Stormy Daniels didn’t sign up to be a feminist hero.
“It’s a lot of f*****g pressure,” she says when asked about the women who say she inspires them. “It’s super fun. But it is a lot of pressure.”
Daniels, the adult film actress now best known for her alleged affair with President Donald Trump, has just finished her star-spangled first set at the Silk Exotic Gentlemen’s Club in Middleton. She is posing for photos — $20 a pop — and signing merchandise including hats emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Horny Again.” Although reporters have been told she won’t be available for interviews, she is warm and chatty while a handler yells, “Let’s take the f*****g photo!”
Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, says she’s grateful for the support she’s receiving, but it’s overwhelming to hear words like “hero” and “inspiration.” She doesn’t want to fail anyone.
“Look what she’s doing for women in this country,” says 70-year-old Linda Nelson, who had never been to a strip club before Daniels’ Friday night performance. “She’s suing our president. What could be stronger than that?”
After the show, Nelson says she’ll remember it for the rest of her life.
Mia Morissette, 55, of Middleton, describes Daniels as a “sex-positive, strong woman” who’s “really speaking the truth.”
“I want to tell my kids and grandkids I saw Stormy Daniels,” says 30-year-old Jennifer Gramer of Madison, who came to the club with members of her feminist book club. “If she’s the person who brings down the president — for $15 (a ticket), why not?”
After Daniels’ performance, Gramer is struck by how polite the performer was, thanking each person who slipped cash into her red, white and blue garter throughout her act.
The performance itself is an explosion of Americana. After an introduction that may very well mark the only time a “60 Minutes” clip has been played through the speakers of a strip club, Daniels steps onstage, lit by red, white and blue lights in the shape of an American flag. “American Woman” plays as she struts around in a red skirt with a blue-and-white checked lining, a white bodice and blue, sparkly gloves that match her thong. By the time Tom Petty’s “American Girl” kicks in, Daniels is fully nude, her oiled body writhing on a blanket in the middle of the stage.
The club, one dancer says, has been “dead as f***” this week. Daniels’ stop — part of a nationwide tour — is great for business. Some of the other dancers disagree, though none have a bad word to say about the porn star-turned-political-celebrity with whom they’re sharing the stage.
One performer, who bought an American flag-themed set of lingerie for the occasion, says she won’t make as much money as she would on a typical Friday night, but she doesn’t mind.
“Every time we get a porn star here, you can expect it,” she says.
For the club’s performers and staff, it’s business as usual. Daniels performed at one of Silk’s Milwaukee locations years ago, notes co-owner Craig Ploetz. She’s just a little more popular now. Booking Daniels — who is suing the president to be released from a nondisclosure agreement — is not a statement against Trump, Ploetz says.
“We’re not political,” he says as he stands outside the club, awaiting the arrival of her tour bus around 9:30 p.m. “This is entertainment.”
But for much of the crowd — some of whom have not visited a strip club in decades, if ever — it’s all about politics. This is Dane County, one of the most liberal and politically active pockets of Wisconsin.
“It’s kind of like a political donation,” says Don Esser of Waunakee. “This is a cause I believe in.”
Esser, 67, is seated at a table near the stage with a group of friends that includes 71-year-old Jim Perry of Middleton. Perry says his partner encouraged him to see Daniels perform. Another friend ribs him: “She just wanted to get him out of the house.”
Just behind the table stands a 38-year-old man from Appleton wearing a shirt that at first glance resembles the old “It’s Miller Time” advertisement. The shirt says “It’s Mueller Time,” referencing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“I’m doing my patriotic duty tonight,” says the man, who asks to go by his first name, Al.
He is joined by Chris Alscheur, of Madison, whose shirt says “Nazi Trumps F*** Off” — a play on the Dead Kennedys song.
“I wanted to come here and see a piece of American history,” he says.
Hours later, Friday night has turned to Saturday morning. A man seated alongside the stage has just returned from the restroom; his nose started bleeding after a particularly aggressive experience with a dancer's chest. He blames seasonal allergies.
To his right, one of the club’s dancers is just as transfixed by Daniels’ second performance as the crowd is.
“Oh my god,” the dancer says as Daniels drizzles hot candle wax on her undulating, naked body while Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” blasts through the club’s speakers. Minutes earlier, Daniels had pranced onto the black stage dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, removing the outfit piece by piece as the Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs song by the same name played.
“Thank you,” Daniels says as patrons tuck handfuls of dollar bills between her breasts. “Thank you so much.”