No clothes? No problem! Alum bares all

For graduating students, entering the real world often means following a dress code. Sometimes it means wearing a three-piece suit, or sometimes it means wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. For Liv Osthus ’96, also known as Viva Las Vegas, it means wearing her birthday suit. It’s not that Osthus doesn’t ever wear clothing for her job; it’s that she takes it off while she works, because while most Ephs start work at 9 a.m., Osthus’s job at her Mary’s Club doesn’t begin till at least 4:30 p.m., or 9 p.m. if she’s taking the night shift.

It’s been about 10 years since Osthus started stripping. “I was trying to be a musician and a writer and so I needed money to allow me to do those things,” Osthus said. “I thought I’d just be doing it for a year. I had a lot of loans from Williams and I thought I’d do it for a while and get my loans paid off.”

Osthus said she had considered stripping after she graduated, and was especially interested in it because she didn’t appreciate the way academics viewed sex work. “I went to a strip club and I was blown away by how the woman was communicating with each person in the audience,” she said. “It was about way more than nudity and sex. I scheduled an audition in my hometown but my dad is a preacher so that didn’t work out.”

Osthus finally got her chance when she met her new neighbors in Portland who were strippers as well as sex-work activists working with an organization called Danzine. Danzine is a now defunct non-profit organization created for women in the sex industry to share ideas about issues such as health and working conditions.

“It was so inspiring,” Osthus said. “There was nothing else going on like that in America. Now, lots of sex work scenes have become more vocal talking about the art of [stripping] and the wider community benefits. But 10 years ago, it was just five strippers doing some really helpful activism and not many people were willing to speak up with them.” Osthus played music for Danzine’s cabarets and wrote for its magazine, all the while falling in love with her new career.

“I’ve always been a performer; I’ve always done a lot in theater and traditional dance, and on that particular stage I was able to communicate with a varied audience,” Osthus said. “It’s more satisfying than a legitimate stage; you really interact with your audience. My focus was on communities and building communities. There’s this nexus of communities building around these tiny strip clubs [in Portland], and you take as much from your audience as you give back. It’s really fulfilling.” It must be – after all, Osthus never expected to be in the business for so long. After five years of stripping, she moved to New York to write a book only to discover the city was even more expensive than she had imagined. Osthus returned to Portland to juggle her old job with two more as a punk rock musician and a writer, not to mention some stints in films, including Gus Van Sant’s upcoming movie Paranoid Park.

“I’ve been writing my book for the last four years,” Osthus said. “I would like to have stopped [stripping] before now, but I still love my job – and I can still afford my mortgage.” And it’s not just through her well-roundedness that Osthus shows her Eph background. She has put her Williams education to good use – she speaks five languages and has used them all during her act.

“I met Sean Penn, and he just spent some time in East Africa so I spoke Swahili with him,” she said. “I speak French, German, English, of course, and I studied in Bali for a semester and east Africa for a semester. Both are very, very rusty but we had a whole bunch of sailors from Indonesia and I was able to talk to them, and a missionary dude from east Africa.”

Osthus has even been in touch with her former mentor and anthropology professor Peter Just. “I felt I found my niche, and I wrote to my professor at Williams,” she said. “I sent him this big article I wrote on porn and feminism – I don’t see what I do as porn at all. He wrote back saying he was proud that I found something I love to do, and it’s good to have that kind of reception.”

Her old classmates have been supportive as well, and many have come in to see her act. “They knew I was a wild card, and I think most have been in to see me dance,” Osthus said. “They’re always shocked by how normal it is – I just happen to be unclothed and dancing.”

Even her father, the preacher, supports her now. “He was initially very upset and disappointed, but I’ve taught classes on it and even the philosophy of it,” Osthus said. “It’s my pulpit when I get on that stage – he gets that. It’s so not about the sex, it’s about performance and I love it.”

It’s also about feminism. “I am very much pro-women, pro-women do whatever the hell they want to with their bodies and their minds,” Osthus said. “Men break their bodies every f—ing day in these blue collar jobs while a woman is just allowed to use her body in porn. Why can’t she just use her body as a prostitute or a naked dancer if she’s making the call for what she wants to do with her body?”

Osthus also had complaints on students’ attitudes towards stripping during her time at the College. “Teachers were more advanced in their thinking, but students seemed to think unequivocally that this was bad, but why?” she said. “These are female entrepreneurs. There aren’t a lot of entry jobs out there for women who can just go in and call the shots. There’s a dark side to it, but there’s a dark side to any job, especially in the bigger corporate jobs.” The dark side Osthus was referring to was the corporate side of large strip clubs. “Out east in those big clubs it’s about contact, grinding on someone’s lap – that’s interesting, but has zero appeal for me,” she said. “It’s really different out here in Oregon. In the littler clubs you get a lot healthier of an attitude. Women have more of a say in what the conditions are and how they want to be treated.”

Certainly, it seems as though Osthus has always had a say when it comes to what she does as a career: “My dad wants me to be a f—ing lawyer, but if he forced me into that I’d be miserable.” After all, when would you use Swahili in court?

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