SEATTLE — It's just a few steps across First Avenue from the Lusty Lady peep show to the Seattle Art Museum, but the two are worlds apart. So it's quite a coup for Erika Langley to be exhibiting her photographs at the museum.
Langley is a nude dancer at the Lusty Lady.
"I like walking between worlds," says Langley, who hired on at the Lusty in 1992 when a newspaper photo editor who rejected her job application suggested she go beyond the routine and come up with something "really gutsy and personal."
Her plan was to simply photograph the dancers, but one of the Lusty's female managers told her she'd have to join them--otherwise "no one will give you the time of day and you will never understand this."
"Bring a pair of heels," she was told. "That's all you'll need."
Now the naked women from what Langley calls an "alternate universe" have a museum wall to themselves in the exhibition "Hereabouts: Northwest Pictures by Seven Photographers."
"She gets to the heart and soul of the people behind the scenes . . . the camaraderie, the unity among the women who work there," said museum spokeswoman Linda Williams.
Not that the exhibition went up without a hitch. Having offered her a solo show, the museum then backtracked. Langley cried censorship, newspapers took up her cause, and her photos ended up in the group show.
The grainy, high-contrast black-and-white photos, taken from Langley's book, "The Lusty Lady," capture moods that can be tender, playful and relaxed, but also disturbing.
Langley, 32, was an aspiring photojournalist when she moved to Seattle eight years ago--a serious woman from a nice Catholic family, armed with clips from a weekly newspaper and a degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Chance brought her to the Lusty Lady, but it isn't why she stays.
"I like it," she says.
For one thing, this is no ordinary peep show. It used to be managed by June Cade, a woman who believed that if feminists couldn't eradicate the sex trade, they should at least make it more tolerable for female employees.
Cade, since retired, set up "a place where women didn't compete, where you salaried them, where they didn't have to physically touch the men," Langley explained.
Langley, who has a relaxed, outgoing manner, is a modest dresser in everyday life. When she got her first look at the naked dancers in their mirrored, boxed-in stage, she was shocked.
"It was not like anything I'd ever seen--strippers in their little fringed outfits," she recalls.
The women dance and strut on the main stage while customers watch from booths--one viewer to a booth. Shades open for 22 seconds of viewing when a quarter is dropped in the slot. The women are paid $14 to $27 an hour, maximum 16 hours a week, no tipping allowed.
In the dressing room for her audition, Langley found a "lively camaraderie" of dancers cracking jokes and teasing one another. They wore glittery G-strings, filmy shirts, long gloves and stockings.
Clad in nothing but a new pair of $8 heels, the new hire felt hopelessly inadequate--"just pale and goofy and unsexy. I didn't know how to do it," Langley says.
She told the dancers she "totally respected the bravery of you women, and I want to find out what it's like. What is your life like? Are you a mom? Are you a student?"
"I just want to live it," she said. "Show me."
It was an alien world.
"I had to learn glamour. I'd never worn makeup," she says. Now she gets a kick out of "silly lipsticks with names like Rage, campy slutty stockings and shiny gloves and sparkling chokers."
She found the dancers are a lot like other women.
They have relationships and marriages and children. Some are working their way through school. Those with drug dependencies and serious problems don't last because they can't meet the Lusty's strict timetable; showing up late twice is a firing offense.
"I just wanted to show these women as whole women," Langley says, and to make clear that "it's just a job," with short hours and good pay.
Her book profiles a handful of dancers, revealing only their stage names: dominatrix Mistress Raven, happy at home with her husband and kids. University-trained dancer Rio, dreaming of a career in choreography. Candy Girl, a doting mother who was sexually abused by a stepfather.
There's Tawny, mother of two, who took up dancing at the Lusty on a dare; Gypsy, who cut her knee on the job, was fired for complaining about it, and was reinstated on orders from the National Labor Relations Board; Marcella, a lesbian who likes the Lusty because "it's so accessible, so anonymous."
"It's a tough book," says Langley, "and it's a book that makes some people uncomfortable." These include her parents, "but I have a very good relationship with them, and they know who I am. My life isn't terrible. I like myself."
Her other project, in fact, is close to home. It focuses on two elderly unmarried aunts who lived out their lives in the family home in rural Pennsylvania.