Once A Girl's Seen Paree
Down in the flesh pits with Tyler Ondine Whitman

Photographer Tyler Ondine Whitman sits chain-smoking Marlboro Lights over a cup o' Joe at a seedy, Hollywood java joint. A thin woman of 23 with green eyes, fair skin, and dark hair with streaks of purple, she exudes a confident, almost cocky manner.

See also...
... by Stephen Lemons
... in the Crave section
... from November 5, 1999

Whitman's here to discuss her first book, The Chez Girls, an accomplished collection of photographs documenting the vice-ridden, twilight world of San Francisco's Chez Paree nightclub.

An all-nude joint where a couple of Jacksons will get you some one-on-one action in a dark corner, the Chez Paree is lap dance central ­- the kind of place a guy goes to catch a nut on the cheap before headin' home to the little woman and the 2.5 kids, all without unzipping his fly.

The L.A.-born Whitman found the dive after a year spent studying photography at Parsons in New York. Determined to get real-world experience, Whitman headed back to the West Coast and landed herself right in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

Obsessed with finding out what went on "behind the black curtain" at the Chez Paree, Whitman offered to take photos of the dancers for the club's management. She stayed for six months. Her book was just released a few weeks ago through L.A.'s Parler Media and is being distributed nationally by Last Gasp.

GETTINGIT: Who is your book for?

TYLER ONDINE WHITMAN: Mostly the demographic is young girls, either college- bound or otherwise. A lot of middle of the country. A lot of people who don't live in the big cities and aren't exposed to this all the time.

GI: Why do you think they would be interested in this subject matter?

TOW: I was. I wanted them to know that if they're in this situation, they're not alone. If they're facing this situation, they should know about it. A lot of girls my age are the ones who are confronted with it.

GI: Why are so many girls into stripping these days?

TOW: The rise of tuition. And a lot of girls start because they have nowhere to go after high school. College just isn't realistic for most people. Of course, you have to be of age to do it. They don't do it until they're 18, but I see a lot of girls running right into it. It's very mainstream.

GI: In your afterword, you seem disabused of any fascination you may have had with stripping. Are you against it now?

TOW: It's absolutely acceptable. I wouldn't judge anyone who does it, but I wouldn't recommend it either. If it was my close friend, I'd do anything I could to stop them. If I find out someone's doing it, all I can do is support them and be there for them.

GI: So you think it's destructive?

TOW: I don't know anyone who's gone into a strip club that it hasn't changed for the worse. It forces women to look at themselves more as an object and a tool of money. A lot of times it results in very low self-esteem. I haven't seen anything good come out of it. I know there are places like The Lusty Lady in Seattle, which are owned and operated by women, and that's very cool. But I've known women who strip there and I still don't think they come out of it better off than before.

GI: The Lusty Lady was the subject of a similar book by Erika Langley, but that book shows the world of stripping in a positive light. Your book is harsher, even if there are moments of beauty.

TOW: This club was nothing like The Lusty Lady. It was very, very bottom of the barrel and run by men who were definitely not pro-women's rights. [Laughs] They were in it for the cash. It was a bad situation. There was a lot of drug abuse, people coming out of bad relationships... It wasn't positive. I mean, women were surviving, but it wasn't a positive thing.

GI: What's your take on lap-dancing?

TOW: It's where the women made the bulk of their cash. I don't think it's prostitution, but I know that sometimes it leads to that. A lot of it happened at nearby motels.

GI: Were you toying with the idea of being a stripper yourself?

TOW: I definitely got caught up in it. I'd be backstage, and a girl would go out to dance. Thirty minutes later, she'd have a lot of money. I was poor at the time. You see that money and that instant gratification and you think, "Wow, I'm pretty enough. I could do that." Of course, it was very alluring. I could see how a lot of people would do it.

GI: Why didn't you do it?

TOW: I have a fear of nudity. It wasn't a moral decision. Just stage fright.

GI: You were just 19 when you started this project. Were you intimidated walking into the club for the first time?

TOW: It was weird. I didn't know what to expect or how to dress. So I dressed kind of like a guy. I put on pants, boots, and a hat. I put my hair up. I didn't want to be confused as one of the dancers. Still, a lot of men would proposition me.

GI: How well did you get to know the women?

TOW: I got to know some of them very well. Like Holly, who was my age -- we instantly had a chemistry, and we started to hang out outside of the club. Some of the women I only knew inside of the club.

GI: Did you come out of this totally disgusted by men?

TOW:No, but at the time I definitely feared a lot more for my safety because I used to have to walk home from the Tenderloin at, like, 2 a.m. I often thought people were following me. I always doubted people's motives when they came up and talked to me. It absolutely changed my perspective on everything.

GI: Are any of the women in the book aware that it's out?

TOW: I went back to San Francisco a couple of months ago to see if I could find any of them, and they were all gone. I checked several other clubs they may have drifted to, but they weren't there either. I hope they find me someday.

GI: Holly is obviously a central figure in the book. In the book, you mention she attempted suicide. What do you know about what happened to her?

TOW: She took an entire bottle of pills, some sort of narcotic. Obviously, she was having a bad day. I remember in one of the first conversations we had, I asked her why she stripped. She said she didn't know what else she'd do with herself, that she had found something she was good at, probably the only thing she was good at. It was interesting. She was just like me and the opposite of me all at the same time.

GI: And you don't know what happened to her, whether she's alive or dead?

TOW: I found out about her OD-ing, at this club. When I came in, they told me. We had had a fight several days before, and I'd known she'd gone back to work. I just know she was taken away in an ambulance.

Tyler Ondine Whitman's next book involves drag queens in Alabama. To order a copy of The Chez Girls, check your local independent bookstore. Or send a check for $22.95 to Parler Media P.O. Box 29133 Los Angeles, CA 90029. For more info, call 323.697.7227 or email pm@churchofmars.com.

Tyler's pictures from Chez Paree are in the LEER Gallery.

Stephen Lemons is a writer who lives in Burbank, CA. He's written for the L.A. Times, SOMA, Art Connoisseur, and New Times L.A.