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One would likely categorize a stripper as, “those girls” in rap videos who are drug addicted high school drop-outs who give up their bodies to 40-something year old men to make a few thousand a night.

For those of you who see strippers in that perspective, it’s because that’s how the media portrays them. Let me be the first to tell you, it’s not true in the slightest. Would it surprise you if I said most girls who work in strip clubs are currently attending respected universities or own a business on the side?

Talking with *Nicole, a young woman who is bright, friendly, and currently finishing up her post-secondary education – you would never guess she dances on a stage to pay for her living expenses, textbooks, and food.

To understand why she strips, one has to understand her life story.

Nicole grew up with a “hippy” mother who painted, walked in the nude, and dabbled in tarot card readings. As a young girl, she was always told to be comfortable in her body and take pride in who she is.

Bringing me back to the small townhouse she grew up in, she mentioned her favorite room was her dining room, where her mom painted a maple tree directly on the wall. A room full of hope and beauty, a rustic wooden picture frame enclosed the tree where its leaves changed colours and ‘fell’ onto the floor around the edges of the table.

“Not that we ever ate at the dining table, of course,” Nicole said. “A good 90 per cent of my meals were eaten cross-legged on the floor.”

Nicole herself is a self-proclaimed hippy, a term largely influenced by her mother. She follows a vegetarian diet, spends time volunteering for causes she cares about and was taught to believe in karma, energies, and astrology.

However, Nicole’s upbringing was wayward to say the least. Her mother was mentally ill who abused medication and alcohol, and constantly told Nicole she wasn’t allowed to go outside because of the marks she made on her body and face.

As Nicole went going through extensive physical and verbal abuse, her father divorced her mother at the age of five and married another woman not too long after.

“I was too young to fully understand this,” Nicole said. “Over the years, teachers and other parents watched my personality transform from one of a fun, bubbly child to a withdrawn, antisocial girl. I began to get bullied at school. For the last couple years of elementary, I had no safe place to go to: school was hell and home was hell.”

Even though the social aspect of school was hard, she loved to learn and spent the majority of her time reading in her closet.

“I went through a novel about every two days, and focused all of my attention to schoolwork,” Nicole said. “It was the one thing that I had control over and could do well in.”

The abuse from her mother went on until she grew old enough to realize it was a problem. Her father, who was absent most her life, took notice and brought her into his home. Despite being in another environment, Nicole spent the entire summer alone while he and his wife went to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Having been lonely and unhappy for most her life, at the end of that summer, the thirteen year old Nicole attempted suicide. With pills in one hand and alcohol in the other, her father luckily found her on the bathroom floor on time. She was rushed to the hospital.

After spending weeks in a hospital bed, the pain had dulled, but she remembers being furious she was awake.

“The day that I was discharged from the hospital, my father brought me home in silence,” Nicole said. “That was the first, and one of the only times that I would ever see my father cry.”

Despite the distaste for life, she continued to have an inexplicable zest for learning. At her school, she finally began to make friends and even moved in with one of them.

“Moving in to their home was when things started to look up for me,” Nicole said. “I graduated with scholarships and honours.”

After high school, Nicole moved to another city for post-secondary education. When it came to providing for herself financially, Nicole was on her own. Absolutely no financial support from her parents.

Her study schedule was extensive, and she needed a job where she can work around school and get paid enough for student loans.

Nicole started to research where she can make fast money. She stumbled upon dancing jobs around the city, and found herself walking up to a strip club – asking for a job the same night.

“There wasn’t much of an interview,” Nicole said, as she explained the first time entering the club. “They assess your physical appearance, make sure you’re not on drugs, and if you seem to possess the potential to make money, they will let you work at their club.”

Landing the job immediately, the biggest challenge was yet to come. Girls are fired weekly for being too fat, not making enough money, excessive boozing, drug-use, or association with pimps. Nicole says, “you have to be good enough to last.”

She admits her first day was terrifying.

“There is nobody to tell you what to do or how to do it. The manager will give you the club rules and tell you to do one stage show, but that’s it,” Nicole said. “You’re on your own, and everybody hates the new girl. You get lots of dirty looks and quips. If you want to survive, you must keep your mouth shut.”

Her first time on stage, she fumbled to remove her panties over a pair of shoes six times as tall as the average heel. Luckily, she admits her sense of humour is what keeps her from being swallowed by the industry.

“I am my own boss. On tax returns, I declare myself an independent contractor and am essentially running my own business,” Nicole said. “Thus, I set my own hours.”

On an average day of work, Nicole shows up around 8 p.m. to get dressed and apply false lashes and other stripper-esque superfluities. Throughout the night, she performs both stage shows and sells private dances to patrons.

Frequently when men buy her drinks, Nicole uses code names so waitresses bring non-alcoholic drinks. The reason being “when men buy drinks, they actually think I’m getting tipsy,” Nicole said. “So that the waitresses can charge more in order to get better tips.”

“Believe me, that is certainly not the only illusion we create in the club,” Nicole continued. “The entire club operates like one great live performance, the dancers playing the part of actors.”

According to Nicole, there are a lot of close-minded and judgmental people who are quick to make assumptions of exotic dancers.

“It doesn’t define who I am,” Nicole admits. “I do not walk around with tacky long nails, excessive makeup or revealing clothing…it’s simply how I get by.”

Her job makes it easier for her to immerse yourself in schoolwork, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities.

“I do so many things that I would not have time for without dancing. I’ll often work more than once or twice a month, but that money is for savings or extras,” Nicole said. “The key here is that school and building a savings account are my top priorities, not buying Ferraris and Louis Vuitton bags.”

The best night she ever had, Nicole made $3,000 from a “really pimped out cocaine dealer.”

“He took me for a private dance and was throwing money all over the place like it was garbage,” Nicole said. “It was the most insane experience.”

When she came out of the club, she was running a bit behind and needed to catch a cab. She saw one down the street and ran to get it with, yes – $ 3000 cash in her bag.

“Because I had been rushing to leave I didn’t do up my bag properly and a good $300 to $400 flew out of my bag on a main road.”

She says there was a hummer with young guys driving by and they all laughed as she scrambled to pick up as much as she could before the streetlight turned green and traffic came.

“There was a homeless guy passing so he started to help me out, he probably got at least $ 200,” Nicole said. “He went to hand it to me but I was so flustered by the whole thing, and had done so well that night, that I just yelled keep it and ran to go get in a cab.”

As for Nicole’s mother, she has gotten better over the years, but Nicole still feels she never owes her anything, since she practically raised herself.

With the amount of money Nicole can make in such little time, you’d think anyone can just waltz into a strip club and make thousands of dollars a night. Yet, Nicole wouldn’t recommend it.

“House girls will say that they feel at home in the strip club, because it is a house of misfits, in a sense,” Nicole said. “A regular customer once described it as a dog pound: the abused and abandoned come in, and eventually the good ones get picked and move on with their lives, while the others keep coming back again and again.”

Nicole goes about her business professionally, respects her personal boundaries and body. And despite the stereotypes and child abuse, the self-proclaimed “hippy” has her sight set for graduate school. With a strong head on her shoulders and the fact she was forced to be a fully-grown adult at 18, she embraced every moment and has no regrets.

“I overcame a difficult childhood, developed great friendships, excel in school, am able to fully support myself…so when I walk out with $1000 after a 5-hour shift, put me down as much as you please,” Nicole says, admitting she never once took out a student loan, “I’ll be the one graduating debt free.”

* Changed for protection

By Jessica Moy for EJECT Magazine

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