We all think we know what goes on behind closed doors and judge people without thinking… but some people are happy to stand up and tell us straight what it’s really like. We talk to author Rachel Francis about her book, Naked Truth.
Rachel Francis decided to write Naked Truth for the “total love” of the industry she worked in. It might surprise you to hear that Rachel worked as part of the sex industry and has been know as ‘New Zealand’s most famous hooker’, which she embraces with pride, happy that she reached ‘the top of her game’. Believing that if you’re going do something then you have to do it properly or not at all, Rachel says she is “passionate about sex work and adamant that prostitution serves a place in society – as we handle some people that, believe me, you wouldn’t want to. Prostitution is not an easy job but it can be very rewarding, both financially and emotionally, if you do it correctly and safely”.
Writing Naked Truth has a lot to do with paying respect to the icons from the heady days of the 50s and 60s, those that are now seniors in the community all who hold some amazing stories – their “treasured keepsakes”. People who have truly paved the way for the industry – people like Flora Mackenzie and Rayton Hastie, who were imprisoned for running ‘places of ill repute’. Rachel points out that, as New Zealand is the only country to decriminalise the industry as a whole, many in the adult entertainment and sex industry are both business savvy, and highly qualified. They are also in the industry 100 per cent by choice.
“Most of us in this industry have a tattoo or more – I personally have 11,” proclaims Rachel. She remembers her favourite uncle being 70 per cent covered, with ink on his face in the form of a tiny star near his eye. A big burly truck driver, she “utterly adored” him.
Her introduction to tattoos wasn’t much different to everyone else. “I was a 70s baby so was raised around weekend BBQs and my parents hanging out with their group of friends while us kids played, and I always ensured that I would pour this particular uncle his beer and take him whatever he needed, like snacks, and he would say “Okay Rachel, go on,” and I would race inside and grab my felt tips, a bowl of soapy water and a tea towel and I would sit on the floor, by his feet, colouring in his tattoos as he only had outline not colour. I knew every tattoo on his hairy legs intimately – my favourites were an Indian Cherokee with full headdress and an eagle. They were that green ink from yesteryear, nothing like the inks you get these days that are rich black and lovely. He would sit there, relaxed in the sun for hours, while I would colour in happily. He was so very patient and kind, and by the end of it I had his shirt off colouring in his back piece while he was hunched over trying to sup his beer – then I would wash it all off and start again. By this time he was so pissed he didn’t care.
All the other kids would come up and want to join in and he would say, “No, sorry kids, these are only for Rachel as she appreciates them, you don’t”. I used to stand there by his side like a guard dog, guarding his skin as God forbid any other kid touched my artwork! I used to say “I am going to be covered in tats to like you one day, uncle” and he would pat my head and say, “Just make sure the tattooist knows what they are doing as ink may be cheap but skin is expensive, and once there is a mistake, it can’t just be washed off, so choose carefully – very wise words.”
Rachel got her first tattoo while underage. While doing street work she also worked in a “certain tattoo parlour”, making the tattooists cups of coffee and sweeping the floors to stay out of the cold. One day the owner said: “Right, we’re sick of you asking. Get your ass over here onto this chair before I change my mind.” She jumped at the chance.
Since that day she says that “the feeling of tattooing is addictive to me, and what a moment – it was a duck hatching out an egg, as my mother used to say to people when they used to frown at me. “My daughter isn’t a good egg, nor is she a bad egg, she just hatched wrong, and as my family are British they called me ‘Duck’ most of the time, so I chose that as my first tat as my family represent everything that I am. I now have a wild boar’s head over the top it. I had that done about 15 years ago as the ink had gone green, as it was three decades old. Now I appreciate that old colour, as it shows I am still here, surviving, making my mark on the earth.”
A chapter of Rachel’s book is devoted to Grant Abbott, long time tattooist and ex-brothel owner. Over the years he tattooed many strippers and sex workers. Also, as a piercer, he is totally comfortable with the female form. Grant never just slaps a tattoo on; he sits with the client, discusses what they require and respects that it is a treasured keepsake, so does it to perfection.
Extract from Naked Truth by Rachel Francis
SEARCHING FOR A BROTHEL TO BUY in Rotorua in 2002, I got in touch with Grant regarding a club that he had on the market. Brutally honest and forthright, he made it crystal clear he wanted out and now, so a time was arranged for my husband and I to meet him and look around the Zodiac Club.
I was feeling quite conscious of the fact that my husband and I were Poms and that I in particular might stand out in this strong Maori community with my red hair, green eyes and heavily tattooed body. I worried that we might not be welcomed into the community.
Walking up the stairs to the Zodiac I was aware of pungent fumes and wondered how the hell anyone could feel like having sex in a place that stunk like rotten eggs. As the brothel was protected by a bulletproof-glass window and a special steel door that came from a bank vault, I got the impression that the previous owners were somewhat serious about personal protection.
Having worked in and run many high-class establishments I am acutely aware of brothel etiquette. The manageress or Madam is the first representation of the club and would usually come to the window to greet any visitors. This time, however, I was somewhat surprised to find the manageress making no effort to look professional or efficient. Remaining seated at her desk, she said that she would get Grant for us. I thanked her. Expecting her to go and politely retrieve him, I had to roar with laughter when, chewing gum, she leant back in her chair and screamed at the top of her voice, ‘Hey Grant, they’re here.’
The door opened and there in front of me stood my evil twin! Red-haired, heavily tattooed and a confident swagger to boot, he simply looked at me and rolled his eyes skyward – nothing more had to be said!
Negotiating the price of the club, Grant and I were like two prize fighters. He wanted the best price and I wanted the cheapest – and neither of us was prepared to back down. After a lot of swearing, me telling him what was wrong with the club and him telling me what was right, we settled on an amount that we both felt was reasonable.
During my career I have worked for many male brothel owners and hustled in strip bars with the best of them. Over the years I have encountered many slippery little fuckers who have no qualms about running you ragged in order to make their cash. Grant wasn’t like that, although he made no bones about the fact that he was in it for the money. His aims were to secure a deposit for a house for his family and to fund an expansion of his tattoo parlour.
Grant stood for no nonsense, and any lady working the night shift in Rotorua soon came to appreciate his approach as the patronage was sometimes questionable. Tourists on holiday drink like it’s the coming of the dry season and some can then become aggressive in the bar or in the bedroom. It helps if the club has firm rules about what constitutes acceptable behaviour and what will not be tolerated. Grant was always on top of this.
Grant had to go through a lot of red tape to get his club licensed and opened. He met with his share of opposition, but with determination he was successful in achieving his goal, which was to open an establishment that catered for tourists and locals, as well as giving the local ladies a safe place to work.
At the same time as running the club, Grant ran a successful tattoo parlour in Rotorua. If there is one thing Grant isn’t, it’s lazy. Rather, he is driven and focused, which has allowed him to earn an internationally respected reputation – he has won many awards and takes the art of tattooing seriously. He has a distinctive tattooing style that inspires men and women from all over the world to seek him out. Many ladies who had been inked by Grant would have men in the strip club wanting to turn on the lights halfway through a show to admire his work!
After selling up and moving to Christchurch, Grant set up a tattoo parlour named Planet Tattoo in Hornby. He is doing very well for himself down there. The earthquakes haven’t made a dent in Grant’s success either. After all, he handled Rotorua at 3am – everything else would pale in comparison!
The ladies who have worked alongside Grant have described him as firm but fair. He took no bullshit and he always kept them safe. What more could you want from a boss, surely?
The middle child of a typical Kiwi family in Taupo, Grant, not really knowing what he wanted to do with his life, set off for Australia with a mate after leaving school. As you do. He had a go at a whole bunch of things, mostly in the heavy-duty macho worlds of truck driving, labouring and timber mills. One exception, and rather left field to the aforementioned, was a stint in the tattooing arena. Despite diversions into the sex industry, tattooing was to become his labour of love. Inking is his anchor when life gets tough – it centres and grounds him and this shows in his artwork.
After an 18-year spell overseas and with an assortment of experience behind him, Grant finally returned to the shores of New Zealand. Little did he know how his working life was going to pan out. Never having frequented brothels in his formative years, Grant ironically found himself exploring the possibility of buying into the sex industry. For Grant, entering the industry was a means to an end. The goal was to make the necessary money to buy a bigger tattoo shop.
‘Basically it came about because I was an entrepreneur. That was probably the main thing. It was either invest in a home or invest in another business and probably come out with a bigger home. It seems pretty obvious to me. It was never, ever, anything other than a business scheme’.
So he ran the Zodiac Club (its name was simply drawn out of a hat and he thought it sounded good), un-decriminalised, for three years after starting off on a shoestring budget and with little backing.
‘That was my foundation. We basically came out with $100,000 – that is what we sold it [the brothel] for – and we were able to invest it into a home, which brought us a little bit further down that ownership line. That is all it was. It was just a business plan, which actually worked. We started it with $20,000 and three years later we had $100,000.’
Even though Grant’s involvement in the scene was purely from a business point-of-view, success was always on the cards for this redheaded businessman. The Zodiac Club gave rise to Zodiac Inc, the tattoo business which has continued to sustain Grant after the volatility of the sex industry, and while he’s made this his life’s work, he also, with no experience, made the brothel and strip-club businesses he was involved with work for him, too.
It’s a known fact that achievements of this nature happen only for a special type of person and it was Grant’s ‘can do’ and flexible attitude that contributed to his success. Being a liberal sort of guy meant he had no stigma attached to going into this line of work.
‘I would never have a negative attitude towards that industry. It was never part of my life – we didn’t have brothels in Taupo when I was growing up,’ he says with a laugh. ‘[But] it wasn’t something I’d been sheltered from, no. I’d had contact with working girls my whole life as friends or acquaintances or whatever.’
Not only had he had a sneak preview into the entertainment world because of the people he knew in his private life, but also because of his professional world as a tattooist. For Grant, tattooing and the sex industry go hand in hand: so many sex workers have body art, so he met people from the sex industry in a number of ways.
And what was it about Rotorua that appealed as the location for setting up the Zodiac Club? Partly, it was the right place at the right time: a site became available close to where he was already living and working in a tattoo parlour. The other bonus was Rotorua’s identity as a tourist town: a constant influx of visitors would mean a steady stream of new business. Grant says they certainly came and went with regularity. This kind of transience had another benefit to the business: it meant the girls couldn’t steal the client base and set up privately.
Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly for such a private kind of guy, Grant ran his club with utter discretion – not only in regard to the workers in his club, but with regard to his family too. His family didn’t know anything about it, not because he was ashamed, but because he wanted to keep things separate.
Both Grant’s children were raised in the brothel for three years, being born before he took it on. But because his daughter was only one year old when they went there and his son a baby, the beauty of it was that they really weren’t aware of any of it. It was just where they lived.
Another upside for his family was that Grant’s children had a ‘hands on’ father, a rare thing for a business owner. After all, he lived on-site. For him, personally, the rewards were large, too – there was no commute!
The long hours can take their toll on anyone running a brothel (I know this from personal experience), but Grant was a sharp operator who attracted loyal, trustworthy staff that could be relied on to take care of some of the managerial duties and, therefore, some of the strain. Life ran smoothly, he says, with staff members and managers running the show, with the back-up of Grant always on the premises to oversee any problems.
If that all sounds a little bit easy, of course it wasn’t. This is the sex industry, after all, with a tendency to chew people up and spit them out. Grant agrees that this industry isn’t for the faint-hearted: “It’s not a walk in the park. It’s a major head-fuck for anybody.” He never had any serious issues but he put that down to purposely fronting his business with women and having good working relationships with most of them, claiming, ‘They were really, really, really loyal in that way.’
Grant ran both a brothel and a strip club and found that there was a totally different mentality between sex workers and strippers, with the latter being easier to get along with. How did he get around that? “l treated everyone as equally as I could.”
I knew Grant and his business well and I always liked the way he did everything by the book. It was his total detachment, in a way, from what the business was about that meant he could run it so successfully. He believes his business approach allowed him to receive back-up from the council – something that gave him complete legitimacy. Everything was operated above board, with a merchant bank number and taxes paid, etc. In addition, and this certainly isn’t always the case, he had another agreeable relationship – with the boys in blue.
Just as he formed a certain camaraderie with the girls who worked for him, Grant also ran his business with a more modern approach than the old-style methods that some brothels are still operating under.
‘There are some old-school brothel owners still out there,’ he says, ‘and they run a really, really hard regime. Yes, that does work in a high volume area like Auckland, but really, you’ve got to gain the respect from the girls.
‘I have no hidden agendas or passion to frequent working girls. We went for a visit one year in town with a friend who came down here [to Christchurch] to see us. Instead of going to see the cathedral, she wanted to go to a strip club. It doesn’t hold any fascination for me.’
Detached he might sound (well, he is!), but Grant still feels the personal stuff deeply, just like the rest of us. Perhaps one of the biggest blows that occurred to him during his time in the sex industry was the break-up of his marriage. He was less than impressed when, while his marriage was breaking up and he was living on his own, he was hunted down by a couple of the girls. His motto? In short, don’t screw the crew.
‘It was pathetic. It was like if they fuck you they could have the power, the inside. It was almost knee-jerk. It was pitiful. Go away, leave me alone.
‘You just can’t go with the girls. You go and fuck the girls and it gets around the club and before you know it you’re the dirtiest bastard in town and you can’t operate any more.’
Like all of us who’ve run a brothel and/or a strip club, there’s always the theft issue, and Grant wasn’t spared this, either. Anywhere where there’s lots of cash is going to attract chancers, desperate girls, mostly, who are going to try it on. And it’s not just the cash that walks, either.
‘I caught a couple. It was mainly one or two people but it definitely went on,’ with all manner of items disappearing, from towels, soaps, light bulbs and even toilet paper.
Grant’s advice for anyone thinking about going into the industry? ‘Good luck.’ He’s heard of people wanting to get into the business and says that, ‘Most are wankers who want to have a brothel because they want to own five to ten girls.
‘They’re just jerk-offs and you pick them straight away because they want to go and own a whorehouse, not because they’re interested in a business. They will fuck all the girls and they do it really just so that they can say to their mates: I own a whorehouse.’
Now out of the industry, when asked if he’d ever step back into it, Grant pauses for a second before saying that if he did he’d only entertain a ‘tailored set-up rather than this mass open-door shit’.
Fair enough. With the highs and lows of the sex industry behind him, the older and more sedate Grant has got wiser. He’s finally living his dream and tattooing at his own Christchurch studio. While he’s happy to see out the rest of his life with needle and ink in hand, he still aims for bigger and better in everything he does.
Grant’s opinion is often black and white, but the path he has taken has certainly been colourful – just like his artwork. I’m sure it will continue to be so.
Reprinted with permission from Naked Truth by Rachel Francis published by Penguin NZ, RRP $35. Copyright © Rachel Francis, 2012
Words by: Vanessa Morgan
Author: Rachel Francis