In spite of the somewhat raunchy title, this memoir, Two Decades Naked, immediately endeared itself to me, as it is initially set in my home town of Christchurch New Zealand. It is the nineties, and University student Leigh Hopkinson is finding her university degree expensive to pay for. Working in a fast food restaurant is not paying the bills, so after hearing that a quick buck can be made as a stripper, she decides to give it a go.
Figuring that she can just do it for as long as she needs to, then give it away, the young 19-year-old Leigh enters a twilight world full of complex characters and unique personalities. Initially, Leigh finds it to be a challenge to make up routines, compile tapes and work out some sexy moves, but manages to create her own persona and routine as ‘Holly.’ The setting itself is tawdry and sleaziness itself, and there is none of the expected glamour. However, Leigh soon finds that she settles into the niche she has created for herself, enjoying the easy and plentiful money but confident that she can drop it when she is ready.
However, the reader is drawn into Leigh’s slow but sure dependence upon her new skill. Because it pays so well, she doesn’t want to give up the easy money. Also, there is a certain type of satisfaction that comes from knowing her stage persona has so much power over men. The subtle but relentless changes in Leigh’s life are not apparent to her at first. She is convinced that stripping is only a temporary way to pay for her degree, but there is an outfall in relationships as others do not view it as being as harmless as she does. Her parents and various boyfriends find her new life to be challenging and so her supports are not there for her. Her new world starts to become her only world.
Although many would see a stripper as a sex worker, Leigh remains adamant that she will not cross self-imposed boundaries. Even when later on she becomes a table dancer in Melbourne, there are protocols which must be adhered to. The client must obey certain rules. The reader is able to sense that Leigh herself is adrift emotionally and unable to escape her small world. What started as a casual job becomes her real job. Although she leaves it for periods of time, the lure is always there of easy money and the adoration of men.
What I as a reader found fascinating is the way she writes about certain men who come to watch her shows. She takes us behind the dirty old man in a raincoat image to some ‘real’ men who often talk to her about their ‘real’ lives. In some ways, this book demystifies the world of stripping and allows us as the observer to view it with fresh and objective eyes.
Two decades later, the reader can again sense the loss of soul and identity that Leigh is experiencing. She tries yoga, travel and different relationships to bring peace into her own troubled world. She takes on different roles and learns new routines. Showgirl, pole dancer and table dancer. Her names change too to reflect her new persona. Holly becomes Sabrina and then becomes Juliette. Unable to detach from her job, it continues to negatively affect her relationships and also plays havoc with her health. Then eventually there is a complete sense of detachment as she sees herself from the outside, an actor playing a role on a stage.
This is a harrowing but engaging journey. Leigh’s twenty-year transition from a fresh-faced uni student to a burnt out stripper with a back problem is an intimate read. However, it is never sleazy, but is completely honest in that pragmatic Kiwi tell it like it is style. I found myself cheering her on from the comfort of my lounge room, because it could be any of us who chose in the complete innocence of youth something that can still have its addictive claws into us decades later. She does break free from the lifestyle and rebuilds her life and relationships, but the two decades naked have cost her plenty.
This is a wonderful read. Warm, funny, completely honest, sad and at times heart rending, it is an unforgettable story and an absorbing behind the scenes encounter into the supposed glamour and sexiness of strip clubs.
Two Decades Naked, Leigh Hopkinson’s first book, deserves to be read. It is published by Hachette Australia and is available now from Dymocks.