Even with a cocktail in her hand, the House Mom looks like she could drive a school carpool. Like someone’s mom I grew up with.
She clutches a tumbler tinkling with ice cubes as she escorts me through the Vegas strip club. It’s after closing when we walk past the empty stage—lights still flashing, the bass so deep it vibrates in my chest—past the private dance rooms, and through the back bar to a hidden door.
We enter a dark room that reeks of cheap cologne. A man who looks like a bad Elvis impersonator sits behind a large desk, his pompadour wig and sunglasses glowing blue from the wall monitors displaying every inch of the club. The House Mom introduces him as the owner and turns to leave.
As she closes the door, our eyes meet briefly before she averts hers, severing our imaginary tether. My stomach twists. The boss places his hands flat on the desk but doesn’t stand to greet me.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he says.
* * *
In May 1997, I was managing an adult lingerie store off the Pacific Coast Highway in Torrance, California, when a tall, skinny blonde wearing a backward baseball cap and a crop top strode in. She crouched in front of the glass counter, scanning the body jewelry, pasties, and Curves, those silicone bra inserts otherwise known as “chicken cutlets.” Then she quickly stood up and introduced herself as Tracy (not her real name).
“Can I help you find something?” I pulled out my clientele folder.
“I’m just checking stuff out.” Tracy eyed me up and down while grazing her fingertips across the brightly colored penis pops and other bachelorette party favors. “How long have you worked here?”
“A few months.” I couldn’t tell if Tracy was trying to hit on me or waste my time that could otherwise be spent making commission.
“You have a tight figure.” Tracy’s eyes settled on my chest. “Would you be interested in modeling for Victoria’s Secret?”
I laughed. “Are you kidding? I’m only five foot four. Those models are gorgeous and tall.”
I was certain she was hitting on me now. At twenty-five, I’d been hit on so many times in the store I knew what to expect and was steadily growing weary of the industry. With a mother I’d lost to suicide at thirteen, an absent father, and no siblings, I was practically an orphan and had been supporting myself since my mid-teens. I’d taken the position because of the managerial pay, which seemed like a natural progression from one of my previous jobs, working as a “bra specialist” in the lingerie department at Broadway. What caught me off guard about Tracy’s proposition was that she was a woman, and not an older woman with a man who wanted a three-way, but a young woman who looked barely twenty.
“It’s for catalog work,” she reassured me. “You don’t need to be tall. They use petite young girls with nice figures like you.”
I wasn’t that young, but I was barely ninety-six pounds and my half-Asian side gave me the look of a teenager.
“I visit the mansion a lot. I could take you to an audition.” Tracy quickly pulled out her electronic organizer and asked for my phone number, which I recited without thinking.
When I told the story to one of my coworkers, she said, “No way! Tracy did the same thing to me too.”
My coworker had been so surprised by it that she also offered her phone number. She was not tall or model-like either, so that gave me even more pause. I wasn’t sure what mansion Tracy was talking about, but my coworker thought she might be referring to the Playboy Mansion. We had a lot of strippers and porn stars who frequented the shop to buy outfits for Hefner’s parties. This was during porn’s heyday, when companies had big production budgets to make rock-and-roll pirate movies starring Jenna Jameson and people lined up around the block to buy amateur sex tapes like Pam and Tommy’s.
A day later, Tracy called and said she’d pick me up on Friday and we’d go meet the Victoria’s Secret recruiter. I asked her again why she thought I would be a fit. Something didn’t feel right. I’d seen a lot of things while working at the store—everything from one man stalking another out to the parking lot because he watched him try on high heels, to the retired school bus driver who’d come in every two weeks to purchase the underwear I was wearing.
“I need them bad,” he would say, his gnarled seventy-year-old hands shaking. “Make sure there’s a lot of stuff on them.” Two weeks later, he’d bring them back and want a fresh pair, and I’d throw them in the trash, fifty dollars richer.
Then there was the guy who’d try on silk boxers and model them for us, a Kong dildo hanging out of the bottom of his boxers that he tried to pass off as his own. But because Tracy was a woman, her invitation didn’t elicit a hard no. I told her I’d think about it.
* * *
On Monday, May 12, 1997, it was nearly noon when Alicia Arden drove up the Santa Monica coastline. Arden, a twenty-eight-year-old model and actress whose credits at the time included Baywatch and Red Shoe Diaries, was on her way to Shutters on the Beach hotel for a Victoria’s Secret model audition. A few weeks earlier, a mutual friend had told Alicia about the multimillionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.
“Since you’re a model, you should give him a call.” Her friend offered Epstein’s home and work phone numbers, saying, “This guy can get you in the Victoria’s Secret catalog,” Arden said in the Netflix documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich.
Alicia phoned Epstein, who asked her to send some photos of herself. She’d been hustling for work, sending her résumé and photos to magazine owners, so Alicia arranged for her own photo shoot and wore Victoria’s Secret lingerie. She FedExed the photos to Epstein’s Madison Ave townhouse in New York, and when he received them on May 9, he phoned Alicia immediately, asking to meet her.
“My secretary will contact you to make an appointment.”
On May 12, Alicia answered a 6 a.m. call from Epstein’s secretary, a woman named Kimberly, who told her she could meet Epstein at Shutters at 12:30 or 4:30 p.m. Alicia decided on 12:30, but was having reservations about the meeting because in her experience, interviews weren’t conducted in hotel rooms.
When she arrived, Epstein wasn’t what she expected. He stood barefoot on the hotel carpet, wearing sweatpants and a USA T-shirt, and as soon as Alicia entered the room, he started criticizing her figure.
“Let me evaluate you,” he said.
Alicia reluctantly stepped closer. She wanted the modeling job, but felt as though Epstein was attempting to get her to act in an unprofessional manner.
“I want to see you in your bra and underwear.” He pulled her top over her head and yanked up her skirt, she told People. “Let me manhandle you for a second.” He grabbed her hips and ass.
Alicia started to cry. Epstein was bigger than she, and she didn’t want to be overpowered. When he became distracted by a phone call, she got dressed and headed for the door. Epstein spontaneously pulled out $100 and handed it to her.
“I’m not a prostitute,” Alicia said, refusing to take the money. “I want to be in the Victoria’s Secret catalog.”
“Let me see what I can do.” Epstein followed her all the way out to her car, urging her to take the money. Before she drove away, she took it because she needed the money for gas.
The entire incident made her feel violated and tricked, and the next morning, she drove to the Santa Monica Police Department to file a crime report.
* * *
A twenty-minute drive down the coast from Santa Monica, I’d just come in for my closing shift in Torrance when one of my coworkers told me that the morning drawer had been coming up short.
“It’s bad, Angela,” she said. “I barely had enough money to give a customer his change.” Other coworkers corroborated her story, eventually revealing that my assistant manager had been dipping into the till.
I opened the safe, counted all the cash drops, and found more than $2,000 missing. On the phone, I asked my assistant manager to come in to talk about what she’d done.
We sat on the chairs reserved for strippers to try on high heels. She fidgeted with a small plastic hanger, inserting one hip of a thong into the plastic clasp, then spinning the hanger around and clasping the other hip. This method hid the messy edges and stretched the panty flat.
I remembered the first day we met, sitting on these same chairs. She’d run her fingers down my stubbly forearm and said, “Okinawans have hairy arms and eyebrows.” I’d marveled how a Filipina seemed to know more about my heritage than I did. She’d given me the Asian-ness I’d been missing ever since my mom died.
And there we sat again. I knew I had to call my regional boss and request to fire my assistant manager, but she was my friend, and I was certain she’d get charged with theft. Recently divorced, she was a single mom with a toddler and a baby.
“I promise I’ll pay it back,” she pleaded.
“How? You only make around $250 a week,” I said. “I need to deliver the drop to corporate at the end of the month, and I don’t have the money to cover it.”
“Please, don’t tell corporate,” she said, tears welling. “I got in trouble when I was young … you know, stupid shit, drugs. If I get charged with this, they’ll take my kids away.”
She bent down and reached inside her purse, her hair fanning my shoulder so I could smell a spritz of Victoria’s Secret Pear. When she popped back up, she held a photograph between two fingers like a cigarette—a picture of her boy and girl. My throat ached and limbs buckled thinking about those kids growing up without their mother like I had. I didn’t want that to happen.
A few weeks earlier, a customer told me about one of his clients from Japan who was looking for a dominatrix, and figured that since I managed an adult store, I probably knew someone.
“I know a gig that would get you a chunk of the money,” I said to my assistant manager. “All you have to do is wear leather and flog a businessman.”
She agreed, even though dominatrix work wasn’t on her radar. It required a certain type of persona, and she didn’t have a commanding presence. She was someone who’d laugh at everything, and I couldn’t imagine her taking control, but it was the only solution I could think of. I felt like Heidi Fleiss, a madam who’d run an upscale prostitution ring in Los Angeles and had been on the news. Was I pimping her out? I was recruiting her as a sex worker, something she might not have done on her own.
Later that evening, Tracy called the shop to confirm what time I’d get off work on Friday. I told her around 4:30 p.m., but I wanted to go home to shower and change.
“Why don’t you bring your clothes to work with you,” she suggested. “You can change at the hotel.”
“What hotel?” I asked, but just then, a customer walked to the counter with lingerie and lube. “I gotta go.”
* * *
Across the country in Manhattan, Maria Farmer had been hired by Jeffrey Epstein and his socialite girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, to greet guests at his mansion. Many of the girls she greeted were under the impression they were auditioning for the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
Epstein had a close relationship with the head of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands, a man named Leslie Wexner, and had a bizarre amount of control over Wexner’s assets and personal life, reported The New York Times. In fact, at one point, Wexner gave Epstein power of attorney over his finances—a move that baffled Wexner’s colleagues, who couldn’t understand why Wexner, a man at the peak of his career, would hand over his empire to an outsider with a flimsy track record. Epstein exploited his proximity to the brand to lure young women to his mansion under the ruse of a modeling scout.
Farmer told Politico that when the bells chimed at a nearby prep school each day, Maxwell would call her town car. Before she left the mansion, she’d get anxious and say, “I need to get the nubiles!” Maxwell would circle the city streets, and when she spotted a teen, she would order the driver to pull over. Other times Maxwell would say, “Oh, I’ve got to get a model, gotta get a Victoria’s Secret model.”
Farmer said she believed the ruse until she didn’t. She was assaulted herself by Epstein and Maxwell in 1996. The young women and aspiring models, some of them wearing school uniforms, usually left the house traumatized.
* * *
One night before Tracy was supposed to pick me up, the retired school bus driver came in to exchange my used underwear. He met me at the back corner of the store, next to the strap-on dildos, blow-up dolls, and an oversized fist and forearm that frightened the underpants off me.
“You must be excited.” He clutched the damp panties in his liver-spotted hand and shoved them into his Member’s Only jacket pocket, one creviced corner of his mouth turning upward in a smirk. A hot flush spread across my cheeks. I’d been wearing my favorite pair that day and didn’t want to give them up, so I’d taken the underwear from the returns pile and squirted a dollop of lube on it. Realizing it was too much, I tried to wash some off in the breakroom sink and dried it with a paper towel, but the panty was still tacky. He handed me a fifty.
“What about her?” He pointed his cane toward my coworker dusting the rounders, those glass tops above the lingerie racks. I knew what he was asking, and I wasn’t his first. A coworker had introduced me to him before she got transferred to another store. “I bet I’d like her brand,” he sniffed. “I’ll give ya an extra $25.”
The idea of making money just from the referral was appealing. My eyes fell on the oversized fist and I wondered why corporate kept ordering them. It was Hulk-hands big. I’d sold the last one to a skinny ectomorph wearing biker shorts, and the words “Be careful with that” came spilling out of my mouth as I rang him up.
“I’ll ask her,” I said.
* * *
Epstein and Maxwell’s modeling scout ruse had been going on for years. Molly Skye Brown told The Sun that in 1992, she was a fourteen-year-old working at a gym’s childcare center when Ghislaine Maxwell walked by the windows, saw her, and stopped. She looked her up and down, then entered the gym, walked up to the front counter, and said, “I’m not going to be long. I just want to talk to this girl.”
Maxwell introduced herself as a modeling scout and handed Brown a business card.
“You could easily pass for eighteen,” she said, and then offered her jobs as a Victoria’s Secret catalog model and as a masseuse. Brown politely declined, saying she preferred acting and singing to modeling.
“Well, if you change your mind,” Maxwell said, “I have a lot of modeling opportunities.”
Brown later heard that Maxwell had cruised the mall looking for young girls and handing out business cards.
With hundreds of abused victims, Epstein’s sex-trafficking operation couldn’t have been possible with only Maxwell handing out business cards. An entire network of women needed to be employed to keep up with Epstein’s insatiable appetite, and when Maxwell came on the scene, Epstein started abusing up to three girls a day.
Epstein’s victims needed to be recruited, scheduled, and compensated, then coerced into bringing more victims. Another tier of women, many who were victims themselves, were employed to keep the abuse rolling. These recruiters, in the dozens of dozens, possibly even hundreds, included school girls as young as fourteen.
Courtney Wild was fourteen with a smile full of braces when she first entered Epstein’s mansion after a friend enlisted her to give a massage to an older man. Once recruited, she was given another option: instead of having sex with Epstein, she could get paid $200 to recruit other teens from her high school, reported Heavy. She lived with her mom in a trailer park. Her mom struggled with addiction and Wild feared becoming homeless, so she took the money.
“If I had a girl to bring him at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then that’s how many times I’d go a day,” Wild told the New York Post. “He wanted as many girls as I could get him. It was never enough.”
* * *
After the late-night dominatrix session, my assistant manager showed up late for work the next morning with bags under her eyes. I handed her a cup of coffee.
“How did it go?”
“I told him to lie down on the table. Then I took a leather flogger and smacked him.” She dumped three sugar packets into the black liquid. “But I couldn’t stop laughing.” She told me the man spoke little English, but he was nice, and she got paid. “Here.” She smiled and handed me $500. It was a start to repaying her debt. “Do you have any more work for me?”
In fact, I did. I knew of more men who wanted dominatrix services. But the term “sex-trafficking” had just been coined on the news, and I knew it was an act where individuals performed commercial sex through coercion, including debt bondage, to keep victims involved in the sex industry, even with consent. Wasn’t that exactly what I was doing? Or was I saving her from prison and losing her kids?
I worried about losing my job because of her actions and knew I was crossing a morally ambiguous line. Even though I wasn’t making any money off of her sex work, it didn’t sit well in my stomach. I hadn’t vetted these men and didn’t know if they were dangerous. Wasn’t there an unspoken rule that women were supposed to protect other women? In my line of work, that didn’t seem to be the case. The industry’s foundation stemmed from the patriarchy, and working around porn culture slowly conditioned one to the dangerous idea that it was okay to objectify and degrade women for a heterosexual male’s pleasure.
That was why, in my shop, I insisted on safety. The girls who worked the night shift were instructed to leave the trash bag by the back door so I could take it out to the dumpster in the morning. I didn’t want them walking across the dimly lit parking lot at night. When I closed up, I invited a bodybuilder from the gym next door, a six-foot-seven intimidating-looking hulk who gobbled steroids like candy, to sit in our shop and watch while I counted the money, then walk us to our cars. My regional boss would’ve never approved of having a stranger around stacks of cash, but I did what I had to. I taped the phone number for the shopping center security guards in several places around the store, just in case. I knew they’d get to our shop faster than the police would.
With all the safety measures I’d set in place, sending my assistant manager out into the night to perform sexual acts on random men seemed contrary to everything I’d instilled in my girls.
* * *
Besides Wild, Epstein and Maxwell employed a growing network of women, lured by expensive gifts and the luxurious lifestyle, to recruit more women, reported NBC New York. There was a sense of normalcy to it all, the fact that other beautiful women were doing it lent legitimacy to the operation. Some of these women combed malls, art galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs for Epstein’s type: the younger the better. The recruiters were so prevalent in Manhattan’s modeling world that they became known as “Jeffrey’s girls.”
Marijke Chartouni was a twenty-year-old model who moved to Manhattan from a small town in Alaska when a friend she’d known for a few months invited her to Epstein’s townhouse. It was morning, and Chartouni thought she was meeting him for coffee. When she walked into the mansion, it was like entering another world.
“It’s literally like Alice in Wonderland,” Chartouni told Politico, “like walking through the rabbit hole as soon as you get in the door.” She was led into a dark room where her friend and Epstein took off Chartouni’s clothes and assaulted her.
Later that week, one of Epstein’s assistants reached out, saying he wanted to see her again, but she declined. She felt betrayed by her friend, who made it all seem so normative, like everyone had a part, and after the incident with Epstein, she never saw her again.
* * *
On Friday’s lunch break, I was sitting in the back room eating a salad, debating whether I should go with Tracy to meet the Victoria’s Secret scout, when something about Tracy’s voice—a tone slick with deception, perhaps—reminded me of an older woman I used to work with.
Three years earlier, I’d moved to Las Vegas and answered a newspaper ad to work as a strip club cashier for $40 an hour—an extraordinary amount for blue-collar work in 1994, when the minimum wage was $4.25. I sat in the club’s booth that faced the street and sold tickets for $20, which included entry into the totally nude strip club and one nonalcoholic beverage. The club was always empty, music blasting and lights flashing for no one, a vacant stage. I couldn’t imagine the owners justifying the $40 an hour we got paid to sit there. An older woman, or House Mom, brought me Diet Cokes when I was thirsty and braided my hair when I asked her to. She sat near the ticket booth, eyeing me as she smoked, one hand holding her cigarette, the other clutching a tumbler that tinkled with ice cubes as she walked.
Most nights, only three dancers worked, and I knew their routines. Misty was lithe, acrobatic, and destined to be a showgirl. She’d twirl around the pole to Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses. Then she’d slither over to a guy sitting in a chair near the lip of the stage, scoot her butt down like a gynecological exam, and place each of her legs over his shoulders and onto the back of his chair, pumping her hips up in a body wave while gyrating her bare crotch inches from his face. That’s what made this place unique. Then there was Nicky, who’d unravel her long black hair to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” She was so sensual that when she ended her routine, guys would clap. The third dancer, Chantel, had grown children and was probably in her forties or fifties even, and had breasts she could practically throw over her shoulders like a scarf if she wanted to. She’d cup them in her hands and juggle them up and down while bending over a guy’s face to Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.”
It was after her routine that a college-aged boy who looked like Josh Hartnett in The Faculty trekked up to my booth’s half-door, leaned over it, and begged me to strip.
“You gotta get up there,” he pleaded.
“I’m not a dancer.”
“I came to show my friends a good time, but this place is dead and these dancers—”
A loud crackle and screech interrupted our conversation. “Get that guy away from the booth,” a booming voice bellowed from the booth’s intercom I didn’t know existed. “I’m watching you.”
I didn’t know there were cameras in the booth either, and couldn’t believe someone had been watching me the entire time I worked there. It made me feel more naked than the dancers.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Budget Josh. “Please have a seat. You can’t be up here.”
Shortly after that incident, the House Mom asked if I wanted to meet the boss. I had no desire to meet him, but I loved working the booth and didn’t want to lose my job. “He wants to talk to you about dancing,” she said, and because she’d been grooming me for at least a month, I trusted her and didn’t say no.
When the night rolled around to meet the boss, the House Mom took me to a hidden door next to the bar, into a room full of camera monitors displaying every room in the club, from the private dance rooms to the dressing room. A man wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt, mustache, a black pompadour wig, and sunglasses, who looked like an Elvis impersonator, sat behind a large desk. She introduced me to him as the owner of the club. Then she left.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said as I stood in front of the desk. “You look pretty good with your clothes on.” He eyed me up and down. “But in order to fully evaluate your figure, I’m going to need you to strip.”
Before I knew it, he was on the other side of the desk, pulling up my skirt and grabbing my ass.
After the sexual assault, I ran out of that club and never went back. I remember how violated I felt and betrayed by the woman who brought me to him. She’d been like a mother figure to me, and I thought she was there to look out for all the girls. Had the dancers gone through this type of recruitment, too? I imagined them all coming in under false pretenses, answering the cashier ad for the generous hourly pay, working the booth while training the next girl, then having the House Mom escort them into the boss’s lair so he could sexually assault them. It made me sick to my stomach.
But I didn’t even think about filing a police report. I was wary of the police and knew it would be the business owner’s word against mine. Who was I? A young woman who willingly took a job working at a totally nude strip club. In my experience, sexual assault wasn’t easily prosecuted in the ’90s. “It’s a man’s world” and “boys will be boys” were customary sayings to dismiss men’s bad behavior and look the other way.
Twenty-six-years later, my former boss was charged with running an illegal brothel. I finally understood why the club had been empty all the time: it had been a front for sex trafficking.
* * *
After Epstein groped and “manhandled” her, Alicia Arden replayed the event over and over in her head, and when she awoke the next morning, she drove straight to the Santa Monica Police Department. The officer who was tasked with filing her report was dismissive.
“You willingly went to his room,” he noted.
“For business,” Alicia stated again, feeling like she was being blamed for what happened.
The detective stopped taking notes. “Think hard about whether you really want to file this report.”
Alicia left the police department in tears. “I wish I could talk to a female police officer,” she said to a friend on the phone.
Nevertheless, she returned a week later and filed the report with the same detective. She wanted to be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, the report was swept under the rug. Epstein wasn’t investigated and no one ever called her back.
“If they would have taken me more seriously than they did,” Alicia told the Associated Press of the 1997 incident, “it could’ve helped all these girls. It could have been stopped.”
* * *
As I picked at my salad, I realized Tracy’s proposal didn’t feel right.
“I can’t make it,” I told Tracy on the phone.
If I were a few years younger, I would’ve fallen for it. But at twenty-five, that time in Vegas had taught me a lesson I would never forget.
From experience, I now know that the act of one woman recruiting another is an integral part of the sex-trafficking industry. The man at the top hides behind the thin veil that he didn’t solicit the girl to begin with. In Epstein’s case, he didn’t have a magnetic personality, so instead, he hung photos of famous people on his walls, name dropped, and flaunted his wealth. Women were lured by his connections and the network of other women who satiated his sexual desires.
Most of these women aren’t household names because of the sheer number of them, including more than a hundred Jane Does. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the network of women involved, from those who were employed by him, those who witnessed, those who were recruited and abused, to those who were turned to lure other victims in some sort of sexual Ponzi scheme. I’d worked in the porn industry, had no parental support, struggled with finances, and knew just how easy it was to slide into morally ambiguous territory. I don’t know what part Tracy played in all of this, but I feel like she was just one cog in a vast machine, an important player on the West Coast, and someone who most likely had been abused by Epstein.
I wish I could ask Tracy what she knows. I wish more women would share their story to help fill in all the missing pieces of this vast puzzle. We may have the corners and some border pieces, but we’re missing most of the interior connections.
However, I know it’s not easy to come forward. The sexual assault by my strip club boss remained a secret for twenty-eight years. Telling the truth isn’t necessary for our survival, and sometimes our very survival depends upon burying it, but coming forward may help break future chains of abuse.
Angela Miyuki Mackintosh is a writer and illustrator living on a ranch in the Sequoia National Forest that she’s renovating into an artist retreat. Her writing has been published in Writer’s Digest, Under the Sun, The Nervous Breakdown, Eastern Iowa Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, iō Literary Journal, Exposition Review, Permafrost, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. Her essay “Super Bloom” was nominated for a 2024 Pushcart Prize. She’s the founding editor of WOW! Women on Writing. When she’s not writing or editing, she enjoys oil painting, trail running, and cat wrangling.