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H.L. Mencken wrote that “[a writer’s] overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.”
There may be a little exhibitionist in every journalist. But in the case of Debbie Viola Smith, there’s a lot more than a little.
“I don’t want my face in the picture,” Smith says when she’s asked to sit for a photo. Then she lifts her muscular legs and wraps them behind her head. “I thought I could pose like this. Maybe I’d wear a G-string and hold the newspaper over my face. If you want to show my tits, you can.”
Smith, a former stripper, edits and publishes the Go Go Gazette, Washington-Baltimore’s bimonthly chronicle of the titty-bar scene. Since 1990, the 40-year-old Smith has been bringing nudie news to thousands of local T&A aficionados. The Gazette is the trade paper of a trade not known for its literacy. Curious about who won that hot oil wrestling contest at Gentleman’s Gold Club? The Gazette has full photo coverage. Wondering whether D.C. is ever going to allow lap dancing? The Gazette‘s on it. Need a hot new dancer to rev up your strip club or bachelor party? Check out the Gazette‘s classifieds.
“I see it as a place for everybody in the business to exchange information,” says Smith. “The patrons can find out what’s going on in the clubs. The dancers can advertise, and the club owners can see what’s happening in the business. I also want to uplift the image of exotic dance.”
To that end, Smith packages a curious mix of news, puffery, and gripes into the Gazette. A typical 24-page issue includes lots of grainy photos taken at recent club events—contests, anniversary parties, even a lingerie show to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Another chunk of space is devoted to “Personality Profiles,” a photo-and-caption feature that allows dancers to showcase their assets—at no cost—before club owners and other potential employers.
Despite the cheesecake photos that dominate its pages, Smith insists the Gazette is not designed to titillate. Just as she hates it when men assume that any woman who dances naked must be “for sale,” Smith fumes at the suggestion her publication is a soft porn rag. The paper, she says, is a legitimate, serious periodical. Not only does it (generally) eschew beaver shots, it covers every exposed nipple with a star or sunburst graphic.
“Look, exotic dancing is exotic dancing,” Smith says. “But that doesn’t mean you have to align yourself with the pornography industry. The girls aren’t up there doing live sex….This isn’t Cheri magazine. I’m not going to have pictures of one girl licking another girl’s crotch.”
Like another girlie mag, Playboy, the Gazette publishes articles that are a lot more interesting than its photos. The Gazette’s back pages feature a pair of point/counterpoint columns devoted to the concerns of industry participants. “Beaver Shee” recounts the complaints of dancers. “Woody Johnson” comments on what it’s like on the receiving end. In a recent issue, “Woody” groused that one of his favorite dancers, a woman he tipped heavily and considered a friend, blew him off when he ran into her in a social setting. “Beaver” replied that Woody needed to get a clue. Dancers, she snapped, get sick and tired of guys who can’t understand that most strippers like to keep their professional and personal lives separate.
The paper’s news stories run the gamut from surprisingly hard to exceedingly soft. The June issue, for example, reports on a group of dancers who are mulling over an antitrust suit against Virginia club owners; updates a Waldorf, Md., club’s legal woes; and describes the debut of Virginia’s first male-and-female strip joint. Smith and her correspondents may not be Menckens themselves, but the articles are clear and concise, if not inspired.
Smith distributes 25,000 free copies of each issue to more than 100 nudie bars, tattoo parlors, and Harley-Davidson dealerships from Delaware to southern Virginia. She’s got 19 distribution points in the District alone, almost all of which are strip clubs. A handful of connoisseurs subscribe to the paper, paying $12 a year for six issues. Smith pays the bills with advertisements from video stores, adult-toy shops, “talent agencies,” and, of course, strip clubs, charging $325 for a full-page ad.
While Smith strives for a degree of objectivity in the paper, her personal sympathies clearly lie with her former colleagues. Exotic dancing, never an easy gig, has grown increasing tough in recent years, she says. The number of women willing to take their clothes off in front of strange men has exploded of late, increasing competition for shifts and lowering hourly wages. Tips are down as well, thanks in part to the rise of multiple-stage clubs, where two or more dancers must compete for attention. The District, which forbids lucrative lap dances and private dances, is the worst stripping market of all.
“There are nights when you walk out with $30 in tips and it cost you $15 in cab fare to get to work,” Smith says.
Smith’s understanding of dancers’ plight and psyches—the transience, the lack of professional esteem, the craving for attention—helps explain the Gazette‘s quirkiest feature: stripper poetry. Dancers seem inspired by the muse. Smith publishes three or more poems per issue, and says the women need this creative outlet.
“I rarely turn down a poem even if it’s bad,” she says with a shrug. “I figure this is one place where poetry is poetry. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”
The dancers’ work ranges in quality from truly awful to not-so-bad. Indeed, the Baltimore City Paper bestowed a 1994 Best of Baltimore award on the Gazette‘s “buxom bards,” singling out dancer/wordsmith Crystal Harvey for special mention. Harvey penned one of the Gazette‘s most memorable verse works, “Ode to the Starlight,” which commemorates the demise of that venerable College Park strip club. Her closing lines:
We mourn your passing, we miss the fun
You were the best—bar none
I’ll always love you and the pleasure you gave
But I know that someday someone will even dance on my grave
Life go-go’s on…Peace
Despite her compassion for the dancers, Smith acknowledges that most strippers “aren’t angels.” In fact, she confides, many of them are unreliable, unprofessional, and untalented.
“A lot of these girls are just up there naked,” Smith says. “When I was a dancer, I tried to put on a real show.”
Ah, when she was a dancer. Growing up in the Hampton, Va., area, Debbie loved to dance. Tap, ballet, she did it all. In 1978, the 24-year-old Smith came to Washington to be with her now-deceased first husband, who was attending the University of Maryland. Upon hitting the big city, Smith resumed a nude dancing career that had begun a couple of years before and would stretch 17 years. She worked all the big clubs: Good Guys, Arlington Grill, Crystal City Restaurant, and the late, lamented Shepard Park. Stocky, plain, and less-than-amply endowed, Debbie quickly realized she wasn’t going to make it on her looks.
“I was known for my dancing and my sense of humor,” she says. “I used to tap dance, which people loved. I also did this thing where I would make paper airplanes and guys would throw them at my crotch—or I’d throw at their crotch.”
That ability to make the most of limited resources has proven equally useful in her publishing career. In between dance shifts, Smith studied photography at Northern Virginia Community College and collaborated with her husband on an exotic dancing calendar. In 1990, after years of kicking around the idea, she rolled out the first issue of the Go Go Gazette, distributing 5,000 copies to about 30 clubs.
Then as now, Smith put together the paper with minimal assistance. In the past few years, a few photographers and writers (including some dancers) have contributed material, but Smith still handles editing, layout, ad sales, production, promotion, and distribution chores—along with some writing. The paper is headquartered on the glassed-in back porch of the very modest Takoma Park bungalow she shares with her new husband, video producer Robert Smith.(Among his credits: “Washington vs. Baltimore: The Go Go Gazette Exotic Dance Championship.”) Her office consists of a small drafting table, a Macintosh Powerbook 520, and—as of this week—a scanner.
Since Smith retired from dancing last year, the newspaper has been her sole source of income. And while she claims to be getting by, she seems to recognize that the Go Go Gazette has reached a grow-or-die crossroads. To become a truly useful advertising medium, it needs to go monthly and expand its distribution. It also wouldn’t hurt to upgrade the newsprint quality, offer four-color ads (hey, Portland, Ore.’s T&A Times has ’em!), and hire a decent layout artist. But all of those things require more money and energy than Smith can spare right now.
So will the Gazette go-go gently into that good night, slipping into local strip club history aside Shepard Park and the Starlight? Don’t count it. Debbie Viola Smith may earn her living from the paper, but it provides her with something far more important than money. Something she’s willing to pay for. A stage.