Talking 'Nude Girls' With Sheila McClear

In The Last of the Live Nude Girls, Sheila McClear describes moving to New York City where, adrift and low on cash, she eventually finds work as a stripper in the peep shows. The book, published this month by Soft Skull Press, has been called “eye-opening, gritty and compelling” and “beautiful.” She’ll be reading at McNally Jackson on Tuesday, August 16.

Matthew Gallaway: I noticed you posted a photograph on your Tumblr of an XXX store in Times Square. Does that mean they’re coming back?

Sheila McClear: I don’t think they’re coming back, just going extinct. I don’t even know of any in the outer boroughs, actually, except one way out on Long Island. And there’s one in Atlantic City.

Why was Times Square a center for the peeps in the old days?

As far as the business of live girls, the buildings in the 70s and 80s that housed the peeps were mostly place-holders, because porn shops were willing to pay two to three times the rent. The owners were waiting for things to turn around so that the developers could demolish them and make real money. The live girl racket was just a small pawn in the redevelopment game. The peepshow was really just a odd little hustle — a weird loophole in the vice laws.

In the book, you have some very pessimistic views along the lines of how “things never really change.” Did working as a peep-show girl change the way you think about how things operate in NYC now?

Part of the reason I chose the peeps was that it was such an extreme experience. I don’t, of course, confuse people out in the rest of the world with those who came into the peepshows. In the beginning of my time there, I felt very nihilistic, and the peepshow was a good place to be because someone over the course of the night would back up your worldview again and again. I don’t have such a dire outlook on life anymore. It’s tempered by experience.

In your dialogue and the physical descriptions of both people and where you worked, you captured a ton of detail. Were you keeping a journal at the time, or do you just have an incredible memory?

I started keeping a journal about four months in after I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be working there for a while. I also have an incredible memory when it comes to dialogue: not braggin’, just sayin’. Seriously, certain things burned themselves into my brain and made themselves impossible to forget!

Are you still in touch with any of the other women in the book?

I’m in touch with Ruby, but I don’t know if she’s read it, and I keep trying to figure out how to let her know she’s in it. Actually, I should contact her, like, now, and get it over with. I should have dealt with that a long time ago, but I guess I’m worried she wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore or would be mad that I wrote about her. People don’t always like being written about! Although I wrote about her with so much affection.

Ruby was heartbreaking. You have a line about how “her melancholy came from a different place” than yours; can you elaborate on that a bit?

Well, the line in the book referred to something traumatic that happened to her as a child. So while we were both depressives, she had an entirely different background than mine. I felt that I did not have such a solid reason to be so despondent during that time, other than maybe an existential crisis.

You went into the peeps on what you felt would be a temporary basis and remarkably enough managed to get out. Do you think your experience is typical or more of an exception to the rule?

No one thinks it’s going to be permanent! Yet, you always stay way longer than you mean to. The nude-girl industry is like “Hotel California,” which by the way: all strippers hate that song. I would hope my experience is more typical, yet many of the women I worked with had been there so much longer. Five, six, ten years. So it’s hard to say. One thing I wanted to mention, though, is that for me, even though I got out, it wasn’t some “I’m going do something crazy for a year and write about it” experience. That wasn’t why I worked in the peep shows, for the record.

Let’s talk a little bit about the men. I felt like you alternated between hating them and having a sense of compassion for them, speaking very generally. True or false?

True. I had compassion for some of them — the ones who seemed damaged, who seemed to be there because somewhere along the line, thing had just gone wrong for them. I hated the ones who were rude and generally treated us like chattel. So I was often hating and feeling sorry for different customers, not the same guy. Pet peeves were the ones who would make rude comments about our bodies, which, fuck those guys. Or the ones who thought they could bribe us for sex. But there were plenty of polite, nondescript, forgettable guys as well, who just… took in a show and then went home.

Despite working as a stripper, you seemed to maintain a well-drawn line that you never crossed, in terms of what men could do, or getting into dangerous situations, which I’m guessing is not something everyone can say.

Right. Probably because I was so conflicted about being there in the first place. If you’re that conflicted, it’s important to have rules, even arbitrary ones.

Yet you seemed to feel and convey a real descent into very dangerous emotional waters — I made a note at some point about how “crazy becomes normal.”

Yes. And it’s not like there was anyone looking out for me. I was alone, I had few friends, no one knew what I did, which was a recipe for crazy right there. Plus, I had to be more careful, because having that sort of double-life had the potential to be dangerous. For me, it was all about self-policing, which was probably why I never did drugs, except alcohol, during that time. Adding drugs to the mix would have been like a science experiment gone wrong.

Do you have any regrets about “coming out” about the experience?

I don’t regret doing it, but of course it’s irritating that some people will judge. I mean, I will say that I’ll never write nonfiction about my life again. It’s all fiction from here on out. That said, it’s a pretty good shit-test: If someone can’t handle that information — especially when I’ve already processed it fairly thoughtfully in a book — perhaps that person isn’t really worth my time anyway. But for those who will never read it and may just pass judgment, I don’t worry too much about them.

Do you think your story is in any instructional to say, a 22 year old who wants to come to NYC and follow in your footsteps, by, say, stripping to pay the bills while working on his/her writing chops?

I wouldn’t say it’s a instructional, because so many things could go wrong if you were to go my route! And I went the route not purely for financial reasons, but a whole tangled web of personal/sexual/Freudian/whatever reasons as well. I’d say more like, “Don’t be afraid to do something unconventional or weird” to get your footing in the city. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, although I wouldn’t actively dissuade someone from doing it — maybe she, too, is doing it because she’s searching for something she needs to learn.

Matthew Gallaway likes ferns and moss.