The Arab Sheikhs smelled of expensive cologne. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung off the low ceiling in the basement of a centuries-old Parisian building. The neon sign outside lit up the words Le Crazy Horse de Paris. There was little other indication that you had arrived at an iconic location. It was 1987, I was 19, and my father had just paid a small fortune for us to sit up close at one of the most erotic and oldest burlesque revues in existence. Plush red velour banquettes were filled with eccentric looking men and exotic looking women. The lights dimmed. For the next few moments, my eyes adjusted to the low lights and a single silhouette of a beautiful woman drenched in mist, almost enveloped by a revolving glass door on a stage. Black Russian in hand, my father grinning beside me, I settled in for what would be two hours of the most stylized, visceral experience of my young life.
Famous Guests and Stars
Pamela Anderson made her debut at Crazy Horse saloon at the age of 40, clad in very little other than a sheer body stocking and gyrating on the seat of a motorcycle for a full-capacity crowd. A big fan of French sex kitten and big-screen star Brigitte Bardot, Anderson moved sensually to Bardot's iconic hit Harley Davidson.
Singer Arielle Dombasle, a favorite of the chic and glamorous Crazy Horse saloon crowd, performed solo and also collaborated with the iconic Dita Von Teese. The guest list reads like an Academy Award show roll call; from Scarlett Johansson to Amber Heard to Kevin Costner, Hollywood covets seats at the Crazy Horse saloon. Music legends like Sting, Christina Aguilera, Robin Thicke, and Rihanna have been in attendance for a number of notable evenings, and fashion magnate Christian Louboutin has been seen along with luminaries like Hugh Hefner, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Mikhail Barychnikov. The Crazy Horse saloon, though, is the great equalizer, as all who enter sit side by side, mesmerized by the never ending flow of sensuality.
Women of the Crazy Horse Saloon
Besides a convent full of nuns, they are without a doubt the most well-guarded, over protected women in all of Paris. Forget the millionaires in limousines with flowers and jewels waiting outside the stage door. And don't even breathe a syllable about any of these women making a little after-hours profit. "The girls are not even allowed in the audience," says Ingrid, who plays house mom to the two dozen dancers who kick, turn, and do the splits for the Crazy Horse saloon patrons. “They are strictly onstage. They are not authorized to have any contact with the spectators. Sometimes a dancer will receive letters from someone, but that doesn't hurt anyone. We draw up a contract with the girls. It stipulates everything."
And so it does. The women work only for the Crazy Horse saloon. If they want to model for a fashion magazine, for example, they must obtain permission from the proprietor, Alain Bernardin. And 20 percent of each salary is wired into a special savings account, which gives the performers a strong financial base when they retire.
Ingrid's contract might be one good season why the Crazy Horse saloon enjoys an elegant high-priced clientele of wealthy Parisians and well-heeled tourists from America, Germany, and the Middle East. After all, who else can afford champagne at $150 a bottle?
The women of the Crazy Horse saloon are nothing if not respectable. "Some have children and families," says Ingrid. And why not? Just because they dance without the encumbrance of clothes ("They are clothed with the light," is how Ingrid puts it), and just because they happen to have the cutest little stage names like Love Amour and Polly Underground and Bianca Sundae, doesn't mean there's anything out of place going on in this establishment, which many call the best little old revue house in all of Paris.
For good reason, the Crazy Horse saloon is sensitive about questions regarding its showgirls so-called "second jobs" or "supplementary incomes."
"No, they work only for us," insists Ingrid. "It's stipulated in the contract. Anyway, the girls must take it easy during the day." Which makes sense if you happen to work at night as these performers do. The dancers have two shows, one at 9:30 PM and another at 11:45 PM. It's a long hard night. "And on Saturday we put on three shows," says Ingrid, who is beginning to sound like a very dull Jill.
What does it take to be a Crazy Horse saloon girl?
"Every day another one calls," says Ingrid, referring to the many hopefuls who want to be in the revue. "The girl must have a very beautiful face and be well-proportioned. The height of the girls varies between five feet seven and five feet nine [high heels make up for the differences in height]. Hair color isn't important. After all that can be changed and the girls often wear wigs anyway. The girls must have a good sense of humor and be able to dominate the audience. And they have to dance, too." Oh, yes, dance! As in kick, turn, do the splits. But who's looking at their feet?
Ingrid doesn't let reporters talk to her girls. "It's not allowed," she says. No doubt that's in the contract, too. Yet, despite all of Ingrid's protection, the wall of secrecy that the management erects around its performers is sometimes as flimsy as those little G-strings the girls wear to separate the audience from...well, paradise.
One man who saw paradise firsthand is photographer Jean Erick Pasquier. "Men dream of this kind of assignment, and I just walked through the stage door and did it!" Well, the front door, maybe.
Pasquier did a portrait of Crazy Horse saloon owner Alain Bernardin for the French publication Paris Match. "I asked him for something I always wanted," says Pasquier. "Carte blanche backstage at the Crazy Horse saloon. To my surprise he accepted!"
Photographing the women of the Crazy Horse saloon wasn't exactly the kind of assignment that came naturally to Pasquier, who is an adventure photographer. His subjects are usually men shot in far-off exotic places like the glaciers of Alaska or the wilds of Africa. Somehow though, Pasquier found it within himself to cope with the challenges of 24 naked women.
"I felt like a 12-year-old in an all-girls' class," he recalls. "They were at least half-nude all the time. I looked at them. They looked at me."
All this looking was purely analytical, of course. Composition tone, graphic detail—that kind of thing. Obviously, with all his camera equipment, it was impossible for Pasquier to pretend that he was invisible. “I had to quickly rid myself of my timidness. I had to put myself and the girls at ease." Not an easy thing to do, even at the Crazy Horse saloon where the girls are used to performing naked as a pony. Backstage, the Saloon is strictly women's territory "It is forbidden in their contracts for them to have a relationship with someone who works at the Crazy Horse saloon—even me!" exclaims Pasquier, who sounds like he has had one too many lectures from Ingrid.
Despite the contract—and Ingrid—Pasquier eventually got his photos. "I became part of the furniture," he says, revealing the trick most photographers of nudes have to use sooner, not later.
Even if it did take him more than a few trips to the Crazy Horse saloon, Pasquier persevered against all odds. Such a difficult assignment. But in the end, worth the trouble. "It was a joy and a privilege to work with them," he says, and then, almost as an afterthought "I hope they liked the photos."
Thirty years after that fateful evening with my father, I was in Paris on a family vacation and took my son in law to the Crazy Horse saloon. We walked through the doors and though much had changed, the palpable sense of excitement hung familiarly in the air. The lights dimmed, the music swelled, a sexy silhouette appeared.
I was back.