The third in our series of interviews focusing on sex work during the recession.
Apollo trains clients at Gold’s Gym in Hollywood where I found him sweating profusely on the stair-climber, the most despised cardio machine. We spoke about stripping and he agreed to meet me for coffee to discuss his career and the recession. He fled El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War in 1989 and crossed the border into the US. He eventually landed in Los Angeles where he learned to speak English from women he befriended at the gym. He’s been an exotic dancer off and on for eighteen years. He’s a true dancer and if you have a pulse, you’ll fall in love with him.
The Rumpus: Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
Apollo: I’m from a small village in El Salvador called St. Thomas. We were so poor that our house was basically a cabin with two big rooms with a kitchen and bathroom outdoors. My father left when I was a year old. I was always looking for my father, but he started a new family and didn’t welcome me. My mother struggled very hard. She made great Pupusas and the whole village bought them from her. When I was 14, she left us to go work in East Los Angeles sewing clothes for a company. She sent home money and clothes for 5 years. During that time, she got pancreatic Cancer and passed away at age 38. I never saw her alive again.
Rumpus: How did you get to the US?
Apollo: I turned 19 the year after my mother died. I took a bus to Hidalgo Chiapas on the border of Guatemala and Mexico. I had under $50 with me from my grandmother. I lived there with my aunt for two months where I helped my aunt make food for truckers. I befriended a trucker who agreed to drive a friend and I closer to Mexico City. A girl I was dating gave me some money for the trip. When we got there, I tried to pass as Mexican and slept outdoors on park benches. We stole food from the market. We got held up at the border of Guatemala and Mexico City but we had no money so they let us go. In Mexico, a hotel owner was kind to us there. He brought us food and gave us shelter for a couple of days for free. My friend’s uncle sent a wire transfer for more money to get on the next bus to Tijuana. Three hundred dollars was the price in 1989 to get us both across. We were stopped at a checkpoint in the next city where men with machine guns checked our papers. We had false documents and bogus birth certificates and we were caught because we couldn’t sing the national anthem. We bribed them for sixty dollars and made it to Tijuana. Someone knocked on the hotel room door in the middle of the night and we thought it was our guide who would take us across the border but many men came. We waited for the right name and when we heard the right name we left in the middle of the night. A white female driver drove us across the border to San Isidro in the back of a van with no seats under a tarp like sardines. We could barely breathe.
Rumpus: How did you begin dancing?
Apollo: When I was five years old my aunts threw coins at me when I danced, so eventually I would dance and ask them for it when I wanted money. My three aunts were around me all the time. That’s why I’m crazy about women; I was always surrounded with women I loved. I only wish I would have had dance lessons as a child. My dream was to be a professional dancer. I would escape out the back door to go dancing and my grandmother would beat me the next morning. I have always been passionate about dancing.
Rumpus: How was sexuality expressed in your culture?
Apollo: Sex was never discussed. It was very taboo; nobody in my family ever mentioned it, but I saw my aunts hooking up with their boyfriends. The funny thing is the women were allowed to go out, but I was never allowed to go out, I had a very strict Catholic upbringing. I had to go to Church every Sunday, but I liked going because all of the pretty women would dress up for church. I wasn’t able to go out after dark; not even to go dancing.
Rumpus: What were some messages you received about money and work?
Apollo: It was scarce, tight, we didn’t know if we were going to eat the next day. My aunt would borrow money if she had to, to make sure we ate. I sold tamales on the street when I was twelve. I would yell “Tamales!” around town and knock on doors. I would steal some of the tamale money to buy candy and chocolate bars.
Rumpus: Why and how did you start dancing in Los Angeles?
Apollo: I talked to some men working at the gym and let them know I was looking for work. They asked me if I danced and they said there was cash involved and I could audition. I didn’t have a job or legal papers yet, so I went to the club with them in Silver Lake. For my audition, I only had tennis shoes and shorts and I was surprised to find the club was full of men. I was nervous but I have rhythm so I took over the dance floor. My friend let me borrow an orange rhinestone collar and I put on a strip show for a few songs. The men tipped excellent. I couldn’t believe how fast the money came. We stripped down to a thong and mingled with the crowd. I made around three hundred dollars. I’m a great dancer.
Rumpus: Tell me about your worst experience performing?
Apollo: I showed up for a bachelorette party to do my show in the Hollywood Hills. The fiancé found out I was dancing and broke the window with a beer bottle and stopped the party. I said, “Where’s my money?” They never paid me.
Rumpus: Have you ever quit dancing?
Apollo: Yes. When I got married in 1997 I stopped dancing for a while because I felt that I should settle down. We divorced in 1999.
Rumpus: Then you returned to dancing?
Apollo: In 2000, I was single again and I missed the adrenaline rush from the stage performance. I no longer felt restricted from a relationship so I started working again at Mahoney’s in City of Industry. I was making around $600 a night, which was very good. Korean and Japanese women would slap hundred dollar bills on my body. I met a customer there who became my 2nd wife. We had a baby. I was still dancing when my daughter was born in 2001. My daughter is by far the best thing in my life.
Rumpus: When were your best years dancing?
Apollo: My best years dancing were 1992-1996. I’ve always been a gypsy and wandered from club to club; did private parties and performed at house parties. My best night was three blowjobs from female clients and I made tons of money. In 1992, my best nights happened at a club on Tuesdays where I made around $500. I made great money at private events too but the crowd was better behaved in the clubs.
Rumpus: Do you prefer performing for men or for women?
Apollo: It’s complicated. You have to milk women; they play games and they are so tight with their money. Men help themselves to you: they get grabby at private events. Women are harder to hustle but more respectful. In a club, it’s the men who are more respectful. The best parties were at “Peppers” in City of Industry. We’d pack the club with 300 women or more. But it shut down. They lost their liquor license. Los Angeles got stricter. The customers weren’t allowed to touch us. We had to start wearing shorts in the audience instead of a thong.
Rumpus: How has the recession affected your ability to earn money as an exotic dancer?
Apollo: I noticed the money falling off around 2007. Tips were no longer flowing. Club owners paid dancers a base pay of $100 per show. But in 2007, the base pay was lowered to $60 for new dancers. So, I lost money. We lost so many clubs from 2001-now due to the stricter laws in LA about touching and nudity. As a male stripper, we want to be touched, and the clubs were getting warrants and shutting down. It changed the whole experience from fun to degrading at times because the money was so much less. It’s not like it was before. I had to concentrate more on my personal training business.
Rumpus: Do you want to quit dancing?
Apollo: I still dance at a club on weekends in Anaheim. I also do a club on Thursday nights, but it’s humiliating to work for a fraction of the money that I’m used to. Money is still money. I do better at private parties because if I’m the only one there, so I know how to hustle the money. If given the opportunity again, I would do it again the exact same way. I will always dance. I have a passion for it and consider myself a true dancer.
Photos by Romy Suskin.