Viva Las Vegas’ saucy new memoir Magic Gardens is about stripping in Portland, Oregon during the 90’s when the “stripping as performance art” trend was taking hold and pro-porn feminism was a fledgling idea. Viva was diagnosed with breast cancer during her decade-long debut at Magic Gardens, the Portland strip club and setting of her new book. The cancer was treated with an invasive unilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy, which altered her relationship with her body. However, her undying optimism and love for exotic dancing only deepened. She will be doing a short book tour for Magic Gardens, published by Dame Rocket Press, on the East Coast in October. She will be in Los Angeles in November. Follow her at vivacide.com.
The Rumpus: Why did you write about stripping in Portland in the 90’s?
Viva Las Vegas: Magic Gardens begins with my arrival in Portland after graduating from college in 1996 and ends with my move to NYC in 2001. I think from the moment I hit the stage I began composing this memoir. The stories in strip clubs are so rich and varied on so many levels.
Viva Las Vegas: I’d say the primary difference is the voice. Perhaps the subtitle says it all: “The Starry-Eyed Saviors of the Western Night.” I passionately love the industry, and after thirteen years in it, still regard it with a kind of stubborn innocence. Critics will call me on that, I know, but hey, it’s my life! Also, I never try to separate myself from the industry as “the unlikely stripper.” A lot of stripper memoirs start from that vantage point. Sure I probably was an “unlikely stripper,” but I’ve embraced this community whole-heartedly, and feel so grateful that it has embraced me.
Rumpus: I disagree. I think your voice is very similar to Diablo Cody’s especially the casual humor and idealized characters. To me what sets your book apart from theirs is your identity politics and your view of sex-work. Your politics, not your dire need propelled you towards the industry and formed your opinions about it. I think your book is an educated woman’s stripper memoir. It has the political fervor that surrounded sex work during the mid-90’s that was all about pro-sex work feminism and ownership of female desire as performance art.
Viva Las Vegas: Thanks for the compliment! I find Cody’s writing very funny and incisive. I was attracted to the sex industry primarily intellectually and it was an amazing stroke of luck to land on the West Coast at a time when sex workers were very political and very proactive. Things have changed a lot since then, and I really felt I owed the industry and all the girls in it this book, to document that time.
Rumpus: How did your relationship with your body change after you were diagnosed with ductal carcinoma?
Viva Las Vegas: For quite a while after my diagnosis and subsequent mastectomy, I think I separated from my physical body. It became the doctors’ body for that period of time. I’d always reference the Wire song, “Surgeon’s Girl.” Breast cancer is weird in that you don’t feel sick necessarily; your doctor tells you you’re sick. You don’t feel injured until the surgeon injures you with her knife. Then there’s the incredibly counterintuitive experience of chemotherapy, where you sit in a chair, feeling well, inject tons of poison, and feel shitty afterward. It requires a huge leap of faith in western medicine. It was mentally and physically very challenging. I found solace in meditation, working on my inner life while everyone tinkered with my body.
Rumpus: What was it like to rely on your body for financial sustenance and have it fail you suddenly?
Viva Las Vegas: It sucked! I have a hard time accepting help from people, but holy cow I got used to it this last year. I’m independent to a fault, and suddenly I was relying on the kindnesses of strangers. I don’t have family in town, so this meant rides to the hospital, tons of food, the occasional stack of cash, and, most importantly, company. Most dancers are very attuned to their bodies. We’re athletes. The mastectomy cut through the muscle, and I literally felt I had my wings clipped. I couldn’t put carry-on luggage into the overhead compartment. I couldn’t drive for two weeks or swim (my drug of choice) for two months. Conversely, it feels FUCKING AWESOME to be strong again. I’m doing more cartwheels and handstands than I ever have in my life.
Rumpus: Do you still find yourself in heated debates with anti-porn feminists?
Viva Las Vegas: Not if I can help it. I do think it’s important to continue the discourse around sex work—Lord knows that’s a huge reason I got into this line of work. But I do get frustrated hearing the same ill-considered opinions from people who have never been to strip clubs. Sex work is one area of thought where ignorance is acceptable—even encouraged, and people make damning judgments based on their ignorance. It’s frustrating to have a conversation with an ignoramus. Now I can say, “Read my book.”
Rumpus: You describe the intimacy/disconnect as a side effect of working in the sex industry. Do you think this is something common for all dancers or is it something that was in place prior to stripping?
Viva Las Vegas: In the book I say that is a stereotype people have of dancers, and one that I don’t think is true. However it is sort of true for me, and I think it has to do with moving around every two years throughout my early life, and becoming constitutionally an anthropologist—always observing from the outside, never joining a community. It’s something I struggle with in the book, and which wasn’t really resolved until after 9/11. i.e., THE SEQUEL!
Rumpus: Do you think your book romanticizes the sex industry? Where is that line between romanticizing it and humanizing it?
Viva Las Vegas: Yes, I do. I’m a romantic through and through, so it would be hard for me to do otherwise. There is a LOT of darkness in the sex biz, and in Magic Gardens. However, I also see a lot of light in strip clubs, something I think most people miss. I wrote this book in the hopes of showing people that light. They’re accustomed to seeing the dark. In that sense, it is humanizing. There’s a dark and a light side to every occupation. I’m one of those people for whom fluorescent lighting is the ultimate darkness. I could never work in an office. I’m suspicious of those people. Are they human?
Rumpus: Have you mended your relationship with your parents especially your preacher Dad?
Viva Las Vegas: Yes. Obviously they were not thrilled with my career choice. My dad came around sooner than my mom. He’s an abstract thinker—as a theologian—and I think he finally saw past the nudity and thought about stripping more critically (not that he’s ever actually seen me dance). And since my cancer, they’ve both been much more supportive of everything I do. Now it’s more like “As long as you’re still here, whatever you do is ok.”
Rumpus: Are you 100% cancer free now?
Viva Las Vegas: That question always bothers me. It’s impossible to say. We all have cancerous cells in our body at any given moment. My “cancer markers” are all really good, whatever that means. I did chemo, however, because there was a small chance that the cancer I had had gotten into my blood stream. In which case you never ever know. My medical intuitive says I’m cancer-free though, so short answer: YES!
Rumpus: Do you still find sex work adventurous and fascinating?
Viva Las Vegas: Yes! I love the stories that walk through those doors! Whether it’s dancers, customers, or co-workers. I’ve been at “Mary’s” probably ten years total, and I never ever get bored or am anything less than fascinated with the bump and grind. I’m addicted to stories.
Rumpus: Are you still mesmerizing Portland stages with that optimistic smirk and how do you dig your fabulous new boobs?
Viva Las Vegas: They seem to still be mesmerized. Yes I’m still onstage, more than ever. I do one or two strip shifts a week, my band Coco Cobra and the Killers plays once or twice a month, and now I’ve started doing readings of Magic Gardens. I was a little hesitant about that last stage—it seems like people would get bored just sitting there listening to me read, but that’s where they seem to be the most mesmerized yet. The boobs? Yeah, I dig ‘em. It took a while for sure. Actually, it took stripping for me to warm up to them. Literally. My left breast, which was removed entirely and reconstructed, was ice cold. I was so out-of-touch with my body after this last year that I hadn’t even noticed. After a couple strip shifts, my breast warmed up. It’s like I’d finally accepted it as part of my body. Most people really like my new bod. I’m a tomboy and was quite happy with my A-cup tits. We had to go a bit bigger to accommodate the tissue expander after the mastectomy. Now I’m a small C. They say it looks better with my Norwegian ass. I’m still working on acceptance, but the adoration of my public never hurts.