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The naked truth

They're leered at, marginalized and shunned. But mostly those who work in the exotic dance industry are misunderstood

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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.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 6:30 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Chelsea; minor edits.

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