It's 3 AM on February 12, the Thursday before Mardi Gras. Rick's Cabaret, an upscale strip club on Bourbon Street, isn't busy, but it's not exactly dead, either. Camilla, a tall brunette in her early 30s, is smoking and relaxed. She isn't trying to sell me a dance, having already had a good night, including a half-hour in a private room with the genial contractor my friend Kate is currently toying with.
"It's usually OK until Saturday. Sunday's very hit-or-miss," Camilla tells me. "Girls who've worked Mardi Gras before know not to work Monday or Tuesday. It's dead in here. Everyone's outside."
While we're talking, a girl is clenched high on the pole doing crunches. "She's bored right now, she's just working out," Camilla says. I'm surprised. The street is crawling with men drunk enough to run into me, hard. "Rick's is businessmen, the conventions, the Microsoft guys. During Mardi Gras, the crowd is very different," Camilla says. "Guys aren't paying $1,000 for a private hour. It's more of a party crowd."
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the party around which the rest of the year rotates. It's bigger than Christmas, and bigger than New Year's. New Orleans has an estimated population of about 380,000, and typical Mardi Gras attendance is 1.4 million. For a week, the city is a Carnival island. New Orleanians joke that there could be a presidential coup and no one here would know or care. The streets are filled with people in meticulous costumes walking around next to half-naked partiers. There are parades for families, parades for dogs, parades for gutter punks and hipsters, not to mention the gauntlets of tourists trading beads for boobs along Bourbon street.
Tulane University estimated the financial impact of last year's festival at $465 million, but what I wanted to know is whether the city's sex economy feels the same boost as the rest of New Orleans.
Helena,* the founding member of the New Orleans Sex Workers Outreach Project (who gives her age as "none of your beeswax") says it depends on whom you're asking.
"People don't come alone to Mardi Gras to find a hooker," she tells me. "And same with any big special event. [During the] Super Bowl, nobody works—I mean hooking, that is."
She's painting her nails on my porch on Monday morning, or Lundi Gras, as it's known during Carnival. It's the calm before the storm: The parades start around noon.
"You come down and get a hooker when you're alone or on a business trip or at a convention," Helena says. "People are more interested in the parades, 'cause that's what they come to Mardi Gras for."
She knows you can make money dancing: "Stripping's another story, I'm sure they make a lot of money. Actually, I know they do, 'cause I know people who don't even dance anymore who were dancing last week. So it's worth it."
Where you work is important, which explains why Camilla doesn't feel the same bump. "If you're wasted enough to go to a strip club when you wouldn't normally, you probably aren't going to go to one of the nice fancy ones," Helena continues. "They're expensive to get into. You're going to go wander into Big Daddy's, 'cause it's about just being at the strip club, not about I need the highest in quality. I only want girls without ANY tattoos who wear floor-length gowns before they take them off."
Big Daddy's is on Bourbon Street, next door to its original location, which was famous for the swinging legs at the entrance. Like all strip clubs on Bourbon, a single woman is prohibited from entering. One doorman explains why he won't let me in: "What if you're a jealous wife and you hit someone with a bottle?"
The day I can't talk my way into a naked-lady club while wearing a sequin jumper is the day I hang it up. In a stroke of luck, I recognize the flamboyant suit of someone I saw earlier that evening at uptown club Tipitina's . He's a doctor from New Zealand. After a bit of flirting, he escorts me in.
But he and his friends leave soon after, citing the prices. "A lap dance is standard twenty dollars, in Vegas, anywhere, and here it's forty," he tells me. "It's not an increase in service; it's because they think they can get it. It's outrageous, but because it's Mardi Gras, people will pay it."
I buy a dance from Molly, a pretty, curvaceous woman of 36, who works every Mardi Gras. She's sold about eight dances and four champagne rooms today. There are about 30 girls on, while normally it's 12 to 15. I look around, only seeing ten on the floor. "The rest are up in the private rooms," she says. Private rooms are where a dancer makes her real money. Carnival is a different crowd, which is challenging. "Single guys are better, 'cause groups of guys are cock blockers," Molly says.
Though the money is good, the week carries risks. "It's hard to get home—there are no cabs," Molly says. The year before, she was almost robbed. "A girl grabbed me by my hair and asked for my purse. There was twelve hundred dollars in there, my whole night. I tried to get away, but her boyfriend was there too. All of Bourbon Street was watching, and no one did anything about it." Friends of hers from a different club eventually came to the rescue.
Trudie, a blond wearing a vinyl nurse costume and beauty-queen hair, is counting her money. It's almost time to go home. She confirms that safety is a concern but says that the city has responded to the dangers.
"They beef up security. They bring big football lights so Bourbon Street is lit up. State troopers in from all over. There are more undercovers with beads, plastic cups—you can't tell, but they're cops. They've been really good about keeping it safe with the guns and the drugs." She mentions that the club security is good, too, making eye contact with the floor manager sitting five feet away.
For her, the bigger issue is the hours. Shifts are longer during the season, from one in the afternoon to six in the morning. "You can make more money, but it's so long. We're pulling 17 hours, so you just get body-tired. By the end you definitely feel it." She likes the pageantry, though: "It's good to take your beads even though we're all from here. And it's a break in conversation. No matter how thin, fat, old, young, what country you're from, happy Mardi Gras!"
Molly enjoys it too, on balance. "Last year me and another girl were making guys show us their penises for beads," she tells me.
Extraordinary alcohol consumption affects all sex work during Carnival. Helena used to dance but dislikes the dishonesty. She says, "When people are next-level drunk, they can be convinced to part with their money. It isn't like they're willing to spend, which is sad. I don't like having to do that."
She tells me about the one time she took an escort booking on Mardi Gras.
"It was a couple—the woman hired me. It took me forever to get there because it was across the parade route. By the time I got out there I was well over an hour late, and they were trashed and I realized it was a surprise. She kept yelling, I got you! I got you, motherfucker! You didn't think I was going to do it! I got you! and he was like, Ooohh—OK? And she was like, Fuck her, fuck her! And I was like I'm here, hey… And he was like, No, I just want to see y'all… do it.
"They were cute, but it was more trouble than it was worth."
*Names have been changed.
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