Mardi Gras was uncharacteristically dismal in 2010. I met a group of curvaceous, saucy strippers at 10 a.m. on Bourbon Street, where the air was thick with pizza and Red Bull vomit, 24-hour margarita shops and hot dog stands. They giggled with swollen pupils from cocaine escapades the night before, their makeup smeared under their eyes. The gaggle of us marched into the margarita shop with the turquoise tile mirror floor and then were ushered up some steps into a private room with a balcony, where we provided topless dances to a Krewe of attorneys for their pre-parade hootenanny. There was a bar with two guys holding towels, drying glasses. Against a wall were several metal folded chairs where dances happened. They reminded me of countless AA meetings where I’d sit with a cold ass watching the clock. For our gig, we all undressed in the room with the catered miniature stale muffaletta sandwiches and steamed jambalaya. The Krewe of tipsy attorneys trickled in, so I climbed on laps and talked about the rain.
That’s where I met Bella. She walked in late from another gig, double dipping the Mardi Gras scene, which is what the smart girls do to stack paper during the festivities: they skate from gig to gig. She was the girl in gold glitter with tall legs solid as telephone poles. Her shiny black hair, now short, dripped to her tailbone. She kicked a strong leg behind her. A real dancer, I thought. Later I’d learn she also stripped at Penthouse and dated a friend of mine. There would be a night with the three of us in bed together, a beautiful black strap-on and my gorgeous tattooed friend between her legs.
Sex workers often live duplicitous lives, filing away family and love in separate neat boxes. I wanted to find an integrated sex worker, but I was hard pressed to find a stripper who’d talk about her kids or be photographed with them for The Rumpus. The fact is, in the South, most girls I work with in New Orleans have one to three kids by the time they’re thirty years old, but few are honest about their jobs. I wanted to find a sex worker who would stand with me in that squirmy intersection where three seas meet: family, romance and sex work.
The Rumpus: Where did you grow up and what was it like? What were some messages you received about sex?
Bella Blue: I grew up in a really small town about 20 minutes outside of New Orleans in Belle Chasse. A large canal and the Mississippi River bind it. Most people who grew up there are still there but I couldn’t wait to get out. I wanted to be in the city. Growing up, sex wasn’t really talked about. I remember my Mom buying me a book that explained the technical things about sex (penis goes in the vagina). I also went to Catholic school for middle school and was taught that you were supposed to wait till you got married to have sex. I walked around until I was fifteen years old thinking that everyone around me waited until they got married to do the do. One of my most vivid memories of my sex Ed class (which was taught during RELIGION class) in middle school was my teacher drawing a cross-section of a man’s body with an erect penis. It was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen and couldn’t quite figure out how or why this was going to work for me one day when I supposedly got married and my future husband came at me with this thing sticking out of his body. I had switched to a public high school rather than sticking with the private school and everyone was definitely having sex but it was so normal that it wasn’t as talked about like it was in Catholic school. I lost my virginity at fifteen. I was drunk and my date was a senior and it was his prom. I don’t really recall a whole lot about it. Him and I are still friends to this day, fifteen years later.
Rumpus: We have in common the loss of our moms. Can you talk about that and your relationship with her? What did she think about your choice to be an exotic performer?
Blue: My Mom died on February 20, 2010, of an aortic aneurism. We got close six months before she died. It was like she woke up one day and decided to stop personalizing my choices. She had been judgmental about my burlesque dancing and nude modeling. My mother was an addict but didn’t acknowledge it. She was emotionally manipulative. The vast majority of my life was spent terrified of what she we do or say to me—to get me to do what she wanted me to do. If I was happy in a situation with a boyfriend, it was hard for her, as if she were jealous. She needed to control me a lot of the time and because of that, we wasted a lot of time fighting. About six months before she died, things between her and I got really good. When I stopped expecting her to be a mom, that’s when she started to be one. Also I think something clicked where she really wanted us to be close and perhaps realized that some of her actions were mostly driving a permanent wedge between us. I was definitely no angel either. I could have done some things differently too. But, the important part is that we managed to work through some of that before she died. She was an excellent grandmother. She was always doting on my two sons. I really feel like they were one of the only things in her life that truly made her happy. She would have done anything for them.
Rumpus: You’re a single Mom with two kids and you are performing a lot of the time. What are some of the challenges you face?
Blue: I have one son who has been diagnosed with Asberger’s Syndrome: a highly functioning type of autism. [When he was] around 2 years old, I noticed that he wasn’t talking as he should be. It was comparable to someone with a hearing impairment. We had his hearing checked and all was normal. His communication skills were lacking and he had a tendency to parrot as opposed to coming up with his own original thoughts. His motor skills were a little off and he had a hard time in school with basic functions like coloring in the lines and using scissors. He was (and still is) sensitive to bright lights and loud noises. He also has some tactile sensitivities as well, such as tags in shirts, rough fabric, stickers, etc. Last year, I had taken the kids to the Texas state fair. There was an option to purchase a bracelet for a set price so the kids could ride the rides as much as they wanted. My youngest refuses to wear anything like this nor does he like stickers, stamps, or tags. These are little things to you and I, but are very disturbing for him. He wanted to ride the rides so bad but the thought of even having to wear that bracelet was so overwhelming for him that he became very upset. We had the option to buy tickets but we aren’t made of money and it would have cost a lot of it to let him have a good time. The frustrating part of this is that it was very difficult getting anyone to help us or understand the situation. They wouldn’t let me wear the bracelet for him. He couldn’t put it on his belt loop. Nothing. He HAD to wear it on his arm. We explained why he didn’t want to wear it. Still no help. Finally, after some help from our friend, the manager gave us some passes so he could ride the rides sans bracelet which was very generous and we were thankful and relieved. That’s just one example…
My oldest is totally opposite from my little guy. He’s into sports, fishing, hunting, etc. He’s a boy in every sense of the word. As he gets older and grows into a young man, it’s been even more of a mission that he not only understands what it is I do and that there is nothing wrong with it, but that it’s necessary in life that he be accepting of all people. In my line of work, my kids are exposed to so many kinds of people. Musicians, drag queens, dancers, and every kind of character in between. I also want him to understand that there’s no shame in being whomever or whatever it is you are. Sex and sexuality is a good thing, not a shameful thing, and that judging others by their choice of career or their sexual orientation is not acceptable. I forget that sometimes I need to explain things to him like what it means to be gay or what a drag queen is. I am so used to it and those things are so prevalent in our society, I forget that he might not know exactly what those things are. I also balance that with just being his mom and playing ball or building Legos with him. As he gets older, I want to make sure he feels comfortable talking to me about anything. Some of the most difficult years of his life are right around the corner and I want to make sure he knows he has a safe place to land always.
Rumpus: Does having kids make you question your decision to do sex work?
Blue: Sometimes I worry about later embarrassing them or them being ashamed that their mom worked in the sex industry. I just hope that they realize later on in life that I do what I do now to make sure they can have what they need and want later in life. Their education and their well-being is my first priority. Making a living this way allows me to do that. It allows me more freedom to be a good mom. I get to bring them to school, pick them up, go on the field trips, go to the school functions, etc. I might not be able to do all those things if I had a “regular” job. It’s not really any different to me than how a single mom who works as a banker must feel. I mean, it’s my career of choice. I personally think it’s really cool to be an adult entertainer, but I’m biased. My kids know what I do for a living. They know I am a burlesque dancer. And when the time is right I won’t hide the stripping from them either. They just can’t really understand that right now.
Rumpus: I like that you don’t keep it a secret from them. I know a lot of sex workers who dance or perform and they hide it from their kids and family members, which I can understand because I think that relationships can be spared by not divulging unnecessary information. Like I don’t reveal certain aspects of my job to my dad over Christmas dinner. Though, he could Google me. I refuse to talk about religion or politics with certain family members because I am more invested in building a good relationship than I am in being right. At the same time, I refuse to hide that I am a sex worker, based on principal. There’s a girl who appeared in Playboy recently who I work with at The Bruiser and her pictures were absolute perfection. They weren’t raunchy but they were nude. I asked her if she had kids and she said no and then said, “I can’t wait to show my kids when I do.” I thought that was a cool attitude to have about the job. At the same time, I think it’s awkward for certain family members. Does your Dad know what you do? Do you tell your family members you are a dancer? If you do, do you feel you have to defend it?
Blue: My family knows that I am a burlesque dancer and that I perform and teach for a living. My older sister knows that I strip and she found out that from one of my blogs. She was very supportive and non judgmental. I have never come out and said out loud “yes ______, I do strip.” But, I think a lot of them assume. Some of my family are my Facebook friends, which has a feed to my blogs and such where I write about my adventures in stripping. So, I know that they know. They don’t judge me to my face and even if they do judge me, it really doesn’t matter to me. I pay my bills and take care of my kids…not them. So, however I choose to do so is my prerogative. We don’t really discuss it. It’s a little bit like a elephant in the room. I don’t go around announcing my champagne room experiences with them but if they asked, I would definitely fill them in on anything they wanted to know. I am not ashamed of it; I just don’t feel I need to shove it in their faces if they aren’t really comfortable with it.
Rumpus: When did you realize you were different sexually than other people? When did you start doing sex work and why?
Blue: I was a pretty promiscuous teenager and into my 20’s. I was smart about it though and slept with people who I didn’t go to school with so I wouldn’t end up being the talk of lunchtime gossip. I had many a rendezvous with older men. Men that now, looking back, I see had no business having sex with me. But we did. I secretly was slutty and I was okay with it even though I knew the rest of the world would not be okay with it. Especially my family. I closed up a lot sexually when I was in my early twenties, due to a tumultuous relationship with my ex-boyfriend and lots of confusion about religion and sex. I had two kids out of wedlock and was having pre-marital sex with their father. His family was very religious and therefore, we were sinners. Deep down, I liked to watch porn. I wanted to do it in different positions. I wanted to be with women. I had a vibrator. But, I could never bring myself to even let him see me in the nude with the lights on. It was all very shameful. I started burlesque dancing almost 5 years ago and stripping three years ago. I started stripping because I just needed to make some cash here and there for tuition. I actually took about nine months off and didn’t do it at for a period because I didn’t really need to at the time. I also didn’t enjoy it then. I enjoy it now. It’s fun for me. I’d rather do fifty lap dances any day than have to work a nine to five job. I’ve recently dug into being more of a “professional” stripper because I’m saving the money to buy the building I’d like to buy next year for my burlesque school. It takes on a whole new life when you’re walking into that club with a goal to reach.
Rumpus: Say more about that: “It takes on a whole new life when you’re walking into that club with a specific goal to reach.” How is it different? What was it like when you were not driven? What skills have you honed in order to reach your goals as a stripper?
Blue: It’s different because of the sheer fact that I have a goal I am trying to accomplish. This is a means to an end. Not a career. It gives me more motivation and the clout I need when it gets hard and I want to quit. Stripping is one of the hardest things I’ve done. Not only physically demanding but mentally. Learning how to handle rejection, learning how to not tie your self-worth into the opinions of strangers as well as the dollar amount that you leave with at the end of the night. I have found that what makes me good at stripping is that I really genuinely try and find something interesting about each person I meet. With that, they can sense my sincerity and they feel that they are really cared for and desired for the time they spend with me. And more often than not, they are. It goes a long way for people. And it makes me feel good to give them that. Getting paid for that doesn’t hurt either.
Rumpus: Do you prefer stripping or dancing burlesque? Why?
Blue: If I had my druthers, I would pick burlesque. It’s certainly more glamorous than stripping, doesn’t have the long hours, and isn’t as physically exhausting. But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy stripping too. In stripping and burlesque, I enjoy that my sexuality is celebrated. I enjoy being sexy and showing it off. I work hard on my body and I get to showcase it and make money doing it. I love pole dancing. I’ve learned a couple of tricks and am getting better as time passes. There are times during stripping where the men are mean. I don’t like that part. It’s not too often but it does happen. They forget that we are people and I guess it gives them a sense of entitlement to be mean to us. I’ve had a customer get a room with me, asked me to fuck him (I said no, of course), be extremely rough with me while I was dancing for him, and then jizzed all over himself at the end. He then asked me if I was really a boy. Amazing, right? My penisless crotch was inches from his face. I think that the roughness and his inquiry about me being a male was really his fantasy. I think he wanted to me be trans. You don’t have to deal with that in burlesque. People paid money for a ticket to your show. They want to see you and know that you are going to properly entertain you. They respect you. And in many cases, wish that they could do it too. You are less objectified in burlesque, if at all.
A great night stripping is one that doesn’t require me to be there till 4 or 5 a.m. and I make lots of money! I’m happy with a $300 or $400 but anything more than that is awesome of course. A great night of performing is when I have no costume malfunctions, when the crowd shows up ready to be entertained and all in all the show flows smoothly. I can’t say that in four years of performing that I have ever walked away from a burlesque show completely disappointed or unfulfilled.
Rumpus: We talk a lot about the challenges of being in a polyamorous relationship, which means that you and your boyfriend have other lovers separately and together, but you are the primary relationship. Tell me how this works and what you are learning so you can share with us how that is possible. How does stripping and performing complicate or benefit that arrangement you have with your boyfriend?
Blue: As far as my relationship, it has made me a better person in deciding to live this lifestyle. Monogamy is hard. Non-monogamy is hard. I am madly in love with my partner and our relationship is based on trust and honesty. I’ve never experienced anything more intimate in my life or in any monogamous relationship I’ve been in. In order to share your partner, you literally have to get over yourself and your hang ups and believe and trust in how your partner says they feel about you regardless of the fact that they are bedding someone else. Sex and other relationships outside of each other don’t change how you feel about one another and in a lot of cases, it brings you closer together. It’s difficult. I won’t lie. I have been through some heart wrenching situations in the last few months but the thought of going back to monogamy is a lot more painful than any temporary discomfort I may feel by our lifestyle choice. Just as my outside relations are separate from my partner and I, so is my work. I share all the details of my stripping, performing, and domme experiences with him but they are not related to our relationship at all. I like it that way. It keeps what we have just for myself and for us. It’s hard to put into words how special it is to me.
Rumpus: Well you just did. Sex workers tend to wear many hats/play lots of roles. Do the lines blur? Does stripping/burlesque work interfere with your personal life and if so, how? Does it add to it?
Blue: One new thing is that I’ve been sober since December. I think if I had decided to take on anymore than the burlesque while I was still drinking and using, that it would be a different story for me than it is today. I keep work as work, and personal as personal. The lines don’t really cross for me. I am very protective of certain aspects of my personal life because of the sheer fact that I share so much of myself with others as a performer and as an online persona (which I do happily and willingly) but I’m still human and I need things that are not shared with everyone that comes to a show, to the club, or “friends” me on Facebook. I think the thing I struggle with the most from time to time is my self-image and the acceptance of getting older and still doing this kind of work. I have a bigger goal in mind and I know that these methods of making money to meet that goal aren’t going to last forever. Some days I get down on myself. I feel like I should have “gotten my shit together” by now. But, who the hell set the standard of what that means? Society maybe. But, I don’t fit in with any of those standards by any means so no reason to start now. Everything I do adds to my life in some way. I have met some amazing people. I have worked hard for my name and recognition in this city. In a lot of ways, I help people. Whether they need some attention, some entertainment, or both. I can deal with that. It makes me feel good.
Rumpus: How do you want your future to look?
Blue: I want to own my building and have the New Orleans School of Burlesque fully operational. My biggest fear is growing old alone. I would really love to share a life and a home with someone one day. I want my kids to be happy no matter what it may be that makes them so. I want the next generation of burlesque dancers to hopefully be influenced by all the work I have done over the years just as I am influenced by the burlesque legends. If I could paint it out, that’s what I would paint it to be—in glitter paint.
First photo by Jian Bastille.