STRIPPED Journal – Naked Truth

As we neared the end of our two-week Missoula stretch, it became apparent to me that in each of our interviews with each of our dancers, there was a series of commonalities. It wasn’t so much the women’s backgrounds. Those were diverse—a teenage runaway, a victim of sexual abuse, a country girl who grew up working on the farm, a Native American woman who simply wanted to find her way off the reservation. Each of these dancers was unique. But in every interview, we encountered a similar ideology about the purpose of dancing, beyond making money to feed a family or pay for school. It’s an ideology that might seem ludicrous to some, but it’s important to address, especially considering I was a person who once made my own unfair judgments and assumptions about exotic dancers. Spending the past two weeks with these women really opened my eyes…by allowing me to actually see through their eyes.

On the outside, it’s easy to assume what might be happening on the inside. But even if you’ve been to a strip club—as I have—it doesn’t necessarily represent the whole. I see what I see, as a woman in a monogamous relationship. It’s easy to feel disgusted by the visual. I certainly wouldn’t want my boyfriend to go to one without me. Why would I? Don’t I give him enough? When I was married and my son was little, I would’ve been crushed if I ever found out my husband had gone to a club. I would’ve questioned our relationship. I would’ve questioned him. That’s me. On the outside, looking in. But what I see is very different than what a dancer sees. To her, she’s merely performing for money. She’s being an entertainer. She’s often being a counselor. And like any other working person, it’s just a job.

“I’d rather my boyfriend go to a strip club than a bar,” one dancer said. “95% of the girls who work at the clubs are married or have boyfriends or have kids to take care of. There’s less of a threat they’d want anything to do with another woman’s boyfriend or husband. They’re there to work, not to flirt. At a regular bar, girls are drinking and having a good time and flirting. There’s a different motive there.”

“This is just a job,” another dancer said. “If it wasn’t for strippers, wives and girlfriends would have to deal with some weird shit. Period. They don’t always understand the kind of stuff their men fantasize about. These guys will come in and tell us about it. And some of it is really weird. And I don’t think they’re bringing that stuff home. We’re counselors.”

A third dancer said, “A lot of times, I play counselor. I kept a man from committing suicide one night. It’s an emotionally draining job at times, but I love it. People have asked me if it’s degrading to be a dancer. No. By just being me, I can take care of my family. A lot of people don’t see that. They have this image of exotic dancers, and they can’t get that out of their heads.”

Melissa, Kacie and I left Missoula in three separate cars. On the drive to Butte for scheduled interviews with two of the dancers there and the owner, Virginia, I thought about what these women told me, and I began to understand them a little better. And by understanding them, I broke through my own prejudice because, not only was I understanding them more, but I was also understanding their customers a little better too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STRIPPED Journal – Strippers Need Not Apply

It seemed our schedule changed a little just about everyday. We’d go to bed with a list of the following day’s activities, and we’d wake up the next morning with an email or text message or voicemail that left us with no choice but to alter our plans. We had a few unexpected days between interviews, so we set out on a mission to capture the voices of Missoula patrons—in particular, their views of exotic dancers pursuing careers outside of dancing. We managed to talk to a number of people. They all agreed that dancers should be entitled to the same rights as any other person; that they should be treated equally and fairly when applying for jobs they’d be qualified for. It wasn’t surprising. But we decided to try and challenge this view by sending Kacie out on a job-hunting mission—as Karly, a former exotic dancer.

We found five Missoula businesses hiring for different positions—housekeeping at two hotels, a barista at a coffee shop, a waitress at a casino and an assistant at a law office. “Karly” entered each business, introduced herself and asked for an application. But in her introduction, she made it clear that she was a former exotic dancer and wanted to be sure that wouldn’t be a problem. They all said her past as a dancer wasn’t an issue, but in each instance, “Karly” felt uncomfortable. The expressions on the faces of the people she spoke with was enough to leave her feeling vulnerable and exposed, and her comment after we all sat down later for lunch was that she couldn’t imagine what it would be like if she really was a dancer trying to find work. Although Kacie was pretending to be “Karly”, she was nevertheless hurt by the experience.

“Karly” returned two of the applications—one for housekeeping and the waitressing job at the casino. The law office wanted a resume, and the other two required online applications. Neither the hotel nor the casino called her in for an interview. This isn’t necessarily a result of being a former dancer—we can’t prove that. It could have been that she didn’t have the qualifications. More than not being called in, though, Kacie felt the embarrassment real dancers might experience. She received the funny looks. She was overcome with the same sense of defeat a current or former dancer might know at being rejected by nothing more than a frown or a pair of wide eyes or a stifled laugh.

-Fleur Philips

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STRIPPED Journal – Stage Presence

Our remaining time in Missoula flew by. We spent five days with one dancer, capturing her life both on film and on paper. Hers is a story we won’t easily forget. Additionally, we spoke with three other women—two are currently dancing, one quit after just a few months. Each of their tales is different, but there’s a similar theme in all of them—the mere hope that by talking to us and sharing their ups and downs, they might be accepted as real people. But there was another common thread in each story as well—the desire for the world to consider what they do to be a form of art.

For one dancer, the job is not just about the money. “I love performing,” she says. “I do contortion work. I do pole work. I want to entertain people.”

Another says, “It’s better to look at my profession as an art, because that’s what it is.”

I think this is difficult for a lot of people to understand. They don’t consider these women to be exotic dancers so much as they consider them to be strippers. But the title “exotic dancer” is much more defining, and we were able to see this first hand when we visited a few of the clubs ourselves. There were moments when I felt like I was watching a Cirque de Soleil show. These were performances that required not only a level of physical strength and endurance that many people don’t (and won’t ever) have, but also the mental ability to block out everything but the music in order to prevent themselves from losing their concentration and falling to the ground. They might not be suspended hundreds of feet into the air, but a fall while hanging upside down and spinning around a pole gripped by the muscles of their inner thighs would nevertheless cause a head or neck injury of some kind. At the conclusion of one dancer’s performance, she was breathing and sweating as though she’d just run a half marathon. Her routine was not just incredible in the sense of what she could do with her body, but it was breathtaking. She was as fit as a triathlete, but she moved with the grace of a ballerina.

And she wasn’t the only one. Each woman we watched approached the stage differently, but elegantly. They each had their own way of performing—some stronger on the pole, others stronger on the floor. But in every routine there was a sense of pride, something many people will never feel while at work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STRIPPED Journal – Heaven Sent

For the next three days, we scrambled to find new girls for short interviews. We still had one dancer who was committed. We’d be spending five full days with her, documenting her life both inside and outside of dancing. Our hope now was to find at least two or three others who’d at least be willing to give us a few hours. Melissa combed the Internet in search of other dancers in the area, and in her search, discovered a Craigslist ad for a concierge service for bachelor parties. Turns out, the woman who ran the service was a former dancer. Melissa reached out to her, and she was happy to speak with us. In addition, Kacie managed to secure a second dancer for a short interview. And a third we hadn’t heard from in awhile contacted Melissa out of the blue and agreed to talk to us as long as we muted her face. She’d only danced for two months, but she wanted to share her story with us because of the impact the experience had on her. Things were turning around!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STRIPPED Journal – Lost in Translation

Our first week in Missoula was supposed to have been spent following the lives of two dancers, but word spread quickly that we were in town, and one club owner wasn’t happy. Without knowing anything about our project—most importantly, that it had nothing to do with the clubs—she threatened the girls we’d been talking to for months that they’d both be fired immediately if they spoke to us anymore.

We returned to our Missoula home-away-from-home our first official afternoon in town with no interviews. Two of our three girls were gone. We were frustrated and angry. But we were also sad. These girls were excited to tell their stories. They wanted the world to know who they were and why they danced for a living. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they’d been offered an opportunity to share their voices. And now, that opportunity had been stripped from them. Like many of the dancers we’d come to meet during our time in Montana, they had few employment options. Some of these girls had been trying to get out of dancing, but the applications they’d submitted for other jobs went unnoticed. We were also informed that several of the girls had applied to a cosmetology school in the area, but were turned down. And even if any of those job opportunities had come through, none of them would pay the kind of money they were making dancing. They all had bills to pay…and kids to feed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STRIPPED Journal – A Storm is Brewing…

After our Garden Bar burger, we left Bigfork and followed Highway 35 along the east shore of Flathead Lake. Sun glittered off its surface, as though a massive blanket made of diamonds had been draped over the water. Just north of Missoula, black storm clouds rolled across the sky. The radio deejay announced the possibility of damaging wind, hail and lightning. Melissa was behind me in her car. I called her, concerned about the news, and she replied as any great photographer would, “That would be awesome footage!” By the time we reached Missoula, however, the clouds had all but disappeared. There was no wind. No hail. Just heat. Within the next 24 hours, we would discover it wasn’t just the weather in Montana that could change rapidly. So would our carefully laid-out production schedule…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STRIPPED Journal – Eat Your Food, Melissa…

On Wednesday, July 17th we stopped in Bigfork at the Garden Bar for a burger and a “first day of Stripped” beer. It was at this time Melissa told me that one of our dancers was MIA. She hadn’t responded to a number of text messages, and Melissa was getting nervous. She typed frantically on her cell phone until the bartender snatched it away and told her to eat her food. It was a first for me—a bartender taking a patron’s phone away, and like a father to his daughter, telling her she wouldn’t get it back until she finished her meal? As you can imagine, this initiated a dialogue about whom we were and what we were doing in Montana. When asked his opinion about whether the Garden Bar would consider hiring a former exotic dancer, he responded by saying, “of course.” And then proceeded to make jokes about her needing to bring her own pole. Melissa and I looked at each other, and from the silence between us, understood there was no need to continue. We weren’t asking him whether the bar would hire a former exotic dancer to dance, but his response indicated his possible belief that “once a stripper, always a stripper.” There was no need for further questioning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Working Mother magazine names Crumble one of top 7 Summer Books for Teens and Tweens

I am truly honored to be included with such an amazing list of YA authors–Veronica Roth, Sara Shepard, TL Costa, Cindy Callaghan, Sarah Dressen and Bennett Madison.

7 Summer Books for Tweens and Teens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It All Started With Columbine (my article in the Portland Book Review Author Spotlight)

I’ve always been intrigued by how writers come up with the stories they tell. Do they write about personal experience? If so, how much is fiction and how much isn’t? Do they sit and watch people in an airport and formulate ideas based on how complete strangers interact around them? Do they write about their dreams? Do they listen to the words of their children and bring those words to life?

Finding inspiration as a writer has always been a challenge for me. Only when I stopped looking did ideas start to take shape. And in the case of my most recent novel, Crumble, the concept flourished from a single tragic event, but the final story took years to unfold—morphing and building as the world around me changed.

On April 20, 1999 I was 25 years old and living with my fiancé in a beachside bungalow in Santa Barbara, California. He had decided to return to UCSB to finish his degree after playing basketball in Europe for eight years. I was in the process of looking for work—hopefully, something part-time as I was in need of free hours to start my first novel. Up until that day, I had been struggling with ideas. I had a small collection of thoughts—fragments of memories I’d hoped would spark the next best seller. Up until that day, I hadn’t considered writing for young people.

I watched in horror as the Columbine massacre took place. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Even for days afterward, I sat in awe of the tragedy, of how distant it was—me being a graduate of a tiny high school in Northwest Montana. Guns in a school? Students killing students? Columbine consumed me. I wanted to sit down and write about it, but within a few weeks of the tragedy, I found out I was pregnant, and I set aside any thoughts about starting that first novel.

My fiancé and I left Santa Barbara in June of that year and moved back to Montana. My son was born in December, and for the next year, I did nothing but care for him. But in late 2000, I began to follow the court cases stemming from the Columbine massacre, and I was pulled back into watching news reels from that day, listening to the horror recounted by survivors, and reconnecting with those murdered through stories told by their friends and family. I looked at my small son and found a sudden inspiration to write—someday, he’d be a high school student roaming the halls with other students who could be another Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold.

I finished the first version of Crumble in June of 2001. It was the story of a young love ripped apart by ignorance and prejudice. It was written with Columbine in mind. When I started teaching in the fall of 2001, I put the manuscript on a shelf. But the story stayed with me. After the election of President Obama in 2008, there was a spike in the formation of hate groups across the country. And although the same social issues had been lingering for years, they seemed to become more apparent—abortion, gay rights, gun control. And then there was cyber-bullying. Morphing. Building.

I pulled Crumble off that old shelf and started revising it in January of 2011. I finished it just days before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. It’s the same story now as it was back then, but it encompasses a much larger myriad of social issues our teenagers face today. The inspiration behind my writing stems from my feeling that, as a writer, I have a responsibility toward educating and enlightening, and because I’m the mother of a now 13-year-old, I truly believe my responsibility is to reach out to young people. To educate and enlighten them, and to remind myself of their fragility in an ever-changing world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CRUMBLE is a YA Fiction Finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards

I’m once again stunned and truly honored to have my work recognized. Yesterday, I was given the news that CRUMBLE is a YA Fiction Finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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