The Last of the Live Nude Girls: a few words with author Sheila McClear.
Perusing the “naughty” sections of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle is one of my favorite pastimes. One day late last summer, a brand new memoir caught my eye- The Last of the Live Nude Girls, by Sheila McClear. Flipping through the author’s unselfconscious depictions of her experiences working in the dwindling world of Times Square’s peep shows, I was hooked not only on the subject matter, but by the author’s conversational, yet eloquent style and the intuitive eye turned on herself and her detour into New York City’s sex industry.
In sorting through her memories from a short distance, it’s apparent that Sheila retains a certain fondness for her peculiar comrades from that time. She has also become something of a historian- the book closes with a chapter on Times Square’s smutty history and the origin of the coin-operated booths that eventually led to live girl peep shows.
Before leaving the peeps for good, Sheila took a “working vacation”- including stops at several Portland strip clubs (her observations of Mary’s, the Cabaret Lounge, and Union Jacks are amusing and spot-on). These days the talented (and very charming) Sheila McClear is currently a features reporter for the New York Post. She recently took a few moments to discuss The Last of the Live Nude Girls with Burlesque Seattle Press:
BSP: You moved to NYC from a somewhat bleak Detroit in 2006, open to new experiences and ideas. At first you had a “normal” job as a costume assistant in a theater. Was it the constant grind of making your way in New York that led to working in the peep shows? Was there also a little morbid curiosity, to see if you could rise to the challenge of such a previously unlikely profession?
Sheila McClear: There was absolutely morbid curiosity—to see if I could do it. I’ve always been full of morbid curiosity! And I could do it, which was amazing to me, because I had such a skewed view of myself and my sexuality and had a bit of growing up to do. Also, when I first moved to the city—and I’m sure a lot of newcomers also have this experience—nothing seemed “normal.” Not even working in the theater. Everything seemed exotic and new and foreign. So working in a peepshow actually seemed less weird in New York than it would have in a familiar place — like Michigan, where I’m from.
Your first experience working in the peeps was at Gotham City Video in Times Square, which you found through a Craiglist ad, correct? What other clubs did you work at during that time, and for how long?
The Gotham City Video peep show was actually my second experience working in “the industry,” and I found it by simply walking down the street. My first, short-lived experience was as a stripper in an illegal strip joint in a loft that I found through Craigslist. I think I maybe lasted two months, although I only worked once or twice a week. I sucked at making small talk with customers, and I couldn’t really make any money.
I started working at the Playpen as well as Gotham, and then when the Playpen closed down, I worked in a third (new) peepshow that the owners put in one of their other porn stores. Later, I also worked at another divey strip club in Brooklyn, called Pumps, for a few months. It was pretty cool because it was only stage dancing — we were behind the bar. But I quit that because the entire industry was stressing me out, towards the end of my “career” in that business.
You described the overall effect of the Gotham City Video shop as “profoundly unsexy”. What did you think about the reality of working in the sex industry, as opposed to the exotic visions that people on the outside often picture?
The reality is just so clinical. It’s like working in a hospital or a meatpacking plant. It’s just the constant smell of bleach and cleaning agents. I was hoping for just a little more glamour. That’s what I think burlesque offers — real glamour, in a healthy, fun way. I was hoping it would be like a burlesque show!
Moving to a new place makes it easier to try on a new identity, away from the controlled environment and expectation of others. You mention in your memoir that in “real life” at that time you were a bit awkward and shy. Did learning to sell the illusion of confidence through stripping help you learn confidence by osmosis?
It really, really did. “Fake it ‘til you make it” really does work. I just happened to choose a rather extreme and strange way to do that. Even today, if I’m in some kind of situation, either professional or social that I’m intimidated by, I think, Oh hell, this is ridiculous. I’ve done things scarier than this — in my underwear.
On the flip side, did it adversely affect your outlook on sexuality and your perception of men (men being the primary customers at the peeps)?
It probably would have negatively affected my perception of men had I been there long-term and lost all sense of perspective. But I love men, and I kept in mind that not all men came into the peepshow— only certain men did. And dealing with the dark side of the male libido on a daily basis gets tiring and frustrating and ultimately infuriating.
I mean, it’s a skeevy job, but ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to look at a naked woman. I just don’t want my income to depend on it; I never did. It made me feel like my entire life was at the whims of capricious strangers.
There’s a certain type of dancer in the book that you refer to as long-term “thoroughbred” strippers. Can you tell a little about the hierarchy that fell into place at most clubs? For example, was it mostly based on earning potential or vulnerability? Or was there a bond between the dancers for the most part?
Good question — the hierarchy probably put earning power at the top, as well as how long you’d been in the business. And how seriously you took it — like, if you’d put real investments into it, like having a boob job or something. And also how much you needed the job — like, if you’d been there ten or more years, you needed it, and you had to take it pretty seriously.
But there were other ways to get respect, like how tough you were or how quickly you could adapt to the environment or how trustworthy you were, which is how I earned my place in that world. I was pale and I had no curves whatsoever, and I was a minority in that I was white, so I was looked down on in that respect, but I quickly showed that I could shoot the shit and be one of the gang or whatever. I’ve always been a good chameleon.
There’s definitely something about working a service-industry based night job- whether at bars, clubs, etc.- that creates a sort of “us vs. them” mentality with the staff. At first working these types of hours (sleeping in, creating your own schedule) seems ideal (or it did to me during the years I spent bartending). Do you think that vocations at odds with the rest of the working/daytime world can add to feelings of disconnectedness and alienation over time?
Absolutely. It was fun at first, because I could drop out of the straight world, and New York runs 24-7 anyway. I was so happy about the 24-hour Korean deli near my house because I did my grocery shopping after work at 4 a.m. Or you wake up too late to, like, get your prescription filled at the pharmacy, or get a haircut. It’s the little things, but they add up. And you quickly get disconnected from your friends who keep normal hours.
Do you ever miss that sort of inverted world?
Absolutely — not the work, but the world. The camaraderie amongst misfits. Honor among thieves, and all that. I do take pleasure in being an outsider, always have. I just have to find out a way to do it in different ways now!
What is Times Square like these days, in terms of peep shows and strip clubs? Have most moved out into the neighborhoods due to redevelopment and the large anti-smut push of Rudy Giuliani that you talk about? I believe in the book, you mention that at the time of publication, only two peep shows were left in Manhattan…
I actually haven’t been out of the business that long — I haven’t worked in it since the end of 2007, and now it’s the end of 2011. Giuliani’s work was long done by the time I got there in 2006. The Playpen closed down in 2007, which is a big deal visually — in its place there’s now a big Shake Shack, which is an upscale local burger franchise. And next to Gotham City, the hi-rise condo they were building is almost done. And yes, there are only two peep shows left, but there were only three at any given time when I was working there, so…
The final section of your book is a fascinating and well-researched history of the peeps in Times Square (including the invention of the actual peep show booth). In spite of the havoc it wreaked on your state of mind as a young woman, you seem fond of this bizarre part of Times Square and sex industry history. What made those antiquated shows special to you? I’m thinking of the fishbowl-like scene you described when you went as a customer to The Lusty Lady, in San Francisco…
You’re right, I am fond of this bizarre part of Times Square and of the sex industry history. In part because it is so bizarre and undocumented and really, a quite silly idea in the first place. But that weird artificial environment created all sorts of relationships—some of them quite intimate, like amongst the girls who worked in them. That’s a world that can’t be recreated. Sometimes a physical space really can define the relationships that result from it.
And the idea of a guy and a girl standing on different sides of the glass, naked in their various ways — well, the first image I get is that of a confessional. But the second is that it’s such a perfect metaphor: for the way men and women and humans in general are always trying, and often failing, to connect. It takes courage to come out and deal with each other without the glass.
~ Special thanks to Sheila McClear for taking the time to chat.