I’m Not Naked (anymore) by Sonya Côté really took me by surprise. I can honestly say that I haven’t binge read a book, like I did with this one, in a very long time. I don’t want to say that I was surprised that I would enjoy it, because after reading the jacket I had a pretty good idea that it would be right up my alley.. and it really was.
We walk with Sonya, through the chapters of her life, in each part of the book. From early childhood trauma and sexual abuse, to sexual empowerment and body autonomy during her years as a stripper. She encounters many instances of attempted sexual exploitation while auditioning and working on set on various projects over the course of her extensive career in film and television.
As we walk through her story, we are faced with the abuse that occurred to her as a child and in her teenage years in a way that illustrates just how randomly these occurrences of abuse can pop up for survivors in their everyday lives.
Sonya is especially skilled at walking you through her decadent closet and describing the costumes she wore during her days on stage at strip clubs and cabarets. In an effort to stay fully involved in her story, I found myself on Wikipedia on more than one occasion, discovering exactly what a crepe de chine 1940s dress looked like, so I could envision her wearing it standing up on stage as she sang next to a grand piano.
Sonya speaks so affectionately about her years behind the microphone, an additional skill in her toolbox. She specializes in jazz standards and has played extensively at bars and nightclubs for nearly 30yrs.
Her stories are intertwined with the lives of some of the more famous people in Canada’s music and literary worlds and we learn many personal encounters at many points throughout the book. You will have to give it a read yourself if you would like to hear more.. click here for Sonya’s website and to buy the book!
Here is a little bit of our conversation:
SZ :: Do you ever feel victimized by your time as a stripper, or do you feel empowered?
SC :: While I can’t say that stripping was a really honourable profession for me, I can say that it was instrumental in my getting over much of my past and trauma. I found much support from the men in those rooms, and used them to replay situations over and over again, where I was able to control the outcome for the most part. Strangely, I was never abused while stripping. Obviously these men did not know I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse (by a neighbour and subsequent others, like a bus driver, a vice principal and a fair number of ‘dates’, and then later in the music and acting business). But being told you are beautiful at every table, and getting paid for it, is pretty soothing and empowering, however desperate that sounds. I was good at miming ecstasy on stage, and at listening to hundreds of men over the years while table dancing for them, as they spilled their intimate lives to me. It gave me compassion for the human condition as well. I believe with the exception of very few, most people on this planet are doing their best to be good humans, most of the time. I think overall, men love women, love to look at them, and admire them. I don’t believe in shaming men for this, and I believe if women were given permission to embrace all of their own urges and sexuality, we might not need to shame anyone over healthy lustful behaviour.
SC :: I don’t regret anything of my life. Those first few years in the stripping business were the toughest, as I found my groove, and I managed to escape all the drugs and drinking and selling of sex because very early into the game, I witnessed enough death and/ or tragedy of some girls, to gain the strength to turn away from all that. I have a gift for turning what is thrown at me around, to use it for my own gain, or simply turn a lot of it into high art, or high camp…some form of entertainment, either for myself or for the benefit of others around me, to amuse them or escape the moment somehow, hopefully gracefully. Being able to ‘improv’ like this over many years in the stripping world, think on my feet in front of a crowd, or a table of men, or a solo man baring his soul to me, is invaluable as a performer in the so-called ‘straight’ world of acting and singing.
SC :: Most of my life has been lived out loud. My processes are heard and felt by those around me, good and bad. I am a big personality and a born performer. Creating characters and fantasies are common in abuse victims too, and I went to my inner Jezebel in the uncomfortable moments. She saved me from a lot of hurt in the stripping world or later, the performing world. But in my personal life, I didn’t trust my instincts until well into my early 40’s. I believe that came from my early abuse and my parent’s inability to deal with it, or even recognize it. I don’t think that’s all that uncommon either, for that generation. My first husband was a good guy but never seemingly able to be completely himself. He echoed where I was at in my life and so, we never dealt with our issues, unable to be honest with each other or ourselves. My second husband was a disaster! I ignored every single red flag in the beginning; my best friend was dying at the time and I was really hurting. This new man presented as caring and supportive, but I believe he set out to rip me off from the beginning. He’s a far better actor than me. At the time, I was investing in flipping properties and he managed to take much of my money by the end. I fell pregnant with one last goodbye roll in bed with him. And mere weeks later, my friend died. I think my pregnancy surprised both of us and we reacted in very different ways, and strangely both trying to do the right thing initially. However, I feel that he is simply unable to be a decent person for very long, and soon, he was dangerous to be around, so little equipped was he to deal with his issues. Then he set about to spend the next ten years ‘making me pay’ for hurting him. Up till then, I wasn’t able to recognize what I believe to be sociopathic behaviour. I learned to trust my instincts finally, by raising my daughter consciously, doing for her what I could not for myself for many, many years.
SC :: My acting has always been to make money. I did dozens of commercials, and TV and film roles. I don’t find them challenging, partly because there are so few good roles to be had, it doesn’t speak to my heart after the job is done. I’m a small role in someone else’s story essentially. Voice overs however, are a fantastic way to flex my acting chops, and I am extremely good at those but they are not moving emotionally, they are simply a great way to make a living and I’m thrilled to still be working so much. When I sing, my heart opens and I feel like I’m channeling the feeling of the room and the people there. I want to please them and fill them up with the music. But, I’m not a pop singer, I’m a cabaret/jazz/blues singer, so, it’s bar gigs mostly. And it’s so difficult to have big satisfying crowds these days, and seeing them staring at their phones while I’m up there is depressing. (It’s dark in clubs but you see their faces when they are lit up by screens held in front of them) So, opportunities to sing for and please a crowd are now few and far between; I am selective about where I sing. I am invited on occasion to be a guest singer, and I love those gigs, because I didn’t have to gather the crowd and I know they are there to listen and enjoy, and I really want to make them happy. Writing is now consuming me, and though I’ve had a talent for it for some time, it is what I think I will do till I die. This Halloween, I’m releasing a series of erotic stories, and they’ve been brewing in me for a long time. I feel as an older woman, and in these times, that they are now welcome to come out, in full sexual content, without apology.
SC :: I taught my daughter to listen to and trust her instincts; about herself and about others. This will save her from much hurt I think, but also, send her into loving life, people and her own processes fully and completely. She’s almost eighteen, and I’ve managed to get her to this age, without the trauma and abuse like that of my past, and I feel I armed her with the permission to be fully and completely herself; no shame, no judgement. I think she’s naturally got a huge heart and she will be able to share it through her singing and acting much more freely than I was.
SC :: Lena did read my book and she loved it. She was complimentary and critical of certain passages, in constructive ways. I did not get a pass, just because I’m her mother! But she told me she’ll read my erotica only when she’s 35! Haha! And, since I was a single mom for much of her early life, she was brought to my shows, rehearsals and back stages with my burlesque troupe and many of my performances as singer and actress. I have had (age appropriate) conversations with her about almost everything, since she was a toddler, about her body, her feelings, her boundaries, her dreams and desires. We are extremely close yet she is very much her own person, very different from me in a myriad of ways. Since the day she was born, I’ve been in awe of her…her spirit is so bright and loving, sometimes it brings me to tears, as I think of just how lucky I am to have a daughter like her. I think it’s a crap shoot…you never know who will give birth to. For all the difficulty her father brought into my life, Lena is the best thing that ever happened to me. I know she knows how rare our connection is, as she appreciates me and what I’ve done for her and because of her. I really wanted to rewrite the story of mother and daughter, through honest communication and an open mind. She has yet to rebel, if there is anything to rebel against, that is… though she jokes and threatens to become an accountant or currency trader or something like that!
SC :: I told Michael that my daughter would always come first, and he accepted that, though I don’t think that’s what he had initially wanted. I also demanded he stay distant with Lena until such time as she trusted him. That backfired on me when Lena went running headlong into a best friend type relationship with Michael and I was the one left hanging back, being cautious! I have never depended on a man financially and I need a lot of time alone. I am fiercely independent and many men do not have an easy time with this. I was honest about my past, my lust for love and life, and my process as an artist right from the beginning. I was in my early 40’s by then, but I warned him that my life had been unconventional and was unlikely to ever ‘settle down’, in the traditional sense. I would never be content just working and hanging out together; I’d want to travel – alone and together, I’d want to learn new disciplines in meditation or spiritually or sexuality. I would pursue higher learning in these things and devote my life to living and bringing my heart to everything I did. I can sometimes exhaust people – being around someone like me who is larger than life, and consciously ‘on’ all the time – so I wanted to make sure he would be okay with this, and maybe even bump up his game now and then too, shake things up and take big leaps himself. We’ve done a lot in the 10 years we’ve been together. Sometimes he’s infuriatingly calm through fire, and moves much more slowly through life than me. But really, I think we’d burn out quickly if he was like me too often! Now, as Lena has more or less grown up, for the first time, we are facing each other as a couple, and I’m excited to see what this new phase will bring.
SC :: I wrote the book because I had a burning desire to bare my soul, look at all my inner pieces, and knit them back together finally. Then I wanted to share them with women and the world, to give them permission to be everything they are. To forgive themselves for doing what they did to adapt, or smooth over, or get through, or survive. My story, though large and colourful and sometimes, downright surreal, has many elements in it that are just like other women. I doubt myself, I didn’t always value myself, I gave to others instead of myself first, I didn’t speak up to protect myself… with the current (and hopefully long lasting and life changing) #MeToo stuff flying around, the world is finally looking to change what’s been broken with our women – at least here in North America and Europe – and hopefully, soon, the rest of the world. How we’ve managed to dismiss, discount, silence, kill, overlook and ignore women so much since the dawn of Christianity, is mind blowing. Now, maybe we can find a way to rise up, rewrite the story and do so as gracefully as we can. I believe women elevate the tone of any room they are in, just by being feminine and generally fair minded. There’s no need to ‘do it like the men do’. Now is the time to do it ‘just like a woman’ and have that be the best way for all.
I am so grateful to have had this incredibly open exchange with Sonya and I hope that you all will read this interview and get an idea of the honest tone that you can expect from ‘Not Naked (anymore)’. Once again, it is a major must read for all women. My hands down pick for feminist lit so far in 2018. Get your copy today!!