|GRILLING THE CHICKEN: Q&A WITH DAVID STERRY, FORMER RENT BOY.|
When he was 17-years-old, David Henry Sterry left his suburban childhood to attend a Catholic college in Hollywood. As it turned out, the place didn't have dorms. And he only had $27 in his pocket. His parents were too distracted to help. Not that David, whose teenage mantra was "whatever," knew how to ask. The first person he talked to in Hollywood -- an anonymous man with a T-shirt that read "Sexxy" -- offered him a steak, took him back to his house, and raped and robbed him, setting him on a path that quickly led to a seven-month career as a male prostitute.
Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, is not a dark, brooding memoir. From the first page, Sterry writes with the
mordant, jagged wit of Chuck Palahniuk. Sterry's encounters range from the cliché -- there's the "take-no-prisoners, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, old-fashioned, newfangled orgy" -- to the truly horrifying.
After leaving the sex business, Sterry, while outwardly successful (he has starred in over 500 television commercials), struggled with what he calls self-destructive behavior.
Chicken was published in 2002. While on the book tour, Sterry, who has a background in commercial acting, discovered a love for performing the material and evolved it into a "1 ho show"
that he has since performed in Belgium, Australia, England, New York, and his hometown of San Francisco. Stephen Hopkins ("24") is slated to direct a miniseries for HBO. The Black Table interviewed Sterry, while he was in New York City preparing to pitch the stage play to producers.
BT: You've said that you revised this book 40 times. Why did it take so long to get right? Was it a cathartic process?
DHS: This was my first book, and I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was fortunate enough that my agent -- who is now my wife -- loves editing. We did draft after draft, partly because the subject matter was so personal that I had no objectivity with it. The first draft was very bitter. The writing was very dark, relentless -- and then there would be a joke. She really helped me to take a lot of that out of it, because nobody wants to read that, however cathartic it may be to write. The subject matter is dark enough as it is. Also it became clear these little snippets from childhood were a good device to give readers a break and let them breathe for a second. I wrote 100 pages of that stuff, but it was difficult to figure out where to put these things. I wanted them to be sort of illuminate what had just happened, but at that the same time I hate it when authors tell the readers what they're supposed to think.
BT: Do you feel the end product is as honest as that first draft? Are there things that you regret were left out in order to make the book more saleable?
DHS: There was one scene where I was basically given as a birthday present to an 82-year-old woman [by one of her friends]. One of the chief differences between male and female sex workers is this: there
Portrait of the male prostitute as a young man: Sterry as a child.
|are a lot of things in life you can fake, but an erection is just not one of them. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to perform for this woman, because she was so old. When you're seventeen, everybody seems like either old or almost dead. But as it turned out, she didn't seem 82 to me -- she was vibrant, with it. She was dressed very stylishly. She had a couple of glasses of champagne, so she was kind of tipsy. She treated me so nicely, and so respectfully and sweetly. And she was just adorable. She said that through her whole life, she had fantasized about having someone kiss her "down there." She couldn't even say the word. She was very appreciative and responsive. I was never quite sure why it had to come out -- they|
|thought it was too weird. Which
is so odd to me, given some of the weird things in the book. My main regret
is that my idea at the time was to write about the most extreme things that
happened, and in retrospect I wish I had included more of the mundane, meat-and-potatoes
jobs. The jobs I wrote about were exceptions.
BT: Who were the meat-and-potatoes clients?
DHS: Quite a few business women from out of town, and then a lot of rich, bored housewives. Normal, not pretty, not ugly, not fat, not thin -- you couldn't pick them out of a crowd. The only thing they had in common was that they all had money.
BT: Has publishing the story removed you from it -- does it feel like your own story when you tell it, or does it feel like something that happened to someone else? Is it weird to objectify this experience?
DHS: It was very helpful to do that. It helped to clarify in my own mind what these events meant to me, and how they resonated throughout the rest of my life. For many years I had a lot of difficulty even saying these things out loud, and I hid them from everyone I knew. I was ashamed. But writing was so cathartic -- it enabled me to come to peace with it. I used to have terrible nightmares about Sexxy. But as soon as I started portraying him on stage, all these fantasies just disappeared. That was the ultimate revenge -- making art out of this stuff. I get e-mails almost every day, a lot of them from 18-year-old girls who had terrible things happen to them, and when I do shows or events every single time there are people who come up to me and tell me their horrible, miserable story about how somebody fucked them when they were a kid. A lot of times you can tell they've never said this stuff out loud. They know I'm not going to call them a freak because I'm the poster boy for freaks now. It never occurred to me this would happen, but it's so liberating to let people get all of this out of them.
BT: Do you ever regret living such a public life? Are there things you hadn't put on the record?
DHS: The only thing that is slightly problematic is when people assume they can ask you anything. My wife is a very private person, so when people ask me about my personal sexual life with my wife, that's a little troubling. There have been severe repercussions for going public with this -- for outing myself. A good portion of my family doesn't speak to me. But it has also shown me who my real friends are. And it's opened this whole new world of people. I've
traveled the world with this book. I just came back from Amsterdam and I have an Amsterdam crew now. All these smart, funny, alternative , freaky people. For every person that has said something nasty to me, there have been a hundred great things that came into my life. It's how I got the love of my life -- my wife.
BT: You mentioned your family. The book portrays your parents as absent and not caring, but in the acknowledgments you thank them for their love and support. What did they think about the way you
Bowler for dollars: Sterry in his 20s.
portrayed them? How much did you think about their reaction as you wrote?
DHS: Again, this is where Ariel(his wife) was incredibly helpful. I did have a very happy childhood, I really did. My family was dysfunctional certainly, but no more so than anybody else's. We weren't beaten, we always had clothes, we were encouraged to do what we wanted, we were read to. That's part of what helped me survive, and I'm thankful for that. A lot of those kids in that world didn't have any parents, they went from institution to institution and were beaten. A lot of them are dead or drug addicts. Ariel was instrumental in saying let's write some nice things about your childhood. I went out of my way to write about my father taking me to baseball games, my mother encouraging me to be happy in life. I felt that was very important. I also wanted to dispel the myth that every person who goes into sex work was beaten and raped in childhood. It's a misconception. I was meticulous to mention an equal combination of things that were nice and not nice. As careful as I was, my father believes that this book is nothing but one long, relentless attack on him. The second the manuscript was accepted, I sent a copy to everyone in my family. My father was furious -- he felt it made him look like a monster. I don't think it makes him look like that at all -- I just feel like it makes him look like at that age, he was going through a terrible time. His wife walked out on him. He went through a horrible divorce, which is really debilitating. My mother was figuring out how to live with her new lover. I was bitter and angry for a long time, and a lot of that did come out in the first draft, but I really was careful to take as much of it as I could out of it. It became clear to me that I didn't ask for the help that I needed. It was a great opportunity for me to go from being victimized by someone else to accepting responsibility for my actions. I wasn't forced to be a prostitute -- no one put a gun to my head. Yeah, I was young and stupid, but it was still my young, stupid choice. I could've walked away at any moment. I wanted to make that clear. My mother and I are great friends now. She came to see the show -- she says she hasn't read the book -- and she was so appreciative and generous with her praise. She said ok I understand now in a way that I didn't before.
BT: You say at some point in the book that after you left the business, you tried to capture the excitement of it by acting out in various ways. Obviously part of you was being dragged back.
DHS: It is an exciting world. You feel like a rock star. You get tons of respect, money, nobody fucks with you. When I was in that world, I was a star, everyone knew me, I had a reputation, all these friends, people who admired me, a position in life. When I was on the job I usually felt powerful, unless someone was being ugly and mean to me, and like I was worth $100 an hour (about $350 in today's money) compared to $20 an hour frying chicken. There's a real power in feeling successful in that world. You don't realize the emotional toll at the time.
BT: How does that knowledge of the emotional toll and the dubious motivations translate to your current work with sex workers?
DHS: I was just in Amsterdam meeting with sex-worker activists and academics who are organizing a huge conference in October and it looks like I'm going to help write this manifesto that is going to be sent to the governments of the world. I never felt under threat because I was bigger than most of my clients, but that's not the case with a lot of the women I'm friends with. Almost everyone I know who has worked on the streets has been raped, and often by the cops. So first and foremost, I want to make sure that if you're an adult and you come to the conscious that this is what you want to do to make your money -- this is the best way to use your talents -- that you can ply your trade and be safe. In Amsterdam, you have this great model of the windows -- there is no violence. There are
Right here, right now: Sterry today.
people in Amsterdam, people from third world countries. But where it has
been decriminalized, violence has been eliminated. I also want to raise
awareness that kids are being used in sex -- by judges, lawyers, doctors,
people who are pillars of society. People don't fully understand this. Quite
a few people who do sex work aren't so articulate and haven't been to college,
and I feel like I can be a voice. And there aren't a lot of men who speak
out about this also.
BT: What is performing the play like?
DHS: It's one of the funnest things
I do in my life. I play myself as the 17-year-old narrator. I play about 10 other characters from the book. [I]t's very different than the book because it's very visual. It's full of laughs. There'll be a huge laugh and the next second there will be something so jarring and weird and off-putting that you can hear people holding their breath. I love stuff that walks the edge, where you're laughing one second and then you're going "oh my god." It's interesting, you don't get to see who reads your book. But I get to see every motherfucker who comes to the play -- a lot of 18-year-old girls, and it's weird, but this is a date show. A lot of couples come. I get a lot of gay men who come because they think Chicken is a gay thing. At first I was nervous about that because the climax is me beating a gay man to a pulp, but a lot of the gay guys I talk to have worked in the sex business. They just see it as a boy's coming-of-age story, as opposed to gay/straight/whatever. That gave me faith for the world. Then I have a lot of middle aged women, who are in some ways the subject of the show. In Scotland I had this grandmother come up to me -- she was like 100 years old -- who said to me [in a little old lady voice], "Do you mind if I give you a wee kiss." She kissed me on the cheek and said "Now I can say I've kissed a gigolo." It was so sweet. I was like, ok, she got it. I was worried this would be a sort of angsty, avant garde crowd. But this review in the Chronicle said this show is for anyone who has ever had or been a child. In a way it is about being a kid -- what could happen to your kid if you're not careful. So the show has been a blessing.
BT: What was the rave like? What was it like performing this play in the rent boy capital of the world?
DHS: It was incredible. It was in the middle of the woods and they built this 20-ft paper mache head, kind of like Burning Man. Everybody was on ecstacy, and they insisted I take it before my performance, but I wouldn't know how to do it. Imagine a group of 600 Amsterdamers on ecstacy, and then they gave me 5 girls to perform with. These Nordic Dutch godess looking girls. They told me I could do whatever I wanted with them. I had a big chorus -- I would say a line and they would repeat the line and act it out behind me. And there was this big orgasm scene, where the girls were all orgasming behind me. And the whole crowd was orgasming. It was one of the highlights of my performing career. I did 12 shows in 15 days in Amsterdam. The reaction was great. They were very relaxed, open, warm. They treat writers differently in Europe. They revere the writer. You're treated like a star. I was very touched by the generosity that I was shown there. As a writer in America, you aren't used to that. People were much more excited when my book was optioned by HBO.
BT: Given that you're now shooting for a 9-month stint in New York, do you think you'll ever retire the act?
DHS: That's the joke around my house -- I'll be 85 years old and saying (in old man's voice) "I was a chicken!"
Daniel Maurer's writings about Argentinean swingers, Chilean exorcists, and sploshing pornographers can be found at DanielMaurer.net.