How I became an exotic dancer

My exhibitionist streak saved me from slinging doughnuts. First of two parts.

By Sheila Hageman
August 9, 2000 11:06PM (UTC)
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I can still remember the first time I was allowed to take a bath all by myself when I was about 6 years old. It was early in the evening, after dinner. Mom was washing dishes, Dad was reading the newspaper in the living room and my sister was doing homework in her bedroom. I filled the cracking beige porcelain tub with bubbling waves of soap and then soaked myself until my fingers were wrinkled like white sun-baked grapes. Balls of moisture formed on the bathroom window and fogged out the black night. My yellow plastic duck bobbed up and down by my two pink knees, poking out from the filmy water like two naked mole rats. Hot water traveled through the clanking pipes of the radiator and combined with the clinking of the dinner dishes Mom set out to dry. I held my breath and listened harder; the crisp turns and folds of Dad's newspaper were a song of comfort and home that protected me in the quiet night.

It was then that I first thought the world revolved around me. The outside sounds were made just for me. Other people lived on earth just to help fulfill my life's experiences. It was as if I'd discovered the meaning of life. I was the center of the universe and my job was to allow everybody around me to help me to experience the world. I wanted to know and feel everything in every way.


The bath water began to chill. Suddenly, the small tub enclosed me and made my dreams seem minuscule. How could the world be just about me? If it were, surely I would have a perfect life. That thought frightened me and made me think perhaps I was only a part of somebody else's world. I needed to return to my feeling of safety and connection with the larger world. I needed to stop the spreading veins of fear in my mind. I drained the water from the tub and fluffed my body dry with the mauve butterfly towel. My hand turned the wobbly crystal doorknob. I felt the exciting rush of cold hallway air and made a shivery dash for the kitchen.

My mom spun around as I rushed past her, squealing in my happy nakedness. My feet made streaky splats along the orange tiles. Mom dropped the Roadrunner glass back into the sudsy dishpan, "Karoomph!"

"Streaker, streaker!" my mom bellowed as I raced through the adjacent dining room into the brown living room. My dad peered over the top of the Connecticut Post. I zoomed past him and around the circle of the house again. I was laughing, running and getting goose bumps all over my body. It felt good to be naked.


Coming back to the opened bathroom door, I glanced in to see rivulets of water running down the steamy windowpanes. It was much more inviting to turn to my right and run around the circle one more time. Dad put his paper down and tried to catch me.

I was winded with happiness as I collapsed back into the bathroom, gasping for breath. I could hear my mom's and dad's muffled voices whispering from the other side of the door. Not only did I feel good, but now they were talking to each other without yelling.

The whole world had watched me. That's how it was meant to be. Shy little Sheila, who usually clung behind Mom's protective shadow, finally felt free to be noticed. I guess showing off was in my blood.


Years later, I plopped down into the orange booth at Dunkin' Donuts on my break and skimmed through the Connecticut Post's Help Wanted section. My view skirted to an advertisement I'd seen there before: "Exotic Dancers Wanted! Make up to $1,000 a week! No Experience Necessary! Will Train!"

A stripper. An exotic dancer. What a wonderful way to be the most beautiful and the most loved. I could show everybody what I was capable of becoming. Perhaps by showing my body to the world, I would be able to quench my longing for attention.


I mean, why shouldn't I become a stripper? It was almost as if I was being called to be one. My hair was blond and my ass was tight. Young, beautiful and intelligent women were supposed to do amazing and daring things.

I was wasting away in suburbia -- if I lived in New York I could go to more acting auditions. But it was so expensive to live there. I needed to make some big money.

A thousand dollars a week? I could do it. I was an actress -- all I had to do was play another role. I tore the small ad from the paper, shoved it in the pocket of my Levi's and brushed the color sprinkles from my pink polyester apron.


Two days later, I was driving to a brick apartment complex in downtown Bridgeport. I walked down a long dark hallway filled with the sounds and smells of babies and knocked on a door with a cardboard gold star that read "Star Management." I pushed open the thin wooden door into a small office covered with photos of naked ladies. Johnny, his striped polo shirt sweated to his chest, interviewed me for the job. His partner, Ron, was on the phone the whole time, talking to a woman named Lola.

I had brought my modeling portfolio with me. Johnny flipped through it, stopping to stare at the nudes. "Why don't you go slip into your costume?" I nodded and headed for the bathroom. The bathroom was also used as a storage room for extra boxes of glossies, so I barely had room to sit down on the toilet. I slipped on a white lace bra, a thong and heels.

The door stuck on the shag carpet as I tried my best to appear graceful. Johnny whistled and nodded as I did the fashion model turns that I'd learned at Barbizon Modeling School the year before.


"Could you take off your bra?"

I felt so stupid reaching my arms around my back and trying to unsnap it. Johnny leaned back and revealed his sweaty pits as I exposed my nipples. I waited for him to say I was too flat-chested, but he just took a Polaroid of me topless -- "for the files."

Johnny then went into a rambling monologue about the different clubs and their rules.

"Now, you look really young, so I need you to look glamorous from the minute you walk into a club." He rocked back and forth in his leather swivel chair, making squeegee sounds.


I tried hard to listen, but my moist thong kept sliding me farther back into the plastic folding chair. Whom was I kidding? Maybe Johnny would see right through me and tell me I wasn't sexy enough to be an exotic dancer.

"You'll need a signed permission letter from your guardian, since you're under 21."

How do you ask your mother for permission to be a stripper? "You mean I've got to tell my mom what I'm doing? I'm 18!" I sat up and leaned onto Johnny's cluttered desk. "I'm an adult."

"Well, you aren't legal to work in bars until you're 21, but don't worry." Johnny touched my hand. "I won't tell anyone if you forget your permission slip.


"I'm your boss; you answer to me, not the club owners. I book you and I help you when you need it, and you help me when I need it." His hand ran through his curly hair. "If you have any problems, you just call me."

I smiled, nodding in agreement with everything he said. I wanted to get out of that stifling office.

"If you're caught on the premises with drugs, it's an immediate week's suspension. Clearly intoxicated, same thing." Tufts of chest hair spurted from his open collar.

Drugs and alcohol at work? Who does that?


"G-string stays on at all times and absolutely no physical contact with the customers." I liked that rule.

"You'll get paid $55 in cash at the end of your seven-hour shift. Of course, you'll make your real money in tips."

I thought it would be more money. How many shifts would I need to work to make $1,000 a week? How much could I possibly make in tips?

"So, when can I put you into the rotation?"

I had been hired. Just like that. I was a topless dancer. I didn't want to sound like an amateur, but there was one question that kept floating through my mind.

"Umm, the free training advertised in the paper?" I asked.

For the first time since I'd arrived, Ron cleared his throat, stood up and leaned against his desk. "Just get up there and dance," he said.

Part 2: Sheila gets onstage and learns to like it.

Sheila Hageman

Sheila Hageman is a writer in New York.

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