I once knew a marvelous woman whose energy and spirit and I’ve never forgotten. It was 1998 and I had just started working at Tiffany’s brothel in Surry Hills. The catch line was ‘We love you always,’ and at the time it was the busiest and most glamorous brothel in Sydney. I was 18 years old and fresh from being fired from my full-time job as a secretary at an accounting firm. I was much too interested in partying with my friends at that time — living it up on my full-time wage of $14500/ year. I was a renegade and so when my friend told me that night at commiseration drinks that she had worked as an escort for a year I just knew it was what I wanted to do. I was 18 years old and when I rang the doorbell that Sunday morning at 99 Albion Street (Tiffanys), the receptionist welcomed me in like a lamb to the foxes den. She showed me around the rooms and later that day after my first 3 bookings, asked me how my ‘pussy’ was. I was taken aback that a person in power would speak in such a way. In fact, I apologised once in the girl’s room for using the word ‘fuck.’ My private school upbringing was sharply challenged to say the least! I had a great work ethic that stemmed from 2 years in admin jobs being worked to the bone for a literal pittance, so working hard for some real money was a no brainer.
The girl’s room at Tiffany’s was like something out of a movie. 18+ women ranging from ages 18 to 30ish, all plastering their faces with makeup in the compulsory style of the 60’s soft porn magazines. Red lips, blue eye shadow, and red rouge transformed already beautiful young women into glamour monsters. Dresses had to be brightly coloured— the more sequins the better, and if you didn’t have a dress you had to hire one for $20 from the wardrobe that looked like the fancy dress section at a costume shop. Puffy taffeta sleeves, strapless velvet gowns, gowns with long tails that needed carrying so as not to die ascending and descending the multiple staircases of the 3 old terrace houses that made up the establishement. Flesh coloured stockings were also compulsory as was covering any tattoos with either strapping tape or costume make up. ‘Dress clips’ were applied where ‘one size fits all’ was not the case, to bring in the waist of any dress to show off feminine curves through layers of over tailored fabric. Girls wore wigs to disguise themselves, some spoke with fake accents in the hope of keeping their anonymity. Sex work was massively taboo, and all steps were taken protect ones real identity from reaching the clients radar. No one had their breasts enhanced, no one did anal sex and no one kissed. Literally no one. If you did you were ostracised — spoken about in private with disgust. The girls ‘marshaling area’, had one small tv set that played either daytime tv or at night infomercials. The day shift lived for ‘Days of our lives’ and when the doorbell rang during the 4.30pm time slot, everything was done to delay the meeting to find out what was happening with Ridge, Taylor and Brooke. Everyone sat around smoking and it was like a dutch oven. We all stank of cigarette smoke mixed with air freshener and the rancid chlorine from the jacuzzi. Coverings of any type were not allowed — you had to wrap a towel around your shoulders if you were cold. Any sign of drug use and you got singled out and fired on the spot. Heroin was big in those days and not so easy to hide — in a twist of fate the manager himself seemed to be sporting the signs of heroin use. Pinned pupils, nodding off, slurred speech. He eventually went the way of the rest of them. It was like the brothel mafia, those receptionists. We were all petrified of getting fired and so conversations in the girl’s room remained on current affairs and sex talk. Soliciting with each other outside of the brothel was strictly banned and girls were not to swap phone numbers. On a Saturday morning when we knocked off at 5 am some of us would orchestrate a morning ‘breakfast’ at the Bourbon and Beefsteak in Kings Cross. This era now feels so nostalgic it is as if we were part of the 1960’s wave of sailors that packed out that same place during the war. We left separately in our own cabs, then met up to drink pina Coladas and eat lobster with the night’s spoils. This was the pre-internet era and an exciting time to be alive! Strangers coming together under themes unusual of circumstances.
Through the swathe of young women (not beautiful enough to be models but too beautiful to go to waste), one woman stood out to me. Her name was Toni and she swished into the girl’s room late one evening, she carried with her a huge hatbox and a vintage-style beauty case. She had a maternal air about her. Her hair was short and she seemed to me at that time to be decades older than the others. My instant thought was that she must be one of the receptionists. To my surprise she opened the box, pulled out a long auburn wig and within no time at all had transformed herself into a stunning, curvy and elegant woman. There was a genuine seductiveness and fluency of motion; a maturity that gave her an edge over the rest of us. She knew men intimately, her personality bubbling over with a winning smile that welcome all she met. After a year or so of working with Toni, I became privvy to her world, and it was a beautifully simple one.
“I’ve just got the net at home. It’s this thing where you connect with other people through your phone line and it’s just wonderful.” Toni’s voice fluttered over the noise of the infomercial on repeat in the background. Most tuned out during these conversations, reading magazines that were decades old, smoking or resting their eyes just enough to not get caught, a towel wrapped around their shoulders for warmth. We had no idea what Toni was talking about, but we nodded in that gentle way to suggest respect without feigning disinterest. “There are these things called forums, and…” she would go into great detail explaining the arguments she would have with other forum users about god knows what topic was hot in early internet 90’s. “You can search up anything in the world. You can find out all sorts of things. I’ve been learning about…”[insert conversation about plants, countries, people, politics, etc] We listened on like she was talking about a passing fad that would never reach us mere mortals, most of us computer illiterate. What she was talking about in fact impacted our futures and our lives in ways we can only understand now in retrospect., The internet changed our concept of morality and the way humans do sex. It changed the way humans view and communicate about sex. Not only do most full-service sex workers these days kiss in session as part of the regular price, but some also offer anal sex and enjoy it. Its ok to enjoy sex at work! It absolutely wasn’t in those days. The fetish industry has almost dissolved into the vanilla industry because the internet has allowed us to access fantasies wilder than anything our mediocre imaginations could dream up.
I often wondered what I would be doing with my life when I got to Toni’s age. I’m currently 41 with no sign of business slowing down, I’ve never been bored at work or despised going to work. Toni was the most grounded individual I had met up until that point in my career. She had married a Japanese man who worked on the docks and they lived in a modest house in the Blue Mountains of which they owned. She told me that every night they sleep on the opposite side of the bed from the night before as a way of keeping their relationship fresh. She worked a few nights a week 7pm – 5am as was the requirement, then went home and explored the interesting characters she came across on the world wide web. Toni was both an inspiration to young workers like myself, and to the clients she saw of whom she touched with her endless enthusiasm and vivacity; her literal wealth of worldly knowledge. Her sex work was an enduring gift to many.
I wanted to pay respect to the women who came before me as role models in an industry that stands in a moral wasteland of guilt and shame. How providing companionship and intimacy in an age where everyone feels lonely at some level can be detrimental to anyone is puzzling to me. I’ve met lovers through my work, and experienced ecstasy I would otherwise have never discovered had I not ventured deep into the world of submitting to strangers. I haven’t seen Toni since about the year 2000 but I think of her often and hope that I’ve matured as gracefully as she showed me one can.