My first job interview wasn’t to be a baby-sitter or waitress. It was when my mother saw an ad in Back Stage for a job that paid more than her last stint as a maid on Central Park South — I was eight years old. An artist named Gina Wendkos wanted five little girls to perform at the infamous club Studio 54, and she promised fifty dollars cash a night. If we got the gig, our mother said, my twin sister and I could have a special treat. Heidi’s dream was to eat roast beef and mashed potatoes at Woolworths for an entire week and I really just wanted a pair of Jordache jeans.
As we watched Ronald Reagan on TV, our mother told us about how Bianca Jagger rode on a white horse into Studio 54 for her birthday party. She told us Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Elton John, Halston, Cher, Calvin Klein, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Brooke Shields and Elizabeth Taylor, among many others, danced and partied till dawn under a giant painted moon. I nudged Heidi and pointed to the window across the airshaft of our tenement building, to the girls prancing back and forth at the Ford Modeling office. Our mother continued to name drop, Heidi picked up our Bible, and I counted the car honks from the 59th Street Bridge.
The audition was at Gina’s huge loft, where she explained she wanted to create a live art installation with “themes of alienation.” She wore a short, black leather skirt and smelled of incense. Photos from her latest show, of women’s blue-painted bodies, lined the walls. Then she asked us to pretend to be dolls. We did, and we got the job.
A few days later, when we arrived at Studio 54, we were met by a scantily clad crowd scrambling to gain entry. Our mother said they would be handselected based on their beauty and celebrity.
Near the corner, a door opened, and we were led along a dark hallway, past a kissing couple, down to the basement where we met three other little girls. I could feel the beat pounding through the brick walls. I mouthed the Laura Branigan song, ‘Gloria’, to Heidi. A man told us this was the VIP lounge and if anyone offered us drugs to just say no. Mothers sat in white plastic chairs, holding their children’s headshots. A lady with Raggedy Ann-colored hair emerged and handed us pink frilly dresses and satin bows for our hair. She reminded us that we were dolls who had been tossed around in a dollhouse and that we needed to use our experience as children to re-create the scene.
After we slipped into our dresses, we were sent back upstairs, where we passed another half-open door. I glanced in and saw a huge parquet dance floor with strobe-lit columns descending from the ceiling, shirtless bartenders underneath the balcony setting up vodka bottles around a diamond-shaped bar and a couple leaning over, sniffing up white powder from the silver banquettes.
“Sodom and Gomorra,” Heidi whispered to me.
We were led into another strobe-lit chamber, a foyer connected to the club. While the exotic and glamorous jostled in line on the sidewalk, my fellow pig-tailed and puffy-party-dressed co-workers waited for props. Within a few minutes we were outfitted with assorted contraptions and told to project varying degrees of distress. Heidi whimpered as she was tied to a giant spool of thread, and I let loose with cries of “Help me!” as my dress was nailed to the floor by a five-foot pencil. The mechanical floor tilted up and a blond girl bound to a giant hanger struggled to get free. When the floor went down, a third girl was forced to hang on to a giant bed, while another was trapped in a car-sized mousetrap. A giant face with a sly smile (the “dolls’” owner) was projected on big screen, peering at us, delivering taunts at us through a loud speaker. As the partygoers started to trickle in (gaining entrance either by bribery, being a ‘face’, or flashing the doormen) they passed through our living installation, reveling in our carefully orchestrated tableau.
Around two in the morning, Francisco Scavullo, photographer of the Cosmowomen and the young Brooke Shields, declared his desire to immortalize us and set up a shoot. By the time my first quick bathroom break came around, I’d already come to love lying on the checkered floor, my dress tearing a little more whenever they reinserted the pencil. I watched the drag queens sashaying past, wearing G-strings with feathers glued to the back. “Oh, baby! Should I save you? You are too cute!” they yelled. Some stopped and stood over Heidi, who looked like a porcelain doll, waiting in vain for her to say something. Others glared at us like we had taken their spotlight, out-done their weirdness. But we were just children with curled hair, rouge, lipstick and pink dresses designed to capture the imagination, some cash, and hopefully an agent. I felt lucky for a few nights. We had escaped our home-school studies, second-hand clothing and food stamp dinners.
Years after the show, our mom found photos and a faded copy of a review written by Richard Flood in Art Forum Magazine, “There was, for the audience, no choice: to get into the club, you had to run Wendkos’ psychological charged gauntlet. If you looked back, it was at the peril of understanding your role in the drama.” •