The first time I met Blondie, she kicked me out of the Clermont Lounge dressing room.
She strutted in around 9:30 on a Friday night, huffy and sweaty from her hilly, half-mile walk to work. I was in the middle of an interview with Jessica, a dancer known for lighting her nipples on fire. Jessica, a darling soul who seemed more suited for a life as a flight attendant or executive assistant than a stripper (and who has since moved back home to Ohio), was in the middle of telling me about her nightly inferno when Blondie ordered me out of what apparently was her chair.
So I stood. I positioned myself in front of a mirror for the rest of the interview while Jessica nitpicked every flaw on her face and pinned her hair up, readying to hide it under a showgirl wig. In the mirror I had a clear view of Blondie. She is the face of the Clermont, but I’d never caught even a glimpse of her before that night.
Three months earlier, in 2010, I had learned that the two owners of the legendary Clermont Lounge, Tracey Brown and Kathi Martin, were looking for someone to document the story of their business, Atlanta’s most infamous strip club. The product of that work is a book, “No Cameras: The Clermont Lounge,” which will be published this holiday season.
Until I took on that project, I’d lived in Atlanta for a decade, but I’d never stepped foot inside the Clermont Lounge. Of course, I’d heard about it. The first summer I moved to Atlanta, back in 2000, I had just started working at CNN, and one of my coworkers recalled a story about a first date taking her to the Clermont Lounge and how appalled she was by it all.
So there I was, my first night in the famous Clermont’s dressing room, and the diva arrived. Blondie pulled off her oversized T-shirt and caught me staring at the Ace bandage-looking sports bra holding down her legendary assets.
But I wasn’t staring because I wanted to see. I actually was thinking it was such an unfitting way to treat those moneymakers. They deserved the royal treatment, something like La Perla.
But Blondie didn’t know what I was thinking. She started by informing me, “I’m not gonna talk to nobody unless you pay me,” and finished with a rant about how she knew people like me.
Then she went ahead and kicked me out.
The Most Sacred Profane Place
That was my introduction to the Clermont Lounge. I’d just invaded a sacred spot. The dressing room is the one and only space at the Clermont Lounge that belongs solely to the dancers. It is where they can safely bitch about each other and their bosses, chain-smoke, get loaded, tell dirty jokes, cake on makeup, lend things to one another, like bobby pins or a hairbrush, and just let it all (quite literally) hang out. Not only was I invading their turf, but I was doing it while wielding a tape recorder. In retrospect, Blondie’s tirade, which attracted every other dancer who was getting ready and which led me to duck out of the dressing room, was her right and her way of telling me I was not welcome.
I couldn’t believe there was a place like the Clermont: a strip club housed in the basement of a flophouse hotel (which had recently been shuttered for a bedbug infestation) showcasing dancers whose average age is a ripe 46.5.
How did a writer from Leavenworth, Kan., wind up writing about the most storied spot in all of Atlanta? During the three years I worked on the project, I often asked myself that very question. Luck? Timing? Tenacity? Hard work? Pure lunacy?
Yes. All of that.
How I Learned I Was a Freak
One of my favorite quotes on the subject of writing comes from Flannery O’Connor.
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
I write from that place.
We are all freaks, I suppose. Human beings connect through universal stories of love and loss, pain and joy, and the women I met at the Clermont Lounge are no different. I knew from the moment I took a right-hand turn on Bonaventure Avenue from North and parked my car in the gravel lot behind the Clermont Motor Hotel, I was entering the world O’Connor wrote about. I saw Christine, the 60-something dayside bartender, standing outside gently patting perspiration off her forehead in the heat of July, then, switching to an overly theatrical and animated flap of a makeshift napkin fan. My first interview was with Kathi, and part way through, I realized that Christine was onto something: It was hot as lava inside the Clermont. The air was thick and wet with stale smoke and last night’s bad decisions. The air conditioning was out, and a repairman was tinkering with some wrenches while the dancers, whom I’d yet to meet, fawned over him and giggled like schoolgirls. When the AC finally kicked on, Christine interrupted with dramatic flair: “Tara has risen.” I was certain it was for my benefit, but it was about that moment I felt like I was stuck inside of a David Lynch film.
When our interview wrapped, Kathi told me in a hushed tone, like she was letting me in on a big secret, that Little Kathy, the woman playing the video poker game in the corner near the bathroom, was recently diagnosed with stage-four lung and bone cancer.
What I didn’t know and couldn’t know then was that Little Kathy’s story would hit particularly close to home four months later, when my own mother began her second battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I got to know Little Kathy and her daughter Maggie, who at the time had recently started her own second stint as a dancer at the Clermont. We had several very intense interviews in which Little Kathy talked about her children and how her life at the Clermont was meant to provide better than what she had growing up in North Carolina. According to her, the Clermont gave them more than they ever had. A home. A car. Dependability.
And a chance for a mother and daughter to work in the same spot.
The first time my mother had cancer, back in 2004, seemed like a Sunday stroll through Piedmont Park compared to what the second bout brought. It had me, my siblings, spouses, aunts and close family friends sharing Excel spreadsheets with color-coded blocks of weeks mapped out and scheduled times to fly back to Kansas to be with my mom during her biopsy, two rounds of chemo and a stem-cell transplant, to ensure she was never alone. My father had died in 2001.
I sat in my mother’s hospital room while doctors harvested blood cells for a peripheral stem cell infusion. It was an aggressive treatment that would save her life. Or at least buy her some time.
As they worked, I wore a headset and transcribed hours of audio files from my interviews with the women of the Clermont Lounge.
On my trips back and forth between Atlanta and Kansas City, I was hitting my stride on the Clermont book. I felt I was getting into the guts of the place as owner Tracey Brown recounted fantastic stories about how Mac, the late longtime owner of the Clermont, willed the lounge to her and Kathi. I was particularly interested by the stories of the Clermont lifers — a core group of women who have worked at the Clermont (including Tracey and Kathi) for more than 25 years. I found this absolutely remarkable. These women’s tenure outnumbered my own father’s almost 21-year military career as a lieutenant colonel in the Army.
By fall of 2010, I was finally understanding the full scope of the story. I was sucked into the life of the Clermont Lounge. I began to grasp why people go there.
But there was a difference. I was not a mere observer. Like the women I was studying, I was paid to be there.
And while I might have been turning a corner with getting the ladies to talk and feel comfortable with me hanging around, it was still the hardest job I’d ever had.
"One Day, You Could Be Me, Honey."
Some of their stories were straight-up weird. Some were very sad. I still can’t bear to re-listen to some of the audio files because they were so painful to hear the first time. Some were hilarious. Some were gross. With some, I wished I had experienced them myself because they sounded so fun. So many stories started with something like, “Well, you know Spike, and he and Randy went one night ...,” and then I’d have to interject: “Actually, no, I don’t know Spike.” So, then I’d get the whole story about Spike and then the whole story about Randy and then the one about the time their band played at some club up the street. Finally, I’d circle back to the Clermont and get what I needed for the book.
It was really tough to decipher what was important to the women. I wanted honesty, but I never wanted to exploit them. So I began asking myself questions. Do I include interviews from people on drugs? Do I include stories that seem to change overnight? What part is the truth? Do I include stories about women who were no longer working at the Clermont?
I just tried to use my best judgment. I tried to approach the project bearing the heaviness of a single question: If this were my sister or daughter, what would I want the world to know about her? But I could never forget that a night at the Clermont Lounge is an incredibly good time. It’s one of the best dive bars in the country.
Through the interviews I realized how getting dealt just one shitty hand could alter the course of a woman’s life. Porsha, the oldest dancer at the Clermont, works to support a loved one with a chronic, debilitating ailment. She had one story that always stuck with me. She used to get ready in the restroom, separate from the other women. One day, a customer stared at her and laughed. Porsha looked at her and said, “One day, you could be me, honey.”
From the outside, these women might look like freaks. But when I learned about their lives, it was different. I was a freak, too. We were all leading dual lives. Who we all were at the lounge and who we were at home were very different.
Many of the dancers told me about cheering at their kids’ softball games, waiting in car-pool lines and living in the suburbs, only to drive in to the city to shake it on stage at night.
In the first year I was a fixture at the Clermont Lounge, I worked as DailyCandy’s Atlanta editor and then later as an editor for MSN. During the day, I was writing about restaurant openings, boutiques hosting designer trunk shows, and mustached bartenders creating craft cocktails for $12 a pop. But at night, I’d pull my hair back into a low ponytail, change into dark skinny jeans and a tank top, tie my Puma sneakers tight, and throw on my black Santa Cruz skateboard zip hoodie gifted from my twin sister in California, ready to work at the Clermont Lounge.
At first, I had felt like an out-of-place teenager during high school lunch, trying to lock eyes with the first dancer I could find, hoping she’d befriend me. Soon, I turned to bribery. I brought the dancers things. I was sent samples all the time for my day job. Free bottles of beauty products — dry shampoo, moisturizer, lip gloss — I’d take them to the dressing room at the Clermont Lounge, and the dayside girls like Hetty and Cynthia would get so excited. This was a new role for me, because in my actual high school experience, I was the cheerleader who dated the quarterback.
What makes people do what they do for a living? What makes one dance at the Clermont Lounge? What makes me want to write? I believe we are all trying to make a living, in an oftentimes cruel world, the best way we know how. Best I can tell, the women of the Clermont Lounge are there for one reason only—to make money. For whatever brought them there, this is their job. And perhaps naively or too empathetically, I came to the conclusion that the women of the Clermont had different choices in their lives than I was given. They were dealt different hands than I’d been dealt. Perhaps — without my college degree or the father who could bail me out when I got into trouble or the decent first boyfriend — my life could have been theirs. Some had first climbed the Clermont Lounge stage on a whim, thinking they’d make quick cash. But several decades later, they were still dancing to the same old songs and having the same conversations about not making enough money and how hard life is.
But somehow, they survived.
Kicked Out Again
The second time I met Blondie, she kicked me out of the dressing room again. The third, she said she’d tell me everything, then proceeded to tell me nothing. Then, just when I’d about given up, I got my interview.
The most satisfying moment in my journalistic career was when — a year and a half after I’d first entered the Clermont Lounge — my phone rang and it was Blondie on the other end of the line. She opened up about her estranged mother who lives in the Virgin Islands. She told me she could sleep only in two-hour increments. She cut it short only because “Jeopardy” was about to come on.
Then, the next morning when she called back to continue our conversation, she started with, “Hey baby, you up? I waited until I thought you were up to call.” By the end of the three-year project, Blondie would hang up the phone with, “Bye. I love you.”
I’m willing to admit she likely says that to everyone, but for me it meant the world. Today, if we passed each other on the street, we’d probably smile out of politeness to each other, but essentially, we’d act like strangers crossing paths. Make no mistake: We are strangers crossing paths. Although I spent three years of my life (on and off) deep in the twisted trenches of the Clermont Lounge, the people who make up that place are just as enigmatic in some ways to me today as they were when I first opened that squeaky door to their world.
She may be the star, but Blondie’s story is not the story of Clermont Lounge. Not even close. What makes this spot so special cannot be contained in the story of a single character. Each girl in her own way makes up a piece of the cast to create the ensemble. To me, there was no one girl more special than the other. Here’s the thing: In almost every interview, no matter who was talking, every person who spent time there—from bartender to customer to dancer—told me the same thing. You can be yourself at the Clermont Lounge.
But I couldn’t. Despite having access to all the same spots — the back office, the dressing room — and the ability to breeze past the scary security guards, I wasn’t one of them.
It had taken me a long time to figure that out.
What was going on in my life away from the Clermont Lounge? It was freaky, too, but in a completely different way. I was trying to have a baby, but I was not getting pregnant. I was dreaming of nursing a baby to sleep. At the same time, I was interviewing dancers talking giving blowjobs on the hotel roof, or fathers who molested them. In this place, I was the freak.
Month after month passed, but my belly wasn’t swollen. I just had this book. In my life away from the Clermont Lounge, I would wander through the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit at the High Museum of Art, but all I could think about was Christine and how much she’d love to see this French art, with its cancan dancers and prostitutes. Or I’d stumble across a great costume around Halloween that Porsha would love to add to her collection. For a brief moment in time, these women became my friends, and I found myself thinking of them often.
I know Donna will drink almost anything you buy her, but Tequila Sunrises are her favorite.
I know Barbie eats like a truck driver, devouring anything covered in melted cheese.
And I know Haley can take something ordinary like a remnant of leather or a found feather and fashion it into the most beautiful jewelry — something I’d pay way too much for.
A lot can happen in three years.
My daughter, Margaret, was born. My mother’s cancer remained in remission. But Little Kathy lost her battle with the disease.
When I went back to the Clermont Lounge in 2013 to wrap up chapters for the book, it was as if no time had passed. There were a few absent faces and a few new dancers on the stage. But that was about it.
Tracey was one of my first phone calls in the few weeks after Margaret was born. She asked, “Have you had that baby yet?” I interviewed the comedienne Margaret Cho and the chef and writer Anthony Bourdain (both habitués of the Clermont) with my newborn daughter sweetly sleeping on me like a little papoose.
This project was never about the end goal of selling books or where my career goes from here. Simply, I wanted to give the Clermont Lounge and these women a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have. What I got in return is endless memories of an insane, but indispensable part of my own life.
Today, when I sift through contacts on my phone, I come across names like Misty, Barbie, Blondie, Cassy, Micha — dancers or waitresses from the Clermont Lounge — peppered between numbers for my sister-in-law, a magazine editor, and my OBGYN.
I fondly remember my days and nights at the Clermont Lounge. It felt like home for a while.
For a while, I was one of them. Or as close to one of them as a person could possibly be when she isn’t. Or maybe I didn’t even know them at all.
But I learned one thing: We’re all freaks—every single one of us. Some just take longer to show it.