Illusory passions

The demon temptress in me was hard to kill, but in the end the bad outweighed the good and I had to say goodbye. Last in a series.

Published July 3, 2001 7:49PM (EDT)

The advantages for the foreign hostesses who work in the bizarre environment of the near courtesan are obvious: fast cash, and lots of it. Salaries vary wildly, depending on how many customers request a particular girl and come to the club with her after dinner. At Verdor, a new hostess without any customers could expect to make about $3,000 per month (not very much in Tokyo, where the cost of living is higher than in New York), free of taxes except for the 10 percent cut all clubs take. A top hostess might bring home $6,000 to $8,000 per month in salary alone, working five nights a week for about five or six hours a night.

In addition, a top hostess might receive perks: an apartment subsidized by her most besotted customer; dinners at the best restaurants in Japan; presents of designer clothes, jewelry and computers; trips around the world; or, perhaps most tantalizing, a sponsor who allows her to circumvent Japan's strict visa laws and remain in the country.

Of the six months I worked in the business, I made my highest salary for just a couple of them. This was about three months into the job, by which time I had my own customers, and still gave a damn about the job. More important, I was still having fun then, and my obvious enjoyment made me popular.

From the beginning, I made fairly good money, and even picked up two non-hostess jobs through my customers. One man recommended a female friend who needed a private English tutor, and another man, the head of a hair accessories company, paid me very well to spend an afternoon modeling his barrettes and bobby pins.

It's not unusual for hostesses to locate business opportunities through their more trusted customers. Mr. Kobayashi, the politician turned consultant, offered several times to help me with my academic career. Exactly how he could do this was unclear, but he repeatedly stated his indebtedness to the hostessing system for his own success.

He told me, "The mama-san of a famous hostess club in Ginza was as responsible for my career as anyone else. She introduced me to people I needed to know in politics, and she didn't even charge me her full prices until I was making enough money."

She undoubtedly did this because she knew that Mr. Kobayashi would one day be a high-placed official who would bring lots of business to her club by entertaining clients there. Her help had instilled in him an appreciation of the practical, corporate aspect of hostessing. Mr. Kobayashi viewed hostesses as colleagues, in a way, since they helped him with his clients.

But most men don't hold so respectful a view of the girls they toast with such high-priced whiskey. There is a dark side to this profession, a high price you might have to pay for temporarily living the life of a supermodel. It took me a few months to fully realize this. Some of the worst dangers are to the hostess's physical health -- the late working hours, physical exhaustion and heavy drinking do take a toll.

Drinking alcohol is unavoidable. While Verdor, unlike many clubs, didn't have a drink-back system (wherein customers must buy hostesses ridiculously priced drinks and the girls get a cut of the bill), there was still a lot of pressure on hostesses to get tipsy. In hopes of making them livelier, the club required even girls who claimed to have health problems that prohibited them from drinking to have at least one glass of alcohol before the waiter would switch their drinks to orange juice or iced tea.

The customers' logic is not so different from that of young men at a fraternity party: Get the girl drunk and maybe you'll get laid. I frequently heard customers asking the waiter to make a girl's drink strong, and I've seen hostesses continue to be served long after they had become completely drunk. For women who stay in the business for years, alcoholism is a pernicious threat.

One of the girls who worked a couple of nights a week at Verdor was Audrey, a 20-year-old part-time model from Indiana who walked the runways for Marc Jacobs by day and got plastered as a hostess by night. With her obnoxious accent and brash but sweet disposition, she was the kind of girl not every customer likes but who, for those who do, can be a fatal attraction. Her customers were obsessed with her. One of them told me, after Audrey had stumbled into the restroom, that he worried about her. "Please help her," he urged me.

Maybe he honestly believed in his concern when he said this, but it was an ironic request, considering that he -- like all of Audrey's customers -- was doing his best to get her drunk. I think they found her almost unbearably touching when, after ripping through a couple of Janis Joplin songs, she lost consciousness.

Audrey, in the customers' defense, was a willing victim. While Verdor didn't have a drink-back system, girls who introduced new customers to the club (whom they'd usually met while working elsewhere) always got a cut of that customer's bill, and this man was Audrey's customer. That was why she was on her third bottle of champagne.

By the end of the night she had made, in addition to her regular salary, a bonus of $350 -- 10 percent of the customer's bill. But to do this she'd had to consume four bottles of the best champagne by herself. She passed out on one of Verdor's velvet couches and slept there for about an hour, until she was able to walk upstairs to her cab.

Even through this sort of debauchery, one of the best -- and most unusual -- things about Verdor was that the girls generally supported one another. I liked Audrey, so I tried to talk to her. I knew she felt a bond with me, the only other American at Verdor. "You have to stop drinking so much. It's not healthy," I told her.

"Yeah, I know, Berkeley" (she had nicknamed me this after my graduate school), "but they keep serving me even when I'm already drunk."

"Then you just have to stop yourself."

"I know," she said sadly, looking much older than her years at that moment. After two years in Japan, she returned to America last May, a few weeks before me. I hope she stays there.

Besides alcohol, hard drugs -- because of the late hours, the emotional pressure and the women's large disposable income -- are also a popular and accessible option. I wondered at Sandra's shrill thinness until I found out that she snorted cocaine in the immaculate club restroom before returning to the velvet couches to drink with her many customers.

One day I noticed that Mr. Hayashi, previously one of her steady patrons, had stopped coming. "Did something happen?" I asked her.

"Oh," she grimaced. "I had a little problem with him. We haven't talked since I introduced him to my boyfriend."

"Why did you do that?"

"Well ... Look, you can't tell anyone, but Hayashi is really into his drugs. I knew that my boyfriend could get him some coke, so I set up a meeting between the two of them. After that, Hayashi wanted me to party with him, but I'm trying to get out of that whole scene, so I refused."

"And you haven't seen him since?" I asked.

Sandra nodded. I was sorry for her loss of a customer, but at least she was trying to stop her drug use.

In addition to the physical dangers, the stress on looks in the hostess profession increases the likelihood of self-image disorders like anorexia and bulimia. I had suffered and recovered from anorexia in junior high school, and even with that horrific experience in mind, I found myself worrying about my weight for the first time since then -- something I hadn't even done in high school when I was seriously dancing ballet. I'm 5-foot-10 and wear a size 6, and that seemed big to a lot of Japanese men. Some girls, though undeniably thin by American standards, nevertheless started dieting when customers reacted with surprise to their sexy curves -- hips not being a prominent feature of the bodies of most young Japanese women.

What's more, hostesses have to cope with a certain amount of obnoxious behavior on the part of customers. Because they're paying for your company, some of them wrongly assume intellectual superiority. Fortunately, because I became the favorite of several of Midori's most important (read: richest) customers, my popularity protected me against customers who became unruly when drunk or were just generally rude. I had, at least, the option of asking to be moved to a different table in difficult situations, and my request was sometimes (but not always) granted.

The constant competition can also wear on you. At Verdor there wasn't much cat fighting and back stabbing, mostly because the girls were too cash rich, or exhausted by work, to care. (None of us could fall asleep before sunrise, so after work we would often take our customers' tips and go out together for a bite to eat or dancing for the rest of the night.) Occasionally, however, a customer would decide it was time for a switch of girls, often when his most recent favorite was on vacation.

Like other hostesses, I felt some competitive pressure whenever I was seated, at Midori's discretion, with one of my customers and another girl. The other hostess would try her best to entertain him, of course, since that was her job, and even if she wasn't purposely trying to steal him, she couldn't help it if he transferred some of his interest from me to her.

Toward the end of my tenure at Verdor, for example, I was forced to share Mr. Kajiwara, one of my favorite customers, with another hostess -- a loss I registered more on an emotional than a financial plane, as he alternated his dinners out with me and her. Even in a world of illusion, rejection -- on whatever level -- still hurts.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is of the hostess who becomes trapped in this environment, addicted to the fleeting adulation of men and convinced she can do nothing else. One hostess I knew was an absolutely gorgeous, 37-year-old Brazilian woman who had made a killing when she first came to Japan 15 years before. Now, even her beauty couldn't make up for the fact that she was getting older -- an unforgivable sin in the world of hostessing -- and her salary was fast decreasing. She spoke six languages and had a degree in architecture, yet she still felt like she couldn't leave this job. Maybe cases like this are the reason many customers said to me, "What are you doing in a place like this? Get out while you can."

Despite all its peculiarities, I became increasingly addicted to the hostess world, which was intoxicating in more than one sense of the word. I found it impossible to quit, even though my tenure as a hostess had already served its purpose. After a few months, I had made enough money to be able to return to grad school comfortably in the black. What's more, hostessing was proving to be counterproductive to other goals I had, primarily studying and performing avant-garde Japanese dance, since my nocturnal work schedule conflicted with most rehearsals and classes.

But I couldn't stop. I think the main reason had to do with the "true" relationship in my life, which was suffering from my boyfriend's and my cohabitation. I felt that my customers could somehow protect me from the emotional wounds inflicted by my lover. Their adoration validated me, so I didn't have to rely on my real relationship for self-esteem. This armor, I thought, might be what could save the love I cared about.

I was still living in a dream world at this point, but I couldn't help realizing the moral ambiguity of my position. For a while, a when-in-Rome attitude kept me going. In the beginning, I just told myself that the hostess/geisha system was centuries old, and that the men who were my clients well knew how it worked. If they became too emotionally involved and got hurt, that was their problem, because they couldn't have had any illusions about the situation at Verdor -- a place that was all illusion.

This was how most of the hostesses around me felt, especially the ones who had been in the business a long time. One night, after carefully explaining how she was plotting to manipulate her best customer to get more money out of him, Amanda -- a highly educated hostess -- sighed, then shrugged. "I was never like this before. But this is the game you have to play. I make a lot of money and get to travel the world. That's what's important to me now."

I played the same game for a time: I plotted which customer to call when; calculated how to portray myself as a romantic possibility to the men while keeping my distance; memorized my customers' likes and dislikes as to karaoke, drinks, conversation and dress.

In the spring, after hostessing for a total of five-and-a-half months, I started to break down, snapping at customers when they became condescending or lewd. "How big is your vagina?" a new customer might ask, demonstrating various sizes with his fingers.

"How big is your penis? Pretty small, I bet," I'd retort.

"What?" The great thing about being rude is that the men can't, at first, believe that they're hearing insults from you. As the paying customers, they expect to be treated as deferentially as gods. So they assume, if you're speaking English, that they haven't heard you correctly and, if you're speaking Japanese, that you've just made a mistake. But eventually they get it.

One time I snapped at a customer right in front of the club manager. He didn't reprimand me afterward, though he looked less than pleased. His silence surprised me at first, but I soon guessed what was up: Midori's two most important customers were crazy about me. Until my erratic behavior became a huge liability, the manager couldn't really do anything to me. I had at least that power.

But pretty soon I was crying regularly on the way home from work, as sympathetic taxi drivers tried to comfort me. I yearned for the day when I could return to the safe if laborious world of graduate school (that's when you know you're desperate). At first the job had made me stronger and more self-confident, but now I realized it was just making my heart harder.

It was also changing me in ways I was unable to see. One night I went out for drinks with a male friend I had known for years, and I realized that he was looking at me with horror. "What?" I asked. As soon as we started talking, he told me, everything about my comportment changed: My voice became lower, my movements more languid, my laugh more provocative.

It wasn't that I was trying to seduce him; it was just that my hostessing persona had become so second nature that it overcame me whenever I was in a similar environment. Spooked, I felt like I had been possessed by a demon temptress. The lines between my work self and my "normal" self were blurring. I liked being able to toy with different personae, but I needed to be able to control them.

I knew there was a real problem when my boyfriend, a South American Casanova with no short list of past lovers, told me that I had a problem with commitment. "What do you want from me?" I retorted. "It's my job to pretend that I'm in love with a different man every night!"

During my painful breakup with this man, I relied on my customers for a great deal of emotional support and validation -- even though they knew nothing about my personal life. Their sham "love" soothed the wounds of heartbreak, especially because I knew the fantasy that was my work held no danger for my heart.

My customers reminded me, in true Buddhist fashion, that the passions of this world really are an illusion. This was a valuable lesson. Now I feel better able to continue with school -- I think I can take it all a little less seriously and a bit more pleasurably.

Finally, however, I couldn't deny what I had known for a while: Hostessing was no longer worth doing. It had started as well-paid glamour, but it had become a nightmare in which my customers and I tried to outwit each other through a fake courtship. I pretended that I loved them so I could get money, and they pretended that they loved me so they could get sex. They would be content with innocent companionship only for so long, and I figured I might as well get out before I lost all of them. I dreaded failing at even so pathetic a profession as hostessing. So I quit, telling Midori I had to return to school in California.

I really did care about my customers in my own way. And I confess that I miss hostessing sometimes. It was like a dream -- perfect at its height, restless and nightmarish near daybreak. I still get e-mails from several of my customers. They tell me how much they miss me, how they have no one to talk to since I left, how they get nostalgic when they hear certain songs on the karaoke system. Their notes, at once absurd and sincere, touch me. I write them back when I can, because I can't just leave them to their loneliness. I feel that it's still my job to look after them, even from far away.

To my own disbelief, I took one last stab at the whole thing last fall, in America. Call me a glutton for exquisite servitude. Mr. Tanaka, one of my former customers, came to Los Angeles for an annual aviation conference. I accepted his offer to fly me to L.A. for the weekend and put me up at the Bonaventure. Just to be safe, I took along a male friend and stashed him in my bathroom whenever Tanaka knocked on the door. Although such capers provided some comic relief, I was miserable for most of the two days. Hostessing just did not translate into my own culture, and I spent much of the weekend wondering what the other men at the conference thought my position was. Luckily, Tanaka was a perfect gentleman. And he never discovered my stowaway.

Even with that failed experiment, I still occasionally miss the sweet deception and intensity of hostessing, the experience of a love affair stripped clean of any mundane concerns. The relationship between a hostess and her customer is commitment without complications, magic without disappointments. But ultimately, though hostessing can make ordinary love seem less exciting, it also highlights how tender less manipulated relationships can be, and how much more redemptive.

Maybe someday I could hostess again, but I doubt it. Being in love with one person is hard enough. And maybe it is enough, after all.

By Cynthia Gralla

Cynthia Gralla is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. She spent about six months working as a hostess during visits to Japan in 1999 and 2000.

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