I didn’t always frequent tanning salons, shave my bikini zone, and wear four layers of underwear on the job. But then, I wasn’t always a stripper. Why strip? The Full Monty. I was bugged by the lengths the filmmakers went to establish the characters’ financial desperation. As if the only acceptable reason a man might consider stripping is because there are no other jobs available for hundreds of miles. Bollocks! I could imagine a man who might want to try stripping just for the hell of it, before he turns 40, before his body turns pear-shaped, before “let me get undressed” becomes a threat. Besides, if letters to Penthouse have taught us anything it’s that all sorts of interesting things happen to male strippers.
After watching The Full Monty I stood naked before a full-length mirror, considering such a man, tabulating my assets and liabilities. In the minus column: the rhythm of Ted Koppel, the grace of a freshly-birthed elk, and a physique that evokes Chipwich not Chippendales. In the plus column: a total and utter lack of shame.
I belonged to a gym, but had no results for my $600. Apparently, you have to show up. So I buckled down and hit the gym every night for a week. This made me sore in places I didn’t even know I had places. I wondered if there might be an easier solution—better lifting through chemistry, so to speak. Now I’m far too much of a wuss to try steroids, plus nobody wants to see a stripper with testicles shrunk to raisins. So I opted for a marginally-safer steroid precursor known as androstenedione. Andro is not a steroid, but your body turns it into one. It’s the supplement Mark McGwire admitted using when he hit seventy home runs in 1998. Of course, after his testimony before Congress, I’m guessing he was using something a bit more potent as well, like gorilla stem cells. Anyway, Andro had two main effects: First, it gave me splitting headaches. Second, it made my muscles grow like kudzu. I barely had to lift. If I looked at a barbell my biceps got bigger. It’s probably a good thing Congress banned this witch’s potion in early 2005. In five weeks my metamorphosis was complete and I became reacquainted with abdominal muscles I hadn’t seen since The Police topped the charts.
I called the only heterosexual male strip club in my area, The Golden Banana. The manager said I’d need body photos to apply, so I took my camera to the gym and asked some guy to shoot me flexing. He agreed and started focusing. I felt like I should explain what the photos were for and said, “These are for a job application. I’ve decided to become a stripper.” Suddenly his attitude changed and this gym rat handed me back the camera as if it were an actual rat. Clearly I’d crossed some line I didn’t even know existed. An amazon volunteered to help and managed to snap some pix without crushing the camera in her meaty paws.
That weekend my girlfriend and I went on a group tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. Since tan lines on a stripper are as attractive as water rings on a mahogany dresser, I opted for a nut-hugging International Male spandex bikini racer. Predictably, I was mocked by the other guys, who thought it axiomatic that the only acceptable male swim attire is knee-length jams or cut-off jeans. There was no turning back now. I was Thongman, outcast among men.
Flesh bronzed and abs crunched, I was ready to approach the Golden Banana. “I’d like to apply to be a male performer,” I said to the world-weary hostess, realizing too late the word male was probably extraneous. She looked at my photos and led me upstairs to meet the owner for an interview.
Bruno Romano is not the sort of guy you picture running a strip joint, mainly because he looks exactly like Al from Happy Days. Bruno assured me all his strippers were straight. His raised eyebrows and the pronounced lull in our conversation led me to believe he was waiting for me to volunteer my allegiance. I tried to be cute and said, “Count me not among the men who are good with flowers,” but Bruno looked unconvinced, probably due to the sheer gayness of what I’d just said.
I wanted to cinch the deal so I dropped trou and showed Bruno my new bod. “Your ankles are too narrow. You’ll need ankle warmers to hide them and split sole jazz shoes,” he said. Ankle warmers? Jazz shoes? What am I: Jennifer Beals? “If you can dance I can use you,” Bruno said, “so think of a stage name, kid. Something with pizzazz.”
I’d always heard that your stripper name is your first pet coupled with the first street you lived on. Or was that supposed to be your porn star name? In any case, Julie the dog and I grew up on Southfield Drive. Hm, “Julie Southfield”— sounds more like an action news reporter. No help there. Could have been worse though. I could have had a cat named Tuna-Breath and been born on 69th Street. I considered names with strong sexual connotations like “Dirk Diggler” or “William Jefferson Clinton,” then immodestly decided on “Sundance” since I was once told I looked like a young Redford. It sounded better than “Finch,” in honor of the celeb I’m most often told I resemble, David Spade. And—bonus—it had “dance” built right into the name. It worked on so many levels! I was sure the women who came to drool over male flesh would appreciate a stripper who puts that little extra effort into onomastics.
Next I needed a persona. Bruno explained that all his strippers have a shtick. There’s cowboy stripper, construction worker stripper, policeman stripper, UPS delivery guy stripper, all the male fantasy archetypes/Village People. We decided on tuxedo stripper for me.
Bruno invited me to watch Saturday night’s show so I went, girlfriend in tow. In the annals of bad date history surely this must rank. I took a girl to a strip club in a skeevy part of town, then made her wait in the car for two hours (she did forget her ID) while I went inside and watched men strip. Our drive home was long and silent. Watching the ladies get hot and bothered that night, I realized women have a healthier attitude towards stripping than men. They don’t filter their emotions. They hoot and holler and you don’t have to wonder what they’re thinking. When guys watch women strip, they get this inscrutable glossy-eyed stare, like they’re thinking, I wonder if her severed head would fit in my freezer. I was shocked to learn that the cardinal rule of female stripping (don’t squeeze the Charmin) does not apply to male performers. When the guys work the crowd for tips, they wade through a sea of groping hands that resemble a giant human car wash.
The next week I visited a used formal wear shop, where old tuxes go to die. Hiding amid the powder blue travesties was a standard black penguin suit in my size. I bought it and took it to my favorite Korean tailor to line the inseams with Velcro so I could rip the pants off with a flourish—the male stripper signature move. Mr. Kim had never been asked to make “breakaway pants” before and seemed puzzled. Hoping he might understand if I just spoke louder, I yelled, “I must be able to rip these pants off my body! I am a stripper! I take my clothes off in front of women for money!” An elderly woman picking up her quilt fled the shop aghast.
My final stop was the club’s seamstress to measure me for custom T-backs and slings, male equivalents of thongs and G-strings. The fitting wasn’t nearly as risqué as I’d imagined. Her list of measurements did not include penis girth, ball displacement, or asscrack contour.
Sunday afternoon I went back to the Banana to work with the troupe’s star and choreographer, Michael Casanova. Without the raucous crowds and flashing strobes, the place felt a lot less intimidating. The air had the wet cardboardy smell of stale beer mixed with a lingering sticky-sweet hint of appletinis and perfume from the night before. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I thought I could smell the hormones. I paced the stage, waiting for Casanova, trying to convince myself that this turf would soon be mine. He showed up an hour late, took one look at me and said, “Are you gay?”
“Do I look gay to you?” I said.
“Kind of, yeah.” This coming from a man wearing satin hot pants and a lace-up pirate shirt.
I tried to put him at ease and said, “People always think I’m gay when they first see me… taking it in the butt in an alley behind a gay nightclub.” Clearly I hadn’t learned my lesson about snarky answers to this question.
“What’s with all the homophobia around here?” I asked.
“I got nothing against gays. It’s just that all the dancers are straight and we want to keep it that way. When you’re backstage getting dressed you don’t want your buddy checking you out.”
“It’s funny. Most people think you guys are gay.”
“Total myth,” said Casanova. “But we encourage it. It’s the only reason guys let their women come to places like this. They tell their girl, ‘What are you getting all excited about? Those male strippers are all gay, you know.’ Then after the show their wives and girlfriends are back in the dressing room giving us blow jobs.”
“And I thought casual Friday was a nice perk,” I said.
I’d seen Casanova work his magic the prior Saturday night. He’s a former nationally-ranked gymnast and truly Lord of the Strip. His energetic dance style, gymnastic antics, and unpredictability make him the crowd favorite. He’s as likely to break into the funky chicken during a strip as he is to backflip into a split. Casanova tried to teach me the tricks of the trade, but his terpsichorean techniques aren’t easily adopted by mere mortals. A Casanovism: “If I can’t think what to do next, I just do a series of five back handsprings. By then I’ll have come up with something.” Thanks. I’ll file that tip right next to “recommended polishes for Oscar statuettes.”
I asked Casanova about more practical issues. “I saw you guys chomp dollar bills out of the women’s hands,” I said. “I’m not too wild about using my mouth as a wallet. I read a study that said that 94 percent of U.S. currency is covered with disease-causing bacteria.”
“If you don’t want to bite the bills, let the girls stuff ‘em in your sling,” Casanova said. This did nothing to alleviate my anxiety as I imagined paper cuts down there.
“Couldn’t I just carry some sort of basket, like an Easter basket, and have the women put their money it that?” I asked. Casanova laughed, thinking I was kidding.
Nervously I asked, “What about, you know, stuffing? Do any of the guys stuff?”
“Dangerous,” said Casanova. “It’s great until the stuffing falls out in the middle of your act. I’ve seen it. You don’t want that to happen to you.” We both shudder.
As an homage to my thwarted dream of becoming a secret agent, I chose Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” as my audition song. It worked perfectly with the tux, sort of a James Bond motif. Casanova thought it a bold choice—the song’s sultry vocals, break beats, and high-energy crescendos made it a first-rate stripping song, though a bit advanced for a rookie. Casanova worked with me for hours choreographing it, then he tossed me a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil and said, “Rub this all over your body. It’ll give your muscles definition. Time for your audition.” Gulp. He rounded up all the waitresses, barmaids, and female strippers in the place and told me to strip for them. Coach Casanova barked last-second pointers: “Remember to smile, move your arms, don’t look at yourself in the mirror, don’t lip-synch, and don’t wiggle your ass.” Damn, I thought. Wiggling my ass, lip-synching to the song was pretty much my fallback plan in case I forgot the routine. Then he pressed “Play” and jolted the bar with Roger Taylor’s dramatic drum crashes and Simon Le Bon’s tenor wail.
Disrobing in front of these woman should have been nerve-racking but I had plenty of other worries to occupy my mind. I focused on not slipping on mineral oil slicks, not tripping over the smoke machines, staying in the spotlights, making eye contact, doing spins without losing my balance, and ignoring their yawns and drumming Lee press-on nails.
To say I didn’t turn the girls on is an understatement. In fact, if you had some gunpowder you needed kept in a cool, dry place, their panties would have been an ideal location.
Tammy, a stripper who was hotter than vindaloo curry, began the critique. “Sit down, this is going to take a while. For starters your rhythm is way off. Can you even snap to the beat of the song?” I couldn’t.
A waitress reminisced about a stripper named Paris’s audition. “God, he made me cream. He was built like a brick shithouse.”
“How would you describe me,” I asked. Judging from their expressions, whatever make of shithouse I resembled definitely wasn’t brick.
A barmaid asked what my stage name was. “Sundance,” I said.
“Suckdance is more like it,” she said. Zing! My carefully chosen moniker had backfired.
Fishing for praise, I asked if I was at least a better stripper than Chris Farley in his zany Saturday Night Live Chippendales sketch.
“You could use some of his energy,” a little minx observed.
“Can I ask you something?” said a waitress. “Are you gay?”
“Straight as a dog’s hind leg,” I said.
“Good. For a moment I thought you were gay,” she said.
When the girls finished eviscerating my performance, Casanova offered his opinion. “I admit, he’s no John Travolta on the dance floor, but we’re a man short for the show. If he trains with me every day for a month I think I can make a stripper out of him.” Since things were getting serious I thought it might be a good time to pull Casanova aside to talk economics. He explained that a Saturday night at the club runs seven hours, from 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., and pays $250 in salary and tips on a good night. He casually mentioned that freelance strippers for bachelorette parties and such make $250 an hour. Two hundred fifty bucks for seven hours versus one hour? It didn’t take Alan Greenspan to see that freelancing is the better deal. So, even though I wasn’t exactly finished goods, I bailed from the Golden Banana and its month-long stripper boot camp and resolved to become a freelance stripper. Except I had absolutely no idea how to get bookings. Then I remembered my friend, Bridget.
Bridget was a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia who moonlighted as a topless masseuse. She was also one of the first college girls in America to set up a fee-based webcam in her dorm room. Devotees of bridgetcam spent hours watching tiny grainy images of Bridget’s room on crawly dial-up modems, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of her reading A History of Medieval Christianity in the nude. Bridget relished her secret life. Schoolgirl by day! Streetwalker by night! Her daddy was a Master of the Universe on Wall Street and mommy was ultra-religious, so her madonna/whore fixation was nicely wrapped up in parental authority/rebellion issues.
If anybody I knew had a pimp in their Rolodex, surely it was Bridget. She did. Rejoice, oh parents of mine, your dreams for me have come true. No longer must you stand idly by, holsters empty, while this neighbor rat-a-tat-tats you with tales of her son’s latest corporate triumph and that neighbor strafes you with pictures of a new granddaughter. Return fire, alert the alumni update editor, slip it in the annual Christmas letter, shout it from the rooftops: “At last our son has a pimp—a big black ex-con named Damon.”
Damon got me my first professional stripping gig: a birthday party for a 24 year-old in Culpepper, Virginia. The first thing I discovered is there really is no discreet way to walk up to an apartment when you’re wearing a tuxedo and carrying a boom box. The whole situation just screams, Yo, who ordered the stripper? Passersby correctly sized up the situation and shot knowing glances my way. I stood outside the door for a second, listened to the giggles coming from inside, and gauged the intoxication level (spring break) and crowd size (standing room only).
I went in and finally got to experience the thrill of taking off my clothes in front of a roomful of women for cash. Oddly, it didn’t bother me one bit—seemed completely natural. Without the Golden Banana’s fussing over production value and triple spins and jazz hands, it’s a lot easier. I discovered my own peculiar stripping style. I’m less a dancer, more a prancer. And I think I lack the undulation gene. But the gals, eyes locked on the package, didn’t seem to mind. I encouraged audience participation and gamboled about the room doing something different with every girl. I tangoed with one, hopped in another’s lap, massaged the birthday girl’s feet, and coaxed one into rubbing mineral oil all over my body to the tune of Cathy Dennis’s “Touch Me.” I gave piggy-back rides and did push-ups with girls straddling my back. One saucy wench pantomimed fellatio on me. They lapped whipped cream off my happy trail and slurped tequila shots from my navel. One woman exclaimed, “I’ve got to get my five-year old into this career! He loves dancing around the living room in his underwear!” It was bawdy and silly, more playful than sexy.
The only awkward period was the après-strip. The women invited me to stay. Why not, I figured. Fully clad again, I discovered how tough it is to segue from stripper to party guest. The mood was, So, now that you’ve clutched my butt cheeks and rode me like a bronco, how ‘bout that situation in Bosnia? They realized they didn’t really want to see me as a real human being and the feeling was mutual. Get in, get out—that became my motto. That first night I raked in $250 for the hour plus $60 in tips. On the way home I bought dinner with my ill-gotten gains and it occurred to me that I now, in effect, will drop pants for food.
And so it went, month after month. I did birthday parties, bachelorette parties, divorce parties, and girls night out parties. Every strip was different. Some girls went buck wild. Others trembled with fear, saying over and over, “Oh my God, what if my boyfriend finds out?” Generally, younger women are the most timid. The older ones know what they want. “Do this. Do that. Bend over. Touch your toes. On your knees. Sit on my lap.”
I made it a policy not to strip all the way—to stop at the g-string. Actually, my girlfriend made this policy. But I concurred. Leave something to the imagination, right? This worked fine until the night I was hired to strip for a house of sorority girls. They had a formal that evening and when I arrived they were wearing little black dresses and had been drinking mai tais from penis straws all afternoon. The half-hour strip was rowdy and hands-on. When I reached the end, they were in a lather and started chanting, “Take it off, take it off.” I smiled, shook my head, and bent over to pick up my scattered clothes. Their hands clawed at my flimsy G-string. “Take it off!”
Here’s the lowdown on my gear. My manhood is a skittish appendage, a rabbity sort, prone to hiding at the slightest hint of pressure or danger. And so, when the strap on my banana hammock broke, I was not surprised when a baby carrot tumbled out. Mortified and humiliated, yes, but not surprised. They stared silently for a few seconds then someone said, “Aw, it’s so cute!” “Humungous” is good. “Terrifying” is good. “Cute?” Not so good.
As I reassembled myself the girls whipped out cell phones and started dialing boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, saying, “I am so horny. Get over here right now! You can’t make it? Your loss.” Click. Then they dialed the next guy. A bunch of guys have my lame strip to thank for the bootie call they got that evening.
Now I am not going to psychoanalyze myself here. That’s for my friends, in-laws, and a cabal of excoriating ex-girlfriends to do behind my back. And I am certainly not going to suggest that my compulsion to be desired by a roomful of women has anything to do with lingering emotional scars left by Dana Gordon’s rejecting my maladroit passes in Fayetteville Elementary. But there was something exhilarating about being objectified. Stencil “Three Feet—No Diving” on my forehead and call me shallow, but it was fun to be lusted after. Before I became a stripper I took it as a matter of faith that anyone who went to M.I.T. for rocket science could never be seen as a sex object.
Male stripping, I realized, was about toppling the natural balance of power. It was about making women nervous around me instead of the reverse. Women who would have given me the brush-off had we met in a bar lost their cool when Suckdance strutted into their living room. Such is the awesome power of breakaway pants. My girlfriend failed to grasp these monumental sociological implications and grew suspicious. “Aren’t you about done with your little experiment?” she asked.
“Oh no. I think I’m on the verge of a breakthrough in my research on the effects of ecdysiastic stimuli on intoxicated females. A few more months should do it.”
In the end it wasn’t jealousy that made me hang up my G-string. It was the diet and exercise regimen. It’s hard work staying in stripping condition. There’s no place to hide excess flab when you’re nearly naked, a dozen women circling you, your every imperfection illuminated by blazing halogen torchieres. As much fun as it is to be pawed by dewy-eyed, nubile young things, I missed French fries too much.
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Penthouse, P.O.V., Complete Woman, and Generation Next.