I named myself Nico


by Juliana Beasley

The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to ‘Lapdancer’ by Juliana Beasley. Some of the images are NSFW.

A couple of years after I had graduated from NYU, I began working in a strip club in Queens. It was to be one of many clubs that I would pass through over the following eight years, and it was there that I first encountered the notion of being a professional, business-minded stripper. Sitting at the juice bar (nude clubs in New York were not permitted to serve alcohol), relaxing between half-hour dance sets, I became friends with Beth, a dancer from Florida with a laugh that you could hear from the stage all the way to the dressing room. After asking the usual—”Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been dancing?”—I asked the other predictable question: “What are your plans when you get out?” She told me about her goal to save $100,000 and invest it in real estate and the stock market before quitting. Beth was just one of many disciplined strippers that I got to know over the years who were determined to leave the business with enough money to allow them to retire permanently or start some other kind of venture. Meeting her and discovering her resolve marked a turning point in my dancing career. For the first time I realized that I had the potential of amassing a substantial nest egg—one that unfortunately I felt I would never make as a freelance photographer. Besides, I was happier having a job where I was able to set my own guidelines and schedule instead of the alternative: working as a photographer’s assistant for a fraction of the earnings, turning in numerous invoices that weren’t paid on time, being yelled at, and taking the brunt for mistakes on photo shoots. I was also tired of carrying around their equipment and running behind them in a sweat. In dancing, I felt like I had regained my self-esteem.

Dancer with Female Customer, New Jersey, 2002, Juliana Beasley

I named myself Nico, inspired by the heartless blonde German model-turned-rock-icon from the Velvet Underground. I believed her name would provide a constant reminder of the stamina and strength I would need to get the job done. I created an impossible schedule of self-inflicted boot camp for myself. Totally immersed in the “cult of the strippers,” I lived my life by a timetable and a calculator I kept at my bedside. After work, at 3:00 in the morning, I pulled down the shades in my apartment, counted my earnings on the bathroom floor, and diligently jotted the figures down in my agenda. The plan was to get out of the business within a couple of years. Working eight to ten hours a day, five to six days a week, I was determined to meet the strict goals I had set for myself. I never accounted for physical burnout, the frequent colds and chronic bronchitis induced by customers’ cigars and cigarettes and the clubs’ smoke machines, and the emotional fatigue of staying in character every night. The stripper lifestyle has its own comforting and predictable routine. Sleeping until 11:00 a.m. (or later, as the week progresses), I drag my tired body out of bed across my studio apartment. A sore body is a reminder of a night well spent, money made, counted, and stashed in forever changing hiding places. Mysteriously browned and callused knees and elbows offer further evidence of my nightly pursuits. Some mornings, I awake still brooding over a night when I have fallen below my average, and berate myself for my lack of motivation on the job or some other possible personal defect that might explain falling short of my quota. A shower would follow, then a walk into the daylight to a local restaurant where I would sit alone, ponder my future, and reward myself with a sensible non-fattening meal in my trendy Manhattan neighborhood. I hardly had time to hand wash my costumes. They smell of cigarettes, sweat, and the sweet perfumes customers complement me on. Instead I opt for a nap, awake, pop three Advil, and an hour later pick up a double espresso on the run, toting my work duffel bag filled with my best moneymakers—a tight leopard-print dress, a silver Brazilian bikini, a sequined mini, and stiletto heels. One might have thought I was just another ballet dancer running off to a class in the middle of the day. 

Customer #1, New Jersey, 2000, Juliana Beasley

At first it was buses, trains, and taxis; then later, private drivers like Aman, the yellow cabbie who doubled as my therapist, forever bolstering my spirits like a trainer with his boxer before entering the ring. We would make the usual stops: coffees, brownies, bottles of Jack Daniels. Several blocks before arriving at the designated club, I would let out a sigh. No, I don’t want to go. I’m too tired. I’m sick of the men and I’m even sick of the girls. He teases me, “Do you want to go home?” “No,” I reply. Next came Aramis, the crazy-eyed driver from Uruguay who charged less than Aman, but with him there would always be the risk of getting into some sort of collision, like the time we hydroplaned across three lanes on the Westside Highway, hit a marker on the side of the road, and flipped his Suburban. But the price was right and I was determined to keep expenses low, even at the risk of dying next to a man whose conversational skills consisted of “Hi, Nico.” The structure I’d created for myself was satisfying for the most part because I immediately saw the results of my hard labor. Here I was, an unskilled worker, earning double what my friends in “straight” jobs were making. I loved the music, dancing on stage, and the instant connections I made with fellow dancers—and at times, even with customers. For eight hours on nights I danced, I was taking a break from my own complex and contradictory life. In reality I rarely dreaded going to work, unlike with other jobs I had had in the past. Dancing felt emotionally cathartic, empowering, and at times just like another creative extension of myself. I developed my dancing style partially by mimicking other dancers and partly through trial and error. I performed five days a week to a normally adoring public. Sometimes it felt like being a rock star, or what I imagined being a rock star might feel like: discounts on hotels, personal drivers, and makeup. Do you want a really hot dance? You won’t be disappointed Like many of the dancers I worked with over the years, I started my career in the local topless dive bar, and after a month graduated to working in the fully nude-lap dance clubs and never looked back. I chose working in fully nude clubs over other strip club formats like go-go or topless dancing because it offered the highest cash earnings for what I believed to be the least amount of mental and physical stress. In so-called “no-contact” clubs, a dancer makes most of her money not only by being well dressed and dolled up, but ultimately by her ability to be a good conversationalist. The most beautiful girl in the club isn’t necessarily the one making the most money—it’s the dancer who is patient, covertly demanding, and capable of laughing at even the crassest jokes. 

Couch Dance, Philadelphia, PA, 2001, Juliana Beasley

In these clubs, dancers make their money table dancing, swaying between the legs of a customer, and, employing the classic stripper move, tossing their heads around and showering their long tresses or hair extensions over the heads of the mesmerized. Supposedly there isn’t any physical contact. Yet different clubs have different sets of spoken and unspoken rules. One club might have a hands-off policy, with a bouncer watching the customer’s every move; another club might allow customers to touch more liberally. Rules existed to be observed or disregarded, depending upon the individual dancer and the management. Another variation is the champagne room, or the VIP room, in which the dancer or cocktail waitress convinces the customer to buy a bottle of champagne and spend a “private” hour in a room often full of other couples hidden discreetly behind fake plants. One night at a club in Manhattan, I spent eight hours in the champagne room with three different customers. By 10:00 I was on my third bottle of Moët, and I was trashed. I staggered to the men’s room and asked the attendant if he had any suggestions for topics of conversation, so I wouldn’t appear too lifeless. Prices in the VIP room are invariably high, and the dancers make their money on a small percentage of sales and tips. By the end of the hour I often had difficulty convincing a customer to tip me $100 when he had already doled out $300 plus to the club for something inevitably less than he had expected. I got sick of listening to an hour of often dull sexual fantasies and clumsy advances, then being subjected to the humiliation of begging for uncertain tips.

Jillian, Mons Venus, Tampa, Florida, 2001(?) Juliana Beasley

Piece originally published at Juliana’s Lovely Land of Neurosis | Posted with the kind permission of the author

About The Author:

Juliana Beasely is a photographer from Philadelphia.