A woman's touch

Dawn Rizos never wanted to get in the gentleman's club business. When she did, she tried to dress it up as best she could

If you ever wondered what happened to Pauly Shore, look no further than the Circus Maximus stage at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. That's where he stands at this very moment, dolled up in a pink suit and white T-shirt as he stalks the stage and says how he'd like to get a vagina implanted in his leg so "I can bone myself all day." Haw-haw-haw-haw, goes the liquored-up crowd, laughing itself into a stupor as the former MTV veejay and alleged movie star reels off his dirty-talk nyuk-nyuks.

Of course, such behavior is not uncommon in Vegas, a town where Andrew "Dice" Clay's name still casts a giant shadow on the Strip from a casino's marquee. But tonight, Shore is playing to an especially receptive audience full of strip-club owners, topless dancers, and the occasional porn starlet. As one hotel manager put it earlier in the day, while surveying the club owners and bethonged strippers parading through Caesar's for the 7th Annual Gentlemen's Club Owners Expo, "Dis is da ties and tits crowd."

"Las fuckin' Vegas," Shore muses with not a little appreciation, "the dirtiest place in the world."

Tonight is the highlight of the convention, the Exotic Dancer Awards Show, a celebration of all things nipple and nudie. It's the only award show in America where, in one category, the nominees include Heather Hooters, Kayla Kleavage, and Lisa Lipps. It's the only award show to feature among its entertainment former and current title holders of Miss Nude Galaxy, who take it off -- take it all off -- during their between-award routines.

But one person in the crowd does not laugh, doesn't even crack a hint of a smile. Sitting among their ranks is a woman who does not seem to delight in the onstage antics of the dancers or Shore, who is going on about how topless dancers are a frustrating gang of teases. "Fuckin' blue balls," he groans. "Shiiiiiiit."

Dawn Rizos watches through half-closed eyes, the way a child peers at a horror movie. This is hardly the impression she wants an outsider to have of her business -- the topless biz, long since renamed the more austere "gentleman's club business" by corporate men wanting to make their world seem less seedy. Rizos cringes at the comedian's jokes, silently apologizing to the reporter who sits at the table with her husband, Nick, founder and owner of Caligula XXI on Northwest Highway, and Sharon Furrh, who oversees the publicly held Million Dollar Saloon on Greenville Avenue and is the only other woman to operate such an establishment in the Southwest. This is not how Dawn Rizos sees her business; she doesn't consider herself in the dry-hump biz, to use Shore's junior-high term for it.

In her plain, unrevealing aqua-blue dress, she looks out of place among the scantily clad women chain-smoking and chain-drinking around her.

Rizos is here for one reason: to find out whether her club, The Lodge, has won the award for best topless bar in the country. It's an accolade that means the world to her -- extra business, further respect, and not a little admiration from the men who control much of this industry.

"I worked hard for this," Rizos says as she nurses a club soda. She is asked whether she is nervous.

"Nervous?" she repeats. She ponders it a moment. A small smile turns into a tiny frown. "No, not really," she insists. Her voice is soft, barely heard among the crowd's inebriated rumble. "A little scared, maybe. But I just don't feel lucky tonight."

Rizos did not win this award at last year's show, and she felt slighted, as though all her hard work had been ignored by the readers of the Florida-based publication Exotic Dancer, who cast the ballots for this honor. She wants this award as much as any actor covets an Academy Award.

In a couple of hours, Shore will read the list of nominees, and Rizos will find out whether her diligence has paid off -- and whether all the years of sacrificing her life to the topless business have been worth it. After all, Dawn Rizos never wanted this life, never expected it. She's the daughter of doctors and the youngest sister of doctors, a woman from Louisiana who, 16 years ago, became the accidental and, at first, unwilling titty-bar owner.

Almost two decades ago, she came to Dallas to attend Southern Methodist University -- and, more important, to escape the ghost of her father, whose sudden and unexpected death devastated his youngest child. Now, 37-year-old Dawn Rizos runs the toniest gentleman's club in the country, one that annually garners best-of accolades from publications that hand out such awards.

The Lodge is built upon the notion that you can indeed dress up a business based on taking it off; it's a place where impeccable women share billing with hand-rolled cigars, tender lobsters, and expensive wines. It's one more extravagant topless bar in a town filled with them, the spawn of the Million Dollar, the first classy joint of its kind in the state. Cabaret Royale and The Men's Club are among the best-known, and that's not to mention the nearly 40 other topless and all-nude bars in town, which range from the longneck extravaganzas at Caligula and Baby Dolls and P.T.'s to the dead-end establishments that litter Industrial Boulevard.

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