DATE November 6, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Anne Deveare Smith talks about her life experiences
and acting philosophy
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Anna Deveare Smith has developed a compelling way of bringing the issues of
our time to the stage. She records interviews with people involved in major
events, studies their voices, transcribes the interviews and then performs
these people as characters in her one-woman shows. The MacArthur Foundation,
which gave her a so-called Genius Award in 1996, described her shows as a
blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.
In her show "Fires in the Mirror," she told the story of the rift between
African-Americans and Orthodox Jews in the Crown Heights neighborhood of
Brooklyn. In "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," she examined the aftermath of
the Rodney King verdict.
Her latest play, "House Arrest," is about the presidency and Washington
politics. She's played presidential aides in the movie "The American
President" and the TV series "The West Wing." She writes about her life and
her work in her new memoir, "Talk to Me." One of the people she interviewed
for "House Arrest" was President Clinton. She likes to find the moments in
interviews when people speak authentically and not predictably. I wanted to
know what she asked President Clinton.
Ms. ANNE DEVEARE SMITH (Actress/Playwright): I actually only asked him one
question, and that question was, `Mr. President, do you think you're being
treated like a common criminal?' I mean, I went prepared to ask many
questions, but that question sort of got him off and running, and the other
ones that I asked him sort of followed on that. But he spoke quite robustly
on that question.
And the reason that's interesting is that when I was first learning how to do
what I do and training myself to do it, I talked to a linguist to ask her if
she had any advice. And knowing that I was trying to get people to that type
of moment that I've been describing, she said, `I'll give you three questions
that will just, you know, assure that they're going to--your subjects are
going to break out of their normal rhythms and do interesting things.' And
she said, `The three questions are, "Have you ever come close to death?" "Do
you know the circumstances of your birth?" "And have you ever been accused of
something that you did not do?"'
So my question, `Mr. President, do you feel like you're being treated like a
common criminal?' was quite like the question, `Have you ever been accused of
something that you did not do?' And probably also, he had reason to believe,
many times in his tenure that he was coming close to political death. And so
that's, I think--in addition to the fact that, you know, probably his
upbringing in Arkansas and his love of music and his love of people begins to
inform his ability to design his language in a way that makes you think he's
speaking to you in a way that he's not spoken to anybody before.
GROSS: Did you ask him this question during the Whitewater era or the Monica
Ms. SMITH: It was between the two. It was in the fall of '97, so it was
before the Monica Lewinsky story broke and after the big, probably, drama of
GROSS: In your show about Washington, you had to do President Clinton.
You're not an impersonator the way a lot of, like, comic impersonators are,
where you get his voice exactly and--you know, you're not doing a "Saturday
Night Live" sketch. What's your approach to doing the president in your show?
Ms. SMITH: Well, my approach to doing the president is my approach to doing
anybody, and it goes back to something that my grandfather told me when I was
a little girl and it goes back to the way I was trained. And it's all in how
they spoke. It's all in repeating the words. So I take that interview and I
find a little section of it that I like, and I put it on my Walkman. I
couldn't have done what I'm doing before the Walkman was invented. I put it
on--certainly not before tape recorder was invented. I put it on a Walkman
and under my headphones, and I just say it over and over and over again, using
my grandfather's idea that he said quite before he knew I would become an
actress, which was, `If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.' So
that's my technique--is I just say the words over and over and over again
until something happens, until I begin to physically remember what the people
were doing because I don't videotape.
And I also--the process of learning my lines is very exacting. I'm sitting
in a room, a small room usually, locked in there with one other person, and
we just drill those lines until I get every `um,' every `uh,' every stutter
correct. And it's pretty phenomenal, the extent to which these words--the
way we said them captures and stores something about who we are. And I
always learn an awful lot about the people, much more then than in the
interview. I guess it's kind of like a cow or something eating the grass.
The real nutrition of the experience is when I really wear those words and
absorb those words and say them over and over again.
GROSS: And getting every `um' and `er' right is really important?
Ms. SMITH: Yes. It's critical. That's where--you know, I believe that
character, what I've learned so far, is not in the perfect sentence. And
it'll be very interesting--you know, the printing press was this astonishing
offering in the history of mankind. And to some extent, we are still--we
believe that people are just the way they move across a page; you know, as if
we all finish our sentences perfectly, going all the way across the page with
perfect commas and dots. But that's not really how we are. Uh--I just said
`uh' myself. I have to say `uh' to wait for the thought to drop off of my
Ms. SMITH: And that's who I am. And if you want to be me, you've got to be
me in my time or my breath, not before my time, not after my time, not on
your breath, on my breath, on my heartbeat. And that has a lot to do with
how that `uh' falls on my tongue. And we just have to wait for the words of
wisdom to come.
GROSS: Anna Deveare Smith, why did you want to go into acting in the first
Ms. SMITH: I didn't. I probably wanted to be a psychiatrist when I was a
girl. My mother thought I was too sensitive, so she didn't think that was a
good idea. And then I wanted to be a linguist. And at the time that I went
to college, I wanted to think of a way to use the study of language to
understand more about people across lines of difference and to somehow use
that understanding to encourage us to be together. I was very influenced by
the teachings of Dr. King, among others.
And I went to California, really, at the end of the early '70s looking for the
continuance of that cultural revolution and looking for what I might do about
it and thought that I wanted to do something political maybe, something about
social change, most likely something progressive. And I, literally, happened
upon some acting classes by accident, and it was in that experience that I
thought, `My God, will these actors'--I'm reminded of "Hamlet" all of a
sudden, but--`These actors are changing right before my eyes. I mean, this is
the real evidence that people can change."
And so I wanted to know more about that. I wanted to know more, literally,
about the technique of changing yourself, and I began the study out of
curiosity and then in the course of it, through some sort of acts of chance,
ended up becoming an actress professionally.
GROSS: Now you say that when you were studying acting, you were given an
exercise by a teacher to take a few lines of Shakespeare, whichever lines you
preferred, and to keep repeating them over and over until something happened.
What are the lines you took, and what happened when you repeated them over and
Ms. SMITH: Well, this was my Shakespeare class and--my first Shakespeare
class, and I was very scared of, probably, failing in that class. And she
sent us home with a simple directive: take 14 lines of Shakespeare, say them
over and over again until something happens. I didn't even have a copy of
Shakespeare's plays at the time and went to school in a theater which was
just a few blocks away from a tenderloin area, where sort of down-and-outers
lived, and went there to the bookstore, being certain that not many other
people would be after copies of Shakespeare.
I got a cheap copy, went home, sort of opened up the book. The page fell on
"Richard III," Queen Margaret. And it was Queen Margaret speaking to Richard
III's mother after he had committed yet another murder. And she said, `That
dog that had its teeth before its eyes to worry lands and lap their gentle
blood, thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.' Very intense language,
not exactly a love poem.
I said those three and the 11 other lines over and over again one night till
the wee hours of the morning, and lo and behold, everything in the world
happened. Not only did I not feel like myself, I actually thought that I saw
Queen Margaret right there in my room. I mean, it was a transcendental
experience completely unaided by any kind of chemical substance. And I hadn't
had an experience like that since I was a little girl and believed in the
tooth fairy and thought I saw it in my room.
So what in the world could be the relationship between words and that very
powerful kind of childlike imagination that I had once had? And I knew that
acting had something to do with being able to evoke, once again, that kind of
powerful imagination because acting is, after all, being able to imagine that,
you know, you're somebody else.
So there I was saying those words over and over again, saw Queen Margaret,
felt like Queen Margaret, knew I wasn't her, but believed that somebody like
her had existed. And I have to tell you, Terry, that I've spent all these
years, after that experience, trying to understand more about how in the world
it could have happened. And it's what put me on my journey.
GROSS: My guest is Anna Deveare Smith. Her new memoir is called "Talk to
Me." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actress Anna Deveare Smith. Her new memoir is called
"Talk to Me."
Now your approach to acting doesn't really rely that much on, say, the method
or Stanislavsky, the psychological approach, to finding the experience deepest
in you that resonates the pain or the joy that the character is feeling. Why
do you choose to not take that more psychological approach? I mean, what do
you do instead?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I have learned that approach, and I do take that approach,
and it is in the background of what I do. And I kind of get there another
way, which is that, inevitably, the words of somebody else, because I'm saying
them over and over and over again--and it is me, with all my experience in my
life saying them over and over again--that the words of the other person
ultimately knock on the door of my subconscious and release things that are
very deep in me that I don't know were there and, frankly, I don't think I
would know were there had not the words of others pulled them out.
GROSS: Now you grew up in segregated Baltimore, but you watched a lot of TV,
you went to the movies, and it was predominantly white people on TV and the
movies. And as you say in your book, you identified with them. And you think
that that's a good thing? I mean, that's what empathy is: identifying with
other people, with who people who aren't necessarily like you or look like you
or from the same background as you. And you think that the real problem is
that white people haven't had--or at least in the past certainly didn't have
that chance to feel that kind of empathy toward African-Americans in movies
and TV shows because there weren't many black people cast in movies and TV
Ms. SMITH: That's exactly what I believe. And I believe that the world is
more complicated, even, than those days of segregation in black-and-white
Baltimore so that now the charge for all of us is it's not just me to identify
with whites or whites to identify with blacks, but it's just sort of a bigger
job because there are so many different kinds of people in America.
And how do we find a way in education, in the workplace, through our culture
to make more possibilities for us to identify with others? Because it can't
work one way. It can't be that we're getting to solve the problem of race in
America by me only identifying with whites and having their experiences, as
was probably propose, as one course of action in Brown vs. Board of Ed all
those years ago, but how can we all believe that we're all missing something
if we don't know about each other?
And that's a hard--I think it's a hard project because it isn't so apparent,
you know, that we--that people who seem to have everything because they reap
the benefits of being white and upper middle class. If we think that
everything is material gain, then it's hard to think of how to suggest that
there is a loss when we don't know about each other.
GROSS: You came of age during the late '60s and early '70s, a very culturally
tumultuous period. What's the most radical and surprising direction you
headed in during that period?
Ms. SMITH: In the '60s?
Ms. SMITH: The most surprising and radical dir--well, it wasn't all that
radical in the scheme of things: probably that I grew an Afro because in
Baltimore, you know, what your hair looked like was a very important thing.
And it's amazing to conceive of it, but it really was like sort of a
terrifying thing to parents when you came home with an Afro.
GROSS: What did you think the Afro meant to your parents?
Ms. SMITH: Oh, just, oh, my God, the end of the--and it was, really. It was
the end of the whole project, which had been to give me experiences and
educate me and school me to become a respectable, black woman. And that black
woman would be costumed with straight hair and conservative clothing. And
I've never worn that mask or that clothing or that hair. And nonetheless,
when my mother got her copy of "Talk to Me," she called me up and told me on
my machine--and I've kept it--that she was very proud of me.
GROSS: I'm sure she was. I want to get back to the Afro thing for a second.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah.
GROSS: So when you grew the Afro and your parents...
Ms. SMITH: Well, my kind of Afro. I had a pretty pathetic Afro.
GROSS: OK. But, anyways, your parents thought the program was over. You
were kind of off course. You weren't going to be the kind of well-groomed,
middle-class person that they were hoping for you to be.
Ms. SMITH: Well, they'd spent their lives creating.
GROSS: Did you worry yourself about slipping out of the middle class?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I think that the time was--we were too intoxicated. You
know, we were just drunk with this cultural revolution that we were creating.
We were giddy with it. You turn one way and there's Vietnam. You turn
another way, there's women's rights. You turn another way, there's ecology.
You turn another way, there's every kind of color of person coming forward
and saying, `I want to be in this party and speak out, too.' So it just was
an explosion. And you were in a kind of abandon that let you not be so
afraid, for many of us, of never going back to that middle-class dream.
GROSS: And how did all of this kind of political, cultural explosion around
you change, if at all, your idea of race and what it meant for you to be
African-American and what your options were?
Ms. SMITH: Well, even as the '50s--and my mother's generation did
extraordinary things to make us ready for this world they saw in front of
them. Nonetheless, when I arrived at college, one of seven African-American
women in a whole school of white people, I was extraordinarily self-conscious,
and so were they. And so even as we came ready to fulfill our dreams and our
parents' dreams, I don't think that self-consciousness felt very good. And
so to relieve ourselves of that was very freeing, and for some of us, we
didn't know where we were going to go, but we knew we'd rather be there than
back in that self-conscious state, which still had with it a tinge of `you are
less than,' `you have to prove yourself.' And so that's what happened.
Ms. SMITH: A lot of people, as you know, retreated back to the middle class
with the same ideals, but I have--I left and I never went home again. And
what I say to people is I left my safe house of identity. I have been living,
for my adult life, in the crossroads of ambiguity and, from this position,
invite anybody who wants to leave their safe house, whatever that is, to join
me here to learn more about this extraordinary country. That's what I've
given my life to.
GROSS: But what ambiguity are you talking about?
Ms. SMITH: Well, that if you leave--like, if I leave where I am as a nice,
black girl from Baltimore and I say, `Well, that was fine, but I'm not going
to become a nice, black woman from Baltimore,' and I walk out of that, it
doesn't necessarily mean I can go back. And we still live in
mini-segregations. I say that we still live in safe houses of identity and
that that big explosion, that orgy I told you about, got then managed into--if
you go to any college to this day, you know, here's where the black students
are, here's where the, you know--these people. This is the Hillel House.
This is the Women's Studies.
Now the next part of the project is to mix that all up in a way that--I'm not
sure where it's going to go, but the next part of after-identity politics is
something else. And I, once I left being a nice, middle-class girl from
Baltimore, didn't stand in any house, and that's why the study of acting was
the perfect place for me to be--is because it was the one place where I could
be rewarded by taking on other identities.
And, you know, going to Washington was this me, a person who grew up knowing a
lot about the powerless and the powerful, having grown up in segregation, and
identifying with the powerless, identifying with being pushed outside, to dare
to walk up and knock on the doors of Washington's inside the Beltway and try
to see what it was like inside. I could only have done that if I had stood
outside of all the safe places for some time, to be ready to go, really, where
I didn't belong.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. SMITH: Thank you.
GROSS: Actress Anna Deveare Smith has written a new memoir called "Talk to
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Julia Query, stand-up comic and peep club dancer,
discusses her new documentary "Live Nude Girls, Unite!"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Julia Query is a stand-up comic who supports herself by dancing in a peep show
at a San Francisco strip club. The peep show also provides a lot of material
for her comedy act. When the dancers at the strip decided to unionize, Query
decided to make a documentary about it. That film, "Live Nude Girls, Unite!"
is playing in a couple of cities and will soon be opening in more. I asked
Julia Query why she decided to dance in a peep show in the first place.
Ms. JULIA QUERY (Stand-Up Comic; Dancer): Well, I had realized that there
wasn't much of a career in sociology, because there are so few jobs for
sociology grad students. And even those that come up are often in places like
Kansas, and I didn't want to go live in Kansas. So I decided to leave
graduate school and follow my first love, which was making art. And the
problem is that we don't have much funding for artists, so I needed a job that
would allow me the time and the flexible schedule to be an artist. And that's
the sex industry. I mean, there's a joke in this country: What's the NEA for
women, what's the National Endowment for the Arts for women? And the answer
is the sex industry. A lot of women in the sex industry are artists.
GROSS: What would you say is the percentage of artist where you work now?
Ms. QUERY: I'd guess at least 40 percent of us are working artists right now
at the Lusty Lady, and another 40 percent of us are students. And then
there's also single mothers.
GROSS: Is this untypical or is this typical?
Ms. QUERY: I think it's typical for an urban place. I think in rural
places, it's more likely that strippers are single mothers or working mothers
with partners. It's good work for the money, and it allows you to be home
with your kids during the day if you want to work at night.
GROSS: Now how good is the money? What do you get?
Ms. QUERY: I get $25 an hour, which is not fabulous but it's good for a job
where I have control over my schedule and can leave for months at a time if I
want to tour with a show or work with the film and can come back and just pick
up where I left off.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about just what the work is. Why don't you
describe the room and how people watch and what you're doing in the room.
Ms. QUERY: Well, it's an old-fashioned peep show, so guys come into the
building, and they'll go into one of 13 little booths that surround a carpeted
room with mirrors on the other side of the carpeting. And they'll put in
their quarters or their dollars, and the windows will roll up and then they
can watch us. There's usually three to five of us in the room, and we're kind
of dancing, kind of posing, kind of being seductive. Sometimes we'll drop to
our knees and talk to the guy through the window when it's between songs and
you can hear him and be a little flirtatious, a little funny. And sometimes
it's pretty explicit, you know, if you have somebody who only wants to look at
one particular body part.
GROSS: How nude are you? What are you wearing?
Ms. QUERY: Well, I tend to wear heels and some sort of wrap. Some dancers
wear nothing except heels. Some dancers wear pretty elaborate costumes, but
we're always revealed in certain crucial places.
GROSS: Now you're a lesbian and here you are dancing naked for men. Does it
feel paradoxical to you to be a lesbian woman dancing for men in a peep show?
Ms. QUERY: I think that as a lesbian and dancing it's not such a problem for
me to dance, because I go home to a woman. So whatever I'm seeing through
those windows--and I don't really notice the men very much, but if I am paying
attention, it's not like I'm reminded of my boyfriend or my husband. You
know, I go home to a woman and she's different from my customers.
You know, it's not being a lesbian that makes it difficult to dance sometimes.
Sometimes what makes it difficult to dance is that I'm bored and I wish I was
doing something useful for my own life. Sometimes I get frustrated that I'm
this smart woman who can make a film that's really successful, that I can, you
know, publish in my first year of graduate school, that I graduated summa from
college, and yet, you know, I don't have a society that just hands me, you
know, a good, creative job for money and that instead I have to support my own
creativity by spending 12 hours a week dancing for men who sometimes don't
seem appreciative enough.
GROSS: Wait. I'm going to stop you, because your mother would say, and she
does say this in the movie, is because you haven't applied yourself to those
Ms. QUERY: Well, I mean, in a way, she's right, but in a way she's wrong.
There's just not enough funding for artists in this country. Certainly, you
know, I raised about a third of our money from grants for this film, but I was
unable to raise any large sums. You know, I got $7,000 here, $5,000 there,
but I didn't get the hundred thousand dollars or the $200,000 grants that are
available to very few documentary makers.
GROSS: Now you're a stand-up comic and...
Ms. QUERY: Yeah.
GROSS: ...I'm wondering--compare the wages for us of stand-up comedy in the
clubs that you've worked with the wages that you get in the peep show.
Ms. QUERY: Oh, I definitely make more as a stripper.
GROSS: You do?
Ms. QUERY: I definitely make more money as a stripper than as a stand-up
comedian. I mean, as a stand-up comedian, I might get paid for a show but the
hours that go into preparing that work, to going to open mikes and testing the
material just to get a good 20 minutes is a lot of work, and then if I go and
I perform that 20 minutes, it means that I'm going to have to get there an
hour or two before I go on, watch the other comedians perform. It generally
means that I'm not going to run to another club and do another performance
that same night. So it takes up a lot of time, too, to get generally what I
can make in two or three hours dancing.
GROSS: Do you do a lot of sex show jokes or material, I should say, in your
Ms. QUERY: It depends on the audience. It depends on the audience. Yeah, I
have a lot of material about being a stripper because it's, you know, such an
absurd, surreal experience and because people are generally titillated by it,
so they're already going to giggle, they're already ready to laugh. But on
the other hand, it's not a shared experience for a lot of people, so it's not
that kind of Seinfeld humor where everybody can go, `Oh, yeah, I've thought
about that.' So it's double-edged.
Also, as a comedian, as a female comedian, if I do too much sexual material, I
have to be careful what audience I'm doing that for because if there are too
many straight, drunk men in the audience, it's eventually not going to go
over. They'll stop listening and they'll just think about sex.
GROSS: Now how did you and the women you work with get the idea of
Ms. QUERY: Well, for about eight years prior to my joining the Lusty Lady and
starting to work there, there had been a tense by dancers to organize around
the two-way windows. Two-way windows are windows where the customers could
see us but we couldn't see the customers. And through these two-way windows,
the customers were videotaping us. They were sneaking in cameras. And we
were very worried about these videotapes showing up on the Internet or in
porno tapes. And, in fact, it has happened.
So we would complain to management regularly and management did nothing about
it. And they, you know, sometimes say things like, `Well, that videotape
isn't usual. No camera can really get a very good picture, so you don't have
to worry about it,' or they'd say, `Oh, well, we're not legally able to stop
that because this is legally just an arcade and we can't stop people from
using cameras.' And we said, `Well, just get rid of the two-way windows,' and
they said, `No, no, no, we make too much money off of it.'
So basically what they said is, `We're making a profit off of having men be
able to see you without you seeing them and we don't care if you're health and
safety and your well-being are not being respected.' It's very hard for
dancers to have images taken of them because a lot of us are going into this
work prior to getting degrees that are going to let us go out into the world,
and we don't want our images out there.
So about eight months after I was hired, people started getting angry about
this again and I didn't think anything would come of it because I had heard
from so many dancers previously that they had tried to organize and had been
unsuccessful. But this time, one dancer, Velvet(ph), went to the Exotic
Dancers Alliance meeting, and that was an organization that had started a few
years earlier to help dancers organize for better working conditions. And
they had a contract with SEIU-790, Service Employees International Union 790,
and they had been told that if dancers wanted to organize for better working
conditions that you really had no rights unless you were an organizing a
And so even though we wanted to sign a petition, we were worried what would
happen after we handed it in. And we could have all been fired unless we said
we were organizing for a union, and then we were protected by the National
Labor Relations Board. Well, we hadn't planned to organize for a union, but
we realized that this was the only way to get management to listen to us. And
we went ahead and did it, and we had incredible support and unity from the
GROSS: What are some of the things that you won through unionizing?
Ms. QUERY: We won job security. We can no longer be fired for no reason.
And any worker in California who isn't covered by a union can be fired at will
for no reason at all. So we have a big advantage by being union workers over
most of the workers in California now. Now they can't fire us unless we've
been late a certain number of times or if we aren't doing our job well,
whereas before, they generally fired women as soon as they hit the top of the
pay scale because they'd want to hire new women who would work for much less.
We've also won sick days, so we now can call in sick and have somebody else
cover our shift. We don't have to have to find somebody to cover our shift or
get points or have our pay cut in half. And we get two paid sick days a year.
GROSS: In your movie, in addressing some of the conditions that people in the
sex industry work under, you talk about stage fees, which is something, I
think, that is relatively new for dancers. Why don't you describe what that
Ms. QUERY: Mm-hmm. Well, Vicki Funari, my co-director, and I, when we were
making the movie, we really wanted to include a notice about this cancer that
is spreading through the sex industry, which is called stage fees. And that's
when dancers are being asked, by management, to pay them every night that they
come to work. And in San Francisco, dancers are paying $200 to $400 a
night--$200 to $400 dollars a night to work. And that means that if it's a
slow night, if it's raining out, a woman might not have enough customers who
are willing to pay the $40 to $100 for a lap dance. And so when the customer
says, you know, `What'll you do for me for $80?' or `Will you give me this,
I'll give you a hundred,' and she needs to pay management and she needs to pay
her baby sitter and she needs to pay her rent, she's much more likely to do
these illegal acts that she, perhaps, never thought she would be doing; things
that make her uncomfortable and can be unsafe. And management is making so
much money that they're just hiring more and more and more dancers, so that
there's even more competition and dancers are undercutting each other and
doing much, much more for much less money.
And the National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly found this practice to
be illegal, but they have, to this point, refused pre-emptively stop it and
instead they wait for dancers to sue. And so if a dancer is willing to never
work again, she can sue and get back $10, $20, $30,000 in stage fees, but
she's out of a job.
GROSS: So women who do this kind of dancing could be in the position of owing
Ms. QUERY: Mm-hmm. I know a lot of dancers who, if they went through a week
or two of having a kind of slump period, would go in every single day owing
management money. They had to bring their own money, pay it out, and they
could be bankrupt within a week and a half.
GROSS: My guest is Julia Query. Her new documentary is called "Live Nude
Girls, Unite!" More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Julia Query is my guest and she made the new documentary "Live Nude
Girls, Unite!" and it's about the peep show where she works where women
organized, unionized and won the right to have a union.
Let's talk about your mother. Your mother makes an appearance in this movie.
You mother has actually been very involved herself with sex workers, not as a
performer. Tell us about the work your mother has done over the years.
Ms. QUERY: Well, my mother's a doctor and she had a private practice in the
West Village and she was one of the first to diagnose AIDS. And she realized
immediately that it wasn't going to be just her gay, male clients, her gay,
male patients who would have AIDS; she realized it was a sexually transmitted
disease. And she was the first person to go out and to test for it in
prostitutes. And she did that by, you know, walking out on the streets of New
York City with $20 in her hand and asking women to give them her blood and she
gave them money.
And that experience radicalized her. As she was doing that more and more, she
got vans, she got a foundation. Women would say things to her, like, `We
really just want a shower, anything for a shower.' And my mother became aware
of how difficult their lives were, and she became a service provider. She
started a foundation called the Foundation for Research on Sexually
Transmitted Disease, which is now From Our Streets With Dignity. And it, you
know, has 30 employees and millions of dollars and two or three housing sites
and two or three vans. And it gives out half a million condoms a year. So
she's this amazing woman who, from nothing, has created a whole organization
that's servicing, you know, thousands of street-working prostitutes in New
GROSS: Now when you were young, was she doing this kind of work?
Ms. QUERY: She started doing it when I was about 12, 13.
GROSS: And what impact did it have on you?
Ms. QUERY: Well, it was great because I had started reading Malcolm X and
more radical thinkers and had become kind of radical in my own thinking. And
my mother was not. She really wanted us to have nice vacations and good teeth
and a big bar mitzvah party. And then this work came along, and as she was
becoming more radical, I felt really close to her. Prior to that, we had
fought a lot, and her work allowed us to get so close because I was so proud
You know, it was amazing to see her go out and meet women who were so poor and
so uneducated and to see her compassion and her ability to see through the
dirt and through the addiction and see the pain and see the ways that these
women have been raised that have led them to this life.
GROSS: So why did you keep it a secret from her that you were a peep show
Ms. QUERY: Well, I was worried that she wouldn't understand the difference
between an abused, terrible childhood and poverty that leads you to a life of
crack addiction and doing sex work on the streets from, you know, a choice
that I made to have a good job because it has flexible hours and good pay and
allows me to do what I want to do. I was worried that she'd see it as me
being a victim. And I'm not a victim.
GROSS: Why did you decide that you not only had to tell your mother about the
work that you were doing, but you had to tell her right away?
Ms. QUERY: I didn't tell my mother that I was working in a peep show because
I was worried that she'd be upset with me. And I didn't want to tell her
ever, but when I got invited to the International Conference on Prostitution
to give a talk about unionizing and to perform some comedy, I looked and my
mother had been invited to the same conference. And I knew I had to tell her
Ms. QUERY: I didn't have to tell her on videotape; that was a choice.
GROSS: Yes. OK. That was exactly where I was going. You did tell her on
videotape for your movie. And the scene in which you tell her is in your
documentary "Live Nude Girls, Unite!" In fact, let me play an excerpt of that
scene, and this is your mother's reaction to you telling her that you are
dancing in a peep show.
(Soundbite from "Live Nude Girls, Unite!")
Dr. WALLACE: Oh, I'm not, you know, really feeling good about this. I came
to this conference as somebody who was going to present, and I don't want to
have attention for anything else other than my work.
Ms. QUERY: Well, I don't do comedy under your name. I do comedy for Julia
Dr. WALLACE: Well, let's just keep it that way, and maybe not--not just yet.
You put me in an awkward position because I don't want to tell people that
you're not my daughter; you are my daughter. And I don't want it known that
Dr. Wallace from New York, who is an expert, has a daughter who's in the smut
Ms. QUERY: But I'm--what you did is help women...
Dr. WALLACE: You know, I think it takes away from my professional message
and my professionalness.
Ms. QUERY: Your professional message is that women on the streets shouldn't
have to be...
Dr. WALLACE: I think you should not have come to this meeting.
Ms. QUERY: No.
Dr. WALLACE: I think you should not present at this meeting.
Ms. QUERY: Come on, Mom. I present about being a union worker. You're
proud of that. You're proud of...
Dr. WALLACE: No, I'm not proud of you being at this meeting presenting it.
Ms. QUERY: You're proud of Christina(ph) holding the camera, who should be
closer, by the way.
Dr. WALLACE: But it's good you're telling me now.
Ms. QUERY: I needed to tell you before the conference happened.
Dr. WALLACE: It would have been nice to tell me a long time before.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Julia Query, did you think that your mother had a legitimate point in
saying that if people knew that you were doing sex work, that you were a
dancer in a peep show, that it would detract from her professional message and
from her professional work?
Ms. QUERY: I think that was unrealistic on her part. I don't think that
people would really detract from her because of what I do, but I do understand
her fear because there have been so many nimbi responses to the kind of work
that she does and there have been so many attempts to discredit her by people
who didn't want services provided in their neighborhood that--you know, my
mother had a bomb threat against her. So she's very worried about how people
And I think it was also, you know, kind of an old-fashioned '50s or, you know,
a long-time response of not wanting people to know that her daughter was a sex
worker. You know, she was not ready to feel pride in my work. She's still
not, you know, proud of the fact that I'm a sex worker. She's OK with it, but
she's not proud.
GROSS: So do you think that the disagreement between you and your mother over
your work was indicative of larger disagreements that you have about bodies
and sexuality and things along those lines, or is it--yeah, go ahead.
Ms. QUERY: Yeah, I think my mother and my disagreement about my work is more
indicative of feminist debates within feminism about sex work, where I think
my mother sort of represents an older feminist movement that worked so hard to
have women not be considered sex objects and only sex objects, worked hard to
get women into med school and into the career world and to be taken seriously.
And then there's this younger generation of feminists who are reclaiming
sexuality and the tension is: Are you turning the clock back? Are you making
it so that women are just sex objects again?
And hopefully my movie in a, you know, compelling and moving and funny way
points out that that's not really the issue. We're still on the same side.
We still want women to have choices and to have power. And the issue is we
can do that whether we have our clothes on or off. If we're naked, it doesn't
mean we're stupid.
GROSS: Well, what's your idea of how to be in a peep show dancing naked for
men who are paying, you know, by the minute and not be a sex object?
Ms. QUERY: Well, I'm agreeing to be a sex object. I mean, these are men who
are going into a peep show and they know that I've agreed to it. Hopefully
when they're on the street, they're not harassing women on the street, where
we haven't agreed to it.
GROSS: My guest is Julia Query. Her new documentary is called "Live Nude
Girls, Unite!" More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is comic and peep show dancer Julia Query. Her new
documentary is called "Live Nude Girls, Unite!"
You know, since you're a comic who has spent a lot of time, you know, working
in the sex industry, doing the peep show dancing and being a dominatrix, do
you find a lot of the stuff surrounding sex pretty funny?
Ms. QUERY: Yes. I think sex is hilarious because it's so uncomfortable
looking. I mean, bodies don't really look like they should fit together like
that, do they? And then people's fetishes don't fit their body type. You
know, there are tons of men who are kind of older and not fantastic looking
who want to dress like women. And then there are, you know, young men who
want to be put in diapers and they look silly because they're buff and they've
got these great big muscles and they look like they're in the military with
crew cuts and there they are wearing a diaper and wanting to be told that
mommy's going to nurse them.
And so everyone's fantasies are so opposite or at least absurd to what they
look like, and yet as a sex worker, what you do is you accept them and you
love them and you give them what they need for pay, much like a therapist.
GROSS: Here's something I'm a little concerned about. I'm concerned that a
young women tuning in and hearing our interview would think, `You know, that
really doesn't sound like a very bad job. You know, you do the peep show
dancing. You get paid a fairly decent wage.' You say you make $25 an hour.
Of course, that's because you're unionized now. Not all shops are. But, you
know, it could sound like a pretty decent job, but then this young woman could
go find a job doing a peep show at a place that isn't as good and she could
be, you know, treated pretty badly and have a pretty damaging experience. Are
there any cautionary things you want to say to anybody listening now?
Ms. QUERY: Well, I think if you're working in any job, you ought to unionize
it. And if you're working in the sex industry, you ought to unionize it
because if you can take some control of your working conditions, you can have
a better job. And that's the morality tale of my movie, I guess, is take
control, unify and fight for your rights. And you have the right to have good
working conditions whether you're working at a dot-com, as a temp or as a
GROSS: Do you think that dancers and other women of the sex industry who
actually have direct contact with male customers are putting themselves at
risk more than, say, you might be because the customer might be violent, might
be abusive in some way? And there's a lot of women who have private sessions
with men, you know, as dancers or--yeah.
Ms. QUERY: Yeah, most of the women I know who do private sessions or who have
regulars have no problem at all. Those dancers who have been harmed have been
harmed by their boyfriends, just like a third of all women who are killed are
killed by their boyfriends or husbands. And generally most men who go to peep
shows and strip clubs are, you know, your brothers, your sons, your fathers,
your cousins. All men use the sex industry just about, and in general, they
know that what they're doing is they're paying for a fantasy. They kind of
forget while they're in the room, and they'll ask silly questions like, you
know, `What do you do for money?' They'll ask me that and I have to explain,
`No, really, I'm a stripper for money,' and they'll kind of assume I'm there
to have fun, that I'm there to be part of their sexual fantasy because I want
to, but most of the time, they have a pretty good sense that this is a
GROSS: One more question: Has working with men as your customers, as your
clients in a peep show changed your opinion of men? I mean, you're seeing men
in a very unique kind of situation and it's not necessarily going to bring out
the best in them.
Ms. QUERY: No, it doesn't bring out the best in them. I've had to accept
that everyone has a range in their soul, in their personality. And some parts
of them are more sallow than others. And when we're friends with people, they
display to us generally their better parts, but they have secrets, too. So,
for instance, I was working on the film with this guy who I liked very much
and who I still like, but one day we were out having a drink, and he said
something about the first time we met. And I said, you know, `In that class
on filmmaking,' and he said, `No, at the Lusty Lady,' and proceeded to tell me
how he knew a client of mine and how he believed we had a really good,
wonderful connection. And I had spoken to him about sex work. He knew when I
was doing one-on-one shows at the Lusty Lady that I always told every customer
that he was special because that's my job and that, of course, I didn't
remember him from this experience. And, you know, it made me kind of nauseous
there having this drink with him to think that he thought of me that way, or
thought that it had been a real experience.
But later I was able to accept that he paid to have a sexual fantasy. It's
nice that he still is getting use out of the 20, 40 bucks that he paid for
that sexual fantasy. It's kind of my job as a sex worker to not bust his
fantasy, to let him have his fantasy because he's paying for it. He's got a
girlfriend. He doesn't cheat on her. He's a good person. And that's OK. So
I've had to accept that people have many facets to their personalities.
GROSS: Well, Julia Query, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. QUERY: Thank you. It's great to be able to speak with you.
GROSS: Julia Query co-directed the documentary "Life Nude Girls, Unite!"
It's currently playing in New York and San Jose and opens in Philadelphia and
Seattle later this month.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.