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Lorelei Lee Gets Nakedly Personal In Sex Worker Art Show

TULSA, Okla. (written by Gram Ponante on ) – Lorelei Lee is a driven woman. That’s why she’s driven nine hours in a van with burlesque artists, drag queens and dominatrices in order to tell several dozen Okies in Tulsa, Okla., what it’s like to shoot porn.

It’s all part of the Sex Workers Art Show (SWAS), a production visiting 30 cities this winter, and by the end of the show, the delighted Tulsans will also have heard about growing up gay, caught tips from a dominatrix, and watched several edgy modern burlesque performances.

SWAS began as a local event in Olympia, Wash. in 1997 and has steadily expanded its range. Organized by sex worker, road manager, “den mother” and emcee Annie Oakley, the show hits clubs, colleges, and community centers nationwide. This year’s version will visit more than 30 locations from Huntsville, Ala. to Harvard University, helping to challenge the public perception of what sex workers are.

Performers like dominatrix Keva I Lee and burlesque artistes The World Famous “Bob” and Dirty Martini share the stage with writers like Chris Kraus, whose “I Love Dick” (Semiotext(e)-2006) heralded “a new kind of female life.”

The show’s porn representative is Lee, whose work in movies like “Interracial Hole Stretchers,” while graphic and clinical, is not as candid as her prose.

For Lee, 26, who will be reading pieces about her journey into and through the porn world, public performance is a new and daunting experience.

“People think porn performers are exhibitionists,” she said, “but, really, there aren’t that many people in the room when we’re filming, so getting up onstage in places like Olympia and San Francisco, where we had audiences of five or six hundred people, was intimidating.”

Lee, who took her “nom de porn” from Marilyn Monroe’s character in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” has appeared in adult titles ranging from the innocuous-sounding (“Naughty Flipside” and “Upload”), to the extreme (“Anal Nurse Whores”). When she shows up for movie work in places like San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, she sometimes does not know the title of the movie she’ll be appearing in, only the services she’ll be asked to perform. When her agent calls her, “dialogue” or “script” are mentioned fewer times than “anal.”

So Lee has been impressed with the “fearless” work of fellow performers like Kirk Read, author of “How I Learned To Snap: A Small Town Coming-Out And Coming-Of-Age Story” (Penguin).

“I was an audience member in 2007 when the show came to San Francisco. Kirk Read was in the show and I was just captivated by his writing.”

Lee writes about filming a bondage movie at a location in San Francisco:

Last week at the Citadel, Chanta tied me helpless like the cartoon woman on the railroad tracks. Otto Bauer spanked my ass, slapped my face, threw me down on the floor so I got a little rugburned circle on my cheekbone.

“Did you break the skin?” asked the woman who runs the place. “You better put alcohol on that, we got all kinds of people doing all kinds of things on that carpet.”

On a shelf in one corner of the room there were big medicine jars of condoms, alcohol pads, lube. I looked at my face in the mirror, make-up running in grey liquid patches, hair standing up, bruise appearing above my lip. I swabbed alcohol across the skin near my temple.

“You’re one of those girls make-up does no favors,” Otto said.

Lee missed a dress rehearsal so she didn’t see this year’s show until opening night of the first performance.

“When we did the first show in Portland, I was so impressed by each individual performer; I just felt lucky to be a part of the show. As I was watching the other performers I thought – the bar is set really high. I was so impressed by the intelligence and craft that has clearly gone into each act.”

“It’s interesting to talk to a bunch of other sex workers about porn because it’s a reminder of how different each of our individual experiences is and how, for example, someone who will take their clothes off onstage wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable doing the same thing on camera — or even getting their photo taken — whereas I’m sort of terrified by a large audience,” Lee said.

But the audience experience is becoming more and more appealing for Lee.

“Audience reaction has been profoundly positive and encouraging,” she said. “I think of our audiences in the Northwest as the home crowd [the show originated in that part of the country] so I think we expected the supportive crowds there. But I personally never expected to ever read my fiction to hundreds of cheering people at once.

“My hometown show — San Francisco — was really a fantasy come true for me. Not only were my writing teachers — who I owe so much to — there in the audience, but also many of my personal heroes like Michelle Tea, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Leigh, a.k.a. the Scarlet Harlot, as well as all of my close friends who I consider to be my chosen family. It was an incredible night.”

The tour is partially funded by colleges, where it is a big draw, but also plays to smaller audiences as well. That thrills Lee who enjoys “the intimacy” of the smaller venues.

The show ran into a snag at a scheduled UCLA performance when the student group that booked the event failed to book a place to perform it. Oakley quickly arranged a makeup show for the next night at the Mountain Bar, a hipster hangout in L.A.’s Chinatown neighborhood.

The smaller venue was a nice change of pace for Lee.

“I could actually see the reactions on the faces of the people I was reading to,” she said. “I was watching one guy in the third row who was clearly listening and reacting to each part of the story in a way that was so unguarded … I could tell he didn’t know I could see him. I loved that because his face was so honest.”

Lee said the show is not designed for anything more specific than presenting a range of perspectives and media, but that audiences can expect a lot of stimulation.

Will the audience laugh, cry, get angry, walk out, fall in love?

“Yes,” Lee said. “All of the above. Each night is a little different depending on the venue we’re performing in and the moods of the performers, so the tone of the show will vary slightly from night to night. But also, the show has a lot of different arcs — some of it is funny and some of it is sad and some of it might be a little shocking. No one has walked out yet, but it could happen.”

It is too early to tell whether the craft involved in the other performances, such as that of dominatrix Keva I Lee or burlesque artists Dirty Martini or The World Famous “Bob,” will have some bearing on Lee’s porn work, to which she will return in March, but the experience has been transformative.

“I know that I have fallen a little bit in love with each of my fellow performers,” she said.


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