We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

In private, Natasha (just Natasha) confides that she is a smart and savvy woman. Because she knows that neither trait is particularly bankable when advertised, she keeps them a secret most of the time. Around her workplace, intellectual dishonesty is lucrative. Credible stupidity is a sign of utmost professionalism. People appreciate Natasha’s naiveté—and show her as much by padding her wallet and sending her on shopping sprees. Some people fall in love with Natasha. These people, she says, don’t understand that she’s “a character that has been created for the sole purpose of making money.” These people are stupider than she’s pretending to be.

Knowing how Natasha works makes her a little unnerving to be around. She’s easier to trust, though, if she’s not gunning for your wallet, and tonight at Joanna’s Gentlemen’s Club on M Street NW, there are a couple of reasons why I know she’s not on the make. First, she introduces herself as Deborah Rowe, which, unlike Natasha, is really her name. Second, her clothes: They’re on.

“I got kissed!” Rowe half-squeals, showing me the lipstick stain that a friend just planted on the breast of her form-fitting white shirt.

“I got her!” boasts the boob-smoocher, who happens to be nearly naked. Neither kisser nor kissee is on Joanna’s stage, but they both attract stares. The evening’s crowd is not a typical one for the strip club; some are certainly regulars, but a fair portion are here only because they made the guest list. (One friend of Rowe’s tells me later that he didn’t even know Rowe was employed at Joanna’s until tonight.) Nonetheless, a collective uncertainty seems to unite those standing around the two women: Are they going to make out?

Technically, Rowe is a stripper, although tonight she’s acting as a kind of observer and traffic cop for Joanna’s first annual “Strippers Showdown,” an event that pits seven of the club’s dancers against each other in a battle for a cash prize of $1,000. Members of the audience, most of whom are male, will pick the winner; they’ll rate the dancers’ “beauty,” “personality,” and “sensual allure.” Rowe organized the contest and has brought in a crew to film it for a documentary she’s directing called The Naked Lady Dancers.

“It’s social research,” Rowe says, noting that she’s gathered information for the project “on a very, very intimate level.” Rowe already has footage of many of the Showdown participants in various other contexts—performing on Joanna’s stage during off-hours, sitting on couches talking, riding in cars, taking showers—all of which contains the women’s thoughts about stripping and their lives in the trade. “I think any filmmaker who’s doing a documentary has to be a sociologist. They have to understand the personality of the subculture,” she asserts. “And this is a subculture.”

Rowe has appeared in and worked on a couple of indie flicks before, most notably Zealots From Hell, a documentary on the Promise Keepers men’s movement, which won an honorable mention in last year’s Rosebud Film and Video Awards. But this movie marks her first time as director, and as if gathering footage in a standing-room-only strip club weren’t hard enough, she must also, as the event’s organizer, spend much of the night making sure that the strippers perform on schedule, schmoozing invited guests, and Windexing the stage mirror clean of fingerprints, oil, and sweat smudges after each performance. I don’t see her touch a camera all night.

Rowe intends for her film to be serious, “a dissertation on stripping,” she says. “Not some fucking cock-tease that caters to men.” For the film crew, the goal on the evening of the Showdown is to catch the dancers in peak form and to capture the essence of a live strip-club audience, a loud and horny—but sexually passive—collection of men who are all taking some type of leave from their real-life responsibilities.

At first, persuading the men in the audience to go on camera seems futile; early in the night, when cameraman and associate producer Eddie Becker tries to film some customers entering the club, they duck his camera as if he were pointing a rifle. But as the night wears on, the alcohol starts to take hold, and toward the end of the evening, I spot Becker inside conducting a lengthy interview with a customer; an hour before, the same guy wouldn’t even speak to me off the record. A little later, I watch as Becker films a 23-year-old patron talking about his 29-year-old girlfriend, who, he says, is a nurse; he admits that he “wouldn’t mind getting naked” and taking to the stage himself. “I think every man’s fantasy is to interact with a stripper beyond the stage,” the patron muses, “and see if their personality can match their body.”

The Showdown’s MC is Sean Harris, another associate producer of The Naked Lady Dancers. Harris, an eccentric indie art impresario and onetime member of the Betapunks, a maverick D.C. film collective, is a filmmaker himself; he directed Zealots From Hell and is currently working on a cable TV project called Bad TV. He introduces each performer: Samantha (“a Southern belle”), April, Mercedes (“as in Benz”), Zoe, Jessica, Brook (“hailing from Hawaii”), and Morgan.

Most of the strippers relish the cameras. Especially Samantha, a taut-bodied black woman with a DeNiro gaze: You lookin’ at me? She studies martial arts, as is obvious from her performances; she’s all gravity-defying whirls of limbs and dreadlocks. She does a predator-babe crawl across the stage and sticks her nose in the camera lens. Samantha ends up splitting the prize money with April.

Rowe doesn’t take the stage during the Showdown, but she has admirers present. “I don’t think she’ll dance tonight,” offers Harris, “but she has amazing breasts.” Harris’ relationship with Rowe is complicated. The two were romantically linked in the past, and though they ended that relationship, they continue to work together. Today, Harris says, they’re like siblings. He feels indebted to the dancer. “I was impotent,” he tells me, standing near Joanna’s bar. “I’m not gonna say she cured me of impotence, but we had a very normal sex life. I feel personally that Deborah really brought me back to life as a sexual being.”

Just then, Rowe approaches. She’s blond and a little sweaty; made-up, but not too much. She’s got the natural good looks her job requires—hard body, legs to here, mannequin face—but she could just as easily pass as an attorney or a graphic designer. There’s always an edge of seriousness in Rowe’s mien; when she talks of being abused or studying overseas or completing her master’s or overcoming bulimia or traveling to the Congo to begin a documentary about monkeys, it never seems to come out of left field. But as a self-described exhibitionist, she is thoroughly immersed in her chosen profession. “I am a stripper,” she is given to proclaiming unabashedly. “But I’m a filmmaker, too,” she insists. “How could I decide that I’m going to make a movie about strippers unless I go into that subculture and…see for myself that there’s more to stripping than the stereotype that’s out there?”

At 5 o’clock on a Sunday evening, Rowe carries the day’s first cup of coffee from the 7-Eleven to her apartment. She’s felt better. The day before, she worked a double shift. “Wearing high-heeled platforms for 16 hours can be really tiring,” she says while crossing the street, oblivious to the traffic.

Rowe shares an apartment with Brook and Jessica (their stage names) in a fairly seedy section of D.C.; it’s a huge, loft-like space, which Rowe says the three of them are thinking about buying. The apartment is currently under construction, but both Brook’s and Rowe’s bedrooms are carpeted and more than livable.

“This is where my princess roommate lives,” Rowe explains as we walk through Brook’s girlishly decorated bedroom. Brook’s dancing at a club in New York for the weekend. We stop by a picture hanging on the wall: “She loves to brag about this guy.” Apparently, Brook dated the lead singer from Matchbox 20, though the picture Rowe refers to is a signed photograph of Eddie Vedder. “Oh,” Rowe says. “She might have dated him, too. I can’t keep track.”

Jessica’s living space is still just a skeleton of two-by-fours with a bed in it. She’s sleeping on the couch in Rowe’s room when we arrive.

“Wake up, sweetheart,” Rowe says, wiggling her roommate’s toe. “Jessica was the dominatrix at the Showdown. Around here, she’s my slave.”

In her room, Rowe shows me most of the one-and-a-half-hour rough cut that she and her producers are sculpting from 52 hours of film—along with a small bit of yet-unshot footage—into The Naked Lady Dancers by early next year. At the very least, she’d like to get a half-hour version ready in time to submit to next year’s Rosebud competition. Regardless of the film’s length, Rowe knows that she’s “not interested in how women are victimized by [stripping]. I want to know what women are getting out of it. How are women empowering themselves from it?”

The ultimate tone of The Naked Lady Dancers is another matter. Harris is pushing for more “masturbation scenes,” although both he and Becker have expressed concerns about the women in the film. “When I get into people’s lives, I really feel for them,” Becker told me at the Showdown. As a result, Becker says he’s less comfortable “playing up the more explicit part” of the strippers’ lives.

Rowe finds metaphors in her cohorts’ misgivings. “They’re men,” she says. “Being a woman, that’s what I fight against.” Rowe explains that her associate producers suggested putting some of the strippers through therapy sessions to help work out their problems. Rowe is having none of the idea.

“I’m like, ‘You motherfucking holier-than-thou sons of bitches,’” she spits. “‘Who do you think you are, trying to tell these women—these strong-

minded women, who are very well aware of what their personal problems are and who are talking honestly about what they are…’”

She’s too disgusted to finish the thought.

“Like [the strippers] are waiting for these men to save them,” she adds. “Fuck them.”

Rowe says she had to campaign for months to persuade her colleagues at Joanna’s to cooperate for the film. (Morgan is the only Showdown participant who turned her down.) Most of the strippers lead duplicitous lives, hiding their occupation from their families and friends; the jig would be up if Rowe fulfills her wish to get The Naked Lady Dancers aired on HBO or PBS. Rowe’s dreams of showing her film on mainstream TV are far-fetched, but that doesn’t make baring it all outside of the club’s confines any easier for her subjects. “If Deb weren’t, like, my best friend, I wouldn’t be doing the film,” Brook tells me at the Showdown. “I’m not ashamed [of being a stripper], but I don’t want to advertise it.”

Rowe has lots of sensitive footage. One scene begins with Samantha getting into the back seat of a car. “Can I smoke?” she asks. Samantha thinks she may be pregnant. When asked what she’ll do if her pregnancy test turns up positive (at the end of the scene we find out that it doesn’t), Samantha sharply declares that she will “get a fucking abortion.” In another scene, Zoe is naked and painted gold. You can see her face in a mirror as she snorts cocaine and talks about how much blow she’d have to do before she’d agree to trade sex for another line.

Zoe is the older “career stripper” who believes that her role is to be beautiful for men. April is the one who leaves stripping behind to sell real estate. Brook’s the glamour puss who collects boyfriends. Mercedes, a single mother, turned to stripping to get away from her crack-addict boyfriend. Jessica’s the lesbian who seems amused by it all. Samantha’s the one with the sugar daddy; he has never broached the topic of sex, except for the time he asked whether it would be appropriate to masturbate in the club. (She told him no.)

As promised, the strippers’ profiles are unflinching, and the dancers’ insights occasionally transcend sex. Samantha, for example, talks at length about working at a club that caters to white men:

“Sometimes I’m dancing and I can see this guy, a white guy, sitting out there basically ready to come on himself looking at me dancing. But he doesn’t come up to tip me. Then when I go around to thank everybody, which my usual ritual is, I thank him, and he’ll slip me money on the sly….It almost seems like he doesn’t want his buddies to think that he’s a nigger lover.” She says that men often tell her, “‘You know, you’re pretty articulate.’ He thinks he’s giving me a compliment.”

All the strippers in the film share the belief that they’re not the ones getting played. And they’re certainly the ones getting paid. On a merely average night, Rowe goes home with $400, although some strippers, like Brook, consider a night

when they make anything less than $1,000 to be a bomb.

In D.C., dancers can, as they say, show everything, but they do have to follow rules, many of them unwritten: Dating customers is discouraged, but not forbidden. If a dancer gets caught dancing at more than one club in town, she’ll immediately be fired from both. That’s rarely a problem at Joanna’s, though, because most of the dancers consider it to be a high-class place; Joanna’s co-owner Nick Addams is pretty benign as far as club owners go, they say, and compared with a club like The Good Guys in Glover Park, where Rowe says the women have “to show all that pussy,” the frat-prick quotient at Joanna’s is pretty low.

“The women [at Joanna’s] have high standards for themselves,” Rowe says. “They look down upon other strippers who give themselves away too cheaply or maybe participate in a behavior that is unacceptable.” Strippers are forbidden to give hand jobs, for instance—but it happens. “You’re not supposed to touch people sexually. But the women are only human. They can be turned on by a customer. Even though he’s putting twenties in her garter she can still be sexually attracted to him.”

Strippers and club owners argue that stripping and prostitution exist in wholly different worlds, although it’s not uncommon for the line between performer and observer to blur into oblivion. Since lap dancing, where a customer pays a large sum to have a stripper perform a private dance, is illegal in D.C., local strippers make their big money by “schmoozing”: While waiting for their turn on the stage (only one stripper at Joanna’s performs at a time), the dancers work the room in an effort to suss out big spenders and potential sugar daddies. A man who knows the game will fork out hundreds for the right to sit and talk with a dancer. He’ll buy her drinks, preferably champagne; the dancer will flatter him and act like a friend the next time he’s in.

Rowe understands that few strippers stay in the business past their 20s—”Nobody wants to work with an ugly girl,” she says—yet she seems unfazed by her just-celebrated 30th birthday. “I’m lucky, because I look younger than I really am. I can use that to my advantage.”

She relishes the role-playing part of her job—both when she’s forced to be savvy and when she must play the fool. Power hangs in the balance. If a strip club customer cedes power by allowing himself to be overcome by sexual desire, the stripper eventually allows him to buy the power right back. Convoluted associations can form at the point of transaction. The customer-cum-boyfriend of one of Joanna’s strippers once paid another stripper $5,000 to watch the couple have sex, the observing stripper says. And. it wasn’t even her biggest payday. That, she says, came courtesy of a hard-drinking World Bank operative from Ireland.

“He kept coming back, drunker than the time before,” she says. The guy liked her; once, he tipped her $500. “Then one night, he said to me, ‘I need your help.’” The man was too loaded for sex. He needed to give an important presentation in the morning, so he paid the stripper $10,000 to feed him, help him throw up, and otherwise make sure that he made it to work alive.

When the man returned to the club the next day, he announced: “I just want you to know that this club and this dancer just saved the Irish economy.”

Rowe has staked her career as an artist and scholar on the aesthetic potential of what Natasha observes; in the mind of the artist and scholar, crucial insights into our patriarchal and inherently misogynous society are manifest in the experiences of the stripper. Strip clubs provide the rare microcosm of base humanity and honest sexuality; by comparison, most other social environments are watered down, corrupted, polluted by artifice. To the casual observer, Joanna’s simply provides yet another circumstance in which horny men can get their rocks off watching objectified women. To Rowe, it’s where men come to throw “themselves on the pyre of a pheromone inferno. They come to pay homage to the physical beauty of a sexual goddess.”

Rowe’s grandiose perception of her workplace is in keeping with the fantasies she sells: If her customers want to think that they’re buying actual affection from the dancers, Rowe can go ahead and hype their journey to Joanna’s as something more than a naughty night out. But no amount of spinning will persuade a lay observer to believe that anything terribly profound lies beneath the surface of a strip club. Joanna’s posits itself as a “gentlemen’s club,” which is meant to denote a certain measure of class, yet few people looking to prove their sophistication will brag of partaking in what transpires inside. The mostly dated music skips from heavy metal to rap to Top 40 to Rage Against the Machine, and the dancers don’t worry much about moving in time to it. The air is humid with the drunken banter of men blabbing with other men about what they’d do to a stripper if any actual juju arose between them. Call it erotic if you want; the prevailing vibe is desperation.

“It’s simple,” explains Addams, who has co-owned Joanna’s for over 12 years with his former wife, Joanna Addams. “‘Boy, she’s beautiful. Boy, I’d like to take her out. Boy, I’d like to take her away for a weekend. Boy, I’d like to sleep with her.’ It’s all fantasy.”

There’s no shortage of people who believe that such sexual illusions come at a price that has nothing to do with cash. If all goes well, Rowe could join (or become the subject of) an academic and political dialogue in which opinions range wildly: On one side stand those who insist that stripping empowers the practitioner; across the gulf stand those who believe that it leads to violence, particularly to rape and domestic abuse.

The writer Andrea Dworkin is perhaps the sex trade’s most ferocious antagonist. Dworkin directs much of her venom toward the most vulgar film and stroke-mag pornography, but her views are unsettling to the defenders of stripping as well. In the mid-’80s, Dworkin and legal scholar Catherine A. MacKinnon co-authored an anti-pornography civil rights law that was introduced, in various forms, in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Cambridge, Mass. Dworkin defines pornography as any practice that commodifies women. The gripe that she and others have with pornography isn’t just with its images of women, but also with the way the industry preys on socially and financially vulnerable women and, after stripping them of their clothes and dignity, leaves them emotionally traumatized: human meat.

Many academics, however, believe that stripping is a right protected by the First Amendment. Among them is Judith Hanna, a cultural anthropologist and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland, who, it happens, attended the Strippers Showdown and talked with Rowe that night. Hanna takes a more practical view of stripping than, say, Camille Paglia, the famous professor, sexual agitator, and stripping enthusiast. (Paglia believes that “[l]eaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist’s,” and that “[t]hose embarrassed or offended by erotic dancing are the ones with the problem.”) In the course of her studies, Hanna has interviewed more than 500 strippers; she occasionally serves as an expert witness in court cases related to exotic dancing.

Hanna doesn’t buy into the argument that places like Joanna’s chew up and spit out vulnerable women. “You tell me how many people work who aren’t working for the money,” she says. Many opponents of stripping believe that women who subject themselves to the “male gaze” contribute to sexual repression. But “women choose to do this,” Hanna replies. “They are comparing options of what they could do, and for most of them, it beats working in McDonald’s or Hecht’s department store or the university library. The money’s good, the hours are flexible, they’re getting exercise, [and] they like the social interaction.”

Plus, she says, “they like the power trip.”

Rowe doesn’t fit snugly into any one slot in the stripper debate. In her frequent rages against domesticity, she recalls Dworkin, who’s written: “Women are an enslaved population—the crop we harvest is children, the fields we work are houses.” Yet Rowe admires how Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel posed topless on the cover of her latest book, Bitch, and her platform rests on a foundation of Paglia-esque, sex-positive feminism. “Women are sexual creatures,” she tells me over dinner. “They are fuck creatures. They are designed for fucking. That’s how men are going to see women, that’s how men will always see women, and when women realize that, that’s when women will begin to understand how to use it to their advantage.”

Sitting through some of Rowe’s longer rants is a little like being in the company of Ally McBeal with a bad case of potty mouth—a sexy career woman inordinately consumed by men and a grab bag of personal issues. And while it may seem absurd to align the “naked lady dancer” with such a mainstream figure, U.S. News and World Report calculates that “Americans now spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, and nonprofit theaters; at the opera, the ballet, and jazz and classical music performances—combined.”

Films such as Striptease and the book Ivy League Stripper, high school valedictorian Heidi Mattson’s account of disrobing to pay for her Brown education, have helped challenge stripping’s bimbo stigma. Yet the stripper image that’s emerged in popular culture remains decidedly blue-collar. Scores of women are born or thrust into situations—cultural, financial, usually both—that pave them a path to a strip club’s door. The job is more or less like any other in that the quality of the experience depends largely on the character of the worker. “It’s the very rare person who has any problems,” Hanna insists. “There are a few, and usually they had problems before they started [stripping]. They’re usually not very successful dancers, either.”

But what of the woman for whom stripping is a spiritual destiny? Rowe likes to see herself as a kind of postmodern geisha—in traditional Japanese society, a woman who is sold at a young age to serve men, her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder. “The geisha are respected, glamorous, in complete control of their men,” Rowe says. “They’re trained masters.”

As a young teenager, Rowe lived in Miami with her mother and hung out with men whom friends at school introduced as their uncles. She explains: “They were older guys who basically cruised the high schools looking for fresh meat.”

The stripper-to-be spent a lot of time in the Miami years in her bikini, often hanging out with these “uncles” on their yachts or in their penthouses. She doesn’t know if the men were married (“I didn’t care. I got to meet Don Johnson”), just that they gave her money, gifts, and, most important, attention. “I was being seduced by these paternal figures. But once you got used to the lifestyle, they’d prey on you. So the girls would eventually give in. But I didn’t….I was scared to have sex with these men. I was scared of what it meant. To me, it was like giving up a part of myself. It was giving up the power.”

Though she kept a wary distance from the uncles, Rowe does not have fond memories of the day her mother forbade her to spend any more time with them. “I said, ‘Fuck you. You have ruined everything for me,’” she recalls bitterly. “‘You don’t love me. You hit me every day. You beat me up. You took my father away. You ran my brothers off. You took everything from me. Now you’re taking these people away from me, too? The only people who brag about me to other people, who tell me how wonderful I am, who hug me when they see me and light up like a Christmas tree when I walk into the room. You’re going to take that away from me, too? Fuck you.’ That’s what I said to her.”

Rowe often speaks loudly—and always at you. Rowe is prone to benders of curses and accusations; her memories of the older men in Miami incite a particularly nasty tirade because they encompass two of her favorite hot-button topics—Mom and men. “Let’s get to the heart of it,” she offers by way of beginning our first tape-recorded interview. “My mom was abusive. Very, very abusive. Violent woman….Very cold. She never touched me. She was mean.”

Today, mother and daughter are not on speaking terms—the two haven’t talked in four years. The relationship, however, haunts her in a vivid afterlife. She can thank her mother for a lot. At 17, when Rowe left Miami to live with her father in Sterling, Va., she brought with her relatively advanced notions of sexuality and power. Her youthful narcissism was cresting, heightened by the conflicting messages about her identity that she received from men and at home. As a result, high school wasn’t really her bag; her Miami experiences had left her feeling more sophisticated than her peers, and she remembers wanting to beat up all the cheerleaders. But she was a good student: “My parents always thought I was a genius,” she says.

After graduating from Park View High School in Sterling, Rowe went on to George Mason University, where she graduated with a degree in government and politics; later, she would get her master’s degree in linguistics from the same school. While she was in college, she managed, among other things, to cure herself of bulimia. Conquering the eating disorder made her feel “powerful on another level,” she says—powerful enough to go to Poland, where she spent her last year as an undergrad studying. Rowe recalls telling herself: “I’m going to fucking Eastern Europe, OK? No one goes to Eastern Europe, but I’m fucking going. I’m going to fucking Warsaw.”

After getting her bachelor’s degree, she spent the early ’90s in a series of nowhere jobs (photographing portraits for high school students, court reporting) and entering the occasional bikini contest before starting her own cleaning business, which she ran for three years and then sold. In the fall of ’95, she started the master’s program at George Mason. She wrote in her spare time and taught English as a second language to make ends meet. (Rowe says she completed her master’s in two years; her family thinks she still teaches.) She’d studied some Polish filmmakers overseas, but film wasn’t really her bag yet.

Associate producer Harris met Rowe while she was in graduate school. “She was very sweet when I first met her,” he recalls. “She sewed her own curtains and everything. But there was this real streak of anger.” He remembers a forum on date rape at George Mason that Rowe attended and disrupted, “screaming at these girls not to be so stupid to get date-raped.”

At the time, Harris was recovering from cancer; Rowe was studying, writing, and reading a lot of Camille Paglia. The two started dating and collaborated on the film Crooked Sister, in which Rowe appears as Baby Meridian, a writer who has just gotten a book deal with Random House. The movie is erratic, virtually narrative-free, and shamelessly low-budget. A few scenes feature Harris smoking dope. In another, a woman stands naked from the midriff down. When the woman opens the hand that’s covering her crotch, she’s holding a bloody razor. Both Rowe and Harris say that the movie was made partly to protest female circumcision in Egypt.

Crooked Sister wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but the experience made Rowe feel like an artist. She decided she wanted to make a documentary film about a matriarchal society in Tehuantepec, Mexico, but she needed money. So she answered a newspaper ad soliciting women to become private dancers. The work was raunchy; a typical night would involve traveling to a man’s house and performing an erotic dance while the man masturbated, sometimes while his family slept upstairs. But Rowe was a natural, and the gig, which lasted eight months, led to her getting a job at Joanna’s, where she’s been working for just over a year.

Like many of her colleagues, Rowe sees the job as a steppingstone. Stripping provides her with material, and it finances her plans; dancing money got her to Mexico, and she’s already published portions of her book-in-progress, The Lap Dance Diaries, on the Web.

Stripping’s emotional dividends are harder to pin down. Harris paints himself as a kind of mad scientist trying to sculpt his ex to suit his artistic needs. He’s both self-serving and self-flagellating; when he calls himself a “misogynist,” he’s serious, but his comments also carry with them the whiff of calculation. There’s a story here, and Harris wants a say in making it read well. If that means playing the part of the asshole, so be it.

“I saw [Rowe’s stripping career] as potential entertainment,” remembers Harris. “I never stopped to think about the damage that could be done to the participant….I was dealing with literature, and Deborah was dealing with life. A lot of the literature that I was trying to do, I was doing as things that I believed in intellectually. At the same time, I found my partner Deborah doing these things because they were matters of intellectual life and death. Her emotions were completely dependent on her ability to stare down these issues in a man’s world.”

The way Rowe explains it, that man’s world is hers to rule. “I’m an exhibitionist,” she says. “I love getting a reaction from people using my sexual power.” When the men she did private dances for jerked off, she considered it a compliment. Rowe remembers being a toddler and taking her clothes off in front of the mirror. “I knew people could see me through the window,” she says. “In fact, I wanted them to.”

But the quality of The Naked Lady Dancers and the work that follows it will depend on Rowe’s ability to approach her art as someone who’s more than just a stripper. The two documentaries she wants to make next—the one she shot with Harris in Mexico and the other she hopes to film about a breed of highly sexualized monkeys in the Congo—count as departures; the play she’s writing about what strippers talk about backstage does not. The Dancers interview footage is moving on its own, but Rowe currently plans to thread it with “artistic sequences” that she hopes will flesh out the strippers’ personalities. To judge from both what she shows me and what I’ve observed, the supporting material (a dancer performing on the 9:30 Club’s stage, another one posing nude) amount to the subjects engaging in some form of exhibitionism, just not in the club.

“Deborah definitely has no fear in using her sexual power to get the things that she wants,” Harris says. “Well, that’s great as long as it results in something. What’s the power result in? What is the statement? What’s the product? Deborah’s not Ani DiFranco. She’s not Madonna….The equation is great, but the actual result has not yet been manifested.”

Rowe (or, rather, Natasha), her arm straight out and her index finger bent, is silently asking me to approach. She’s on Joanna’s stage wearing only her high heels. It’s Sunday, roughly 1 a.m., and the club is filled to its usual weekend capacity. The guy next to me notices the exchange. He’s beside himself. “You fucking know her?” he asks. “Dude. Go up there. She wants you to fuck her.”

When I get to the stage, Rowe treats me to a few low-knee bends, a hair tousle, a mild kick, and a rear-view pose in which she palms the mirror, locks her knees, and forcefully pushes her butt into the air. She’s playing it a little safe. A few days earlier, she suffered the ultimate stripper embarrassment: She fell while performing. “I wanted to show you my bruise,” she tells me from the stage. And there it is, on her ass, a barely discernible splotch of black and blue. “Can you see it? I tried to cover it up with makeup.”

Natasha goes through two costumes in my three hours at the club—first a black skirt and red teddy, then a sequined, bell-bottomed sort of pantsuit. In light of her job title, Natasha spends a large part of the evening clothed. A group of men, probably in their early 30s, are holding court on the other side of the room from where I’m sitting, and Natasha gives them a lot of her attention. The men have tipped her well and bought her champagne. Rowe is squatting next to me as she tells me this. Addams, the co-owner, taps her on the head. “Ow,” she says. “He doesn’t like it when I squat. He’s got a thing about appearances.”

Rowe, too, puts a lot of stock in physical beauty—it’s what has gotten her much of what she has today. She believes that what she’s learned as a stripper is widely applicable, although her perspective has made her biased; no matter how she construes her job, applying makeup to one’s butt is not an ordinary preparation for the workday. She hails strip clubs as one of the few enclaves where women can “exercise their sexual power in order to make money and get what they want…especially if they’re pretty.”

I take exception: “Especially if they’re pretty”? Wouldn’t “only if they’re pretty” be more accurate?

Rowe disagrees. She says there are plenty of unattractive strippers who understand how the public contract between men and women works. They do what they have to do—wear extra

makeup, accept playing second fiddle to the younger women. Besides, “sexual power isn’t something you just use in strip clubs.” And Rowe sees being attractive as an advantage only in that it enables her the better to use sex as a means to an end: “You’re always going to be looked at as a sexual being as a woman. Unless you’re fat and masculine and ugly—like Janet Reno—you’re not going to be taken seriously as a woman.”

Despite the contradictions in her views—Can sex still be empowering if men will only consider a woman equal if she’s ugly?—Rowe wants to be taken seriously, but asserting that the attorney general isn’t pretty doesn’t help her cause. The “power” that Rowe craves and exploits puts cash in her hand; otherwise, the reach of the exchange—the one that she’s basing much of her art on—ends at the door of the club. Power seekers are ultimately dependent on the people they lord over, and the truly powerful exhibit their strength going toe to toe, standing on common ground. It’s no great feat for a sexy, naked woman to rule a room of horny men. But Rowe clearly gets a lot from Natasha—so much that she’s blind to the limits of the persona.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Pilar Vergara.