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What It's Like: To Be a Stripper

Tracie Jayne would just like to entertain you. As told to Brooke Lea Foster

I was scared to death the day I decided to walk into a strip club for a job. I was 31 and living in Houston after graduating with a degree in art from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. I had just quit a corporate job painting murals in chain restaurants like the Rainforest Cafe, and after an impulsive try at stand-up, I realized my heart was in comedy. Fledgling comics don't make much, and you have to spend quite a bit to travel to different cities for gigs, so I needed to pay my way. After cobbling together a living working four different jobs in Houston, I heard how much money you could make in a strip club.

Here I was: a naive Midwesterner who spent her childhood summers going to church camp—stepping into a titty bar. I felt sleazy from the moment I went in, but I swallowed my pride because I knew taking a job there would help me chase my dream. Comedy is the purest form of entertainment—whatever you give to the audience, you get right back. Making someone laugh is the best feeling in the world, a natural high. Later, once my comedy career was in place, a woman told me: "I just buried my son two weeks ago, and I haven't laughed since. But I laughed from the minute you walked onstage until the minute you left."

So I got a job as a cocktail waitress, and the first night at the club I remember thinking: Okay, this is not such a big deal. At first, it seemed like the girls just got dolled up and had lots of money thrown at them, but each one had a more complicated story. Some of the women were cancer survivors stripping to pay for health insurance; some were single mothers with kids to support. They were good people. I'm not glorifying this way of life—there were certainly women fueling their coke habits, too—but it made me realize that you can't judge people until you've stepped into their six-inch heels. These women had life experiences even I couldn't understand, and they were just trying to get by.

I tried stripping at the club. I even gave a guy a lap dance, but I was incredibly awkward rubbing up against him. Stripping is all about the "hustle"—it's an attitude. You pretend you're really into a guy, you push your boobs in his face for an extra 20 bucks, you tantalize him with what you might do to him. I was mid-lap dance when the guy told me I should stick to comedy. It was so humiliating I could have cried, but he was right: Stripping is not who I am. I'm so often on the road for stand-up gigs that I barely date. I don't sleep around, and when I tried stripping, I felt like I wasn't being true to myself. It was more intimate and personal than I was comfortable with, and to share that with someone for a few $20 bills made me feel phony.

My comedy work started to pick up, and I knew I needed to move to New York City if I was going to make it. I got a job as a bartender at what I would call a "hard-core strip club" in the city. I was sickened by what I saw: Many paying customers took the strippers back into private rooms with doors that locked. That didn't seem safe to me, and it made me lose my faith in humanity. I would hear mumblings of disgusting sexual requests, cover my ears, and think: I don't want to know.

At the time, I was dating a guy who grew up wealthy, and he told a few of his friends that I used to dance. He was insisting I quit my job at a strip club if we were to continue our relationship. When he brought me to a wedding as his date, one of his female friends was so repulsed by me that she wouldn't even shake my hand. It didn't matter that I was a working stand-up comic or that I had a degree—to her, I was a stripper. She couldn't see anything else and it made me so angry. I wanted to say, "I'm sorry I didn't get a golden ticket from my parents. I was in the navy for four years and I paid my way through college. Now I'm trying to follow my artistic dreams." But I didn't say a word.

Today, here's how I pay my $1,200 rent: Think of me as a human ornament, a decoration. I don a skimpy string bikini (with feathers on the bikini top to make my boobs look bigger), and I dance for men (and sometimes women) at a go-go bar. I dance so hard and fast that when I get offstage my hair is soaking wet. I spin, gyrate, do splits; sometimes I incorporate a pole, sometimes I don't. You may think of me as a stripper, but I'm not—I don't take my clothes off. I'm an entertainer. I have a blast, I often make $200 a night, and I feel great about my body, even though I turned 40 this year. I've even gotten standing ovations. I like to joke that my butt is my moneymaker.

I used to be ashamed of my dancing. You know the military's old "don't ask, don't tell" policy? I don't want to compare myself to those it applied to, but I do feel as though I've had to spend so much time hiding and explaining who I am and begging for acceptance. Sometimes I think: What am I doing wrong? But what I've realized is that I'm not doing anything wrong.

If someone is uncomfortable with the fact that I dance for money in a bikini, it's often because they're threatened by it. Women get a lot of strength and power by being able to attract a guy. If someone is prettier or sexier or perceived that way, that power is gone. The girls that I dance with tend to be more confident than other women I've met: They know that they can attract a guy, and they can be near an attractive female and not feel like she's trying to steal their boyfriend.

When I'm performing stand-up, I don't say I'm a go-go dancer. As a five-foot-two girly girl, I'm already working harder than my male counterparts for audiences to take me seriously as comic. But I often incorporate lessons I've learned on the job into my monologue. Take this joke: I don't understand why girls get so mean. I'll be sitting at a bar with my buddies when a pretty girl walks in and they start ripping her apart. And I say: "Would you relax? She does not want your boyfriend." Pause. "Look at him!"