Candye Kane is a marvelous blues singer whose recordings and stage shows unapologetically celebrate the sexuality of many people marginalized by mainstream culture -- most notably large women, bisexuals, and sex workers. Candye, who is herself both large and bisexual, supported herself financially while her music career was getting off the ground by modeling nude for porn magazines, stripping, making porn videos, and doing phone sex. Never ashamed or embarrassed about her sexual desires or her sex work, she would proudly show her music industry friends the latest issue of Juggs or Hefty Mamas that featured her photos, or talk proudly about her latest video. Her refusal to "tone down" her sexuality cost her her first big record contract and her relationship with her first major agent. Stunned and bereft, but never one to hide her sexual core, Candye shifted her music from country to blues, where she found a musical home and a musical tradition that allowed her to be her full sexual self and be successful at the same time.
She has played with such blues greats as B. B. King, Etta James, Albert Collins and Dr. John. Her recordings include "The Toughest Girl Alive," "Any Woman's Blues," "Swango," "Diva La Grande," and her latest release, "Whole Lotta Love." Her songs include such sexy, sexual favorites as "Two Hundred Pounds of Fun," "I'm in Love with a Girl," "Let's Commit Adultery," "Seven Men a Week," "Fit, Fat and Fine," "You Need A Great Big Woman," "Let's Put the X Back in Xmas," and "All You Can Eat (and You Can Eat It All Night Long)." Her shows, which have been described as "a revival meeting in the parking lot of a porn store," are opportunities for sexual outlaws of all kinds to come together, dance, and celebrate sexual existence in all its forms.
I recently had an opportunity to interview Candye about the sexual themes in her music and her sex work background.
DS: I know that before you became a singer, you had done stripping and modeling and so on. Was there anything positive you took away from that experience that affected your decision to become a professional singer?
CK: Being on the covers of magazines like Hefty Mamas and Whoppers was the first time ever I felt like, hey, maybe my big body's okay, maybe there are people who think my big body is attractive. Up until that time, I thought that my career in music was hopeless because I would never be thin. That was an extremely powerful experience for a chubby teenage mom, not only from a self-image standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint.
DS: Did your work in the sex industry directly inspire you to pursue a music career?
CK: I've wanted to be a singer all my life. But the sex industry directly encouraged my transition into music. There was one time in particular when I picked up my guitar at Market Street Cinema [a San Francisco strip club] and sang to the audience while I was talking to them. The audience was really into it. Of course the management came over the loudspeaker like the voice of God and said, "Put down the guitar and show us your g-string." It became very clear that the management was not supportive of strippers expressing themselves in creative ways. That was a real eye-opener, and the last time I ever stripped on-stage.
DS: You mentioned that you have just done a vigil for a murdered sex worker in San Diego.
CK: Yes, I just did a vigil Wednesday night [12/17/03]. It was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I lost a friend here in San Diego who was a great person -- Robert Gibson (we called him Tiny), a transgendered performer who was turning tricks on the side. He was stabbed 25 times by a guy named Sean Wilson who stabbed him to death when he found out Tiny was a man. He couldn't handle that he had just had sex with a man, so he killed Tiny. It was a horrible, horrible loss. So when I heard that internationally many of my sex worker friends were organizing memorials for the Green River women [in Seattle] and other women who had been killed in the line of sex work, it really struck a chord with me. I was happy I was not on tour and able to organize this vigil. The vigil was really wonderful. It was very emotional.
DS: You mentioned earlier that the vigil got coverage in mainstream media.
CK: Yeah, they put me on the news. It's funny, though -- the way they described me in the news just goes to show how ignorant the mainstream media is about sex work. I told the newsman that I had been a sex worker twenty years ago, and that I had been in many situations where I felt my safety was compromised, and that because of that I felt strongly for these women who had been brutalized and murdered -- because it could have been me. So the newsman went on the news and said "Candye Kane hasn't turned a trick in twenty years, but tonight in Balboa Park she held this vigil blah, blah, blah." Well, I never said that I had turned a trick, nor that I'd been a streetwalker. I said I'd been a sex worker, but if you say you're a sex worker, everyone in mainstream media assumes you're a streetwalker. That shows how much people need to be educated about this issue. I'm not going to sit here and give all the definitions of what sex work can be, but my dad was a layout artist years ago for Adam's Film World, which is a porn magazine, and I think my dad qualifies as a sex worker. I think anyone who has worked with sex, or is an educator, or a sex therapist, or any other kind of sex advocate, is a sex worker -- including strippers and prostitutes. We're all in this together.
DS: Are you nervous about publicly supporting sex workers the way you do? Has your connection to sex work affected your music career?
CK: It's been a double-edged sword. Being a sex worker and being vocal about my background has forged an audience for me that is very wonderful -- kind of a disenfranchised audience, an audience that appreciates my candor and honesty on the subject of sex work, people who understand that it takes a certain amount of courage to speak out about this issue because people are so prejudiced about sex work and stereotype sex workers. But I'm not just vocal about my sex work background. I'm also vocal about sizeism and how that's impacted my life. So big women and large-size people, or any women who have body issues, also come out to my shows and appreciate that level of honesty.
But being open about sex work has impacted my career in negative ways too. I get to play blues festivals in cities that tend to be progressive -- I've played the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, and Monterey. I'm very popular there and have a great following. But I still have to fight to be acknowledged by the mainstream blues community, and I wonder if one of the reasons I'm not more acknowledged by them is because I'm vocal about sex work. Of course it could be because I'm vocal about being a bisexual. Or it could be because I make a point of doing songs about big women, like "Fit, Fat and Fine" or "You Need A Great Big Woman." It could be for a variety of reasons.
At festivals or street fairs where there are children, people are sometimes reluctant to hire me. Or if they do, they do it with a caveat. We want you to play the Carlsbad Jazz Series, but we don't want you to be controversial. When somebody says to me, "Don't be controversial," it's hard for me to understand exactly what that means. My sensibilities are from the Candye Kane perspective, and Candye Kane was a teenage gang banger who got pregnant young, a girl who wanted to be a singer her whole life and became a sex worker and a porn star, and then became a punk rock anarchist and used sex work to further her musical career. I've been topless in public and play the piano with my boobs, so it's not a big deal for me to do things that other people may think are outrageous.
So when I'm asked to play a festival with kids and tone it down and not be controversial, I agree to do that, but then sometimes I get on stage and I see 300 or 500 people dancing and having a great time. I spot some teenage kids, I spot some little kids, and I think, you know, these people would benefit from hearing my story. There are people here who have dreams themselves. Maybe their dream is to ride a Harley or open a flower shop. Maybe their dream is to be a sex worker too, or to be a singer. So I feel compelled to tell my story. I was a porn star. I did appear on the cover of Floppers. I did use that money to subsidize my career. And when I got to the record companies, the record guys all said the same thing -- renounce your past, lose weight, be a born-again Christian, and if you blow me we'll give you a record deal. So then I launch into a song I do called "Love 'Em and Forgive 'Em." It's all about keeping your dream and not listening to people. "You can't change their minds, or make them wise, all the changes we do, love em and forgive em and let your light shine through." Those are the words to the song.
So it's a song that's extremely powerful and I've had so many people come up after the show and thank me for doing the song and thank me for telling my story because it makes them feel powerful. But at festivals like that you're always going to have one or two crotchety people who complain that you were offensive. At this particular festival, the Carlsbad Jazz Series, I had a lady say that she wasn't going to allow me to go back on stage after my break because I was offensive, because I said "blow me" on stage. It's really astounding to me. It's 2003, where kids are watching television all the time and seeing violence on America's Most Wanted and people getting their heads blown off on every other channel, and people on MTV like Britney Spears and Christina Agulera barely dressed and making sexual overtures constantly in every song, and seeing Gap ads where little kids are exploited and turned into sex objects. With all that going on, how is me playing piano with my breasts and saying "blow me" in the context of a story offensive?
DS: Didn't you lose your first big record contract over the issue of whether you would tone down your sexuality?
CK: That's what that whole song is about. I was a country singer in the beginning of my career and, in 1986, I signed a big record deal with CBS/Epic. I had a manager, Sherman Halsey, who really felt strongly about me covering up my past. He gave me lectures over lunch that I needed to lose weight and not be so controversial -- all of those lines that I use in "Love 'Em and Forgive 'Em" were lines directly from Sherman. Don't say the F word on stage. Don't let people know that you're smoking pot. Don't talk about sex work. Don't talk about your past -- in fact say you're ashamed of your past, that you just did it to survive as a teenage mom and that it's behind you now, that you're a serious vocalist and you don't want to discuss it any more.
I think his approach was a valid one. Perhaps if I'd done it his way and done all the things he said I would be a big country star by now. But there was something dishonest about it and I wasn't committed to doing it, even though I paid him lip service and said I would. I just thought I could continue to keep my sex work life and my musical life separate, which is what I'd always done. Unfortunately for me, Sherman was really watching me. The day I was supposed to sign a $150,000 deal with CBS/Epic, Sherman took me aside and said, "Look, you haven't done anything I've said. You haven't lost any weight. You're on the cover of Gent this month. You're cussing like a truck driver. We're going into this big meeting and I've completely sold you as something you're not. I can't in good conscience follow through with this meeting when you haven't done any of the things I've asked you to do. Because you haven't changed, I'm calling off the meeting." I was hysterical, of course, and crying, and begging him to go through with the meeting, that once we signed the contract he could drop me I could find someone else. But he refused and so I lost my big record deal with CBS/Epic because I wasn't willing to lie about my background and cover up who I was.
That moment was real tragedy for me. I was devastated. I thought I would give up singing completely and never go back. I didn't have anywhere to turn. I didn't know a lot of other sex workers. I didn't have friends who were both musicians and sex workers. I had a solid group of punk rock musicians in LA who were my friends -- the guys from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and The Blasters, and Los Lobos. At that time in LA, the early 80s, you could see punk rock bands and Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakum, everybody on one stage. Because I was a sex worker, I was considered a punk rock anarchist, doing it my own way. Everyone said, "Candye be yourself. Be honest." Dwight Yoakum said to me, "Candye, don't hide who you are. That's what makes you unique, what makes you great."
It took a lot for me to get back on my feet after that experience. I didn't want to be a singer any more. But then I discovered blues, and blues changed my life. In blues I discovered a place where I could be myself, where I could be big and brassy and flamboyant and bisexual -- where there was a long history of women just like me. That was extremely vindicating.
DS: Is that when you began putting more directly sexual material into your music?
CK: Well, yes, I saw that it could be done. If you go back and start listening to the old blues songs, there are so many that are laced with sexual innuendo. Memphis Minnie's song, "Won't You Be My Chauffeur," has nothing to do with driving a car. "Won't you be my chauffeur, I want you to drive me, I want you to drive me downtown." She's not talking about driving, she's talking about something else. There were a lot of songs like, "Press My Buttons" and "Give My Bell a Ring," "Put that Hot Dog in My Bun," the Bessie Smith song "I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl." All of those songs were sexual innuendo songs.
I started reading about these blues women. Memphis Minnie wrote all kinds of songs about street walkers and prostitution. "Street Walking Blues." "Hustling Blues." In her autobiography it says that she was turning tricks on the side, between her shows. It was rumored that Bessie Smith would sing downstairs in the foyer of the brothels while the men were drinking their whiskey and selecting their women, and that she would go upstairs and turn a trick now and then herself. There were plenty of women in the blues who were gay or bisexual, like Big Momma Thornton and Alberta Hunter. Billie Holiday was rumored to be bisexual and have affairs with women.
All of a sudden I found this place in blues where women were large-sized, where they were singing about sexual experiences, where they were bisexual, and it was ok. And I said, wait a minute, I fit perfectly into this group. So it was natural to take the experience and the background that I had from being a sex worker and put it into my music. And it was so freeing and liberating to be able to do that. All of a sudden, I didn't have to hide who I was. I could freely sing about it. I also started covering the sexy songs of some of those early blues women. I named the first recording I made "Burlesque Swing," and that became a description of my music because it was titillating and nasty and teasing like the old burlesque, but it was also swing style so you could dance to it. And, of course, "swing" also has a double meaning, about swingers. I recorded "Press My Buttons" and "Give My Bell a Ring" and "That's My Daddy with the Big Long Sliding Thing" and "Put It All in There," a song I still do now. Now the writer of that song, George "Wild Child" Butler, says it's about putting money in the bank. But when I sing it, it becomes about something totally different.
I felt like I had found my home, a place where I could completely be myself. It's ironic that I now get shunned by some of the blues community for doing the very thing that the early blues women were doing. I don't think they get it. Because I'm young and white and also talk about political issues like legalizing prostitution, people get offended, instead of seeing how I'm carrying on a proud tradition of women in the blues.
DS: I've seen people at your shows get tremendous confirmation -- whether it's about being big women, about being dykes, about being bisexual, or just about being openly sexual people in general. I think that's one of the special things you do that contributes to people having a really good time at your shows. Do you see yourself as a sexual evangelist? As a campaigner and advocate for open sexuality, for unconventional sexuality?
CK: Well, my show's been described as a revival meeting in the parking lot of an x-rated book store. I think it does have a revival meeting feel to it. I've taken all the different parts of my life and put them together in one big melting pot of sexual celebration and size celebration. I mean, the body and sexuality are impossibly linked. There's no way you can have sex without a body, and there's no way you can really enjoy sex, I don't think, if you don't accept and love your body, if you don't let your body do what it's supposed to do. So I think those issues are really connected.
Am I a sexual libertine? I guess I am. I don't think of myself as being a big role model for anything. I think of myself as just sharing my experience with people, and hoping that the experience rubs off on them. When people respond to my honesty, when they respond to the songs and the content of the songs, it's really rewarding. It all comes together at that moment. Their energy and their love empowers me too. I have issues about sexuality and about my body like everyone does, issues I struggle with every day. But when I sing a song like "Fit, Fat and Fine" or "Two Hundred Pounds of Fun" or "I'm the Toughest Girl Alive" -- when people respond it feeds my own sense of well-being -- even though I'm not the toughest girl alive, even though I don't think my body is beautiful 100% of the time. So the support is mutual. It's like mutual masturbation. Let's do this all together and we'll all feel good and it will free all of us.
DS: Have you always been open and uninhibited and unapologetic about your sexuality?
CK: When I was a kid I was kind of a tomboy, but there was a sexual element to my life too. My dad was a graphic artist for Adam's Film World, a men's magazine, and he was also a body painter. It was the 60s. He would take me with him to the beach and they'd have these paint-ins where they'd sit and rope off an area and women would come and be topless and my dad and his friend would paint daisies and peace signs on these women. So I was around a lot of nudity as a little kid.
One time, when my dad was working as a graphic artist, he took me to work with him. Every time I went into his cubicle he would cover up his drafting board with newspapers, so I couldn't see what he was working on. Of course, being a precocious 9-year-old, as soon as he left I lifted up the newspapers and saw all these pictures of people having sex, and all kinds of group pictures of nude people. My dad's other gig was being an illustrator for Bible coloring books. I was always coloring Jesus on the cross and Moses parting the Red Sea.
So I got an interesting, unconscious message from my dad that it was ok to have fun and make money with nudity, and also with religion. I got the message early on that you could integrate religion and sexuality. It was sort of destiny for me to end up doing that. I don't think my dad knew that he was encouraging me in such a strange way, but that's definitely what ended up happening.
Was I sexual? I fell in love at 16, and had a baby at 17. I think I was bisexual even then. I had a crush on my track coach. She was awesome and I used to go early to class to see her prance around in her little white shorts with her tan body. I was in love with her, but I didn't know there was a name for that, for bisexuality. It wasn't until years later, when I did my first video with Christy Canyon, that I realized that I like this, that this is a good thing.
So I didn't really accept myself and come into my sexual persona, feel at home in my sexual being, until I was in my 20s. I always knew that the sex business was a good thing for me. I always felt proud when I was on the cover of magazines. All the punk rockers in Hollywood knew about my sex work because I'd bring copies of my magazines -- Gent or Juggs or Velvet, whatever current issue I was on -- to show everybody. I also had a column I wrote for a while, an advice column called "Candye's Corner" in Gent magazine. By virtue of posing naked I suddenly became a sex expert, sort of the Dr. Ruth of the big tits set.
It was incredibly powerful for me. I was proud of what I was doing. I was the first celebrity in my family. I raced home and showed my first cover to my mom. I didn't have the sense of shame that a lot of people have. It wasn't until later that I realized that some people weren't as thrilled as I was about seeing me on the cover of men's magazines. But I was proud of what I was doing. I just knew it was good for me, that it was good for my self-esteem, that it was making me money, that it was enabling me to do what I really wanted to do, which was to make music. I was already a sex-positive feminist, even though I had never heard that term.
I didn't know there was anyone else like me. I had met some sex workers in my early days of modeling. I met Annie Sprinkle in New York. I did Montel Williams and some other talk shows with Hyapatia Lee. But I didn't have a solid network of sex work friends. I'd go do my job as a sex worker and then hang out in Hollywood with musicians. I didn't find about the sex worker network until much later, when I took a women's studies class in junior college. All of a sudden I saw that there were other women who also felt good about being sex workers. It was a huge eye opener. I was no longer an island. I started networking with people like Carol Queen and Annie Sprinkle. It was incredible to find out that there was actually a name for what I was. I was a sex-positive, feminist, bisexual, former-illegitimate-teenage-welfare-mom from East LA. I could name myself. I know a lot of people want to shy away from labels, but for me it felt good to be able to fit into a group and have a label. It said, ok, this is what I am and it's all right.
DS: What's the bottom line about sex that you would like to tell the world? If you were going to make a statement to your audience about sex -- yours, theirs, everybody's -- what you want them to get from your work and your music, what would that be?
CK: Well, my first goal would be about body image. There's a lot of pressure in our culture to look a certain way and be a certain way. There's a lot of money spent making us feel like we're not good enough the way we are. It's all over advertising, on television, in magazines. You don't smell good enough, cover it up with this. You're too hairy, take it off with this. You're too fat, diet this way. You could go crazy if you took these advertising images seriously. Everyone has issues about their body. Everyone's got not enough in the right place, or too much in the wrong place, or something that used to be in one place but has shifted to another place. Well, that's just age and the way that our bodies work.
So number one, I think that body acceptance is super super important. It's very much linked to sexuality and feeling good sexually. I believe in positive affirmation -- taking the parts of your body that you don't like and -- I do this on stage sometimes, rub my belly or my ass and say, You're ok. You're beautiful and soft. You're a wonderful place to grab on to during sex.
Secondly, I think that sexuality and life are intrinsically linked. If you're sexually adventurous, then you can be adventurous in life. Life is short and unpredictable. I learned that after losing my friend, Tiny, the way I did -- one day he was here, the next day he was dead. People don't know when their time is up and when they're going to be gone. So to spend your life in fear, worrying about how you look, or about what's going to happen next, or about whether you should try what you've always wanted to but you're afraid, is just impossibly limiting. If you can be sexually adventurous, if you can start off being sexually adventurous with a partner in a safe environment, try new things that maybe you're afraid to try -- I think that will carry over into the rest of your life. Maybe next time you'll try sushi even though you've never eaten it before. Maybe next time you'll try buying a fast convertible even though you've always been a four-door-sedan kind of guy.
I think it's important to be adventurous in life and not be afraid to try new things. Maybe you won't like it. It's ok to try something and say, you know, I tried that and it wasn't for me. I think the main problem with American culture is that fear is dictated to us from every angle -- fear of ourselves, fear of the unknown, fear of anything different or foreign to us. Sex is a good way to move past that. Look at the difference between Europe and the United States. In the United States, men aren't affectionate and demonstrative with each other. You go to Italy or to many countries in Europe and men are kissing each other all over, hugging and having a great time. There's no threat to their masculinity over it. American men have been robbed of the opportunity and the experience and the ability to be affectionate with each other. They're afraid of that. They're afraid that maybe they might like it, or that somebody might think they're gay, oh my god! That fear carries over everywhere.
DS: Women even more, I think.
CK: I think so too, although women's fear is different. Women's fear tends to be I'm afraid to show my body, what will someone think. Or, oh my god, if I go experience sex with two guys at once somebody might say I'm a slut. It's a different kind of fear.
If we can just teach ourselves to be a little more adventurous, and a little more accepting of other people, we'll learn how to accept ourselves, too. And what better gift can you give yourself than to accept yourself the way you are.
© 2008 David Steinberg
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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html .
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