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Sunday, January 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An f-stop and a G-string mark woman's dual career

The Associated Press

It's just a few steps across First Avenue from The Lusty Lady peep show to the Seattle Art Museum. But they're worlds apart in every other way.

So it was quite a coup when photographer Erika Langley, a nude dancer at The Lusty Lady, was invited to exhibit her insider pictures at the museum.

"I like walking between worlds," says Langley, who hired on at The Lusty in 1992 when a newspaper photo editor who rejected her job application suggested she go beyond the routine and come up with something "really gutsy and personal."

Her plan was to simply photograph the dancers, but one of The Lusty's female managers told her she'd have to join them - otherwise "no one will give you the time of day and you will never understand this."

"Bring a pair of heels," she was told. "That's all you'll need."

Now the naked ladies - in Langley's grainy, high-contrast black-and-white photos - have a museum wall to themselves in the exhibit "Hereabouts: Northwest Pictures by Seven Photographers."

"She gets to the heart and soul of the people behind the scenes . . . the camaraderie, the unity among the women who work there," said SAM spokeswoman Linda Williams.

Exploring `alternate universe'

The photos, taken from Langley's book, "The Lusty Lady," are tender, playful and sometimes disturbing. The dancers are relaxed in the "alternate universe" her lens explores.

Langley, 32, was an aspiring photojournalist when she moved to Seattle eight years ago - a serious woman from a nice Catholic family, armed with clips from a weekly newspaper and a degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Chance brought her to The Lusty, but it isn't why she stays. "I like it," says Langley, a modest dresser in everyday life with a relaxed, outgoing manner and a torrent of auburn hair.

She revels in the sensuality she has learned to express. She has found a unique sisterhood and looks forward to "frolicking in the playpen with my pals."

It wasn't always like this. When Langley got her first look at the dancers in their mirrored, boxed-in stage, she was shocked.

"It was not like anything I'd ever seen - strippers in their little fringed outfits," she recalls. "This was buck-naked women."

Customers watch the women dance and strut on the main stage from little booths - limited to one viewer at a time - whose shades open for 22 seconds of viewing when a quarter is dropped in the slot. The women are paid $14 to $27 an hour, maximum 16 hours a week. No tipping.

In the dressing room for her audition, Langley found the dancers cracking jokes, teasing each other, "this lively camaraderie." While she was wearing only her new pair of $8 heels, the others had glittery G-strings, glamorous filmy shirts, long gloves and stockings.

"I felt like a complete dork - just pale and goofy and unsexy. I didn't know how to do it," Langley says.

The others got her through it, she says.

Langley told the dancers she'd been terrified, "totally respected the bravery of you women, and I want to find out what it's like. What is your life like? Are you a mom? Are you a student?"

"I just want to live it," she said. "Show me."

It was an alien world.

"I had to learn glamor. I'd never worn makeup," she says. Now she gets a kick out of "silly lipsticks with names like Rage, campy slutty stockings and shiny gloves and sparkling chokers."

She found the dancers are like other women.

They have relationships and marriages and children. Some are working their way through school. Those with drug dependencies and serious problems don't last because they can't meet The Lusty's strict punctuality requirement: Showing up late twice is a firing offense.

"I just wanted to show these women as whole women," Langley says - and to make clear that "it's just a job," with short hours and good pay.

Her book profiles a handful of dancers: dominatrix Mistress Raven happy at home with her husband and kids. University-trained dancer Rio with her dreams of a career in choreography. Candy Girl, a doting mother who was sexually abused by a stepfather.

Tawny, mother of two, who took up dancing at The Lusty on a dare. Gypsy, fired for complaining about an on-the-job injury - she'd cut her knee - and re-hired on orders from the National Labor Relations Board. Marcella, a lesbian who likes The Lusty because "it's so accessible, so anonymous. . . . I always say I work in the zoo, and I'm never sure who the animals are."

Langley's other major project - begun in college and still a work in progress - focuses on a pair of elderly maiden aunts who lived out their lives in the family home in rural Pennsylvania.

They struck her as "eccentric feminists" - outlaws for their World War II generation.

"So I was looking for another story about women who don't fit into society's expectations," she says.

She checked out a number of "pretty creepy" local strip shows and found The Lusty - known locally for its double-entendre marquees - after a friend described the action there as "like teenagers in a bedroom, skipping around in front of a mirror."

Managers in the 1970s created the atmosphere. The lack of tips helps prevent "sharky" competition, Langley says.

The operation defies industry stereotypes.

Book a mixed success

Langley's book, produced in 1997 by Swiss publisher Scalo, offers hundreds of photographs not in the exhibit - some graphically sexual, some mocking and wry - and down-to-earth commentary. It was well-received in Europe, and Langley was featured in the London Sunday Times Magazine, Photo Italy, and Dutch and German publications - all intrigued by American sexuality.

Its release created nary a ripple among mainstream U.S. reviewers, and her 5 percent share of profits - after Swiss taxes - has not enabled her to retire.

But the book did get her work into the museum after she delivered a copy - inscribed "Howdy, neighbor!" - to modern-art curator Trevor Fairbrother.

He initially offered Langley a one-woman show in a fourth-floor corridor dedicated to new artists, but that idea was scrapped, causing a flap in local art circles.

"There's no way to warn people that it might not be what they want their children to see," said Williams of the Seattle Art Museum.

A small placard in the hall outside the current exhibit - part of the "Documents Northwest" series sponsored by Poncho, a local arts organization - is intended to address that concern. The exhibit runs through March.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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