings. The house mom at Penthouse Club on Bourbon Street, Marty Morgan, has the ability to ensure a dancer’s place on the schedule or promptly get her removed from it. She’s the seated goddess Demeter, with her crock pot cheese dip and homemade watermelon soup. Her desk is an encyclopedia of all things stripper-related and her meatloaf is beyond amazing. She’s the eyes and eyelash glue behind the scenes, and she cares deeply for the women in her midst.
After Katrina, people not only lost their homes, pets and families, but their careers as well. Marty Morgan is an ex-Olympic athlete and personal trainer who owned a gym that was destroyed by the storm. After Katrina, she started over.
I spoke with Marty in her apartment in Algier’s Point, a historic enclave perched on the west bank of the Mississippi River, which is linked to the city by a ferry line. It’s been the temporary home of Lucinda Williams and William Burroughs and is known for its immaculately maintained 150 year-old houses and quaint festivals. It’s also the place where eleven black people were shot three days after Katrina by a self-appointed, all white militia. They could have helped the refugees with food and water, since Algier’s Point was dry and unscathed because its levees held. Instead, they stockpiled shotguns and blocked roads with lumber for the ultimate neighborhood watch.
I interviewed Marty while she gave me a soothing footbath in ionized salt. Attached to the plastic tubs were wristbands that transmitted the vibes necessary to detox my entire body through my feet. We watched the water turn rust red, as if a brick had dissolved in hot water.
The Rumpus: Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Marty Morgan: I grew up in Farmington, New Mexico. I’m an identical twin out of five kids. I was close with my parents, but they both passed away.
Dad was a salesman and disc jockey and outgoing businessman. I had an at-home Mom who worked for the city and won an award for not missing one day of work in forty years. She died of lymphoma cancer at 5:00pm, the end of her workday.
I came to Baton Rouge to work for Dale Carnegie Company of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I took the course where you learn about your fears. Dying is the biggest fear, talking in public is the second biggest. The course was about conquering those fears. I worked for that guy for five years. I also played racquetball, where I met my husband, and we married a year later. This was 1982. We lived in Lafayette. Mal had three kids from a previous marriage; his oldest was eight. It was an insta-family and we had a honeymoon baby. My oldest daughter, Malin, was born in November of 1983.
Rumpus: What jobs have you had in the past; and how did you end up becoming a house mom in a strip club on Bourbon Street?
Morgan: I started working for the largest fitness company in Louisiana Elmwood fitness as a personal trainer and consultant. I loved working with people. I loved being athletic and training people to be more fit. I swam competitively in high school and college, and made it to the 1972 Olympics in the backstroke and breaststroke. I tried to qualify for diving but missed it by tenths of a second. Being at the trials in Cincinnati was the high point in my life. I opened a private gym with a friend. We had our private clientele on La Barre Road. He owned all the Mardis Gras shops. We had that gym for six years. I would also go to people’s homes to train them privately.
My daughter, Malin, had rented an apartment, and she was doing the traveling and dancing thing when she was seventeen at Penthouse. She was helping support our household expenses. I worried every damn night. She worked and went to school. I called the club looking for her one night and they couldn’t find her. The next day she told me, “They don’t know my real name.” My ex-husband was traveling off-shore. He paid child support and helped get the kids into private school, but she was contributing to the household by dancing at the club. After Katrina, when I finally moved back in August 2007, Malin told me they were looking for a house mom at Penthouse, so I applied.
Rumpus: Tell me about how you left New Orleans when Katrina hit.
Morgan: We were going to New Mexico to a funeral. My father-in-law died on a Wednesday and my father died eight hours later. We buried my father in-law as Katrina was moving through the Gulf. We already had booked flights out of New Orleans, and we didn’t realize the strength of the storm. We ended up taking the last flight out that day, and the flight crew came with us. There were thousands of people at the airport hoping to get out. We were at the funeral home, and we’ve always had storms that were no big deal. To have all my kids with me was a blessing; they were all safe. The kids got texts about how bad the storm was. Windows were broken; but we were out of the flood zone in Algier’s Point. Our three cats survived. I worked for Intel and did a computer job while in New Mexico; and after the storm they interviewed us on TV and we felt like celebrities. Two years after Katrina, I came back to New Orleans. Before that, I would fly back on weekends and rebuild our house. That included driving a U-haul with three or four refrigerators and counter tops, things that you couldn’t get at Home Depot; so I redid the house and flew back to New Mexico to work my four days at Intel.
Rumpus: What does the house mom job entail, and how do you feel about the sex industry?
Morgan: Mostly, it’s about financial and emotional counseling and telling dancers to “Get rid of that boyfriend.” I have to maintain a clean area in the locker room and kitchen. I supply tampons, hairspray, deodorant, perfume, eyelashes, makeup, sewing kit, phone chargers, Q-tips, cigarettes, gum, mints, bobby pins, mouth wash, rubber bands, baby wipes, soda, water, scissors, brushes, curling irons, aspirin, Bepto Bismal, Gas-Ex, Midol and anything else you can imagine. I count their money. Actually, I’m the only house mom the girls allow to count their money. I check the girls in, meaning write their names on the schedule, supply lockers and listen to their problems. One girl wanted to talk for two hours because she had to have an operation on her ovaries. I’m behind the scenes, so whatever goes on out on the floor I’m away from it. My goal is to make sure there’s a happy place for the girls working here. I think the job of stripping is hard, and shouldering rejection erodes their self-esteem. If I can help them improve their self-esteem, I try. I make sure they always have a healthy meal available to them. I think of these girls as my daughters; and they do the toughest job in the world, because it’s a constant bashing of self-esteem. But what they don’t understand is those people rejecting them don’t matter.
Rumpus: What is the most disconcerting thing you’ve witnessed while working on Bourbon Street as house mom?
Morgan: Recently, one girl said, “You’ve got to help me, I’ve got to get out of this situation.” She had a pimp who was beating her. She left to get her luggage and shoes out of her car and her pimp kidnapped her, beat her, and took her to Baton Rouge. The next day, she came back and asked for help again.
One of the cocktail waitresses called a cop friend, and another girl drove in from two hours away to pick her up. The barback gave her money for airfare to go home. The dancers all surrounded her. They would do whatever was needed to get her away from that guy. They snuck her out of NOLA and on a flight to Kentucky. It was disturbing, but all of the girls and the barback helped her become the thing she wanted to be. That girl is now a Marine.
Rumpus: I’ve never had a pimp. Why do dancers have pimps? It’s something I’ve never understood. The clubs have their own security. Please explain.
Morgan: Pimps are in and out all the time and they’re dumb parasites. It’s a fear factor. The pimp befriends a vulnerable dancer like a boyfriend. First he becomes her best friend in the world. He manipulates the girl to give him her money for security. The pimps drive nice cars. If he does a boob job for her in Miami, he charges her 100% interest. The girls that have pimps act like it’s a sorority, and amongst the girls and their pimps they keep secrets. When the boyfriend routine wears off, they threaten to take away all of the things the pimp bought with her money. These girls act scared, like they are always looking over their shoulder. Probably, the attraction to a pimp stems from loneliness. I think it’s a daddy thing and a bad boy attraction thing. I know girls who have gotten away safely. Two of them are still back in the club working without pimps now.
Rumpus: How has the recession affected you and your ability to support yourself as a house mom? Do you think stripping is a trap? How can a stripper transition out of dancing and earn a normal living again? How will you?
Morgan: We are a tourist town and there’s a lot of traffic, so we weren’t hit as bad as other cities; but there’s more growth for New Orleans to do.
Before the recession, the girls would make an exorbitant amount of money. The way they spent money was big time. I’ve noticed a huge change as far as what the clientele expects for their money and how clients are reluctant to part with their cash. There’s desperation among the girls. They have to make rent instead of wanting to dance. It takes the fun out of dancing for them. I remember one dancer making 2000 bucks on her first night, and she would be so angry and mean when she didn’t make anything close to that amount. Their lives will never be normal regarding money and earning again, and I want to help them with that. I think stripping is a trap because you’ll never make that kind of fast money. It’s so hard to get away from.
There are girls that want to stop because they found Mr. Perfect. They’re back six months later. If they would invest their money and get some kind of cushion, they could buy a rental property and then step into something different that’s lucrative. One problem is, even on a bad night, they’re making more than most people make in a week, so it’s hard to completely leave the job.
I’m laughing at your last question because I’m as bad as a stripper. Why would I do something else, when I can make more cash in three days than others make in a 40-hour week? My plan is to transition into managing my rental properties and running a bed and breakfast for strippers so they have a place to stay and work.
Rumpus: Do you suffer the same stigma as the adult performers because of your association with strippers?
Morgan: People look at me strangely if I tell them what I do. I usually don’t tell them. I tell them I’m a director of entertainment, or I own a candy store. I like my job and I’ll do it indefinitely. I always associate with strippers in and out of the club, so that’s an eyebrow raiser but I don’t care. My bed and breakfast is designed for dancers to stay and rent while they’re working here. I’m running a bed and breakfast for women who dance as strippers and anyone can see that. I don’t hide that.
Rumpus: How have you helped the girls improve their relationship to money and plan for the future?
Morgan: I talk to girls about investing their money, and I concocted a plan: to show them by example that it can be done. Since January 5th I started collecting five-dollar bills. The theory is that dancers can have $40K a year just in fives if they hold onto them. Now my stack is up to seven thousand and I’m just a house Mom. I make a fraction of the money they make. I tell them they can do it too.
Rumpus: It’s now mid-November. How much have you saved in 5’s?
Morgan: By November I had $9,300 so I bought a 2006 car at a garage sale with 15,000 miles. It’s been ten years since I’ve bought a car. I will have over 10K by the year’s end, entirely in five-dollar bills from tips.
Rumpus: How do you feel about both of your daughters being strippers? Do you hope they will do something different with their lives? Do you want them to get out of the business? Why or why not?
Morgan: It used to terrify me when she started dancing because of the stigma you mentioned. After I learned what goes on in the club, I worried a lot less. I would like to see both of my girls save their money and invest it so they don’t buy shoes with the cash. I want them to save and be smart with it. I would like to see them get out of the business before it makes them tired or worn out and before they hate it. One of my daughters is pursuing her pilot’s license. The other one is in college doing her elementary education to be a teacher. I would talk her out of that before I’d talk her out of stripping, because the education system in New Orleans is awful.
Rumpus: What’s hard about your job? What’s great about it? Will you do next?
Morgan: The hours are hard. I work from 5p.m.-7a.m. or 9 a.m. so it is long hours. It’s a hard job. Lately, the girls are more frustrated. You can see it; they have flare-ups and say things they would never say before, because the money is harder. Out of 30 girls, three will be drunk and out of control, so I have to deal with them. I tell them when they’re losing their pretty, which is code for “Stop drinking, or you’re going home.”
The hard part is I don’t know what to say. I encourage them to try to think about other lifestyles, and I suggest going back to school. One stripper already started an assistant company for businessmen from out of town. She rents cars for them and arranges all of their appointments and dinners. The nice thing about this job is I can continue construction four days a week because I only work three nights a week. It’s a good cash flow. My fee that the girls are charged is ten dollars per head. What I’ll do next is just run my own stripper orphanage.
Rumpus: Will you adopt me?
Morgan: Didn’t I already?
Photos by Romy Suskin.
The Rumpus Sex Blog.
More from Antonia Crane’s Recessions Sex Workers series.