RECESSION SEX WORKERS #14: Phoenix Rising, An Interview with Nadia Payne


In 2010, in New Orleans, thousands of Saints fans danced wildly in the streets in black and gold jerseys and ribbons, blowing horns and smacking tambourines. I commuted from LA to New Orleans to dance at Penthouse Club during the playoffs and arrived to work early to watch the game at the bar with the other dancers. I’d never participated in sports euphoria before falling hard for all things New Orleans, right after my mom died. New Orleans rebuilt its spirit and embraced me while I rebuilt mine.

I first met Nadia on Bourbon Street and saw a kindred spirit in the dressing room, while sharing three inches of mirror space. Later, I sat next to her at the bar in our matching spandex stripper attire, dressed for success. She came from Florida. I came from California. We rooted for the Saints.

It was a tense game. The Minnesota Vikings and the Saints were tied, but the Saints won the coin toss and opted for a field goal. Before I knew her name, Nadia grabbed my hand and held it tight, looked straight ahead and said,“Have faith.” When the Saints won, the bartenders collapsed and held their faces in their hands and cried. We women screamed and the entire city was overjoyed. Nadia personified faith and strength, her spirit contributed to the Saints’ victory. A few months later, she met me at a coffee shop and told me her story that is true of many women I know. She told me about family trauma, abuse and racism- the way those memories eroded her spirit. It also made her stronger and more determined to interrupt the cycle of abuse. She pursued her goals in spite of her circumstances, and rebuilt her spirit. Six months after our interview, I met her for her photo shoot with Michael Siu and she’d quit the sex industry altogether. She now works full time as a private chef.


The Rumpus: You said you were from Florida and that you danced here in New Orleans to put yourself through school. Where did you grow up? Where did you get your faith from, and what was it like?

Nadia Payne: I was born in Massachusetts in 1977. My Dad is Black Foot Indian and African American and my Mom is from Cuba. I have an older brother who is my best friend and one other brother. I also have a ten year-old brother who is a mystery. My mom said he’s a surrogate baby but I think a guy gave my mom this kid. He knows English, Spanish and French like her.

Rumpus: What were some messages you received about sex in your family?

Payne: I was raised a Jehovah Witness. In Massachusetts, my Mom had married a man who molested me for ten years from age 6-16. My Mom was beating me viciously, mentally and emotionally. My Mom is maybe a narcissist paranoid sociopath. She’s also a hospice nurse for children.

My stepfather got me interested in food and played the Dad role. When he left my Mom periodically, I felt that he left me, or rather like my boyfriend had left me. I was inconsolable. One time he took my little sister with him and left. One night my Mother came home at 3a.m. my Grandmother was with her. My grandmother is her hostage, like Stockholm syndrome. My mom snatched me and put me in the car, she asked me if I was being molested. She took me to an orange grove, which happened to be my friend’s property. She screamed at me. She asked me if I was being molested. She had a knife. If I didn’t tell her the truth, she said she would kill me and leave me in the orange grove. I was fourteen. My step dad was at work. He was a C.NA. and worked nights.

I remember the last time he left for good.  I was 16, he raped me (bent me over the toilet) and then left. I took it out on my little sister. She didn’t deserve that. My Grandmother knew it was going on, told my mom and she didn’t do the right thing about it. She attacked me instead Every time she told my Mom. I was scared something bad was going to happen.

Rumpus: How do you reconcile that abuse? Did you ever go to counseling? Do you have PTSD? Are you in touch with your stepfather still? Have you confronted him?

Payne: I bottled it up; kept it inside and my drug use had a lot to do with wanting to escape my situation. Probably, PTSD. I’m not in touch with my stepfather nor have I confronted him. I don’t where he is, which is safer.

Rumpus: What are the messages you received about sex in your household?

Payne: Don’t have sex. Don’t have babies. My mom would leave STD books around the house to scare us. She asked if I was pregnant, held a knife to my stomach. If I were pregnant, she would cut it out of me. Don’t use it-don’t have it until your married. My mother had also asked me if I would carry a kid for her when I was a teenager. I said “hell no.” I had one boyfriend in high school but I had been promiscuous in 8th and 9th grade. I gave a lot of head to test my sexual powers. I noticed the boys in church started to act different towards me, I distanced myself from the church because of the sexual hypocrisy. For example, after I had sex with the son of an elder in the kingdom hall, and he confessed, they told him it didn’t matter because I wasn’t baptized. After I returned to the Kingdom Hall, all of the brothers started asking me out to coffee or private bible study and they never spoke to me before that.  They had been gossiping about me and it made me not want to go back.

Rumpus: Did you ask anyone for help? Could you tell anyone what was going on?

Payne: My stepfather made it clear if I told anyone, that we would all go to foster care, and my grandma would have a heart attack and die. He threatened me so I didn’t tell her. I loved my sister and didn’t want us separated. I got good grades, I went to Kingdom Hall all the time, I did the housecleaning, helped my mom with the finances, and her nursing school homework. I parented her. I was her best friend and her enemy. One day she came to me and said, “he likes you and you can cook for him and make him dinner but you can’t have sex with him.” All this time, I believed that my Mom didn’t know. I found out last May that she knew the last four years. My brother told me he told her and my Mom beat him for not doing anything about it. My youngest brother just got out of prison, for multiple reasons. I love my brothers so much. He was in a gang let’s leave it at that.

I no longer hate my Mother because hate is a form of love, I am disgusted with her. I don’t speak to her. She’s a shadow person; she is not in my life.

Rumpus: Did you enjoy any of your classes or anything about school was it kind of an escape? Did you have any support from your peers?

Payne: I would rather go to school than be home. In 9th grade, my stepfather suggested that my mother take us out of school to be homeschool’d so he could have more control over me. The home school was not accredited, so I had to go back to high school and had to catch up because I fell one grade behind. I have two high school diplomas. My favorite classes were English Lit and auto-mechanics for four years. I was also involved in the radio show we had at our school. It was an escape for me even though it was a different kind of hell. The only person who knew was a friend of mine who was gay and my boyfriend. My boyfriend helped me but later became abusive later on. My gay friend was someone I could talk to but I knew he had to fight his own demons so I wasn’t always comfortable burdening him with mine. The other kids didn’t like how I talked, and they found out that I was tough and a loner and they called me an “Oreo” among other things. They always wanted to fight me.  I never lost a fight. I did body building in high school, so that helped.

Rumpus: What jobs have you had and how and when did you first get introduced to sex work?

Payne: I worked at Morrison’s cafeteria a pick-a-dilly style restaurant. Tallied up food for the clients, worked at KFC, I did laundry at my Mom’s nursing home. Doing old people’s laundry. My best friend’s brother talked me into stripping when I was eighteen. He was a pimp and I didn’t know it. I will call him Rodrigo. We were “hanging out” and he said, “You could do this for a living. Since I am getting you this job, getting your nails done and giving you rides, you should give me some money.”  He was actually my stripper pimp. My friend said, “What are you doing?” She told me he was pimping me out. She sat me down and explained what that meant. I was naïve about all of that.

My mom told me she was my best friend. She stopped me from having friends my age. I was very excited to go to the mall, and get all dressed up. I never did high school events or socialize or have sleep over’s. I dumped the guy/stripper pimp when I was a senior in high school. I was rebelling against my family and against my abusive boyfriend and stripping sounded like fun. It was at first.

My boyfriend at that time knew everything that was happening to me and did nothing to help me. We ran away together to my mom’s friend’s house. I told my mom where I was. I had been doing competitive bodybuilding. I fought my Mom off me and she finally asked me if I was being molested. She asked me if I wanted to go to the police.

I am the only one in my family who walked in the graduation. No one came to my graduation.

I met a nice guy when I was dancing in a club. I met the guy, Mike from the club and moved to Tarpin Springs he slept on the couch and I slept in the bed but we became boyfriend/ girlfriend.

I went to med school to be a surgical tech but didn’t finish because dancing was sooner, faster, now and I was young and dazzled. I went to fully nude clubs and they treated me like cattle. I danced when I was with Mike for 2 years. I was his first everything. He was a chef. My Dad was a chef, my step dad is a chef and I’m a chef.

I’ve been around food my whole life. My mom stopped buying food for us when I was 14. We would have to fend for ourselves. We would eat Pot Pies and hotdogs, but she had a lot of culinary books, but whatever we were eating, we would pretend that the hotdogs were the fancy, pretty food, like the dishes in her books.

Rumpus: What were the clubs like in Florida? Was there racism in the clubs?

Payne: Scarlet’s was a great club. It was topless and we wore gowns on the floor. That’s when I started making consistent real money ($400-$500 night). The nude clubs were more of a struggle. I was happy to make a hundred or two hundred a shift there.

One night I was dancing on stage. A group of Italian guys were near the stage but no one was tipping me. A guy looked at me and said to his friend, “Why is this nigger still dancing over here? She’s not getting any tips.”

I heard him and moved to another part of the stage. The other tinted girls and I started working the other part of the room. I made like $700 that night. The girls that danced for the Italian guys made 2 or 3 thousand bucks. The white girls were looking at their money. It was all-counterfeit! Ours wasn’t. The managers had to collect all of their money and send it to the Feds. The tinted girls were all high fiving each other.

There is so much racism within the club between the whites and tinted girls and especially among the tinted girls, because money’s so scarce.

Rumpus: Can you give me an example of the racism you experienced in your life and as a sex worker?

Payne: You want to know something funny? The Klan marched at my school and I thought is was a parade in 6th grade in Seffner, Florida. I told my Mom, “I saw a parade at school today with white robes and big pointy hats and they were waving at me and I was waving back.” The next day, she took me out of that school. I didn’t know what that meant.

In the clubs, the darker the shade of tint (skin) the harder is to get hired. And they have quotas: Black girl quotas.

Rumpus: How do you mean?

Payne: The club would only hire so many black girls so as to not attract too many black guys to not scare off the high rolling paying white guy customers. Some black guys don’t tip well because it seemed to me higher class the club, the less the black guys would pay because they would have to pay more for the girl, but they seem to want to give less and get more.

It’s intense between the girls. I’d get up to go to the bathroom or even sitting there with a client and they would pretend I’m not even there. They would talk to my customer.  The girls disrespect each other-the tinted girls. They mess with each other more than with the white girls. They all move in on the dude who likes tinted girls because that’s a specialty. I feel like I transcend that type of client, because I was never allowed to use slang at home. I had to speak in complete sentences and use the Queen’s English. My step dad would play a game with me where, I would read the word in the dictionary and learn that word. If I got the word wrong, I was whipped with an extension cord.

Rumpus: Why didn’t he just play Scrabble with you?

Payne: We did play scrabble, but this was our special family game. In New Orleans, I got hired at Hustler and Penthouse. I was in a cab one day and I told the cab driver I was working at hustler and he was surprised I was working there because I’m black. I tried Rick’s but they told me No. When I was in Miami, I was working with my friend who said she could get me hired anywhere. She looks like a skinny Anna Nicole smith. She took me to Scarlets (a different one) they said no, that I was too fat. I was bodybuilding at the time. I was fucking pissed because he hired ugly fat white girls. We went to another club and the manager took her aside and told her “we have our black girl quota.” She thought I’d been lying about that. She finally got it.   I worked at Ybor a fully nude strip club in Tampa for 3 or 4 years. I was the second highest paid girl there and the number one paid black girl there. When I started, I started making a 1K a week, and after that I started making $3,500 week.

Later on, I got fired from there so I went back to Atlanta. I heard about New Orleans from other dancers. I was supposed to be working in New Orleans during the weekend when Katrina happened. I saved a lot of money dancing especially when I was heart broken. My boyfriend, who I was supposed to get married to, split up with me. I got upset I saved 40,000 in four months dancing in Atlanta and gambling in Vegas. I actually bought a house in Florida. I played craps and roulette and had a sponsor.

Rumpus: Okay, explain the difference between the sponsors, customers and clients.

Payne: The sponsors know your real name. He takes you to spas and on vacation, gives you the princess treatment and treats you like a human being. Clients are regulars who see you in the club and you are their favorite girl. Customers come and go.  So, the sponsor and I would go Vegas to trips. He showed me how to play craps and roulette. I don’t like gambling out of the country because they cheat. We were at Harrah’s in New Orleans, three days after Harrah’s opened. I wanted to learn how to win. He told me to get all the chips.  I kept choosing numbers. Randomly. I won 1500 dollars the first time I played Roulette. Whatever I won I got to keep and whatever he won I got to keep half.

But back to the stripping story: I got arrested 5 times for drugs possession in Florida. I was hooked on cocaine. But really, I was hooked on my ego. So I got fired from the club and I started going back to New Orleans and reacquainted with my friend Rachel who got me hired at Déjà vu on Bourbon. I was staying at the Haunted House-the guesthouse on Ursuline where only dancers stay. I started working at Penthouse and turned my life around in five years time living between New Orleans and Florida.

In 2005, I got into culinary school, bought a car and a motorcycle. I got a job working at Tampa Stadium (football stadium) as one of the lead chefs. I did 122 salads every week during football season. I started at the beginning of the week prepping, filling orders and doing the salads. I discovered that I was good at it. But, my executive chef sexually harassed me all the time. I got used to that but kept at this job that I loved.

I stopped dancing for a while and wanted to become a great chef, but I became a starving chef. So I traveled to New Orleans every weekend to strip and still went to school full time during the week. I worked my ass off every weekend for three years and finished chef school. I decided to work on yachts to be a chef so I got certified. I became a private chef for people in New Orleans and Florida. This has given me a strong sense of real pride and accomplishment. Not putting smiles on their faces because I’m good at shaking my ass-which I am great at and a total bad ass-, but putting smiles on their faces because I’m giving them sustenance and food and comfort. It helped me to realize my own worth.

Rumpus: What would you like to see for women who are in the sex industry? Do you think they should go back to school? Do you think tinted girls will ever join forces and work together against the racism in the clubs and in the industry?

Payne: Prostitution should be legalized. I would like to see women to get unionized, and be shown more respect. For us to have more respect for ourselves. At the time, I wanted to stay grounded as a dancer because it was working for me. The business has changed. The backstabbing is worse than ever. When I started it wasn’t like that. It’s every man for himself now.  I’m lucky, because of my build, I was a kick boxer for 12 years, and no one really fucks with me directly. I would tell them this is not for the faint of heart, that understand that every dance you are giving a piece of your soul and how much of your soul is for sale? Or what price do put on your soul?

Every day is not going to be a money day. Some of those days and weeks, you’re not going to make any money so save it, put it away. Invest and educate yourself-school or not. School’s not for everybody. People wonder why dancers date scumbags? They do it because deep down a lot of dancers feel that what they are doing is wrong. People already see us as selfish gold diggers, so we date scumbags to show the world we are trying to save someone else because we cannot help ourselves. We are trying to redeem ourselves by dating scumbags, but it seems to backfire on us all the time. I hope my friends who dance stop dating assholes. The reason we date assholes is because we feel guilty and we don’t feel like we deserve better. Also, we want to help someone else. We want to rescue someone else because we weren’t taken care of when we were kids.

Rumpus: How do you think legalizing prostitution would help us?

Payne: It would be safer, less sneaky, more people getting tested, there would be set prices for dances instead of under cutting each other. Less competitive. More protection for the women. Fewer pimps. We’d work together to be cleaner, healthier, and happier.

Rumpus: How do you see your future? What will you do with the skills you learned dancing over the years? What are your goals?

Payne: I see myself getting out of the industry this year (2011). I’m currently writing a book about this life. I’m working on myself. My main goal is to help other molested children heal from the abuse. By being a private chef, I have to push it off to be in the right place. I want to be the bad-girl-gone-good. Not in a fairy tale sense, but in a real life sense. I want to take this chef thing to the next level and help children. I want to start a foundation-I want inner city kids to come and eat at my restaurant on Sundays for Sunday dinner and show them the how to cook. I want to go to schools and talk about sexual abuse. So many kids are being molested. It is prevalent in the black community.

Rumpus: Why is that?

Payne: In the black community, it’s taboo to talk to a shrink. There’s pressure to keep family business in the family. There’s a problem with the family structure: Guys don’t want to work and the mother’s working. Often the men: the uncles and brothers are home.  That’s when abuse happens. Who are the kids going to tell? More and more people are living paycheck to paycheck. My biggest goal is to provide someplace kids can go- to have someone to talk to.

Rumpus: Bad Girl Gone Good could be the name of your book. If you had a daughter that wanted to strip what would you tell her?

Payne: I would tell her the good and the bad. It’s not for the faint of heart. I’d tell her don’t trust anyone. Always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t leave with anyone. If someone is a regular, find out who he is. Google him. Be Safe.” I love you no matter what you do for a job,” is what I’d tell her.


Photos by Michael Siu, New Orleans.

Antonia Crane is a performer, 2-time Moth Story Slam Winner and writing instructor in Los Angeles. She has written for the New York Times, The Believer, The Toast, Playboy, Cosmopolitan,, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, DAME, the Los Angeles Review, Quartz: The Atlantic Media,, Buzzfeed, and dozens of other places. Her screenplay “The Lusty” (co-written by Transparent director, writer Silas Howard), based on the true story of the exotic dancer’s labor union, is a recipient of the 2015 San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Grant in screenwriting. She is at work on an essay collection and a feature film. More from this author →