I Was a Stripper in America's Most Male-Dominated State

Valerie Hager spent years dancing in Alaska, where she made as much as $1,500 a night from men with money to burn.

Snow, Winter, Sugar house, Hill station, Tree, Geological phenomenon, Ice, Home, Freezing, House,

(Image credit: Valerie Hager/Animation by Crystal Law)

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.

Sitting, Leg, Couch, Fun, Furniture, Vacation,

(Image credit: Courtesy of Valerie Hager)

I knew that empty feeling. I started using meth at 14—my parents were divorced, my grades and self-esteem were in the toilet, and my weight seemed like the one thing I could control. Somehow, in my 14-year-old mind, meth was a great diet drug. One day I was sitting in my boyfriend's car; the window was cracked open and a beautiful red leaf drifted through the window. It felt like a message—that life was bigger, fuller than this. I looked in the rearview mirror, saw my blackened eyes, and realized I was going to die. I was 18. That's when I quit cold turkey and started going to NA meetings.

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.

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Valerie Hager)

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.

I had a few boyfriends during my summers at the Showboat, all of whom were customers first. They'd be so enamored of my world, like "Oh my god, I'm dating one of them." When Raven and I went to the grocery store, men recognized us in the aisles, like we were celebrities. My first was a construction worker from Montana, an all-American cattle boy. We had a summer of love.[image id='eee2b5ce-6ae3-4c47-993a-ab5f1ab78320' mediaId='48ab0944-603a-4744-a25b-2da9469fecdb' caption='' loc='R' share='false' expand='false' size='M'][/image]

No one knew where we came from; no one knew our past. We were in the middle of the nowhere and making so much money, sometimes up to $1,500 a night. I'd convert $10,000 at a time into money orders that I hid under my bed to bring home in the fall. We felt invincible.

The manager made us feel safe, with solid security guards who actually stopped guys who got too touchy; not every club did that. The Hells Angels protected us, too. I still don't completely understand what their relationship was with the club, whether they were getting a cut or what. All I know is they'd say to us, "If he's messing with you, you let us know and we'll take care of him."

A few weeks into our first season, Raven and I were booked for a bachelor party outside of the club. The Hells Angels drove us two hours out into the woods to a house, where they stood there with their arms crossed while we danced for the party. I had never done anything like that before. Now I think of all the things that could have happened to me in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere…we were really naive, but we felt safe.

After that first season, I'd spend the summers in Alaska, and in winter, I would go to Los Angeles and try to make it as an "actress." I'd book a TV role here, a dancing gig there. I started staying in Alaska a little longer, mostly to take advantage of the dividend checks that go to Alaskans each October to motivate them to live there all year. The government paid them $2,000, and the men would run out to our club with the money burning a hole in their pockets. That's a lot of cash to spend on strippers, so it was a holiday for me, too.

My friendship with Raven began to crack. I didn't want to be the cute little sidekick all the time; I wanted to feel that sexy power. The other girls would talk shit about her behind her back, the way you do with any queen bee, and occasionally I would snark along with them. Raven had her ways of maintaining control in situations and relationships—she'd flirt with my boyfriends, sitting on their laps and whispering in their ears. That got old fast. When you were her friend, she'd do anything for you, fight to the death. But she could be so calculating, so manipulative.

Reflection, Smoke, Glass,

(Image credit: Courtesy of Valerie Hager)

I'd always modeled my dancing after hers, but eventually I started to wear her darker costumes and take her songs for my act, too. Things got more and more prickly between us, but never outright hostile. I ignored her, or alienated her. She eventually went to a branch of the club in Anchorage and found a new sidekick. Now I was in the top spot.

But once I got there, I realized I didn't know what I was doing at all.

There were times when I felt uncomfortable, too. In certain situations with certain men, I felt like I wasn't in control. My naïveté started to wear off and—like back when I was a teenager in my boyfriend's car—I realized I had to get out.

I spent a while stripping in L.A., but the guys were so much creepier and more aggressive than the Alaskan boys. Some would leave their fly unzipped. One night, a guy pulled out his penis while getting a lap dance and forced me to grind on him—and I finally freaked out. I walked up to the manager, who was a good guy, and said, "I can't be here anymore, I'm done." I walked out and with each step it as like a weight was lifting, like This is what breathing is. I didn't realize I'd been holding my breath all these years.

Human leg, Entertainment, Performing arts, Artist, Pink, Wrist, Magenta, Dancer, Knee, Acrobatics,

(Image credit: Courtesy of Valerie HagerHuman leg, Entertainment, Performing arts, Artist, Pink, Wrist, Magenta, Dancer, Knee, Acrobatics, )

Eventually my dad connected me with people who did character work, like playing Cinderella at a kid's birthday party. I also enrolled in improv classes, and my teacher set me up with a guy she thought I might like, Scott. We fell in love. When I told Scott about the things I'd seen and done, he would just listen and hold me. He said it made him love me more. Finally getting the love I'd been looking for all along, that acceptance from another person, helped me heal. I started to take better care of myself, which built my self-esteem, and little by little, I evolved.

I decided to move with him to New York City. It was only then, unpacking my old photos and journals, that I started thinking clearly about my weird and wonderful times in Alaska. Scott encouraged me to write about it. The words started to form a play, a one-woman show in which I was all the characters: Raven, David, the old boyfriends, my younger self. I danced on a pole and even gave audience members lap dances as part of the show. I called it "Naked in Alaska (opens in new tab)." So far, five thousand people have watched my story: 10 years of my life in 80 minutes.

Last summer, I returned to Alaska for the first time in over a decade, to perform the show at the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez. A lot has changed in Alaska since I left. The club is still open, even though it only has one star on Yelp now. But Fairbanks still has that stunning scenery, that sense of romance. Part of me still thinks it's the most beautiful place in the world.

*Names have been changed.

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Kaitlin Menza
Kaitlin Menza