In a strip-mall sports bar near the Denver Tech Center, the Halloween party is getting a little scary. A snowy-haired gent who's costumed as a flasher, with a massive plastic phallus dangling beneath his raincoat, is dirty-dancing to "Play That Funky Music" with a hottie in a black leather Catwoman costume who's young enough to be his daughter, maybe even his granddaughter.
"Ooh, yeah, baby," she purrs, while he grinds against her from behind. "You're soooo big."
"Maybe you should have to pay me next time," the Flasher says. Catwoman giggles and gives his nasty prop a tug.
Perched on a nearby bar stool is a tall man sporting death's-head makeup, a hooded cloak and costume gauntlets depicting finger bones stripped of flesh. In one glove he clutches a cocktail, in the other a staff crowned with a thick-veined purple dildo. The strawberry blonde in a strawberry teddy sitting on the next stool leans into him and inquires, "Who are you supposed to be?" Sliding a skeletal hand over her ass, he replies, "I'm the Grim Raper."
The sponsor of this October 30 meet-and-greet is the Other Board, a Denver-based website that caters to habitual clients of local escort agencies and massage parlors. These men refer to themselves as hobbyists and go by screen names like Russian Teddy, T Baggs and Crazy Horse -- so dubbed for his penchant for presenting escorts with stuffed toy horses as gifts. There are about 200 men here and half as many women. But despite this ratio, it's the women who compete for the men's attention, rather than the other way around, because the women are professional escorts. They're here to party with current clients and solicit future business, to market their supple flesh and sparkling personalities. And so they cast come-hither glances in all directions. They laugh at the lamest of jokes. They allow their breasts to spill from their French Maid and Naughty Nurse outfits. They stroke their own inner thighs while they listen raptly to men going on and on about the Denver Broncos' offensive line, the torque of a certain motorcycle engine, the merits of various deer scents for bow-hunting. They give out their phone numbers to any man who asks.
"This is my kind of party," says Brad, a video technician from Boulder who's dressed up like a Deadhead, all in tie-dye. "You know you can sleep with any girl here."
The cover charge at the door tonight is twenty dollars, with all the money going to the Toys for Tots charity -- same as the proceeds from the kissing booth in a back room, which isn't a booth at all, really, just a plush chair behind a paper Japanese screen. The listed price is five dollars per "song" for one girl, ten dollars for two girls. Ten men -- including three lawyers from Colorado Springs -- are waiting in line, and a peek behind the screen reveals the pleasures that await these eager donors. Seated in the chair is a client dressed in a three-piece suit; enveloping him is a buxom blonde in a white-lace angel costume who is kissing him passionately, open-mouthed, and writhing in his lap. This act is known on the Other Board's wildly popular escort reviews section as DFK, or Deep French Kissing.
The Other Board's reviews, updated and drawing more than 1,000 viewers daily, include details on a particular escort's body type, tattoos, body piercings, intimate grooming and a complete listing of "ACTIVITIES BETWEEN CONSENTING ADULTS FOR WHICH NO MONEY WAS EXCHANGED."
This list is riddled with acronyms that are so much gibberish to the uninitiated. In addition to DFK, for instance, there is GFE, which stands for Girl Friend Experience and means that the session with that escort feels more like genuine intimacy than a commercial transaction. Other abbreviations are less subjective. DATY stands for Dine at the Y, or cunnilingus. UTF is Un-Translated French, meaning fellatio without a condom. NQNS -- Not a Quitter and Not a Spitter -- translates to oral sex performed to completion, with swallowing. YMMV stands for Your Mileage May Vary, meaning the escort performs some acts with some men but not with others. MSOG, Multiple Shots on Goal, means multiple orgasms in a single session.
At the Halloween party, just one song's worth of DFK inspires many of the hobbyists emerging from the kissing booth to untuck their shirts to conceal their turgidity. The blonde behind the screen gives her name as Haley. A Swedish-American with innocent eyes and 36DDs, Haley's one of twenty girls employed by Bada Bing Denver, one of the city's premier agencies. Clients pay $250 for a half-hour with a Bada Bing girl, $300 to $350 for a full hour. The agency also offers a "Dinner, Dancing, and Dessert" all-night package for $2,000, which allows the client to take an escort out to dinner at a fancy restaurant (he pays), then dancing at a nightclub, and then dessert at the Bada Bing in-call location, a luxury loft near downtown where the agency's bevy of beauties do their entertaining. Two-day, two-night ski-vacation packages, which include lodging, start at $4,000.
Bada Bing's owner and operator, a 37-year-old woman known in her industry as Veronika Lake, is working the crowd at the Other Board party, giving away choice Dominican Republic cigars with custom Bada Bing wrappers and handing out business cards. Decorated with the image of a 1950s pinup girl, they read, "BB Denver, LLC Entertainment Consultants. Veronika Lake -- Art Negotiator/Director of Recruiting."
"I negotiate the art of human interaction," Veronika explains. "I'm not doing anything illegal, because I'm not selling sex. I'm selling companionship. What happens between two consenting adults once they're behind closed doors is their business. Putting them together behind those doors is mine."
Just back from a recruiting trip to Russia, Veronika is looking resplendent at the Halloween party in a skirt cut just above her thigh-high stockings, glitter makeup, a wool Russian Navy jacket unbuttoned to show off her ample cleavage, and a black fox-fur hat. Veronika has worked in the escort business off and on since the late 1980s. A Denver native, she was raised Catholic in an upper-middle-class family. Her father's an aerospace engineer, and her mom's an event planner. "My parents wish I was doing something different," she admits. "They don't want me to be doing this forever. But then, I have no plans to."
Long before she owned her own escort agency, back in her early twenties, Veronika was an escort herself. She was studying sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago when she ran low on money. Determined to pay her own way through school, she began working as a nude model, then took a job with a high-class Chicago escort agency. "The money was great," she remembers. "The men paid for everything. I got to wear clothes I wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford, travel places I wouldn't have otherwise been able to go, eat in a lot of restaurants that were outside my price range, and attend a lot of events I wouldn't have gone to if my client hadn't purchased the tickets."
Once she completed her art degree, Veronika says, she moved from Chicago to Paris and worked as an escort for Valentines of London, an international escort agency with offices in London, Milan, Rome, Paris, Los Angeles and New York City. After a year in Paris, she returned to Denver and spent the next decade as a struggling artist. She worked on her own sculptures, taught art for Denver Public Schools, worked part-time in the Denver Art Museum's Collections and Education Department. But three years ago, she got tired of scrimping.
"I never made much as an artist," she says, "and who wants to be poor for the rest of their life? I'd rather make a million dollars. So I got back in the industry."
That would be the adult-entertainment industry, which, according to economic estimates, generated more profit in 2003 than the National Football League and the National Basketball Association combined -- once you factor in pornography, strip clubs, massage parlors and escort services.
Now too old to be an escort herself, Veronika first worked as the manager of an elite Denver agency, then launched Bada Bing two years ago. Now she's well on her way to banking that million. She cleared $100,000 last year, she says, and business is only getting better. She's in the market for a second luxury apartment to use for in-call appointments, this one near the Denver Tech Center.
"We do so much business with gentlemen who work in the DTC area that I think our second location will do quite well, especially at lunchtime and right after work," she notes.
Veronika works hard. She puts in twelve-hour days, seven days a week. By her own estimate, she answers between fifty and a hundred work-related phone calls each day and makes that many calls of her own. She's a tough boss. She drug-tests her employees. (Bada Bing girls are allowed to drink with clients, but only if the client suggests it. Illegal drugs are absolutely forbidden.) She fines them for calling in late ($25) and standing up a client ($200). But she is also generous. She offers employee benefits, including health insurance and car financing at low interest rates. Once a girl has worked for Bada Bing for a full year, Veronika buys her a round-trip plane ticket to anywhere in the world. And she offers her girls a 70-30 cut, in their favor, on the money they bring in, when the industry standard is 50-50.
"I demand excellence," she says, "and I reward excellence."
And she sacrifices.
This summer, Veronika lost her boyfriend. As soon as they started going out, she says, she made sure he understood what she does for a living. But as their relationship deepened, he couldn't handle it. "He hated that I was always on the phone, and he told me I was making dirty money," she remembers. He demanded that she get out of the escort business. She refused. He left her, and for now, she's alone.
"I've reached a point where I do want a man to share the rest of my life with, and it's hard to develop a stable relationship when you're in my line of work," she says. "But I'm not ready to give this up. I'm making my own way, because I'm very much my own woman, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
She's her own woman, and she's making her own money -- good money. A huge tipper when she gets good service in clubs and restaurants, Veronika goes out on the town with cash-stuffed envelopes in her Guess purse, the money drops her girls make after each day's work -- or night's, as the case may be. She's living large during her quest to bank a million. She has champagne tastes with an entertainment budget to match. She's a player. But she has her own rules.
Rule #1: Recruit, Recruit, Recruit
The night before the Other Board's Halloween party, Veronika attends the Victorian and Fetish Ball at the Church nightclub, hoping to recruit new talent. About once a week, she goes recruiting at upscale Denver nightclubs. "Every woman considers becoming an escort at least once in her life," she says.
Like all escort-agency owners, Veronika is barred by the owners of strip clubs from recruiting on their premises. She goes to the Fetish Ball because it's neutral territory and because she's guessed -- correctly, as it turns out -- that a lot of strippers will show up. Within her first hour at the party, she gives away thirty business cards, most of them to topless dancers.
"If I think a girl's a stripper, I'll just go up and ask if her if she's a dancer, and if she says yes, I'll ask her how she'd like to make five times as much money and then let the conversation go from there," Veronika says. "If she's not a stripper, if she's more of an innocent type -- and believe me, innocence sells, big-time -- I'll go up and say, ŒHow'd you like to make $1,000 a day?' or ŒHow'd you like to shop 'til you drop?'
"Girls who already work in the adult industry, it cuts both ways," she continues. "On the one hand, they're already accustomed to selling their sexuality. On the other, if they're not in the industry, they don't come with a lot of the psychological baggage and flakiness that you find with most strippers."
Sitting in the Church's VIP room, sipping a Corona, Veronika surveys the pool of potential talent. "Normally I look first for women who are provocatively dressed, but since pretty much every woman here tonight is provocatively dressed, I'm looking for girls who are really flaunting their sexuality, who are sort of always striking poses, even when they're just talking to a guy," she says. "I'm also looking for a certain poise, and for something that just instinctually tells me I could turn them out."
Veronika zeroes in on a girl in a Catholic-schoolgirl outfit wearing her blond hair in pigtails, a white shirt tied in a knot just below her suspiciously round breasts, and sucking on a Blow Pop -- to the delight of several men taking her photograph. "She'd be good," Veronika says. "She had a bad plastic surgeon, but we can work with that."
The schoolgirl takes up a paddle and begins spanking men at random, all of whom are happy to bend over for her. "I definitely need to get her my info," Veronika concludes.
Behind her, on a stage in the VIP room, an S&M show draws dozens of onlookers and photo snappers. A petite Latina is being slowly, surely tied up by a gentle disciplinarian who obviously knows his bondage knots. Drawing out the process for the pleasure of the crowd, the rope slithering over the woman's skin, between her legs, around her thighs, master renders slave helpless, arms lashed behind her back and legs spread-eagled.
"That's one of my girls," Veronika says. "She works for me. This is great advertising."
A stunning woman in a Spider-Girl costume struts past the bar. She's obviously an ethnic hybrid, perhaps part African-American, part Asian. Veronika uses that as her opening. "Excuse me," she says, catching the girl's attention. "You're really amazingly good-looking, and my friends and I were just wondering where you're from."
Coming from a guy, this line would probably turn anyone off. Coming from an older woman who seems to be paying a genuine, innocuous compliment, it gets a smile, and a response.
"I'm part Irish, part French, African-American and Indian," she says.
"Indian," Veronika replies. "That's what you gives you that special something, isn't it? Can I ask you, are you in the industry?"
Spider-Girl looks confused. "What industry?"
"The adult-entertainment industry. I own an escort agency, and I just know you could do really well for yourself if you came to work for me."
"Oh, no, I work in a law firm," Spider-Girl says. "But thank you."
Veronika walks away, leaving Spider-Girl and her friends laughing. She's obviously flattered, and they've got a good story to tell.
Out on the main floor, Veronika keeps scouting. She spots a blonde with an athletic build, dressed in a slinky black number, sitting across from a bored-looking meathead who's oblivious to her erotic dancing, even when she gets on all fours atop the booth and starts thrusting her ass in time with the beat.
"Look at her and that guy she's with," Veronika says. "If that's her boyfriend, he's not paying her nearly enough attention. Some girls here, they're glued to the men they're with. Look at the beautiful Japanese woman over there. She'd be great, but I've been watching her, and she's been arm-in-arm with her boyfriend all night long. But that blonde one, I think she might just work out."
Veronika waits for the blonde's date to go to the bathroom, then heads over to the girl, has a brief conversation, jots her number on a napkin, slips it to the blonde and leaves.
"She told me she's worked off and on as a stripper, and now she's a Coors Light girl. She's absolutely perfect."
Rule #2: Educate Your Ritas
"Do you really want to take a dumb blonde to a five-star restaurant and have her embarrass you because she acts like she's right off the street, when you're paying $350 an hour for her company? Absolutely not," says Veronika, who requires all of her new hires to undergo rigorous etiquette training.
"If you work for me, it's not enough to just look like a million bucks," she says. "You have to sound like a million bucks and behave like a million bucks. You have to be able to have lunch at the Palm and know how to order properly and which fork to use when."
Veronika demands that her employees stay abreast of current events. Attendance is mandatory at monthly seminars on hair, makeup, formal dress and manners. "You have to be able to attend a charity function or a political fundraiser and be able to carry on a reasonably intelligent, well-informed conversation," she says.
She also makes her girls keep up on Denver's sports teams. "A lot of my gentlemen want to talk sports," she notes. "Their fantasy is a beautiful woman who loves football. And baseball. And basketball. And hockey. And we're more than happy to fulfill that fantasy."
Rule #3: No Ripoffs
The escort business is rife with scams. Every month, the Other Board's review section includes dozens of new reports of guys getting ripped off. This September 27 posting by "Irsparky" is typical. The escort in question goes by the name "Jasmine's on Fire"; she does not work for Bada Bing.
"I've seen her quite a few times previously and have always had a good time with her," Irsparky wrote. "So Friday night I was wanting to see someone and got her to come over. She showed up, told me that she just found out someone close to her had been arrested and she needed $300, $100 more than our 1 hour session was to be, to give to the bail bondsman and get him out ASAP. Told me it would only take 30 minutes to get to the bail guy and she would call when she got there. As I had seen her a few times I felt I could trust her. So gave her the $300, she left, and I haven't heard from her since."
The most common ripoff is a form of bait-and-switch. "The girl you see in the photo in her advertisement is not the one you get, whether it says 'actual photo' or not," says Veronika. "It happens all the time. I guarantee that with Bada Bing, what you see is exactly what you get, and gentlemen are willing to pay a premium for my honesty."
A century ago, many Denver brothels kept photos of all their girls in a file, and upon receiving a phone call or a message from an out-of-town guest, a runner was dispatched to the hotel so that the client could make his choice. Today's equivalent is the escort-agency website. Veronika has a professional photographer shoot erotic portraits of her girls in lingerie when they're first hired. Those photos are then posted on the website and used in Bada Bing advertisements. The photographer charges $250 per shoot, which is billed to the employee, not Veronika, although Veronika retains all rights to the images. "I don't want them taking the photos with them if they leave," she says.
Rule #4: Understand Your Clients
"Most of my clients come to me because they're either bored with their wives or because they don't have time for regular relationships," Veronika says. "Monday is my busiest day, because a lot of my clients have just spent the whole weekend with their spouse and need a release. Those are my bored clients. My other clients are doctors, lawyers, CEOs, airline pilots, professional athletes, well-established professionals who are just such total Type-A personalities or who are on the road so much of the time that there is no room at this particular point in their life for a wife or girlfriend.
"At Bada Bing, we never criticize you, we never nag, we never ask you to perform some chore, we never ask you why you didn't call or why you don't have more time for us. All we want to talk about is you and whatever interests you, and all we want to do is whatever pleases you for an hour or two at a time. For a lot of men, this is a great relationship."
Rule #5: Screen for Safety
Before a gentleman may become a Bada Bing client, he must first undergo a background check. Veronika asks for his name and birth date, then runs him through several online public-records databases, searching for criminal history. If he comes up clean, then and only then may he make an appointment to see the girl of his choice. He must bring a photo ID to his first appointment to confirm his identity. After that, he's assigned a code name: the first letter of his legal name plus a random series of numbers -- D743, say -- which he will use to make all future appointments.
Bada Bing offers in-call services only. This is for the safety of employees. "If you're from out of town and you have a five-hour layover, we'll send a limousine out to DIA to pick you up, but I will not just have one of the girls go meet you in a hotel somewhere," Veronika explains. The Bada Bing girls are not to ask a client's real name, and they are never, ever supposed to reveal their own. If they do, and Veronika finds out about it, they're fined $150.
She creates pseudonyms and identities for all of her girls and writes the enticing promotional copy for their website profiles. "I usually try to play up their ethnic background," she says. For example, Bada Bing's top Asian escort goes by the name Su Ling. "Want to uncover an ancient Chinese secret? Su is a great place to start," her profile advertises. "This sweet petite Asian doll stands at 5'2", 112 pounds with a porcelain body and a china doll face. Crack open this fortune cookie and encounter a true GFE!"
Veronika lets her girls set their own hours. Su Ling, for example, works Tuesdays and Thursdays only, from 7 to 11 p.m. At Bada Bing rules and rates, this cookie's very fortunate compared to the Asian women getting cracked open at the dozens of Denver's low-budget Asian massage parlors, known in the business as AMPs. Veronika considers AMPs the scourge of her industry. "They basically bring these girls in and give them very little of the money they make," she says. "It's indentured servitude, basically."
Rule #6: Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
Veronika says she spends $5,000 to $10,000 a month on advertising, which includes display ads in adult-entertainment magazines and twenty bucks per day per girl to post photos and profiles of her employees on the Other Board. Veronika also offers a one-time, half-off "reviewer's special" to any client who agrees to post a review of his session with one of her girls on the Other Board.
While most Denver escort-agency owners try to keep a low profile, Veronika does the opposite. She hands out cigars and business cards to men in LoDo martini bars and has made several batches of "Bada Bing Denver" T-shirts. "I don't have anything to hide, and I believe in marketing wherever I go," she says. She chose the agency's name for its "classic, Marilyn Monroe-era appeal." The fact that Bada Bing is also the name of the mob-owned strip club in The Sopranos is just a happy coincidence working in her favor, she adds.
For this year's Denver Grand Prix, her employees dressed up as jazz-era cigarette girls and worked the stands, hawking cigars, cigarettes and themselves, handing out cards promising high-quality, discreet one-on-one entertainment in a comfortable, nearby location. "We did a lot of out-of-town business that weekend," she says.
Veronika also sends her VIP clients (those who purchases twenty or more sessions per year) gift baskets and bottles of good champagne on their birthdays. "Basically, if you think of all the little ways a real-estate agent tries to preserve long-term business, I try to think of those nice little touches as well," she explains.
Rule #7: Don't Mess With the IRS
Al Capone went to prison for tax evasion, not because he was a mobster. "Bada Bing is a legitimate corporation. I pay taxes, I have a payroll, and I keep impeccable books," Veronika says. "I have two corporate attorneys who are very good, and they make sure I'm following the rules." Those attorneys, she adds, "are paid on the barter system."
Rule #8: Don't Mess With the Russian Mob
Veronika traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg in early October. It was supposed to be a working vacation: She wanted to line up some exotic new talent. She already runs an exchange program with Valentines of London, sending a Bada Bing girl to one of the international agency's locations outside of the U.S. in exchange for being able to offer a "special guest" of her own for a few weeks at time.
"Gentlemen appreciate variety," she says.
While she would never put any of her girls in the hands of a Russian agency under a similar exchange program, she thought she might be able to cut a deal to bring a Russian girl to Denver for a week, or maybe even permanently, in exchange for a flat fee. No dice.
"Getting a meeting with them was easy, but they wanted way too much control over how I did business, and way too much money," she says of the mob-run Russian agencies. "They have total control over all the adult-entertainment business there, and a presence in Denver. There are plenty of woman over there who are desperate to come work here as escorts, who are making next to nothing compared to what I can pay them, but the Russian guys gave me the clear impression that if I tried to go behind their backs, well, you know, it just wouldn't be a smart thing to do if you like breathing. And I do."
Rule #9: Don't Hire Convicted Prostitutes
Veronika also has a criminal lawyer on retainer, not that she expects to ever need him. Just as she conducts background checks of all potential clients, she checks all new employees for any criminal history of prostitution-related charges. "If they've even been arrested for prostitution, I won't hire them, whether they were convicted or not," she says.
Colorado law considers "Keeping a Place of Prostitution" a Class II misdemeanor and defines it as "any person who has or exercises control over the use of any place which offers seclusion or shelter for the practice of prostitution and/or permits the continued use of such a place after becoming aware of facts or circumstances from which he should reasonably know that the place is being used for purposes of prostitution."
Veronika has no such awareness that her loft is used for any such nefarious purposes, she says. And all her girls must sign an agreement that states, in no uncertain terms, that engaging in prostitution is absolutely forbidden: All services are strictly for the purpose of companionship and entertainment only. Being arrested for, or being suspected of prostitution will result in immediate termination.
Rule #10: Create an Oasis
The Bada Bing loft is a sweet spot in which to enjoy a sweet distraction for an hour or two. High ceilings, deck with a view, spacious bed secluded behind a white sheer curtain, lounging area with leather couches, full bar, cigar humidor, and a bathroom stocked with all manner of personal lubricants, moisturizers and love gels. Professional caterers stock the refrigerator daily. The Bada Bing website advertises the loft as "offering first-class amenities in a discreet, comfortable location." The services provided there are "first-class, worthy of the discriminating gentleman."
In her book Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls, a history of female companionship for hire in Colorado between 1860 and 1930, Cripple Creek historian Jan Mackell writes, "Naturally those madams who best cared for their workers also had the fanciest brothels in town. Called 'parlor houses,' these aristocratic businesses were more likely to appear in prime locations within larger cities. The naughty ladies employed there were required to be talented, attractive, and classy. The decor was lavish and fine to suit its wealthy customers. Advertisements were rarely brazen or crude; prospective customers were told what they needed to know in polite verbiage."
Not much has changed except the prices. In the late 1800s, one hour with a girl in a parlor house cost five to ten dollars.
Money is never discussed inside the Bada Bing loft. Prior to their arrival, gentleman callers are instructed to place their donations on a silver plate in the bathroom, and then to please wash their hands. "Do NOT mention the donation or you will be asked to leave immediately," the Bada Bing website warns.
Veronika also forbids her girls from cutting side deals or hitting up her clients for tips. "When I advertise a price as all-inclusive, I mean just that," she says. "If I have any suspicions, I'll send in a male friend of mine posing as a client, and if the girl tries to make her own deal, she's fired. But I don't have many problems. My clients are loyal to me, not my girls."
Mattie Silks, Denver's celebrity madam at the turn of the last century, once famously said, "I went into the sporting life for business reasons and no other. It was a way for a woman in those days to make money, and I made it. I consider myself then, and do now, as a businesswoman."
Like Silks, Veronika is a pure capitalist. Last month, one of her clients offered her $300,000 for Bada Bing. She's thinking about it. But she's also thinking that three hundred grand isn't a million, and while today there are more ways for a woman to make big money than there were in Mattie Silks's era, she can't come up with any quite this much fun.
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Circulating at the Other Board party, she laughs with Brad, the Deadhead from Boulder, about how after the last Other Board meet-and-greet, they hit the VIP room at the Penthouse Club for an after-party and dropped hundreds like it was Judgment Day.
Veronika breaks away from reminiscing to check on a new girl, Blaine, a six-foot redhead with emerald eyes, who's chatting up a potential client wearing a white lab coat with the words "Sex Instructor" embroidered on the lapel. She waits a few minutes, then interjects herself. "Hi, I'm Veronika with Bada Bing," she says. "I see you're talking with my girl Blaine here. Here's my card. If you'd like to arrange a session, please give me a call. We'll be happy to take care of you."
Money in the bank. Guilt-free.
"Am I harming anyone? No. Am I stealing? No. Is what I do wrong? I don't think so," says Veronika. "I sell companionship and entertainment, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm providing society with a valuable service."