TC: What was your biggest fear about dancing in the peep shows?
SM: It was that I would be this age, which is 30, and still be working there. I had this… irrational hope or this idea that I would somehow get out of it but sometimes it felt like I would never quite make it out. Or, that I’d get so… I don’t know, enmeshed or depressed that I wouldn’t even care about getting out. But yeah, I’m glad to not be working there – instead I’m just talking about it, which is totally fine [laughs].
TC: While you were dancing, you took a trip home to Michigan and a ‘working holiday’ in Portland. Did you ever consider not coming back to New York?
SM: I think at some point I thought, some serious changes needed to be made. It never occurred to me not to return to New York. There was a lot of psychosomatic, physical stuff going on at that time; my body started reacting averse to [the stress]… I might not be thinking about [the situation] but I’d get these debilitating migraines and have no idea why. I ended up having a stomach problem that was completely psychosomatic, I was in pain, I lost ten pounds and finally, I had to go to the ER ‘cause I was like, there’s something rupturing inside of me.
TC: What was the problem, anxiety?
SM: Yeah you know, just the constant being on display and my parents and friends… whatever. Just the typical anxiety of life but a little bit magnified. I think the headaches and the physical stuff was my subconscious saying, “Okay, this cannot go on.”
TC: How did you talk to your parents about the book?
SM: Well I didn’t, see that’s the thing… [laughs]. I didn’t want to bring it up and I didn’t want to launch into this long explanation so I didn’t? My parents found out about it, before I sold it, on the internet… someone wrote something about it earlier than I would’ve liked. Anyway, they found out, my dad was very angry with me, which is understandable! That’s fine, I’m not saying he was supposed to be cool with it. He didn’t talk to me for a while, which is also fine… now, if it’s brought up in any way he just acts like he didn’t hear anything. Like, [Covers ears] “What? What?” you know? My mom though, she wasn’t happy with me but I think she ultimately gets it. That there was a bigger story, and that I wasn’t just simply being self-destructive – although that was part of it – you know, parents just think, “What did we do wrong?” and they don’t realize that they didn’t do anything wrong… that’s probably why my dad won’t talk about it, he’s very uncomfortable – not that I expect him to be comfortable with it.
TC: Did anyone else give you a hard time? Does it make dating difficult?
SM: Well now I’ll always have the question, when I think about the future with guys, I’ll wonder what they really think about it. Everyone feels this pressure to be liberal about it, so it’s almost uncool to have questions or reservations about it… there’s just always that question in the back of my mind, no one wants to be that uncool person, but if they did take issue I wish they’d just say that.
TC: Right, like you’d prefer to know if they were going to use it against you someday when they’re angry at you or something.
SM: Yeah, it’s kind of unfair… to take a very filtered look at me, and that’s what the book is, and think, “Well, that’s… her.” So lately I’ve been feeling very naked and exposed. But then, writing the book was totally my decision, so.
TC: When I read [the book], I kind of got the feeling that there were some good people you were working with, and there were bad people you were working with, and working in that industry didn’t necessarily dictate the character of the person…
SM: You mean, it wouldn’t have mattered what job they had?
TC: Right, it was more like, this person might steal money, or talk shit, or back stab, or on the other hand, they were someone who was just… doing their job, someone who you might… be friends with, without judgment. So it kind of destigmatized the people you were writing about.
SM: I’m glad that came across.
TC: It did, that was one of two things I took away from reading the book. It was like looking at any stigmatized group as individual people – the only people you were really writing about were the people in that “world,” so as a reader you really do have to choose a side, and pick who you’re rooting for. The other thing I thought came across was really, how quickly things can change. You know, you came here not knowing anyone, not having money, not having a job, and kind of found yourself dancing on-and-off for two years, getting one foot in the door at Gawker while continuing to dance, going as far as to write about strip clubs for Gawker on occasion… you know, I used to read you back then and I guess you were fulltime at that point but I don’t know for sure, so I guess it’s kind of interesting to me on several levels.
SM: There were six months when I was doing both. In January 2008, [Gawker] hired me on fulltime so those were the last holidays (I wrote a ton of stories about the holidays) that I [danced], and then it was over. I remember waiting for my first paycheck and I was like, “goddammit, I’m used to making money every day.” But yeah, there were six months when I kind of went nuts because I was working at Gawker part-time, doing an unpaid internship at Columbia Journalism Review, I was working the peep shows a few nights a week, and I was working at the strip club in Bushwick one night a week. I was trying to diversify my income status, but I got burned out.
TC: What would you say to people who move here without any kind of plan, who are kind of broke and don’t know what to do? At the end of the book, you mention that there are now only two peeps left in Times Square, so that’s not really an option anymore.
SM: Well, there are a few places left but I think the money’s dried up. When I left, the money had fallen out with the Playpen burning down… the money’s just not there. I guess sort of the beauty and romance but also the pitfall of New York is that you leave yourself very open to serendipity and that can have good or bad consequences. It’s great to come here and have a plan and have contacts or some sort of comfort but it’s also great to come here without. If I would have got some job in publishing off the bat, I would’ve never worked at the peep show and I would have never written the book. And I was clearly looking for a way to act out, and because I’m scared of drugs and you know, wasn’t cool enough to sleep around… I was looking for a way to act out and rebel. People do that in a bunch of different ways, and I kind of did it in a stable environment. It wasn’t like I just fell into this, I mean I was having a really hard time finding a job and did not have a ton of options, and I was a bit rash in moving here, but I was still looking for a little bit of trouble. I think a lot of people in New York are looking for trouble – not dangerous trouble that’s going to hurt them, but they’re like, “I wanna live and be young and do things I could never do in Michigan” or wherever. I see people who’ve only been here a year and see their ingenuity, or sometimes look at them and think, Oh shit, what’s gonna happen with that one, and then they surprise you and they make something happen and you’re like, I guess they’re not going back to North Carolina. Not that that’s some terrible thing, but it’s not what they wanted.
TC: I guess my last question would be, how do you feel now that the book is out there, do you have any plans in the future for a follow up?
SM: I feel really good about it. It’s kind of nice… I mean it started out sort of embarrassing but I felt like I had a larger story to tell and the only way to tell it was through my perspective, because it was my job. In a way it’s embarrassing to have all of this personal stuff out there about myself, but in a way it’s really freeing, it’s like, “Okay, now you know.” There was all of this stuff I was ashamed of, like that I lost my virginity at 21, but big deal! It really wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it was. Even when I was writing it, I was like Oh my god… but really, who cares? So it’s liberating to have it out there, and I’m really glad I told this story. Not just for myself. And my book, it’s something that can’t be taken away from me, I guess that’s why some people have kids… it’s like, my book may be a little different but I still wrote a book and no one can that away from me. The reason why that’s important is, obviously a big part of my identity is wanting to be a writer – so I guess I feel more like a writer. Usually, when people introduce me to someone at a party they’ll say, “She’s a writer, she works for the Post,” or wherever I’m working at the time and I’m thinking, I’m not a writer… I felt like that until the book came out.
Right now I’m working on a novel with a young female protagonist… She works in a donut store in Portland, OR, but she’s not a hipster, I mean not really. It’s also going to explore online culture — the disconnection and isolation from other people. That feeling of being just across town from someone and you’re waiting for them to e-mail you. That’s a big part of it too.
And then I’m also working on a book of short fiction stories, I guess my inspiration there is Mary Gaitskill. She’s from Michigan too, and she used to be a sex worker. Anyway, her stories are really dark but also funny. They’re modest stories. I don’t like books that are all about, like, solving post-9/11 culture in one book or something. It’s more about small moments. I believe in small, modest stories.
Sheila McClear is a features reporter for the New York Post who worked in the last live-girl peep shows in Times Square after she moved to New York from Detroit in 2006. Her writing has also appeared on Gawker.com.