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Stormy With a Chance
Donald Trump's indictment gives our favorite sex worker her day in court
As a nation, we owe a lot to Stormy Daniels. I personally owe her more than most. Five years ago, the erstwhile porn star, progressive hero, and Donald Trump paramour/bête noir brought Talia and I together, helping to launch the creative partnership that you’re enjoying (hopefully) to this day. At the time, I was the arts editor at the Village Voice, and my colleague Lara Zarum had received a pitch from Talia, who wanted to cover Stormy Daniel’s pending appearance at a strip club on Long Island. It was a bit of an orphan pitch—was this a culture story? politics? local news?—but whatever it was, I’m forever grateful that it ended up on the arts desk.
Talia’s report got a great response from our readers, and less than a month later I asked her to cover Stormy’s interview with Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes.” It would take years for the the case to wend its way through the criminal justice system, but Talia and I were up and running. Half a decade later, Trump’s indictment has pulled Stormy’s story back into the headlines, which seemed like a great excuse to revisit Talia’s previous coverage. Don’t worry, we’ll be back next week with our regularly scheduled Notable Sandwiches column on that Trinidadian favorite, “doubles.” Until then, we hope you’ll enjoy this blast from the past, a double dose of Stormy Daniels.
Village Voice, February 28, 2018
It’s after midnight on a Thursday in the heart of Long Island, and I’m staring at a prominent pair of pebbled pink nipples that might have been seen by the president of the United States.
At Gossip NY strip club—or “place for gentlemen,” as the purple neon sign outside would have it—you can smoke indoors, something I haven’t done in New York in years. Everywhere there are fat, stubby cigars, and fat, stubby men smoking them. The light is dim; the air is thick; the room is filled with journalists and sex workers, the former group mingling uneasily with the latter, and all of us have been waiting for hours for Stormy Daniels to appear.
At 38, Stephanie Clifford, a/k/a Stormy Daniels, has more than just an allegation of a hushed-up affair to her name: She has 419 credits on Imdb, including 78 as a director, and a legion of fans that predate her alleged involvement with one Donald John Trump. Nonetheless, it is the latter—the profound incongruity of arriving at a strip-mall strip club in order to potentially better understand the occupant of the Oval Office—that has drawn a mild scrum of press, and some genuine Long Islanders, to these pulsating purple environs. Upon entry, two separate signs implore us to make tipping and Thursdays great again, respectively.
For several hours prior to Stormy’s performance, the ratio of journalists to strippers is nearly one to one; with the exception of me and a Dutch journalist named Karlijn who arrives with her hair in a severe bun, they are all male—the New York Post, the Daily News, Bild, the U.K.’s Independent, Newsday. Occasionally men sitting on the black leather couches that line the periphery of the room’s main space get lap dances. I wonder if any of them are my erstwhile professional colleagues, like the anonymized “member of the news media” in the New York Times’ story on the launch of Stormy’s tour who assented to “all right—one.” I feel even more like an overgrown potato with a bad wig than usual. Only one woman was quoted in the Washington Post’s write-up of the same event—a woman in the audience who said it was “demeaning” that the first lady had posed naked. On stage at Gossip, a dancer comes out in a black half-skirt, then sheds it to reveal a plum-sized bruise on her pale thigh.
The one unqualified good thing you can say about tonight’s event, which instantly strikes me as one kind of nadir of American absurdity, is that it has nothing to do with school shootings. There are no dead children involved whatsoever. Which, frankly, makes it an acceptable, even excellent, departure from the news all week, with its ghoulish, Swiftian proposals to give teachers guns. Since 2015, all of us have been required to measure and remeasure what we consider to be grotesque, the full anatomy of the term, its gorgonic depths. On the scale from armed educators to the gilded profiteering of Mar-a-Lago, an affair with a porn star barely rates; this is less seedy underbelly, more bared midriff. I get a $16 drink and settle in to wait.
Here are some people I talk to while waiting for Stormy Daniels, our pneumatic American Godot.
There’s Regina, a statuesque 26-year-old dancer from Moscow. We speak in Russian; her English isn’t great, as she arrived in America less than a year ago. She has never heard of Stormy Daniels.
Ana, who arrived from Portugal five days ago, and whose braces, so incongruous here, hurt my heart. I wonder how she got here, to this squat gray place between a Popeyes and a Bank of America. Her shoulders are bare.
Natalie and Evelyn, two “model-servers” in scraps of lace, who told me they heard about Stormy last week, when their bosses emailed them the Wall Street Journal article that first broke the story. “I think it’s pretty cool,” Evelyn says.
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There’s a father-son duo here, who decline to give their names, but to my untrained eye, the son looks like a teenager. The son says he is here because of “inexperience,” and his father buys him a lap dance, out in the main room and not in the curtained-off VIP lounge in the back. The father looks on proudly while his son cups a stripper’s butt, and they leave before Stormy arrives.
John, 56, won’t give his last name. He has a broad, soft build, a Key Club membership to Gossip, and is sitting in one of the cushy armchairs abutting the stage; gold chains adorn his neck and wrists, and the top buttons of his shirt are open, showing a swathe of wisp-haired chest. He is a big Trump supporter, and he “can’t wait” for Stormy, although he says her alleged affair with Trump might be “fake news.”
“I met Melania and was awed by her beauty,” he says. “But maybe she was pregnant with—what’s the kid’s name?—when he cheated. We’ll see when Stormy comes out if it was worth it for the Donald.”
At least one journalist is very drunk. I am only mildly drunk and consider this a win. A security guard the size of an industrial refrigerator briefly impounds my phone after I try to snap a covert photo and I am bereft. The strippers onstage are doing aerial pole-top acrobatics in heels, and a man with an enormous broom is sweeping dollars offstage in their wake.
At last, it’s midnight, and I await my tardy, brazen Cinderella. Sixteen minutes later, an announcer booms that the next guest has a “unique perspective on the president of the United States.” Then Stormy Daniels herself struts onstage—there is no other verb for it—in a cape and dirndl, to “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, from 1966.
“What full lips you have/They’re sure to lure someone bad,” Sam sings. The cape, and then the dirndl, are shed in turn. More accoutrements emerge: a black leather bustier, then a nifty red sparkly bra-and-panty set. Stormy’s breasts emerge, a duo with plenty of stage presence and extensive experience in showbiz. She can, it turns out, twitch them on command, and, apparently, juggle them.
At this point, Stormy leans over and seems to absorb an audience member into the capacious gap between her cleavage, then releases him. She douses her mostly nude self in lotion, and the place suddenly smells oddly maternal and soothing. A gray army blanket that looks rather dismal and barrackish is laid on the slick stage, and she writhes on it, patting her crotch repeatedly, as if it needs to be soothed. A man showers her in dollar bills, and they adhere to her moistened skin, adorning her body like a capitalist quilt. I would like to be an Allen Ginsberg type and use these seamy surroundings to take the pulse of my country, but everything is too obvious to be a metaphor.
The whole routine is less than ten minutes long, and at least three of the dances are set to Whitesnake. She retreats to a backstage I can only imagine. A dancer named Eva, of Russian extraction, tells me she thinks the routine was dated and unimpressive. I do not feel knowledgeable enough to agree, but none of the songs came from this millennium.
When I approach Stormy in a corner of the main room—amid an absolutely overwhelming knot of a dozen or so photographers and skinny journalists and tipsy members of the general public—she is a consummate professional, with cheekbones that could slice prosciutto. I ask her, “Did you have sex with Donald Trump?” No, she responds, but coquettishly, after a dangling pause. We take one selfie with flash and one without.
And then it’s done, and we can go. What have I learned? My eardrums throb. I have spoken to a woman who might have had sex with a president, and I have seen her dance. Her next stop is North Hollywood; further down the line, Shreveport, Louisiana; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Detroit. I wonder who else will come to smell a kind of abstract proximity to power, as well as a significant amount of lotion. I step out at last into the cold, foggy night, into Donald J. Trump’s America, and mine.
Village Voice, March 27, 2018
On Sunday night at Nowhere Bar, the 60 Minutes watchers were transfixed—not by Stormy Daniels, but by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who has eyes as blue as glacial ice and a chin that could slice fine cheese. The rugged attorney’s popularity was not necessarily a surprise—Nowhere is an epicenter of gay arts and culture in the East Village—but by the end of the hour Stormy had drummed up plenty of affection of her own, the love partly fueled by her namesake cocktail, a Dark & Stormy–like mix of Jack Daniel’s and ginger beer.
In the subterranean crimson environs of Nowhere—with its advertisements for trans-masculine pool night and RuPaul viewing parties—the biggest frustration was CBS’s spillover of college basketball into the 60 Minutes hour, March Madness infringing on march madness. The room filled slowly between six and seven, with fashionable young men and a few of their female companions, and the general mood was one of eager anticipation. There was to be a dance party afterward, with all DJ proceeds benefiting the Sex Workers Project, which provides legal aid to sex workers and victims of human trafficking. The group Rise and Resist was also taking the opportunity to sell “Impeach” hats.
“I take seriously the idea that this president thinks the wealthy are above the law,” said Emily, 36. “And also, this is really entertaining.”
Her friend Mike, 39, in a purple tee and salt-and-pepper stubble, sipping on a Stormy Daniels, added: “To oppose Trump, you just have to have no shame at all.”
When Anderson Cooper came on, to the familiar tick-tick-tick of the venerable news show’s theme, there was a purr of appreciation. Cooper seemed far less comfortable facing a self-possessed porn star in an ill-fitting button-down shirt than he does standing handsomely in disaster zones—I felt a twinge of regret that the great Lesley Stahl hadn’t been summoned to this task—but Stormy managed a few great lines, despite him.
Describing her brief courtship with the Donald, Daniels said she was unimpressed by his legendary self-regard. “Like, I was, ‘Does, just, you know, talking about yourself normally work?’” Stormy said she told Trump, during their getting-to-know-you dinner. “I don’t think anyone’s ever spoken to him like that, especially, you know, a young woman who looked like me.”
At that, the bar erupted into cheers, and her narrative of spanking Trump with a magazine bearing his own face was greeted with similar enthusiasm. It seemed clear that Stormy was putting a new face to sex work for America: a spiky, thoughtful, unabashed one, demanding to be the subject, not the object, of her narrative. A thrum of pained recognition played over the faces of the few women in the crowd when Daniels described her initial encounter with Trump:
“I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe, it was sort of, I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone, and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”
It was all very 2018: very Cat Person, very Babe.net’s Aziz Ansari exposé, very of the moment, one in which so many women have come to terms with the sexual encounters they have had in which their own enthusiasm never surfaced, because it was never required. And this was a sex worker speaking—a figure to whom subjectivity and desire is rarely attributed in American culture, and this, in and of itself, seemed like a quietly radical moment.
When Daniels revealed that, in 2011, a thug had threatened her as she toted her new baby to a workout class—explicitly citing Trump’s name—an uncharacteristic hush fell over the raucous, queer crowd.
As in Stormy’s striptease act, which I wrote about for this publication, little about her initial sexual encounter with Trump was left to the imagination—but what was omitted was the crucial element: Did she have documentation? She was coy about it in the interview, to groans from the gathered barflies, even as her wit, and her genuine grievance with the powerful men she had challenged, came vividly to the surface.
But overall, Cooper seemed more bent on challenging Daniels’s credibility than Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s, despite the undoubted seediness and general strangeness of the latter’s actions. The infamous $130,000 payment was discussed at length, as was the oddity of Cohen’s personal provision of the funds. A helpful campaign-finance expert explained, with a straight face, that it was not standard practice for attorneys to pay six figures in hush money on behalf of their clients, let alone, as the White House’s story goes, without any coordination between attorney and client. The serious underpinning of the Stormy Daniels affair, the segment’s framing seemed to indicate, was about potential campaign-finance violations; the sex itself, the subsequent silencing, was ancillary.
Frustrating as this was, I floated, for a time, on a vodka-and-pineapple-juice sea, into the joyous, dancing crowd—and then out again into the frigid New York night. I stopped by Papaya Dog to have a snack sanctioned by Stormy, who had suggested “tacos and mini corn dogs” as viewing-night refreshments. (I had to make do with a regular-sized corn dog, as tiny ones weren’t readily available.)
It was only when I got home, and started reading the takes male pundits had put forth blithely into the world, that I started wanting to stab someone in the eye with a sharpened pigeon femur.
The requisite reaction for the self-identified enlightened individual, it seemed, was ennui. Oh, a woman is being sued in federal court for $20 million by a sitting president for speaking about an affair he claims never happened? Ho-hum. La-di-da.
“To be clear, I’m not particularly *interested* in any aspects of the Stormy Daniels story,” tweeted Matt Yglesias of Vox, as if prurience were an indulgence of the unintelligent. The story, he continued, is about “serious violations of campaign finance law!”
“Everybody who’s interested in the Stormy Daniels story is interested in it for the sex/gossip,” opined Nate Silver, who would presumably prefer we all focused on statehouse gerrymandering in Idaho.
“Buzz kill warning….just read entire 60 minutes transcript. Kinda non-plussed by it all. Feel like there are no surprises, nothing new here. Think I will watch basketball,” wrote Michael Smerconish, right-leaning radio commentator on SiriusXM.
After reading tweet after tweet, I began to feel I was levitating out of my body, borne up on an electric surge of pure feminist rage. What had they watched? What had they seen? Were they really incapable of imagining a world in which not everyone had read Stormy Daniels’s 2011 In Touch interview (or, more likely, a summary of it in the Washington Post)? In a year ushered in by the Harvey Weinstein revelations, had they learned nothing about the abusive, coercive power of the NDA? Were they really “meh” about a sixty-year-old man comparing a twenty-seven-year-old female sex partner to his own daughter—a claim echoed by another sex worker–turned-mistress on CNN last week? Were they really so blasé about a president’s emissaries issuing mobster threats to babies?
If these pundits were to be heeded, the cult of unshockability—the pose of permanent, dry unsurprise—had reached such a parodic nadir that one was not permitted to react with feeling to a smart, witty woman risking bankruptcy to speak out about being physically threatened and legally intimidated by a president and his cronies. That would be gauche.
At the end of the day, this scandal—like so many Trump scandals—is about the abuse of power. A man who was an intimate of Roy Cohn and who dealt extensively in concrete in the 1980s might be expected to have a more-than-glancing familiarity with mob intimidation tactics; that he might have used them on a woman he’d had sex with is still shocking. That he is suing her in federal court (again, to suppress an affair he claims never happened) is abusive in another way entirely. A rich man’s resources are his power; a woman’s words are hers, and as Nowhere’s event description put it, “Stormy Daniels is outmaneuvering what’s-his-name at every turn.”