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!).
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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.