Written for G.Q., 1989.
Her naked body is perfect: this is why you are here. In semi-darkness she lies just out of reach on a circular platform tilted toward you, a girl with long red hair and a hard, impudent body. She wears only a brief patch at her crotch; leather thongs at her breasts and hips exaggerate her nakedness. Smoke billows and climbs a pyramid of light behind her. She watches you defiantly as her dais revolves slowly; she seems bound to it by centrifugal force.
A filigree of laser light sizzles across her body. Somewhere a hoarse black voice sings a blues, but you are beyond the reach of words.
She tosses herself against the dais, pouts, snarls, her hair tawny against her white flesh. She rears up onto her knees, arches her back like a pacing panther whose fur has come up. You can almost feel the confident muscles in her long legs. Her hair streams through her fingers and turns to smoke as she writhes onto her back again.
Suddenly a greater voltage of lightning shakes her. She reaches down, pulls off the patch at her crotch. Bolts of electricity cross her body as the dais revolves faster. She spreads her legs wide as the dais turns her from you, closes them as it brings her back, now spreads again as she is whirled away, arching, taunting, open. . . .
The most invigorating music-hall in Paris, the Crazy Horse Saloon, isn’t really a music-hall at all. Cabaret-size, it calls itself erotic theater and boasts "the most beautiful femmes fatales in the world." Since opening in 1951, the Crazy Horse has become an institution in Paris nightlife and its lighting effects have been copied worldwide. Its origins lie partly in striptease, partly in a French talent for sensuality, but it has little to do with the Folies Bergere / Moulin Rouge tradition. Located on the swank Avenue George V, across from Yves Saint-Laurent and next to Balenciaga, its high style is very much its own, continually under the guidance of its founder, Alain Bernardin. Recently it reopened after two months of expensive renovations, an event the Paris press greeted with rare enthusiasm.
How to describe such a spectacle? For two hours one’s senses are blasted by variations on a single theme: eighteen naked young women with perfect bodies as individual as their faces, close to you yet not close enough, in tableaus that range from the near-trashy to the near-sublime. The tone is never leering, more a kind of holy lasciviousness. A show consists of group numbers and a dozen solos or duets, interspersed with a couple of comic acts to re-whet the appetite. Bernardin christens his dancers with deliberately unreal names like Zaza Vesuvio, Vanity Obelisk, Tipsy Tipperary, Lulu Paladin, and Tiny Semaphore. Bathed in enigmatic light, all-powerful in their physical glory, they become, as Bernardin puts it, "the most inaccessible puzzles of nude women in the world."
Past the street-level lobby guarded by doormen dressed as Royal Canadian Mounted Police; downstairs into the theater, its entrance covered with names of notables who’ve visited: royalty (Rainier, Onassis, JFK); singers (Callas, Garland, Jagger); artists (Man Ray, Johns, Ernst); writers (Williams, Greene, de Beauvoir); directors (Welles, Visconti, Von Stroheim, Fellini, Preminger); actors (Eastwood, Ustinov, Cooper, E. G. Robinson, Bergman, Brando, Sellers); athletes (Laver, Pele) and dancers (Nureyev, Serge Lifar).
The 420-seat theater is small, in sumptuous red with an art-deco aspect. The stage seems downright tiny, flanked by nude golden statues and hidden behind a glittering curtain. Signs everywhere proclaim "There is only one real CH." The crowd is mixed, about three men to every woman. The show is necessary to any young man’s education: a few very happy teenage boys accompany their parents.
At later performances I will try a seat up close. This time I stand at the bar along with mostly veterans and locals, as it affords the same view for half-price (with one drink, about $30; lower for innocents under twenty-six). On my right is a Swiss engineer who attends with clockwork regularity (1981, ’83, ’85, ’87), on my left one of the most beautiful brunettes in Paris, accompanied by a gentleman older and richer than either of us. A large proportion of seated clientele is Japanese, Italian, or American, but then so are most Paris tourists.
A siren goes off, louder and louder. Then trumpets, martial drums and the voice of a British sergeant barking commands. The silver curtain pulls open, and there they are: the famous line of proud-breasted girls in boots, white gloves, great black Beefeater hats and nothing else save tiny black triangular cache-sexes. (Velcro is really crucial to the Crazy Horse.) Lifting their knees high to military music, these soldiers march, salute and about-face; the audience applauds this inspiring sight. White horsehair tassels dangle suggestively between their legs, front and back.
In Rouge Et Noir, two incandescent girls in black or red wigs, gloves, and throat ribbons take turns provocatively balancing across a leather armchair with stirrups. Bananas is a group number in silver porcupine wigs: a funky golliwog’s cakewalk, a nude rain dance, a toy waddle, done with high energy. Now Jailbirds, to urgent string music powered by bongos.
Vertical black bars front the shadowy stage. A sultry redhead struggles, drapes her legs around the cage and arabesques at the audience. A brunette lies on a black altar and grinds her swelling rump against the bars. A blonde girl caresses her. Each girl broods to her own tormented rhythms, twining herself around or throwing herself percussively at the bars, trying to escape. The cage is whacked furiously as the naked bodies hurl faster and faster, pinioned, scissored around the bars, straining as the music ends. The finale is a swaggering strut to horns: eighteen girls in blonde, black, or blue wigs, wearing characteristically only black gloves, g-strings, garters, and stockings; leaning, swinging, sliding their buttocks down illuminated firemen’s poles. By now their incendiary attitudes seem normal. Is there gentle sarcasm in the lyrics?
You’re not too short
You’re not too tall
You’re not too round
You turn me on.
The Swiss engineer, so help me, sings along.
Alain Bernardin is a tall man with doubting eyes, thinning hair, and the long face of a bloodhound. At seventy-three, fit, calm, he looks a good twenty years younger, with the tanned health one associates with aging movie stars. He has three children by a former wife, but in 1986 he married Lova Moor, a blonde dancer and longtime star at the Crazy who has published a star’s autobiography, Ma Vie Mise A Nu ("My Life In the Nude"). Its preface is by Alain Delon, who was involved with another dancer, Rita Cadillac, for years.
We meet in the modem, red subterranean offices of the theater. Bernardin is dressed casually, in a black shirt with streaks of color like the lighting effects in his show. Since the beginning it has been all his: his design, his property, his "mistress" who has made him very wealthy. His staff call him "Le Boss." He chooses the girls and trains them; he estimates he has baptized 250 by now.
"I am looking for a cannon," says Bernardin. "An aggressive girl, who doesn’t have fear in her eyes. A sparkling, brilliant, bewitching sorceress. One in fifty. After thirty-eight years, I can recognize her in a second. First, she must have marvelous breasts. Then she must have trained already as a dancer. And she must be a ‘good girl’. I don’t find them, they find me. We have girls from all over Europe, from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, even Hungary and Romania. We almost never have American dancers. Many, many English. English girls are all out to leave Mama. Many Russians, Czechs, and Poles. Polish girls are crazy, but they have strong temperament and personality. They’re great onstage. Offstage, they’re golddiggers. Our youngest dancer is eighteen , the oldest is twenty-nine. I want to provoke the public by putting them in the path of these cannons. If you give them their cleaning woman, they won’t come. They want a dream money can’t buy, inaccessible because of me—Pygmalion. And I try not to fall in love with my Galateas."
For his corps of twenty-four dancers, Bernardin takes five new girls a year; over a hundred audition. They average about five years in the show. Afterwards, he says, a few become singers or dancers on TV. Others marry. Stripping, he points out, encourages ideas of domesticity.
"When I was eighteen I worked at the Ritz Hotel in London. Then I was in the army. After the war, I opened a small, successful restaurant. In those days the girls at, say, the Moulin Rouge were not moving, not dancing, not teasing. They stood there with silly things like the Eiffel Tower on their heads. I had a shock of an idea: to bring burlesque to Paris, not in an American style but in a French style. Not a seventy-year-old doing a striptease but girls of eighteen, sportives. Originally I wanted a Wild West saloon, with a country & western orchestra and lassos. In 1950 I sold my restaurant and rented this place. I had one girl at first but at least she moved. After a year I understood I had to have five girls. Success was immediate. I designed the costumes, the dances. Even now I design everything.
"In 1958, by accident, I invented a lighting for the nude. In those days we projected each girl’s name on the curtain. One night the curtain opened too soon, so the slide got projected on the girl. This way nudity can be artistic, the light clothes the body." Bernardin is proud he can pay his dancers "twice as much" as the other Paris spectacles. They earn between $30,000 and $45,000 a year; the CH maintains savings accounts for them. Renovations have brought the place up-to-the-minute: three tape decks, controlled by computer, in turn control the lights. Backstage, most dancers have their own tiny "loges" festooned with pictures, letters, personal effects. There are showers, a spaceship-style lounge with TVs that function as monitors, also an extensive room for daily rehearsals run by choreographers Molly Molloy and Sofia Balma.
"Salvador Dali must’ve come twenty times. He used to say, ‘The Crazy Horse girls are all virgins.’ One evening he arrived, and Andy Warhol was here. Dali said, ‘Tonight the omens are not good.’ He turned on his cane and left. Elvis came one night, brought by a mutual friend. He said, ‘I’ll come only if you give me a girl for the night.’ So the friend had to loan Elvis his fiancee.
"Rostropovich came, and spoke Russian with several dancers. Balanchine visited all the time. Bob Fosse kissed the carpet. Woody Allen used the Crazy Horse in What’s New, Pussycat? Gypsy Rose Lee told me, ‘We weren’t like this. We weren’t beautiful, we weren’t young, we were actresses. It took us ten minutes to remove a glove.’" A sloe-eyed brunette tripped in, shot him an intense look, then disappeared into the coulisses. "A new girl," he said. "French. About half are French. French girls aren’t as serious as the others. In England, nightclub work is considered a profession. In France show business isn’t taken seriously, not even theater. French talent never goes in the direction of cabaret. And it’s a very difficult form to master. Everyone thinks it’s easy because it looks easy. They don’t realize how long it takes to perfect."
He has a reputation for protecting the girls with military strictness. It’s forbidden for the dancers to meet anyone within two blocks of the theater; security is extensive. "There’s a bad reputation, because outside France, the cabarets are bordellos. Frenchmen ask me how many girls are at the bar. I tell them, ‘If I wanted to run a bordello, that’s a profession too, but I run a theater.’ Everybody knows there’s no question of meeting the girls.
"In 1962 we did a Nazi parody. The music was a German military march; Bertha von Paraboum wore a feather boa and a g-string in the shape of a swastika. The French were shocked, the Americans were shocked, the Germans were shocked. We even got letters of protest from old Nazis. The publicity was enormous. Now everybody’s done everything, you can’t scandalize. Anyway, a porno show is boring, precisely because it leaves nothing to the imagination. I want a show of superb quality. I tell the girls to be like a painting by Modigliani. When I see them out there, I imagine making love to them. Everybody does, that’s the idea. How wonderful, no?"
Night. We are no longer in Paris, but rather an apartment in East Berlin. German voices drift up from the street through a blue window with Venetian blinds. A brief flood of pale light as the door opens, revealing a balance beam in the center of the apartment. A blonde with a ponytail enters, her face an impassive mask. She wears a white silk blouse, a black leather miniskirt.
She tunes a radio to a blaring trumpet, hot and slow, then begins a limber exercise against the balance beam. The radio bursts with static. Suddenly we overhear the crackling, walkie-talkie voices of two CIA agents on stakeout, filming her. Now we realize she’s a spy—one agent says, "No wonder politicans run their mouths when they’re in the sack with her." She tears off her skirt, runs her long legs caressingly along the balance beam to German ’30s music. Off comes the silk blouse. She’s in only a black g-string and shoes. A measured swagger against the bar. In her eyes we see only a concentration on her body’s movements. Does she know she’s being watched? Is she deliberately tormenting them? They have turned into cheap voyeurs, their words banal against her beauty.
And now the g-string too is torn off. Her hair comes undone as she throws herself violently along the exercise bar, whipping her body back and forth. Her big gulping eyes send out astonished looks, as if startled by her own fiery intensity. A smile of pride in what she can do; the music winds down. Languorously she collapses, hangs from the bar, a gentle amusement playing across her face.
To see a performance makes one wonder, naturally and perversely,what these girls look like with their clothes on. Albert Camus spoke for many of us when he said, "It hurts me to confess it, but I would gladly trade ten conversations with Einstein for one first encounter with a pretty chorus-girl." Luckier than Camus, I meet with three star danseuses. All are well-spoken, smart, confident, and proud of the show; they are lovely without the public prettiness of models, with dancers’ long bodies and healthy energy.
Akky, twenty-four, Dutch, is the glowing blonde from the spy number. In jeans and halter top, her midriff bare, she seems conscious of her physical presence, and I would guess she is the best-travelled. She’s been at the Crazy two years. Both the other girls are British and twenty-one. Friday, with black hair pulled up from a no-nonsense practical face, wears a short skirt and high boots. She’s been dancing here for eight months, and has a winning brashness. Paula’s a freckled redhead with a penetrating gaze, her long legs in jeans. Having been here two months, she strikes me as the shyest.
Friday: Half of us have good ballet training, the rest have some jazz training. When I was young I wanted to be the good classical ballerina. Then I got interested in cabaret and show dancing.
Akky: Everywhere I auditioned for ballet companies—Holland, Germany, and France—I was too tall. So I started doing cabaret work.
Paula: I saw an ad for auditions in a trade weekly. I sent in a photo and Bernardin flew me over with five other girls. After seeing the show, I thought: Can I dance nude?
Friday: The audition’s always the same. You improvise to "Menergy," the gayest song ever. It’s bizarre and nerve-wracking.
Akky: It’s the only place I know where they have you improvise. You’re alone on stage, naked, and he’s out there. It’s not long. If you have the right style, they see immediately. We’re classier than any other nude show; some dressed girls dancing can be much more vulgar than we are. We don’t have to pull faces to be sexy, we have to be careful not to add too much. I don’t think about the fact I’m taking off my clothes. Onstage we feel protected by the lighting.
Paula: You can see only about the first couple of rows.
Friday: You feel completely dressed. You’re in full body make- up, and you’ve got lights, music, props. You become that number, you are that story. You’re not a girl onstage taking off her clothes.
I ask how they answer when people inquire what they do.
Akky: It depends who’s asking. There are a lot of frustrated people out there. Some guys, I see they’ve heard about the Crazy Horse on TV but they really have no idea. You can’t explain it. My parents have come to see it, and they think it’s fantastic.
Paula: I was in a restaurant the other day, talking to thisAmerican girl who was in Paris on holiday. She’d gone to the Lido, one of the big music-halls. She said to me, "I was shocked! Those girls are topless!" When I told her what I did, her face just fell.
Friday: I’m proud to work at the Crazy. I say, "I’m not a topless dancer, I’m a nude dancer." Dancing here makes you appreciate what you have and make the most of it while you’ve got it. I’ve always been very shy about my body. I was always the person who wore baggy clothes, I felt self-conscious at dance class. I really hated myself when I came to the Crazy. Subconsciously, working in the nude you put a check on your weight or your body.
Akky: I see these young American women dressed like little girls, in prim and proper clothes, with little-girl shoes, very fake. I promise you, these women have wilder fantasies than I’ve got.
On asking their full names, I realize they’ve given me their stage identities: Akky Masterpiece, Paula Flashback, Friday Trampoline. Bernardin is out to create mythic women; the names are a stage scrim you can see through but not pass beyond, an erotic barrier.
La Leçon d’Erotisme with Friday Trampoline
On a black stage, an enormous sofa in the shape of two red, ideal feminine lips. Friday in black negligee, black patent leather shoes, black stockings, black garter belt, one black glove, and a black crucifix around her neck (a characteristic Bernardin touch). Her raven hair magnificently foaming, one pouting breast exposed, at first she sits ladylike on the two red lips. Then, as a husky-voiced French chanteuse whispers about the art of seduction, Friday insinuates herself across the lips, making sly love to them.
Slowly she pulls off her negligee. Very slowly she turns so we can admire the superb back view. She waits, her body stretched out, a hand on her hip. Off comes the garter. She wriggles lasciviously, lets her body wink at us, knowing everybody is watching her tiniest gesture as the chanteuse explains "the erotic lesson." Slowly she rubs the length of her body in all kinds of gyrations, straddling those fortunate lips. Purring against them, she falls asleep.
Behind me, an Englishman said, "I want to be a student again."
Another back view, less admiring, from a former soloist. Having started at age nineteen, she recently left after two years. Driven, smart, confident, she now runs her own successful small business. "To dance at the Crazy changes you. Bernardin’s strategy is to make girls feel like stars, even though they’re only dancers. When you’re given the ecstasy of being a star at twenty, this makes problems. You don’t become confident. You lead a double life. You’re strong onstage, offstage you’re weak. You depend on the show to feel beautiful. The dancers end up wearing enormous amounts of make-up in the daytime without realizing it, because they can’t bear not being looked at.
"The soloists are hated by the others. They’re not paid more, but they’re less likely to be fired by Bernardin, who can fire you at any time; five minutes late and you’re fined fifty francs. Everybody’s scared of him because he can send them packing. I never felt badly treated myself, but he knows these are weak girls. I suppose he feels loved with all these women around.
"You become a night creature. After dancing and a cold shower you don’t feel sleepy, even though it’s two or three in the morning. It’s hard to be in a relationship with a man who lives by day, so you end up going out with other people who live by night. Men are very aggressive because they know you’re a Crazy Horse girl. I ‘lost’ two years of my life this way, even though I did become adult very quickly. The dancers stay there a long time because they’re afraid of leaving the life of the night, and frightened of the normal life of the day. The dancers who stay on feel old and they’re very hard on the young girls who arrive. And the waiting-around kills you.
"After the Crazy Horse factory, what’s left? Only huge egos. They dream of becoming actresses or singers but it never happens. They’re not dancers; three hours’ practice every day and any girl can do that. They end up as luxury courtesans, or married to some dismal older man. At first I liked being in a spectacle, and I was paid enough to live in Paris on my own, but I had problems for a long time after."
Her naked body is perfect, lying like a sacrifice on that tilted platform as smoke billows. Can this be the shy Paula I interviewed? Suddenly she pulls off the patch at her crotch; the audience holds its breath as her dais revolves faster and lightning engulfs her. As the platform turns her away from the audience, she spreads her legs wide, teasing. A thousand eyes are fastened on the tufts of her pubic hair, emphatic in the weak smoky light, on her strong legs as she brings them together, opens wide again but never at the moment when the dais turns her to us. She tosses her head once, darkness closes in too quickly on her. The image of her lies burned on that darkness for an instant, then she is gone, gone, gone.