Dancers always want to quit but rarely do. The cliché is that sex workers are stuck. But, it’s more complex than that. Dancers quit for years but always come back because leaving the sex industry is difficult. The lifestyle and the money are some obvious reasons, but there is something else at play. Dancers are efficient and opportunistic. They are non-committal and capricious. Most importantly, they untangle the messy knot that is desire, sex and money and get richer doing it. Like cigarettes and junk food, Laura Beth wanted to quit dancing. One of her customers gave her twelve thousand dollars to quit. She didn’t.
The night I met Laura Beth, we were working the late shift at “Papa Joe’s,” a bikini bar in Pasadena posing as an Italian restaurant. “Papa Joe,” owns the club. He’s a chubby, bald guy in his fifties, who smokes cigars and extracts money from our tips. He raised our stage fee again from $20 per shift to $25. We were all upset because it’s tougher than ever to get guys to buy lap dances. It’s a recession and the club is slow. The porn industry is slow. Recession dancers are making a fraction of the cash they were accustomed to even three years ago.
Laura Beth danced on the tiny raised stage to “White Light/White Heat” by The Velvet Underground. Afterwards, she sat on a soft black leather couch with her regular, “Lawrence,” an eighty-year old alcoholic. Her knee brushed against his pant leg as she sipped red wine from a glass. She looks like a French film star with a delicate pale neck and long eyelashes. Laura is striking. She has long ballet legs and even teeth. She’s freckle-faced and milky skinned. She speaks conversational French. She wears a mini black lacy dress and thigh-high stockings. Her nipples can be seen through the lace dress. It’s her signature look. – Antonia Crane
Rumpus: Why did you start stripping?
Laura Beth: I always wanted to dance, ever since Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video. I grew up unattractive, but I felt really sexual. I liked the idea of men wanting me. It took me awhile to walk into a strip club, but when I finally had enough courage it was liberating. I felt like I was a part of a secret society. At first, I remember feeling like I had an edge over people with regular jobs. In 1998, dancing was still taboo. Today, every girl is either a stripper or a porn star. Back then you really took some shit for being one. I liked being separate from everyone else. I liked the attention. I always had horrible self-esteem and I never appreciated my body until I worked in a topless club. I also realized from observing other women that there wasn’t one kind of “beautiful”.
Rumpus: When did you start stripping?
Beth: I started dancing on Mother’s Day 1998 at a topless club in Inkster, Michigan called “Henry the VIII.” There was alcohol and touching allowed in the club, unlike California clubs that are so conservative. I had been a waitress and I heard they needed girls at “Henry the VIII” so I auditioned. The first night, this huge guy lifted me up and tried to dry hump me from behind. I didn’t learn how to hustle until later, in New Orleans where I learned how to be more aggressive and set boundaries with customers.
Rumpus: Why did you move to New Orleans?
Beth: I love traveling and will go anywhere, anytime. I moved to Greece for six months on a whim. I met a guy in Michigan and he talked about moving to New Orleans. I had heard about the dancers making money there, but I got pregnant. Two months after I had the abortion I got in my Chevy van and moved to New Orleans. I felt like I really belonged there. It was a city full of dancer-freaks. I met so many great women doing cool shit and they were all strippers. These girls were my tribe of pirates! They traveled all over the world and were writers, scientists and surfers who owned land in Mexico. Cool chicks. Going to “Tempations,” “Scores,” or “Visions” was always fun because I was surrounded by these women. I had finally found my people.
Rumpus: What do you like about dancing?
Beth: I love the freedom, the lifestyle and the ability to work my own hours. I love the women; their stories and watching them perform. As for the customers, many of them are interesting. Even though you have to pay to work. I feel like it’s comparable to renting a booth in a hair salon. I feel self-employed. There are certain rules and such, but if don’t like the way someone runs a club, I don’t have to work there. Most of all, I like being on stage. I have always enjoyed performing and dressing up. I get off by turning people on.
Rumpus: What do you hate about it?
Beth: I hate rude people. Sometimes I take the rejection too personally. The good thing is that I don’t have to talk to someone if they are mean, even when someone is giving me a lot of money. Dancing has taught me how to be assertive. If someone, like Lawrence, is getting out of line, I tell him that his negativity is too much and I’m going to have to leave if he can’t be more positive. I tell him that negativity isn’t attractive to me and he changes his tune. I don’t like customers trying to hang out with me outside of the club. It’s annoying. In this digital age, some dancers let guys call and text them, but I don’t. Even after 11 years, it’s just fucking boring to hear “Let’s meet outside of here,” over and over. Many of the customers want a relationship, but it’s not real.
Rumpus: Is there a place where the performing ends and your desires begin?
Beth: My sexuality is tied to my dancing. I feel sexual when I’m performing. Other times, I’m just there doing a job. I guess it really depends on my mood. In the beginning, I got really into music that made me feel sexual. I don’t really feel anything sexual towards the customers. They’re just my prop! A prop that pays me! When I quit dancing for a while, I felt less sexual, like something was missing.
Rumpus: Tell me about the customer who paid you to stop dancing.
Beth: He gave me a thousand at a time, not all at once. Sometimes I had to remind him, which irritated me. We met for lunch once per week. But he started to control me. He called me and asked what I was doing and who I was with all the time. I had to stop meeting with him. I don’t even think 50K would be enough to stop dancing, but at the time it sounded good enough and it was something to get by on for a while.
Rumpus: Why did you want to stop dancing?
Beth: I stopped dancing because it became boring. When I was younger, between the ages of 21-25, I enjoyed the attention and the money. I thought I could be a career stripper forever. When I realized that I needed something more, it became a chore, like any desk job. And even though there was still money to be made, I couldn’t go through the motions anymore. The plan was to become an esthetician so I got my license, moved to San Diego and got a few gigs before I realized that I wasn’t really interested in waxing assholes and popping pimples the rest of my life. So, I found a job as an assistant to the executive producer for an Internet porn company [Naughty America]. Three weeks into my job, I was put in charge of producing an alt website for them which eventually led to a position as the Assistant Producer for the company.
Rumps: But then you went back to dancing?
Beth: I took off to Greece then returned alone and jobless. I felt disconnected from people. Dancing was the only answer. Why would I do anything else? I enjoy being a stripper. I bitch about it, but at the end of the day, I’d rather strip. I’ve had a taste of corporate America and it’s gross. Dancing has much more integrity. In corporate America people are getting fucked in the ass with no lube because they have no principles.
Rumpus: How is the current recession affecting the sex industry?
Beth: The sex industry is suffering because people don’t have the expendable income right now in California. It sucks to leave after five hours with less than a hundred bucks. But stripping is still far more interesting than any “real” jobs that I’ve had. I think because sex is fun it doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s really hard to be inappropriate in the sex industry. I don’t have to pretend I’m something else. It’s freak friendly and comfortable because it’s not trying too hard. It’s trashy and it doesn’t give a fuck, which are qualities I appreciate. When you’re working a “real” gig you have to hide a big chunk of yourself and compartmentalize. I think that’s unhealthy.
Rumpus: Do you want to quit dancing?
Beth: For me to move on from this job, it would take a really special opportunity. I loved working with the production team at Naughty America. I didn’t appreciate the way I was treated by my boss, but every other aspect was great. I would definitely do something like that again. Until then, I’m going to keep dancing.
Photos by Romy Suskin.