• cooper hays

Buy the Stripper a Drink.

Nashville's Burlesque Queen, Cooper Hays, takes us on her journey to find her creative courage.

Straw hats

At this point in the great awakening, our hearts and minds are more tangled up and jumbled than a G string in a dancer’s duffle. As veils are being lifted and truths exposed naked in the spotlight, I’d like to address a truth we have been fumbling with among the gals: Our knee-jerk reaction whenever we see another woman feeling herself literally and figuratively.

I think Stripping is an excellent place to begin that conversation and like Maria VonTrapp in a handmade dress, against the wishes of the nuns in the Abbey, I’d like to begin with the Do Re Mi’s of female empowerment.

Stripping is steeped in taboo in our country, and let me tell you, as a professional burlesque entertainer and instructor, a heaping load of the shame and blame I have witnessed and received comes from my fellow sisters.

I’m not here to blame women for a toxic environment they did not create, but to explore why we should maybe not play along in the mean girl game.It used to get me very heated and I am not known for my patience and grace when pissed, so I’ve historically made a few scenes after being on the receiving end of some hypocritical Tsk Tsking.

However, with age and experience, I’ve discovered that moments of slut shaming are often excellent doorways into opportunity for growth, healing, and even bonding.

I entered the wide and wild world of stripping as a broke college student who desperately wanted to be onstage. I was studying theater and business in Portland Oregon but the quarterly productions of tired classics or random professor picks were not quenching my thirst. I wanted to sing. And I wanted some creative autonomy.

There is a seedy little rock and roll bar in the center of downtown called Dante’s that was advertising the city’s hottest cabaret every Sunday night and they needed acts. It was not a strip club per se, and I had just discovered that there was such a thing as a modern burlesque performer.

Dita Von Teese had just divorced Marylin Manson and it was the top headline on Yahoo news. I googled her and to my shock and delight, I discovered that one could still perform like the ladies in the old days with fancy ass feathers and heels, girly gimmicks and those saucy velvet robes. Someone was still doing it and she was famous and had even married a rockstar!

I replied to the ad that Dante’s had placed on Craigslist, lied about my experience level, and prepared to throw myself at a new stage personae. This was my shot at the big time and a chance to do real art. I could carve a little niche in this world, and work like my heroes Lucy and Dolly but with an extra shot of bourbon and scandal. I could create costumes and choose my own songs, and perform a whole lot more than school was offering.

Of course, I realized that burlesque comes with an element of stripping. People were going to expect to see my tater tots.

Yikes. I come from a very conservative and rural hometown. They love God and logging, women in the kitchen, and good ol’ boys on barstools and not in that order. Stripping filled me with terror and dread which, I learned, can fairly easily be alchemized into excitement and grit.

I stopped by Spartacus, the legendary sex leather shop that I walked by everyday for class, and bought my first cheapo pair of tassels and a velvet corset (the latter I still use onstage over a decade later.) Once I had overdrawn my Wells Fargo checking account for these treasures, I knew there was no backing out now.

I was not naturally blessed with a nice rack. In fact, my little skeeter bites were nearly completely covered by the pastie portion of my tassels. But it wasn’t really about showing my boobs as much as it was about performing. In the YouTube rabbit hole I had fallen down, I was introduced to Gypsy Rose Lee, America’s most famous stripper, (way before Stormy Daniels was in the picture). Gypsy’s technique was all about the tease and when asked about her style, she often quipped “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing slowly ... very slowly.”

I watched youtube clips of her acts from the 1940s and 50s and realized it wasn’t so much about taking it off at all. It was an attitude. That attitude looked like freedom to me and I was hooked.

I made it through my audition with the help of an Irish gentleman named Jameson and that “fuck it and fuck off” sass that every woman in her early twenties can begin to master. They asked me to come back. Every Sunday. I had no idea what type of mushroom I had just bit into.

You learn a whole lot in your twenties. You learn even more when you hop out of your tiny hometown, hang around with a bunch of bohemians and bar flies, and start taking your clothes off in front of a room full of strangers. I don’t recommend this exact lifestyle for every young woman out there, but I absolutely recommend the attitude, the freedom of expression, and the open mindedness it takes to heal some of the shame scars we are all waltzing around with.

That first night was a blur. I had to go home and create a brand new act for the next week. I wanted to impress, and in classic pleaser and overachiever style, I vowed to create a brand new act for every Sunday night. (That lasted an exhausting year before I got realistic and practical.) But in the meantime, I drug increasingly bizarre and often problematic routines out onto the stage and flashed my flesh while belting out show tunes and soul covers to a packed house of tattooed and bearded PBR guzzlers. They loved me and I loved them for loving me and it was getting really fun.

Not long into my new venture, one straight tequila night, I got a face full of that most scary and ugly thing: Girl on Girl Slut Shame.

In a Pre COVID world, Sunday night was industry night. That is when servers, bartenders, barbacks, cooks, and kitchen rats come out to play after a long weekend of getting their asses kicked for tips and tiddlywinks.

They like cheap beer and shot specials. Boobies are nice and you better make it good if you are going to hold their attention. They’ve seen a lot of stuff and the bluer the better. I liked to change the words to familiar songs and make them extra naughty while slowly peeling a glove or unbuttoning an impossibly tight evening gown. Drunk dishwashers love that shit. I really worked my demographic and was getting comfortable with them and my new notoriety as a stripping chanteuse.

I was certainly not expecting a bachelorette party to be front and center. But boy howdy, this night, they were. I was mid stroke, simulating a handy on my purple feather boa when I realized that this was not just any ole’ bridal party either. This here was a group of gals I went to high school with (4 fucking hours south of here), teetering on stilettos and slurping blue brew. My world started to spin as I realized what was happening. There was no way this gang of bleach blonde barracudas were going to keep a lid on this.

This was also pre social media and I had been living safely in my seedy little hidey-hole believing no one from my hometown would ever come wandering in, especially late on a Sunday. Wrongo. There was Saidie and Sammy and the whole hot girl squad, wide eyed and slack jawed as I popped my top for my final note.

I ran to the dressing room and commenced downing enough tequila to tame the horror show pumping through my adrenal hallways. There was no way I could spin this. They seemed wasted and were having a blast, but they had certainly clocked my red headed ass and I knew wildfire would be spreading soon.

I woke up to the sound of my Nokia ringing in my mildewy apartment with a clanging hangover. Holy shit, it was Shanda calling, my dear hometown friend and the best damn nail technician this side of the Rocky Mountains. She worked at Saidie’s mom’s beauty salon and, oh. my. God, watching that little blue box light up and vibrate itself into an angry, orgasmic frenzy on my bedside table, I knew I had been busted.

She wasted no time.

“You are in deep shit sis.Your mom was just here getting a fill and Saidie and Sammy and the girls came in talking all about their Portland trip and how they had just seen you up onstage taking your clothes off at some bar! Your mom was behind the shoji screen at my station, so they didn’t know she was here and they were going on and on about you being a stripper!”

My gut twisted into a sailor’s knot as I held back last night’s José. She was laughing nervously and said, “but listen, your mom is a badass because when she was done drying, she got up to leave and said ‘Well Saidi, at least my daughter is getting paid to take her clothes off, whereas you’ll show your boobs to anyone for free!’ Shanda shot out a good hard belly laugh and while we both recognized the epic zinger for its truth, (Saidie did have a very nice set of knockers that half the county had seen at various swimming holes and bonfire parties) we also both knew that my shy mother was going to boil me alive.

I don’t remember if I called her or if she called me, but I do remember the tone in her voice when she told me "NEVER to EVER" put her in that position again. She would not tolerate being the last to know things like this.

She did not fully understand or agree with my choices, but she knew I was an adult in my early twenties. She told me that it was hurtful to find out about her daughter’s ongoings in such a fashion. I remember feeling extremely lucky to have her for a mother and that I had underestimated her. It took several years before she steeled her nerves to come to a show and several years after that before both of my grandmothers attended one as well.

The shame of being caught still stung hard though, and it took time to process. I worried for several months about my hometown reputation. I drank about it and remembered feeling judged and shamed most of my childhood. It took several women’s studies courses, some volunteer work with teenage girls, and a whole bunch of life experience to discover that every single woman has experienced the low vibration of shame. It is a powerful tool of manipulation and separation and we are swimming in it.

While mom’s shaming of another woman for shaming another woman is not the ideal balm for this situation, we were and still are learning how to dissect and deal with this toxic stuff.

Both Saidie and Sammy and the girl gang have all since grown up, married and had children. They have become much more secure and kinder than their high school days and in fact, they’ve sent several of their friends and even their parents my way when traveling to Nashville. Those hometown folk have a blast when they come to my shows and they always tip the band and dancers.

I stay in touch on Facebook and we see each other’s joys and tragedies in this rodeo we call life, while sending hearts and high fives. Sometimes I have to sass and educate them if they are talking shit about JLO’s Super Bowl halftime show or lamenting the fact that Baby It’s Cold Outside gets pulled from the airwaves while WAP goes number one on the charts. But it’s always constructive and a mutual respect exists.

There are volumes to be written about the complicated and frustrating world of programmed slut shaming in our culture. My burlesque ventures are generally socially acceptable, especially when I can fit into my thin costumes and because of my alabaster ass. The horrific shaming and violence brought about in the larger world of club stripping and sex work in general is another library of columns in itself and need addressing urgently.

For now, I’d like to ask all the ladies to be kinder to each other, even when it’s hard and when our insecurities and jealousies are red hot and as triggering as a clit ring. We are all out here trying to find some love from someone else and especially from ourselves. As the chaos waves keep crashing in, we are going to need each other.

Everyone has a tiny little stripper living deep inside their soul hole. Let her out, let her dance, and don’t forget to sit her down and make sure she is the kind who would loan the new girl a pair of heels and give a hug to and buy a drink for the dancer who is going through a hard time and it’s a slow shift.

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