This article originally appeared in A&F Quarterly
Because I’m a lady, I’m not even going to tell you how long I’ve known Lily Burana. Let’s just say we met when we were both punk rock zine writers, and managed to stay pals through all the intervening years. I sat down with Miss Lily recently to talk about her new book, Strip City. –Mikki Halpin
What is “Strip City?”
Strip City is a cross-country strip-a-thon that I took. I was a dancer from the time I was 18 to the time I was 25. I started out as a punk rock girl in Times Square and I sort of worked myself up to being near the apotheosis of the yuppie stripper. I realized that when I left the business at 25 I had never really come to terms with it. So I dusted off my dancing shoes and covered 20,000 miles– I went to 25 different strip clubs in the course of a year from my home base in Wyoming.
So instead of getting on the couch to work it out you went on stage.
Yeah exactly. Things have changed. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen stripping have a sort of renaissance and a visibility in pop culture that we haven’t seen since the golden age of the 1950s when stripper’s names regularly appeared in society columns and celebrities would go to strip clubs. And now you’re seeing it on MTV, in the movies, books by women who strip their way through college, women making documentaries, making their own media about it.
Have you ever seen a strip club on the screen and thought. “Oh yeah, that’s kind of the way it is?”
The only realistic thing about Showgirls was the fingernail subtext between Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkeley. I have in fact seen women almost come to blows in a strip club dressing room where one woman said something unfavorable about another’s manicure.
I remember I thought to myself before you started the book, “How is she going to deal with her ambivalence?” You talk about that in the book–you felt pulled in two directions. There are some people who want you to say “Stripping is bad! Stripping drains women of power.” Then there’s the other side that’s like “Stripping is great! Stripping gives women power.” I think you start to realize towards the end of the book that you have to look at stripping as both of those things, it can’t just be one or the other.
The debate has been “Is it exploitative or is it empowering?” I feel that ultimately it is a false dichotomy. I came of age in San Francisco as a stripper. I worked at the Lusty Lady, which is a pro-sex feminist woman-owned and operated place and you develop this radical sexual politics the day you first punch your time card to get on stage. You make next to no money when you work there, so what they try to do to gussy it up for you is give you this benefits package of a personal empowerment schpiel. It’s actually kind of cool and I think there are parts of it that are authentic, but I really had to deprogram that sort of rah-rah-rah “Stripping is totally cool” political thing in my head because I wanted this book more than anything else to be an accurate portrayal of the business as opposed to propaganda. Because the tendency as you’re constantly attacked for your decision is to be very defensive. “It’s totally cool, I’m always in control. I made this choice. It’s a choice I made free and clear. Don’t screw with me.” Well, yeah that’s true but there’s also the story behind that party line and that took a lot of wrestling to get out of me.
Strip clubs aren’t like any other place. People put on a persona: the dancers and the patrons.
For better or for worse it’s a mutually agreed upon fantasy space. Women are give permission to be sexual in a way that they’re not outside of the strip club, they’re allowed to walk around in little outfits and rule the roost. And men are allowed to come and look at women all they want, and have that not only be expected but appreciated. So I think that in order to suspend that fantasy bubble there needs to be a little bit of courtesy on each side. Anonymity is the grease that makes the machine hum, and that’s really something that you have to bear in mind
Does each club have its own vibe?
I went to like 25 different clubs.. the work feels the same everywhere you go. You always feel very sort of hyper, your eyes are always scanning the room waiting for the next guy to get money from, you’re always in the same posture of tucking in your butt, pushing out your boobs, and trying to look happy, happy, happy.. Strip clubs exist in a very special niche – there’s so much internet porn, and videos, and magazines, where it’s just you and the images in your mind. But in a strip club you go to see real people.
Are there guys who only date strippers?
Yeah, there are. I call them stripper chasers. Part of it is that stripping seems exciting, or glamorous, something like collecting scalps, you know, “I’ve dated X number of strippers and we know how evasive and picky they are, so if they pick me it makes me look like a real stud.” What’s far more common is the guy who is titillated by the idea of dating a stripper but he doesn’t realize when they hook up that she’s not going to quit. So this fantasy girl has a job that she goes to 8 hours a day and she sleeps til 2 and she goes to the gym all the time, and she really does have a lot more to do than sit around and wear sexy outfits for you. She’s not going to quit because it pushes your buttons either. If you get jealous, if you feel territorial, if you feel like, “Hey, I don’t want guys seeing you naked because you’re my girlfriend.” It’s like, buddy, you read the label before you bought the medicine. Don’t complain about the effects it’s having on you.
There are people who are reading this who have never been to a strip club, and perhaps they want to go. What is good strip club etiquette? How can you make sure that you have a good time, the dancer has a good time, and nobody goes home upset?
The most important questions to not ask are, “What’s your real name?” “How old are you?” and “Do you live near here?” because that’s just like “Hi, I’m a stalker.” Basically you have to understand that this is a workforce that’s–for good reason–very self-protective. If girls want you to know something about themselves they will tell you. You’re much better off sticking to compliments or idle chit chat. Coming on, cornering in too close to a girl is going to get you much less of a good show and is going to really harsh the vibe.
How do you tip? You just stand up and stick the money in…?
It really depends. It’s always appropriate to tip a girl who’s dancing on stage, but
the best thing you can do for the first half hour is just sit there and watch because that’s how you’re going to find out what the rules of the club are. At some clubs you can tip under a girl’s garter, around her leg, but other places you have to put it in her hand. Some places you’re allowed to put it between her breasts with the dollar in your teeth. So it really depends on where you are, and it’s really important to mind that rule because breaking that rule can not only get the girl in trouble, but can get the club in trouble too, so you really have to mind your manners when it comes to tipping the girls. Another thing is if a girl approaches you and asks for a dance and you’d like one, you say, “What are the rules here, what do I get to do?” Because not only will the club have very strict rules, but within those rules the girls have their own rules, particularly in a place like Las Vegas which tends to have more conservative dances in the center of the room, and the VIP areas will get a little more wild. Each girl is going to have her boundaries, and you should ask her and not ever assume anything.
Good advice for life, not just strip clubs.
Strip City will be released in September from Talk/Miramax Books.