Day Thirteen: Paris ($150)
It was one of those nice moments of journalistic serendipity: mere days after I'd raved about Absinthe, and interviewed some strippers about strip club etiquette, came an intriguing invitation-by-tweet...
"@paulgoestovegas. Loved your conversation about @AbsintheVegas. Fuck TV. Have you had brunch at Treasures yet? Let's do it together!" - @GazillionaireLV
The Gazillionaire, you'll recall, is the host of Absinthe -- and Treasures, you'll understand, is a strip club. Perfect, I thought: I can learn some behind the scenes secrets from the show, while at the same time testing out my freshly-minted strip club knowledge.
"The Gazillionaire" was surprised I'd accepted his offer: apparently he'd suggested the same idea to the cream of Vegas journalists but they'd all declined. I explained that, as far as I can tell, there are precious few journalists in this town: mainly hacks and whores looking for a free hotel room and dinner with a PR girl in exchange for a handjob of an article with the title "Viva Las Vegas! Why the famous strip has STILL GOT THE MAGIC." Brunch at a strip club with a clown doesn't really tick any of those boxes.
Something in all of that must have struck a chord because very soon it was agreed: a rare out of character interview with "The Gazillionaire" and co-star "Penny" -- really Voki Kalfayan and Anais Thomassian -- in exchange for a strip club brunch.
The logistical problems started almost immediately. Treasures, it turns out, doesn't start serving brunch until gone four. Instead we took Google up on its suggestion of Cheetah's, which promised no cover charge and a free brunch all afternoon. Which was true, assuming for "brunch" you read "tired looking pizza on a rotating warmer" and for "no cover" you mean "we'll pre-authorize your debit card for $150".
Then there was the problem of me actually recognizing Voki and Anais. In the show Voki appears as a mustachioed, John Waters-alike pimp while Anais plays a slightly deranged red-haired pantomime character. In real life, they make an annoyingly attractive pair: Voki tall and hipstery-in-a-good-way, and Anais with more than a hint of Penelope Cruz. People who are good looking and funny challenge my faith in a just God.
A bit of background at this point: Absinthe has been playing for two weeks, and is currently booked on a six month contract at Caesars. It was originally scheduled to play at Fontainebleau but, well, that got all fucked up. Voki has worked in Vegas before -- he was a cast member at Cirque du Soleil before they "let him go" after realizing that his character -- a submissive clown -- didn't really add anything to the proceedings. It's ironic, then, that people keep comparing Absinthe to Cirque: the New York Times called it "Cirque du Soleil channelled through The Rocky Horror Picture Show". Absinthe is Anais' first Vegas show, but she's also a seasoned performer, starring alongside Voki on the Gazillionaire Show as well as singing with her band, Fish Circus. I have CDs of both of those things, and as soon as I find a laptop with a CD player, I'll tell you if they're any good. I suspect they are. Voki and Anais are Armenian. And, yes, they're a couple.
So anyway: strip club brunch. We had planned to sit by the stage, tipping a dollar per dance, as is the rule, and then hopefully being left alone to talk. In fact there was no on-stage entertainment and so, very quickly, the dancers were upon us; descending like a pack of Scotsmen around an unattended banknote. One particularly keen girl began rubbing my back with one hand, while offering me a lurid colored test-tube shot with the other. Two other girls jumped Voki and Anais "would you like a dance?"
Step aside, everyone, time for my strip club knowledge to shine: "No thank you I said," confidently and clearly. According to stripper Daisy this should have been enough to send the girls scattering, politely. And for a second, that's what happened. But what we took for a retreat was in fact just an opportunity to regroup.
Put bluntly, they wouldn't go away. "How about that dance now?" asked one. "No thank you," said I. "Not now," said Voki and Anais. "Are you sure you don't want a dance?" said the girls, almost immediately. "Yes, thank you," said Voki. This went on and on until, finally...
"Well maybe if you don't want a dance, you should leave and go to a regular bar..."
We looked around the club, the three of us. It was almost empty. One sad-looking fat man sat in the corner, grinding towards a bored dancer, next to a sign warning that "prostitution is illegal". Aside from him, we were the only ones buying drinks. We were the only ones buying anything.
"Uh, ok" I said, "we'll just finish these drinks and go"
"Ok," said the girl. And finally they were gone. And so were we.
Finally, having relocated to a diner down the street -- a diner that specialized in egg puns -- we began the interview. Ever the professional, I began by ladling syrupy praise over the show and its stars. "It was seriously fucking brilliant," I said, detachedly. Adding, with a disinterested shrug, "You guys are really, really funny. I don't know what Caesars is thinking allowing you to do such an obnoxious show."
Voki finished chewing a mouthful from his 'eggcellent' griddle. "I have no fucking clue," he replied, "The high-up people at Caesar's definitely like the show, but I don't think all the people on the next level down entirely get it..."
Well screw those guys, I suggested. The show is a hit. Everyone -- everyone -- I speak to about the show is raving about it.
"Yeah, it's definitely a local success -- whatever that means," said Voki, "But we're not selling out; there are still quite a few comps."
(Comps to people like me. I felt bad. It's less than $70 a ticket, which is pennies in Vegas money.)
Actually, I ventured, as a fan of the show, I have mixed feelings about it becoming a bona fide hit: part of me wants it to be huge, playing to packed houses, maybe with its own permanent venue. But another part of me loves the fact that it's in a tent -- and remembers what Caesars did to Matt Goss. I worry that the more popular the show becomes, the more commercial it will be forced to be.
"Angel Perrino is joining the show in a couple of weeks," said Voki, apropos of nothing, "you know who that is?"
"Of course," I lied.
Apparently she's a friend of Holly Madison, and a co-star of some reality TV bullshit.
"She has these huge tits," said Voki, "but they're really well done."
"Is she talented?" I asked.
At this point we went briefly off the record, but the gist is Perrino is a very sweet girl; a guaranteed Vegas crowd-pleaser and -- Voki was pretty sure -- "a very smart business woman."
"When we met she told me she liked my shoes," said Anais.
The parachuting in of Perrino seems, on the face of things, to be a tone deaf decision by the producers; or Caesars; or whoever made it. The beauty of the show (apart from its un-augmented sexiness) is its unpolished, borderline-suicidal, recklessness. A couple of days after seeing Absinthe for the first time, I saw Cirque du Soleil's KÀ. I'll write more about that tomorrow but one of the things that jumped out at me was the steps Cirque takes to keep its performers safe. Behind and below the stage there sits an amazing array of nets and airbags and cables and safety lights and face protectors to ensure that no-one plummets to their death or loses an eye.
At Absinthe, there are no nets, no safety cables (except at one point in the show where, apparently, Vegas regulations demand it) and certainly no face protectors, either for performers or audience. Not that a plastic safety mask would be much use against a girl in roller-skates ploughing into your face at 100 miles an hour.
"But that's what I'm supposed to think, right? That it's way more dangerous than it is."
Anais and Voki laughed. "No," said Voki, "the show is actually really fucking stupid and dangerous. When I say that at the start of the show, I really mean it. Increasingly so."
The two of them then reeled off a series of anecdotes to make their point: near-misses on the high wire, death-defying stunts performed while slightly hungover, a moment where a previous pair of roller-skaters (no longer in the show) actually did fly off the stage when an errant rose became jammed in a wheel.
"You're not supposed to talk about this stuff," said Anais, "but obviously things go wrong."
"Holy shit," I said. I thought back to the conversation Ruth and I had about the sober focus that -- we assumed -- was required in order to be a circus performer. They say there are two things you should never see being made: laws and sausages. On the same reasoning, you should probably never see a dangerous show after hearing its horror-stories. "Now I either really want to see the show again, or I really don't."
And, you know what? The experience was even better the second time; the jokes were funnier -- mainly at the expense of a hapless, and deserving, dickhead in the front row -- the acts more jaw-dropping, the audience more appreciative (two standing ovations; one in the middle of the show). But the experience was also this: fucking terrifying. When the rollerblading couple whirled round, the girl's head inches from the floor, I had to close my eyes. When Tony the high-wire walker fumbled a step (either accidentally or deliberately) I almost shit my pants.
Had my behind the scenes insight heightened my appreciation for the show, or is it just getting better with every passing day? I have no clue. But I'll leave the last word to Dr. Scott...
"If I could only see one show my entire life," he said, "I'd want it to be that. It was just incredible. And -- well -- terrifying..."
"Yeah," I said.
"I mean, I assume it's pretty safe," he continued, "but they make it look really, stupidly dangerous."
Yeah, about that..
(Absinthe plays at Caesars Palace every night except Monday. Tickets are available here. If you only see one show in you're entire life, make it that. Cheetah's is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. Don't ever go there.)