Stripping Off Debt

Story by: Natalee Ayala

Photo Illustrations by: Lynn Levitt, Todd Rosenblatt, Jose Romero, UD

Balancing student life and exotic dancing

Inside a Sepulveda Boulevard club, a purple light beams toward a revolving disco ball, glittering the long catwalk with a rainbow of colors. Seated at the end of the stage, a man sporting a thick, black ponytail slouches in his armchair and adjusts his pants. Nodding to the beat of the music, he leans toward the stage and flicks a handful of bills onto the stage that fall like feathers drifting in the wind.

On the stage, a bleached-blonde dancer, clad in a neon pink, fishnet bikini, snakes a leg around an erect, silver pole. Using one arm to grip the shaft, she swings and twirls her body around it, never losing eye contact with the seated man. As the last few seconds of the beat start fading out, the DJ’s voice pulsates through the speakers and announces which dancer is next on the queue.

Hiding behind a black curtain, Sapphire sighs and takes a long swig of her “40.” Plastering a seductive smile on her face, the tanned blonde squares her shoulders and takes the stage as soon her personalized song thumps over the sound system.

For Sapphire, her dreams and nightmares come tightly packaged, like a 2-for-1 deal on Black Friday. Stacked with debt as tall as the pole her body is weaving around, stripping is the quickest way for Sapphire to relieve her financial woes. If you’re in financial trouble, consider getting a credit card consolidation loan.

It’s a slow night. She finishes her two-song set and saunters back through the curtains. Taking a seat behind a vanity, she takes another swig of her confidence booster.

After a few minutes, she fidgets nervously, but is more relaxed.

In March 2012, the 21-year-old Sapphire found out that her then boyfriend stole her identity and racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, a case that credit card consolidation is desperately required to help deal with. Not having the heart to report him to authorities, she closed the accounts and was left to deal with the bills herself, on top of her college tuition. Debt relief, which is explained more at, would have been a really useful option.

“Fuck no! Are you kidding me? Like, no! What? There’s no way,” Sapphire said, remembering her response when a roommate suggested becoming an exotic dancer to pay off her debt.

She had thought that even if she was interested in dancing, she wasn’t sure if anyone would hire her because of her body type. Not built like a lanky, waif-thin supermodel, Sapphire didn’t think her body would fit the job description.

After initially shooting down the proposition and still failing to find another way to pay her bills, the Northern California native took the number of a private dance company that hosts bachelor parties. Sapphire went to one of the shows to see what it was like and was surprised to find that the dancers kept their skimpy outfits on, not completely baring themselves. The job became even more enticing when she found out the pay.

Propping her long, golden legs up onto the counter, week-old bruises speckle her skin. As she slumps her curvy body into the chair, she moves her toes back and forth as if she was tap-dancing on air.

“It was like $300 for an hour,” she said. “I thought, Holy fuck, I can do this and be cool! I can make my monthly payments and be fine.”

Terrified her mom would find out about the credit card debt, Sapphire took the job to pay off her bills as quickly as possible. Sapphire danced, and relief shrouded her concerns as she began earning $600 every weekend.

Even though the gig didn’t require her to be nude and it paid well, she decided to keep her job a secret.

Once summer came around and she paid off her balance, Sapphire quit working for the private company. She moved to the San Fernando Valley and transferred to a local California State University. A junior studying psychology and living by herself in a new city, Sapphire missed her fat paychecks.

Not qualifying for federal financial aid, her mom helped pay a portion of her tuition and living expenses. But it still wasn’t enough. Sapphire also felt guilty for receiving money from her mother because her mom became sick with an unknown disease. Medical bills started rising.

According to the College Board, the average college tuition and fees for public and private universities in 2011-2012 was $21,447 and $42,224, respectively.

With an average tuition like that, Sapphire was in dire need of financial stability.

“I missed that money,” she said.

Sapphire looked for another private dance company with hopes of making the same income as before. Not finding a single company relatively close, she settled on auditioning at topless clubs. She tried multiple locations, but was reluctant because each one required her to be fully nude. At her last audition, she finally reached a turning point.

“The owner hired me on the spot,” she said. “I was like, ‘What? I’ve never danced at a club. What do you mean I’m hired? I don’t know how to dance on a pole!’ I was freaking out. I had some experience dancing, but getting completely nude was scary.”

Once Sapphire saw the potentially high income she could earn, she surrendered—except surrendering wasn’t as easy as she thought.

On that night of her audition, the bubbly blonde made a beeline to the bar in search of a drink. Soon, taking a few shots of searing liquid before taking the stage became a ritual for her to gain some confidence. But she never gets drunk to work.

“You get this kind of attitude that’s numb to it all,” she explained. “You’re a harder person. It’s not easy to be butt naked and put your vagina in somebody’s face. A stranger. The thought of it … it’s just wow.’”

Sapphire fears becoming dependent on alcohol. Drugs and violence are common at her job. But she endures it all fulfill her dream of a college education.

With danger teasing your life everyday, it’s hard to not wonder if this job is worth the pay.

Sapphire’s biggest fear remains family and friends discovering her alter ego. It haunts her like a ghost creeping in her shadow. Sapphire battles daily to keep her personal life separate from her work life.

“My parents don’t know. No way, absolutely not,” Sapphire said. “I want to tell my mom, but I want to tell her when I have a significant amount of money. People judge so much, but you won’t understand until you see that money.”

The high income drives her motivation to keep working as a stripper. She earns a starting base fee: $200 for three nights or $300 for four nights. On top of that, she earns a 50 percent cut from each private dance, $15 for a topless dance and $30 for a nude dance.

While the income is more than respectable, Sapphire believes most people will look at her differently and not give her a fair chance if they know she is a stripper.

Maria Perser, a psychology professor at Pierce College, explained how a person can portray different personalities or roles to keep certain parts of their lives separate.

“This life has no affect on this life over here, so it’s compartmentalized,” Perser said. “’We just have certain behaviors we use. Think of it as whether you behave the same way at school as you do at work? Or do you behave the same way at home as you do at work? We have different roles—a job persona versus a school persona.”

Sapphire fears her worlds might collide one day, but she looks to a fellow dancer who helps keep focused and inspires her to not give up.

Harmony, a 35-year-old former Pierce College student, has been dancing since she was 19. She started dancing because she could work three nights a week and still go to school.

In the last 16 years, she successfully graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business from Woodbury University. Two years later, she went back to Woodbury and received her master’s in interior architecture.

Finished with college, Harmony took a break from dancing to focus on her career. Her day job in the interior design industry has proven lucrative. But with $60,000 in student loan debt, she’s still dancing to help pay off that balance.

“Well, I think only 5 percent of the dancers actually go to school and actually do finish,” Harmony said. “The other 95 percent say they go, but they don’t.”

“I’m going to this fucking class and staying up until two, stressing,” Sapphire said.

“You’re the 5 percent,” Harmony said. “Out of all the time I’ve worked here, only a few girls have finished school.”

Sapphire plans to be one of the few.

“You don’t need an education to be a stripper,” she said. “But I take school very seriously. Like the other day, when there weren’t customers, I was in the back studying. I have to do school. I’m not that good at it. It takes a lot of effort, but I also don’t want to be a stripper for the rest of my life. I’m not going to be the one that has been doing this for 25 years. It’s not going to happen.”

Sapphire’s real name was not used to conceal her identity.