Bring On the Dancing Girls...

Dreams can come true. It can happen to you, if you have pay-per-view.
For every Beavis or Butt-head sitting on a couch and experiencing a surge of testosterone, the sexual equivalent of the 7th Cavalry is waiting to be summoned. It's just a phone call and $9.99 away.

That's all it takes to pull The Girls of Rick's from the Warner Cable pay-per-view umbilical cord and into your living room. Yes, they will be two-dimensional and insubstantial, but it's half the price of a table dance and it lasts 73 minutes, which is a lot longer than most men would last if these girls were real.

Rick's Cabaret is one of Space City's upscale strip joints (Oxymoron No. 1) that attempt to erase the stigma of walking into a nudie bar by charging a $6 cover, hiking drink prices, serving edible food and not hiring any strippers who have tattoos. Robert Watters, the owner of the joint, must be doing something commercially right -- the thriving place has now produced its eighth, and so far glossiest and most ambitious, naked-woman video.

Watters put up the moolah, Los Angeles video-veteran Dan O'Dowd produced it and Earl Miller, a well-traveled shutterbug for IPenthouseI magazine, directed. During a recent visit in a back room at the "cabaret," Miller and O'Dowd trip over themselves in praising Rick's and its owner. Says Miller, "Robert Watters is a very classy guy. He defies the stereotype of a titty-bar club owner."

(Just what would that stereotype be? Someone who makes oodles of money off the sexual frustration of men and the sexual objectification of women? Oh, no, notI that Istereotype.)

O'Dowd looks like a cross between a GQ model and a slightly graying fraternity brother. But when he talks you have the urge to keep your hand on your wallet -- he sounds Hollywood slick and on the make.

Miller is wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a Penthouse baseball cap, and he's not at all self-conscious about the project. He's been shooting nude women for 22 years. He says that he and O'Dowd are out to produce "high-caliber, R-rated programming." (Oxymoron No. 2.)

O'Dowd says Miller is the best at what he does, which is take pictures of naked women for Penthouse and only Penthouse. "When you bastardize yourself and whore yourself out ... to any of those other publications," O'Dowd says with a straight face, "you don't get the quality this guy does."

Miller accepts the compliment. "It's a quality thing. If you don't shoot for Playboy or Penthouse, the rest is a bunch of shit," he says. "I've been fortunate to shoot so much for Penthouse it hasn't been a consideration for me. I could have always shot for the other magazines, but I don't want to just grind out cheap tits-and-ass stuff to make a living."

(Expensive Itits-and-ass stuff -- that's where the quality is.)
Houston may be the Energy Capital, and its name may be the first official word broadcast from the surface of the moon, but for O'Dowd and Miller, the main attraction is good-lookin' women willing to take off their clothes for money.

"It's not just Houston, it's this club," says Miller. "I've done pet searches everywhere." (Quick quiz: Is the term "pet search" a demeaning sexist depiction of a search for an attractive woman? Next question.)

Miller and O'Dowd -- who have teamed up to form a video company, Erotic Visions -- list Houston as the best, in both number and quality, city in North America when it comes to, well, gentleman's clubs. Miller ranks Dallas and Atlanta close behind, followed by Vancouver. (Some things are hard to explain.)

All this travel and all these naked women cause small confusions: Miller says, "Robert Watters has the only club in Dallas, uh, Houston that has the vision to want to do something of this caliber and see the value of it."

The Girls of Rick's is destined to be the first in a series of R-rated "Girls of" videos planned for pay-per-view and video sales. Videos will be filmed at other strip joints. This first effort will be offered nationally through cable, then to home video and possibly late night on the Showtime channel -- or so O'Dowd hopes.

O'Dowd says the 73-minute video, which shows nine gals dancing and striking various non-dancing poses, is cut down from 84 hours of film. (Oh, the outtakes...)

(Parenthetical video review: The dialogue gives new dimensions to the word "inane." Imagine someone reading aloud a centerfold's favorite things. Lots of slow-motion, a bit of auto-eroticism, a long bump-and-grind performance on a stationary motorcycle surrounded by fog, and an inexplicable segment in the country where the dancers pose on a front porch wearing see-through body suits. But who expected a plot? The women get naked and they gyrate. What do you want for $9.99?)

Explains O'Dowd, "We shoot well into what you can call an "X" situation, though it was never our intention to do that.... You have to go further and then back up into it." Miller adds that they don't do hardcore. (Read: The only man in the video is there to witness a table dance, there's no female-to-female contact, no toys, just dancin' and full frontal nudity.)

Two of the Rick's girls who are in the video are pleased as punch to get the exposure. Their stage names are Miranda and Irie (they say their real names are Lisa and Jennifer). The other girls in the video are Max, Shasta, Suzette, Anna and Tigger.

Miranda is 23 and from just north of Lake Charles, Louisiana. She's been dancing for more than two years. Irie, from Houston, is 21 and has been dancing for 18 months. Both are blonds. Both are thrilled to be in the video.

"There's some pretty gynecological shots, but nothing vulgar to me," says Irie. Miranda describes it as "very tasteful."

Both Irie and Miranda know what many viewers will be doing after they dial in their pay-per-view order for The Girls of Rick's.

rie says, "We've been asked this question a few times: How does it feel to know that every man in America will be jerking off to you?"

(Almost every man. Certainly someone out there will be watching Dick Van Dyke reruns or C-SPAN's subcommittee hearings.)

"I try not to think about it," Miranda says. "I just try to think that Penthouse thought we were good enough. Mainly, we're doing this to get a little further down the road, to take us places. We try not to think about it. We know there's weirdos out there."

Miranda seems to realize that all that testosterone has to cause Isomething. "People come in here, we dance for them, they go home and do the same thing."

"Or to the bathroom," Irie adds. "We wonder, because we know sometimes they get hard-ons and they have to run to the bathroom. It kind of makes you a little curious what they're doing in there."

The girls are hopeful that something beyond a lot of titillation and masturbation will come of this.

"Dan O'Dowd -- he's a producer, you know -- has already set us up with a couple of music videos for MTV, and something with Pauly Shore," Miranda says. "The more our face is seen, the more offers we're going to get."

Irie adds, "I initially did not really expect this to be as big of a thing as it's coming out. We didn't come into this with intentions of running off to Hollywood and becoming a movie star, but we've been asked a lot and they really think we're wasting our time here and they really want us to come, so we're going to go and try and see what happens."

Both Miranda and Irie say that on a bad night, they clear about $100. On a good night, they may make $400. That's all table-dance and tip money; they receive no salary or benefits. They pay $25 to the bar each shift. They work pretty much when they want. They seem perky, happy and largely untroubled.

"We're not ashamed of the way we look," Irie says. "If people enjoy looking at us in the nude, that's fine. We don't have a problem with that. We are not ashamed of who we are and what we look like, and we don't think anybody else should. You were born naked.

"We don't make these men come in here," she continues. "When they have this bitchy wife at home and they're going to have to go home and hear her nag at them, here they can come in and get away from their life and leave reality for a moment and just enjoy themselves and relax. It's a different world.

"I think it's good, because with AIDS and everything else out there, this is the safest sex you can have," the 21-year-old stripper says.

They both emphasize that an upscale place like Rick's is "
"classy" and therefore different from a funkier club. "One of the reasons we don't feel degraded is because we're not dealing with sleazy people,Ó Irie says. "We're dealing with very nice businessmen." (Oh, those suits.)

But even in such a classy establishment, there are hazards to navigation. For Miranda, it's a 24-year-old mechanic who won't stay away.

"He's not bad-looking at all. He comes in here and offers me $700 to have sex with him. He tries at least a couple times a month. I keep turning him down. I feel like crying over it. Why doesn't he understand he's a good-looking guy and he can get a girl without having to pay for it? It breaks my heart every time he comes in here. I try to avoid him."

Irie has her own downers, but she says her view of men is unchanged:
"We're not man-haters. A lot of people think we turn into man-haters because we put up with jerks all day long. I probably more thought that as a waitress than I do as a dancer. It's taught me that men are very funny people. Get them drunk and put a naked body in front of them and they'll promise you the world....

"Sometimes I sit down with a guy and we'll start talking and I know he doesn't have a lot of money and I feel really guilty if I take a lot of money from him. But a lot of girls are barracudas. They're going to take him and wring him for every penny they can get out of him."

Both Miranda and Irie say the money they make for dancing is hard to hold on to, since it's cash and it arrives in clumps. They seem to know that sooner or later they won't be getting paid like this to get naked and dance. Miranda has even taken a bartending job.

"My first day was Wednesday. I was there from 10:30 in the morning until five in the evening. I made five dollars an hour and I made nine dollars in tips. And I was aching. My body hurt."

Miranda went to school to be a travel agent but doesn't want to sit in an office. She knows the down side of less glamorous employment, but she's a bit more pragmatic with her new pursuit: "I saved that nine bucks."

Rick's owner Watters, a thin, hiply dressed former tax-law attorney, waxes economic when describing what is traded for coin at his cabaret.

"When you're getting a table dance, the commodity that is being sold is not necessarily the girl's nakedness two inches in front of your face or twelve inches away. What is being sold is human attention. It's an attractive young female focusing her entire energy on you for the duration of the table dance." (That's 20 bucks for three or four minutes of human attention.)

Watters views himself as a bit of a pioneer, a Daniel Boone of buck nakedness.

"Rick's has been here for ten years. When I first got in the business, topless clubs were far different than they are today. They were seedy places with sticky carpets."

(Now these temples of patriarchy have nice carpets, fancy furniture, decent food and high prices.)

"This is the age of the voyeur, where non-contact sex is more acceptable," Watters continues. "People are going for monogamous relationships, but they go for outlets where they can become stimulated simply by seeing and not becoming involved." (People are afraid to become intimate with new people; they are sexually frustrated. Business is boooooming.)


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