The Weight of the Cross

I hate Sydney. I’m up here touring a lesbian show for Mardi Gras, and I’m trying desperately to make peace with the city that stole whatever innocence I had left. This city with its cockroaches, rude drivers, homelessness and drunken backpackers. I’m here at a time when I should be celebrating my gayness, where the rainbow flag waves with pride in the humid breeze, where my wife and I can hold hands with confidence in the busy Newtown streets. But all I’m doing is trying not to be broken.

I lived here for a very short time more than ten years ago. I lived here to attempt to move on from my failed relationship with my ex girlfriend. To be more accurate, I lived in the Cross, in a brothel where I worked. The Cross – Kings Cross – is Sydney’s notorious red light district. It’s been cleaned up considerably since I walked its pavements and ate in its dingy restaurants. It’s still a tourist attraction, but maybe for different reasons now. In my day, there were streetwalkers every few metres, interspersed with junkies, strippers, and organised crime bosses. It’s where I witnessed an Aboriginal man, high off his head, being brutally manhandled into a paddy wagon, and when I say manhandled I mean beaten across the head with a baton and thrown – literally thrown into the van. It’s where I witnessed a woman being slashed and stabbed by whom I assumed was her pimp in an alley by the brothel where I worked. It’s where I walked passed a teenager dying from an overdose in the gutter. I saw all this, and I kept walking. I told no one. I pretended it wasn’t happening. I was too afraid. I kept walking back to the brothel where I let men pound me for $110 an hour so I could forget. The Cross is where I lost myself.

Being back here is like paying penance. Every time I come to Sydney I have a headache. It feels like a tight band around my head, just behind my eyes. My mental health deteriorates more the longer I’m here. I thought that touring here, doing something I loved here would create new, better memories. I’m all for facing my demons head on, but I think this is one dark part of my life that I can never make up for.

Sydney broke me. I realise that now. I forget the effect it had on my life until I’m back here. I was walking up Darlinghurst Rd with my producer and a few cast mates the other day, hanging up posters for our show because our theatre is just down the road in Woolloomooloo. We turned left onto Bayswater Rd and I couldn’t keep going. I couldn’t walk past a particular street. It was an odd sensation, feeling trapped in my shoes. It’s like being stuck in tar. I started to cry, the tears prickling in the corners of my eyes as the band around my head tightened. My wife asked me what it was that hurt me so. I couldn’t tell her. That fear was back, laced with a sprinkling of shame. This is the place where I learned not to care. This is the place where I hardened my heart and my soul. This is the place where I fell apart, bits of me scattering everywhere, and I still can’t put the pieces back together again.

Never before has my mental illness affected my ability to perform, but tonight it did. My head was scattered, my thoughts disappearing into black holes. Being here a week, trying to keep it together, dealing with missing my cats and my home and my ordinary love-filled life finally dealt its blow and I gave one of the worst performances of my career. I came offstage and burst into tears, so embarrassed, so mortified that I couldn’t get my shit together enough to actually do my job and act well. This place is threatening to tear me apart again. Thankfully, my cast and my producer are a tight knit group of understanding and compassionate people. They deserve a better me than the one they’re getting.

I am tired. I am beaten. The weight of my experiences and decisions is heavy on my heart.

I am trying not to be broken.

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Parlour Tricks

So, I think it’s about time to talk about prostitution.

Why? Well, I very recently was cast in a small role for a television show on ABC, and guess what I was cast as? Yep, that’s right, a prostitute. A protesting prostitute to be exact. When I told my father he joked, “You’re certainly not being typecast, are you?” Considering this is the third role as a prostitute I’ve done, I’m beginning to think I am. Also, an actor friend of mine has just been cast as a prostitute in a play, and as my friends are wont to do she wanted to have a chat about my experiences. It’s something I’m more than happy to do if it informs someone’s art.

But taking into consideration that I tend to use art as a basis for these posts, I guess it’s time to tell that particular story. But first, let me give you a little background.

Very young me

Very young me

I grew up in a South Auckland suburb called Manurewa, which is a low socio-economic area, in a single parent family. I was sexually molested at the age of 5 by a teenage girl who was babysitting me while my mum was at work, and again at 6 by a male boarder at my father’s house when he and his partner were out. I had a rough childhood; my parents both made mistakes while I was growing up that I won’t go into simply because I’ve come to terms with it, and quite frankly, they’re human and are allowed to make mistakes. I have a very good relationship with both of them now and through our honesty with each other, we’ve managed to get passed the past.

I was a sad kid, but a fairly good one. I liked Barbie and cats. I knew I wanted to perform for a job from a very young age. I was intelligent, I did well at school, I didn’t go to parties or get drunk or make a dick of myself. Although I was an emotionally screwed up teenager I did theatre instead of drugs, and had music lessons in lieu of sex. I made a few cock ups here and there, but in the scheme of things, I was an okay child.

As soon as I left school I moved out of home. Things were not great at home, and I was desperate to get out and start the journey towards an acting career. I got a job at a legal firm as a legal secretary to save money to move to Australia, and I lived by myself in a 2 bedroom unit. One week, I couldn’t afford my rent and my car repayments (not surprisingly, considering I was only earning $200 a week), and so I made a decision that changed the course of my life. I became a sex worker.

I struggled with it, hated it even, but I felt I had very little choice. I was working full time and still not earning enough, there was no way I was going to move home, and I didn’t want to get a loan and have more money to pay back. I was earning a lot of money very quickly through prostitution, and suddenly it became the only way I could live. Strangely enough, I felt I belonged somewhere for the first time in my life (other than in the theatre). We were all the same, us working girls. No matter where we came from we all fucked for money, which put us on a level playing field. Coming from a poor family didn’t matter, having divorced parents didn’t matter, being a little bit fat didn’t matter, we were all prostitutes. That can be very empowering.

But still, I hear you ask, why didn’t you get out if you hated it so much? Well, when I find that out I’ll tell you. I had my theories: I was psychologically damaged by the abuse and was trying to get back my power through selling sex instead of having it taken from me; I was punishing myself; I was fulfilling some karmic drama from a previous life; I was avoiding following my dream because I might fail at it – the list goes on and on and on. Quite simply, on a practical level, I needed the money. Money equalled security and independence. If I had my own lucre I wouldn’t need to rely on anyone else. Being financially dependent on someone else meant that they had power over me, by my reasoning, and I wasn’t going to be owned by anyone.

On with the story. (NB “Work” means sex work as opposed to having a “job”.) I moved to Australia just before I turned 19 and auditioned for VCA, failing to get a place. I went back to work for a few months until I got a full time job and a boyfriend. The boyfriend and I broke up 9 months later and the job contract ended, so I went back to work. The boyfriend told my father I was working, so I stopped, went to a doctor and was diagnosed with depression. A couple of suicide attempts later, I started my performing arts degree, met my fiancé and did okay for a year or two.

Then I had a major psychotic break and went insane for a little while. I fucked up. Really fucked up, and learned the ultimate lesson of self-responsibility. I did something really quite unforgivable to myself that hurt the people closest to me and although I was mentally unhinged at the time (I ended up being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and chronic depression), I couldn’t forgive myself. I worked extraordinarily hard to get over that incident and make amends for what I had done. It was probably the worst time of my life, but also the best in terms of what it taught me. It was then that I vowed to be as honest as I possibly could at all times about everything, as it was the only way to earn back the trust of those I had aggrieved.

Model2

During my working years

Try as we might, however, the fiancé and I couldn’t get past that incident. We tried, really tried because we loved each other, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I met the woman who was to become my girlfriend and one of the greatest loves of my life, the fiancé and I split up, and soon after the girlfriend (also an ex-hooker) and I went back to work. Although I was to jump the desk and become a manager (and jump it again occasionally to make some extra money), I stayed in the industry for another six years. I gave up all thoughts of acting, the band that the ex-fiancé and I had started three years before fell apart, and my life became all about sex work. I was a manager, an escort, a driver for a male escort company, a phone bitch for an escort service, I even cleaned a brothel while I was managing. I did just about every job there is to do in that industry, and I was pretty good at all of them. I worked in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, went on holiday to Bali, paid off $30,000 worth of debt, and at times had a pretty fabulous time with some of the friends I made in that industry. The girlfriend and I split up halfway through that time, and I went a little crazy again, had a minor amphetamine habit, and dated a criminal (who was actually one of the kindest, sweetest men I’ve ever been with).

And then, one day, just before my 29th birthday, I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t be in that environment anymore. The clincher was when I was introduced to someone out in the “real” world and I had to take a moment to think of what name to give them. I had lost myself. I had become so entrenched in that cloistered, isolating industry that I no longer knew who I was anymore. Hardened, dangerous criminals knew my real name, hookers would call me at home asking to “borrow” money for drugs, I was asked to lie in court for one of my bosses (if I didn’t do it I believe I would have “disappeared”. Luckily, the charges were dropped). So I left.

And promptly got sick. I spent a horrible year trying to find myself again. I got horrendously fat, smoked way too much dope, and rarely left the house. I spent my 29th birthday with my boss at the boutique hotel that I cleaned on the weekends. I had no one. I lived by myself, my father lived overseas, my industry friends had gone, I wasn’t dating anyone; I was completely and utterly alone.

But then I turned 30 and everything changed. I moved back in with my dad in the house he had just bought, I went back to Uni to finish my degree, and I got my first “real” world job in years. I found who I was in the years that followed. I decided I wanted to go back and do what I wanted to do when I was a kid: act. So I entered into my year of intensive training as part of my honours degree and suddenly found that being at Uni full time didn’t leave a lot of time for work. So, against my better judgment, I went back into the industry. I spent nine months working as a manager at a brothel that was owned by an acquaintance of my father’s, and I loathed it. I earned very good money and lived quite well while I finished my training, but it did some damage to my newly forged mental state. And here’s where my life was saved, so to speak. I had often written about the industry, and had the first 30 pages of a script that I wanted to develop. My housemate at the time, Fleur sat me down one day and asked me questions. She then came back to me a few days later and said, “let’s do a play about sex work.” It turned into Skinhouse, which we performed at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and at La Mama in Melbourne to sold out audiences in 2011. It was one of the most cathartic, empowering, enlivening experiences I have ever had. The support I received from the general public and the theatre industry was overwhelming. The process of putting on the play was difficult emotionally, and Fleur and I both struggled with the implications of delving into this period of my life night after night. But it educated people. It surprised them, enlightened them and made them cry. I believe it also humanised prostitutes for those who saw it.

I have been criticised in the past by well-meaning friends for being so open about my past, because it leaves me vulnerable to attack. And yeah, I have been attacked. A Catholic housemate when I was living in Auckland tried to throw me out of the house when she discovered I was a sex worker. She didn’t succeed and eventually came around and we were friends again, but I was treated like a criminal for a while there. My ex-fiancé hated me talking about it in public because of the way people might respond to him. A friend (who is no longer a friend) insisted on calling me a whore because she said I had to get over my abhorrence for the word (she also thought she had a right to tell me that she was spiritually superior to me because I had worked). My most recent ex’s mother told her son before she even met me that he was just another one of my customers, which is actually a really polite way of calling me a whore (this was a direct result of him stupidly telling his parents that I was an ex-hooker, something I should have raked him over the coals for but didn’t because I gave him concessions for his youth and general naïveté about these things). She went on to say a couple of years later that I was sick and broken, so no matter what I did the woman simply didn’t think I was good enough for her son, based purely, I believe, on the fact that I used to be a prostitute.

Skinhouse Photography by Sarah Walker

Skinhouse
Photography by Sarah Walker

I was never a whore. A whore, to my reckoning, is someone who can be bought with anything, be it money or drugs. A whore is someone who has no limits to what they will do for that payment, and who will screw over any and everyone for their own gain. Not all prostitutes are whores, and I actually find “whore” to be a hateful word. I was never a whore. I kept my boundaries and my integrity throughout my entire career. I didn’t work to support a drug habit, I didn’t cheat, lie or steal, and I proved time and again to the people that mattered that I could be trusted. I never worked the streets and I always used protection. That means little to those outside the industry, but it means everything to me.

Let me tell you some of the things that happened to me while I was working: I was beaten up by a client for refusing to allow him to penetrate me anally; I was raped by another client with a dirty long-neck beer bottle on a roll of carpet; I was held up against a wall by a client who bit me on the cheek because he didn’t want me to leave; I was anally raped by another client with the justification that he had just paid me $500 and was “entitled” to do whatever he wanted to me (and I was subsequently told by the madam of the escort service/brothel I worked for to have a bath, have a drink and come back to work). I don’t tell you these things for you to feel sorry for me. I tell you because this is what a lot of sex workers have to contend with on the job, and there’s not a hell of a lot of readily available support for working girls who have been abused. There’s always the risk of violence in that job. It’s no wonder that there is rampant drug use, crime, addiction and general bad behaviour in that industry. Sex workers are vilified, judged, discriminated against, and abused by the ignorant majority of the public for what they do. Oftentimes, sex workers do not seek help because there is a sense of shame – whether acknowledged or not – for “putting themselves at risk” in the first place. Even if a worker never experiences violence, the mere physical act of doing the job is stressful and potentially psychologically damaging.

So why do I talk about it? Why not do what other ex working girls I know have done and pretend it never happened? Well, Oscar Wilde once wrote, “To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.” Mind you, he also wrote, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Luckily I’m funny. All hilarity aside, I’m open about it because I’m an open person. Being honest about that time ensures that no one else can throw it in my face later on down the track. It was also such a large part of my life for so long that it didn’t so much define me as a person, but gave me the opportunity to know myself. I learned of my own strength, tenacity, and ability to overcome anything life throws at me. I also learned that I am human, that I make mistakes, and that I am actually quite fragile at times. I struggled for a long time to get over being a prostitute. I was lucky in that I have incredible parents who accepted me whatever I did. They didn’t like that I worked (what parent would, really?) but they never told me I was a bad person for it, and they were there to pick up the pieces with me. I remember my father coming into the living room as I was sobbing over the movie Leaving Las Vegas. He looked at me long and hard and asked me when I was going to forgive myself.

When indeed?

I’m working on it still, to tell the truth. I am an advocate for the sex industry, in that I believe it is necessary in this society, and I believe there would be less of the aforementioned incidences of addiction and abuse if there was on-hand support for workers, equally for those who wish to continue in the industry and for those who wish to leave it. I believe in legislation of the sex industry, but for the purposes of providing protection for the worker, not for ensuring revenue for the government. I will be very glad if I never have to step one foot inside a brothel again, but never again will I be ashamed of having spent a great deal of my adult life inside one (or seven, as the case may be).

I know who I am now. I am Kristina, not Kate, Gia, Georgia, Lauren, Alison or any of the other names I’ve used. I’ve had this life, and if I died tomorrow I would be very happy with the life I’ve lived. It is as it is, and I am who I am because of it; in spite of it even.

So, there it is.

In Memoriam

Being an actor means being vulnerable. I think so, anyway. I don’t believe I could do what I do on the stage if I hadn’t lived, really lived. That isn’t to say that if a person hasn’t rolled around in the muck of life they can’t be a convincing actor; some people just have the gift of telling stories. I like to think of acting as representing life as honestly as possible. My dear mentor and teacher Peter Oyston once said to me that nothing we do on stage as actors is ‘real’. It’s all contrived, but to be in the moment when we’re on stage, to utterly believe in that moment is the best chance we have of producing an authentic representation of life.

Peter passed away two weeks ago, which has driven me into a long series of moments of reflection. He was the first person in my life to sit me down and say, “you can act. And you should.” I’ve been acting all my life: when I was in the sex industry (bombshell alert!), I was acting. At school, at Uni, I was acting. We all ‘act’ at various points in our lives, but Peter gave me permission to act for a living, and he helped me to see that my experiences in life were only going to inform my process. He accepted me with no judgment. He saw the shitty things I went through in my younger years as a boon to my craft. To be unapologetically poetic, he set me free. And I thank him for that.

Peter in 2009. Photo by Phoebe Taylor

Peter in 2009.
Photo by Phoebe Taylor

Earlier this year, another theatre-maker friend and I wrote and produced a play called “Skinhouse” which Peter came to see. It was a play based around my experiences in the sex industry and how my friend – who I lived with for a time – and I coped with these experiences. I was standing outside after the performance talking with Peter and a reviewer, and I said of Peter, “this is the man who taught me how to act.” Peter smiled and said, “you already knew, Princess. I merely helped you to see that you could do it.”

How true.