As part of the interview series for SheSpark’s August issue #KeepingItHot, I talked with author and speaker Susan Bremer O’Neill. At age 35, she left her career as a scientist and started stripping. The experience changed her life for the better and gave her a unique perspective on sex appeal at any age. Here is the full interview.
THEA: At what age did you decide to become an exotic dancer?
SUSAN: I auditioned for my first club when I was a few months shy of thirty-five. Previous to this, I had never even been in a strip club although for about six months I’d been go-go dancing on a box in a local bar one Saturday each month.
THEA: Many women contemplate making such a daring move, but never pursue it (especially after a “certain age”). What made you pull the trigger?
SUSAN: To answer this question, I need to supply some history. I’d been a very high-functioning substance abuser from about the age of fourteen although you couldn’t tell to look at me. I presented a pretty package and on paper I looked good having graduated with high honors from high school and technical school. From the outside it appeared that my life worked, but inside I was chaotic, fearful and in a lot of pain.
Once I became a sober woman at thirty-three, feelings, thoughts and the frustration of living a life that wasn’t making me happy, emerged. Many people might be able to relate with the experience of going along with what they think they’re supposed to do, only to wake up one day and say, this isn’t me. I don’t like this. That’s what happened to me and I began searching for something different.
One afternoon I was complaining about my work as a laser technician while getting my hair trimmed, and my stylist (a man) said, “You have a nice body, why don’t you try stripping?”
I was intrigued.
I visited a peep show in San Francisco that after I walked in, I knew I definitely didn’t want to work at, however, when I walked into a Gentleman’s Club, I was enamored. There were brass and mahogany furnishings and men dressed in suits at tables with white-linen tablecloths being served four-star meals. The women were wearing evening gowns or cocktail dresses and rhinestones that dazzled. Their hair and makeup was impeccable and the men were giving them rapt attention. The lights were flashing and the music was loud. I love to dance and it looked like fun; like playing dress up.
At the laboratory where I was working, I wore jeans and a hard hat like one of the boys.
In the privacy of my own home, I practiced in front of a video camera, then went in for an audition. I was nervous and awkward the first day, but in retrospect that was the easiest part.
THEA: Did your friends and family think you were crazy going from scientist to stripper?
SUSAN: I didn’t tell many people, and I didn’t have to because for a year I worked both jobs. The few I did eventually tell seemed to be accepting, even encouraging.
I held onto my science work for a long time because it was all the stability I’d ever known, but I got so tired I had to pick one. I chose the fun job. After I made the decision to quit the laboratory and move into San Francisco, I couldn’t hide it from my parents any longer. They were quite upset and my mother even flew out from the midwest to make sure I was okay.
THEA: And what is it like dancing naked alongside women who are younger than you?
SUSAN: When I started working I didn’t think of them as younger, there were numerous women in their early to mid-thirties, but I was afraid of them for a long time and set myself apart. Each woman is a mirror for ourselves, no matter what her age, and if I became friends with them I would have had to acknowledge my own need to be desired, my own greed, and the reality of doing something my upbringing and society said was “bad.”
I was very naive and it was extremely competitive so at first I studied the women who I thought were sexy and successful. I admired them. After awhile I did get to know a couple, but I wasn’t “friends” with most of them. We were coworkers.
Many, I didn’t have anything in common with. I didn’t care about designer labels. I didn’t get involved in drugs or drinking at the club. I didn’t have drama around boyfriends so my commonalities were limited. Some worked in pairs. A bouncer referred to one duo once as being like the mafia, sort of strong arming customers, and I stayed away from them. Occasionally there’d be petty fights between girls or girls and customers, and I didn’t get involved in those either. Many I felt were immature although, I can honestly say, that often I really enjoyed their youth, fresh way of looking at the world and their insight into a culture I was no longer “hip” to. A few I felt motherly toward.
At my core, I’d never felt like I was enough and that didn’t change inside the club. Depending on my own confidence and esteem any given day, my feelings about the women fluctuated. A part of me felt superior at times, and often I put on a mask of arrogance to buffer myself from feeling inferior, although I only saw this in hindsight. There were only a handful who were older, like myself (although often I was the oldest) who I resonated with. My job was to work with the men, so I focussed on them.
I learned a few important female things from them collectively, like how to put on makeup better. Also, their comfort with their bodies helped me become more comfortable with mine.
It was in this world that I had more of a sister experience than I’ve ever had before or since. For the most part, the women, or girls as I often think of them, were simply being themselves in a world that was anything other than normal. In my memoir, I write about one night in the dressing room as the club was about to close. For a brief span of time, five to thirty women in various stages of dress or undress, exhausted after a slow night, let down their guard of competitiveness, and held a spontaneous show and tell for those who may have never before seen other women’s anatomy except perhaps in porn movies (where even there we often don’t see complete accurate representations of what women’s genitalia really look like). It was educational, hilarious and one of the most memorable moments of working as an exotic dancer.
For the record, I worked at clubs in San Francisco where we kept our bikinis on when we danced in front of customers and were only topless on stage for a few minutes. I also worked at clubs in Las Vegas and Reno where we danced topless in front of customers. I only worked one place where we were completely naked on stage. Alcohol wasn’t served so women working could be as young as eighteen. Within this club, I felt hostility. Money wasn’t as good as I’d hoped and I was traveling there from out of town so after a few trips, I never went back.
THEA: My fear would be going up on stage and scaring men off with my 40-something body. How did club patrons react to you versus the 19 year-old?
SUSAN: One of the great things I learned is that there is not one specific body type customers, men or women, preferred. There were women of all shapes and sizes with large breasts and no breasts and hips and … you get the picture. There were not any noticeably large or obese women, but there were women who had significant curves who were well proportioned. I learned that it doesn’t matter what you look like. The great lie that advertisers and the diet industry want you to believe is that there is one specific body type and if you don’t have it, you won’t be sought after or loved.
As to how they related to me, I had a man say to me once, “Men fantasize about dating the younger women, but many probably want to marry you.” I felt confident for most of my career because I’d perfected the art of conversation and I was quite good at delivering my own brand of visual fantasy.
It’s important to note that I had been an obsessive exerciser (using it as a drug in a way) beginning in my late twenties. That doesn’t mean that I was ever comfortable in my body, quite the contrary actually. In my opinion, if you’re a woman in any beauty- or body-obsessed industry it’s extremely hard to be comfortable with your body because you’re always putting it on display for others to look at and be critiqued.
Whenever any new woman started working it felt threatening, but moreso as the age gap grew between myself being over forty and someone else at twenty-one. Although I can’t consciously say I was ever jealous, I grew tired. In my early forties, I quit exercising as much, then I started to see parts, specifically my rear-end, beginning to sag. That played with my confidence. Also, men started asking me, “How old are you?” and would try to guess, usually by looking at my hands.
It’s important for all the women readers to know they keep the clubs dark, for atmosphere sure, but also because darkness hides flaws. You’d be surprised at how different a woman of any age looks in the dark versus the light.
THEA: Your book From Sex Appeal To Self Appeal, discusses how this experience dramatically changed you for the better. How?
SUSAN: The dedication of my memoir, is, “For all the lost girls and lonely women, looking for love in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.” That’s what I’d been doing; I spent my entire life looking for everyone else’s approval and love, especially men, and it left me hollow and lonely. Also, like many women of my era (and unfortunately still today), sex, body, love and self-care was never discussed in a healthy, realistic way.
The strip club environment exposed me to the shadow parts of my personality I needed to own in order to be a whole woman and was a catalyst to help me eliminate ignorance and shame around my body. I grew up during my years as a stripper—only because I used my experiences within that realm to look internally and become a Scientist of Self. I was able to embrace my body and understand and honor my sexuality differently than in my life before stripping.
I did a few foolish, very scary things that really made me question my values and boundaries, and as I questioned my actions and thoughts I discovered that messages I’d internalized—looking good, sex appeal, is what’s most important, sex first can be a precursor to love, admiration will lead to happiness and success, trying to figure out and fit into what someone else wants is a way to secure love—were all wrong.
Within the club I was given the permission to be sexy and I felt sexual energy, but I learned I didn’t have to act on it and I had male energy whenever I wanted it, so I was freed up from having inappropriate relationships. I developed choice over when and whom to give my body to. I finally internalized that I wasn’t a “bad” girl, but what I really wanted was love, and for me that never started with sex. Ira L Reiss, writing in Solving America’s Sexual Crises writes, “Morality does not consist of simply following other people’s order about how we should behave…. Choice lies at the heart of morality.”
This empowerment didn’t happen overnight. The bulk of my book is devoted to experiences and thoughts I wrestled with that ultimately led me to have a better relationship with myself where I don’t run from feelings and thoughts. Due to this growth of what I call self appeal, internal validation, leading to a more positive nurturing relationship with my body and mind, today I’m able to have a relationship with one man whom I’ve been married to for over eight years.
THEA: Your perspective is very different than what the average life coach or relationship therapist might have. What advice would you give other women who are struggling with looking/feeling sexy or desirable as they age?
SUSAN: It’s a rare woman who doesn’t wrestle with being “enough” as she is and who isn’t concerned, including myself, about appearance, desirability and aging. We are bombarded every day with advertising messages that are designed to do one thing—sell us a product, but one of the most important things I learned, from talking with thousands of men, is that we’re more concerned with how we look to them, than they are. The partners in our life aren’t concerned with how our bodies look, they’re more concerned with how we relate to our own bodies, to our sexuality, and to them.
One brief conversation I had with a customer sums it up. I asked him why he was in the club because he’d been talking nonstop about his fiancé. “I come in because it’s all about me. People bring me drinks, women talk, dance for me. I love my fiancé,” he said, “she’s far more beautiful than you.” Not wanting to offend me, he quickly added. “Oh, she doesn’t look like you, but I love her.” That’s what we women have to remember. Our partners, if they love us, don’t see what we think are flaws.
When I gave Strip for Your Lover classes in San Francisco women came to learn sexy moves, but more than that they came for permission to feel good about their bodies no matter what they looked like, and to feel okay with being sensual and sexual. The most attractive sensual women in my classes were large African American women because, from what they told me, their culture was more accepting of their size. They enjoyed their food as well as their bodies.
I’m not the first woman to say that confidence is the sexiest thing a woman can wear, but I’ll add, accessorize that confidence with pure pleasure. You have to get out of your own way to feel pleasure. The women I work with today are on a journey to treat themselves with more self-compassion and friendship. By doing this, it’s easier to feel pleasure.
Your biggest sex organ is your brain. To boost your confidence, esteem, attractiveness and self appeal:
- Compare yourself only to yourself. Focus on your positive qualities finding one action or thought every day that you’re proud of. Think about how your body supports you every day. If you would like to download and follow along with myself and a few real women students in some body awareness and appreciation exercises from my DVD, Striptease for Real Women, e-mail me and I’ll send you the videos.
- Realize that extreme focus on how you look causes you to be self-centered and actually makes you ugly to others. Instead, get in touch with how your body feels. What helps you feel desirable? Close your eyes and really learn what feels good, not what you see that or you think that feels good. Know the answer to this because what makes a woman truly beautiful to others and builds confidence related to how she’s perceived by others, is her ability to be present with others. The eyes are the most sexy part of a woman when you use them to show you’re really present. Look into their eyes. The people in our lives want that. We want that in return. Be selfish in your quest of understanding yourself and loving your own body, so you can be selfless in the moment your partner needs to have love mirrored back to them.
- Take action. Too often we get stuck because we’re afraid we’re going to take the wrong action, but there is no wrong action. When you have a goal in mind, your subconscious works as a goal-seeking servomechanism. If your goal is to feel more desirable, sexy or comfortable in your body (and in my opinion they all blend together) keep exploring different ways to do that. I have programs on my site and opportunities to be in communities of women striving to be their best selves and want you to know that whomever you choose to work with or how you decide to start, just do something. The action will empower you and help you feel stronger. You’ll become more confident and hopeful and if it’s not the right action, you’ll figure it out and move onto something else that will work better.
There is nothing wrong with the way you look. There is everything right—you just have to believe it. And you don’t have to hang on a pole to be sexy. The only thing I only ever did with a pole was use it to hang onto and slide down to the floor. I looked deep into the eyes of the customer and felt sensuous in my own body. That worked well for me then, and it still works well for me today in my own marriage. I know that it can work for you too!