By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
They say Mama-san came to San Francisco from Seoul at the age of 16, and migrated to the East Coast a few years later. The dark-featured, small-framed woman started off small, working the jazz and karaoke circuit and eventually landing steadier gigs with a Korean band.
And people began to take notice—for a short while, at least. In 1995, Mama-san—known then mainly as Michelle—won first place in a New York Korean association's singing contest. In 1997, her first album, Dream of Leaves, was released.
"When I met her—what, 20 years ago—she was the best singer from Southeast Asia," one of her regulars says.
Fast-forward a few years and add a few pounds, mainly around Michelle's middle. She has transformed from siren to business-woman, swapping her wavy black locks for a sensible bob. She had a kid. She took up golf. She also started running a "hostess club" in Midtown. I recently worked at that club, Kaoru, for a month. During that time, I didn't see Mama-san take the mic even once.
Applying for jobs at Kaoru was "Angie's" idea. The two of us had met at an East Village dive a few months earlier, and I knew little about her. She said she was a cash-strapped college instructor. One day, maybe the third time we'd hung out, Angie told me that she'd heard about an easy, fun way to make extra money. She said there were a handful of special piano bars in Manhattan—called hostess clubs—where we would get paid just to look pretty and make small talk with the male clients. She assured me the place was totally legitimate and definitely not a front for prostitution or anything like that. There would be no nudity involved, she said, and no touching.
"It's more like a modern-day take on the geisha," she said over an egg-white omelet. "The men just talk on for hours about their boring insurance work and their unhappy marriages, and you pretend like it's really interesting stuff. Sometimes, clients bring their favorite hostesses gifts, kind of like a patron-courtesan thing. And the men are only there for companionship, not sex. It's very strict and very proper. Safe, too. And we're both white, so we'd have the whole exotic thing going for us."
It was a rainy Monday night when we first arrived. The club, which is on 46th Street, between First and Second avenues, is unassuming. There's a shadowy, nondescript glass door with the word "Kaoru" glowing on the awning above it in white script.
The outside looked like a massage parlor missing its neon sign. To enter, you must first pass through a walled alcove—about the size of an ATM vestibule—and another door, before you finally get to the bar. You can't see anything from the street.
We walked in. There was a low, shellacked bar, a couple of dusty liquor bottles in front of a mirrored wall, and an unopened baby grand in the corner.
A couple of pretty Asian girls were chatting with each other at the edge of the bar. They had long, brown-black hair, and both were wearing dark micro-minis. When they saw us, they stopped talking. There weren't any men around, except for the bartender. He was wearing tight plaid pants, a white shirt, a silky black vest, and a matching bow tie. He walked over.
"You must be here for interviews."
"Interviews?" Angie said. We looked at each other and shrugged. "Yeah, interviews. Sure."
"Do you mind waiting a little bit? The owner is on her way in from Long Island."
"OK, then. Come with me."
The bartender led us down a dark hallway to a square room, signaling for us to go in. There was a sectional sofa and a large TV screen, for karaoke. He asked if we wanted anything to drink, and brought back two caffeine-free Diet Cokes. He dropped to one knee to serve them.
"She should be here in 45 minutes or so," he said, closing the frosted-glass door behind him.
Angie and I looked at each other.
"I mean, it doesn't seem like a brothel," she said, taking a sip.
"I feel like texting someone," I said. "Like I should let someone know where I am."
"Maybe you should wait. We're totally being watched," she said.
Then came two knocks at the door. A short woman walked in and sat down next to me, on our coats. She was wearing glittery bell-bottoms and a poofy blouse.
"I'm Michelle," she said, extending her hand. "You girls must be the Russians."
Angie and I exchanged confused looks.
"I'm from New Jersey," Angie said. "And she's from Florida."
"Oh. Well, I was supposed to meet with some Russian girls. It's OK. I lost their phone numbers anyway, and you girls will do just fine!" Michelle laughed. "So you want to work here?"
"Yeah," Angie said. "Definitely."
"So you know what goes on, right?"
More back-and-forth glances between Angie and me. I decided to let Angie do the talking.
"We talk with the customers and serve them drinks and sing karaoke," Angie said.