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August 15, 2008

What's a Nice Girl Like Brooke Doing at the Bunny Ranch?

The long, strange journey of Brooke Taylor, the star of HBO's Cathouse.

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Brook Taylor had all the makings of the kind of woman that does the Midwest proud. At age 12, attentive to the teachings of her church's Sunday school, she atoned for prank-ordering pizza by mowing the lawn to repay her debt. Three years later, to avoid being a burden on her working-class parents, she took her first waged job, as a busgirl at Whitie's Ice Cream Parlor. At United Township High School, Brooke played French horn in the band, twirled flags in the color guard, and marched on the rifle and saber line. She was pretty in a way that whispered instead of screamed, with curves more gentle than ruthless. Even as a series of traumatic events bore into her family — her father lost four fingers in a forklift accident; her teenage brother got a girlfriend pregnant; her mother came down with rheumatoid arthritis — Brooke's grades remained above average, and her virginity intact. At 22, she became the first in her immediate family to graduate from college. But by 26, Brooke was America's most famous hooker.

Viewed one way, Brooke's journey is an archetypal American-dream story — one that happens to be set in an era of post-Madonna feminism. Viewed another, Brooke's trip is streaming video of the changing stuff of that dream. Time was, being first in your family to graduate from college gave you bragging rights straight through retirement. But in these days of lame pensions, predatory education loans, and entertainment genres devoted to mocking white-collar life, respectability is for losers. Nine-to-five is tantamount to being buried alive. Brooke isn't the only young woman in America who'd rather be dead than ordinary.

I met Brooke the way I meet many of the extraordinary people in my life — I was reporting a story, in this case about a murder. When my killer floated a 'roid-rage defense, I hightailed it to the Moonlite BunnyRanch, a whorehouse he'd frequented, to find out if he'd suffered steroids' telltale side effect: limpness. No one would tell me.

Even though I'd grown up in Nevada, the only state with legal brothels, I had never been inside one and had never met a hooker. I assumed they were all mentally ill, dentally challenged women from pitiful backgrounds who spent their days high on dirty-needle drugs and their nights screwing filthy fat men who were also missing teeth.

Brooke blew my mind. First, the cherubic blonde had a smile worthy of milk and veneer commercials. Second, she was reading Brian Tracy's The Psychology of Selling. Six months into her tenure at the BunnyRanch, she was giddy over her entrepreneurial opportunity. The "hard" part, Brooke explained, was negotiating fees — especially with businessmen. Yet through diligent study and huge confidence in her product (always offering oral, as well as a butt plug to "guys who need that visual" but don't want to pay for anal, and, of course, doing other women, because that is "every guy's fantasy"), Brooke felt she was becoming a truly gifted saleswoman. Her price point had already risen from $200 — $800 to as much as $100,000, which she charged once for a five-day party.

Brooke's earliest memories are of adoring her kind but remote father, Bernie, a Moline, IL, propane-gas deliveryman; thinking her older brother was a dullard; and wishing her mom, Deb, didn't have to pull such long hours at a series of retail jobs. While many of us (OK, I) found growing up a series of shocking realizations that we were not God's gift to humanity, Brooke always felt herself to be entirely unexceptional.

"I was just like everyone else," she says. The only thing Brooke grew up absolutely certain about was that she would go to college.

"I'll believe it when I see it," her mother said.

Securing a partial music scholarship and financial aid to Western Illinois University, Brooke "got the hell out" of Moline three months after graduating from high school. To keep her scholarship, Brooke kept up with the French horn, which she loved. Maybe because of her family traumas, she was attracted to psychology courses. She wound up a music-therapy major, then "really enjoyed" a special-education practicum. She graduated with an A-minus average.

In 2003, Brooke took a job with a company that aids adults with developmental disabilities. She worked hard and earned three promotions in one year. Brooke liked the work, but was frustrated by a paycheck so meager — $1200 per month — that she still lived with her parents, and by the fact that, at age 24, she had climbed as high as she could in her chosen field.

Brooke considered graduate school, but says she dismissed it because it was expensive and her bachelor's degree hadn't yielded much financially. Also, she really didn't have any burning desire to become a doctor or engineer or accountant or teacher or any other profession she could think of. Whiling away her downtime, she liked watching documentary-style TV, and HBO's Cathouse was among her favorite shows.

Seeing lingerie-clad women lining up to be chosen like sampler chocolates by men wearing khaki Bermudas and sweat socks; then pandering to a crunchy-haired mom arranging for her 24-year-old son to lose his virginity; then deflowering said son in a hundred decibels of artful ecstasy; then screwing the khaki-and-sweat-sock contingent in contortions that would challenge the corps of Cirque du Soleil, Brooke had two thoughts: 1) "Wow, those girls are normal!" and 2) "I could do that job!"

How did Brooke get here? For starters, she's burdened with the bête noire of many a good woman: terrible taste in men. Which is weird, because as far as I can tell, Brooke doesn't have the Psych 101 reason for poor romantic taste. Her dad is a sweetie.

Brooke — who'd had fewer than 10 lovers before becoming a hooker — lost her virginity undramatically at age 19 to an allegedly nice guy she had been dating for two weeks. Two years later, she got engaged to a physical therapist named Ron, who seemed nice because he took in foster kids.

But then Ron did weird things, like insisting on picking out Brooke's wedding dress, and shoving her to the ground once after an argument. Brooke put up with it until her dad found out. Bernie screamed at Ron, "I would take a bullet for this girl — would you?!"

"I mean, to hear my dad say that . . ." Brooke says. She broke up with Ron.

Next was Cisco, a fellow college student turned Army soldier, whom she dated for three years — until she went to visit him near his base and he used a pillow as a divider in their bed, then dumped her at a hotel (without paying) the next day. Apparently, Cisco was seeing someone else the whole time.

Eventually, Brooke said to herself, "Never again will I ever let anyone disrespect me. Never again will I allow myself to become unempowered in that position." She Googled the BunnyRanch the next day.

Brooke, like all potential employees, was asked to submit photos. She sent in some topless JPEGs of herself and soon began corresponding with the brothel's owner, Dennis "Big Daddy" Hof, 61, physically and spiritually the union of Bill Clinton and Tony Soprano.

Within a month of meeting Brooke online, Hof broke his self-imposed rule of "never dating civilians" (nonhookers) and invited her to the 2005 Billboard Awards. Hof, who calls Brooke "a bright, articulate, attractive, nasty girl, and a very good dick-sucker," eventually taught her how to have 20 or 30 orgasms a day.

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