It’s after midnight on a Thursday in the heart of Long Island, and I’m staring at a prominent pair of pebbled pink nipples that might have been seen by the president of the United States.
At Gossip NY strip club — or “place for gentlemen,” as the purple neon sign outside would have it — you can smoke indoors, something I haven’t done in New York in years. Everywhere there are fat, stubby cigars, and fat, stubby men smoking them. The light is dim; the air is thick; the room is filled with journalists and sex workers, the former group mingling uneasily with the latter, and all of us have been waiting for hours for Stormy Daniels to appear.
At 38, Stephanie Clifford, a/k/a Stormy Daniels, has more than just an allegation of a hushed-up affair to her name: She has 419 credits on Imdb, including 78 as a director, and a legion of fans that predate her alleged involvement with one Donald John Trump. Nonetheless, it is the latter — the profound incongruity of arriving at a strip-mall strip club in order to potentially better understand the occupant of the Oval Office — that has drawn a mild scrum of press, and some genuine Long Islanders, to these pulsating purple environs. Upon entry, two separate signs implore us to make tipping and Thursdays great again, respectively.
For several hours prior to Stormy’s performance, the ratio of journalists to strippers is nearly one to one; with the exception of me and a Dutch journalist named Karlijn who arrives with her hair in a severe bun, they are all male — the New York Post, the Daily News, Bild, the U.K.’s Independent, Newsday. Occasionally men sitting on the black leather couches that line the periphery of the room’s main space get lap dances. I wonder if any of them are my erstwhile professional colleagues, like the anonymized “member of the news media” in the New York Times’ story on the launch of Stormy’s tour who assented to “all right — one.” I feel even more like an overgrown potato with a bad wig than usual. Only one woman was quoted in the Washington Post’s write-up of the same event — a woman in the audience who said it was “demeaning” that the first lady had posed naked. On stage at Gossip, a dancer comes out in a black half-skirt, then sheds it to reveal a plum-sized bruise on her pale thigh.
The one unqualified good thing you can say about tonight’s event, which instantly strikes me as one kind of nadir of American absurdity, is that it has nothing to do with school shootings. There are no dead children involved whatsoever. Which, frankly, makes it an acceptable, even excellent, departure from the news all week, with its ghoulish, Swiftian proposals to give teachers guns. Since 2015, all of us have been required to measure and remeasure what we consider to be grotesque, the full anatomy of the term, its gorgonic depths. On the scale from armed educators to the gilded profiteering of Mar-a-Lago, an affair with a porn star barely rates; this is less seedy underbelly, more bared midriff. I get a $16 drink and settle in to wait.
Here are some people I talk to while waiting for Stormy Daniels, our pneumatic American Godot.
There’s Regina, a statuesque 26-year-old dancer from Moscow. We speak in Russian; her English isn’t great, as she arrived in America less than a year ago. She has never heard of Stormy Daniels.
Ana, who arrived from Portugal five days ago, and whose braces, so incongruous here, hurt my heart. I wonder how she got here, to this squat gray place between a Popeyes and a Bank of America. Her shoulders are bare.
Natalie and Evelyn, two “model-servers” in scraps of lace, who told me they heard about Stormy last week, when their bosses emailed them the Wall Street Journal article that first broke the story. “I think it’s pretty cool,” Evelyn says.
There’s a father-son duo here, who decline to give their names, but to my untrained eye, the son looks like a teenager. The son says he is here because of “inexperience,” and his father buys him a lap dance, out in the main room and not in the curtained-off VIP lounge in the back. The father looks on proudly while his son cups a stripper’s butt, and they leave before Stormy arrives.
John, 56, won’t give his last name. He has a broad, soft build, a Key Club membership to Gossip, and is sitting in one of the cushy armchairs abutting the stage; gold chains adorn his neck and wrists, and the top buttons of his shirt are open, showing a swathe of wisp-haired chest. He is a big Trump supporter, and he “can’t wait” for Stormy, although he says her alleged affair with Trump might be “fake news.”
“I met Melania and was awed by her beauty,” he says. “But maybe she was pregnant with — what’s the kid’s name? — when he cheated. We’ll see when Stormy comes out if it was worth it for the Donald.”
At least one journalist is very drunk. I am only mildly drunk and consider this a win. A security guard the size of an industrial refrigerator briefly impounds my phone after I try to snap a covert photo and I am bereft. The strippers onstage are doing aerial pole-top acrobatics in heels, and a man with an enormous broom is sweeping dollars offstage in their wake.
At last, it’s midnight, and I await my tardy, brazen Cinderella. Sixteen minutes later, an announcer booms that the next guest has a “unique perspective on the president of the United States.” Then Stormy Daniels herself struts onstage — there is no other verb for it — in a cape and dirndl, to “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, from 1966.
“What full lips you have/They’re sure to lure someone bad,” Sam sings. The cape, and then the dirndl, are shed in turn. More accoutrements emerge: a black leather bustier, then a nifty red sparkly bra-and-panty set. Stormy’s breasts emerge, a duo with plenty of stage presence and extensive experience in showbiz. She can, it turns out, twitch them on command, and, apparently, juggle them.
The whole routine is less than ten minutes long, and at least three of the dances are set to Whitesnake. She retreats to a backstage I can only imagine. A dancer named Eva, of Russian extraction, tells me she thinks the routine was dated and unimpressive. I do not feel knowledgeable enough to agree, but none of the songs came from this millennium.
When I approach Stormy in a corner of the main room — amid an absolutely overwhelming knot of a dozen or so photographers and skinny journalists and tipsy members of the general public — she is a consummate professional, with cheekbones that could slice prosciutto. I ask her, “Did you have sex with Donald Trump?” No, she responds, but coquettishly, after a dangling pause. We take one selfie with flash and one without.
And then it’s done, and we can go. What have I learned? My eardrums throb. I have spoken to a woman who might have had sex with a president, and I have seen her dance. Her next stop is North Hollywood; further down the line, Shreveport, Louisiana; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Detroit. I wonder who else will come to smell a kind of abstract proximity to power, as well as a significant amount of lotion. I step out at last into the cold, foggy night, into Donald J. Trump’s America, and mine.
The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.