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Features

Mama's girl

Peggy Justus was always honest about what she did. And she always figured one of her daughters would follow in her high-heeled footsteps.

By Tamara El-Khoury
Published June 1, 2006


photo
[Times photos: Cherie Diez]
Peggy Justus, in jeans, and daughter Tiffany Schrader dance together at the Mons Venus in Tampa. Peggy, 43, has been dancing since she was 16; Tiffany, who is 23, started at age 18.

 
As Tiffany Schrader, left, finishes her schoolwork on the computer at her mom’s house, Peggy Justus, far right, says to her 15-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, on the other end of her daughter’s cell phone, that she must hang up. The 15-year-old doesn’t want to be a dancer. Though she calls it “a very respected profession,” she says, “It’s not what I choose to do with my life.” She plans to go to college.
Peggy says people expect exotic dancers to be “drop-dead 10s.” She tells herself she’s still a 10, but the mirror has turned on her, she says. If she could, she’d get rid of them all: “Now they’re my worst freaking nightmare.”

TAMPA - Tiffany punches something special on the jukebox. She and Peggy take the stage. They start off slow. Late on a Friday afternoon, there are hardly any customers at the Mons Venus.

Peggy, in faded jeans, holds the pole at the center of the stage and spins. Tiffany runs her hands up under her shirt and pulls off her top.

In this light they could be the same girl. Same long blond hair, same small breasts. Same slow, swaying motion. Some guys think they are sisters.

"It is obvious there is some kind of relation,'' says another dancer, watching from nearby. "You can tell what Peggy used to look like.''

The two of them stroll the edges of the stage and meet near the middle. Peggy glances toward a guy sitting at the edge of the bar.

"You know him, don't you?'' she says. "You danced with him.''

Tiffany nods. He used to get lap dances from Peggy. Now he gets them from her daughter instead.

Their song, the one playing on the jukebox, is by Kanye West. Tiffany loves to play it when she's onstage with her mom. She likes to sing the words, feel them, think about what they mean. Sometimes she plays the song even when her mom isn't working.

Hey Mama, I wanna scream so loud for you, cuz I'm so proud of you.

Tiffany spins upside down from the pole at center stage. Her mom used to do that, but it's hard on her body now, so Peggy just walks to the edge of the stage with her jeans pulled down low.

I appreciate what you allowed for me,

I just want you to be proud of me, Hey Mama.

*   *   *

The Mons Venus sits on Dale Mabry Highway, tucked between a car wash and a Taco Bell, just down the street from Raymond James Stadium. The inside of the club is dark and clean. Mirrors cover the walls and ceiling. The stage swims in light cast by blinking traffic signals on the side and rotating beams of color from above.

Peggy Justus finds the lights humbling.

"They show every flaw that you have,'' she says.

Peggy has been dancing since she was 16. When she was 5 years old, Frankie Avalon and his beach party were on TV. She told her dad she wanted to be a go-go dancer. It became a family joke.

She's 43 now, a grandmother. Onstage, she could pass for someone a decade younger. Her makeup is minimal, her nails unpolished. A natural brunette, she just started dyeing her graying hair. She went with Golden Light Blonde. In the club, as in the rest of the world, blonds get more attention.

"Guys that would never look at me look at me,'' she says.

She's off the stage, wandering the club, flirting with the men seated on stools around the stage and on the long black couch along the walls. She's topless and wearing unbuttoned jeans. She's sipping a mocha frappuccino, hoping someone will want a lap dance.

Each dance lasts the length of one song from the jukebox. Prices are negotiable, but a dance goes for between $20 and $30. The city's ordinance outlawing lap dances is rarely enforced. When a man says yes, Peggy slides off her jeans and her 6-inch heels and slowly grinds against him. She puts her leg against his thigh, moves over him in slow figure eights, wonders how to spend the money she's making. She jokes that she likes to think about her grocery list.

She leans in close to her customer, says whatever she thinks he wants to hear. She can't believe the stuff that comes out of her mouth. If the customer's not creepy, Peggy will offer him another dance when the song's over. When she's done, she pats him on the thigh as he reaches into his wallet.

"Thank you, Gorgeous,'' she says.

Most men, she says, don't even notice she's naked when she's dancing. They look her in the eye and tell her how nicely she moves her feet. They see her slow, sensual movements, they praise the way she sings along to the songs. She was born to dance, she says. She was never good in school; she dropped out after ninth grade. She thanks God there's a profession out there for her.

She's a single mom, twice divorced, with four kids: a teenage son, plus three daughters ranging in age from 15 to 25.

When Peggy's dancing, the regulars will ask about her family.

"They've known about my kids since they were little, and I'll say, 'Tiffany is here now,' '' she says.

Even when the kids were younger, she was honest with them about what she does. She always suspected that one of her daughters would grow up to be a dancer. She just didn't know it would be Tiffany, her middle daughter.

*   *   *

In the dim light of the Mons, Tiffany Schrader sits away from the stage and studies an anatomy diagram showing the muscles of the lower body.

Tensor fascia lata

Adductor longus

Gastrocnemius

Tiffany's 23. She's a mirror of her mother, but 20 years younger and more athletic. She has been dancing since she was 18, saving money. She has a plan. She wants to get her massage therapy license and open a day spa.

As a kid, Tiffany remembers her mom telling her she was a dancer, that she wore high heels and no clothes. Tiffany wasn't embarrassed about it. What she remembers most about growing up is that if she ever needed anything, her mom was available. Sometimes she would call her mom at work five, 10 times a day.

"I feel bad now because I understand,'' Tiffany says. "If she was at a regular job she couldn't do that. If we were having a bad day, she would come home, and that would mean a lot to us.''

Tiffany didn't aspire to be a dancer herself. In high school, she worked at Pizza Shack, Albertsons and Kash n' Karry. But at every job, she says, the guys would make comments about her looks and their girlfriends would get mad. She figured if she was going to attract that kind of attention, she might as well go to the Mons and make better money and set her own schedule.

Growing up, she never saw her mother dance. When she decided to try it herself, she spent a day watching her mom work. It was strange the first time.

Eventually, Tiffany climbed onstage, shaking. She had no rhythm. When she was a kid, her older sister would laugh at the way she danced. When she did gymnastics as a little girl, she was so uncoordinated, her mom was afraid she'd break in half. When the other dancers saw her up onstage - robotic, stiff - they wondered why Peggy hadn't taught her any moves.

In time, Tiffany developed a style a lot like her mom's. Some of the dancers are crawlers. Some fly around the pole in fishnet, heavy metal blaring.

"I'm more of a swayer,'' Tiffany says. "I kind of just flow. It's my personality. I'm moving to my own beat in my head.''

Her mother and father are divorced. When her dad found out she was working at the club, he insisted she get an education to fall back on. Others called her a whore.

Like her mother, Tiffany makes no apologies. She's proud of being a dancer, she says. And she's always learning.

To her, the Mons Venus is an encyclopedia. The customers - doctors, lawyers, businessmen - are all experts in something. When she's crouched over their lap with her mouth close to their ear, she asks them questions, gets whatever information she can to help her start her day spa. They tell her where to shop for supplies, what kind of licenses she will need.

Knowing she wants to be a therapist, doctors quiz her on physiology. She believes they want her to succeed.

"This is about a knowledge base if you think about it,'' Tiffany says.

As she talks, her mother is a few feet away, climbing into the lap of a man in jeans and a dark button-down shirt.

"Be gentle,'' Peggy tells him. "I'm still a virgin.''

When Tiffany was little, she says, a doctor's mistake caused her to overdose on medicine, so she was sick for a long time. She remembers how hard it was for her mom, the way her mom used to sit on the kitchen floor and cry.

Behind her, her mom is still dancing over the guy in jeans. Tiffany doesn't seem to notice. She always thought her mom was beautiful. It bothered her that the boys in her class had crushes on her mother.

"Sometimes you just get glimpses of her," Tiffany says. "Wow. That angle. The right turn. When she dances. It's nice. I do that. How you flow your body. It's nice. It makes me get emotional.''

She can't say any of this to her mom. So she just plays the Kanye West song, over and over, and Peggy always knows it's for her.

Let me tell you what I'm about to do, Hey Mama,

I know I act a fool but, I promise you I'm goin' back to school.

"I hope she is proud of me. Because I am going back to school,'' she says.

Tiffany values her independence. At an age when some still live with their parents, she has already bought two houses: one for herself, one for her mom. She'd like to buy the house next door to her mother, to stay close. She wants to save enough money to take care of herself and her mom.

"That's why I want to succeed real bad. I can take her around the world. It's not too late. I want to show her there's more to life than the past 40 years.''

Peggy's customer hugs her close, rocking her back and forth. Peggy stands up and slides on her jeans.

*   *   *

Peggy lives a few minutes away from Tiffany, in a quiet Largo neighborhood with her youngest daughter and a dog named Bailey. A truck from her lawn care business is usually parked in front of the house. In the garage is a street stock race car.

On a Monday afternoon, Peggy cooks dinner. The smell of baked brownies fills the house. Spaghetti and corn boil on the stove. The tomato meat sauce Peggy made is sugar-free. The brownies are not.

In the living room, next to the worn couches, a framed portrait of Peggy's daughters and granddaughter sits on an end table. Beside the photo is Hop on Pop, one of her granddaughter's favorites.

Peggy's 15-year-old chatters loudly and long with her boyfriend. She separates from her cell phone long enough to say she wants to go to Florida State University, or the University of Florida, to be a prosthetics engineer or something else with a fancy, scientific name.

She doesn't want to be a dancer.

"It's not what I choose to do with my life,'' she says. "It's a very respected profession, and they work hard for their money.''

Her oldest and youngest daughters are jealous that Peggy and Tiffany work together, Peggy says. They don't realize that at the club, they don't spend much time with each other.

She knows Tiffany is proud of her. And she's proud of Tiffany, as well as her other kids. She's grateful that learning comes easier to her children than it did to her.

"They can be a doctor, or lawyer, or anything.''

Sometimes, Peggy thinks about going back to school herself. In the meantime, she says she'll probably work at the Mons for another couple of years. She has brought up the question of her age with Joe Redner, the club's owner, but Redner told her it wasn't an issue.

In recent years, Peggy says, some of her regulars have switched to Tiffany. She tells them they have good taste.

"I've seen the same customers for years. Will they dance with somebody else? Yes. Will it be because they're younger? No,'' Peggy says. "It's because they get bored of you.''

When she retires, Peggy jokes that she'll be the Naked Comic. Her first joke? That she's a dancer at the Mons.

"They're going to look at me and say, 'Yeah, right,' '' Peggy says. People expect dancers to be "drop-dead 10s,'' she says. She tells herself she is a 10. But out loud, she also wishes she could take out the mirrors stretching from ceiling to floor on the walls of her house. Mirrors, she says, are honest.

Twenty years ago, they were her favorite thing.

"Now they're my worst freaking nightmare,'' she says.

*   *   *

Joe Redner says he never tells dancers they're too old. Still, he has told dancers younger than Peggy that they're "beyond their time.''

Desirability, he says, has nothing to do with age but with presentation. And Peggy keeps herself in shape.

"I give her a little extra leeway than I would anybody else,'' Redner says. "Peggy has been with me through thick and thin.''

Peggy says she's uncomfortable with her body. She used to be more toned, with no cellulite. More like Tiffany.

Just the other day, she says, she gave a lap dance to a businessman. He told Peggy how attractive she was. She noticed him look at her daughter.

"Do you want to dance with her?'' Peggy asked him. "I don't mind. She's beautiful.''

Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at (727) 445-4181 or tel-khoury@sptimes com. Staff writer Kelley Benham contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 31, 2006, 15:34:41]


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