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7 Famous People You Didn’t Realize Were Sex Workers

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What does Roseanne Barr have in common with Malcolm X? Not a whole lot, really, except that they both did sex work at early stages of their careers, as were lots of other actors, musicians and activists.

Some of them did it because they had to, and some of them did it because they wanted to; the same can also be said for all people working all jobs. That’s why it’s depressing when sites like Rentboy get raided, or when certain feminist circles insist on equating prostitution with human trafficking: beyond the politics, sex-work is a service-industry job.

Here’s a list of seven people whose names you know, but who you may not have realized spent time as sex workers.

For the record, we’re only counting real sex workers here — appearing in one episode of Showtime’s softcore series The Red Shoe Diaries does not count as sex work (sorry, David Duchovny and Matt LeBlanc!).

Maya Angelou, Miss Calypso 1957

Maya Angelou during her calypso phase

Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou only ever earned honorary degrees, but she did have quite a variety of jobs over the years. You probably know her as a poet and memoirist, but if you’ve actually read her series of memoirs then you know that she was at various times also a calypso singer, a Tony-nominated Broadway actress, a paint scraper at a body shop, and San Francisco’s first female streetcar driver. When she was fairly young, Angelou worked as a prostitute and brothel manager, activities which she describes candidly in her 1974 memoir Gather Together In My Name.

I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name.

 

Roseanne Barr

Roseanne Barr, Vanity Fair

Roseanne Barr, Vanity Fair

In a 1994 Vanity Fair cover story, television and tabloid star Roseanne Barr (Roseanne Arnold at the time) confessed to Kevin Sessums that she had worked as a prostitute in her twenties, turning tricks in a mall parking lot. She outlined that, and many other details about her mostly depressing early years, in the memoir Roseanne: My Lives.

From the Vanity Fair article:

I think prostitution should be legal because the way any society treats its prostitutes reflects directly on how it treats the highest, most powerful women. . . . It has always been here, and women should be able to control it and regulate it. . . . Prostitution is business.

 

Rupert Everett, Love For Sale

Rupert Everett, Actor and Former Sex Worker (image via Swan Films)

Rupert Everett

English actor, novelist, and one-time New Wave singer Rupert Everett was born into a wealthy family, but he spent his younger days escorting his way through college. His first film role, playing a gay character in 1984’s Another Country, made him a star, and he came out of the closet. Never shy about expressing his feelings, he revealed his past as an ex-rentboy in 1997, while promoting the career-reviving My Best Friend’s Wedding. More recently, he hosted an interview series on British television entitled Love For Sale about various British sex workers.

From The Independent, 1997:

“I didn’t set out to hustle, but this guy offered me such a massive amount of money, well, it was like a year-and-a-half’s pocket money,” explained actor Rupert Everett in a frank recent interview in American entertainment magazine US. He says that as a struggling actor he “sort of fell into” prostitution after being approached outside a London Tube station. His confession that he had worked as a “rent boy” pulled in a welcome dollop of publicity for his latest film, My Best Friend’s Wedding. But the most surprising thing about his revelation was the extraordinary notion that a man could “sort of fall into” exchanging sex for money.

 

Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna is widely known as the frontwoman for Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin, but in her younger days she worked as a stripper because it gave her the flexibility to go on tour. She didn’t like doing it, but she’s also careful to acknowledge that most people don’t actually like their jobs.

Hanna spoke with The Dissolve, the now-defunct movie site, about Lizzie Borden’s underground 1986 film Working Girls, which she singles out for its realistic portrayal of the strip club industry:

Working Girls… is also really important to me, because I used to be a sex worker. I wasn’t a high-priced call girl, but I loved that movie so much. I got asked a lot about being a stripper in articles, and I was not the person to leak that information, and didn’t want it to be known.

Then I ended up talking about it, and was really depressed, because people started to think it was cool and sex-positive. For me, it was a horrible job that I did so I could go on tour. The thought of other girls thinking, “Oh, this is cool,” and that becoming a part of the riot grrrl narrative, has always been very upsetting to me…

Then, when I watched Working Girls, I was like, “I’m so relieved.” Because it was boring. That movie is boring. To me, that was the statement: It’s boring. It’s just plain, the same thing over and over, like any other cubicle job. Yes, it’s degrading, and it’s boring as hell. Journalists a lot of times would try to sexualize it, and I was like, “It’s not about sex. It’s about power. It’s about having a job and having multiple bosses who all treat you like crap.”

You could sexualize that I worked at McDonald’s if you want to, because they gave me a shirt that was two sizes too small and put me on the front line, and they put the guys on the fryer. Having a girl in a tight shirt selling burgers is a better idea financially for the corporation, and that’s what the corporation trained the managers to do.

Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer, musician and hugely polarizing internet personality, first became known as half of Boston-based duo The Dresden Dolls.

For the most part, critics and audiences seemed to like her sardonic outlook and willingness to confront unpleasant issues in her songs, like abortion and child abuse. Then a tidal wave of public sentiment against her rose up around 2010, when the band broke up and she and Jason Webley released an album in the guise of conjoined twins.

Then there was the time that she raised a million dollars on Kickstarter and then asked musicians to join her on stage for free (she eventually relented and gave them cash). Then she gave a TED talk to explain her business model. But before that all happened though, she was a stripper.

She’s talked a lot about it, but here’s a quote from an interview with The Quietus about the mindfulness required for her to do sex work:

At the same time to make ends meet while the band was just starting out and not making lots of money, I was a stripper. I spent a long time wondering whether I was strong enough to do that job because I knew I would be doing psychic battle in a strip joint and I knew I would have to go in fully armed and ostensibly ready to be myself and stay straight, for lack of a better word. Because it was such a deliriously weird place to be.

I went in there thinking, “I can do this because I am a feminist and I can do this job compassionately.” And that means having compassion for myself and for whatever fucked up people I run into. And that means I ran into a lot of fucked up people, on and off stage, practically every night.

 

Dee Dee Ramone

Bassist and co-founder of legendary punk band The Ramones, the man born Douglas Colvin spent time as a street hustler in New York. Though reluctant to discuss it publicly, other band members have implied that the band’s song “53rd & 3rd” is loosely inspired by Dee Dee’s own experiences in that former Manhattan cruising area.

The song is a grim one: none of the johns are interested, and then when one is, the narrator stabs him to prove that he’s “no sissy.”

Christopher Keeley’s 2007 book Addict: Out of the Dark and Into the Light includes an interview with Dee Dee, in which he explains what was happening:

And I would work as a mail clerk in the daytime and that didn’t give me much money because it was a low paying job, to support an apartment in Manhattan and a drug habit, a heroin habit. And at night I would go to the street corner called 53rd Street and Third in Manhattan and hustle and pick up men and go to their homes for twenty dollars and have sex with them so I could buy a couple of bags of dope.

And this went on for a few years and I became a miserable full blossom drug addict. All the friends I circularized with were hustlers and addicts. And then I somehow — I hooked up with some friends from Forest Hills, my old friends there, and they were like into drugs and into music the same type of music I was into — the New York Dolls were on the scene and they sort of brought us together.

Malcolm X

Bruce Perry’s 1991 book Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, directly addresses Malcolm’s sexuality, from youthful indiscretions with schoolmates through the period when Malcolm would sneak out of bed at night to visit a gay transvestite named Willie Mae.

The critic and UK LGBT-rights activist Peter Tatchell expounded on Malcolm’s sexuality and career history in a Guardian editorial called “Malcolm X – Gay Black Hero?”:

In New York, two of Malcolm’s friends from Michigan remember bumping into him at the YMCA, where Malcolm bragged he earned money servicing “queers.” Later, Malcolm worked as a butler to a wealthy Boston bachelor, William Paul Lennon. According to Malcolm’s sidekick Malcolm Jarvis, he was paid to sprinkle Lennon with talcum powder and bring him to orgasm.

Perry suggests that Malcolm’s gay encounters may not have been entirely financially motivated. His masculine insecurities and ambivalence towards women fit the archetype of a repressed gay man and point to latent homosexuality.

 

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  • YesISaidThat

    Those are lies about Malcolm X. He admits in his autobiography that he sought out women for the sole purpose of getting them involved in brothel work. He was not gay. He tells all about his life in his brutally open book. If he had the gay encounters his so-called friends are claiming, I believe he would have stated that, too. Why not?

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  • Lux

    Thank you for publishing this article. Mostly Maya Angelou really touched me, because she was such a revered woman, deeply respected across the world, who even held positions in the government and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Like she said, I am terribly ashamed of the 9 months-ish I spent meeting men on “arrangement” web sites, which were meant to be sort of “sugar daddy”-type arrangements, a wealthy boyfriend providing an allowance to an attractive young woman, but wound up just being men who paid me $300-700 for a fuck on a regular basis. I’ve read Angelou’s account of her sexual abuse around age 4 before, and I was abused, too, and also suffered trauma in adulthood–things that often lead people into sex work. I don’t understand people who say that they enjoy selling their bodies to the highest bidder or that it’s liberating, and wonder if they’re just in denial of the effect it’s having on them. It’s also extremely unsafe under any conditions. Although I was never hurt or even had anyone argue against using protection, it easily could have gone horribly wrong. I was lucky that I wasn’t doing it on the street, could screen people first, meet in public places the first time and start off with a dinner, and saw wealthy, educated men, who were actually very nice and usually wanted to talk and get to know me–which just made things harder, because it’s hard to focus on a conversation and pretend to be happy when you’re crawling out of your skin.

    For me, it was severely retraumatizing. My favorite men were the ones who were quick to finish, which was most of them for some reason. The guy who went on and on forever didn’t last long as a client. During sex, I was dead inside. I usually tried to stay in positions where my face wasn’t visible because I would reflexively stare into space and my eyes would lose focus. When I first got on the arrangement sites, I had been clean and sober for a while, but I quickly went back to drinking and using to deal with the feelings feelings underneath the dissociation–overwhelming shame, fear, degradation, and isolation, to name a few. Then, even once I finally told my therapist that this was what I had really been doing, not the amazing job I had made up (I knew she already knew and was just waiting for me to be ready to come clean), and said I was done with it, I went back to it because I had no other way to support what had become a pretty expensive habit of buying Adderall and Klonopin on the street. (Unusual drug habit, I know.)

    It was only when I went into a mental hospital for trauma disorders that I was able to get clean, learn some ways to cope with the shame and other symptoms that had gotten massively out of control, and face the fact that I had become my own abuser and if I didn’t stop, I was going to kill myself, get killed, or somehow descend into even more misery that I would never crawl out of. Although that was not my first psych ward, there have been many more since, and I don’t think I would still be such a fucked-up, symptom-ridden mess at this point, two years later, if I didn’t have the shame of this secret beating me down every goddamn day and bubbling up in my nightmares so many nights. I’ve still never told anyone but some (not even all) of the mental health providers treating me, although I’m 95% certain that my mother knows (she was always suspicious about that too-good-to-be-true job that I never talked about) but we just have a silent agreement never to speak about it.

    Sorry this is a weird, long, personal story on a random article. I’m in a mood…and maybe it’s nice to be able to tell the two total strangers on the internet who might bother to read my epic-ly long sob story. I do agree with efforts to speak more openly about sex work to reduce the shame of it, but I also feel a burning desire to discourage other young women (and anyone), especially those who are already traumatized and fragile, from doing something that could feel as shameful to them as it did to me. I am a person who is very susceptible to shame–in addition to shame about specific things, I have always (or at least since the abuse) felt just a general, pervasive sense of shame about myself–but that is also true of most, if not all, survivors of abuse and sexual assault.

  • Lux

    I don’t mean to invalidate the views/feelings of sex workers who say they enjoy what they do. I just meant that I cannot even begin to fathom it–at least not having sex for money. Maybe phone sex or some other, less physical form of sex work.

  • Lux

    I know nothing about Malcolm X, but if he never said he never admitted to gay or bisexual behavior and all of the information is second-hand, the article should just use different language to express the alleged nature of the information. Especially following this list of people who have personally and publicly come out about their own experiences, the way it’s written makes it seem like the allegations are definitely true, whereas even the article linked says that they’re controversial and have some black activists “enraged.” I doubt anyone’s going to be coming at a site called Unicorn Booty with a libel suit, but it’s just good journalism.

  • Winston Churchill

    I don’t expect it would have gone down too well with The Nation of Islam if he admitted to homosexual activity.