Why does an exotic dancer need clothes?

“Because she has to take them off,” says Pamela Evola. “Men like to be enticed. I don’t think they want to see it all at one time. I think they would rather see a girl dressed up. It’s just a chase, and men love to chase.”

It’s past 11 on a chilly October night and Evola is racing west on the Eisenhower in her dark blue Econoline van. Behind her is what looks like a heap of body bags. Actually they’re garment bags stuffed with mini dresses, bustiers, sheer robes, form-fitting silver pantsuits, and spangled fluorescent tops. Stacked around them are boxes of boots and stiletto heels. Another box overflows with brightly colored thongs; yet another contains a tangle of garters.

Evola, who’s in her late 40s, is sole proprietor of The Great Put On, a retail concern that consists of a storefront location in Forest Park, a Web site (www.thegreatputon.com), and the movable trunk show that she transports to clubs three or four times a week. Now, bundled up in a black ski jacket and cargo pants, she steers this boutique on wheels up an exit ramp and then heads north on Mannheim Road. Moments later she pulls around to the back entrance of Dreamers, a gentlemen’s club in Stone Park. Swinging open the rear doors of the van, she begins toting bags, boxes, and collapsible clothing racks through the back entrance of the club, up a small staircase, and into the dancers’ dressing room, which smells of cigarette smoke, hair spray, and many perfumes. The half dozen women present inundate her with hugs, kisses, and urgent demands: “I need a new moneymaker, baby!” “Have you got my jumpsuit?” “Did you remember my shoes?”

When Evola started her business it was a nail salon with a small sideline in clothing. “My taste in clothing is probably a little bit more east or west coast, but not midwest,” she says. “I love sexy clothes.” In search of the right stuff, she traveled to garment shows in California and Florida, but she wasn’t moving much of this merchandise until a substantial number of dancers began patronizing her shop. Soon she was taking special orders for boots, thongs, bustiers, teddies, collars, decollete mini dresses, garters, and other tools of the exotic dancer’s trade.

Here, Evola intuited, was a niche market for which she had a natural flair. After 18 years in the nail business, she was ready for something less time-consuming. Evola hoped that selling exotic dance wear would allow her to dedicate more time to bodybuilding, which has been a passion of hers since childhood. “When I was like seven or eight I saw this movie, Hercules Unchained, with Steve Reeves,” she says. “I was sort of pudgy growing up and I just knew this was something I wanted to be part of.” Deeply immersed in gym culture by her 20s, Evola took part in competitive events for a few years, but says that winning was never the point for her. “It was just an excellent education in discipline, in diet, in keeping fit. Once I learned that, I just let competing go.”

In 1998 Evola phased out manicures at The Great Put On, expanded her clothing inventory, and took a part-time job as a cocktail waitress at the Crazy Horse Too, a club on North Kingsbury. Initially her idea was to get to know the entertainers and invite them to her store, but she soon started bringing clothes to the club, a single rack at a time at first. From there, she says, it started to become a circuit.

“You had girls who worked at other clubs who said, ‘Are you going to come over here?’ So then I would go to the owners of that club and ask if they wanted me to bring clothes to their dancers. The girls were always fabulous; they were ambassadors for me.” As demand grew, so did her inventory. “I bring in at least four racks of clothes and at least 300 pairs of shoes every time I go,” says Evola. “I bring a store into the club, I erect it and then I break it all down at the end of the night.”

Evola acquires her stock on regular buying trips to Las Vegas, California, and Florida. Her dresses go for anywhere from $65 to $200, boots from $55 to $200, thongs from $12 to $22. A complete outfit–skirt, thong, and top–can be had for as little as $49, and there’s a free garter with every purchase. Her sales route now takes her to about a dozen clubs each month, in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. “I thought it would be less work than the nail salon,” Evola says, then laughs. Although she still works out when she can, her love of exercise has had to take second place to the demands of commerce.

The dressing room at Dreamers is long and narrow, with two banks of lockers, a long dressing table, mirrors and makeup lights, and maroon easy chairs. It’s not a quiet place: thumping dance music and the muffled patter of the emcee penetrate the walls, cell phones ring inside purses, locker doors slam as the dancers change outfits and rush back to the floor. Cutting through the general racket is an endless stream of girl talk.

Wedging four garment racks into a space by the stage door, Evola quickly arranges her wares. Mia, a curly-haired blond dressed in panties and a sheer robe, begins to thumb methodically through the racks. “It’s my birthday and I’m not leaving without an outfit,” she says in an eastern European accent.

“In honor of Mia’s birthday, everything’s 30 percent off tonight, so shop, shop, shop, ladies!” Evola declares. “The Great Put On is now open.”

Young women with names like Sugar, Venus, Monique, and Brandy press around the racks. Sky, a petite black woman with long flowing hair, shrieks, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” She’s found something she’s been waiting for: a silver and black jumpsuit decorated with star-shaped holograms. “I got it just for you,” says Evola. Sky and Evola used to waitress together at the Crazy Horse Too.

“So why is it on the rack then?” Sky demands.

“Because you have no phone number for me to call,” answers Evola.

There’s no set rule about the number of costumes a dancer might wear in the course of a six- to eight-hour shift. “Sometimes you might wear just one outfit or two,” explains Kylie, a cheerful brunet with a voice like a cartoon chipmunk who’s currently clad in a see-through black dress with matching panties and a rhinestone collar. “Last night a customer asked me to change clothes so many times I wore like six or seven outfits.”

“A lot of the gentlemen pick out the girls’ clothes for them,” says Evola. “The girls bring the dress outside to show it to them and if [the men] love it they hopefully buy it for them. They’ll tell the girls, ‘Go in the back and pick something out,’ and the girls do. It’s like a fashion show for them.”

The club’s general manager, Lisa (she asks that her last name not be used), who looks like a big-haired Marcia Brady, explains the practice. “If the girl works it right, the way they can do it, if they’re sitting with a customer and they know Pam’s back here, they’ll just kinda talk it up. Sometimes they’ll just go out there with the price tag on and the girl will just work it for him to buy it for her.”

“A lot of men like to do that,” agrees Evola. “A lot of men have little fantasies, little fetishes, and they’ll say, ‘OK, you can only wear this for me when I’m here.'”

A tuxedo-clad club host enters the room, walkie-talkie in his hand. “A big group of guys dressed sharp just came in, so I need all the girls,” he announces. After primping quickly at the mirror, the dancers all leave the dressing room for the lounge.

Alone for a moment, Evola takes a deep breath and begins laying out costumes earmarked for what are known in the business as “features”–performances with themed costumes. There is a ladybug outfit, a spiderweb bikini, a bat costume with wings, a mermaid getup with a shell-encrusted bra. “I never thought I’d be doing this, but when I look back on my life why should I be surprised?” Evola says. “I’ve been in a woman’s business for 22 years. I understand women, it’s very comfortable for me to be around women. And the clothing thing, my grandmother and my mother passed that on to me. You could say it was genetic.”

The second oldest of five children, Evola grew up in “a nice Sicilian family,” first in Bridgeport and later in Oak Lawn. Her father oversaw baking operations at a Nabisco plant; her mother was a seamstress. After graduating from Oak Lawn High School, Evola began training to become a court reporter–“It seemed like a solid thing to do,” she says–but had to drop out after her shorthand writing machine was stolen. “I had saved for it, so I was SOL. I didn’t come from a family that had a lot of money, and we just couldn’t afford to buy another one.” Evola worked as a secretary for a while, then as a hairdresser and manicurist in San Francisco. In 1982 she established the nail salon in Elmwood Park.

The Great Put On has been at its current location in Forest Park since 1996, but Evola no longer keeps regular business hours: customers are received by appointment only. The store also caters to male cross-dressers, many of whom place a premium on privacy and discretion while shopping. “It’s a very private store for anybody, though,” Evola says. “You have situations that go on that are no one’s business. You have married guys who bring in their girlfriends. You have guys who bring in five different girls. It’s a very private room. I say, ‘God bless you, whatever you want to do.’ My business runs on trust.”

A Hispanic dancer called Venus returns to the Dreamers dressing room, visibly upset.

“What’s the matter, baby?” asks Evola.

“This guy,” says Venus glumly. “This guy said that he was going to buy me a dress and I went and tried it on and now he’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know anymore, let’s get a private dance first,’ and I want the dress! I really want it!”

“Little secret,” Evola says. “Go back and tell him you only need half the money to get the dress. Then go to one of your other guys and tell him the same thing–or split it up between three or four of the guys. Before you know it, you’ll have your new dress.”

Venus hugs Evola. “I’ll try it!” she says. “You’ve always got the best ideas for us.” A shy expression comes over her face. “You want to see a picture of my new baby?” she asks softly, reaching into her purse.

“Sure, why not, of course,” Evola says, then coos with Venus over the baby photos for a while.

After Venus leaves for the floor, Evola becomes philosophical. “I thought that I would have children, but this time around it wasn’t meant to be,” she says. A believer in reincarnation, Evola expects to have other opportunities to become a mother. “No regrets. I actually have like 2,000 children. I’m very lucky to have met a wonderful amount of lovely women.”

I ask Evola if she’s ever intervened with girls just starting out in the business. “Absolutely,” she says. “I’ve said, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ That’s only been on rare occasions that you see that somebody is just totally freaking out and they didn’t realize what they were getting into and somebody has to say, ‘You know, sweetheart, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to be here.'”

“That’s true,” interjects Crystal, who works as “housemother” to the girls, helping them through costume changes, setting out snacks, and looking after domestic details backstage. But the majority of the girls want this.”

Evola agrees: “Some of them really just enjoy the entertainment part. They love being the center of attention. The reasons for doing this are from one spectrum to the other. Hundreds of reasons. There’s no typical entertainer. And I’d like to point out that there’s a lot of people there for these girls. I just happen to be one of them.”

A dancer called Envy enters the room dressed as Wonder Woman. The costume has her in a bad mood. “It’s too hard to get off,” she complains. “I figure I’ll feature it, but that’s all.” She opens her locker and clothes tumble to the floor. Evola laughs and says, “Envy, you need to clean up your room!”

Peeling off the costume, Envy retorts, “It’s your fault, Pam! You keep coming in and talking me into this shit!”

“Well, get over here, because this was made for you,” answers Evola, holding up a sheer synthetic gown in black and silver.

Envy grabs for it and slips it on. “I want something crazy and wild but not too flashy,” she says, surveying herself in the mirror. “Oh, that looks so good in the lights. How much?”

“For you, $107,” answers Evola.

Envy selects a pair of high heels from her locker. “Okay,” she says, “this outfit had better make me 107 bucks. Are the shoes OK?”

“I love those shoes,” replies Evola.

“You’d better,” Envy shoots back over her shoulder on her way back to the stage, “you’re the one that sold them to me!”

Kylie returns to the dressing room to change. “Ooooh, dollar dance, dollar dance,” she chirps excitedly. The dollar dance, explains Lisa, is a mass mobilization of the dancers: “All the girls walk out together topless and they shake their butts in front of the customers for 12 seconds and they get a dollar or whatever the customer decides to give them, then they move on. It helps the girls to make new contacts out on the floor.”

“Kinda like speed dating for exotic dancers,” adds Kylie, giggling.

In preparation, all 15 entertainers working this evening pour back into the dressing room. Only a few fit the physical stereotype of a stripper: tall, willowy, and stacked. Some of the women are on the plump side, and several are small breasted. “This is a sexy-minded group,” Evola observes. “These girls are not sluts, they’re just in tune with their sexuality. They’re comfortable in their skin, how could they not be? That’s why they can do this. I love the physical variations. A sexual person doesn’t have to be a skinny Minnie. These girls come in all sizes, just like sexuality. It’s a mental state of mind thing. When a girl says ‘I’m not going to make as much money as her because my boobs aren’t as big’–sweetheart, boobs don’t make the girl, it’s attitude. Attitude is everything.”

The DJ puts on “YMCA”; its opening bars cue the dancers. “Wish me luck,” says Kylie as she heads back out.

After the dollar dance Evola has the DJ announce that it’s time for the girls to finalize their selections before “the costume lady” goes home. The dancers file by to complete their purchases; all the transactions are in cash. Evola works a calculator and fills out receipts. With the last sale completed, she begins to pack her unsold stock back into the van. She’s just disappeared down the back steps with an armload when Zooliana, a waiflike Russian girl with cherry red lips and short brunet hair, runs panting into the dressing room. “I want those shoes,” she shouts in thickly accented English. “Where is she?”

Evola hears her and returns with the shoes in question, a pair of stiletto-heeled pumps. Trying them on, Zooliana cannot contain her delight. “I love these fucking motherfucker shoes! OK, I take the shoes and I have to try this dress on.”

Nonchalantly stripping down to nothing, Zooliana then slips a sheer black-and-white frock over her head. She teeters a bit, maybe from the height of her new heels or maybe from the influence of alcohol.

“Take your time,” counsels Evola.

“Oh my God, my God, with this shoes on, wow, I take it!” crows Zooliana. “Here’s all the money!” She reaches under her garter for a wad of bills and tosses it to Evola.

“You gave me too much,” Evola protests after counting it up.

“Is for you,” insists Zooliana. “A tip.”

“I don’t want it,” replies Evola. “My tip is that you’ll shop with me again.”

“You know I will!” Zooliana says forcefully. “You knew what I wanted and you just rocked my world!”

“Call me,” Evola says, pressing the tip back into Zooliana’s hand. “You’ll always get a discount.”

“The discount is not the point,” Zooliana says grandly. “If I want something I’m gonna get it. A lot is going to happen tonight in my new dress and new shoes, trust me.” With that, she wobbles out of the room.

After finishing her packing and saying some more good-byes, Evola angles the van out of the parking lot and heads back to the store. It’s after 3:00 AM, but she’s not quite done for the night. “I promised one of the girls I’d go grab her some boots and bring them back,” she explains. The trip is 20 minutes there and back. By the time Evola returns the Dreamers lot is nearly empty. She disappears through the back and returns moments later with her customer, a platinum blond in a dark cloth coat. Evola gives her the boots, then reaches into the back of the van to get her a pair of panties. “Black ones, right?” she asks.

“Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I need to go with my new boots,” gushes the buyer, handing Evola a fistful of cash. “‘Night, Pam!”

“I’m telling you,” Evola says, sliding back behind the wheel and turning the ignition key, “when they want something, they want it now. And the costume lady’s here to provide it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.