‘Girls Gone Wild,’ stripped to its essence

Back when I was a roving cultural reporter and movie critic for a Texas newspaper, I was assigned the dubious task of covering the arrival in town of the “Girls Gone Wild” crew at a local dance club. Pointing a throng of cameras at a small stage, the “GGW” crew cajoled local women to partake in a strip contest with cash and travel awards. No matter your morals — it’s complicated — I viewed this as a curious sociological excursion.

This is how the night went down, and how I put it into words …   

Lauren is not getting naked. 

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek. 

What gumdrop world is she living in? 

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin the other night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild. 

Not, says Lauren. 

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real estate certification. 

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.” 

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off. 

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. 

Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.” 

Woooo-yeeahh-owww! went the men. 

Ha! went the dozen women on stage. 

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event. 

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Lubbock. First prize this night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest. 

It’s a common perception that in party, aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flash ’n’ flesh bazaar. Grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild. 

Joe Francis, the young multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it. 

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids pros and strippers, Francis says. 

Any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention, he says. “You’d be surprised, man,” says Francis by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.” 

Joe, meet Lauren. 

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest. 

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains. 

Sociology of a shirt lift 

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal W., a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top. 

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers. “I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?” 

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night. “Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.” 

Crystal is a good friend. 

On the other side of the rambling, neon-splashed dance hall — where bar servers sling Day-Glo shots in test tubes and a guy named Robert is coaxing his girlfriend Stephanie to get on stage — giggle Amanda Brown and Melissa Dotson, 19-year-old University of Texas students. 

The brunettes are dressed in tight, slight outfits that would pass for loincloths in some cultures. They rushed to Midnight Rodeo when they heard about the event on the radio. 

“We’re lookin’ to be famous,” Melissa says. 

“We get off on it,” Amanda says. 

“We’re not doing it against our will in any way. Not everybody has to like it,” says Melissa. “We’re not porn stars. We’re 19, we’re experimenting, we’re having fun. We’re out there.” 

On stage, Amanda and Melissa gyrate, kiss each other and lift up each other’s shirts. (They eventually take second and third place.) 

The boys hoot with stadium-rock abandon. They slaver and yell obscenities. Their eyes bulge like bloodshot moons. The overall expression on their faces is something like this: !!!!!!!! 

Wes Parnell, a slightly slurring 22-year-old UT student, assumes the role of resident sociologist and human behaviorist. He speaks waveringly, but with confidence. He spies two young women registering for the contest. 

“Oh, they’re going to take it off,” Wes assures us. “They don’t have a choice. When they get up on stage and start drinking alcohol, they start doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. They love it, they absolutely love it. Girls start seeing what the guys think and the guys trick them into doing more.” 

There’s a study of what makes girls go wild waiting to be vetted for psychological illumination. We can listen to Wes, or we can drag in an expert in feminist media studies. 

That would be Mary Kearney, assistant professor of radio-television-film at UT, who explains, “There’s some recognition when you’re a woman in your late teens and early 20s that sexuality is a form of power for you. And for a lot of younger women, it’s the only form of power they have. They are told on a daily basis that their primary goal in life is to get male attention. So if they’re getting it by lifting up their top, so be it.” 

Especially for middle-class white women, Kearney says, “This might be a chance for them to feel sexy in the moment, for girls to be wild. It’s sluttish behavior, and girls might be pushing the boundaries for themselves, to be like, ‘Ooo, I’m wild and crazy!’ Of course, they don’t really understand that it’s a pretty conventional climate for girls and women to be rebellious.” 

We return to the wisdom of Wes. “Girls have such low self-esteem, they need guys to cheer ’em on,” he insists. 

“I don’t have low self-esteem. I just don’t feel like being a slut.” That’s a brunette named Chanbra, who’s been encircled by several boys begging her to join the contest. One of them thrusts a cocktail into her hand. 

“It’s just for fun, just for fun,” says a guy. 

“I know . . .” Chanbra sounds breathless and confused. 

“Just do it. Please,” says another guy. 

“This is the third time I’ve been told to do it, and I’m not doing it. Sorry, y’all,” Chanbra says, and leaves. 

“Well, lost cause.” 

The call of the ‘Wild’ 

A petite young woman named Joanna bolts off the crowded stage mid-show and beats a hasty retreat backstage. She pulls off her cowboy hat and sighs with what sounds like relief. She was fleeing. 

“I couldn’t do that to myself,” Joanna says. “I’m not like that. I think it’s trashy. Looking at the crowd, I decided I’m not putting myself out there as a piece of meat. I’m shaking I’m so nervous.” 

Why was she up there then? 

She was egged on by friends, despite her protests. “I thought it was fun being part of the scene, and then it just got too far.” 

Away from male taunts and chants of “Show your . . .,” Crystal W. looks exhilarated. She wound up on stage flashing the crowd after all.

“I was naked! I don’t know why,” she gasps. “I can’t believe I did that because I come here a lot and I know everyone. Oh, my God.” 

Woodworth was persuaded by her friends, including Kimberly Hyde, who joined her on stage. 

“I’m just crazy like that,” Kimberly says. “It was a blast.”

It’s nothing new for her. She flashes her guy friends upon request. 

“Wanna see?” she asks.

The naked truth about a job I had

Slash was bored. The iconic shredder from Guns N’ Roses, famed as much for his seething guitar licks as his Niagara of dark curls, surly sneer and non-ironic top hat, paced the film projection booth at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre as he waited for the strip club’s notoriously hard-partying co-owner Artie Mitchell. 

A magnet for lustful and plain curious celebrities, including on this night the freshly famous bandmates of Guns N’ Roses, the upscale flesh emporium in San Francisco, home to some 100 dancers, was anointed the “Carnegie Hall of sex in America” by none other than gonzo journalist and Mitchell Brothers confidant Hunter S. Thompson. 

Famous and infamous, classy but trashy, a spotless venue filled with dirty deeds, the O’Farrell was where I worked for three months when I was 19. It was novel. It was exciting. It was a droning bore.

So there was Slash in my workplace, a quintessential rocker I didn’t recognize. Guns N’ Roses was relatively new, despite having just sold two million albums, and was in town shooting a scene for Clint Eastwood’s latest Dirty Harry movie, “The Dead Pool.” The group’s hit “Welcome to the Jungle” revs the film’s soundtrack.

A fellow longhair, I shot the breeze with Slash, who explained that, no, he was not a member of Bay Area metal band Exodus (my bad), and that his actual group, GNR, wears its influences on its sleeve, from the Stones to Aerosmith. I still didn’t know who the hell they were. 

Enter Artie. “You look tired. Let’s chop one,” he tells Slash.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal later that night:

“Slash’s eyes glow and a malicious grin cuts across his sagging mug. We’re in the projection room and they go to the counter and Artie begins to nonchalantly cut a fine white powder and shape lines. And he slurs, ‘Let’s make the first rock ’n’ roll porn film!’ They howl with laughter.”

The job was surreal that way. 

A callow journalism student at San Francisco State, I was lured to this unusual gig at “one of the most infamous and oldest erotic dance clubs in the country” by rumors that Hunter S. Thompson, an ink-stained hero, was working at the club as night manager to write a book. (He did work there for a bit in 1985. The book never materialized.)

When the place closed last fall due to Covid-19, right after its 51st anniversary — it opened on July 4, 1969 — many appraisals appeared about the O’Farrell Theatre’s checkered history. 

For instance: the Mitchell Brothers, Artie and Jim, were the defendants in over 200 court cases involving obscenity or related charges. (They were never convicted.) In 1991, Jim fatally shot Artie and was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. (Jim died in 2007 of a heart attack.) In 2000, their story was dramatized in the movie “Rated X” starring real-life brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as Artie and Jim.

The postmortems are expectedly zesty. Yet I haven’t read a better physical snapshot of the den of debauchery than this one from SFGate.com:

“Like most strip clubs, the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre is a plush, disorienting palace. Upon entry, the walls are smattered with headshots of dancers and pornographic memorabilia. The walls are mirrored; the curtains are velvet. For decades, beneath the scintillating glow of disco balls and red rotating lights, the carpeted kingdom has provided anything from nude lap dances to ‘flashlight shows’ for San Francisco’s ‘weirdo’ strip club clientele.”

The writer does neglect to mention the hallways lined with gurgling aquariums, the Green Door Room (three women and a working shower), the glass case stocked with pink sex toys, and that those flashlight shows were far more gynecological than titillating. (The writer also wouldn’t know what my manager told me on my first day: “Don’t touch the girls. It’s like fucking the boss’ wife.”)

To some, my job sounds breathlessly, unimaginably sexy, each shift an hours-long orgasm of totally unclothed ladies with frisky stage names — Bambi, Trixie, Roxie — doing things with and to each other many people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) conceive.

But a job it was — fun, alive, yet often grinding. I not only ran the old-school film projectors, I also DJ’d live shows, did floor “security” and made beer runs for the brothers and their guests. (Because the women were all-nude, no alcohol was sold in the club, and the brothers confined their partying to the upstairs offices and, in Artie’s case, the projection booth. I eventually split a DosXX with Slash there.) 

Besides the random celebrity client — GNR, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, in my day; Trevor Noah and Justin Bieber more recently — the famous folks who dropped in were usually working girls. These would be “golden age” strippers and porn stars, from Marilyn Chambers and Nina Hartley, to Hyapatia Lee (who generously lactated on the audience) and a geriatric Tempest Storm (who, dubbed “The Queen of Exotic Dancers,” died in April at age 93).

Backstage with two of my coworkers (photo not by me)

Call it an education. Chatting with male patrons, I learned what made them tick and why they kept coming back week after week or more. Chatting with female coworkers, I learned what leads one to strip and, in many cases, perform XXX acts in public. 

Rarely I got hit on by a dancer (“Anytime you want some excitement, let me know,” offered Sasha), or even a male customer (“Are you sure you wouldn’t take a tip to be touched somewhere?”). I learned how mundane the human body really is (and isn’t) and the contortionist lengths we’ll go to be turned on by it.

My stint at the O’Farrell was meant to be a life experience and, truly, fodder for my own writing. That implies I was enchanted and starry-eyed the whole time. I wasn’t. After my very first shift, I was effectively inured to the supposedly sexy spectacles. A fantasy for some, there’s little fantastic about it. It’s nude ladies. It’s horny men with rolls of cash. It’s a dubious lap-dancy, pelvic-thrusty, semen-stained subculture. It’s a job. 

Says one of the theater’s longtime (jaded?) DJs: “Being a male-bodied man in your 20s and being around naked women, it’s the shit, but after a while you’re desensitized, and they’re your sisters.”

Exactly. And that’s not so bad, is it?

The O’Farrell’s famous backside mural

Running the Red Light

As we strolled by the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, Amsterdam’s mecca of live sex shows, our Red Light District tour guide, an American expat with an aptly ribald air, offered the small group a couple of tips. 

“I strongly suggest you go to a live sex show, where you see people actually having sex on stage. And I think you should try the nearby peep show, where you can watch various sex acts through a little window at a cost of 2 euros for two minutes. It’s a riot.”

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Red Light District canal lined with lust and live sex shows. The fabled Casa Rosso on the left.

She chuckled at her naughty proposals, but she wasn’t kidding. While others in the tour vacantly snapped photos, she took me aside and stressed what a kick the peep shows are in language I won’t share on this page. 

Of course I took the bait. I was in Amsterdam last week and, as always in my travels, I strive for an immersive experience. I’d already caught one of the live sex shows during a previous visit to the city years ago. (It was one of the least sexy spectacles I’ve ever seen.)

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Perhaps the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam, The Bulldog, where pot and hash are sold and smoked. It’s also the most touristy.

So I went for the peep show, because at 2 euros ($2.37) there’s little to lose. The peep show theater is like most of the live sex show venues on the lip of the canal — dark with black walls and a few colorful lights. I walked into a broom-closet-size booth, dropped a coin into the slot, and a small window slid open. The whole thing smelled of disinfectant.

On view was a young woman in a thong bikini writhing on the floor, occasionally shaking her tush at my window, then writhing some more. Immediately bored, a tad nauseated, I lasted about 52 seconds. It was unsexy, unsavory, underwhelming. Moral qualms weren’t at play; aesthetics were. Yet I didn’t feel burned as I left. I didn’t know what to expect, although the tour guide promised miles more than what I saw. Glad I missed it.

Next to the fierce, hands-on-hips prostitutes rapping their glass windows to get my attention, that was the extent of the “sexy” side of the Red Light I endured on this visit. I skipped the ultra-raunchy Sexmuseum Amsterdam (I did that on the last trip; one word: bestiality) and the softer Erotic Museum, and eschewed the glut of tawdry sex shops selling so much rubber, leather and latex, eye-popping erotica so loony it was comical.

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Red-lighted brothel windows where sex workers showoff their merchandise.

Shot through with Instagram-ready canals and curling medieval alleyways, the Red Light District is so iconic it’s practically a cliché. Pot-peddling coffeeshops, bondage and condom stores, coitus and cannabis museums — a cornucopia of no-no’s that happen to be gleefully and legally A-OK. It’s a degenerate’s playground, a voyeur’s wonderland, and an exotic otherworld for the blamelessly curious.

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Oude Kerk

Rinsed of its notorious junky past, the Red Light is safe, clean and aggressively touristy. It can be enigmatic, and incongruities abound: Next to the Princess Juliana Nursery School, where children of sex workers attend, are not only brothels, but also the gothic 14th-century church De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), once Catholic and now a bastion of Dutch Protestantism. It’s the oldest building in Amsterdam. Around the corner is the city’s comparatively staid Chinatown, crackling with ethnic eateries, whole cooked ducks dangling in windows.

While pot-smoky coffeeshops and party-hearty bars lace the neighborhood — see The Bulldog chain — hidden gems are nestled amid the mild mayhem. Just off a canal, tucked in a snug alley, sits the jenever (Dutch gin) tasting tavern Wynand-Fockink, a 17th-century distillery of international renown that packs ‘em into its W.C.-sized room. 

The flavored and unflavored jenevers — scores of varieties line the back wall — are poured liberally in tulip glasses for free tastings. I tried a range of five, settling on a lemon-infused concoction that was as refreshing as lemonade, but with snap. 

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Some of my samples at the jenever tasting at Wynand-Fockink.

Frankly, it had more bite, imagination and personality than the pallid peep show I stumbled out of moments earlier. A good stiff drink is always a powerful antidote to a spirit-sucking sex show.

The Red Light District can’t quite transcend hard-stuck stereotypes. Yet physically it’s startlingly pretty, graced with old, skinny gabled houses, tree-lined canals and cobblestone pathways. It’s one of the city’s homiest hoods. Bicycles asphyxiate streets with a collective smile, wind-blown hair and the musical clangching of tiny bells.

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The District bristles with fast food stalls and it’s prime for the mandatory frites, or fries, drowned in mayo. A mad confusion of tourist shops tout the gamut: T-shirts and postcards, psychedelic mushrooms, pot-infused lollipops, trip-happy Space Cakes, bongs, pipes and papers, condoms and cock rings.

You can’t help smirking at this uninhibited XXX Disneyland, which broadcasts its checkered past in blazing neon and, with equally cheeky pride, trumpets a checkered present aspiring to smutty heights. Yet if it knows no limits, it’s clear that most of its visitors do. (As you’d expect, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.)

The District is hardly running amok (see these safety measures for sex workers), even if some imaginations do. With few exceptions, the place is shrink-wrapped, condom-coated, safe and, counterintuitively, good, clean fun. It’s naughty, but nice.