“I can’t tell you how many customers came in for a peep show carrying a bag from the M&M store,” said Sheila McClear, her legs folded under her on a stool at Siberia late last week. The former Gawkerite, and current New York Post features writer is tall, so this took some doing. She has dark hair, paper-pale skin that would clash when she wore a blond wig in her earlier job—not Gawker—and green eyes that lit up when the regulars at the bar complimented her about her picture in that day’s Post, which ran with an excerpt under the headline “MY LIFE AS A LIVE NUDE GIRL.”
“I was constantly sitting there going, ‘Seriously?’” she said. “You went to the M&M store first? And now you’re going to take in a peep show? Really? That one detail always sort of boggled my mind.”
Ms. McClear, a 30-year-old Michigan native, fell into working as a Times Square peep show girl in 2006 as a way of paying rent and the resulting book is a frank, up-to-date examination of an industry that’s been zoned nearly out of existence. The M&Ms were the least of it—near the end of her tenure, the management installed little monitors above the girls’ heads so that patrons wouldn’t have to stop watching pornography for the duration of their show.
“I was very aware of it as a historical document, and that’s the urge that I felt to write it,” said Ms. McClear, in the bar. “Because even since I’ve finished the book there’ve been changes at Times Square and in the peep shows. I told myself ‘no one else has done this, and no one’s going to do it’ and I really think it would be a shame for this subculture— whatever it is—to be lost. Because these people, including me, are marginalized. No one thinks much about them and they write about them in very broad terms like ‘the peep shows in Times Square’ and ‘the bad old days.’”
“You can’t get in that world as a reporter,” she said. “You have to be one of those people to get access. At the time, I didn’t realize I was in such a unique position.”
Ms. McClear would earn $150 on a good night, assuming she could convince the evening’s pervs to select her slender form over her colleagues’ more robust offerings. Business was rarely good, and often dreary – there’s a lot of waiting described in the book, and there’s rouging of nipples, mopping of ejaculate. You can feel Ms. McClear’s weariness as she describes her routine’s robotic eroticism. “Off with the bra, pose, then the underwear, slouch against the back wall of the booth,” it begins. What was billed as a five-minute show only lasted three, but you get the sense that her customers weren’t the types to notice.
In the book, she keeps descriptions of her actual performances to a choice few encounters. There’s the guy who wants to play strip poker with her through the glass, and lose; the Europeans who think that the U.S. is way too uptight, what with the glass and all; and the guy who just can’t believe there aren’t any shemales around. Ms. McClear said she kept the less pleasant encounters out of the book, because they might alienate the reader.
“I had a guy I called Chucky the Cockroach,” she said at the bar. “He probably did some of the weirdest things I’ve seen, one of them was that he didn’t even want to watch me, he just wanted me to watch him shove a candle up his ass – or a couple of candles up his ass – and tell him that it was, like, really cool.”
“But the most disgusting thing he ever did—it took me a while to realize he was doing it because it did not compute — but you know that little part of your belt buckle that goes into the notch? He shoved that into his penis and he kept shoving it in and out and he was like, ‘Do you like that? Do you like that?’”
She paused, rearranging her legs underneath her before proceeding with a cringe. “I was like, ‘I don’t think I do.’”
The Observer asked for, and received, several more awful details about the customer in question until Ms. McClear’s voice trailed off.
“I don’t feel bad about working at the peep show,” she said. “But I do feel bad about some of the things I was complicit in just because they were gross.
“The bourgeois part of me thinks, ‘Well, maybe guys won’t want to date me, because I’ve seen that and done it and been complicit in it and taken money for it,’” she said. “It feels like I’m this separate level of woman.” She looked at the wall. “I don’t know.”
Ms. McClear’s closeness to the material most enriches her reporting when it comes to her coworkers. Despite their outsized personalities, they could have wound up sounding as interchangeable as their stage names, but with Ms. McClear’s writing, even their tattoos are memorable. Their substance abuse becomes familiar, occasionally even endearing, in a madcap way. Ms. McClear also has a keen ear for dialogue.
“I hear you’re a slut,” says Ruby, a firecracker with a thing for guys who work in delis, playacting when a customer demands that she and Ms. McClear get rough with each other in the booth during his show. “That’s what they’re all saying about you up in, ah….” She fumbles to remember where Ms. McClear lives. “Greenpoint.”
But some of the book’s best parts are the glimpses of Ms. McClear’s other life — when she lays out the finances of her boss, the editor of InStyle Homes magazine, where she is daylighting as an intern, the editor’s complaints of being broke are presented as genuinely sympathetic. You get the sense that Ms. McClear, who worked at a pro-labor magazine in Detroit before coming to New York, was keeping her head down and doing the work that was required of her. Her work just happened to involve taking off her clothes.
When, in January 2008, Observer reporter Leon Neyfakh obtained a copy of her book proposal and outed her in an article headlined “Gawker’s Sheila McClear Shopping Peep Show Memoirs to Agents,” Ms. McClear remembers being embarrassed not at the specific nature of her work just at the fact that she’d had to go to such great lengths to find her feet in the city.
“Everyone else I know waitressed and stuff,” she said in the bar. “I was like, why couldn’t I have done this normally like other people do? It was almost embarrassing, the lack of contacts I had.”