I wouldn't have been able to identify author Sheila McClear as she walked in for our interview if I hadn't already seen her photo on the back of her new book, The Last of the Live Nude Girls. Tall and slender, with straight brown hair that breaks against pale, almost translucent skin and green eyes framed by glasses, 30 year old Michigan native Sheila McClear looks more like a bookish intellectual than a former peep show dancer.
McClear, who is the daughter of two lawyers and holds a college degree in theater and costume design from the University of Michigan, was unable to find steady work after moving to New York City. "Like many college graduates, I actually had very few marketable skills," McClear reflects in her book. Going by the name of Chelsea, the first neighborhood where she had ever danced, McClear began performing at several different live peep shows at age 25 before retiring about a year and a half later to work as a full-time writer for Gawker. (McClear is now a features reporter for the New York Post.)
Throughout her memoir, McClear often leaves the reader with a sense that she's not quite right for the job. "I'm just the worst personality type -- I'm introverted," McClear says about being a peep show performer over a cup of tea, twirling a strand of hair absentmindedly around her forefinger. "Extroverts get all this energy from other people and I see all of these successful strippers getting energy from these guys. This really helps them to work and make money and it makes the guys feel like they're having tons of fun. An extrovert is able to do this kind of work long-term, or short-term, without driving themselves crazy."
There is the pervasive sense throughout McClear's narrative, heightened by her ability to ultimately transition out of the peep show business and achieve success as a full-time writer, that her choice to make a living as a peep show dancer was more than about just needing the money. For McClear, performing at the peeps allowed her to "drop out" of mainstream society, existing in a sort of in-between limbo: "the book is a story about loneliness but also coming of age. I happened to come of age very late and I chose to do it in a pretty weird way," McClear reflects aloud. "I sort of look back and see someone who was scared and very lonely and chose to retreat from life."
In her memoir, McClear sometimes seems to hover detachedly, almost as if she's disembodied, from the work that she describes. "I took a vacation from my mind every time...Being fully present was too personal, and soon I found myself able to completely disassociate."
Perhaps because of this need to detach, some of McClear's most vivid writing is when describing her life outside the peep shows. In her first move towards building a career away from 8th avenue, McClear got an internship at the now defunct InStyle Homes magazine, where she earned $10 an hour (at a good night on the peeps, McClear could pocket over $300 – breaking down to $50 an hour -- in a six hour shift).
McClear was a little surprised at how easily she transitioned back into a "normal" office job but delighted in having "a little" secret from her new employers.
"I enjoyed working at the magazine. I learned a lot. It was fun, but there's also a certain level of snobbishness there, and I sort of felt like, 'Ha ha, I'm fooling you all.' Especially because I was making $10 an hour." McClear tells me. "And I also knew, even though The Playpen was only two avenues away, that I was never going to run into anyone from the magazine."
Ironically, it was working at the peep shows themselves that ultimately began resonating with the routine and banality of office work: "I realized that it was like an office job almost -- it was all the same -- I really started hating the way the dressing room smelled. Every dressing room in every city smells like baby oil and disinfectant and hairspray and cigarette smoke. And I thought, if I smell that one more time I am going to start screaming."
McClear tells me how, after returning from a "working vacation" as a stripper out west, she returned to an environment on 8th avenue that now felt "grim" and "creepy." McClear writes about how she began having headaches and that "maybe -- just maybe -- some of it had to do with (her) guilt over stripping."
In any case, McClear tells me, with articulate matter-of-factness, that she has no regrets. "I don't regret it at all, but I'm not one of those third wave feminists who's like, 'I'm proud of it! It's empowering!' I'm not proud of it nor am I ashamed of it, it's kind of like, there's nothing wrong working at Starbucks but would you be proud of it? Would you be ashamed of it? Probably neither."
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