Taking it all off

Lily Burana talks about what makes a great stripper, which men make the best customers and which songs to play when you're getting naked.

Published October 9, 2001 5:10PM (EDT)

When Lily Burana, peace punk teen turned exotic dancer turned writer, fell in love with a cowboy and got engaged, she felt something tugging at her subconscious about her former outlaw profession. Burana had danced in such notorious strip clubs as New York's Peepland and San Francisco's Lusty Lady for most of her 20s, but her vivid, up-and-down memories of that life were largely unresolved. With the prospect of settling down -- and a book project -- bearing down on her, Burana set off on a nationwide tour of America's best clubs from Florida to El Paso to Alaska and to New Jersey, her home state.

"Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America" is smart and beautifully written, but what's most dazzling is Burana's sharp-eyed wit. There's a sense that when she walks into a club, doubtlessly tough and assured, another part of her also naturally absorbs the sadness, silliness and full-on fun of hole-in-the-wall, one-stage bars, chi-chi gentleman's clubs and high-energy party venues. Salon spoke to Burana about what makes a good stripper, a good strip club customer, what songs are the best to dance to and whether she'll ever go back.

What makes a good stripper?

More than appearance and costume and physical skill -- it's looking like you want to be there. There are a whole range of options of adult stimulation. You have the Internet and movies and magazine and phone lines and chat rooms. Why would somebody go someplace where there are real women when you could do something else? Because they want some kind of connection.

Beyond that, physical presentation is important. In some places it will be a beaded evening gown and 4-inch heels and in other places it will be cutoffs, a cowboy hat, platform boots and a bandanna around your neck. You don't have to be centerfold pretty to be a stripper. You have to make sure that from the neck down you're reasonably depilated and that you're in reasonably good shape and your hair is clean. Most guys just want someone who's decent and will listen to them. I announced my retirement more times than Garth Brooks, but when you're with a customer, the fact that you don't like your job is not his fault.

Oh. And stay away from those thigh-high stockings. They look like crap on everyone.

Name three songs that make up a perfect stripper's set.

First, I just want to say that if I see one more girl come out in a plaid schoolgirl skirt and a white blouse tied at the waist, dancing to "Rag Doll" by Aerosmith, I'm gonna scream.

Second of all, I think there should be a nationwide moratorium on "Cherry Pie" by Warrant. That song doesn't exist anywhere but strip clubs and you just think, OK, I wasn't having such a good time in the late '80s, early '90s to begin with and this kind of music is part of the reason why. My irony meter is not yet pegged to accept "Cherry Pie."

Historically, when all else fails, pull out "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC. And "Bad to the Bone" -- guys really adore that. If the club is more hip-hop friendly, it's such a savage song, but "Can I Get a Fuck You" by Jay Z ... it creates such a tension. It's a nice girl doing this naughty thing to a really tough song: "OK, I need to get to know that girl better."

But the no-fail, can't-miss song of all time seems to be "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard. I'm not sure if this is due to the celebratory, unabashed corniness of the song or if there's a direct link between glucose and the male libido, but there you have it.

In the book, after one particular night of dancing, you said you felt "scuzzy and superior" at the same time. Why?

In that specific case, I pulled a certain hustle that I wouldn't normally pull. A guy really wanted to pick me up in a way that bordered on a misdemeanor. There are some women who will do extracurricular activities outside of a club. So the guy tries. The guy's tipping you heavily because he's trying to do a soft sell without offending you. I knew I wasn't going to sleep with the guy, but I was a little more evasive than I otherwise would have been. That is very ethically dicey, but I thought, Hmm. Never done this before. Let me see if I have the nerve to do it.

It felt kind of icky afterward. For some women, that scuzzy and superior feeling is the state of antipathy that they live in all the time. I certainly had that feeling in the beginning when I was at Peepland. It's a very traditional defense in exotic dance: "This business isn't exploiting me, I'm exploiting it."

Did you ever once consider sleeping with any of these men?

It's much harder to dance for the cute ones. In your conscious mind, you approach it as a business and you know what your boundaries are. Then you get some guy who is cute and charming. You would give him the time of day if he weren't a customer, and you have this awful feeling of someone offering themselves up on a platter and you have to reply, "But for the circumstances of how we met ..." I know one woman who met her husband while she was dancing, but that rarely happens. It's very strange to have somebody see you naked before they know your real name.

You write about feeling rejected. What would make you feel rejected from a customer?

It's very intense to go from guy to guy -- every dancer will have nights like this -- and for whatever reason, nobody's biting. Would you like a dance? No. Would you like a dance? No, thank you. Would you like a dance? Maybe later. After a certain time, the accrual of no's makes you think, I'm just going to go in the dressing room and fix my makeup and read Vogue for an hour.

Remember that you walk into a club and the meter starts at zero. You're naked. Honestly, people are tipping you because they either think that you're charming or you're physically attractive. It's wholly contingent on somebody's approval of you. Guys can compliment you all the livelong day, but there's a real reason why you're there and that's money. When it doesn't come, it feels like you're not doing your job.

Even though I adopted a persona while I worked -- I was armored in spandex and sequins and hairpieces and 6-inch platforms -- somewhere in there is me. In most work environments, rejection comes in a more subtle form. But in dancing, you feel like an actress going from cattle call to cattle call. You hear the no to your face, instead of in an e-mail that says, "Dear So-and-So, we thank you for your query, but ..."

What makes a good customer? Is it being a spender or being a gentleman?

Some guys really don't have a lot of money to spend and that's fine because they're so laudatory in their praise for you or so fun to talk to that it's not about the money. I don't like the idea that the only value that the customer has is money. To me, that's deeply ungracious.

So if he's pleasant and not a grabber ...

Any guy who understands that there are rules in a certain club and that they vary from town to town and from club to club and from girl to girl is a good customer. I always appreciate a guy who says, "How close to you can I get? Where am I allowed to tip you?" In some places, a guy can only tip you in your hand, and if someone's trying to stick it in the side of your thong, he's not only violating your boundaries, he's jeopardizing your job.

Also, men who understand that you're physically vulnerable are good customers. What privacy you do choose to maintain is important to you and if he doesn't hector you for your real name or how old you are or whether you have kids or whether you're married or whether you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, it's a good sign. Typically, that's the guy who's going to end up learning more about you anyway. Courtesy implies that he's not going to use any information against you.

What do you think makes men go to strip clubs?

I went to an online board where dancers and customers interacted and I posted anonymously. This one fellow e-mailed me back and said that he travels a lot and gets lonely. If he didn't go to strip clubs, he'd just be walking around the mall by himself. There was something about the naked Lomanesque pain of that statement that made me realize that I'm not prepared to know why men go to strip clubs yet.

It seems so innocuous: "Ooh, relationship as transaction! Healthy guys giving healthy dollars to healthy girls! It's all so clean!" But why women are there is much more straightforward. I don't mean to condescend to the customers, but they aren't there for a living. They're there for fun or for some kind of emotional or personal satisfaction. That's much more complicated than, "Hey, the payment on my car is due." I can't speak for a population that I really don't know anything about.

That said, there's a couple reasons why they go. One is the hope that it will become a real relationship. Another part of it is if they're going to go out and have a few drinks with their buddies, they might as well look at a friendly girl in a bikini as opposed to Gus the Bartender.

It can be just as simple as having something else to do.

That's why I enjoy going as a customer. There are some places where the dancers are clearly not happy and it's this Sisyphean toil, "time to make the donuts" sort of thing. Then, you get to a club where the music is great and the dancers are happy and the customers are having a good time and it really is this nice, rowdy environment. On the other end of the strip club continuum, there are the gentlemen's clubs which exist solely to enforce a man's sense of entitlement. They have nice cigars, wonderful food and the nicest looking women. Men feel like they've worked very hard and that the environment is another perk of being a wealthy man.

One man said to you that you must get off on the power that you have over men and that pissed you off. He was obviously trying to get a rise out of you, but do you think there is an element of power-tripping for strippers?

To frame the question as a power trip, I'd say yes. But there's a difference between "power" and "power over." It's not like I'm Mistress Lily Burana and I want these men to quiver at my feet. Honestly, I don't have the time or inclination to do all the stomping around in big boots that getting that type of submission would require. But there is something to be said for "I see that taboo, and I'm going to break it." Particularly, when you just get started, that feeling of bursting through the place where nice girls aren't supposed to go is enormous. That's what buoys you through the first traumatic months.

Is that why you first did it, do you think?

When I say that I was an all-American misfit, that's no joke. Tattered copy of "The Bell Jar," black eyeliner, Aqua Net by the gallon-full. At the time, there was a part of me that thought, Oh, rebellious me. Of course, the bottom-line reason why I did it was because I was broke and I had a friend who I really trusted who was willing to walk me through the introduction to the business. The secondary, more psychological underpinning was "I'm a peace punk feminist, I hate Ronald Reagan, not going to tell me what's what" kind of girl. I was a scared young girl under the cosmetic drape of self-determined rebel.

What was the typical reaction then, when you told people that you were a dancer?

Remember that was the Reagan era. The reigning feminist ideology was Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Very strident and angry. You could only talk about being a dancer at the risk of being shouted down by somebody who knew better. Of course, they knew better because they'd never actually done the work. At that time, I was very No Nukes and anti-Star Wars and clean living and no drugs and listening to the Dead Kennedys. That added another drape of astringency because those types were also very negative about adult entertainment. It was seen as exploitative of women. It left me with not a whole lot of people to talk to about it.

I've watched that change so very, very much. The feminist dialogue has shifted to where it's almost politically incorrect in certain circles to criticize any woman's work -- whether it's the sex business or being a stay-at-home mom. In most ways, that's for the good because it gives women a lot more latitude. It's not like you're going to be kicked out of the tent as a feminist because you happen to have a day job that somebody else might take issue with.

And your family? They seemed sort of OK with it.

They really aren't OK with it, and that's to their credit. I didn't tell my parents for maybe three or four years. No, nobody threw plates or came down to the club and dragged me out into the parking lot and beat me up -- which happened to one girl that I know. They went through the typical parental reflexes of "Oh gosh, this reflects on us and where did we go wrong?" Over time, their attitude has changed because now I'm in the situation of having written about something that I have done, as opposed to something that I am doing now. But it's still difficult for them. Everybody else in the world can choose their proximity to me. But this is my family. And I love my parents a lot and I like them quite a bit too, so it wasn't as if my parents had abandoned me and they didn't get a vote anymore.

Do you think your boyfriend is not a jealous person? Or is he just a calm person?

Oh boy, we are jealous people, both of us. What needs to be said is that the ability to deal with your partner doing this kind of work is like having blue eyes -- you either have them or you don't. If you're not OK with it to begin with, then you're probably not going to get OK with it later on. He always knew from the beginning that this was my job. He respected it and he thought I was good at it. OK, that's cool, but guess what? The night that he comes to work with you and sees the guys talking to you and sitting down and flirting with you, it's a lot different.

I had a taste of my own medicine one night in Alaska. Typically, boyfriends are not allowed in the club but he was there and we're pretending that we're not together and this extremely cute girl is on him all night. I just completely hit the roof. Jealousy is an enormous, encompassing, face-eating feeling. I realized that this man is, head to toe, made out of 24-carat gold. The book is just brimming with cool chicks. But often, beyond every great dancing girl is a pretty cool guy.

Did stripping ever make you turned off from men?

I don't have that part of my brain that says that men are dogs. I always had a bunch of male friends who would say, "Hmm. Stripping. OK, well I don't judge it negatively, but why would I go to a place where a woman only pays attention to me because I'm paying her?" There are many types of men.

But one thing that did happen to me toward the end, was that I got intimacy fatigue. You realize that you just spent eight hours listening to 20 guys talk about their divorces, their jobs, their kids, their frigid girlfriends, their distant girlfriends. Then you go home and it's like a four-star chef wanting to make a can of Spaghetti-Os. Just as much as I wouldn't want to go ankles-over-head on a go-go pole after work, I didn't want to hear about intimacy stuff. I became very isolated. Job. "Seinfeld." Job. "Seinfeld."

On the flip side, did you find anything erotic about it?

Not all the time. Jobs tend to be repetitive. At other times, absolutely. Not like, "Ooh baby, I'm going to have a 'When Harry Met Sally' moment right here, right now!" I wouldn't categorize myself as an exhibitionist. But think of the context: Clubs are a permissive space, a spandex amnesty zone. I can wear tacky outfits without fear of the glares of the fashionistas. I can wear 7-inch heels. I can jack my cleavage up so high that if I inhale deeply I can suffocate. I can play with my sexual persona. And I can flirt with people and know it's not going to go any further than this club.

People smoking cigarettes and drinking drinks and cash is flying around. In a really good club on a really good night, there's sort of a communal group high. I don't mean an orgy/ecstasy/touchy-feely high. It's more like cruising this exciting rock 'n' roll vibe.

Do you have a favorite strip club?

I love Shotgun Willy's in Denver. It has eight stages and there's a no-contact rule. It's a Cuisinart effect; there's so many women dancing around that it makes the energy in the room spiral up. It's like the happiest party you've ever been to. The attitude is like "Topless women are cool and it doesn't have to go any farther than that and, hey, they're playing Kid Rock! Life is good!" These kinds of clubs are much more about the celebratory aspect than the Bukowski-esque pathos a-go-go thing.

How much is the most you've ever made in one night?

$2,500. That was my big night at Mitchell Brothers. It was great. This guy came in with a 3-inch stack of $100 bills. For me, though, that was an aberration. There are some women who would say, "OK, first of all, that's not a lot of money. Second, I make that at least once a week." But I wasn't trying to start my own country. For me it was just a day job.

At one point, a stripper says that stripping is honest.

Oh, that wasn't a stripper. A stripper wouldn't say that. I mean, I guess she would.

Do you reject something about that idea?

It's blatant, but I don't know how honest it is. Granted it doesn't have the sparkly mantle of legitimacy that acting in Hollywood does or playing the cello in the Philharmonic does, but it is part of the entertainment business. There's that camp that derides strippers as not doing legitimate work and doing damage to the relationship between the sexes. Then there's that other camp that views dancers as a noble savage: "She's out there doing honest work! And she's more honest than the rest of us because she knows what she's doing is crude and she's no bones about it!" Nobody is ennobled by being a stripper. It's a job.

And you'll never go back?

I wouldn't say never. It seems very unlikely but maybe there will be some groovy opportunity to get up there. Like at a charity function. We need to do a raffle to save an old strip club! Or something like that.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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