Elite dancers and sex workers in Los Angeles are given a closeup and a platform in Marc Ostrick’s new documentary, Stripped: Los Angeles, where they share their own unique career paths and their attitudes toward the adult entertainment industry. Ostrick, an Emmy®-nominated filmmaker with over 25 years of producing and directing documentaries, was interested in exploring the motivations of women who took to the stage, not as actors but as sensual performance artists.
“These are voices that need to be heard and stories deserving to be told,” Ostrick says. “Whether it’s entrepreneurial or escapism, these women are in control of their bodies and their livelihood and the intent of this feature is to de-stigmatize what it means to be an exotic dancer.”
The problem is, as we discover in Stripped: Los Angeles, that unsavory distractions and side work can become part of the repertoire thanks to the lure of easily made money.
Female empowerment or exploitation? Your opinion may solidify or shift while watching the chapter-like presentation of the careers and circumstances of five exotic dancers —snapshots of Della, Nikki, Bama, Sizi and Erica. All are intelligent, articulate women whose graceful athleticism is unquestionable. Their individual stories reveal why they were drawn to adult entertainment and sex work to begin with, and what they see as the prognosis for the quality of their lives overall. They are not timid about sharing their opinions about and experiences with embracing this historically taboo profession.
April Neale: Stripped: Los Angeles gives five exotic dancers an opportunity to tell their stories and reflect on their careers and expectations. And, they are bold in doing so. After following them individually, do you have a take on whether female empowerment is at the heart of exotic dancing when the profession seems to open the gate to sex work and pornographic acting roles? Or is the side hustle seen as an opportunity to grab maximum earnings while the dancers are still age/looks viable for sex work?
Marc Ostrick: I think that is more of a question for the specific dancers who are also adult performers. From my perspective, it’s not just a money grab. Money definitely plays a role. But it’s also a lifestyle and their choice and their body to use it anyway they want without caring what other people think or how they may be judged. It seems men can do what they want with their bodies, these performers feel like they should be able to do the same. Whether people agree or not, I don’t think they care – and I believe that is a form of personal empowerment. To take the path that YOU choice – can be very empowering.
AN: How do you feel personally if one of your children—regardless of their gender —said, I pole dance naked and supplement my income by doing clandestine cam work in a hotel?
MO: That’s a tough question – I don’t thank any parent would be advocating for their child to enter into a career of sex work when they grow up. There are other career options available.
AN: One of the subjects genuinely used pole dancing as therapy to get into great shape and heal from a gang rape while she served in the military. Bama isn’t quite there and broke down more than once recanting her story. Talk about how Bama’s more traumatic journey stood out from the others.
MO: Bama I think could be a star. She is so authentic and soulful in whatever she is doing. She can sing, dance and I believe she would make a wonderful actor. She just has that raw talent and I believe she can do anything she puts her mind to. I feel the more each dancer shared about their personal journey, the more universal the film becomes because people can empathize and relate to her struggles and triumphs.
AN: Sizi’s journey to this work was rooted in being molested by her grandfather. That combined with her tribute to her aunt with the cash to support her struck me as a continuance of abuse in a way, why would an adult in the home accept that cash so readily-or accept it? Is this my own value system getting in the way or did that family construct for Sizi bother you as it did for me?
MO: It didn’t bother me because I wasn’t judging Sizi or her family. Sizi is doing what she needs to do to help her Aunt. Underserved communities in Los Angeles have been going through systemic racism and repression in the workplace for generations. I feel that by Sizi contributing to her Aunt, who rescued her and her little sister out of foster care, is just something that Sizi feels is the right thing to do. She is an adult and wants to contribute to the expenses since she is living at home. It appears others living there may not be helping contribute, which I think is worse. I think Sizi’s Aunt wants more for her niece, but I believe that being a good person, being kind, staying safe, not being a drug addict and staying out of jail is more important to them than how Sizi is currently making her money.
AN: All the women you filmed were intelligent, especially Della who was the most enigmatic of the lot. I feel she did not reveal her full truth like the others did, she was a bit more self-edited in the interviewing process. What struck you the most about Della and her story when you crafted this film?
MO: I feel Della was able to express some of the ideas and stigmas surrounding sex-work in a very articulate way. I loved how Della (and all the girls) admit they are just a work in progress. I feel we can all relate to that. I loved Della’s ability to be unapologetic in her sexual freedom. So many of us have hangups and don’t explore our sexuality or sensuality. I loved how Della is not afraid to be herself and admits that her world is ever evolving – and she’s just evolving with it.
AN: Your own notes describe these women as “brave hustlers” but after viewing this, I felt neither empowered nor joyous for them, but more saddened and worried for them as time moves forward and they lose their commodity cache powers. What is the take away for this film with younger female viewers starting out in life? What were your intentions?
MO: My intention was to let these dancers tell their own story. This is an observational documentary that I feel is layered and nuanced. There is empowerment, but there are also choices being made that will hopefully help them get to the next stage in their career, whatever that may be. I feel that all these women are artists and dance is just one way to express themselves and make money at the same time. I think it is brave to put yourself out there as an exotic dancer and express yourself in that way. I believe the body is beautiful and if an adult doesn’t have a support system and is struggling to feed themselves or pay rent or put themselves through school, I think females and males should do whatever is within the boundaries of the law to make ends meet. I don’t believe any of the dancers in this film feel that exotic dancing is a long term career – it’s just a stepping stone to the next opportunity. If it worked for Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Channing Tatum, Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian’s sex tape – it can certainly work for for the talented women who shared their stories in Stripped: Los Angeles.
AN: In your career you have covered topics from the natural world to now social commentary or observation-what is on your horizon for more documentary storytelling?
MO: I continue to work in the natural history space for TV and have an episode slated for release next summer. I am also working on social activism documentary projects in India and hoping to get back to that once Covid has subsided. I am also developing a one-hour project and feature narrative work. There may be even another Stripped documentary in the works. So, lots going on and I just feel very humbled and blessed to be able to make a living as a filmmaker and storyteller.