It’s late Friday afternoon when the red pickup truck containing Aurora Sky pulls into the Green Brier parking lot.
The 27-year-old mother of two is racing to perform her standard three-song set; stripping off her scanty outfit for the happy-hour crowd of complete strangers.
So what’s going through Aurora’s mind as her driver, another former exotic dancer named Chelsea, tries in vain to find a parking spot?
"All I’m thinking about is don’t be late," she says. "I need to get in and out and get to the next job."
A biting March wind only exacerbates a temperature hovering around -20 C. Yet Aurora, who wears only a fishnet wrap over a bra top and leather shorts, is oblivious. After all, she has already made a couple stops in her "jamming session" — an only-in-Winnipeg phenomenon for dancers that goes back almost 50 years — and has seven more gigs to go. Her final show won’t be finished until after midnight.
Now, though, Aurora frantically fishes around in her purse, as her 5 p.m. showtime fast approaches, before finally locating the CD of her music — inside a DVD case of Monsters Inc., an animated movie that is a favourite of her two young boys.
Aurora shrugs at the irony: "Some of the DJs make fun of it, but.... I don’t care," she says.
The Brier crowd is still rather sparse. Men drinking draft at the tables nearest to a stripper’s true north: The pole. A few young girls are playing pool in the back. But the "who" or "where" matters little to Aurora, who has spent her entire adult life in a business that — for all its literal exposure — operates largely in the shadows.
Women like Aurora are leered at, fantasized about, marginalized and shunned. They can be used up, exploited and spit out. But they can also be grossly misunderstood.
In her other life, Aurora (her real given name) has raised two children and works part-time as a health-care aide, where she performs such glamorous tasks as cleaning bed pans and washing patients. She has a long-time boyfriend who works construction. She takes her children to Sunday school.
No apologies. No regrets.
"I’ve put myself through school doing this," she says. "I’ve bought my house doing this. I’ve bought my truck doing this. I love this job."
For a half-century now, women have been dancing in Winnipeg bars and lounges for money. It’s a burlesque history unique to this city, rife with colourful characters with a decidedly blue hue: A larger-than-life Queen of the Go-Go Girls, the 11-year-old boy-turned-protégé she adopted into the business, an octogenarian former stripper obsessed with Elvis, and a woman who now owns the very strip club in which she once performed — while dating one of the world’s most famous WWE wrestlers. But we’ll get to that later.
Back in the Green Brier, as Aurora straddles the pole with her thighs, hanging upside down, her long-time friend and former colleague Chelsea is explaining the one truism and shared experience of almost every terrified dancer who has taken the stage for the first time in Winnipeg since the mid-1960s.
There is no Stripper University. It’s one of the ultimate self-taught professions.
"Anything Aurora has learned on the pole," Chelsea offers, in genuine admiration, "has been trial and error."
Seconds later, the music stops. Aurora quickly gathers her clothes off the floor and slaps her CD back in the Monsters Inc. box.
She’s off to the Kildonan with five minutes to spare.
Lords of the dancers
First, some background. There is only one agency in Manitoba that books exotic dancers, both male and female. It’s located in The White House, an elaborately decorated building downtown on Portage Avenue. The office of founder Rick Irving is atop a flight of marble stairs.
Inside, a visitor is met by a barking dog who appears to have the run of the place.
"Don’t pet him," the secretary advises. "He bites."
Turns out, the dog’s name is Napoleon and he has a cushion directly to the right of his owner, Irving, who for the last 27 years has managed Superb Entertainment Inc., which, among other endeavors, controls the exotic dancing industry in Manitoba. Superb is the distribution centre for all but a handful of dancers working in the province; recruiting, hiring, booking and overseeing.
Every Thursday, Irving schedules some 100 female dancers into appearances at approximately 25 bars across town and outside Winnipeg. Only three bars regularly host male dancers.
Most dancers walk in off the street to apply. There is no audition. They sign a form that, among other stipulations, forbids them from engaging in sexual relations with customers.
If Irving approves, the young dancer could be appearing at "Fresh Meat Mondays" (as it is commonly referred to by loyal patrons) at the Marion in just days. Or they could be on a bus to Thunder Bay for a one- or two-week gig that has served as a rite of passage for many in Irving’s stable over the years.
In all interviews, Irving also asks prospective dancers if they have any boyfriend or father "issues." Translation: "I’ve have had upset fathers and boyfriends come banging on office doors. I don’t want any problems," Irving explains.
When it comes to the recruitment process, however, Irving believes he has one advantage.
"Me being a gay guy," he says. "I’m not trying to take advantage of them. I’m not trying to hit on them."
Quite the opposite. Irving is often accused by his long-time partner, Mitch Fillion, of being a "Mother Hen."
But to understand that dynamic, you have to first know about Gladys.
The Queen of Burlesque
You see, back in the mid-1960s, Gladys Balsillie had the keys to Winnipeg’s nightlife. She was a larger-than-life figure who wore colourful muumuus and lived by mottos such as "A woman who tells her age will tell you anything."
In 1968, Balsillie, who already owned her own bar, began operating a go-go dancing booking agency out of her home on Beaverbrook in the wake of the Summer of Love. And business was boom, boom, booming.
Almost every drinking establishment in the city was caught up in the craze. There was no nudity. The dancers wore mini-skirts and high-heeled boots.
"Everybody was after me to provide girls," Balsillie said, in a Free Press story in 1972, "and the salaries were attractive — pretty darn attractive. I recruited them from everywhere — teachers, bank tellers, secretaries and housewives — and paid them salaries ranging from $150 to $400 a week."
In fact, it was Balsillie who first devised "jamming sessions" for her dancers; where they would rotate from establishment to establishment.
However, it wasn’t long before the bras started coming off. By the early 1970s, Gladys was anointed the city’s Queen of Burlesque. She was said to have run her business with an iron fist, once quickly quashing an attempt by the dancers to unionize.
"In this business, 90 per cent of the battle is won on good management but handling about 45 girls at one time includes being a part-time mother, a shoulder to cry on and sometimes a loan officer."
But Gladys had some help in the form of an 11-year-old boy who literally arrived on her doorstep just as the Queen’s burlesque reign was at its peak.
His name was Rick Irving.
Irving was a childhood friend of Balsillie’s nephew and the two would often come to her home to hang out. Gladys had no children while Irving was living in a troubled home with an alcoholic father. He had attended over a dozen schools in his youth.
They became fast friends.
"She was good to me," Irving recalls. "A big blonde lady. Very flamboyant. Very out there."
Balsillie would take young Rick during runs to collect fees from bar owners. By the time Irving was 16, he was chauffeuring Balsillie around in her big black Cadillac to the old Constellation Room at the Airport Hotel.
"As I started up, I learned everything," Irving says. "I was so involved in the business I wasn’t interested in school anymore. I was almost running her office."
Handling about 45 girls at one time includes being a part-time mother, a shoulder to cry on and sometimes a loan officer.
Irving would babysit for the dancers, who came to Winnipeg from all over the world. He would teach choreography to newbies. He would drive some of the girls to shows and pull back the curtains (if he wasn’t spotted) to assess their shows.
"So I never made close friends," he says. "I was closer to the dancers and knew them better than anybody. Some of the best years of my life."
Today, Irving has over 20 photo albums filled with photos of the dancers who performed in Winnipeg over the last 50 years. He knows them all.
"This was one from Paris," Irving says, pointing at a black-and-while glamour shot. "Her stage name was Devil’s Angel."
Turns the page.
"This girl got knifed to death. Drugs."
There’s history, too: The first dancer arrested for taking off her G-string at the Empire Hotel. She got off on a technicality, Irving says. She told the judge she was wearing a hairnet over her vagina.
Get in, get naked, get out
A night spent "jamming" along with Aurora and Chelsea is an education in eroticism. Or the myth of erotica.
Apart from all the nudity, it’s very workmanlike, for starters.
Ten different gigs over eight hours. Three-song sets that last about eight minutes. Get in, get naked, get out.
Back in the 1990s, when the burlesque business was at its apex — before the Internet flooded the planet with free and unlimited porn — Irving’s agency booked Winnipeg-based dancers all over the world. Headliners would be flown to Germany or Japan for tours.
In Manitoba, Superb had a fleet of between 120-150 dancers servicing about 50 bars.
"I heard they used to get taken to their shows in limos," Aurora says. "It was so glamorous. Like movie stars."
Adds Chelsea: "Now it’s work."
At the Marion, Aurora is competing for attention with a dozen TV screens and VLT machines for a blue-collar crowd. Teasers is a true strip club; dark, with a dedicated stage and veteran clientele. The Brier and Kildonan are two working men’s pubs where Friday afternoon strippers and draft beer have been standard fare for decades. The Sutherland on Main Street is, well, the Sutherland.
Make no mistake: Aurora is a pro. She prides herself on performing, not just going through the gyrating motions. "You’re up there," she reasons. "It’s your time to be sexy."
(Indeed, Irving laments a significant issue within the exotic-dance community of declining work ethic, admonishing, "Everybody wants to be at the top but they don’t want to work.")
A feature dancer can make upwards of $2,500-$3,000 a week, while a non-headline performer, such as Aurora, can earn $800-$1,000 a week, not including tips.
Aurora makes an effort to keep her job private, for fear of being harshly judged. "If it (the question: "What do you do?") comes up, I tell them I’m a mom," she says. "They don’t need to know what I do."
Aurora’s parents? They were OK as long as dancing was A) her choice, B) she was happy and C) still going to school. "I’m proud," Aurora says. "And they’re proud."
Although Aurora doesn’t volunteer what she does for a living in certain aspects of her life, especially involving her children, she isn’t ashamed about what she does, either. Quite the opposite. In fact, she agreed to allow the Free Press open access to her life in the hopes of addressing the negative misconceptions she has encountered relating to her unorthodox occupation.
Of course, there is a dark side to the business — even in a province where the industry is almost exclusively run by a gay couple and mostly family-run hotels.
Aurora and Chelsea, along with Irving, all concede that the lifestyle can expose young women to drugs, very bad men and, ultimately, tragic results.
"It’s very fast-paced," Irving says. "You can make a lot of money and come out the other end OK. Or you don’t. There’s dancers with liquor problems. There’s dancers will drug problems. But that’s just like a lot of professions, actually."
If we find out they prostitute... they're finished.
Recently, one dancer overdosed. Another, in her early 20s, with a four-year-old daughter, committed suicide.
Chelsea personally knows of two women who died in car accidents (DUI).
"That’s the thing," she says. "You can’t get caught up in all the drama and the life. It can be a gateway for some. Just like drugs. But most of us have lives and we do very well for ourselves. If you keep out of harm’s way, nothing’s going to happen."
Her point: Exotic dancers can become addicted to drugs. They can overdose. They can die as the result of bad choices — not unlike teachers or movie stars or journalists. They can also be students and nurses and businesswomen.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, however, is the perceived link between stripping and the sex trade. One bar owner didn’t deny that there are dancers who work as prostitutes — they’ll even advertise on their Facebook pages.
But not for long.
"If we find out they prostitute, we fire them," Irving says. "I don’t book them. They’re finished. I’m very strict about that."
The vast majority of dancers, who are not working the sex trade, are offended by the common assumption.
"If we see something like that, it’s frowned upon," Aurora says. "We’re going to straighten you out."
Adds Chelsea: "It’s offensive. Then that guy will think it’s OK for the next girl. And it’s not. You’re giving the rest of the girls a bad name. And that guy you just did that with? He’s going to come and try something with us and that’s not OK.
"It’s usually rookies who do that kind of stuff because they don’t know," she adds. "They feel they have to."
Both Aurora and Chelsea talk of a confidence when they’re on the dance floor. A feeling of control, even when they have heard snide comments or been treated with disrespect, not uncommon in a profession where the women are vulnerable and exposed.
"You can’t care what people think," Aurora says. "You know you look good. You just have to learn how to deal with the negative, right?"
From dancer to owner
Darkness has fallen by the time Aurora walks through the caged doors of the Sutherland Hotel on Main Street. There is no dance floor, per se, but just a few square feet in front of a motley crew that includes an old man with an oxygen tank sitting alone by a far wall.
By the time Aurora has finished her first song, the old man has moved next to stage, leaving his oxygen tank behind.
Above the music, Chelsea leans into a reporter and says, "No chance I would come into a place like this and take my clothes off. It’s scary. But she (Aurora) comes here all the time. I tell her she’s better than this. But money is money.
"You go from high-class places like a gentleman’s club to this. Back-to-back."
Both shows pay the same; between $50-$60.
But it turns out location doesn’t mean much, either. Because here’s another truism: No matter how many googly-eyes they make, no matter how many times they wink or have patrons believing they’re the only ones in the room, the key is not seeing the customers at all.
Says Chelsea, echoing a trade secret of all dancers: "If I ask her to describe three people in the front row she wouldn’t be able to. Guaranteed."
The woman sitting behind the desk in a small room at the Chalet Hotel — home of Teaser’s Burlesque Palace — is in the middle of an interview when a security guard knocks on the door to politely interrupt to say a couple of patrons in the crowd might need special attention.
Robin Skolnik nods.
Moments later, the same security guard comes back to inform Skolnik that a couple of police officers have also arrived.
Skolnik immediately knows why. "They’re here because the bad guys are here," she explains.
It’s Thursday night at Teasers, and the Miss Nude Manitoba contest is well underway. In fact, Aurora will be performing around midnight, if all goes well.
Coincidentally, Skolnik was the reigning Miss Nude Manitoba when she retired from dancing in 2007. Now she owns and runs the Chalet; the dance club, the hotel, the bar, everything.
"Nobody handed me anything," Skolnik is saying. "I had to do it on my own."
She started out at age 19, joining Irving’s agency after growing up in East Kildonan. Her first trip was to Thunder Bay. "I was so nervous," she recalls, "I walked into the pole."
But at the peak of her career, Skolnik was making six figures. She was a headliner who prided herself in attention to detail. Her props included a shower, strobe lights, a swing and... a snow-making machine? Says Skolnik: "I’d pull up with a U-Haul."
She once whittled her own staff for a Lord of the Rings routine, which included a $2,000 costume.
"At that time it was more glamorous," she allows. "You had to stand out to get a booking."
Skolnik stood out. She once dated The Undertaker, the iconic WWE wrestler, flying to his matches all over North America. "My grandmother made him his first perogies," Skolnik says.
A few years ago, Skolnik decided to leave the stage. She first managed the now defunct Sin City strip club before taking a huge financial risk to buy the Chalet. Now the same lady who whittled her LOR staff serves as book keeper, bartender, renovator and negotiator.
Skolnik has been immersed in the exotic dancing business her entire adult life and has experienced both the glamour and the gutter of burlesque. Ask her what type of women are attracted to the profession and her answer us direct.
"You get all types," Skolnik replies. "You’ll get people who do it as a job. You’ll get people who’ll turn to drugs and alcohol. Or you get people who live for the lifestyle; they love the attention. You get guys following you around from bar to bar. You get guys who give you things."
Like plane tickets from a famous wrestler that would just show up at her house.
In fact, if you learn anything from peeking behind the curtain of the burlesque business, it’s that life is often what you make it — for better or worse. And let the record show that while many dancers may come from Tuxedo, geographically speaking, the majority come from far less affluent beginnings.
Fry cook, costume designer
Across from Skolnik’s office, you’ll find another small room filled to the ceiling with shoe boxes. Thigh-high platform boots are on display. Wigs, costume jewelry, lingerie.
The proprietor is Maria Lillies, who operates the costume business out of the Chalet, which supplies about 90 per cent of the dancers in Manitoba. She is also the hotel’s fry cook.
"It’s not bad," she says. "You don’t make millions, but it helps."
Lillies has her own story; having first taken the stage at age 23 in Calgary, where her day job was a bank teller. Her motivation was simple: Money.
"Struggle. Just struggling," she says. "I grew up poor. We never had anything. I just wanted to have some money, do something with my life."
As a child in Portugal, Lillies’ family lived on the street. She immigrated to Canada with her grandmother and never saw her parents again.
She was physically abused at the hands of her uncle and was living with the family of a high school friend, by order of school officials, at age 16.
Lillies is now in her 40s and was dancing until about four months ago. She has been sewing her own hand-made costumes for 20 years.
"If I had to change anything, I wouldn’t," she says, standing amongst the wigs and high-heeled boots. "I kept my nose clean. Everything has been about bettering my life. It’s not just dancing. I’ve learned a lot — maybe too much — about life. I’ve seen a lot of crap. I’ve also seen a lot of good, too."
A bar manager arrives at the door. Orders are backing up in the restaurant, he says, so Lillies politely demurs and heads back to the kitchen.
Irving was right. Every picture has a story.
'There’s nothing to tease'
And then there was Gisela.
There is a trailer park in Beausejour that is home to three cats — Donut, Mickey and Jimmy — and a boxer named Annie, who slobbers over anyone who comes through the door.
Inside, Gisela Wuench, who turns 80 this year, is pouring tea and tempting a pair of visitors with cheesecake dainties and rich German cookies.
One minute, the soon-to-be-octogenarian is talking about how she named her cat Jimmy after the Doors singer Jim Morrison. The next she’s showing Polaroids of herself in her youth while in various states of undress.
Awkward? Yeah, a little. But Wuench is warm and welcoming and the great-grandmother of eight.
This scene is all being played out in a mobile home that — without exaggeration — is wall-to-wall Elvis. Photos of the King line the walls. There are Blue Suede Shoes salt-and-pepper shakers. There is one life-sized Elvis cutout in the living room, and another in the bedroom.
Wuench was just 23 years old when she emigrated from Hamburg to Winnipeg in 1963 with her husband and two toddlers. She is old enough to remember German soldiers in the Second World War pressuring her parents to have her join the Hitler Youth brigade.
She began working at the Dakota in the mid-1960s and when one of the Go-Go dancers didn’t show one afternoon the bar manager asked her to fill in. At first, she resisted. Then she found out dancing paid more than her paltry waitress salary. Her audition was one song. "You’re hired," the manager said.
Gisela became a star on the local circuit. For the next two decades, she evolved with the business. She worked for Gladys. She worked for Irving.
All these years later, Gisela can tell you what has changed in the exotic dancing industry (the way dancers are seen by customers). "There’s nothing to tease. I always had layers to take it off nice and sexy. That is not what they do today. I’d started with my gloves and took them off slowly. That’s strip tease. If I came up there naked they were bored by the end."
And what hasn’t changed (the way dancers see their customers): "As soon as I get up there and heard my music... I just blocked out that people were watching me. Then I was OK. Everybody thought I was dancing for them because I looked at them, smiled at them, winked at them."
Just like Aurora.
And like Aurora, some 50 years earlier, Gisela was "jamming" – from Princess Avenue to Regent. "Sometimes on the weekend we’d go all day," she says. "There was no going home in between."
Gisela is home now with her cats and Annie. She regales visitors with her tale of the day Elvis died, Aug. 16, 1977. She was dancing at the Continental.
"I walked off stage," Gisela says. "Stupid me, I was dancing to his music when I heard he died."
The Elvis cuckoo clock on the wall strikes 4 p.m. The chime is the King singing "Jailhouse Rock."
Gisela will tell you that, even to this day, there are people in the trailer park where she lives who will act strange if they find out about her past life in burlesque. She is almost 80 years old and still being judged.
But not by Donut or Jimmy or Mickey. Or the second Elvis cutout that is found in Gisela’s bedroom.
The Go-Go dancer smiles.
"I’ll never sleep alone," she says.