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What I learned from spending two decades as a stripper.

When Leigh Hopkinson was a university student in Christchurch she worked at a succession of low-paying jobs that paid the rent and fit in around her degree. None of them fit so well, however, as stripping. Over the course of Leigh’s two decade career, she learnt a lot about other people and even more about herself. The result is a story that delves into a world that not all people visit, but everyone finds fascinating. Here she writes about returning to the “industry” after a break. 

I walked into the dressing-room in time to hear two dancers discussing anal bleaching. A second pair’s topic was designer babies. ‘I get so frustrated with people who deplore embryonic stem cell research on ill-thought-out religious grounds.’ The other laughed.

The upkeep must be pretty heavy going. Team MM confess what their lady gardens look like (post continues after video):

‘You’re going straight to hell, firstly for bagging the religious right and secondly for being a stripper.’

I smiled. It was good to be back.

I didn’t recognise many faces. The old line I’d flipped at customers appeared to be true: every time you walked into the club, the girls got younger. Except for me – and Harlow. I couldn’t believe she was back after the cricket scandal. She must’ve done some serious butt-kissing. She was also training the new girls.

It was good to be back. (Image via iStock)

Penance, perhaps?

‘Sometimes you need to go and do something else for a while, don’t you?’ she said, after we’d air-kissed. ‘I had five years out of the industry, babe. Five years! I needed a break, but I’m so happy to be here.’ And she looked it. She had returned to retail in the interim, saying her ex-boyfriend had forbidden her to dance. I couldn’t imagine anyone telling Harlow what to do, but then I’d thought that about myself once.

Remembering Harlow’s dream house in Brighton, I asked her what she was saving for. ‘You know me,’ she chuckled, ‘always a goal. I want to pay off my new convertible, then I’m saving for my retirement. Five more years and I’ll never have to work again.’

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‘Wow,’ I said, wondering if I should push on and pay off the investment property I’d finally bought. I shuddered at the thought.

At Harlow’s age, it almost made sense. She must’ve been forty-five. The only telltale signs were the creases around her mouth. In the darkened club, with the help of plastic surgery, botox and great genes, Harlow looked her stripper year (thirty-two). She was more age defying than a Revlon commercial. (Meanwhile, I’d given myself a serious waxing and had been shocked to discover my labia had wrinkles. Surgery wasn’t tempting, but sadly it appeared age affected all vital organs.)

"She was more age defying than a Revlon commercial." (Image via iStock)

Harlow told me that the old crew had disbanded. Cameron had a full-time job in finance but still did the occasional shift, while Diamond had moved interstate seeking a fresh start. I knew it was unlikely I would see Diamond again: most full-timers cut ties with the industry when they quit, like a bad habit. Carole had also left, wanting to spend more time with her kids.

The new house mum was an ex-stripper called Dani. She reminded me of Sunny McKay: quiet, librarian sexy with thin hair and thick glasses. Dani was down-to-earth and I liked her instantly, but I missed Carole’s upbeat quirkiness – the way she decorated the roster with star stickers, the way she believed in second chances. My other surrogate parent, Stanley the MC, had stopped spruiking Herbalife and started vending MonaVie. All the girls were going gaga over the açai berries’ concentrated energy boost. Finally, Stanley was onto a winner.

George the masseur hadn’t been so lucky. He’d been fired after skipping too many Saturdays for bush doofs, and hadn’t been replaced. I missed his healing hands at the end of a long shift. A surprise addition was the new chef, Jules. He was a beautiful bear of a man who minced around in short shorts and dished up fairy bread at sandwich time. The girls lapped up his love, even if some of the customers looked confused by his presence. Unsurprisingly, they hadn’t changed. Vietnam Phil was still propped at the end of the bar, though I didn’t bother acknowledging him anymore. Weatherman John still appeared most Fridays and some Saturdays. ‘I couldn’t really see you teaching yoga,’ he said. ‘Not even nude yoga?’ I asked rhetorically.

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He’d cancelled his life insurance, which meant he could afford two more private dances a month. (Image via iStock)

Ralph still came in too. He’d cancelled his life insurance, which meant he could afford two more private dances a month. ‘Do you have life insurance, Juliette?’ he asked. Thinking, No, Ralph, I have stripping, I shook my head. Ralph smiled, reassured he had made the right decision.

I had been back a month when Joseph sauntered in. ‘Juliette! I never thought I’d see you again.’ He managed a small smile. ‘The other girls have been looking after me, but it’s not the same.’ Joseph could have called me; I was grateful he never had. And I was relieved he was happy to see me – it made the afterlife much easier. This time, though, I didn’t have the energy for grey areas or guilt. I told Joseph my travel plans upfront, which technically gave him a year to rescue me. He was still number crunching, still single, still looking after his mother. And soon he was coming in every Saturday to see me. This time, as every dollar went towards my future reality, I had no problem selling Joseph a fantasy.

There was a cold detachment to the way I worked now. Juliette was all smiles, but soulless. I felt empty, like the goodness had been sapped out of me. Increasingly I struggled to care. The little remaining hope I had for a fully clothed, functioning future with Matt faded with every passing week. I knew that if I continued to strip I would stay numb, my sadness at bay. It was a horrible way to live, but an effective way to work. I was untouchable, unaffected. There was just a sliver of my heart left, frozen deep inside, waiting for the tropics to thaw it out. I suspected when that happened there would be plenty of tears.

This is an edited extract of Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson ($29.99), published by Hachette Australia. 

Leigh Hopkinson is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer. She has an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing, and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism. She has worked fleetingly as a yoga teacher and prolifically as a table dancer. This is her first book.

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