Earning your Rent Cheque at the Astoria’s amateur strip night
By Abby Wiseman
Two young women come up to the small stage, facing a packed house at the Astoria. They’re up to compete. One grabs the microphone, lies on her stomach with legs flipped up behind her, one hand on the microphone and the other working – or appears to be working – her clitoris. She moans into the microphone loudly and the sweaty crowd goes wild. Her fake orgasm complete, she gets up and hands the microphone to the MC, a goddess dressed in gold harem pants.
“If you didn’t know what a woman actually looks like when she masturbates, now you do,” she tells the crowd.
The next woman has a tough act to follow. She puts one hand on the brick wall, back to the crowd, spreads her legs apart and bends over slightly and simulates – or doesn’t – touching herself. She elevates her moans to high pitch squeals, but they’re hard hear over the hum of the crowd. It’s an impressive fakey, but the winner is clear and the first woman walks away with two tickets to Hump!, Dan Savage’s amateur porn festival.
Welcome to Rent Cheque, where every last Wednesday of the month, ordinary citizens make their way to the Downtown Eastside and take off their clothes for the chance to win $500. Everyone is allowed and nearly anything goes. The only rules: no professional dancers, no photography and absolutely no judging. Or, as the aforementioned golden goddess named Lex Gray puts it, “if you’ve been a bitch for the last 28 days, this is the place to stop being a bitch. We want everyone to feel so loved, because that’s the point of Rent Cheque, love.”
And the show begins.
Rent Cheque is not new to Vancouver. It was a regular event at Gastown’s Lotus Sound Lounge, now known as The Pint, in 2006/2007. The party night lasted about a year until it faded away to be resurrected two years ago by porn enthusiasts Abby Normal and Lex Gray. The night already had a following from its first incarnation and has been filling up the Astoria with everyone from your East Van barista to your everyday 9-to-5ers. Women, men, transgendered, young, old, able and disabled have all taken the stage.
“A guy with crutches got up there and performed to Foreigners’ ‘I Want to Know What Love is’ and people were like fucking crying, like straight up crying,” says Normal. “We see scantily clad perfect-looking people everywhere, we know what their bodies look like, but we don’t see a lot of average people naked. So when you get different kinds of people on stage, the audience goes nuts.”
If variety is what you crave, this is the place.
There are punked out, middle-aged women who stare straight at the crowd with absolute confidence and defiance while taking off every piece of clothing and folding it neatly in a pile on the corner of the stage.
There’s the young student-type guy who goes up on stage, strips quickly and doesn’t quite know what to do for the next three minutes so he hops around naked.
Then there are the women who carefully plan out their set. One swapped pubic hair for a cute, little glued on mustache, while another danced with a black cape and Darth Vader mask, shunning the typical Princess Leia fantasy.
Then there’s the group acts.
Two men and two women make it on stage. The women have hula hoops, but it’s the men who are getting naked. Another threesome gets up on stage, covered in taped-on dresses made out of the pages of Cosmopolitan magazines, which are promptly ripped off to Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon.” The women (stage name Cosmo Garbage) jump around on stage wearing generic panties or less and the crowd goes nuts.
“It sounds cheesy, but I felt almost unstoppable because I was just going for it and had no other worries but dancing,” says a young woman named Jay who did a booty shaking performance to Ginuwine’s “Pony.”
Adrenaline still pumping, she stands in the crowd watching her competition with her shorts still unbuttoned. Jay doesn’t need the money for rent, but as most performers say, “The money would be nice.”
“I got involved in it initially because I was looking for a meeting place for like-minded people and what’s come out of that is I’m trying to cultivate a community for like-minded people,” says Normal.
After being on the party scene for years, Normal, 33, was looking to move to San Francisco or Montreal where an alternative sex party scene was already established. Instead, she was challenged by a friend to stay in Vancouver and create the culture she wanted to see in the city.
The sex party scene has always been exclusive in Vancouver, says Normal. She and her former partner of 13 years would try to find parties with like-minded couples, but found that very few people in their twenties were involved. The kink and fetish scene is strong, but Normal wasn’t interested in spending hundreds of dollars to keep up with the dress codes.
“I just wanted to get naked and fuck around with my friends,” says Normal. “I’m in this really weird life state where I’m trying to create the Vancouver I wish I had in my twenties, but I’m ironically the most monogamist I’ve ever been.”
What Normal hopes to do is pass the scene onto a younger generation who can make it their own. Gray, who is 12 years Normal’s junior, is doing this by creating an all-female sex party night called Babe Bang.
Rent Cheque is not without its critics. One group of women plastered posters along Commercial Drive and Hastings Street with photos of men ripped from Rent Cheque’s Facebook page with the slogan, “Only sexist losers have to write a cheque to see women naked.” The protesters included the hashtag #sexistlosers which yielded no result on a Twitter search.
“I feel like if these people are going to target some chauvinist assholes wouldn’t they be going to a high-end strip bar or an escort agency?” asks Normal.
The event’s title itself has created some push back says Normal, but she doesn’t feel the need to defend it, maintaining that it’s not degrading nor are the people who perform vulnerable. Most sign up beforehand and know that they aren’t guaranteed to win.
“We’ve definitely had people bummed out about not winning,” says Normal, who recalls a professional drag queen that didn’t make it into the final three and got up on stage and demanded the money.
“If you’ve been paid to be on stage then you’re a pro. I’m not going to say that you can’t get on stage, but I’m not going to let you into the final three,” says Normal.
For Paulina, stripping at Rent Cheque was a fantasy come true.
“I’ve always been a dancer and always thought doing something like that would be fun and something to check off my bucket list,” she says.
Paulina performed in July at Rent Cheque’s two-year anniversary. She practiced her routine with her sister over a bottle of wine in her living room and decided to do it to the ultimate stripper song, “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” by Def Leppard. She wore a red coat and brought a bottle of Jack Daniels and sparkles to pour on the crowd, not learning until afterwards that liquids and sparkles were banned.
“I think that was a big reason why I didn’t make it into the final three,” says Paulina.
Like most of the performers, Paulina, who works in bars and cafés, didn’t need the money to make rent, but use it anyways. She does think however, that Rent Cheque’s popularity is born out of Vancouver’s high cost of living.
“Even before Rent Cheque, my girlfriends and I would kind of joke half seriously that maybe we should be escorts or strippers because it’s just so hard to get ahead. The thought of making $500 or $1000 in a night. You’re so frustrated that you’re like, ‘I don’t even care, I will do that for a week just to have a financial stress off.’ I’m sure very few people have actually followed through on it, but I know a lot of my girlfriends have thought about it,” she says.
Since performing, Paulina hasn’t felt any backlash about getting naked in front of hundreds of people. In a way, Rent Cheque is like Las Vegas; what happens there, stays there and nobody makes a deal about it. The only evidence is a few photos on Facebook that can be taken down by request.
“I guess it’s always in the back of your mind, but I think it could only be a bad consequence if you let it,” says Paulina. “It really depends on how you feel about it and if you are really worried about what other people think you probably shouldn’t do it.”
The night is almost over and the crowd has to choose who wins the cold hard cash. The three performers who drew the loudest applause during their acts stand on stage. One is the aforementioned student-type who wore blue briefs and danced in a spastic fashion. The other is a tall, thin young man who danced soulfully, but took too long and ran out of music before his pants came off. Lastly, the Cosmo Garbage troupe. The crowd makes its judgement and the three women with pages of Cosmopolitan plastered to themselves win the $500.
It’s nearly 1 a.m. and the crowd pours out onto East Hastings Street. Jay stands with a group of friends, having a smoke. She’s still bubbling, but her shorts are now buttoned up. When asked about how she’ll feel about her performance tomorrow she says she hopes she’ll still feel positive about it.
“At the end of the night, I had fun up there, it was a new experience and fuck what anyone else thinks about it.”