By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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She gnaws her gum like a cud. Squatting to the right, knees spread wide, she rests longingly against a pole. Tables ring the purple-hued space as if it's a theater in the round.
The woman turns to the front row, but her eyes hover above the eager audience of six men, gazing to an imaginary horizon. She releases her white bikini top. Her nipples are perky; her expression is not.
"These girls don't dance," Sara Lee, a buxom woman with long auburn hair and sharp green eyes, says as she critiques the bored dancer during the lunch shift. She leans against the club's main bar and has a clear view of the reception area, where she works.
Showgirls sits among big-box stores, not far from Florida's Turnpike and Chuck E. Cheese's, and offers free lunch from noon to 2 p.m. The club serves everything from cheese sticks to fish sandwiches to caesar salad.
"God, I wish they would put me onstage," continues Sara Lee, who is 34 years old. "I'd show those girls. I was never just like, 'Hey, look at this.' I very rarely sat with my legs open and fingered myself, like those girls do."
In late September, Sara Lee, a career day dancer, was forced into retirement after surgery. She'd torn a ligament in her left knee during an onstage move 15 years ago, and it had never healed properly. "I'm still getting over the loss of my career," she says.
Sara Lee returned to the club as a hostess. Soft after gaining a few pounds since her strutting days ended, she exudes an earthy femininity. She believes men come to clubs in search of a type of woman who is nearing extinction.
"There are no good female role models these days. You have to either be masculine, like Hillary Clinton, or Marilyn Monroe — a sex symbol. Where are the Dagny Taggarts?" she says, referring to the rational yet passionate heroine of Ayn Rand's 1957 book Atlas Shrugged, one of her favorites. "I'm not saying women should put on aprons or stop burning our bras, but there is something sweet about a feminine woman."
Indeed, academic research bears out her theories. College of the Atlantic anthropology professor Katherine Frank has been studying the adult entertainment industry for years. The attractive blond academic with a Duke Ph.D. danced nude at clubs for research. In a 2003 Journal of Sex Research article drawn from 30 interviews with male customers, Frank reported,"Some men ... explicitly stated a desire to interact with women who were not 'feminist' and who still wanted to interact with men in 'more traditional' ways." In a club, they could relax and escape from the "rules" of the postfeminist world.
Sara Lee began dancing at Club Paradise in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a year after going into labor in her high school social studies class at age 17. Her parents made her quit work, but at age 18, she returned.
"I was hooked," she says. "All these guys think you're a goddess and dump money on you. I felt like I was living large with a new car and all that crap from Rent-A-Center."
A few years later, in her early twenties, she was sitting on a flat-bed truck in Middletown, New York, when she was approached by a man whose shaggy blond hair crept from beneath his black cowboy hat. He was a traveling carnival worker. She joined the show. They married in February 1998. Her son, Kyle, went with her. (Now age 17, Kyle has known about his mother's job for three years.)
Sara Lee earned a role as Metamorphosis Girl. She'd buy leopard prints from Jo-Ann Fabrics, fray them a bit, and tie them around her body. A mirror trick would turn her head into a ferocious gorilla or a drooling fly. She stripped during the day at clubs along the way and worked the carnival at night.
But her husband got hooked on crack, and she caught him cheating with other women — and men. They separated around 2000. She ended up in Florida City, where she had stopped during a break from the carnival. She soon found a job at Playpen South, just a few miles north, and as a breakup present to herself, got her boobs done.
"I'll show you," she says, eagerly lifting her black dress shirt and pinching her 40Ds like teats. "Before, they were like fried eggs. I filled them up to their former glory."
She sees the daytime stripper as an antidote to infidelity. The day clients, she says, are the "good guys," married professionals with kids. "A lot of guys don't want to cheat on their wives, so they sit here and drink a beer and watch some boobies bounce up and down," she explains. "Sure, guys want to see a perfect-looking body, but what's more important is a girl who will listen."
A few minutes later, a slight, gray-haired, bespectacled man approaches the reception area to smooch Sara Lee on the lips. "Bye, sweetheart," she whispers in a saccharine tone. "I'll see you every time I close my eyes."
Once he leaves, her voice reverts to normal. "They come here for the fantasy to have that girl that says yes and laughs at their jokes and doesn't complain about little annoying habits."