Q&A with Stripper-Turned-Esteemed-Journalist Lily Burana

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Lily Burana is a punk rock girl turned stripper turned esteemed journalist. She traveled more than 20,000 miles and went to 25 clubs to write Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America (Talk/Miramax, 328 pages, $23.95). But you don't find either the old-school stripper/victim tales or the trendy, slick Xena, Stripper Princess pro-stripping propaganda in it. With her wry, observant humor?and her considerable heart?Burana lets us into a world that gets a rise out of folks one way or the other.

Let's start at the beginning?how did you start stripping?

It's actually pretty unremarkable?the standard, age-old headline: "YOUNG WOMAN, BROKE, LOSES SHIRT, MAKES MONEY!" In the late 80s, shortly after having left high school at 18, I moved to the East Village and had a hard time finding work. A girlfriend with whom I worked at a boutique kept telling me I'd be a great stripper. She'd danced herself in her hometown, and for months she'd bring it up whenever I mulled over my job situation. When I got fired from that boutique job and was desperately low on money, she took me to Times Square to this grungy place called Peepland. We'd work in the little talkie booths, sometimes together, talking to guys on the other side of a big pane of plexiglas. We worked for tips and kept everything we earned. It wasn't huge money, but certainly more than I was making before I started?none! Starting at the peepshow was scary, and I knew I was crossing a serious threshold, but I decided that I'd rather step outside the bounds of acceptable behavior in order to sustain myself than stay broke or find a slow-burn job that made me suicidal. I figured if I was gonna have a job that might set me on self-destruct, I'd go fast track. I made that decision more than a decade ago and I'm still payin' for it today!

You were a goth/punk?did other punks care that you were a stripper? Did they approve?

Bear in mind that I didn't tell many people I was working in a peepshow, so most people didn't have the information to form an opinion. Girls who knew about the stripping were pretty understanding, or at least respectful if they disapproved personally of the decision. But guys were different, especially the super-lefty peace punk guys. They'd get all politically high and mighty: "You could've done something?anything?else for money." I was kind of a defensive jerk about it, actually, but I felt pretty strongly then that the fact that I could've done another kind of work was irrelevant. What mattered was that I wasn't doing something else, I was doing this, so if I could deal with that, having made that choice, then other people should, too.

After having moved to New York as a teenager, you went to San Francisco. Was one city remarkably different from the other, for stripping?

Oh, definitely. For one thing, I've found that New York is consistently more conservative than "live and let live" San Francisco, especially regarding sex stuff. In San Francisco, I first worked at the Lusty Lady, which was also a peepshow, but it couldn't have been more different than Peepland. It promoted itself as "friendly, feminist, and fun," and really tried to emphasize?however dubiously?that being a peepshow dancer was a worthy pursuit and that the dancers should have some say in how they were treated. Customers weren't allowed to tell the girls what to do, or be rude, or they'd be asked to leave. The Lusty was kind of a grunge pit, and it paid a pretty chintzy hourly wage, so it's not like it was a utopia. But the drape of pro-dancer sentiment was unlike anything I'd seen in New York.

After the Lusty, I moved to Mitchell Brothers, which had a glitz level that I'd never witnessed before. Despite my issues with the working conditions there (I later joined a coworker in filing a class action lawsuit against the theater), I give them full credit for raising the bar on strip-club quality. In New York, I was very closeted, but in San Francisco I became something of a stripper/activist 'toon, very much into strippers' rights and overturning negative stereotypes about dancers. I still think activism is critical, but now I'm much more balanced, more invested in communicating the negative, as well as the positive, consequences of stripping. The whole question of "does stripping empower or exploit women" is absurd to me. It can, and often does, do both by turns.

In Strip City, you traveled to more than 20 clubs. What differences did you notice among all the areas you traveled to?

A small-town club was usually pretty humble, and meant pretty small money. Big cities have more clubs, more range among them and more money to be made. There's a huge spectrum, influenced by local taste, legislation and demographics?from blue collar, workin' Joe Jersey go-go bars where girls danced behind the bar in bikinis to party-style Alaskan nude clubs where tour buses and Harley gangs rolled up outside, and girls would do elaborately costumed and choreographed routines.

What was the most fun part of doing your book?

I really loved the Exotic World Burlesque Museum out in the Mojave Desert of California. It's this series of listing trailers cobbled together out in the middle of nowhere, stuffed full with memorabilia like Sally Rand's fans, and Gypsy Rose Lee's travel trunk and decades' worth of burlesque promo 8-by-10s climbing the walls from floor to ceiling. It's awesome. I love burlesque history, and was glad to get the opportunity incorporate some into Strip City.

It seems like every hipster kid has worked in the adult business now, or wants to. Was it like that when you started?

[Laughs] No! When I started, we were still under the thumb of Reaganite conservatism and antiporn feminism. A girl could be run out of town on a rail if she announced herself as a stripper. Stripping has gone from a big no-no to a sort of grudgingly accepted cultural fixture. In some fringey circles, it's a rite of passage to have supported yourself as a stripper. While it's certainly not the kiss of death it used to be, I wouldn't say it's ready for prime time. Though if the thongfests on MTV and HBO are any indication, it's certainly having its moment on cable.

What are your favorite stripper movies/songs/books?

I love that song "Main Street" by Bob Seger. It's this tiny, pretty little song about a guy who has a crush on a dancer and how he watches her go home at night, from a great distance. Actually, that description makes it sound like a stalker anthem, but really, it's about that longing at the core of a customer's gaze. The opening line of Hole's "Asking for It" gives me chills: "Every time that I sell myself to you, I feel a little bit cheaper than I need to." Anyone who's ever hustled, or shaken their moneymaker, for the main chance knows exactly what she means.

Where do you see stripping going from here?

I doubt it'll become totally mainstream, because the sex industry manifests our unrulier sexual urges, and stripping is the vaudevillian, showbizzy niche in that wild machine. But it's gotten much more permissive?in the 1950s, you had to wear pasties and fishnets, and performers just worked the runway. In the 1970s, nudity became more common, but the idea of lapdancing even existing, let alone becoming part of the cultural lexicon, was unthinkable. Since it's relaxed so much, I think increased customer contact is the wave of the future, which I am not too crazy about. A woman should be able to choose how much proximity she wants to have?no contact, minimal contact, full contact?and if lapdancing and other customer contact increases dramatically, it might pressure dancers to do stuff they'd really rather not.

Are you worried about what other strippers will think of your book?

I'm not trying to be the poster girl for stripping or act as a role model for the workforce. But I'd love it if strippers felt I did them justice. Thing is, every woman has such a unique perspective, such a unique experience, that I can't count on that. Some will think it's too racy, and others will think I'm a lily-white, bowdlerizing wimp.

Were you anxious about coming out with a book on this subject, which seems to really incite people?

Whether you're working as a stripper, or publishing a book about it, projection is an expected consequence. It's kinda like the psychological equivalent of walking through a room in a velcro suit?I attract all kinds of people's psychic lint about work, sex, money, femininity, gender relations and politics. The lint just flies right at me: Sellout! Feminist trailblazer! Exhibitionist! Narcissist! Rebel queen! Freedom Fighter! Bimbo! After running the public and critical opinion gauntlet, I end up pretty fuzzy. It's part of the price of being out there.


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