Abby Normal just wanted to find a good party where she could get naked without getting kicked out. For a long time, she thought that meant moving from Vancouver to Montreal.
"I kind of had this dream of moving there," she told VICE. While doing some camgirl work for a Montreal-based site, Abby was smitten with the city's tight-knit sex worker community and the weirdo art scene that came with it. "I was looking over the fence at this beautiful, wonderful thing, that I hoped and wished I could be a part of, but felt like I could never be a part of."
She knew that Vancouver had fetish and swinger scenes, but neither of those quite fit her party ambitions. "I just never felt I could access that because I didn't have the right uniform," she said. "I had a friend who was like 'Oh, you're trying to go to Montreal just so you can make arty blow job videos, why don't you try to make your own thing here?' It can exist in Vancouver, it's just nobody had went out of their way to make it, I guess."
Thankfully Abby took her friend's advice, and got to work bringing together that pervy-art universe on the West Coast. Today she has her hands in a bunch of sex-positive parties, the newest launching next week, the crown jewel being an East Vancouver club night and amateur strip show called Rent Cheque. Now the last Friday of every month, partiers sign up to take off their clothes in front of a reliably packed crowd, and compete for a couple hundred bucks in cash—the crowd deciding who wins.
The name and concept was actually passed on by an earlier dude-run event, then given "a makeover and a push-up bra," according to Abby. She and host Lex Gray just celebrated three years of truly strange and depraved performances by a rotating cast of freaks and geeks. "I think in the beginning people were trying to be sexy," Lex told VICE. "After several months, it became apparent to competitors and the crowd that those who were winning took big risks. They were doing strange things up there and getting out of their comfort zone. That ended up being what the crowds usually voted for."
In a year where actual rent is out of control and young creative types are fleeing Vancouver, Rent Cheque has become a party the city didn't know it needed. Not because it actually pays anyone's bills, but because it's a rare outlet for radical, naked, East Van self-expression; a place where you can ride into the bar on a motorcycle, strip in your bulky leg cast, recite spoken word poetry, or do naked cartwheels in a werewolf mask if you want to, and guaranteed a crowd is going to dig it. VICE caught up with Abby, Lex and a few winners to ask what keeps them coming back.
VICE: Can you tell me about the early days?
Benny Israel: On the very first night I go down there, and [Abby]'s looking a bit panicked. She's got like three people signed up and it's supposed to start in 20 minutes. I didn't want to see them crash and burn on the first night. So I skateboarded home, borrowed my roommate's pink hard hat, got a T-shirt I didn't care about, and listened to this one song 100 times on my iPod. I shotgunned a couple beers on the way back and got myself psyched up to strip... It was terrifying and kind of exhilarating. I didn't have my glasses on so I couldn't see what the crowd was doing. Since I'd been gone several people had shown up so there was actual competition—not just two people. I think I placed after stripping to Judas Priest's "Turbo Lover."
Abby: He used flint to make his dick give off sparks. That was his final move.
Awesome. Did you get a prize?
Benny: I don't think that had a cash prize for third. I won a vibrator and some candy.
That gives you a taste for victory, at least.
Benny: Yeah it was something. I'd never won anything before, except tickets to see Sunset Boulevard in 1995.
What's your approach to the Rent Cheque stage?
Benny: You really want to get your crowd going, so you pick an exciting song, not necessarily one you like. Something people can get on board with. I tear my T-shirt right off my body. It's like the only thing I'm really good at in life. I can do that like a pro.
CJ MacDonald: I'm terrible at picking costumes, I can't do routines. My thing is I close my eyes, feel the moment and let it go. Once I danced to Fleetwood Mac's "Caroline." I had a broken foot so I had one of those big awkward air casts. I was just stumbling around the stage, in vibrating panties, just enjoying the vibrations on the stage. Usually the whole time I have my eyes closed so I'm not even sure if I'm facing the crowd properly. But the moment you open your eyes and the song is done you feel all these emotions and you're standing naked in front of a bar of people. There's nothing like it.
Benny: It kind of makes me feel special. That sounds ridiculous but I feel really special and loved when I go up there. After I'm done performing, I'm standing naked on a stage and can just hear people yelling my name, chanting Benny, Benny, Benny—I use my real name because I tried having a stripper name and it didn't go so well.
What was your first stripper name?
Benny: Benadryl. The first time I went on stage the announcer was like... Could we get... Drill... to the stage?
Do you feel like you're up against tough competition?
CJ: Actually the few times I've danced I don't even know who won. It would be nice to get called, but I think I just get too distracted with dancing and hugs and running around. By the time they call out the names I'm not even paying attention.
Has Rent Cheque ever helped pay your rent?
Benny: Oh man, yeah. The first time I came in first place I was flat broke. I just danced so hard, like my life depended on it. And then next thing I know, I think it was four or five hundred bucks in my pocket. It was like a giant weight was lifted. The last time I won it was New Years 2015. I didn't mean to strip that night, but the $750 ended up covering all but $40 bucks of my rent. I went home and put the stack of bills right next to my sweetheart, when she woke up this stack of bills was right beside her head. I think the people who do Rent Cheque for the most part want to have fun, but a lot of them could really use the money.
Abby: In no way has Rent Cheque ever or will ever pay my bills. It really is an endeavour of the heart, and I feel like that's what keeps us honest. We try to give back to the community, we specifically give portions of our proceeds to the Wish drop-in centre. There's a lot of older feminists that are still under the impression that it's an event run by men that gives women on the Downtown Eastside money for shaking their tits kind of thing. It really sucks. We're just a bunch of people 19 to 30 and beyond who just want to fuck around and figure it out.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
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