I got a job at Belle de Jour in 1998. I was 24 years old and had just graduated from art school. What did I need next? Life experience.
The neon sign hung in the window of the ranch slider. The massage parlour logo was of a vintage femme fatale: a raven-haired Betty Page-ish beauty with bright red lips who wore a cheetah V-neck and elbow-length black gloves and toked a cigarette in a cigarette holder. Like Lauren Bacall. One of those classic screen sirens, a quip at the ready. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Slim? You just put your lips together and…
Wait. Let’s back it up like a Tonka truck. I just looked up how to write a good essay and found a list of nine handy steps to follow. First, I’m meant to give you a thesis statement, do an outline, begin with the body and not the introduction, then I’m meant to flip you over and oil you up with credible sources. But I can’t promise I’m not going to fake it before we rush to our gripping conclusion.
Also, I don’t have a thesis statement. I’m not sure I have an argument either. But I do have an outline and a body. The Belle de Jour logo was an outline, a designer’s answer to the brief that is still in use on the massage parlour’s website today, although I notice many other changes, including the pop-up women who dance nude in the bottom-right corner of the screen. But when I got the job, the massage parlour didn’t yet have a website and I had answered an advertisement in the paper. The logo, I moot, is timeless.
The femme fatale in the window held her cigarette holder and smouldered the night I climbed the stairs to my interview. Beneath her a red neon sign blinked: OPEN. The logo was the job description, as far as I was concerned, and I had come to loosely embody it as the new receptionist. Only I didn’t smoke. I slid open the ranch slider. The reception area reminded me of a used-car dealership. The boss sat behind a window like a teller at a bank. I was buzzed in for my interview in room number eight.
“Have you ever worked in a massage parlour before?” the boss asked.
“No, do I look like I have?” I asked.
In retrospect, it was probably the most honest interview I’ve ever had. It didn’t require a CV, and it isn’t on my CV now either. I wore a blue sparkly, clingy Lurex T-shirt. I was seated on the bed, twinkling vaguely in the dark. The rooms all had dimmers, set at half-mast. And a shower in the corner. For him and for her, but especially for him.
The boss wore a grey V-neck and black Versace jeans. He reminded me of a pit bull. I think it was the short neck. He had obviously decorated the place. The walls were grey, sheets black, frosted red lamps smouldered from within. The décor seemed inspired by Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video. Or maybe that was actually playing through the speaker system.
In the music video, Robert sang in his black suave business suit: “The lights are on, but you’re not home. Your mind is not your own.” A line of identical models strummed their guitars sexily behind him, accentuating his point. It was a classic, but in hindsight also a mission statement.
The boss explained the pricing system.
An hour-long massage cost 160: sixty dollars for the house and a $100 tip for the girl. “Fantasies” cost extra. Fantasies included, but were not limited to, two girls or more.
I nodded. I was an artist in search of good material and I thought working at Belle de Jour would add a certain je ne sais quoi to my autobiography. But at what cost?
Each room had a long, prominent wall mirror opposite the bed. Affixed to one corner, a laminated sign read: “Maximum tip a hundred dollars.” Signed, Management.
The sign meant that each working girl should take only a $100 tip from her client – never more. However, one girl, Holly, later told me that whenever a client asked her what it meant, she said it meant you couldn’t tip management more than a hundred. Sure enough, no one ever did.
“Don’t become friends with the girls,” the boss said in our interview.
That was the one rule. All I had to do was follow it.
But the character of the femme fatale is not characterised by obedience. I don’t have any intention of following through on the nine handy tips about how to write a good essay, including the use of credible sources. I’ve got no credible sources to quote either, only incredible ones.
“Belle de Jour, Megan speaking, how can I help? … Yes, we have nine lovely ladies on tonight.”
In the lounge were two lovely ladies; one called Charlie was on the nod.
“Do you really?” he asked. “Last time I came in there was hardly anyone there.”
“Well, they could have been working in the rooms,” I said, archly.
Belles had eight rooms that could be occupied at any one time.
He hung up.
The next caller: “Do you have anyone who squirts?”
He hung up.
I clipped down the hallway, past eight closed doors and a line of misty red lights. In the lounge, the girls lolled on the black leather couches, ashtrays full of cigarettes.
“What’s a squirter?” I asked. The girls laughed.
The worst thing wasn’t that I didn’t know. The worst thing was that I had missed a sale. Rox was a squirter.
Another caller: “Do you have a back door?”
No question was straightforward enough.
We did have a back door. Belle de Jour was nothing if not discreet. You could enter through the car park.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, if you don’t know what I mean.” He hung up.
Another missed sale.