Getting to Know Felicity
Hanging a Right on Kearny Street
Bruce and I were heading back to Berkeley from San Francisco after Bridgit's excursion to St. Brigid's Church. I spied a colorful mural in North Beach and wanted to place Bridgit into what looked like a bucolic village scene. It was not meant to be. Bruce hung a right onto Kearny and parked. I quickly forgot all about the mural because we were right alongside a wall that was completely ablaze with words. I posed Bridgit in the spray painted bouquet: forgotten, devilish, behind, maybe, hung up, inviting, just a touch.
When I got back into the van, Bruce nodded toward the establishment up the street. Lusty Lady? As in the exotic dance theatre? A sex club? He said that he had read it was the first business of its type to create a closed-shop Exotic Dancers' Union. Bruce pretty much dared me to march into Lusty Lady with Bridgit. We (Bridgit and I) strode past the flashing red neon naked woman, from a bright, sunny day into a very dark place.
One's first impression of "The Lusty" is the odor: an alarming blend of ammonia mixed with other smells that are best concealed in public places. There were lots of signs saying No Photography, including cameras with red x's over them. The man behind the desk looked as startled as I felt. "What did I want?" he asked. What did I want?
I told him I was interested in photographing my mannequin in a variety of settings, including those that are testosterone driven. "That would be this place," he remarked. "Could I please speak with the owner?" A sheepish smile began to inch across his face. He explained that the two owners, both women, live in Seattle. "But there are two women who manage the dancers, and they just might be interested in talking with you," he said. He wrote down Shannon's work phone number.
When I got outside, a man who had nodded his greetings before I went into Lusty Lady told me that Bridgit reminded him of Venus. I asked if he would be willing to pose with her and to hold her the way he might hold Venus.
We made only one more stop on the way home. Stuck in traffic as we approached Berkeley, we spied a 1932 Ford hotrod that had just pulled over. The owner welcomed Bridgit in among the shiny chrome. I like the way his moustache is shaped in a smile here in the rear view mirror.
I called Shannon a few days later, and we spoke about what it was I was doing. I proposed that I come in with Bridgit and discuss the possible orchestration of photographs there. Our conversation went on for about half an hour, and Shannon asked some wonderful questions. She said she would think it over about getting together and call me back. I was resigned: if she didn't call back, it was our last conversation. She called me back the next day and said that she and Felicity liked the idea of collaborating on a project that had the potential to be artistic in nature. We arranged to meet at Lusty Lady two days later.
Silja Talvi, writing for Wench in 1998, explained that employees at Lusty Lady sought out the assistance of the Exotic Dancers Alliance (EDA) in 1996. Chief complaints were: irregular schedules; random firings; lack of a sick day policy; and no protection against being videotaped and photographed. The EDA suggested becoming unionized through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790. The vote, in August 1996, was 57 to 15 among the dancers to create the first closed shop Exotic Dancers Union in the nation. It took another eight months to ratify the union contract, with management protesting all along the way. But, the dancers ultimately achieved new job rights, formal grievance procedures, job security, and an automatic pay scale. The one-way mirrors were removed from the viewing booths so that photos and videos could not be taken. Support staff were given medical and dental coverage. The EDA began doing a series of workshops with sex industry workers in response to the increase in calls from exotic dancers all over the country.
It is pretty dramatic to enter Lusty Lady after the sights and sounds of North Beach. Erika Langley, in her book The Lusty Lady: Photographs and Texts, explains: "It looks like a peep show, a funk-scented, creepy-dark hallway where men wait to stand in a booth, feed quarters and watch naked dancers behind glass. Doors slam, machines jingle like chimes, whooosh-kink! The men move quickly, furtive as shadows."
Langley, motivated by a desire to photograph strippers, wound up working as a dancer for five years. Her book is a remarkable exploration of the Lusty Lady world as told by someone who has lived it. Langley says that working there changed her life. "....how I looked at myself and my sexuality, and taught me about my own erotic power...The Lusty Lady doesn't look like a comforting place, a place to find yourself or harness your power."
The fellow at the desk remembered me, or more accurately, Bridgit. Shannon came out to greet me. She is, I figured, about 30, blond, wholesome-looking, and she established immediate eye contact that made me feel comfortable, even if not at home. We wended our way past the dressing room where there were women in various stages of undress as they prepared to go on stage. Shannon and Felicity's office is not unusual except for the screen that shows what is happening on stage. As we talked, I was distracted by the stage show, more like flickers of beautiful shapes and colors than anything else. But every once in a while, something would catch Shannon's or Felicity's eye.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon. We looked at photographs of Bridgit. We looked at photographs of the two women when they first started working as dancers at the Lusty six years ago when they were both 22 years old. Shannon is from Louisville, and Felicity is from San Antonio. Before working at The Lusty, Shannon was with a small theatre company, and she has done some fund raising for non-profits. She also helped organize the annual Castro Halloween extravaganza several years ago. Her passion is the behavior training and assessment volunteer work she does at one of the animal shelters. She also exercises the dogs. She takes on some of the most abused canines, reversing and modifying behavior so that they can then be adopted instead of put to death. She hopes to create her own business focusing on animal behavior modification and training. The three of us looked at photographs of our three canine companions.
Felicity, who is dark, earthy, and full of humor, was very animated in her reactions to the photographs. She especially loved the ones in the scrap yard and at the body piercing & tattoo parlor. She rattled off various ideas for adventures with Bridgit and brought up something I had been thinking about: how different would the photographs be if a man was behind the camera? Or a young woman?
Felicity's passion is guerilla or street theatre. She goes to as much "edge" theatre as she can afford, and she has done a fair amount of performing. She was taking a sewing construction class at that point and was already signed up for a clown class the next semester. Her goal is to find a paid job doing theatre.
I got the impression that both women enjoy their jobs as managers of the dancers. Approximately 100 people work at Lusty Lady, 70 of whom are dancers. Although neither Felicity nor Shannon wants to dance again Lusty Lady style, they said that it was and is a "sex positive" environment and a very empowering experience. "As a woman dancing, you are in complete control," Felicity explained. Yes, there are creeps who make overtures to the dancers, but there is a major emphasis at Lusty Lady about how to maintain boundaries. Anyone working there is encouraged to take self-defense classes for which Lusty Lady pays. I enjoyed seeing the spirit of camaraderie that exists between these two women. They are really good friends, very encouraging of each other.
Felicity told me a little about a mannequin who came with the house she and her partner, Matthew, were currently subletting. Esmerelda, according to Felicity, is inhabited by the ghost of a former abused sex worker. Felicity said she thought Bridgit was a work of art in and of herself. When I told them I was trying to figure out how to carry Bridgit around, Felicity said: "Oh! Here's how I would do it." She stood up and put Bridgit on her back. They are back to back, with Felicity's hands and arms reaching around behind to support Bridgit. She starts to move, to dance while holding Bridgit --a young dark woman with a pale bare "torso" on her back, shoulder to shoulder. Of all the people who have held Bridgit on these excursions, Felicity is the only one to hold her this way.
The two women were enthusiastic about being in cahoots on a photoshoot at Lusty Lady. What about five in the morning the following Thursday? Not a typo. The Lusty is open 24 hours a day, but there are no dancers and very few customers looking at videos at that hour. I wondered if 5:00 a.m. was realistic for these two, but I figured the ride across the Bay Bridge in either direction would be traffic-free if I got stood up. There was a lot of good-natured laughing about what Bridgit could wear. Out came a Wonder Woman outfit, exactly her size.
Just as I was about to leave, Felicity asked if I would like to come see her perform in The Circus of Terror, a freakatorium she called it, in connection with Halloween that weekend. She would be walking on glass and climbing up a ladder that had knives for steps. Bring Bridgit; maybe we can take some photos during intermission.
Getting to Know Felicity
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5
Bridgit in Malta
Bridgit at St. Brigid's
High Light: The Winter Solstice
Excursion to Primal Decor
Getting to Know Felicity
Home | About Pam Mendelsohn | Recent Focus: Bridgit