My Summer as a Madam
Guest Post by Kay Vandette
I never thought I would find myself living as a professional vagabond.
I went to college and had a pretty specific career plan, but in 2012 when I graduated, I was left with a degree and no prospects. After a few years of serving lattes and bussing tables, I was invited to spend a summer working in Alaska. Me, who thought she would never leave the Midwest. Me, who only had a little bit of travel experience and who hated being anywhere out of her comfort zone.
There aren’t enough adjectives in the world to describe that life-changing summer. I hiked up mountains, was surrounded by lush forests, saw a bounty of wildlife, traveled across Canada, and saw the ocean for the first time.
And more than that, I truly learned to appreciate this magnificent body that I was given.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Pretty, blonde and thin: these were the norms. I was out of the norm. I was a pudgy, gawky kid and then I shot up like a beanstalk, and staring was just par for the course. I tried to keep my self-loathing in check. I found value in myself beyond my physical attributes. But it was always there in the background: “You’re not good enough.” A voice that I’m sure so many of us can relate to. It doesn’t matter how big, tall, short or thin you are, there’s always that little voice. As much as I tried to deny it, that little voice controlled my life.
I was scared, scared of going out of my comfort zone, scared of putting myself out there. And, most importantly, I was not interested in traveling. I didn’t want to stick out any further than I already did.
Getting Into Character
Those first glimpses of snow-capped mountains and I felt a strange sensation that this is where I belonged. The town I worked in, Skagway, was a small, picturesque town in Southeast Alaska about 20 minutes away from the Canadian border, and the Pacific Ocean only a few steps away. I had never seen mountains or the ocean, or been to Canada, and in Skagway I got that all taken care of my first day in town.
The job was for Alaska Travel Adventures, and it was at the Liarsville Gold Rush reenactment camp. For those unfamiliar with Alaskan history, the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s sent the United States into a state of gold fever. Thousands flooded into Alaska and crossed into the Yukon for the promise of striking it rich. Skagway was the jumping off point for many prospectors before hitting the White Pass trail and starting the grueling journey into the Yukon. The realities of that Gold Rush were harsh conditions, many casualties, and few people actually making any kind of fortune.
Liarsville got its name from the newspaper journalists that colorfully romanticized the Gold Rush and enticed people to Alaska with the promise of an easy, breezy trek and lots of gold. A lot of people got duped.
My job included dressing up in character, teaching tourists how to pan for gold, and putting on a show that explained the history of Skagway. The cherry on top? I was a madam. Gold Rush Skagway was not without its brothels, and just like the Wild West, madams were a central part of gold rush life.
My character name was Luscious Lulu, which gives you an idea of the campy humor that the camp embodied. We were there to have a good time.
And yes, in case you were wondering, my costume included the dreaded corset. Five days a week I would get up before seven, don my bloomers, corset, skirt and blouse and head to work in the middle of a rainforest and await the tourists by the busloads.
How would wearing a revealing, campy costume and working as a madam reenactor boost my self-confidence or have any impact on my body positive journey?
I had agreed to the job. I knew what it entailed, but until I was thrown into the thick of it, I didn’t really know totally what it would be like.
And then came my first day on the job.
Standing outside in the brisk Alaskan summer morning, waiting for those first tourists, stomach squished, curves out, and script memorized, I had a choice. I could be self-conscious, I could be embarrassed by my custom-made corset, specially designed to fit my larger self, I could cower away from the photos and stares and attention, or I could face it head on and just do my job.
I chose the latter.
I was yoo-hooing, slinging silly phrases, making bawdy jibes, and having fun. It was kind of freeing, for once, because it didn’t matter what I looked like. I was the larger-than-life Luscious Lulu, and either you got with the program and took a picture with me or you didn’t.
I got to connect with people all over the world. And for once I wasn’t nervous about my weight, or being judged because, a.) the job required it, and b.) the costume helped masked my insecurities, as odd as that sounds.
Being on display, for lack of better word, helped me get over being the awkward, gawky lady standing head-and-shoulders above the crowd. It helped me embrace my bigger self.
But the corset and the character was just part of the equation. It was my adventures in nature that really helped instill a love for my body that I hadn’t had before.
Into the Forest I Go!
Before Alaska, I was as unadventurous as it gets. Hiking was out of the question. Playing outside was not my thing. Sunbathing on my front porch was as close as I ever got to enjoying the outdoors. But in Alaska, with no internet and with forests and mountains on all sides, getting outdoors was inevitable.
Thus started a love affair with nature.
I went hiking for the first time. My newly instilled confidence and my awe of the scenery helped me with that final push of getting out there, body be darned, and venturing into the wilds.
I kept climbing. I ignored the fit hikers who were passing me like it was a game of Mario Kart. I didn’t care how many times I stopped to catch my breath; getting to that lake was all that mattered. And I did it. Suddenly, I was grateful for my body. It wasn’t the fittest, or the prettiest, or the strongest, but it worked. And here I was standing on the edge of a glorious mountaintop lake to prove it. My legs could carry me near and far.
Even if it took me hours, even if I took three times as long as any other person, I still did it.
That first summer in Alaska was life-changing, and I don’t use that term lightly. It was just what I needed. Working as a madam in a reenactment camp bolstered my confidence and I lost some of my insecurities. Getting out in nature was what helped me turn a corner. I started to really love myself, marvel at what I was capable of, saw the world in whole new light, and learned that a few months in the mountains are the perfect resin for a cracked and aching soul.