On Stripping in New York City
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Girl, Undressed, formerly titled No Man’s Land
Ruth Fowler wanted a life of adventure and after graduating from Cambridge University she set out to find it, traveling the world from Argentina to India, Nepal to the French Riviera. By the time she arrived in New York City, she had also discovered Mimi, her alter-ego who allowed her to exhibit her most reckless desires.
Struggling to establish herself as a journalist, Fowler grew increasingly broke and desperate. Without a work visa, even the most menial jobs are inaccessible for her. So she slips into an underground world where working papers are not needed—dancing for cash tips in Manhattan’s Times Square. As Mimi, Fowler is able to let go of her inhibitions, but she also finds herself spiraling downward into a dark “no man’s land” where the lives of its inhabitants hang precariously on the edge.
As Fowler seeks refuge in drugs and drink to help anesthetize her, we meet other dancers in her world—women, many without visas, some with children to support, who also navigate their way down the “long, hellish Yellow Brick Road.” Over and over, Fowler struggles to pull herself up and out, yet “every time you think you’re getting nearer to your destination, something else happens. Something else drags you back.”
While dancing at the club, Fowler meets Eton, a wealthy young Englishman who shares her interests and her Oxbridge education. At one time they might have been peers and Fowler finds herself falling for him. But Eton cannot separate Fowler from her persona. He adores Mimi, the “cheeky little gobshite who always comes out on top, who never cries.” Soon, Fowler finds herself feeding Mimi all her best traits, “the degree, the intelligence, the ambitions, all that renders our affair acceptable in his world.”
Fowler knows she must extract herself from Eton, from the dancing, the nightly numbing of drugs and alcohol. But even after she receives her visa, she finds it difficult to extricate herself from the familiar comfort of the underworld. By choosing “no man’s land” she has control over her ambitions—dreaming about them is less scary than attempting them. She has become accustomed to drifting. “Leaving what you don’t have behind you is the most exquisite feeling on earth,” she writes, “for when you leave what you don’t have, you can only find it.”
Eventually, Fowler finds her way out of no man’s land—and out of Mimi—and back into her own skin. Though Mimi “squirmed and howled and thrashed away,” in the end “she left quietly—too quietly—as if one day, she might be back.”
Brutally raw and unflinchingly honest, Girl, Undressed is at once a scathing look at the sex industry and the gripping story of a broken young woman’s struggle to find herself.
Ruth Fowler was raised in North Wales and graduated from Cambridge University. Under different pseudonyms she has written for various publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Village Voice and Wired. As the strip club dancer “Mimi” she was the subject of a feature article in The New York Times.
Writing a memoir was a lot more honest than stripping—scarily so. After stripping for two years I was inured to the fact of my own nudity. I just didn’t notice it or feel embarrassed by wiggling my butt in a most un-feminist manner, partly, perhaps, because of the roles you play within the job, the fact you assume a persona to prevent the men digging too deep into your psyche. It’s self-preservation. Writing the memoir was all about unpicking and penetrating that wall, chipping away at hard skin, peeling off bits and reaching the rawness underneath. It’s tempting to hide away from it, to bail out. You notice the first few chapters in the book are kind of reluctant and painful, and after that it gets into a rhythm. That’s a bit like stripping. The first few times you feel naked and then you just forget and get on with things.
Q. When you first arrived in the United States, you were confident in your ability to get a visa and find a job. However, the lack of a visa greatly altered your life. How has your experience affected your perceptions of illegal immigrants?
It never really changed my perspective of illegal immigrants so much. I was a nice, conscientious liberal before I lived in New York who had sympathy for illegal immigrants and felt that there was more to the situation than might be suggested by the anti-immigration faction’s claim that America was being overrun by these people who didn’t pay taxes, lived off Medicare and food aid, and were too lazy to get legal. Surely if the choice is being illegal and working crap jobs, or being legal and working better paid jobs with insurance and security, it’s obvious which choice is preferable.
Hanging out with so many illegal immigrants made me aware of the myriad reasons behind the decision to move to the U.S.—one friend, for example, moved to the U.S. as a child after political upheaval in her country of birth, Taiwan. She and her family had to leave to avoid death. They didn’t turn up here because they liked Friends and hamburgers. However, the fact that the U.S. government didn’t recognize the situation in Taiwan with the Kuomingtang meant she and her family were not eligible to apply for asylum in the United States. So she’s spent twenty-five years as an illegal, has gone through college, sounds American, is American, but has no citizenship rights. Her parents are educated people. Her father was an engineer. In the U.S. they got by working in motels and tiling floors. What a tragic waste of potential.
The only easy way to get into the States is with money. If you have enough money you can apply for college and pay those huge college fees and get the temporary work visa after graduation, or you can show the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that you are bringing a huge amount of money into the U.S., setting up a business, something that is “beneficial for the economy.”
Of course, there is the bourgeois illegal, people from Europe or a richer country who rock up to the U.S. to work in a bar in the East Village for a year and party, and don’t ever bother to figure out the immigration system. In my own defense I came to the U.S. with the intent to do it the right way. I don’t claim to have a background like the one described above, but I certainly would not condone the laissez-faire attitude to immigration typified by the bourgeois illegal. Whenever some kid from Paris or London or Madrid e-mails me to ask my advice because they want to move to New York for a year and work in a bar “because it sounds fun,” I’m like, “Don’t. Just don’t. Please respect the people who don’t have a choice and leave the work for them.” Ironic perhaps, but yeah, I make a distinction.
Q. You had many dark moments living in New York. What kept you from moving back home? Even if you were afraid of becoming a corporate drone in the U.K., why didn’t you move to another city in Europe, where it would have been easier for you to obtain a visa?
I couldn’t leave New York for eight months while my visa was being processed as USCIS retained my I-94 card, which I needed to exit the country. When I did get the visa, I could work as a freelance writer, which was the point all along, although I kept dancing as I was stone broke. To be honest, I don’t feel like I have a home. I left the U.K. in 2000 and never really felt attached to it as a country. I certainly don’t have a family home to go to or the kinds of parents who kept my childhood bedroom pristine for weekend visits and Sunday dinner. I was making my own way and didn’t give up because I didn’t have a safety net. I have family but they have their own lives, we stay in touch but it’s not like if I got in the shit I could call them up: “Hey, pay for my flight home! Put some sheets on the spare bed, I’m moving back indefinitely!” For some people, life is like that. Mom and dad help with the rent and the groceries, pay their school fees, help them out with the mortgage on their first home. My family is middle class but we had some money problems later on in life, plus my parents don’t function that way. We’re a big family—five kids—and they let us all loose and cut off the apron strings pretty early on. I would love to have a family home and an infallible belief that however shitty things got, help was a phone call away, but I can’t honestly say I do. So when I was in New York, always hoping something would turn up, the idea of uprooting again, on so little income, with no support, wasn’t really feasible.
Sometimes it bothers me, the lack of security, the need always for money. You can’t really relax. But hey, it’s life. There are more people worse off out there.
Q. Have any of the women whose stories you included read the book? How do they feel about how you portray them?
None of the strippers have read the book. They’ll probably lynch me when they do. I worked for one night at a place where this skinny Russian with bad skin tried to punch the crap out of me because she read my blog. I have absolutely no idea who she was to this day. I never worked there again—far too scary. Those Russians, man, they pack a punch. Actually, a friend of mine, Sara, a dancer and dominatrix I used to hang out with, likes my writing so I know she’ll enjoy it. “Lily” (not her real name) will like it, though may find it amusing because I changed a lot of details about her to conceal her identity. Maybe she’ll get mad for not having more of a starring role and for me saying she had fake boobs (the real Lily didn’t have fake boobs or work in a strip club, for the record, but she did have some very dodgy jobs). Sorry, Lily! I said you were hot though!
Q. How have your family and friends reacted to the book? Were they aware of everything you had gone through?
My friends read it and all they could say was “Ugh, I can’t believe you let him spit in your mouth!” My writer friends said “I loved the imagery” and my older sister was like, “Oh yeah I read it really quick, it was good.” “But did it make you cry?” I asked. She paused and considered, “No.”
My brother had the most typical British reaction. “It was filth sis, pure filth.” Then he cracked up laughing. That’s kind of how Brits are, my family are. I prefer it that way. I don’t know what my parents will say, I probably won’t ask. I don’t see them so often as they live abroad. I’ll casually navigate the conversation to a more suitable topic when the topic arises. I don’t really feel the need to talk about anything. I did my shit, got through my personal hell, managed it, wrote about it, case closed. It’s quite handy having your own personal manual for future dates. “Refer to page 71 for attitudes towards rimming.” Although I’m dreading the idiot who says “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.” Well, that’s good, as it’s all down on paper so you don’t have to.
Q. In recent years there has been a fad of women taking pole-dancing or striptease aerobics classes as a form of female empowerment. How do you feel about this trend? Do you view stripping as empowering or disempowering?
I like dancing, I like performing, I like the pole. However, stripping is downright gross now. Talking to the older girls you hear about these halcyon days of stripping, when it wasn’t so dirty. Obviously that’s tainted by nostalgia, but certainly, it’s harder and harder to earn a buck as a stripper now with a lot of girls doing naughty “extras” which screws up your business. It becomes less about the performance and the tease and more like a quasi-whorehouse. How in God’s name is that empowering?
It’s all about the money, as I say in chapter one. Some days money is raining down upon you onstage, you go to a private room for three hours with a lovely guy who just wants to drink and chat—that’s empowering. Sometimes you make nothing and some three hundred pound retard with no teeth and bad b.o. walks in from the street, looks you up and down and walks out again with a look of disgust. That’s disempowering. Stripping is neither one thing nor the other. I think that’s what infuriates so many people. It defies simple categorization as “feminist” or “anti-feminist.” The girls who do it defy categorization. I think it’s kind of pathetic when women take strip-tease cardio classes. (I am renowned for being blunt, outspoken, and rude.) Now pole dancing I get—it’s hugely athletic and beautiful to watch, and it’s fun. But burlesque classes? Strip tease cardio? Are you doing that for your man or something? Don’t even bother. Women care more about that stuff than guys. You think your boyfriend will notice how you took your top off? He’ll register the result of the action, not the action itself. Save your money and buy a Germaine Greer book if you want to be empowered as a woman. Ah, lovely Germaine!
Q. Though Mimi leads you to some of the darkest moments of your life, she also helps you realize a dream of writing and publishing a book. Why did you decide to write this book? What do you hope people gain from reading it?
I wrote a novel way back when I was twenty-four and got interest from some agents. This was back in 2004. One e-mailed and said, “If you want a book deal start a blog, they’re all the rage.” So I started a blog at a time in my life when everything was crazy. I’d just moved to New York with big dreams. And my stories kept getting attention, and my life was so insane it would have been ridiculous not to write about it, it was a gift as much as it was absolute hell. I wanted to write it as fiction though, because it was too raw. I kept a lot of stuff out of the blog, but the book has everything. The first manuscript was literally an outpouring of incoherent rage, by turns comedic, sad, and infuriating. I find certain things difficult to write about, like my background and so forth. My attitude is rather prickly to queries about my past. I can’t help thinking, “Listen, I sold three years of my life, the rest isn’t for sale,” so I feel like there’s a certain reserve and reluctance in the first three chapters, a self-deprecating mocking that disappears later on. I guess it’s because I wanted to write about Mimi and not who I was before, or I felt that who I was before Mimi would show up without needing to explicate in chapters one through three. But as soon as it became a memoir it demanded a past I was reluctant to give, especially when I was trying to keep my family out of the equation, and trying to change or dodge details to shield them. I don’t know what people hope to gain from reading it. I don’t know what I personally gain from reading. An escape from reality? Reassurance that I’m not a freak? I want to be dazzled, broken, shocked, sympathetic, moved by books. I want to laugh and cry. Maybe I want to achieve that. All of the above. It would be nice not to be hated and judged. I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.
Q. What is your relationship to Mimi now? Do you view her as a phase that has left your life for good or is she still a part of you?
A lot of people still call me Mimi so I’d feel a bit of a twit telling them not to. I go through phases: living life, going crazy, going out, traveling, experiencing, really enjoying life to the full, being broke, worrying about money or where to sleep or what to do next. And then I go through a phase of contemplating it all from the comfort of my red Ikea sofa and logging my experiences in writing. (Product placement unintentional, I’m not being sponsored by them). At the moment, I’m in the latter phase, writing a lot of articles for The Guardian and other British newspapers. I feel happy in my skin, though. I’ll always be nuts, but knowing a lot of other writers, I’ve started to realize it comes with the territory. If you hang out in your own head for most of the day, you’re not going to be very normal are you?
Q. What are you working on now?
Screenplays. I’d love to sell my screenplays. I’ve written two and have plans for more. One is a cute indie comedy set in Oregon that comments on the pharmaceutical industry—very funny, very dark. It’s about a girl whose mom is a porn star. The other is like a female version of Superbad called Laid, but as my friend Jon says, “It’s the thinking person’s Superbad.” That sounds a bit like an oxymoron actually. That movie annoyed me. I didn’t dig the thousandth unoriginal penis joke delivered out of some smart-ass fat kid’s gob. Please don’t take that personally Judd Apatow, we can still be friends. Just call my assistant when you’re ready to talk. I’m currently doing a lot of what I call frivolous journalism as well—comment pieces and so forth, easy and quick. I’m planning to do some more in-depth gonzo stuff in the U.S. when I get back over though. There are different kinds of journalists in this world and I am one of the shit ones. I make a better “writer dealing with the real world,” which is a slight distinction that allows me a lot of the liberties with language and style. I want to write a second book about intimacy and the West. It’s in the planning stages. It consists of crazy people plus the twenty-first century plus me plus a future husband plus L.A. I think that’s a recipe for pain and trouble. I can’t wait.
- The author writes: “After a while the fake names become more real than the real, become indistinguishable from the real. Feeding off truth, the fake overwhelms truth, a monstrous tick grown juicy, plump, resplendent, and terrifying.” Do you feel the author is a reliable narrator? Why or why not?
- Why did the author feel the need to create Mimi? Would you ever use a pseudonym or create an alter-ego?
- Of all the men the author meets, she falls for Eton, an Englishman who, with his wealthy background, seems like Mimi’s opposite. Yet, he comes from Ruth’s world of educational privilege and is the only person who comes close to her real self. What draws her to Eton?
- At one point, the author writes, “Life is a lie. I defy anyone who can claim to live without lying.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
- Why doesn’t the author ever reveal her real name? What roles do names play in the book?
- While working in the sexual service economy, the author’s attitudes about sex and love shift. Did you feel she came to a conclusion? Did you agree?