Brothels’ Keepers: Marc McAndrews on Nevada Rose
NICOLE AND KARLI OF SHERRI’S RANCH. PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARC MCANDREWS/UMBRAGE EDITIONS
In the Nevada desert, brothels sprawl like shimmering mirages. The new book Nevada Rose: Inside the American Brothel (Umbrage) finds photographer Marc McAndrews brilliantly capturing not only the legal working girls, but also the cooks, cleaning ladies, managers, “house moms,” and pets that surround the sex trade. These are personal and unguarded portraits of women who work hard for their money in a harsh environment where extreme weather and isolation lend a natural loneliness. McAndrews spent months living in various brothels across Nevada and years tracking down Dennis Hoff, the elusive kingpin behind the desert’s most famous brothel, the Bunny Ranch. Starring in his own HBO documentary, Hoff was reluctant to open his doors to more flashbulbs. But the resulting images are sultry, stirring, sad, playful pictures; they reveal that like any job, prostitution is just another nine-to-five (or, well, midnight to noon). We talked to McAndrews about his first time at a brothel, shopping at Wal-Mart with prostitutes, and how to get to the most elusive man in the brothel business.
ROYAL YOUNG: You talk about a lot of your anxiety and trepidation about going into a brothel for the first time. I’m wondering where your fascination comes in?
MARC MCANDREWS: Well, how I first found out about it was I was hanging out in a motel in Lovelock, Nevada, having a drink outside. I met all these bikers who were really interesting-looking, and I wanted to take their photographs. I went over and bummed a light and offered them a beer, and we just got along so well, I ending up spending a couple days with them and during that period of time, one of the girlfriends was like, “Have you ever been out to one of the brothels?” And I hadn’t ever been to one before. You know, I don’t really like strip clubs; strip clubs are really aggressive, and that type of thing never appealed to me.
YOUNG: Yeah, they’re pretty depressing.
MCANDREWS: But I was really focusing on Americana. And so I had all these ideas on what I was going to find in a desert brothel. I was all macho and bravado. Then I went out there and it’s a whole different thing. All of a sudden it was real—I was actually gonna go try and talk my way in.
YOUNG: Was there ever any idea that you could just pay them to take their photo?
MCANDREWS: I knew I wouldn’t be able to fund the whole project if I had to pay everybody. I don’t know if you’ve been to a brothel before.
YOUNG: On record, just strip clubs.
MCANDREWS: [laughs] So I went in and all of a sudden, these half-naked women were standing right in front of me, there’s a huge spotlight on me. I got red, I blushed, I got really nervous and could only look down at my feet, I’m stuttering, and someone grabbed my hand and took me on a tour. But they wouldn’t let me take photos, and then I get really stubborn, like they can’t say no to me. So then I went to another one and they said no, and everyone was saying no.
YOUNG: Why were they saying no? Like brothel owners saying “No. Get out. I have a gun”?
MCANDREWS: Well, I was 28 or 29 at the time and had no approach. Like, the minute I walked in, I was caught completely off-guard, and it just came across as some kid who’s too afraid to say he wants to party. Even though I had my tear sheets from Time.
YOUNG: You’d think the girls would be the ones under scrutiny, but it sounds like you felt like you were under scrutiny.
MCANDREWS: Oh, completely. My mind short-circuited, and I didn’t have my speech down, but the women were all excited.
A LAMP AT BIG FOUR RANCH.
YOUNG: Where do you think that excitement comes from?
MCANDREWS: I think a lot of it is because they meet a certain type of person, and when they meet somebody they sense is interacting with them differently, they open up to it. Also the attention. Everybody, at a certain point, wants to be the center of attention or have their ego flattered.
YOUNG: Everyone changes once a camera comes out.
MCANDREWS: For sure, so I think that feeds into it. Plus someone interested in them for another reason besides that one sexual aspect.
YOUNG: Within the communities that these brothels are in, does anyone just hate them and want them gone?
MCANDREWS: I’m sure, but for the most part no.
YOUNG: Yeah, it felt like everyone was going along with it, living in it and around it.
MCANDREWS: Well, there’s two separate angles on that. I was in one old silver mining town way up in the hills. I was staying in a motel and asked the woman behind the counter, “Are there any brothels around?” And she’s like, “I don’t know, let me ask my husband.” Then the other is, I was staying in another house, and one of the girls wanted to go to Wal-Mart at two o’clock in the morning. So we show up to Wal-Mart and they were heavy on the make up, wearing sweatpants with the brothel logo on it, and they were shopping for luggage. There were other kids that were clearly drunk or stoned, messing around, and we were just buying things, but when we go to check out, literally every little tiny zipper pocket of luggage, they went through.
YOUNG: I found that in the photos there’s this kind of faded glamour, tired beauty. Was that something you were trying to capture?
MCANDREWS: Yeah. There’s nothing and there’s nothing glamorous about it, even though you’re dressed up and selling glamour. There is no context for real glamour. So they get that from TV and try to replicate and recreate that, as well as they also make things homey.
YOUNG: Dennis Hoff describes himself as a “media whore.” How would you describe him?
MCANDREWS: An aware businessperson. To get to Dennis was huge. It was literally five years I wasn’t allowed in, and then the book deal came. And Dennis’ was the only house I hadn’t been in.
YOUNG: So how did you get Dennis, the last holdout?
MCANDREWS: I flew out and did all these exterior shots, just to say I’d photographed his ranch. I didn’t tell Dennis any of this, then I spoke to his PR person, who was like, “I know what you’re doing.” So I get into Dennis’ office, and he’s at his desk and he’s a rather large, imposing guy. All of a sudden his secretary comes on and is like, “Ron Jeremy, line one, conference call,” then his secretary is like, “Heidi Fleiss, line two, conference call,” and then again, “Larry Flynt, line three.” I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but he does his business, puts down the phone and goes, “You got ten minutes. I don’t wanna work with you. I don’t know why you’re here, but say what you gotta say.” And I’m on, and I knew the book basically hinged on it. So I finished and he’s like, “Okay, you can shoot here.”
YOUNG: What did you say?
MCANDREWS: I don’t remember. I wish I did, because I would teach a class on the technique to get in. I could basically retire.
MARC MCANDREWS’ NEVADA ROSE IS OUT NOW.