By Marilyn Pesola

Gina Gold is a survivor. She's been to hell and back in her 33 years, and she's lived to write about it.

Before I met Gina for the first time, I tried to imagine what a former stripper would look like: godawful dyed hair, 6-inch sparkly fingernails, makeup troweled on to hide the hardness that life usually grinds into those kinds of faces. When I finally met her, she certainly didn't look like what I thought a stripper would look like. Here was a beautiful black woman with flowing black hair (she has since shaved her head), soft red lips, and smooth, healthy skin. Her quick smile and articulate speech surprised me. Her openness was charming and she sparkled with a zest for life.

Then I learned about how she grew up. As a pre-pubescent girl, Gina poured over boxes of porno magazines stacked everywhere at home, wanting to look just like the women in Hustler and Playboy. She begged her mother to buy her the breast creams and other products that promised to make her look beautiful. A high school boyfriend beat her up and forced her to have oral sex. In college she had another boyfriend but they broke up because she was petrified of penetration, but she couldn't tell him that.

At 20-something Gina moved to San Francisco to start over where no one knew her terrible secrets. She became a sex worker. Her first day on the job, she was taught the fundamentals of phone sex, including the usual metaphors, like "put your buns in the oven" or "park your car in the garage." Taking the phone was a turning point for Gina. Suddenly she became everything she hadn't been before: a powerful sexual being. For the first time in her life she could control men instead of being controlled by them. Those were very powerful feelings for a young woman who was still a virgin.

The only thing about the job that disappointed Gina was the pay. Until she actually became a sex worker, she, like many people, thought sex workers made a lot of money. She started out at $6.50 an hour on the soft porn line. The hard porn line paid $9 an hour, substantially more, but still not enough to live on. Eventually someone told her about a feminist strip club in San Francisco. No matter how much she denied to herself that she would ever work there, she knew in some deeply buried part of herself that she was drawn to it by invisible forces beyond conscious reasoning.

"Stripping was really empowering," Gina says with a wide smile, "because I had always felt like a misfit, but now here was an island where the women were just like me. These dancers had the strength and an enormous ability to survive under insurmountable odds. That's where I got the idea for the title of my book, The Island of Misfit Toys. I identified with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when he found a place to fit in and it gave him strength. Stripping gave me that same strength. But that wasn't my only reason for writing the book. I wanted the public to see the story behind the dancers, to look beyond the tarnished image of a stripper."

The dancers in Misfit Toys have names like "Cheeze Whiz," "Cruella De'vil," "Velcro," "Godiva," or "Genitalia." Gina chose the name "China Blue" for herself from the movie Crimes of Passion, a film about a woman who was a fashion designer by day and a prostitute by night.

"I wanted people to understand that dancers are survivors. I often told a story about a dancer who suffered from bulimia. As a child she'd been raped by one of her mother's tricks and her mother would force her to eat more food than several truckers could eat at one time. She was a prostitute by age twelve. Her teeth rotted away. I wanted to show that even though she'd been through hell, she was still here, trying to survive. But then I found out that she bought five dollars worth of gasoline and went and sat in the back of a pickup truck and set herself on fire. She didn't survive. Maybe she was exorcising some of her demons because she couldn't be ruled by them any longer.

"I thought, oh my God! How can I show that strippers are survivors if we're setting ourselves on fire? Then a friend showed me a quote by Lorraine Hansberry that was written about Marilyn Monroe. It read: ÎThe concept of Îwoman,' which fashioned, warped, and destroyed a human being such as Marilyn Monroe, is hideously wrong and she, in her repudiation of it, in trying tragically to rise above it by killing herself, is (in the Shakespearean sense) right.' It made sense to me."

Gina's interest in the rights of sex workers led her to become one of a group of dancers who sued a San Francisco sex club for back wages and stage fees. "We filed suit because when we worked we were treated like employees in that we had to follow their rules, but we were not paid a wage. All we had was our tips and part of that was paid to the club as a so-called stage fee. "The dancers won these lawsuits!"Gina said triumphantly. "The court ordered the clubs to give dancers back the money that was rightfully theirs.

"But before the case was settled, if you didn't tip the manager, you were treated poorly. For instance, if you asked to dance at a certain time and the manager had it in for you, you'd get a slot the farthest away from the one you asked for. Or he'd mess up your music, or not give you a show at all.

"You could be fired for being too fat or too thin," she says, shaking her head at the absurdity of it all. "At one club I was a hundred and thirty pounds. The manager said that I had three months to lose the weightöbut not in my breasts, mind youöor be fired. After I lost the weight, she was nice to me again."

By the time she was 30, Gina wasn't stripping anymore, not because she was too old but because she didn't need it any longer. It was her own choice to quit. She had found sufficient inner strength to face her own fears and had grown enough emotionally to go move on to something else. The fact that she had never gotten into drugs, the downfall of many sex workers, helped. For a while after she quit stripping she worked as a counselor at a group home for emotionally disturbed boys. Most of them had been severely neglected and sexually abused, an area she understands well.

"Seeing them go through so much pain dissolved a lot of my own anger that I've carried around since I was their age," she says. "Perhaps I helped some of them deal with their anger before it was too late. I know it helped me."

No longer a misfit, Gina Gold has reinvented her life. She's currently creating a one-woman show based on Misfit Toys and performed at the Improv Theater in Hollywood to much audience acclaim. Interested in acting since childhood, she's now able to combine acting and writing in her show, an enormous personal reward.

That's what being a survivor is all about.

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