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Midway through Thank You for Supporting the Arts, Carolann Stoney and W. Alexander Jones’ documentary about the Portland-based writer, stripper, and musician Viva Las Vegas — born Liv Osthus — Viva shares an unsentimental anecdote from her childhood. One afternoon, Viva, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, refused to wear a dress to church. Her parents left her at home, so she biked to church herself, then hid way up in the balcony seats, watching her father’s sermon alone, feeling heartbroken. “I went to church in my blue jeans,” she says. The anecdote serves as a tell: this, she seems to declare, is who I’ve always been.
Thank You for Supporting the Arts was an official selection at the Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival last month, but I watched it on an anxious day at home, where Viva’s generous voice filled the quiet. She owes at least some of her local celebrity status in Portland to this unwitting tenderness. It’s unaffected and immense, which is why the incredulity of her family — with regards to how seriously she takes her career — starts to feel vexing.
The film, though, never lingers long on Viva’s complex relationship with her relatives. It is about Viva on her own terms: Viva as a writer for the New York Times, writing as Liv (pronounced “Leev,” rhymes with joie de vivre). Viva as a writer for the Village Voice — there, she was only Viva. Viva as Coco Cobra, frontwoman of Coco Cobra and the Killers, electric-tape Xs on her breasts, pasty punks in the crowd eagerly licking her sternum. Viva as Lila Hamilton at Portland, Oregon’s City Hall, fighting an ordinance requiring escorts to reveal their real names, a practice she knew would jeopardize their safety. (Lila and her fellow protestors won.) Viva the country singer, who sings candidly about her heart, the depression with which she’s struggled since childhood, and the damp, dark west.
It’s mostly about Viva as Viva, a stripper who has worked for 20 years, surviving heartbreak, breast cancer, and mental illness. She’s 42 at the time of filming and still stripping, a practice she returned to with replenished gratitude following the treatment of her cancer. “Sometimes I feel like I should be dead by now,” she says. “I think stripping is special in that you can dance for longer than a lot of other sorts of dancing careers. If you stay healthy and keep your head in the game, you have more to offer every year. I know there’s a group in Las Vegas who strips in their 80s.”
Viva, now more than ever, it seems, interprets stripping as an art form. “Strippers are artists. I believe what happens in a strip bar is the best, most potent art the late 21st century has to offer.” She describes stripping — never dancing (“I am removing clothes,” she says) — as intensely personal, vulnerable, and fine, as in fine art. It is no different, she purports, “from being a writer” (but I can guess which modality grants a bigger paycheck). Viva walks through a museum, face-to-face with Greco-Roman sculptures that recall her own poetry — she recites verses in interludes throughout, describing a “smooth creamy belly” and “an arabesque neck.” She seems to take herself immoderately seriously, then laughs at herself.
Viva loves to write. She went to Williams College, where she studied art history, later moving to Portland and easing her way into her career at Mary’s, a club these days run mostly by a family of women. Many origin stories go like this: she thought she’d do it for a year, maybe two, then fell in love. She kept writing, her work as a stripper becoming, she explains, an extension of her practice. “Thank you for supporting the arts,” she’d tell audiences at her shows, which is deliciously funny. Gus Van Sant, a featured talking head, says he takes “people from out of town” to Mary’s; he once brought along Sean Penn, who was charmed by the multilingual Viva and her willingness to discuss her memoir and her poetry. The stage, she says, never felt “inherently sexualized, or different than any other sort of stage.”
What if it was? Is there anything particularly wrong with the stage being sexualized — that stage? I don’t think thatViva — who pauses intermittently to remind us that sex work is work, that what she loves most about stripping is its celebration of the body, that sex itself is a delight — would consider stripping morally reprehensible, even if it wasn’t “fine art.” She’s initially eager to prove that a stripping career doesn’t preclude a prestigious education or worldliness — almost forgetting that not having access to such slimly granted qualities doesn’t, in turn, preclude humanity. It’s unfortunate that too many people close to Viva remain unconvinced of her agency, and of sex work’s viability and validity at all.
“It’s not art,” says one friend. Full stop. Maybe not — but isn’t it athleticism? Something else? (For his part, he adds that it’s entertainment.) Her brother, Kristoffer, explains that Viva unrealistically “idolizes” stripping. Her mother’s disappointment in her choices are visible even as they characterize her as a bright, magical child; when Viva says that a few women at her father’s high school reunion revealed they’d purchased her memoir (Magic Gardens: The Memoirs of Viva Las Vegas, 2014) for their daughters, her mother rolls her eyes. Two of her ex-boyfriends describe their former relationships in a kind of Viva-induced fugue state, one resolutely contending “I’m not the bad guy” and the other dreamily recalling her mercurial charm, both either elevating her or reducing her to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl-cum-tragedy — which is unrealistic or boring at best. “She’d look at you…trick you into thinking you could take her home right then,” says one, failing to realize that charm is, precisely, her job. “She’s a magical creature,” he goes on. “She had buttons I knew how to push, like rubbing her ear the right way, and she’d fall to the floor.” He pauses. “Like a hot fainting goat.” “Dreamers like me are doomed,” goes one of Viva’s poems.
Viva’s not doomed. She’s a joy. One of the real comforts of Thank You for Supporting the Arts is its focus on her community — the warmth she found following her cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, the folks who help care for her child — Viva is now a mother to two-year-old Charlotte. “Stripping allows me to have an intimacy I’m not very good at otherwise,” she says, though that appears to be no fault of her own. She likens her work to her father’s — he preaches, she says, and so does she. “I’m generous… and hope what I do makes people relax, makes them feel more magnanimous afterward.” Hers is a gospel not of the heavens but of the real hard earth — punitory, exhausting, a little hopeless, still worth moving through. We could all do with a little more pleasure in our own bodies.