This is the first part in a series of reminiscences about places I have worked. I mentioned earlier that I had worked as a sex worker one summer as a teenager, back then when it was still illegal.
The Penthouse was the first place I worked in when I entered the sex industry in Australia. The photo above shows the discrete private entrance at 250 Pitt Street, basically a doorway which lead you up some narrow stairs to a reception area, and after you had paid your entrance fee, you were let into the lounge. It was not a massage parlour, but a gentleman’s club. Entrance to the club entitled you to free drinks, mingling with the ladies, and then choosing one to have a complimentary massage with. We all dreaded the clients that came for the massage only, as it was hard work and I think we only got $40 from that. Naturally we wanted money from the extras, although asking if your client wanted them was a no-no and you risked arrest if you did ask outright (soliciting).
I had been told that there were four main brothels in Sydney, the best being A Touch of Class in Surrey Hills. The other three were The Penthouse in the central city, The Golden Apple in Kings Cross and Tudor Court, down the road in Potts Point. It was suggested by a guy I met that I should try for a position at A Touch of Class, but the late Zara Powell, who was the manager of A Touch of Class, had made a rule that they would not hire girls under 25 due to their unreliability. (Incidentally, Zara Powell had a fascinating reputation: a busty redhead who was a triple scorpio, she had apparently been formidible and not to be crossed. I would have loved to have met her – I must hunt out her auto-bio.)
So anyway, I ended up having an interview with Michael, the son of the owner, who ran the Penthouse. He was quite young, handsome but had obviously suffered from bad acne as a teenager as his face had some scarring. I got the job. He actually lived on the premises. He sometimes slept with some of the girls, including me, but he was not actually sleazy believe it or not, it’s just that some of the girls wanted to sleep with him, (he was young, rich, handsome, seemingly powerful etc). There was one girl from Germany who was obsessed with him and believed they were in a relationship, because she always was the only one rostered on the Sunday overnight graveyard shift, and she thought that meant he wanted to be alone with her. I myself was ambivalent about him, but I didn’t dislike him. I remember he kept a rifle under his bed as a security measure. He was extremely wealthy and had all the toys a young man could want, like a luxury european car, expensive motor bike etc etc etc, but he also seemed lonely – he never seemed to be able to get a girlfriend, he was like a bird in a gilded cage as he hardly ever spent time away from the brothel. I heard later that he used to travel around staying at backpackers to meet real women, beautiful european travellers, but when I knew him, he did not have a serious partner, maybe nice girls didn’t want to go out with a man who was involved in the sex industry. A couple of years later I caught up with a woman who had worked with me at the Penthouse and she told me he had shot himself dead one day. Very sad.
So there were women of all ages, including a middle aged woman from America with the working name of Susan, who resembled Kath from Kath and Kim, who did very well for herself. There were some lovely Asian girls whom I befriended – I often wonder what happened to my Thai friend Annie, who had personality plus, and some of my Filipina friends, who were married to Aussie men who had no idea that they were moonlighting as sex workers. We socialised together with their husbands present – the ladies would cook up amazing feasts and all us girls would come over and the husbands and their friends, also married to Asian ladies, would all sit in the best seats being waited on hand and foot while we ladies played card games in the kitchen. The Asian women were very popular, and really beautiful people. They had such loyal regulars. One of my friends, Jasmine, an ABC (Australian born chinese), was the most popular of all. She worked non-stop 14 hours a day 7 days a week earning thousands, and she would then take off for weeks at a time and get plastic surgery, or take an exotic overseas trip somewhere. She was gentle, curvy and playful, like an Asian Marilyn Monroe, but deep down she was tough as nails.
One day a beautiful 18 year old aspiring model arrived from Queensland. Michael immediately fell head over heels in love with her and took her on a few dates in his flash car. She truly was beautiful and would have done well as a model if it wasn’t for getting pregnant and marrying young, (not to Michael). Before she got married we had been flatmates and she became one of my dearest friends too and we kept in touch over the years intermittently, keeping up with each other’s family news, and sharing one particular grief which is too personal to her for me to write about.
All of us girls at the Penthouse were very close, and although there were occasional fights and factions, we got over them usually and often the whole bunch of us would get dressed up and go out to share a meal together, or go night clubbing or whatever. Compared to some places, drug-taking was pretty minimal as Michael had a zero tolerance policy, but there were some of us who partied too hard outside of work, and sadly a couple of girls ended up with bad habits and other alcohol or drug-related issues.
There were some funny times. Once I realised after a client had just walked down the stairs that I had forgotten to ask him for the money, which was normally done as soon as the client was alone in the room with you. One of the other ladies with more courage than I, went chasing after him in her high heels and all. At first he took off, but then she yelled “we have your name and credit card number from when you paid your entrance fee” so he came back and paid me.
I had a falling out with Michael, mainly because I couldn’t stand one of his friends, who always hung around (but never booked any of the girls), after he had pointed a loaded pistol at me. This happened after I had thrown a glass of wine in his face during an argument with him. Which of course was a very bad thing to do, but a loaded pistol is hardly an appropriate response and from then on when I saw him, I did not bother with niceties, which made things a little tense. My health was really suffering due to stress so when I left after receiving a tip from a client, Michael took this as his “out” and would not let me work there again when I got back from overseas.
I still kept in touch with most of my friends though. And my next adventure, working in London, was full of uncertainty and even more surprises and I really got to see how the other half lived. At least the other half who saw sex workers.