Interview with Jennifer Worley – Neon Girls
By our Nonfiction Editor, David Chang
In the Fall of 2020, Jennifer Worley, English Professor at City College, published her memoir “Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power”. In an interview with David Chang, journalism/creative writing student at City College, Jennifer shares what brought her to write the book, the feelings she encountered when first on stage, and how she continued applying what she learned to continue organizing and advocating even at City College. She also shares insights and tips for aspiring writers.
Inspiration behind the book and publishing
David: Can you talk about what inspired you to write the book and how this all got started? Did you have a particular audience in mind or what was your intention?
Jennifer: I guess what inspired it was that I knew that it was a really interesting and unusual story that I had been involved in. I really wanted to tell the story. It also, I think, has real implications for political organizing that I wanted to talk about – you know, some of the challenges of organizing democratically that we ran into…So I guess that’s what motivated me to do it.
The second part of your question was the audience, right? Yeah, I largely thought a bay area audience. But I also wanted to take the story to a wider, even more national audience, because I think there was less familiarity with the actual story of the Lusty Lady on a wider scale. I think a lot of folks in San Francisco particularly, are somewhat familiar with the story, although not from the inside, but I wanted to talk about it in a larger context for people in that industry as well, to know that it’s possible to organize as in other industries; it’s possible to organize a union and even a worker owned cooperative and how to do that.
David: Since you mentioned a broader audience, did you pitch this to your agent or did you have this wider reach in mind when publishing? How did that work in terms of making it go out to a broader audience?
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s interesting because now, the way publishing used to work was that the publisher would kind of create or facilitate that wider audience and do a lot of publicity and that would in itself, create the audience. But now, that’s shifted a lot in the industry. And authors are really expected to have their own platform and their own readership and to you know, have like a blog and an instagram following and all that stuff. And so, a lot of that is now on the author. And it’s an interesting shift, because I used to work in book publicity when we would, you know, we the publishing company would produce a lot of publicity for the book. Whereas now, publishers don’t do as much of that and more of it rests on the author themselves and often, even before the book is a book.The author has a platform already and that’s what motivates the publisher to publish the book.
What was it like at the Lusty Lady?
David: What emotions would you describe your first audition? Was it as awkward as you describe in the book? I really enjoyed the lines, “I felt a bit like Alice myself down inside this underground world, where girls study chemistry and bunny ears, but I’m concerned with their nudity and you know, seemingly ruled by numbers on a clock.” It almost seemed like the lusty lady itself was a character throughout your book, would you agree, or was that intentional?
Jennifer: Yeah, I really wanted to capture when I first – the other thing that this takes me back to the question about what inspired me to write it – was that the lusty lady had just closed when I wrote the proposal for the book. And so it closed in 2013, after 10 years of operating as a cooperative and probably like 30 or 40 years operating as a peep show. So it had just closed and that was really sad for me because I had helped to found it, it had been my idea to have the worker Co Op and everything, so it was really sad to lose the institution.
I want people to remember it and to know about it. And so, it’s interesting that you say that the theater itself was almost a character because I didn’t initially conceive of the book as institutional history, like kind of a cultural history of this institution, the ethos, the lady had wanted to make it a more of a scholarly academic type of book. But ultimately, I decided to move towards the memoir because I had so much personal history with it. I really was trying to document the history of this really unique place and so that was part of my motivation. And that’s why the lusty lady itself is such a character in the book. As to my feeling when I auditioned, yes, I was nervous. I did feel like I was in a bit of a foreign territory. At the same time, I mean, I was a pretty young, adventurous person and a pretty brave kind of young woman. Yeah, it was definitely foreign territory and kind of encountering all of these other young women who are so – it seems so confident, and so bold, was really quite impressive to me, as you can tell from how I develop the characters of this book.
David: That leads me to my next question. Can you talk about what kept you at the Lusty Lady? I know there were times where you felt really isolated and almost invisible, right, was it like a combination of the policies there, the camaraderie, feeling safe? Without all those things would you have not stayed?
Jennifer: Yeah I think you’re right, it was a combination of those things. And you know, quite frankly, I was in my 20s, and I needed the money and it wasn’t you know – me working there wasn’t so much that I was making more money than I had been when I was working in an entry level job and in publishing, but I was making the same amount of money in about a third of the time. And because I was going to school, that really helped me have time to study and go to my classes. So you know, I was supporting myself and I needed enough to support myself. I was going to school and needed the time to study in graduate school, that’s substantial. That was partly what helped me there was just a financial need to pay my rent.
What kept me there was certainly the safety, the camaraderie, and the familiarity with a space but you have a different part. Like, you know, it wasn’t subjected to the kind of hustle that you would have to do at other clubs where you’re kind of hustling for tips and you might go home with no money. That was really worrying. I wasn’t subjected to the kind of abuses that I was hearing about in other clubs either – we were safe, we were behind glass. And you know, on the positive, I had all these really interesting women around who – I’m sure that there were also interesting women at the other clubs but the people at the Lusty Lady were particularly compelling as co-workers.
“Polly” and “Delinqua” in your book
David: In the second chapter, you talk about becoming “Polly” and that sometimes like your props would follow you home and “Polly” became part of your regular life and even entered your relationship. Were there other people that you had in your personal life that didn’t like “Polly” or the new person you were becoming?
Jennifer: The changes were subtle as you know, I didn’t do a complete 180 into this new person but I definitely did start, you know, wearing her clothes. You know, hanging out with more people from the club, but I guess “Polly” was well liked in my personal life and at the club. I would say, I don’t know anyone who didn’t like “Polly”.
David: What parts of “Polly” would you say, stick with you today and also, “Delinqua”, your other alter ego?
Jennifer: That’s a good question, I guess the boldness and their courage, you know, they were both unafraid of the world and I talked a bit about it when I first started teaching, how I was really nervous going into a classroom. I was young, probably 26 or so or maybe 25, and going into a classroom of students who are not that much younger than I was. And, you know, feeling really nervous about that, I then realized, Wow, I’ve been performing on stage and commanding these audiences of men and with total confidence – and so that, I think that ability to have that confidence and courage and boldness have stuck with me. And then, you know, in terms of the political organizing, you know, aside from the performance at the Lusty, the political organizing, the sense of wanting to carry that forward, that empowerment of myself and my co-workers in our workplace, my belief that workers should have a say and control in their workplace, has stayed with me and my commitment to that.
David: When you started organizing towards a union, you had to go up against a former dancer, Colette, how hard was it for you or easy was it for you to sit in meetings with somebody that you were close to, someone you had worked with?
Jennifer: That’s a really challenging thing. It’s challenging in the sense that in the case of Colette, she had been my coworker and I felt that we really had to stand firm against her. She was being used by the upper management to try to put down our union and break our union. And we had to sort of stand firm against her. And it was difficult to do that on a personal level to an individual person, I felt bad for her, you know, we went into a meeting and just remained silent when she had to talk to us. And that felt like a betrayal, you know someone who had been my coworker and friend. But at the same time, she made the choice to work with management and to cooperate with them trying to bust our union. And so it was important to respond to that, to what she was doing, and to not allow the personal or the former personal connection get in the way of that. But it was emotionally very challenging. You know, and it was challenging, even with our bosses, because as a worker, I think we’re all socialized. Even from youth, we’re socialized to get the approval of adults or the approval of our teachers or the approval of our boss then. And so to resist that, and form this union that said, No, we want something different than what you’re telling us we want. You know, our interests are at odds with what you want – that was challenging for anyone because we’re also socialized into capitalism, and into wanting approval from people who are seemingly above us, you know, so that’s something you have to learn if you’re going to organize on your own behalf and on behalf of your coworkers, with other working people or with other students; you have to learn to not get that approval of authority figures to say ok, I’m giving that up.
Organizing, Advocacy, and Co-Ownership
David: Do you continue to do advocacy work today?
Jennifer: No, I’m not involved in the sex industry – there’s still a lot of organizing in the sex industry and I’ve been somewhat in touch with dancers who are organizing now. I’m not heavily involved but I was the president of the faculty union at City College just up until June. I finished my term in June, and you know, I’ve been quite involved as I’ve held actually every office in the faculty union, I was quite involved in helping organize that, that union and in our contract negotiations and so forth for many years.
David: Is there a mantra or advice that you would give to other organizers?
Jennifer: Get off the internet. It’s difficult in this time, because right now, even you and I are on the phone, but, face to face conversations, or at least now voice to voice conversations. Individual, one on one conversations with your colleagues are what’s going to build your union. So yeah, to build those relationships. The other mantra is 80% listening and 20% talking.
David: Can you talk about the struggles that you had dealing with Co-Ownership? That seems like such a huge thing to take on.
Jennifer: It was. I talked in the book about how, at a certain point, after about five years of having a labor union, we were in probably our fifth contract negotiation. And our boss just came in and said, Okay, I agree to everything you’re proposing. And you know, we were like, Whoa, that’s never happened, that does not happen. And so he just signed the contract and laughed, and, or he signed, it’s called a tentative agreement, and then left and got on a plane and went to Seattle, where the other Lusty Lady was. And we were, you know, people were like “yeah, we won.” And I had been involved since the beginning. And I was really suspicious and really nervous. And sure enough, a few days later, we all got pink slips, meaning we all got told, “we’re going to close the theater in two weeks and you’re all going to be laid off.” You know, by this time, the management had already been divesting a lot from the business and we were kind of struggling to keep the business operating. And so I said, we’re already doing so much of the work, let’s see if we can take it over. And so, it took a lot to do that. But skipping forward, we did manage to buy out the company from the management.
The thing that was most surprising was how, so then what happened was, we took it over as a worker owned cooperative, so it wasn’t like, I bought it, you know, we all got together and bought it. He financed us, so we paid it off over five years. But essentially, we bought it as a cooperative. And we had to organize ourselves and file incorporation papers with the state of California, like we’re a corporation now. And we’re collectively owned by all the workers. The most surprising thing about that was how immediately, some of our workers who had been active in our union, how quickly and immediately, they just targeted their co-workers who organized the co-op as the new kind of boss. They very much needed a kind of a kind of leader or boss to push back against and what they were very locked into the dynamic of us versus them and boss versus worker. And so even when all of their co-workers were owning the place, and we were making decisions through a pretty radically democratic process. Even then, some folks were really married to an us versus them dynamic and didn’t know how to get out of that. And that really surprised me. And that was what that was the hardest thing I think to struggle with was that a lot of people weren’t able to embrace having a voice and having a core leadership role and instead really wanted there to be a boss that they could just blame, you know. So it was interesting to see how just as I’ve said, we’ve been socialized into wanting approval from our leaders, that some people had really been socialized into wanting to fight against the leaders and they couldn’t stop that even when the leaders were their own co-workers.
David: How did you interact or deal with those co-workers?
Jennifer: It was really quite frustrating. You know, and I see that I saw that dynamic still, even as a union leader at City College that people, you know, even though, people wanted to have that dynamic of kind of the rebellion, it’s sort of like a rebellious adolescence or something. Yeah. So I, in a way at the Lusty, I think that I just did the best I could to keep things democratic and open and to trust that process. And, frankly, you know, I think that for the most part, our coworkers saw – here’s the people who are putting in work and organizing and who are helping to run the theater, and we just did our best to stay as open as possible and transparent with information. And to trust the details, you know, kind of maintain that democratic process as much as possible. To some, it worked in that people saw, like, okay, here’s where we are financially, here’s the decisions that need to be made. And people stayed really involved in making those decisions.
Reception you’ve received on the book and tips for creative writing
David: Since you’ve written the book, are there others that have been mentioned in the story that have reached out or do you keep in touch?
Jennifer: Yeah, people (dancers) have gotten in touch to say it was so great to kind of go back to those days. And you know, I did have one dancer who was really upset and angry with me and that was hard. That was difficult to hear. But it’s always harder, you always pay more attention to negative feedback. But I’ve only gotten one (negative feedback). The rest, I’ve gotten lots and lots of former dancers and support staff who’ve written to me or texted me to say how they enjoyed it and how it was so great to be taken back to those days.
David: That’s great. One of the last questions I have, what advice would you give to others who would like to start a memoir or creative nonfiction writing? Is there one effective way of doing this? I thought you did a great job of showing versus telling, and including bits of history – the history behind organizing, and also a lot about San Francisco itself.
Jennifer: Yeah, I was a history nerd. And so I really, I wanted it to weave in this, you know, kind of historical information with my own recollections. So that was just my particular style. And in terms of other writers, I would say, creative framework – like give yourself a framework for what you want to accomplish. And then go ahead and write and separate the writing process from the judging and editing process, let yourself do the writing first. And then later, after it’s finished, then go back and evaluate it and judge it and revise it. You know, it won’t be perfect. But if you’re going to keep writing, you need to shut down that sort of internal critic. So let yourself write and do it for a few hours a day – do it every day. My process around just writing the book was, I had a basic framework for the story I wanted to tell and the different historical bits I wanted to include. But each day I gave myself a word goal, like I’m going to produce 500 words today – My job is to make those words and not to judge them or edit them or any of that stuff yet. And so that’s what kept me going. And I did that until I got to, you know, 80,000 words. And then I went back and started revising, and the revision process was substantial. So, you know, give yourself that space to write without judging at first. And then the other thing is start to try to build a platform, like a blog, either a blog, or on Instagram, or some sort of way of reaching out to an audience before publication.
David: Thank you! That’s really helpful. Is there anything you’d want to share about your book or anything else?
Jennifer: You know, the one other thing I would say is – if you’re doing a memoir, take the creative nonfiction class at City College, or if you’re doing fiction, you know, take a fiction writing class, take the poetry reading class. It’s hard sometimes to do the work on your own and to motivate yourself, and that’ll really give you a structure. So sign up for those creative writing classes we have at City College. Do that. And then I guess, if you want to read the book, and if you want to talk about it with others, I’m teaching it in my English 1A classes – it’s also a text in English 1B classes. I have several sections next semester, so yeah, so come and read the book with me and, and let me know what you think!