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.

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.

Back in Moline, in the Barbie aisle of the Toys "R" Us, while looking for a gift for her niece, Brooke said, "Mom, I have something to tell you."

"You're pregnant?!" Deb said, terrified.

"No," Brooke said, "but in five minutes you're going to wish I were."

Deb, clean-scrubbed with extremely weary blue eyes, describes her reaction to her daughter's announcement that she was becoming a whore as a "split-second decision" based on the following Gladwellian blink: Brooke was 24 years old, and Deb "could not exactly ground her." Getting mad at Brooke's brother when he impregnated his girlfriend had not made that situation any better. "But mostly," Deb says, "I knew that Brooke had made up her mind, and there was nothing I could do to stop her." So Deb told her daughter, "I support you 100 percent."

They decided not to tell Brooke's dad until some future "good" time.

It never came. Within a month, Bernie found an envelope addressed to Deb in Brooke's handwriting. The return address was "Brooke Taylor, Moonlite BunnyRanch." Taylor is not the family's real surname. Bernie wondered for a moment why his daughter had changed her last name. Then he just knew. He ran inside to his computer. On the BunnyRanch site, he saw topless photos of his only daughter.

Bernie didn't speak to Brooke for three weeks.

Then one day Brooke called her dad and said, "Will you just let me answer your questions and your misconceptions, and explain to you what it's like, so at least you know what you're hating?"

Bernie thought Brooke was sleeping with hundreds of men a day. Brooke assured him it was only up to a dozen a week. She further explained that she's not "just a prostitute." Because, Brooke told him, "sometimes I am paid for other things." For instance, Brooke has one customer who drives all the way from San Francisco to massage her. "We all have something," Brooke continued. "This is my thing that I've chosen for myself. And as long as you love me, you don't have to understand it."

Bernie does not understand. He attends a men's group at his evangelical Christian church every week for support. He reads and rereads the parable of the prodigal son, the New Testament story in which a young man leaves home for a distant country, where he "waste[s] his substance with riotous living." When the son gives up his wanton ways, the father doesn't just let him return home — he rushes to embrace his child.

The problem, for Bernie anyway, is that now, two-and-a-half years into her BunnyRanch tenure, Brooke says she still really enjoys being a hooker.

Among Brooke's customers is a blond, skinny guy who picked Brooke straightaway out of a lineup. But once in her room, he began visibly shaking. Brooke sized him up as the submissive type. "I have rules," Brooke declared. She marched him out to a trampoline and ordered him to bounce on it. Buck naked. He got "super hard." Now he's a regular. Now he calls himself "Trampoline Man."

Another regular likes to get walked on his dick leash. Brooke was positively elated to find a leash with a Velcro "collar," as opposed to a buckle that would eventually bite into his foreskin.

Yet another customer likes Brooke to play ringtoss with little girls' jelly bracelets on his penis. Brooke informs me that the desire to sexualize child-type games with kid paraphernalia is a hallmark of pedophilia. "But isn't it better for sexual predators to be here at the BunnyRanch than in school yards?" she asks.

Hof thinks that because Brooke is no longer on the edge of poverty, she is having motivation problems. He wishes Brooke would "get in and really knuckle down, and get to that million-dollar number [so she] can do whatever she wants to do" when she is finished being at the Ranch. Hof is the first to acknowledge that prostitution is not the kind of job most people want to do forever, so hookers need "exit strategies."

Brooke, who saves and invests 60 percent of her earnings, would like to get to the million-dollar number, too. Not because she wants to live a life of leisure, but because her mom's arthritis is getting worse, and both her parents have lousy pensions. Still, Brooke is not as inspired by Hof's "highest booker" giveaways (cruises, jewelry, mall certificates) as many other women who work there are.

But it's not as if she's lazy. Brooke has written form letters to answer the questions asked in the more than 100 e-mails she receives every day through the Ranch's website, and has hired a high-school friend to cut and paste them into "personal" responses. That way, she can devote her real attention to the guys who are most likely to turn into actual customers. Through volume discounting (three hours for the price of two), Brooke is also working on building up her regular/repeat clientele. Her hope is to move to an all-appointment business, which has a higher price point than walk-in trade.

Truth be told, though, Brooke isn't as crazy about life at the BunnyRanch as she used to be. She says it's not the sex that bothers her. Brooke is genuinely proud to be part of an industry in which all of God's men — fat, skinny, ugly, poor, handicapped, even those burdened by criminal fantasies — have a safe place to enjoy a great erotic time. Maybe because of her maimed father, and maybe because of her work with the disabled, Brooke might be the least bigoted person I've ever met. What she says is slowly driving her insane about the BunnyRanch is "all the drama" — living in a de facto sorority with women who are constantly competing with each other for business, many of whom are having sex with the boss, who is Brooke's boyfriend, and regarding whom the whole place has more than a touch of Stockholm syndrome.

But this is her life. She is now pretty much the star of HBO's Cathouse. She makes a healthy salary. She works fewer days a year than Celine Dion. She lives like a rock star. She's in love with a man she calls Daddy.

I guess it would all be fine if Brooke were going to become Queen of England, or even the next Pamela Anderson. But as Eva Perón asks in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, "Where do we go from here?"

Tears stand in Bernie's round eyes as he searches the corners of Moline's Applebee's for a plausible post-hooker future for Brooke. He can't imagine her being satisfied with any kind of "normal job after doing such exciting stuff."

Deb adds that Brooke really can't come back to Illinois. This being the Midwest, no one actually ever says anything about Brooke being a hooker, but around town Deb often gets "the look," which she performs for me. It is the exact expression of the farmer couple in Grant Wood's painting American Gothic.

"Who would be Brooke's friends?" Deb asks. "Who would be her boyfriend?"

Back in her bedroom at the BunnyRanch, Brooke dusts her dildo collection. She keeps her special glass ones in a cloth pouch so they don't get cracked. She tells me how they are particularly "lovely" toys because you can heat and cool them, but you have to be very careful because glass doesn't give like silicone or rubber.

I ask Brooke where she wants to be in five years.

Holding a neon pink dildo, she laughs and says, "Not here." Later, on the patio in the noonday desert sun, we are still contemplating her future. Big Daddy tells me that Tyra Banks said Brooke could be a model.

Brooke seems to have watched enough America's Next Top Model to know that at 27, she's already too old.

But maybe, well, she would like to be on regular — "not porn" — television. Maybe she could be a sexpert for the E! channel, or have a talk show.

We are brainstorming people who could hook her up with an agent when an extremely cute guy (a Jake Gyllenhaal look-alike, I swear) saunters up in Levi's 501s. Brooke asks if he'd like to meet the ladies. He would, he says, and while she rings the bell, he and I talk about how the Nevada desert really looks like the bottom of an ancient lake bed, which it is. The hookers line up and say their names, and he picks Brooke. They go to her room for 45 minutes; then he comes out and waves good-bye to me.

Ten minutes later, Brooke appears in a fresh bra-and-panties set — teal with yellow lace. I want to get back to planning her future, but — of all things — an ice-cream truck rumbles down the Ranch's driveway. Brooke jumps up. In her Lucite stilettos, she picks her way to the window. She orders a Firecracker Popsicle and heads down a road that leads to an old Pony Express stop; beyond it, the highway connects to Reno, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Licking her pop, Brooke looks like a child — possibly a dangerously lost one. The landscape surrounding her is harsh, and civilization is far off. Brooke turns for a moment and does something obscene-looking with her Popsicle. She laughs, turns back around. Damn, I think, only one thing is for sure in this story — Brooke is no longer like everyone else.

Amanda Robb is a contributing writer to O, The Oprah Magazine. She's currently working on a book about the sexual abstinence movement.