Exploring the other side of Philly's kinky side.
What better way to learn what lurks in the chasm between reality and fantasy—sex and sexy—than from women in the very real business of selling fantasies? Some, like Anna Frangiosa, straddle the chasm by retreating into the glamorous, glittery world of burlesque. Kali Morgan, proprietrix of her own mini Magic Kink-dom down on Fifth Street, packages fantasies so they're more user-friendly. Professional dominatrix Goddess Thain specializes in presiding over the collision of fantasy and reality. Cover girl Heather Henderson, an entertainer who has danced as a stripper on that razor’s edge for almost two decades, is calling it quits. But before she does, she brought along a recorder.
Heather Henderson has lived her entire life in metamorphosis. The 36-year-old has spent the last 17 years working as an artist while supporting herself with a mixed bag of jobs in the erotica industry. She’s perfected the role of the mohawked glittery girl shaking her ass and peeling off shiny costumes in front of countless audiences at local strip clubs, ground stiletto heels into guys' spines at underground foot fetish parties and gigged here and there as a dominatrix; if only, she says, because letting some guy worship her feet is easier than stripping.
“I’m someone who is pretty open sexually and I enjoy being on stage,” she says. “I thought this would be an ideal way for me to express myself, and make some money.”
The first time I see the ex-director of burlesque troupe Peek-A-Boo Revue is at a recent Absinthe Drinkers show. The mustachioed man behind the microphone grandly sweeps his arm out and trills, “Welcome the Biiiiiiig H!” Henderson, donning a dark, Supremes-style flip wig, steps into the spotlight and unleashes a big, bluesy voice that swirls in and out of the notes of an old soul number. Henderson has a penchant for performance and the heart of a hustler.
“I’m hustling to be the everything girl. I can do everything. I can dance. I can sing. I can model. I can put on a wig and be anyone else,” she says. And she does all of that, too. Right now, she's readying to release a new record with her band SOULAMITE! and has been making films and modeling.
She’s even immortalized on her very own Magic: The Gathering card, where Henderson’s medieval doppelganger dons a cape, brandishes swords and is, appropriately enough, labeled a “Human Rogue” and “Deft Duelist.”
But though she says she’s had fun and learned a lot, Henderson now wants out of the life. She’s tired of the fantasy trade, tired of the disrespect from both the customers and club owners. “Men come in there and they act like they don’t know why we’re there. Stop staring, give us a tip. We’re working,” she says.
To make up for the loss of income, Henderson picks up shifts working the counter at Sonny’s on Market Street. On a recent night, she’s clad in black jeans, T-shirt and newsboy hat, taking a cheesesteaks and cokes order from a trio of doofus tourist dudes—the same kind of guys that, on another night in a previous life, she would’ve charmed dollar bills out of with rattling hips and her python-like stare down at the Dolphin or some other club. Tonight, she slides their tray across the counter, sits down, and sinks her cheek into her palm like a dreamy high school Rizzo and gestures around the place. “This is how bad I don’t feel like stripping anymore,” she says.
But before she retires her platform stilettos for good, Henderson, known around town as a woman who’s not afraid to speak her mind, has a parting gift: the Stripper Rant, a podcast she recently posted on YouTube.
The concept is simple. Henderson hangs out in strip club dressing rooms and records as dancers working that night talk about things like lap-dancing for no-neck dudes that “look just like Grimace from McDonalds,” or smiling pretty on a popped ankle in heels. A strip clubs’ dressing room is the perfect spot for Henderson’s podcast, which is really about exploring the spot where fantasy and reality collide. A backstage dressing room is the proverbial telephone booth, where flesh and fakery—wigs, lashes, heels, glitter, tape—fuse to create the bombshells, lolitas and farmer’s daughters we pay to dance under the lights and let us stare.
The current episode of Stripper Rant opens up with a dancer relaying an anecdote about an all-too-typical scenario: The girl danced for a customer and then he didn’t tip. When her friend asks him why he didn’t pay, he remarks that he didn’t like the dancers’ boots. He says they have “a hidden agenda.”
The dancer is pissed.
“Hidden agenda? My hidden agenda is to make fucking money . My hidden agenda is, ‘I am a stripper. What do I do? I take off my clothes. And what do I want in return? Your dollars.’”
Right now, the behind-the-scenes look at strippers is only a podcast, but Henderson says she plans on turning Stripper Rant into a full-length film.
“I have this ongoing idea to make a documentary. There’s a lot of footage I haven’t released yet. The podcast just came about because I broke my camera,” she says.
Henderson says Stripper Rant isn’t about bashing men. “I try to keep the stories about the girls, and not so much about how fucked up men are in general,” she says. “I want it to be more like an education for the men on how we think and feel and how funny we think it is sometimes—because it is funny.”
It’s funny ’cause it’s true. Take a different episode where another anonymous dancer relays her asshole-customer-of-the-night story.
“This guy gave me a $10 bill,” she begins, “then he proceeded to pull my g-string, trying to take change out for what he needed.” Henderson’s husky voice crackles in. “Are you serious? He tried to get change?”
“I am not a fricking bank! What do I look like, an ATM?” the dancer asks. “He was pissed off, and I was trying to smile, because you know. But that is low. He asked for $8 back!” The women dissolve into fits of laughter.
Still, as entertaining as Stripper Rant is, Henderson does hope that male listeners will take away some lessons. In a rare flash of exasperation—even when she’s bitching, Henderson comes off cool and controlled—she breaks down why she’s getting out of the biz.
“We’re real people, and it’s not cool to just open your mouth and have any kind of trash come out just because we are half-naked or even naked,” she says. “We have feelings, we get hurt. We have your children. We’re mothers.”
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