Authors: Ellie Midwood
I suffer. I want a Prada bag. I'm in pain. I caught a cold, and now I have a stuffy nose, sore throat and only one thing can make me feel good again, only one thing can heal all the symptoms of a typical New York spring flu. A brand new, shiny, beautiful Prada bag. I guess I'll have to find some kind of job after all.
Six month of sitting home, six month of doing absolutely nothing but watching TV, going out, sleeping, getting drunk and sleeping again. Oh no, wait, I was busy with something, I was doing some renovations in my new apartment. Which legally became mine only a month ago. Yep, that's what all my life has been about, spontaneous decisions and living in the moment. Because right now technically I'm a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Russia, four years in New York, no papers, no work authorization, no work itself. Only a crazy life filled with restaurants, shops, beauty salons, clubs and restaurants again. How is it all possible? Very simple. I used to be a stripper.
When I just started writing this book, I wanted to put it in a milder way: a dancer. An entertainer. A go-go girl. But after all, since my goal was to be 100 percent honest with you guys, I decided to call a spade a spade and finally say it. A word that we all hate being called but that's what everybody calls us: a stripper.
So many things come to your mind when you hear it: plastic shoes, fake boobs, G-strings filled with dollar bills, hair extensions and a Barbie doll make-up. Stupid girls who are too lazy or too stupid to finish their school. Dirty whores with no moral principles or beliefs. Greedy bitches who destroy happy families. That's what everybody thinks but in real life it can only be true in one case out of a thousand. And that's the reason why I decided to lift up a curtain a little bit so everyone can see what our burlesque life really is. So enjoy your experience form the first row and don't forget to tip the girls!
The very first "stripper" myth I wanted to bust is unofficially called "it all starts with the family". For some reason, people are used to thinking that our parents are at fault for our career choice. They didn't love us enough, they didn't care and that's why we are dancing in our underwear instead of being a normal member of a society like everybody else: go to a nice school, find a nice job and in five years marry a doctor. It's funny, but I actually come from a very typical middle-class Russian family. My mom still works in a library, my father is an engineer at the leading European gas company Gasprom, my grandma is a retired doctor and my grandpa was a detective, God rest his soul. And as for me, I have a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and fluently speak three languages. Wonder how I ended up in a gentlemen's club yet?
As long as I remember myself, I've always dreamt of two things: get famous and move to America. Maybe it was the Disney channel I used to watch all the time and it influenced my whole life perception, maybe it's the books I used to read, but the point is, without even realizing it, my mom got me so Americanized by the time I went to primary school, that I refused to play with anything but my Barbie doll, watch anything but Tom and Jerry or Aladdin and get dressed only as Beauty on Halloween.
Growing up, I started to realize more and more that mean Russian people with their constant grumpiness and lack of manners were too rude to fit into my pink Barbie-Disney world, and at the age of twelve I told my mom that I want to move to America. My mom, who is a very smart woman, decided that it was a great opportunity to turn one of my "harmless teenage dreams" into something good. She hired a great English language tutor for me and kept encouraging me till the very end of my high school years. I remember how happy my family was when I filed an application to the faculty of foreign languages, and also, just to secure myself, to two other faculties: the faculty of general psychology and the faculty of Russian philology. You see, the system of education in Russia is a little different from the American one and if you are really smart and pass all your entrance exams excellent, you not only get to study for free, but also get a monthly financial support from the University. I got accepted to all the three faculties. Not bad for a stripper, right?
I was on my second year when the dean told us about the J-1 program that allows international students to come to the United States for summer to work and to see the country. That was the chance I would never miss, so I was one of the first students in our faculty who submitted an application.
I will never forget the day when I first saw New York from the plane and fell in love with it at first sight; how I spoke to the "real Americans" at customs for the very first time; how I first took a ride in a yellow cab. New York was all bright shiny glass up to the sky, all cars and people traffic, yellow cabs and tourist buses, police officers everywhere, shops and the famous "I love New York" logo, which is everywhere, and you do, you can't help but to love this city, city of bridges and skyscrapers. New York all smelled of coffee and hot dogs, expensive perfume and leather, gas and pretzels, horses and subways. And the official soundtrack of New York was of course the sound of sirens and helicopters... I was in love. I got lost, fascinated by this city and all I wanted was to melt, merge with it and become a part of it, forever.
Even though I had to work in a camp in New Jersey, in the middle of nowhere, I was thinking about New York every single day, I was dreaming of how one day I'll rent an apartment somewhere in Manhattan and do whatever it takes to stay there. I was teaching little kids horseback riding but in my dreams I kept picturing myself as one of those Manhattan girls, polished, flawless, wearing designer shoes and dresses, catching a cab at 4 in the morning after a crazy party in one of the hottest spots in the city. I was eating at the same table with kids and thinking that one day I'll be having a dinner at one of those famous restaurants where the average bill is around $400 without tips, which was my mom's monthly salary.
But as I've already said, my grandpa was a detective and in my family we always had to stick to the rules. We would never do anything that is illegal or contradicts the society's view on what is right. Therefore there was no way I could stay in New York for good that summer. Besides, I simply couldn't disappoint my mom and be the only one in my family with an under-graduate degree. I couldn't do it to her, even though I was crying getting on the plane, even though I felt like I would never be as happy again as I was in New York that summer, I decided to come back home and get my diploma.
Everything felt different. Dirty, gloomy Moscow, grey sky and constant rain, people smoking everywhere, people who never excuse themselves if they accidentally push you in the street, meanies who never learned how to smile. Before I went to America I was told that I might experience a cultural shock since it's quite a different mentality and environment. They were wrong. I experienced the strongest cultural shock when I came back to Russia.
Then followed three years of depression, insomnia and eating disorders, and this time the symptoms were even worse than those I had prior to my trip. Before I first stepped on the American ground and took my very first deep breath of freedom, happiness and big possibilities open to everyone ready to fight for them, I never knew how it actually was, to be able to come close to your dream, so I suffered just a little from some funny feeling of unfulfillment or something I couldn't describe, but knew that it felt very wrong. Now, back home, I knew exactly what I was missing and how different my life in America would be if I dared and stayed. But I didn't. Because I had responsibilities before my family and couldn't possibly let them down, even though the price was my happiness. That's what they called an adult life; forget about your silly baby dreams, it's time to wake up and be a big girl. In Russia dreams don't come true, they get buried under the pressure of responsibilities that you didn't even know you had. You can't disappoint your parents, so you have to study well, you have to get a diploma, a good job, get married and have babies by 25. And most of Russian girls do.
Now, sitting here, in my cutest newly renovated apartment in Brooklyn, 25-year-old, not married, not even engaged but in love with the best boyfriend in the whole world, having my sweet little Chihuahua sleeping on my lap instead of a baby, I feel so much happier than most of my former classmates and friends there, back in Russia, who never broke that pattern.
Now let me tell you about a little circus trick how to make an elephant obey you: when it's little, they tie his leg to a big tree and after all the efforts to free himself, an elephant gets used to think that the tree is stronger than he is. And when the elephant grows up, it's enough to tie him to a little stick and he won't even think of freeing himself. Unfortunately, most people still think that a tiny stick is stronger than they are, and that's what I was thinking for three years. My day would start with a strong coffee and even stronger antidepressants instead of breakfast and followed by sleeping pills at night instead of dinner. I got so skinny that size zero clothes were falling off me, but at least I was getting some modeling jobs very easily, doing shoots for catalogues and posters and even got to walk a runway couple of times. Those were probably the brightest moments of those years for me.
My mom, who was very concerned about my weight problems and worsening depression, tried to persuade me to go to a good doctor and even agreed to get me a puppy to cheer me up, even though she had a bad asthma. Finally, she gave up and had a talk with me I will never forget.
- I want you to feel free to do whatever you want, sweetie. This is your life and all I want for you is to be happy. I know that I raised you well and you are a very smart girl, so you know what you are doing. And whatever happens, I will always be there for you and do everything in my powers to support you. Because I don't want you to wake up one day when you are forty and realize that your own mother ruined your life.
I remember kissing my grandma goodbye. I tried so hard not to cry when she blessed me, my little grandma with her kindest eyes, with the warmest hands... When I felt bad, she would always put my head down on her knees, stroke my hair and say: "There, there, my little golden hair princess. It will all be alright". I promised her that I'll be strong and I'll come back to visit her as soon as I can. I kissed my puppy goodbye, pressed her tightly to my heart and promised that I will never forget her. She was licking my face as if she was feeling that I was going somewhere very far and she was afraid to never see me again. My little Ava.
Then my mom took me to the airport. We came too early and had to wait for 3 or 4 hours before the registration. It was a torture sitting there, counting minutes till the moment when we had to say goodbye. I was flying out with a good friend of mine, Julie, and her parents were there too. We were all trying to act normal, like we were just going on a little vacation and will be back soon. But deep inside, we all felt the same: no one knows when it will happen, several month or several years. Our poor parents, how hard it was for them to let their girls go to a completely different country, on the other side of the world, knowing that if something happens, they will be too far away to help. My mom said that it was the second time she had to cut the cord. And the hardest of two.
I have no idea where it comes from, but a lot of people around the world tend to think that America is the country of sin. We support gay marriages, we have "rainbow" cities, we allow women walk around almost topless on a hot day and big Hollywood producers love making money showing some flesh. I've lived here long enough now and let me tell you, it's one of the most puritan countries I've ever been to. Yes, you can walk around almost topless but no men can whistle at you or say anything inappropriate, because they will immediately get sued for a sexual harassment. Yes, you can dance on a pole wearing only a G-string, but no one in the club will call you a whore. They will admire you, call you an artist, bring you flowers and presents and if they are lucky enough, one day you will say yes to their proposal.
Even though it was my second time in New York, I still fell under the spell of my favorite city, crazy in love with skyscrapers, yellow cabs and American flags everywhere. Julie booked the hotel right in Times Square, so our first night we were falling asleep right at the heart of the city. We spent the next day trying to find two most important things at the moment: the outlet adapter and an apartment to rent, since our hotel was costing us an arm and a leg. My favorite author Paulo Coelho said in one of his books: when you start something new, the luck will always be on your side because the universe wants you to keep following your dream and teases you by the taste of winning. Throughout my whole life I found many confirmations to this interesting rule. And probably that was the reason why Julie and I got lucky and found both the adapter and the apartment. We never knew back then how hard it is to rent an apartment in New York even if you are a citizen, and it was a miracle when the landlord didn't ask neither for our social security, nor for the deposit. The apartment was a shithole of course, but it was furnished, right on the Brighton beach and since it was all we needed, we took it.