An interview with photographer Juliana Beasley
by Veronica Zambetti
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
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
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.
(click to enlarge)
I am sure you were very convincing. Do you feel dancing
gave you skills you might not have acquired in a "straight"
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
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
(click to enlarge)
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
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
you comfortable having a more casual relationship to your
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.
(click to enlarge)
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
(click to enlarge)
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.
Zambetti is The Modernist's art editor at-large.
this interview in The Modernist's forums.