How did you end up going from Williams to stripping?
I often say that it’s because of Williams that I became a stripper because I was so frustrated with the climate there regarding class partly and at the way my peers looked at sex work. I was the shyest person ever. I didn’t wear a swimsuit between age ten and age 20.
I was an anthropology major and took some sociology classes senior year. There was a class called body, self, and culture and one called sex, gender, and sexuality, and we looked at prostitutes in East Africa. I studied in Tanzania my junior year so I’d been to East Africa and am very fond of it. It opened my eyes to the idea that the second poorest nation in the world seemed to have wealth in ways that we didn’t. The professor brought up the idea through the books we were reading that prostitution could be liberating for women especially in these really strident male dominated cultures. In some of these places where men have forty wives, some of the wives would escape and go to brothels in the cities. While they were there, they could work, earn money, and get an education. Money is power, so by making money they could earn their independence from a tribal society where you couldn’t do anything other than be one of forty wives. That blew my mind – you could use your body through sex work to achieve independence. It’s not how we look at it in our culture, and it certainly didn’t agree with the women’s studies majors who said that sex work was unequivocally bad. But men use their bodies in all sorts of labor intensive jobs. Are women to precious to use their bodies? I felt like it was anti-feminist to say that a women couldn’t use her body for sex work when obviously it made dollars and cents sense.
My best friends and I went down to New Orleans for spring break senior year, and I went to my first strip club. I had training in acting and dance, and the dancer was mesmerizing. There were couples in the audience, it wasn’t just dudes, it was a dance performance. Afterwards, she came down and talked to us and broke down that fourth wall, and we got to know about her as a rounded person. I found the whole thing fascinating. There’s a sociological thing happening, there’s economics, there’s feminism. It seemed to take all of my interests including performing and put it in one career.
I went back to Williams and was doodling stripper outfits on my notebooks. This is not who I was. I was very shy, very much a tomboy, never wore makeup. I was the last person that people would expect to become a stripper, but I’ve loved every minute of it.
Sex work is the one thing that intellectuals refuse to talk about. They think about race. They think about class, the economy, the environment. But they don’t want to think about why we unequivocally say that all sex work is bad. You’d be surprised that people who consider themselves open minded don’t want to open their minds to the idea that sex work could be a good, liberating, fulfilling career.
My whole Williams experience was learning how to think about everything from different angles – rather than just the way society tells you to think about things. From there I spent time in Bali and Tanzania and realized that what I thought of as solid ground maybe is more up for interpretation.
I chose an anthropology major partly to get out of Williamstown because I was frustrated with the homogeneity of class. I remember people talking a lot about race, but people weren’t talking about how everyone was driving fancy cars and wearing nice clothes. I felt like, “I’m from a really small town, my Dad’s a preacher, I’m paying for this myself, and I’m kind of the odd one out here.” What I’m really interested in is communicating with all the people. Hanging out with just the wealthiest 1% of society isolates you from the rest of humanity.
I think my choice to strip and my choice to go to Africa and places like that are part of this desire to know what everyday life is like for the 99.9% where there isn’t the same food security or salary comfort. I like to be able to communicate with that group of people. I can then communicate what life is like for them to the 1% maybe in part because I did go to Williams. Those people are very interested in my opinion. I get to see all those people at work, and maybe over a drink, I get to stretch their mind a little bit. I love that opportunity because if you meet them anywhere else, they wouldn’t be as open. You have an amazing opportunity to change someone’s mind a little bit, and partly because you’re naked, they pay more attention.
Did you always know that the idea of connecting with people was important to you?
Definitely. I’ve always been an artist – I wrote my first book when I was seven. I thought from that age on, “what can I do to really achieve the most help for our culture?” I wanted to be of service, and I just kept coming back to arts. That’s where you can speak your own truth and decide what your stage is. To me, stripping is art. That’s my little stage. I can fine-tune my message in the moment and get it across to a diverse audience. There’s no audience as diverse as a strip club audience. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist. I knew I would be poor if I made that choice, but it seemed like a good tradeoff.
Were there other careers that you thought about before your senior year spring break trip?
I was really casting about for a career. I thought maybe I’d like the sciences. I speak German and thought that maybe I’d be a German Literature professor, but it didn’t seem like it had enough. I’ve thought about getting a master’s in curatorial studies, but in general, museums don’t touch the number of people that bars do. I love the ability of art to change lives. You have to be over 21 to experience my art, but I definitely feel like I’ve changed a lot of lives and made a lot of lives better – people who are sad and depressed come in and leave feeling a little better.
Are there any stories that stand out of people who you’ve been able to help?
You feel it most viscerally with people who come in upset – homeless people and others like that. You can give them basic human respect, and they leave with that. I’ve also had people who leave and come back and say, you changed my life. You changed the way I think about things, and I bought your book and am spreading it around.
I had breast cancer last year. After my mastectomy, I couldn’t drive or work and thought I wouldn’t be able to dance again. A friend of mine took me to a strip club just to have a drink and feel better. I was bald and feeling down. This girl who I thought was so beautiful was on stage, and afterwards we bought her a drink. She told me that she bought this book “Magic Gardens” and that had gotten her into stripping. She didn’t know I was the author, but I was so honored. I also thought, “shit, her parents probably hate me.”
I’ve also met my heroes through my work. Gus van Sant came in with Sean Penn one day when they were getting ready to produce Milk. Gus put me in a bunch of his movies and took me to Cannes and really became a good friend. To know that my hero is in some way inspired by me is pretty cool.
What’s the line between acting and a conversation when you’re on stage?
It’s interesting for me to be a writer and a musician as well. What people do in stage work is you throw your performance out into the night. To me, that’s theatre, that’s dance. It’s more powerful that way. I’d rather see a live band than listen to a CD. To me, the vibration of connecting with some physically is an art. Art is kind of in the eye of the beholder. Whenever I go to a strip club, I see art. I’m sure a lot of the girls wouldn’t agree with me – maybe they’re just paying the rent. But it’s so sociologically charged. What they’re present on stage makes me reflect on my life, and that’s what great art does. If anything, I use conversation because I’m nervous. If I’m totally quiet, people can make their own story about what’s going on. But if I get in the zone and just interpret the music, I can see the audience mesmerized. You can feel that thing that happens in great theatre where every single person is united in this feeling of beauty and truth that you can’t access everyday.
Is every night totally different in terms of your performance?
Yes – every night’s surprising. My performance is never scripted. When you’re doing theatre, you generally have lines. When you’re doing dance, you generally have a choreographer telling you what to do. The dancing is so secondary – for me it’s, “how do I connect with these people?”
It’s legal work, but it’s not accepted socially so everyone has to figure out what they’re going to tell their families, what they’re going to tell their kids.
You didn’t start as a stripper right away after Williams. You worked in a job where people were counting the days until their retirement. What was that like?
Yes – I was a temp worker for the city of Portland in the building that we studied in art history. I was doing data entry, which I couldn’t believe was something humans were required to do. I was thinking of school children who don’t want to be in school, and I wanted to be like, “it only get’s worse, at least you’re learning challenging new things.” Data entry was just: “enter XYZ, 123” over and over for eight hours. Talk about degrading. Those types of jobs where you’re stuck in a chair with fluorescent lighting and you have prescribed lunch breaks. I guess it’s worth it for some people to have a retirement. I have three times been lured to advertising, but I don’t last long in that world. I can’t work in service of this false good: “buy this product you don’t need. Pay $2 million for a New Jersey condo that looks like Tuscany.”
How did you make the transition from being interested in stripping to actually doing it?
It was really hard. Coming from Williams and being a preacher’s daughter, you know you’re going to be breaking a lot of hearts by doing something like that. But it was either break their hearts or break my own heart. I came home from Williams so interested in the sex industry that I went to the strip club in Duluth and asked if they had auditions. I was talking to my Mom about it because she was interested in it intellectually. But she forbade me from stripping in the town where my Dad has a church, which makes sense.
I moved to Portland. I didn’t know Portland was the strip club capital of the universe. It took me getting really broke before I actually got the balls to do it. When you make $40 in one song, and you’re naked on stage and realized that it’s not such a big deal, then I was in. But even the first six months I was struggling with, “have I changed? Am I amoral now? Can I be my dad’s daughter?” Having done it long enough, you realize it’s normal, but there was a real trial period where I was struggling with new identity. There is a societal damnation that is very real.
How did you overcome that?
Right away I was so grateful to make ends meet doing work that I felt good doing. Also, a week or two in, stripping came up on the ballot. People were trying to make it illegal to have a strip club next to a school. It failed because our constitution is iron clad that this is protected speech. The cameras came to the strip club and no one wanted to be photographed or be out as a stripper. I had a lot to say, so I went on camera and said, “This is a free country. This is protected speech.” That became reputation. There was a debate in the weekly newspaper about stripping a few months later. I wrote a thorough letter questioning what we think of as degrading. Every single person all over town were reading this thing, and it caused a huge debate. There were letters to the editor for a month afterwards. It solidified my reputation as the person to ask about stripping when you’re doing a story on it. So I’ve done interviews with Playboy and Maxim.
Did you think you would still be a stripper eighteen years later?
Fuck no. I thought I would do it for a year or two. I wanted to pay off my school loans. I was doing a lot of writing for magazines. I was thinking that I’d be a writer. My whole career I’ve also been a writer. I got an internship because of the letter I wrote about stripping. When I was in New York, I wrote for the Village Voice and the New York Times. I’ve always been a writer, but that career has bottomed out – it’s hard to get paid to write anymore. I’ve written two books and have a third all plotted out. The great thing about stripping is that you can work 10 hours a week, pay rent, and have time to write.
I never dreamed I’d be doing it this long, but honestly it’s just gotten better and better. Especially after having breast cancer, I think of every shift as a gift. It’s not about your physical body. People always think it’s just the physical surface. Most of the time, the crowd is most attracted to your eyes and your smile. I’ve seen a lot of woman leave stripping and then come back. They go to med school and say that stripping was the best job they ever had.
There is a dark side to stripping – usually that involves poor management and not enough respectability around it.
How does the actual process of becoming a stripper work?
A schedule comes out every week, and I determine when I want to work. I go away a week every month. I travel a lot. Usually I do 2-3 shifts, but sometimes I’ll pick up a shift or two if I was a way the week before. If I want to go to a concert Friday, I’ll do a shift on Thursday.
Is it mostly repeat customers?
Most of the time I see people traveling through. I do have my regulars – every girl has regulars. A lot of rock ‘n rollers, actors, business people, lots of bums. A lot of women. Hipsters come in now to buy a t-shirt.
If writing became something that you could support yourself with, would you give up stripping?
I would strip for free. I really love the connection it has and the immediacy. I’m grateful that I’m a 40-year-old woman, and they still want me on stage. I’ve always been an actor, but this is kind of more rewarding because it’s unscripted. I like to really challenge people, and it’s a great venue for that.
Writing is one of the most unhealthy occupations out there. Humans aren’t meant to spend days on their own. Look at all the writers who go crazy and kill themselves. Having written a book, I know how isolating it is.
Most of the time, when someone finds a job that truly makes them happy, we celebrate that. With stripping, people challenge the choice.
It is denigrated by society and maybe that’s part of the inspiration. Would stripping be so inspirational if I was doing it in a country where it was totally ok? Not at all. Part of it is the judgment and struggle to change opinions. My idea is to respect the whole woman, respect the naked woman and her ability to work and make her own schedule and call her own shots.
How does your work as a stripper inform your work as a feminist?
I find that most people who have negative opinions about stripping haven’t been to a strip club. It’s really uplifting. People leave their identity and they’re egos at the door. You’re entertaining people who are the heads of companies, and you’re the first person they’ve told secrets to, and they ask you for guidance. That’s a lot of power and feminism is about female power.
You have a lot of identities – Viva Las Vegas, CoCo Cobra, Lila Hamilton. Does it help you to have all of these different personas?
For sure. Liv was very shy. But when you’re called to the stage as “Viva,” you shake that off, and you’re more flirtatious and more goofy – parts of myself, but parts that were augmented.
Where did the name Viva Las Vegas come from?
Liv is my given name and that means life. Whenever I’ve traveled, people have called me whatever the native word for life is. “Viva” means life. Las Vegas seemed to embody my view of stripping when I was new to it. I’d never been to Vegas but it sounded awful – it sounded very fake. Ironically, that’s what I thought stripping was – more surface. If anything, Viva Las Vegas is an absurd name, and I can’t believe that’s what people still call me. I’m not embarrassed, but the reasons I picked it are so far from the career I eventually found.
How have you come to define success?
My trial with success came before Williams. I was hyper-driven and wanted to be the best at everything. I was national merit scholar and valedictorian. I also wanted to be the best athlete, and I read this terrible book, “Eat to Win” that drove me towards anorexia. So this drive for success ended up biting me in the ass and that was very instructive. After that, I decided that success has to resonate from within – it’s not an outer thing. That really set my course. I could’ve become a doctor or a lawyer. There are certain jobs where if you go through all the doors, you’re going to get the “success.” It’s much harder to pay attention to what your inner yearnings are and to honor those. Having done that for 20 years, I’m proud of myself for having said no when I needed to say no.
I do feel very successful. I don’t have a retirement fund, but I have my integrity and that’s the biggest success, and I have a huge community of friends who would do anything for me. When you have cancer, you learn that that’s your true wealth.
What advice would you give to current students?
It sounds trite, but I’d say to follow your instincts and what brings you joy and be grateful for how much we have. We are the 0.1% having gotten to go to Williams. The most rewarding thing in life is giving back, and I think you’ll find the most happiness if you find a way to share and give.