Sex and the city (of Chico)

You’d be amazed how many people are making big bucks in the adult entertainment industry

IT’S SHOWTIME <br>Desi pulls the curtain back and hits the Centerfolds stage.

Desi pulls the curtain back and hits the Centerfolds stage.

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s one, sometimes two women sitting alone at a table, away from the action. They’re not barflies there to drink away the night, and they’re not hanging around the lounge looking for single guys. Usually barely old enough to be in a bar, these are college girls, wide-eyed and a little green, and they’re exactly what he is looking for. The man in his late 20s nonchalantly approaches the table. He doesn’t buy “a drink for the lady,” and he isn’t asking for a dance. The soft-faced, soft-spoken stranger has a proposition to make.

“You’re gonna think I’m weird here, but I run this Web site and…” She takes his card, makes an appointment and agrees to meet at his studio in a day or two. Within minutes of arriving at the studio, she signs a release, chooses a fake name and takes off all her clothes.

This isn’t the “Welcome to the Jungle” story of Midwestern runaways getting snatched off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. This story is taking place at Fifth and Ivy and at Second and Wall, and these Chico women (and, at times, men) are happy to take their clothes off in front of a camera. They are being paid well for doing so.

Donovan Phillips is a local adult-content Web site entrepreneur. After a brief stint plying his trade in San Diego, he’s back in Chico and is still, with very little effort, getting strangers to get naked in his downtown studio. And it’s no wonder. If he, or any of the sites he supplies content for, thinks viewers will dig seeing you in all your nekkid glory, you will be paid 500 bones for an all-day birthday-suit photo shoot.

You may remember Phillips from reports about the fraud suit brought against him last April by a local model who said she didn’t agree to have her photos posted on his site. Her photos were taken down and the was case dismissed a few months later.

Signing over your intimate portraits for the entire digital universe to see is just one of the ways to use your money maker these days. In addition to models and Web masters, Chico boasts an impressive variety of vocational opportunities in the field of so-called “adult entertainment.” Strippers, sensual masseuses, private dancers, phone sex operators, sex toy retailers, adult video providers and even a Penthouse Pet are all making a living locally in this line of work.

This is surprising, right? Aside from our local strip joint (exiled out of sight on the road out of town), there are few signs of business of a sexual nature being conducted in our small, isolated town, and it would seem average Chicoans are fairly unaware of this bustling adult entertainment industry. Or are they?

If it’s for sale (in case there’s any doubt, check out page 42 of this newspaper), then someone must be buying.

Why should Chico be any different than the rest of the known universe? Adult entertainment is positively mainstream now. Besides the profusion of porn on the Internet, cable television and hotels are piping hardcore sex into any room in the country that can provide a credit card number. Plus, even though the validity of the numbers the industry’s trade magazine Adult Video News provides is regularly called into question, adult video sales bring in billions of dollars annually on their own.

CAN I SEE SOME ID? <br>Manager Paul Tharaldsen mans the door and the store at Centerfolds strip club and “couples boutique.”

Photo By Tom Angel

“Everybody comes out here—business owners, teachers, people who I thought I would never see here.” Speaking is “Jade,” a 23-year-old Chico native who, like others interviewed for this story, uses a stage name. She is one of the dozen or so exotic dancers working at Covergirl Centerfolds, Butte County’s only strip club.

When you pull into the gravel parking lot of the popular Highway 99 roadside attraction, it feels a little like a scene from the movie Porky’s, and you’ve just snuck away to that roadhouse hideaway on the outskirts of town. Inside the club, an hour before the shows begin, it feels like they’re getting ready for a rock concert. The dancers and manager are eating pizza and Mexican food, while the DJ is testing out the set-list for the night, and the bouncers set up chairs and light a single candle on each table.

A stream of young coed types with backpacks and those little suitcases on wheels make their way backstage to change into their costumes, and soon enough a couple of dancers emerge from the curtains between the wall of mirrors ready to begin their warm-ups. Once the two bleached-blond 21-year-olds in shiny G-strings begin their stretching routine, the room warms up a bit. I feel like I should have paid a cover charge.

Three of the dancers, Jade, 21-year-old Desi, and Ivy, a student at Chico State, talk to us about the work they do as they get ready for what they hope will be a busy Saturday night.

Jade has been dancing at Centerfolds since she was 19, and the tall and boisterous brunette is not shy about what has become a five-year career.

“It’s pretty easy to make a couple hundred a night,” she says, explaining the prime motivation for her longevity. “Anything less than a hundred dollars is a waste of time.”

The money is good for sure, but making striptease into your life’s work in an area as confined as Chico, there are also the real pressures of friends and family, not to mention the frequent moral objections from a fairly conservative county to deal with.

“If you’re going to do this job, everybody is going to find out about it,” Jade explains, “You might as well just have no hang-ups about it. Occasionally, girls will see their teachers or someone like that here and get uncomfortable, [but] you have to take a little pride in what you do.”

Jade was one of several employees at what was then The First Amendment Club who were charged with prostitution as the result of a sting operation headed by the Butte County Sheriff’s Department in March 2001.

“I was fortunate,” Jade explains, “I got one count of prostitution, which I was acquitted of back in September [2003]. All they had was video footage of me dancing on stage. I wasn’t putting my breasts in anyone’s face—I had no skin-to-skin contact.

MAN’S BEST FRIEND <br>Destiny and her dog Matty put the finishing touches on the new Ladies Ink striptease/sensual touch studio. Ladies Ink is just one of several studios doing business on the outskirts of Chico.

Photo By Tom Angel

“Anybody that came here knew that there were some things going on that were probably not OK,” she says, “but there were a lot of good girls working here at [that] time.”

The club is under new ownership now, and it would seem the peripheral activities have been pretty well quashed by an enhanced security plan and management team charged with protecting the owner’s investment. (Contacted for comment, District Attorney Mike Ramsey was unaware of any complaints against the club since the new owners took over.)

Alcohol isn’t served at the club, and anyone under the influence is turned away at the door. Any customer touching a dancer, whether in the lounge or during a lap dance in the so-called V.I.P. Room, is given one warning by the bouncer before being asked to leave. Plus, to ensure no arrangements are being made in the parking lot, the dancers aren’t even allowed to walk out to their cars. Bouncers escort them out, and boyfriends are made to wait in the gift shop when they come to pick someone up.

The strip club also boasts the area’s only full-scale storefront of adult paraphernalia. On one side of the room are the toys: a vibrator with a tiny camera inside (only $120), lifelike recreations of both male and female sexual organs (including a particularly stiff and sturdy ring toss game), and for the smart shopper “The Couple’s Collection,” featuring a dozen or so boudoir accoutrements for a mere $99. The last is a good deal, says club manager Paul Tharaldsen: “Just one of the vibrators in there and the pump would be about $99 if you were to buy them individually.”

The bulk of the store, however, is pure porn, with softcore to hardcore magazines and “over 10,000” videos and DVDs for sale or rent.

Part of the game plan for distancing itself from the tainted image of The First Amendment Club has been to project a more couples-friendly climate, which the gift shop and even the occasional traveling “male review” have been successful at doing.

“We changed our ad to ‘a couple’s boutique,’ “ Tharaldsen explains, “We’ve changed a lot of the videos that we have to more couple-oriented videos. We’ve enlarged our selection of toys. We have people coming in for the store who wind up going into the club.”

Tharaldsen has worked in the gift shop for the last three years, manning the store, collecting the cover charge and keeping an eye on the split-screen monitor, with its six cameras keeping watch over every corner of the club. The 20-something Red Bluff native sees every person who goes in and out of the club and guesses that “Pretty much, I can say I’ve met everyone in Chico once. … Sooner or later just about everybody comes out just to see what it’s like.”

"[There are] older people, younger people, married couples,” says Desi, giving her take on the demographic spectrum of Centerfold’s clientele. She has been dancing at Centerfolds for the past year and a half, and her fresh-scrubbed look and quiet demeanor belie the confident, devil-may-care energy on display as she gleefully demonstrates the proper way to slide from the ceiling to the floor while wrapped around one of the firehouse poles on the square stage.

Like all the current dancers at the club, Desi came in for the official tryout, the regular Monday-night amateur night, and sees this work as a viable career, one that enables her to have the money and the time to raise her daughter, while other entry-level jobs don’t.

Local girl Chantelle Fontaine poses with a couple of the adult magazines she appears in thanks to the exposure she received on Donovan Phillip’s local Web site. Now a Penthouse Pet, Chantelle is flown around the country to apear at magazine functions to the tune of $400 per day.

“I was taking care of mentally ill people for a while,” Desi explains, “but it was contradicting with schedules, and I wasn’t making as much money doing that as I was [dancing].”

“I think people see this as not a real job,” Jade interjects. “They see it as temporary or just some kind of phase that we’re going through. Despite a lot of problems this job can have, I really enjoy doing this. … There are a lot of nice people in this town, and the people who do respect this job make up for the people who don’t.”

Most of the dancers, however, are more likely to be doing it part time. The two women I spoke with during their warm-ups did not want to be identified and admitted that they see the job as stop-gap solution to temporary financial needs.

While Ivy, the Chico State student, enjoys the dancing and working with the other women, she too is not in it for the long haul.

“I only work Fridays and Saturdays, and I make enough to pay my rent, pay my bills and go school. [It’s] a great school job. … I should be done in July because I’ll be graduating Chico State, so I’ll be ready to start a career.”

If Centerfolds is the most visible adult venue in town, Marquise Entertainment is a close second. Lee Jones, the owner-operator of Marquise, the longest-running striptease company in Chico, is familiar with Ivy’s motives. The short, muscular Jones graduated with a business management degree from Chico State and, following stints as a most imposing bouncer at various bars around town, he started his now 9-year-old business. Serving mostly bachelor parties and fraternity functions, Jones stocks his roster of dancers almost exclusively with women in Ivy’s situation.

“This is very lucrative,” he says. “A lot of people who work with me are college students. Our turnover is quite low. Some dancers have been here for five years.”

As soon as you cross Eaton Road on the way to the Chico Municipal Airport, it feels like you’re no longer in the city of Chico. In three directions there’s nothing but fields, fences and the industrial park surrounding the airport up ahead. The industrial park is actually part of the city, and it’s one of the areas to which the city funnels the manufacturing, auto repair and other industries that are too noisy or messy to be next to homes, schools and retail stores in the center of the town. It’s also the one place the city will allow the sensual massage/private dancing companies to set up shop within city limits.

Maneuvering around the potholes in the parking lot of one of the many giant warehouses surrounding the airpark, it’s hard not to be depressed by the scene on the way to T&A’s studio. On a dark, rainy night, its dented, awning-less aluminum façade has the potential to be a fairly foreboding sight for both employee and customer.

I’m greeted by a cautious “Who is it?” before Chyna, the manager of the studio, leads me into a small lounge with two cushy chairs, a few men’s magazines and a friendly little Chihuahua named Mini Me.

Donovan Phillip’s Web site

There are three doors off the lounge, each leading to a bedroom-size room that each girl rents for an undisclosed amount. Two of the rooms are very sparse—a few clean towels and a massage bench set up in the center. The third room is Chyna’s, and it’s tricked out with a stereo, Christmas lights, candles, feathers and a Bruce Lee poster. It looks a lot like the fun mess of a teenager’s bedroom.

Reading from a script to a prospective customer on the phone, Chyna describes herself as “T&A’s gorgeous, naughty redhead,” and the mother of two adds to that resume an impressive surgically augmented chest and some well-defined arm muscles that suggest she’s very prepared for the work T&A is advertising.

“Adult entertainment” is where Chyna’s description begins. “We do mostly sensual massage. … I do therapeutic massage as well—so I’ve kind of combined mine, therapeutic and sensual, all into one.” (Since our interview Chyna has moved on to open her own Chyna’s Massage.)

While most of the women get started in this line of work at a fairly young age, Chyna (now 37) has been in the business only about a year now. As a Los Angeles transplant, Chyna’s story is a familiar one. After moving to the Northstate, she was unable to find steady work in her field of Web design in this area. Although she does draw an income from Social Security from an injury she sustained while transferring a patient as a nurse’s aide ("I have two steel plates in my back"), the money was not enough to support a family. “It came down to being homeless or finding another job.”

The job at studios like hers basically involves combining striptease with as much touch as is legal into an approximation of having sex without actually having sex, and the cost for such service reflects as much. Each studio works on about the same scale, with the entry-level one-hour topless massage going for around $100 and a one-hour fully nude private striptease at roughly $160. For a fully nude hour of work, whether massage, striptease or a combination of both, the women can come away with around $200 after tips.

The money is good for the time spent working, but the reality of the work environment can be sketchy at times, especially when you add in the fact that around half of the appointments are outcall, wherein the performers are actually going into the clients’ homes for the one-to-one meetings. Chyna, who sports a black belt in karate, is hardly fazed by this component of the job.

“They’re all expecting full-service. I like to get the ones like that because I can show them what a real therapeutic, sensual massage feels like, and they can feel just as good when they leave as [they would] if they were to have sex.” Despite the rules, Chyna realizes that “all of the guys expect to get off,” and her simple solution is to tell them, “Do it yourself.”

While having someone rub you while you rub yourself may seem like borderline prostitution, Ramsey says, “If they [the clients] do it themselves, I don’t see any violation. … [But it’s] kinda gross.” He also insists that he’s “not encouraging that.”

The expectation of sex is the biggest stumbling block in the field, and despite the mindset of many of the clients and the reality that there are those who make it harder on others by providing “extras,” most of the women are not interested in crossing that line.

Stacey, a former manager for Ladies Ink, has been doing massage and striptease in Chico since she was 18 (she’s 24 now). She’s leaving the company and moving away for school, but in her six years of experience, the key to keeping things safe was for both the performer and the client to have a clear understanding of the other’s frame of mind.

“Being a private show, of course everyone thinks that all the girls are prostitutes. Actually, most of our girls are 18-year-olds, and they’re scared of you.” As she sees it, once the clients get the message, “It’s actually rather safe. A lot of the guys don’t want prostitutes. They just want a pretty girl to come be cute. A lot of guys are old and lonely and they don’t even want a massage. They just want somebody to hang out with.”

Of course, the most dependable safety valve is the fact that a lot of the clients do not want anyone knowing what they’re doing, and these out-of-the-way zones of business do a good job of facilitating that.

Just a long stone’s throw across a dirt lot from the T&A studio is where Ladies Ink is putting the finishing touches on its new studio, and owner Destiny has no problem doing business in the sticks. “It should be kept in the outskirts area. Gentlemen prefer it that way anyway,” the 25-year-old entrepreneur shares.

Where the T&A studio had a relaxed, Chico party-house vibe, Ladies Ink’s new digs are just plain relaxing. The scented candles, flowers and soothing music give the place a kind of New Age spa feel, and from the inside it’s hard to visualize that you’re in a room tacked onto the end of an auto shop.

There’s just the one room that all the performers share. Destiny takes the calls from the clients and contacts anyone who has checked in for the night to schedule the room. The performers are subcontractors, and they pay Destiny a fee for each show she schedules.

No longer a dancer herself, Destiny, now a wife and mother, admits, “This [business] is just a little project. At some point I’d like to sell it.”

While most of the businesses in this field are content with keeping a low profile, both for the provider and the consumer, adult entertainment has nonetheless become a multibillion-dollar industry, and our digital ability to access this supposed underworld instantaneously is opening a lot of eyes to its financial possibilities. Which is exactly what motivated Donovan Phillips to start asking women to take their clothes off for the camera in the first place. Once he graduated from Chico State, Phillips realized that a conventional career on the Web was not in the cards for him.

“The actual money on the Internet—everyone that wasn’t going broke—was on the adult side,” says Phillips. Realizing this, he set about gathering content for a site of his own, at first approaching exotic dancers and then eventually gaining the courage to solicit complete strangers for his photo shoots.

“If they actually believe that you’re doing it for business reasons, the majority of them are interested nowadays,” he explains. And, adding to the notion that the times are changing in the digital telecommunications age, Phillips guesses that the reason “75 percent” of the women say yes is, “the modern generation of girls is a lot more open to anything adult related.”

The proof is in cyberspace. Many of the women Phillips has photographed have been successful in selling their images to numerous Web sites. A few, including Phillips’ girlfriend, have even started their own pay-to-see-me-naked home pages.

The biggest success story in this area so far though (and the one Phillips wisely advertises prominently on his site) is that of Chantelle Fontaine. The sweet-faced redhead went from a series of shy-looking snapshots on Phillips’ site to become the September 2003 Penthouse Pet of the Month in less than a year, transforming into a glammed-up blonde in the process.

This barely 20 local girl still brings in the standard $500 per photo shoot (she continues to do Web work and does features for other men’s magazines, such as Cheri and Club), and Penthouse flies her all around the country for promotions. All expenses are paid (except for cigarettes), and for just standing there and looking pretty she takes home $400 a day.

“I might as well make the money while I can," Fontaine says shrugging, "I’m still young, you know. Why not?"