The rules are simple: “No pros, no weapons, no sex acts, no spillables (i.e. foods, liquids, whipped cream – its own gastronomic category, apparently – glitter, etc.) and clean up ANY messes.” Oh, and no photos. The night is Rent Cheque, 4-year anniversary edition.
I’m visiting Vancouver – where I grew up – and the city is pretty much how it always was: wet, enthusiastic about unnecessary physical activity, packed with Lululemon-clad clones and sporting what could be described as a faltering nightlife. But for the past four years, Vancouver has been host to at least one event that deviates from this norm, and which offers up an alternative way of thinking about bodies, sex, capitalism and consent. Rent Cheque, which takes place on the last Friday of every month in Vancouver, Canada, is a night of civilian striptease.
At Rent Cheque, anyone (except professionals) is welcome to climb atop the small stage in the bar at the Astoria – one of Vancouver’s notorious single room occupancy (SRO) hotels on the Downtown Eastside – and strip to the song of their choice. The 80s and 90s are particularly popular decades, music-wise, for obvious reasons. The name “Rent Cheque” refers to the $500 prize money won by a performer selected by the somewhat dubious democracy of crowd decibel. Given Vancouver’s housing crisis (exorbitant rent, empty houses, rampant homelessness) the idea of covering rent with $500 is somewhat ironic. That doesn’t stop the many otherwise-striptease-disinclined people who grace the Astoria’s stage from giving it their all.
On Friday, a tall, pale man dances jerkily to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” hopping out of his pants with the hurry and practiced finesse of someone who just got home from a long work day. Another guy hula hoops stark naked (yeah). A person who goes by the name “Father Time,” wearing an animal mask and strips of silky fabric, spins around as their costume falls off onto the stage floor. There are floggers. Crotchless panties. Makeshift nipple tassles. That Smash Mouth song from Shrek. It is, as the organizers call it, “complete flesh mayhem.” After every couple of performances, hostess Lex Gray tells the audience to take a “makeout break.”
At the end of the night, my friend remarks that he’s never seen such diverse bodies naked before. He’s referring to specific body parts – the pieces of flesh that you don’t see at a pool or even in porn. Surplus skin in surprising places. The idea of “real people” – nonconforming, but everyday, mundane banal bodies – has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, but in the case of Rent Cheque I think it still has value. There is a big difference between watching striptease done by people who haven’t been hired or chosen to do it and professionals like strippers and burlesque dancers. Watching Rent Cheque is more like watching karaoke than a concert: as an audience member, you’re lodged between compassion, admiration, terror, and excitement. It could be you up there, and so identification kinds of eats up the barrier of voyeurism.
Rent Cheque ran for a year in 2007 (with different organizers), and then was reincarnated in its current iteration four years ago by Abby Normal. The reputation for “very weird times” came with the territory, and Abby works to keep things weird. The first ever Rent Cheque that Abby put on ended with her “masturbating on the floor (now a banned activity due to liquor laws) with Lex twerking over my face. It was magic.” 10% of the total prize money is always given to Wish Drop-in Centre Society.
Vancouver has come to be known (somewhat) affectionately as “No Fun City,” in reference to its restrictive liquor laws, early last calls, and condos-over-culture mentality. Before Rent Cheque, Abby notes, “nightlife had gotten pretty boring for me.” The show helped her “fall in love with the city and going out again,” offering an outlet and a community for the “pervy stuff” she’s interested in. The community that has grown around Rent Cheque, Abby tells me, has been a crucial force. “Our community,” she says, “taught me about effective ways to talk about consent, about body positivity, showed me how to be more ok with my own body, helped me to embrace what it means to be queer and helped me find ways to be active and fight against shit I see that is messed up in the world.”
Abby contrasts the Rent Cheque experience of “running around naked with a bunch of sex loving pervs who want to talk about sex education and applaud people of every body size,” with the traditional unce-unce club feel of the Granville strip – the douchey “heart” of Vancouver’s nightlife. The difference in crowds is significant, and speaks to a rupture in Vancouver’s nightlife more generally – underground venues and events appear and variously get shut down, while big corporate clubs are mainstays. Vancouver’s sex industry is similarly lacking, Abby tells me. “In no way do we have a big or ethical sex industry like the one in San Francisco. Thriving dungeons and porn studios, that's the dream.”
Her favourite performance? “Every routine is an art piece unto itself.” Bonus points if it’s explicitly subversive. Last month’s winner was an Indigenous woman who performed in the early hours of Canada’s so-called “150th anniversary” – in reality, a $500-million-dollar celebration of colonialism, genocide and expensive negation of First Nations’ history. The performer came onstage dressed as a Mountie (Canada’s problematic federal police force), and, as she stripped, “you could see that she had “15,000” – the amount of years Indigenous people have lived on these lands – written on her butt. She ended the routine by flossing her vagina with the Canadian flag. People went CRAZY.”
One of the best parts of Rent Cheque is the very end of each set, when the song has ended and the performer is forced to come back down to earth, to break out of the adrenaline-fueled exhibitionist bubble they’ve just inhabited. They dart around the stage, sheepishly picking up the clothes they just dramatically shod like they’d just got caught sleeping with someone’s daughter. This, in addition to the stunning array of different bodies you’ve just watched bounce around the stage, is a rare reminder of vulnerability and strange, lovely, awkward humanity. “If you stay from start to finish,” Abby notes, “you’re bound to see something that speaks to you in some type of way.”