Of all the different career paths and resources open to newly graduated Williams alums, why would Viva Las Vegas, a.k.a. anthropology major Liv Osthus ’96, decide to become a stripper? In her scintillating 200-page memoir, Magic Gardens, released in August, Viva Las Vegas recounts her transformation from “a scrappy little bird” fresh out of college into a full-fledged stripper who intelligently writes columns about her experiences in local magazines, participates in feminist debates recorded by newspapers and lectures at universities about stripping as art form. Las Vegas’ memoir attempts to push beyond society’s condemning stereotypes about stripping, bringing readers a first-hand account of the interesting, often intelligent women who dominate the stripping world, and quite convincingly shows how stripping can in fact be art.
Magic Gardens is a fun, engaging book to read. Las Vegas’ animated writing style, filled equally with beautiful images and grimy vernacular, immediately draws the reader into the narrative and makes for a smooth and even gripping read. The memoir is especially interesting because it includes many specific details of her life as a stripper immediately after Williams, when she moved to Portland, Ore. (a.k.a. “Pornland,” a province of “pros, pimps and pushers”). Who doesn’t secretly want to read about this dark and glamorous world through the lens of Las Vegas’ different performances, nightly escapades, rumbles with the police over stripper rights, boyfriends and devoted clientele? Interspersing the personal details are interactive elements that draw the reader closer to the story line, like the series of chapters entitled “How to Strip.”
Las Vegas’ reasons for moving to Portland and mingling with such crowds in the first place are rather obtuse, a shortcoming of Magic Gardens since Las Vegas’ newness to the stripping world is a key element at the beginning of the book. The reader is particularly dazzled by this newfound environment because she presents it as a novelty, and I was left wanting to know more clearly what influenced, or perhaps inspired, her to make the momentous decision to enter it after attending a prestigious college. When she purchases her first pair of crazy stripper shoes, for example, she inexplicably knows that she has found her “ruby slippers” and can click her heels and say, “There’s no place like home.” I found myself grasping for sources that led her to this world, like her upbringing as a preacher’s daughter, her education at a “rich-kid college” or her devastating break-up with a serious boyfriend.
Regardless of her reasons for entering the stripping industry, Las Vegas skillfully weaves in her argument that nothing is wrong with stripping; on the contrary, it’s liberating and empowering. “I am trying to debunk blanket statements that the sex industry is bad,” Las Vegas said during a phone interview last week. While doing so in Magic Gardens, Las Vegas takes an interesting feminist perspective, stating, for example, that stripping, “seemed to be one line of work in which society’s entrenched misogyny was more or less absent. Guys worshipped strippers and totally prostrated themselves at the Altar of the Naked Woman.” By simultaneously following the lives of her close stripper friends â€“ like Teresa, who publishes a politicized magazine for sex workers, does HIV outreach, runs needle exchange sites and coordinates art shows â€“ Las Vegas shows that many strippers are independent women who enjoy their jobs. In Las Vegas’ words, “The women I had met were entrepreneurs. They made their own rules, set their own hours and drew their own boundaries.”
Las Vegas’ notion that stripping is art gives her justification of the job another unique punch. “Coming from a traditional background of ballet and theater, I’m interested in stripping from a performance perspective,” Las Vegas said. “It’s a great way to see a human body, it doesn’t cost as much as a ballet, and the music is way cooler.” She clearly develops and refines her art form throughout the book, often explicating her ideas â€“ like how wearing more layers of clothing makes a better show than does going on stage naked â€“ in her “How to Strip” chapters.
Miss Mona Superhero, Las Vegas’ close friend, is also presented as an effective, parallel character to show that stripping is a valid art. An eccentric diva, Mona does whatever she wants, whether it be stripping, writing and choreographing striking “cabarets,” melting down during “the flipside of the creative process,” or casually drifting around in floor-length peacock-green ball gowns. Every one of her stripteases is psychological show, and she even has a signature move: standing perfectly still, regal and commanding, “forcing her victims to look at her before she did them in with some hypnotic Medusa eye contact.”
All in all, Magic Gardens is definitely worth reading. Not only is it an entertaining book that gives readers a look into Las Vegas’ fascinating successful career after Williams, but it also offers a convincing, different perspective about stripping that will open your eyes â€“ or at least make you think twice about this much-condemned industry.