Season 4, Episode 2
Zelda + Carsie Blanton
Zelda, photo by Don Curry
Social worker Zelda used to work as a stripper, and she sees striking similarities between the two jobs. The patrons of the club in New Orleans where she danced often told her things that they had never told their wives and girlfriends.
“It’s the same thing. You’re paying for the hour, you’re telling deep, dark secrets,” she says. “You’re having that undivided attention and being heard.”
Zelda, who asks that her given name not be used for privacy reasons, said that she began stripping after she got a PhD in educational psychology and couldn’t find a job in academia.
“I was raised in a very Christian, evangelical, fundamentalist home, but I had been a trained dancer since I was in ballet since I was three years-old,” she says. “I was also a trained aerialist at the time, and I thought, ‘You know what? I can’t get a job. I’m going to try this club thing.’ At 31 years-old.”
Though Zelda found stripping demanding, and sometimes degrading, the money was very good. Zelda also discovered that making good money was often less about taking her clothes off than about being a good listener. Given her background in psychology, this came naturally – she was particularly adept at selling time in private “champagne rooms.”
“The most expensive room for an hour at the club was, I think, $6000?” Zelda says. “For one hour, that’s no sex. And they’d pay it! And honestly for the most part in champagne rooms they literally just wanted to talk. Or take a nap.”
Over time, though, stripping began to take a toll on Zelda’s mental health. Thinking about next steps, she realized that the skills she developed at the strip club could be repurposed. She went back to school for a masters in social work, and now works in hospice.
“I absolutely love the field of hospice. We’re all going to die. No one gets out of here alive. And recognizing that and accepting it with grace helps you live the best life you possibly can,” Zelda says. Reflecting on her own life, Zelda tells me that there is no comparison.
“I am far happier now, making a fraction of the insane cash I used to make, because I’m stable, I’m healthy, I sleep,” Zelda laughs.
Carsie Blanton, photo by Shervin Lainez
Songwriter Carsie Blanton wrote a song in response to Zelda’s story called “Into the Light.” Carsie lived for years in New Orleans, and says that the city is deeply connected both to life and death.
“It’s sort of decaying and coming to life at the same time,” Carsie says. “It’s at risk of flooding and being under water all the time, and there’s always these parades that come through the city all the time. It reminds you of death, but also of life.”
Carsie, who is a passionate socialist, sees lots of connections between social work and sex work and music. In each job, she observes, the financial exchange hinges on the intrinsic value of human connection.
“What they’re really saying at the CD table and at the strip club and when they go to grief counseling is: witness me. Let me tell you my story. Give me your attention. Listen to me,” says Carsie “Whether because you’re a beautiful woman who’s naked or because you wrote a song they liked.”
This has become even more essential during the pandemic. Carsie describes the first shows she played after quarantine as intensely emotional, for the performers and the audience.
“Being a performer is about giving people an emotional space,” Carsie says, “Because people are just tore up right now. There’s so much grief and anxiety, just in any crowd in America.
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