Viva Las Vegas is a stripper, performer and writer. She's been in films by Gus van Sant and her work has appeared in publications as varied as the New York Times, Village Voice and Exotic Magazine. In 2008 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a single mastectomy. Far from holding her back, she continues to do live shows with her band - and graces the stage at Mary's, a strip club in Portland, Oregon. She spoke with Katrina Fox.
Many strippers use the word ‘dancer’, or ‘exotic/erotic dancer’ or even ‘strip-tease artiste’ but you claim the word ‘stripper’. Why?
I prefer the term "stripper" because that is the nature of the work the I do: I slowly strip off my clothes. I do not necessarily "dance", and definitely do not view my work as "erotic" or "exotic". Other terms I embrace: "performer" and "artist".
Stripping is an artform for you and many others, particularly in venues that allow elements of creativity, but what about pole and table dancers – do you consider what they do art? Why/why not?
Art to me is, most basically, communication between an artist and her audience that echoes humanity but is more expansive. If the pole dancer/ table dancer has the intention of creating art with her performance, I don't see how it could not be art. That said, a lot of pole dancers/table dancers/dancers take pains not to connect or communicate with their audience.
There’s much talk and debate about ‘raunch culture’ and the sexualisation of young girls (t-shirts for ‘tweens’ with ‘I’m a pornstar’ for example). What are your thoughts on all this?
Youth loves to push boundaries and be provocative in simplistic ways, and increasingly many parents are still trapped in their youth, hence the preponderance of racy statements (which is quite different from racy actions). Stripping has always been thought of as "naughty", which contributes to its current visibility in popular culture.
Ironically, it behooves my industry if popular culture ignores/condemns sex work, as there's a lot more money in it then. As for the sexualization of young girls, I think it's important that society acknowledges that even very young people are sexual beings.
But it's also important for the individual to explore his/her sexuality without the constant intrusion of society. As long as men (and women) keep their hands to themselves, I'm all for a more overtly sexual culture.
It’s not covered in the book, so please tell us about your experience with breast cancer. You were diagnosed in August 2008. What emotions did you go through?
All the stages of grief. Shock, denial, anger, resentment, acceptance. I was most terrified about how I was going to survive financially, a common distraction in the USA due to our perverted health care system.
What coping mechanisms did you use?
My friends got me through, absolutely 100%. I focused a lot on my inner life, meditating, visiting monasteries. I also found healing and joy in my rock band, Coco Cobra and the Killers. It was so great to sing, perform and be with my band during the whole ordeal. A rock band is an inherently powerful, united front. Cancer seemed like an impotent thing from the stage.
Did the fact that you see stripping as art rather than as something purely sexual help in any way or not?
I'm sure the fact that I see my BODY as art rather than as primarily sexual or the territory of lust and attraction helped. Losing a breast was as strange in many ways as growing breasts in the first place.
I believe you chose not to have reconstructive surgery after undergoing a single mastectomy – why?
I considered not having reconstruction, but ultimately did. Primarily I chose this because I wanted to preserve my healthy breast in order to possibly nurse one day. I didn't want to have only one breast. Two or none, not one.
For many women having one breast or no breasts can be devastating, can make them feel ‘less of a woman’ and less attractive and sexual. What was your experience? And what would you say to women who may go through this?
I'd tell women who feel this way that it's all in their heads. And to JOIN A PUNK BAND or take up stripping. Honestly I felt MORE a woman--I felt a solidarity with my gender after battling breast cancer, because it is primarily a disease that affects women, and more and younger women every year. I don't feel more or less attractive, but I give stripping a lot of credit for helping me accept my new, more curvy body.
You still do occasional performances at Mary’s strip club in Portland, right?
I perform twice a week at Mary's with two breasts. My breasts look different now, and I have scars, but I do not cover them. Most guys don't even notice, some remark that my breasts look "fake" (to which I like to reply "depends on your definition of reality"), but only one gentleman thus far has surmised that I've had breast cancer.
How did you feel the first time you did a strip show after your mastectomy – was there any fear of a negative reaction from the audience?
I was terrified and didn't feel like my body was my own. My left breast was literally ice cold to the touch, which I hadn't noticed until that day. I literally did not accept it as part of my body. But the club--the patrons and my co-workers--love and accept me as I am, so I eventually followed suit.
My first day back there was a guy in the audience who had lost his legs in a car accident who offered a wonderful perspective on non-elective body modification. Also, several guys who knew what I'd been through appeared at the stage with tears in their eyes, overjoyed to see me back.
Some people might say that a stripper who’s had breast cancer going on stage doing her thing is a feminist political act. What are your thoughts on that? Do you consider yourself to be making a political point?
I am averse to all politics. I believe it's very important to speak loudly what you believe in. I believe stripping is life-affirming and I say that. I believe that breast cancer is fucked and a result of our degradation of the environment and the isolation of modernity, and I say that.
At one point in the book you say you were getting burned out from stripping. Nowadays you do occasional shows combined with other artistic endeavours and performances. What is it about stripping that keeps you coming back to it?
I love the interaction I have with my audience from that stage. It's immediate, unscripted, in-the-moment. Also, the audience is very diverse--men and women from all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. As a veteran of many stages, I can say that that is very unique.
Of course there is a financial aspect to it, too. I simply could not devote as much time to my other creative endeavors--writing, acting and music--without my stripping income.
PETA, the animal rights group, is always coming under fire for using young, conventionally attractive women in their ads who take off their clothes. Some people argue it’s sexism and turns people off the cause and it’s using oppression of one to further the cause of another. What are your thoughts on stripping for a cause?
Nudity is not oppressive! Clothes are. Naked bodies are beautiful, and if memory serves, PETA uses men as well as women, and people of different ages.
Stripping for a cause is like playing music for a cause... It is appealing to a broad audience and generates interest and $ for a purpose. In Portland, it is not uncommon to find strippers doffing their kit to benefit domestic violence shelters, breast cancer research, or relief efforts in Haiti.
What are your latest and upcoming projects?
I just appeared in an as-yet-untitled Gus Van Sant flick, my band has been busy recording, and I'm gearing up to write my next book. I haven't decided whether it will be a follow-up to Magic Gardens, or an account of my experiences with breast cancer.
Any other comments?
Check your breasts! Support the arts!