By Veronica Zambetti
In Lapdancer (powerHouse), Juliana Beasley compiles images she took during her eight years as a stripper into a homage to dancers, their customers and admirers. She brilliantly peels aside the sex industry’s seedy surface to show the tender, banal, profound and playful reality of trafficking in sexual fantasy. The Modernist’s Veronica Zambetti, a former dancer herself, talks shop with Ms. Beasely.
The Modernist: I always found the most disconcerting side-effect of sex work was feeling my dancer’s persona slip into other parts of my life. As a phone sex operator, I usually took calls as a barely legal cutie eternally in or out of tiny cherry-print panties. For hours after leaving the office, I was inadvertently baby-talking to grocers or my cabdrivers. Even my inner monologue had regressed. To add to my confusion, everyone was being really sweet to me – much sweeter than usual. After a few days, I quit. I had to. It was really fucking with my identity.
Juliana Beasley: Dancing can be an identity fucker. I was lucky because I started dancing at 24, when I had my identity fully in place. Playing a part for 8 hours 4-6 nights a week, infiltrates every aspect of your life. I told customers that I was younger. I played the starving student or innocent little girl because you can really only play highly stereotyped roles as a stripper.
Your job is to be a cartoon but there is a lot of room for individuality, much more than in phone sex or clerical work.
I always make comparisons between stripping and other professions because these analogies make it more accessible to people who might be curious about stripping but disinclined to take it seriously because of the stigma. I used to tell a boyfriend who didn’t understand, that stripping was just being in a musical. Every night I played a stripper in a musical.
I am sure you were very convincing. Do you feel dancing gave you skills you might not have acquired in a “straight” job?
If anything, working gave me the opportunity to be around a lot of different kinds of people. Just going from school to an office would have limited me.
Stripping can be tedious but thankfully at least it is lively. Being an office hermit, hibernating in a cubical is often more debasing and emotional draining than stripping.
There are lots of begrudged dancers who resent the clients and regret their choices, for me it was really a learning experience. I had some ugly moments, but I learned to realise that people are certain ways at certain times in their lives and it is important to be accepting.
Did you start off as not very accepting?
I tried stripping when I was younger and I didn’t last long because I was coming in as an angry little feminist and looking at everything as if it were in a text-book.
Which is never wise since men are not going to polite in that environment. How did you stop judging your experiences ideologically?
I started accepting people for who they were, then I started seeing that the customers were there for a reason and it wasn’t only for sex. There was something they weren’t able to access in the other parts of their lives. Truthfully, there were a lot of customers I respect and care about as people.
Which isn’t as odd as it sounds since sex is only the surface of these encounters.
Dancing is an usual relationship because it is not just about sex, it is about feelings and our universal need for human contact.
Had you done similar work charming strangers before?
I had been a club kid in the eighties and I loved dancing. I danced in lesbian bars and clubs where I was paid to go and wear cute outfits.
You studied photography at NYU. Who were your artistic influences?
Larry Clark was big. The moment I started dancing, I wanted to photograph what I saw. I was seeing all these crazy things and I wanted other people to see what I saw. I started this project with voyeuristic intent and I when I started to edit the photographs I had taken, I started to find thematic lines linking aspects of the images together.
What are you doing now?
Although I loved to perform and dance for many years the work became monotonous and definitely not without its problems. I was ready to move on to do what I feel most passionate about, photography. The last year I’ve been working on a new book project about people with various disabilities, in particular, alcoholism in a low income neighborhood in the Rockaway’s in Queens, N.Y.C. I’ve made great connections with the people in the neighborhood and I’m fortunate they have been generous in sharing their private lives with me.
Do feel it is necessary to live in the communties you photograph or are you comfortable having a more casual relationship to your subjects?
I’m attracted to subjects that are personally meaningful to me…ones that I feel aren’t deeply examined by media. I like to take the time to meet and know the subjects as much as I can. Obviously, doing freelance work that isn’t always possible.
But you weren’t interested in creating another sociological critique of stripping?
No. I didn’t want to glamorize the life nor did I want to produce another sterile account of stripping as a sociological phenomena. I wanted to capture dance. In the interviews I conducted for the book, people speak for themselves and recount their experiences. I wanted to show the customers, not just the dancers, because accounts of the sex industry always focus on the girls. There is such a stigma to dancing that most documentation centers on the question of why these girls dance instead of examining the dynamic between men and dancers.
Your book is more about their shared or conflicted, expectations, prejudices and fantasies.
Dance is all about fantasy and my book is an account of fantasy in conflict with reality. The chair on the book’s cover is a metaphor for the psychological place where the customers and dancers meet. It is really a battered, haggard piece of furniture.VZ: It looks like an office chair.JB: Yet customers and dancers use it as the axis point for their fantasies.
Stripping and sex work in general is often as much about race and class differences as it is about gender. The ads in the back of the Village Voice are all about ethnic fetishism.
“Where are you from?” is always the first question men ask. They want to know who they are dealing with and race is a big factor. They always assumed that I was the Italian/Jewish girl, which was not far from true. Next, they wanted to know how old I was and then what I did outside the club, but race was always the first introduction.
I always said I was an undergrad at NYU studying film theory. Guys loved that. They would tell me that no one wanted to have a conversation with their cab-driver, brick-layer or house-painter on the merits of the newest Woody Allen movie. It was a real treat to talk film with a topless eighteen-year-old.
I don’t know if my conversations were that intellectual. They were more emotional. I would talk to guys about their relationship problems and they would ask about mine. They wanted to hear my stories or they would be having trouble with their girlfriends or wives and I would just listen. Often, they were alone without a partner, so I would listen to them tell me about their feelings. Often that was how I made the most money for a night. Guys would get bored of lapdances and they wanted to just sit and talk to me. I asked for an hourly fee because if I was on the floor I could have been earning from dancing. They would pay and we would talk. Often there would be one man on one side of the room and another waiting for my attention somewhere else.
Of course, customers asked to date you. Do you ever see any of them outside?
Not really. When I first started dancing, I dated an eighteen-year old kid I met in the club. I was twenty-five and he was quite jaded in his own way. But usually asking me out was the end of my relationship with a customer. They would start by asking and then we would develop an on-going thing. After a while, they would start to resent having to come into the club and pay to see me, then they would ask to see me outside and get angry when I refused. Eventually, they would stop coming. Although, many people might pick up the book and think the customers are pathetic, I learned over the years that they suffered from a common problem. Perhaps, they spend their days without human contact in front of a computer or perhaps they don’t fit the standards of what this society finds attractive enough or affluent enough. Another possibility is their own inability to value their relationships they have with their spouses. Coming to lap dance clubs might be the only chance they have to sit and talk with someone of the opposite sex without being brushed off. Obviously it comes with a price tag. I hope that the people who pick up my book are able to look beyond the voyeurism of the photographs, read some of the text and see the lure of fantasy as a universal problem. Facing the truth is hard to handle. Stripping is big business and makes more money than Broadway shows.