Writer Chuck Klosterman most recently had a thoughtful GQ cover story on one of the world’s most idiosyncratic celebrities, Taylor Swift.
Their style of entertainment is dramatically different, but the subjects of a Klosterman piece for The Forum in 1997 are no less fascinating: professional strippers.
The article is reprinted in its entirety below but, before you read it, it might be helpful to have some context. In 1997, Fargo was right smack dab in the middle of a heated debate over a proposed ordinance that would ban nude dancing in establishments that sell alcohol. The Northern, currently Fargo’s only strip club, was square in the sights of that ordinance.
The debate spanned roughly three years. On one side were community members concerned about moral standards and the exploitation of women. On the other were those opposed to what they perceived as censorship and city government picking on a specific business. A Forum editorial argued the pro-business stance in the later stages of the debate.
The ordinance came down to a referendum and the citizens of Fargo overwhelmingly voted down the measure in April of 1998.
As that debate swirled in commission meetings and op-ed pieces, Klosterman interviewed several strippers for a July 24, 1997 Forum feature. One dancer discusses how she’s bankrolling her future, another how she hides her profession from her family. One thinks about laundry while she dances, another talks about the thrill of performance.
The next time you step out of the shower, stand in front of the bathroom mirror.
Look at your body. Dance around a little bit. Smile seductively.
Are you uncomfortable? Ashamed? Excited? Empowered? Would you agree to let total strangers see you this way? Would you understand why they'd want to watch? And what if they wanted to pay you to do it?
It's easy to understand why civic watchdogs think stripping hurts the community, and it's easy to understand why their opponents think adult entertainment is the constitutional right of any adult. But what's less clear is understanding the mind of the dancer. What makes a woman decide that writhing on stage for hundreds of sexually charged men is the best way to make a living?
For most strippers, it's simply the money. For others, it's the adoration and the rush of adrenaline. For "Angel," it's a little of both.
Angel, a doe-eyed 27-year-old, danced at Fargo's Northern club last week. Residing in Lincoln, Neb., her unclothed career began in Minot, N.D. She was serving a stint in the Air Force and managed to sneak into a strip club called Legends (she was under 21 at the time).
"I was drunk and doing shots with a few of the dancers at the bar," Angel says. "After a while, the girls just said, ‘Get on stage.' So I did. And I made so much money.
"It was a hard thing to do that first time. It's always hard, because you're baring your soul up there, and guys can be cruel. But sometimes you're on stage and it's the most amazing thing in the world. It's so powerful. I mean, who wouldn't want 200 people screaming for them? Who wouldn't want to drive men crazy?"
Superficially, Northern looks like a typical watering hole: It's dark, it has a pool table in the back, and the clientele is a mixed bag of well-dressed businessmen and miscellaneous riffraff. It smells vaguely of menthol cigarettes and the music is a little too loud.
However, there are two main differences between the scene at The Northern and the scene at every other place in town:
1, The patrons are almost exclusively men.
2. There is a beautiful, naked woman on stage, gyrating against a fireman's pole.
There's also a little room in the rear of the establishment filled with kitschy living room furniture. This is where customers can experience "couch dances," a private show in which customers get a one-on-one performance for $10.
It's all a bit sleazy. But the customers at Northern are remarkably subdued; touching the dancers is strictly prohibited.
The action is topless; full nudity is not allowed. According to co-manager Al Farsdale, Northern is a tame kitten within the sex industry.
"South Dakota is pretty wild compared to here. Iowa is a full-contact state; customers can basically grope the girls there. I've heard some real horror stories," Farsdale says. "Girls like coming here because they get treated very well by the customers. We like to think of ourselves as more of a gentlemen's club."
Obviously, not everyone would agree with that assessment. The Red River Women's Network has lobbied hard against Northern's existence. However, a network spokeswoman declined to be interviewed for this story.
"The Women's Network is not interested in making a comment," organization coordinator Sherry Short said. "We do not consider this an entertainment issue."
The Northern pays dancers $250 for six nights of work, but the girls can equal that from tips each night. During their week in Fargo, they stay in a nearby "dormitory" provided by the bar. It's a six-bedroom boarding house that even includes a housemother.
Usually there are six strippers who work in rotation from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Each individual dancer's set lasts for three songs, which equates to about one stage performance an hour for each woman. In between sets, the performers sell couch dances and mingle with the clientele.
Last week, the major draw at Northern was "Liberty Legz," a 6-foot-3-inch dancer from Tampa, Fla. Her real name is Deborah Payne, and her story is exceptionally unconventional.
Payne was an All-American basketball player at the University of New Orleans. After picking up a degree in mass communications, she played pro hoops in Belgium for two seasons before deciding that driving men crazy was more fun than driving the baseline.
Payne is working on a book tentatively titled "From High Tops to High Heels, Through the Eyes of a Stripper." Her occupation change was based solely on dollars and sense.
"My B.A. is only worth about $35,000 a year. As a dancer, I earn as much as a lawyer. I can make six figures," Payne says. "This is strictly business, and it's not a long-term career for me. I'm retiring in two years."
The other dancers agree. They insist stripping is simply too profitable to ignore. In fact, when Payne danced here in April, she donated her week's income -- more than $3,000 -- to the American Red Cross for flood relief.
The problem is that too many young strippers don't know how to handle the cash stuffed into their g-strings.
"This is a lucrative business, but I'm not going to sugarcoat it," Payne says. "There are girls who don't save their money and don't understand how to invest it. After 15 years on the road, they wake up lonely and poor and they can't get a job. I feel sorry for those girls."
"Tiffany" is a 25-year-old dancer originally from a rural community in South Dakota. Now residing in California, she lives a double life: Her parents don't know she's a stripper.
Tiffany wasn't willing to give any details about her past. Coming from a small town, she knows how rumors can circulate from only a few grains of information. But that doesn't mean she's ashamed of what she does. Tiffany thinks her work at Northern actually improves the lives of the men who go there.
"I think it's healthy," she says. "I let them explore their fantasies and they give me money. A lot of these guys tell me, ‘Thanks. I'm going to have a great time with my wife tonight.' Actually, these guys talk about their wives and girlfriends a lot. I probably help them with their relationships."
Many women would disagree with that analysis. But Tiffany argues that stripping actually exploits men more than women.
"How are we hurting feminism? We're taking money from men. I'm just using my body to get ahead," Tiffany says. "When I dance, I'm not really thinking about turning these guys on. I'm just doing what I know is considered sexy. It's like acting."
Although their audience might imagine (or pretend) otherwise, the girls don't view stripping as a sexual experience. When asked what she thinks about while she dances, Tiffany says, "Whatever. The fact that I have to do laundry tomorrow afternoon."
If that sounds cynical, it should. These women exist in a world that -- for better or worse -- will always be connected with harlots and immorality. It's easy to become jaded when half the planet assumes you're a prostitute.
Maybe it's just a defense mechanism, but these women have trained themselves in the art of social indifference.
"If men just want to look at my body and ignore my intelligence -- fine. That's their problem," Payne says. "If somebody wants to judge me, they can go ahead and judge me. But they're only lying to themselves."