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It's a passage that comes late in her book that best summarizes former stripper/now journalist Lily Burana's message: "I don't ever want to disparage a dancing girl. If someone were to tell me that stripping is the best job she's ever had, I'd give her the benefit of the doubt. I don't know for sure that I'd be better off had I not done it. I might have been worse. I'm sure I'd be much more of a snob. I hope I never claim superiority to my past." By the time I came to her personal summary, I was firmly on board with Burana's simultaneously sympathetic and critical view of the exotic dancer's world.
Initially, however, I was a snob. Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America is an unfortunate title. Its premise is no better (after her boyfriend proposes marriage, Burana is driven to reconcile her hot stripper past with her warm wifely future by embarking on a tour of the nation's strip clubs, dancing at some while just visiting others). Everything on the surface says: another fluffy memoir written by an otherwise unremarkable storyteller. But had I gone on appearances alone, I would have missed out on a compelling read that reveals an honest perspective on a world that, until now, I regarded with disinterest.
Burana began her career as an exotic dancer at Times Square's Peepland in the late 1980s after finishing high school early, and worked her way across the country and back again over the course of six years. Along the way, Burana experienced all forms of a dancer's workplace, from peep shows to upscale gentlemen's clubs to sleazy Tijuana go-go bars to the unionized Lusty Lady in San Francisco. Burana was also responsible for a groundbreaking lawsuit brought against the famous O'Farrell Theater, which, in 1998, after four years in litigation, resulted in a settlement requiring the San Francisco club to pay nearly $3 million in back stage fees and missed wages to over 600 former and current dancers.
"Facing the perils of stripping head-on is new for me. I can view stripping plainly now because I no longer have anything to prove--to myself or anyone else. I first started stripping at Peepland to prove I could survive on my own. Then at the Lusty Lady I stripped as a political statement. Then, at Mitchell Brothers, I stripped for financial security, and later, to advance the cause of improving working conditions. But now I'm here to bear witness, no illusions, no agenda, no filter of idealism." Burana never disparages the choices women make, nor the circumstances that set their careers in motion, and often digresses into lovely biographical chapters on the few girls who made an impression on her, through either their strong commitment to self-definition or a tragic sense of hopelessness.
At one point in her final tour, Burana considers trading in her journalism career (her byline has appeared in Spin, GQ, New York magazine, Village Voice, and Salon) for a protracted attempt to defy the odds and make a living at stripping well past the age of 30. Another moment finds Burana regarding "spread clubs" and what she calls "retail vagina," in which the pussy shot is all the customers are waiting for. "You can dance like Cyd Charisse, and still be upstaged by what rests between your legs," she laments while seeking comfort in the arms of her fiancée, who has come along for Burana's Alaskan stand.
Surely this book will anger many current dancers--most definitely those who work at the Lusty Lady (whose dancers often feel superior to other peep show workers) and those who are motivated to dance strictly for power. Burana's constant references to her punk-rock roots and credibility are grating (we get it, you're a non-conformist), especially since she also repeatedly invokes the name of Ozzy Osbourne. Her relationship with her fiancée is as much a source of nausea as it is perplexity. (His quick acceptance of her past and his instant marrige proposal inspire skepticism.) But more resigned readers, and heretofore ignorant ones such as myself, will be rewarded with a candid yet informed and highly observational glimpse into a lifestyle many of us have either experienced in a peripheral sense, or not at all.