GREENVILLE, S.C. — Year 2 of the Trump presidency began here overnight much like Year 1 had ended: with his alleged ex-mistress smashing people’s faces into her bare chest at a strip club between an airport and a cemetery.
Adult film star Stormy Daniels, who once claimed to have slept with Donald Trump not long after he married Melania, performed at 11 p.m. Saturday — the anniversary of his inauguration — and 1 a.m. Sunday here on the outskirts of town.
“HE SAW HER LIVE,” the Trophy Club’s flier said. “YOU CAN TOO!”
The federal government remained shut down, but Daniels was open for business.
She had received $130,000 in hush money days before the 2016 election as part of a payment arranged by a Trump attorney, according to the Wall Street Journal. And now Daniels was capitalizing on her new notoriety sparked by the revelation, though Trump’s attorney had issued a statement in which he and Daniels denied the payment and, on Saturday night, Daniels was largely silent in that regard.
“I’m trying to think of what I can say,” said the woman of the hour, sighing and shuddering simultaneously, as if to convey she’s been through an ordeal. She was in between performances, signing autographs and taking topless photos with oglers in a corner of the smoky club.
She paused, sat back on a leather couch, pursed her lips.
“It’s crazy how one moment can overshadow 15 years of work,” she finally said, running her sparkly purple fingernails over some DVDs in front of her. “I directed all these movies. I know it’s porn, but they aren’t ‘one, two, three, f---.’ These are serious.”
One is a western called “Wanted,” and another is the horse-centric movie “Unbridled,” whose tagline lacks a double entendre but fits America in 2018: “The stakes were never higher.”
Congress can’t pass a budget or figure out immigration policy. The administration is talking about war with North Korea. And down in Florida, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, his supporters were toasting his first year.
A normal Saturday at the Trophy Club brings in 100 to 150 people — and for a while on Saturday it seemed at least double that. “Making America Horny Again,” said a big sign outside, a play on Trump’s campaign slogan. Inside there was patriotic bunting on the brass railings. Red, white and blue balloons floated above each sticky table.
“I’m an old grandfather, and I seized an opportunity,” said Jay Levy, the owner of the Trophy Club. “I’m a liberal. I’m a big-time liberal. . . . I’m not here for the scandal. I’m here to make money off the biggest name in adult entertainment this week. Next week it’s liable to be someone else.”
As Levy tells it, he saw Daniels, an old friend, in the Wall Street Journal last week and tried to catch lightning in a bottle. He called her agency, and within an hour the deal was done. It was the biggest promotional coup in Levy’s 22 years running the club, which he views as a family business, a neighborhood joint. His daughter used to work the front door. His wife of 41 years would be in the club’s “skybox” that evening to watch the show.
“We’re ‘Cheers’ with tits,” said Levy, smoking a filtered Camel in his office earlier Saturday as the Greenville Women’s March finished downtown. “I don’t know if you can say that or not.” He blinked at a reporter taking notes. “ ‘Cheers’ with breasts?”
Trump’s tabloid life has fully flowered into a tabloid presidency. Headlines about the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump joked about sexual assault, are now rivaled by accounts of his relationship with a porn star.
Reporters from several major news outlets staked out the strip club for hours and hours this weekend, just in case a porn star said or did something newsworthy. As if she might vault onstage, rip off her corset and — instead of clutching a pole with her pelvis — launch a news conference.
“It’s demeaning,” said Suzanne Coe, who nevertheless brought a copy of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” for Daniels to sign as a trivia prize for her bar downtown. “And it’s demeaning we have a first lady who posed naked. I don’t think you can humiliate America anymore.”
Enthusiasm in the room was low. Emcees had to impugn patrons’ masculinity to goad them to the stage so that Daniels could flip them onto their backs and lower herself onto their noses.
“I think Trump’s a real famous guy, and he’s been around a s--- ton of people,” said Darin Ferguson, an engineer from North Carolina here on business, watching from the safety of a back wall. “And she’s getting her 10 minutes of fame from it.”
This is not the first time a stripper has entered the political fray. In 1974, Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) was pulled over by Park Police near the Tidal Basin, and the ex-stripper in his car — stage name: “Fanne Foxe, the Argentine firecracker” — tumbled into the water during a scuffle. The congressman, up for reelection, saw his poll numbers tick up. The Argentine firecracker rebilled herself as the “Tidal Basin Bombshell” and quintupled her performance fee.
Some people showed up to the Trophy Club this weekend to get that contact high, that stale but intoxicating odor of fame by association. The woman onstage maybe had had sex with the president, and maybe we should give her a dollar or two, just to say we did.
“I thought she was very brave,” one dancer, a Trophy regular, said between Daniels’s performances.
“Because,” the dancer said, lowering her eyes in penitence, “she’s at the end of her career.”
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is 38. Yes, she is a porn star; she is also a mother, writer, director and advocate. In 2005, she lobbied the California legislature on behalf of the porn industry. In 2008, she talked about online safety for children at the National Press Club in Washington. In 2009, she was drafted to run for Senate in her native Louisiana against David Vitter, the conservative disgraced by his entanglement in a prostitution ring.
“Politics can’t be any dirtier of a job than the one I’m already in,” she told CNN then. Little did she know. Two years later she would detail her tryst with Trump to In Touch Weekly, which did not run it until a year into his presidency.
The magazine ran a transcript of the interview following the Wall Street Journal’s report that Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen had arranged for the October 2016 payment to Daniels for her silence. A White House official has dismissed the story as “old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied prior to the election,” while Cohen released a statement signed by “Stormy Daniels” denying an affair and calling reports of a payment “completely false.”
Daniels is taking her show national next month, according to marketer Chris Roberson, whose clients include the Déjà Vu and Hustler strip club chains. She is scheduled to appear in Oklahoma City next month — the flier says “THE PORN STAR THAT TRUMPS THEM ALL” and “SEE THE PORN STAR WORTH $130,000” — and then Nashville and Shreveport, La.
Here in Greenville, as the second year of Trump dawned, Stormy Daniels spread out a taupe fleece blanket onstage, dropped to her knees, arched her back and began to squirt a bottle of lotion onto her chest to the sound of “Animal” by Def Leppard, as the president’s face flashed on video screens behind her.