The club was called The Showboat. It’s where the young, pretty girls from the “lower 48” worked. Men were guaranteed to feel good when they were at The Showboat. It was like their Cheers: We knew their names, they knew ours; they had their favorite seats and their favorite girls. There was nothing else to do in Fairbanks, Alaska. You either went to the local tattoo shop, this one dive bar, or our club, The Showboat, where you could see nice-looking girls and enjoy the fireplace.

I’d dance for them and they’d just gaze at me. I could see the loneliness in their eyes. They’d want to know if I wanted to get something to eat later. Could they give me their phone number? Would I sit with them a little longer? I always did—they were my friends, too.

Courtesy of Valerie Hager

Then my boyfriend and I broke up and I lost my job at a record store and my car was taken away because I had been driving on a suspended license, and I kept getting parking ticket after parking ticket. I owed something like $3,500. It was all happening at once: the boyfriend, the job, the car, the money. What do I do? I went to the only person who could understand my situation: Raven*. She’d been my best friend since eighth grade. We just got each other. She said, “Take a shower and get your shit together.” That night we drove 45 minutes to Tijuana, where she’d been working as a stripper.

“I SAW STRIPPING AS GLAMOROUS AND MAGICAL. ALL THAT LAUGHTER AND MUSIC AND BEAUTIFUL WOMEN…AND THE PROMISE OF CASH.”

I didn’t see stripping as potentially dangerous. I saw it as glamorous and magical. All that laughter and music and beautiful women…and the promise of cash. But I was terrified: Raven was my age but so far ahead of me. I was like, “Who’s going to pay for a dance with me?! Who do I think I am?” She said, “You’re fine. I’ll take care of you.”

She was such a tough bitch. She was everything I felt I wasn’t: sexually desirable, magnetic, cocky, self-assured, a badass. I watched her dance, studied her from every angle. I wore her outfit and her shoes—which I could barely walk in. She even chose my first song for me. Once I felt the lights, something broke through: I’d danced and done theater as a kid, and suddenly I remembered the thrill. I had that desperate desire underneath to be wanted and validated. That hunger. In that moment, I realized, I’m not going to fall. I don’t care if I don’t know what to do; I’m going to make everyone in here love me.

I made $800 that first night. It might as well have been a million. I used most of it to pay some of the parking tickets, but spent a little on a hot new lipstick, too.

We went down to Tijuana several times a week. One night, Mexican immigration busted the club and arrested the American girls who didn’t have work visas. I hid under the sink in the bathroom, but officers found me. They just told me to leave and never come back.

I figured I was done stripping. Then Raven invited me to go with her to Alaska. She’d been dancing there during the summer for a year. I told my family that I was going to be a showgirl in the wilderness. I made it sound like a cabaret—a fun, glamorous performance. Nobody at home knew what I was really up to.

“THERE WERE STILETTOS AND CIGARETTE BUTTS TOSSED ALL OVER THE FLOOR—IT WAS AN ACT OF REBELLION FOR THESE GIRLS NOT TO CLEAN UP THEIR STUFF, LIKE I DO WHAT I WANT.”

We arrived in Fairbanks in the summer, when it was light almost 24 hours a day. The Showboat’s manager, David*, picked Raven and me up at the airport in a giant blue Cadillac and took us to the club, this enormous cabin in a pile of dirt.

I loved Fairbanks immediately. Anchorage kind of looks like any other city, but Fairbanks is pristine. You can see a mama moose just walking with her baby along the highway. The town had a lost-souls vibe, like people came there to find something, or escape something. There were all of these young, rugged, handsome, rowdy boys—some from the nearby military base, some construction workers from the lower 48.

Even though Raven wasn’t a local girl, she quickly became the top dog at the club. She was just so damn talented—a strong, stunning performer who did gymnastic moves on stage. There was no way you could deny her. She brought in a lot of money.

We’d play off our friendship in our acts. Raven wore red stilettos and danced to heavy metal. I’d wear a little pink bikini with my naturally curly blonde hair and frosted lipstick. I was the light to her dark, like a sparkly fairy. My stage name was Autumn. Autumn was the person I wished I was—playful and soft and adventurous; unafraid to show off her body. The real me was anxious to change in a women’s locker room—I’d shimmy my underwear on under a towel.

Most of the seasonal dancers lived in a dorm underneath the club for $10 a day. There were six bunk beds along a wall and one shared bathroom, which always smelled like Clorox bleach. Clorox, cigarettes, and cotton candy from this body spray they sold at the grocery store. All the furniture was secondhand, and you’d have to put a towel down on the couch if you wanted to sit because it was so scratchy. There were stilettos and cigarette butts tossed all over the floor—it was an act of rebellion for these girls not to clean up their stuff, like I do what I want. We were the lost boys from Peter Pan. The lost girls.

It felt like a family, and really, that was one of the reasons why I loved stripping: that support from the other women, and the attention, that love, from the clients. I was sober, but I still felt empty and unworthy the way I had when I was using. For a while, stripping filled those parts of me.

And as Raven’s sidekick, I had it good. There was only one private bedroom off the main basement area and that’s where she and I shared a bunk bed. The separation conveyed our status: We were different from the other girls. We ran the show.

Courtesy of Valerie Hager