N. Illinois professor took it all off for his career

At 39, Craig Seymour has a resume most journalists would envy: a doctorate and stints as a music critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Buffalo News. But he has also worked one job even George Plimpton would shy away from: stripper in Washington, D.C., gay bars during the 1990s.

Seymour, who starts teaching journalism at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb this fall, has a new memoir, "All I Could Bare" (Atria, 243 pages, $23), about life in a G-string. We met up with him on a recent apartment-hunting trip to Chicago, where he discussed the connections between writing aspirations and onstage gyrations:

Q: How did you go from grad student to stripper?

A: It's complicated. One of the first gay bars I ever went to was a strip club, and it was great; I could express my desire for guys and not get my butt kicked. I ended up studying them as part of my graduate school experience [his doctorate is in American studies] at the University of Maryland—interviewing dancers and patrons—and I had a dancer tell me, "If you're so interested in this, why don't you strip?" So I decided to try it. I had never been interested in it before. But maybe I wanted to do it all along.

Q: When you first took your clothes off, what surprised you the most?

A: After the first few minutes, I wasn't scared. I was exhilarated. I was a graduate student, and until then my life was very safe. But I was becoming something new and exciting. It felt great.

Q: You say disrobing made your reporting career possible. How so?

A: It gave me the courage to take risks in other areas of my life—and one of those risks was to go into journalism. I came from a family that stressed making safe choices. Graduate school was a fallback plan, but that's not where my heart was. Stripping was like breaking out of a jail.

Q: How is the rush of stage like or unlike that of deadline?

A: They're different states. Stripping was a personal challenge: "How will I feel being naked in front of all those people?" My heart was racing; I was sweating. With celebrity interviews, it was about: "Can I establish a rapport? Will the person like me? Will the editors like the piece?" It was a much more mental experience, and there was the career goal too. With stripping, if I failed, I might've been embarrassed. But that was it; if it didn't work out, who would've known or cared?

Q: Teaching is like being onstage. Any parallels you see?

A: As a stripper, you are playing a fantasy role to get money out of customers. But when I teach, I'm much more myself and trying to help students live up to their potential. I don't feel like a performer. I like it to be a conversation among writers.

Q: Speaking of money, how much did you make stripping on a good night?

A: We got paid $40 or $50 for showing up. We'd work three or four hours, from 10 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., and I'd walk out with $100. I was fine with that. We didn't really do lap dances where we'd make a whole ton of money.

Q: Was there something about stripping that you found ultimately thrilling?

A: I'm not a thrill seeker. I don't like roller coasters. I recently got mad at my mom when she made me go on a flume ride. When people ask me what's the message of the book, it's not to go out stripping. It's to find the courage to pursue your dreams: to see the crazy and great things that can happen when you try something you're scared to do in this life.

Q: What's the next big gamble?

A: It's moving to Chicago. I loved my last job [teaching at Dartmouth]; I loved where I was living. But at NIU, they're very interested in new ideas. Plus I've seen how taking risks can pay off in a big way. So I owe it to myself to take this risk and see what it might bring.

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