Eye of the Beholder
Elaine is talking over some bad techno music at the Absinthe Lounge in the South Side on Lamar building. She's telling me about her brilliant 17-year-old son, who bestows his wisdom upon a younger friend. "And so he tells this kid, 'All those rich people in Highland Park, if you take away their money, what are they? What do they have inside?'"
I'm trying to pay attention, but I can't stop looking at her impossibly puffy lips and prominent front teeth. With her big doe eyes and globular breasts, she looks like an anthropomorphized rabbit in some kind of furry-fetish porn movie. She's talking in the loud, slightly slurred voice of a 30-something woman who doesn't get drunk nearly as often as she'd like. In my mind, I decide to call her Drunken Porno Bunny. She continues:
"My son tells this kid, 'It's what's on the inside of you that counts.'"
The Beautiful Room
Elaine beams a beauty pageant smile, and I can't tell if the irony or the enamel is more blinding. See, Elaine's a member of a club called The Beautiful Room. You sign up online at thebeautifulroom.com, submit four close-up and full-length photographs, then, if you're hot enough, you get a phone interview and pay the owners $30 a month to join. A secret world of parties, photo shoots and super-hotness awaits you behind beautiful doors. Non-beautiful outsiders are not allowed admittance to monthly Beautiful Room events. When The Beautiful Room goes to clubs, VIP booths are reserved for "beautiful people" only. So, it's what's on the inside that counts?
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I hightail it to the bar for another Jack. Two months ago, when I was graciously welcomed into TBR's fold, I probably would have tried to befriend Drunken Porno Bunny. Now, at the official March TBR party, I'm just trying to make it through the night without hearing too many people talk loudly about their sweet new cars. But why spend the whole evening restraining myself from lighting into Drunken Porno Bunny about her confused priorities when I can try it out with everyone in the room?
I first heard about the Beautiful Room in January, when a co-worker spotted an advertisement online seeking attractive people to work for this exclusive club in Dallas. With a tattoo and a nose piercing, I didn't exactly fill the physical bill for the yuppie-centric Beautiful Room, but I had to at least try to get the story. After submitting a few shots of myself in a tight, strappy tank top and blabbering through an introductory phone interview in which I did my best dipshit Dallas gold-digger impression, I was in. The Absinthe Lounge party is one of their exclusive events, and I'm sashaying around in a black cocktail dress from Target that makes me stand out like a sore thumb. It is all too obvious that I'm not flaunting my plentiful breasts or sculpted stomach.
I look around Absinthe for Cavell, on whom I rely to keep me sane when TBR people do things like wear sunglasses inside dark clubs, something several members do often. Cavell and I met at the first official TBR event I attended, the February photo shoot. We originally bonded over the Spanish Inquisition.
"Nobody expects them!" I'd exclaimed, and Cavell, a fellow Monty Python fan, laughed. It was a warm night in February. I was constantly adjusting my pink leopard-print bra strap, having chosen the pushy-uppiest of push-up bras for the occasion.
The shoot was at an expansive white-walled studio in the Design District, and behind us, beautiful people were taking turns in front of the cameras while others sipped vodka tonics from the makeshift bar. It was kind of a classy affair, even though one girl running around with no pants on, just a long sweater that barely covered her ass.
The founder of the Beautiful Room--a baby-faced guy convinced that if I tell you his name he'll lose his sweet real-estate consulting gig--flitted around the room introducing new members to the old guard. He founded the Beautiful Room last year with his wife, a busty blond civil lawyer prone to wearing feathery brunette wigs for fun.
The way I understand it, the couple decided that they were so beautiful and their friends were so beautiful and they had such "beautiful experiences" with these beautiful friends, why not just have a club full of beautiful people? And hell, while we're at it, let's charge 'em for it. As the founder put it to me during my introductory phone interview: "Have you ever been in a club and wished you could get rid of half the people in the room?" At that point, I hadn't. But after nights out with the TBR crowd at Sense and the Candle Room, I started to identify with the sentiment.
TBR folks probably don't kick kittens or laugh at retarded kids, but I still never shook off the creepy factor. Maybe it's too easy to stereotype the young, single Dallas professional's lifestyle, but TBR members seem to structure their lives around making it out to Republic on Tuesdays or Martini Ranch for happy hour. I asked one TBR guy if he'd gotten himself anything special for his recent birthday, and he told me, "No, I'm pretty good to myself every day, and I already have everything I want." The people in TBR are headhunters, real estate agents and lawyers. They work in consulting or the finance industry. A few are waiters. Others may still be milking the parents. The kinds of jobs (or non-jobs) that, at the end of the day, probably do make you want to get wasted and play grab-ass with other people who validate their financial success by paying $9 for a martini.
The TBR founders repeatedly emphasized to me during interviews that membership in the club isn't all about how hot you are. Maybe they're just covering up for bad taste, but looking around the room, I decided that, in fact, one of the most disturbing things about TBR is the lack of truly attractive individuals. Particularly the men. Most of the guys are short, many of them are bald, and some of them are both. At the photo shoot, I asked Gretchen, a perky brunette with a wide smile, who the cutest guy in TBR was.
"There aren't really any cute guys," she said. "Well, I saw one earlier, but I think he left." As I surveyed the ladies around me, eyeing the occasional breast implant and "butter face" (she's hot, but her face), I decided no one in the room was even at a JC Penney catalog-model level of hotness. There was a lot of makeup, a lot of skimpy outfits and a lot of dyed heads--my own among them--but not a lot of natural beauty. Score one for the TBR qualifying board either being blind or not overly obsessed with looks. Oh dear, I thought, as the beret-wearing photographer clicked his camera behind me. Do I look like these people?
In an e-mail interview, the female half of the founding couple writes of TBR: "The name refers to a concept and does not necessarily refer to an individual's physical attributes...the reference to 'Beautiful' is all about an experience."
Even so, her explanation makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth. I mean, the TBR application asks for four full-length and close-up photos before you even get to tell them how much you love to save the baby seals and volunteer at Habitat for Humanity.
My mother, in her infinite skepticism, was sure that I was destined for a one-way trip to Date-Rape-Ville on this assignment. Every 30 minutes at the photo shoot, I dutifully text-messaged a co-worker, per Mom's instructions, to verify my safety. She was overreacting, I thought.
I stood in a corner, having just finished a safety text, and was joined by Alex, one of the original TBR members. A girl trotted in front of us, holding the hands of two guys on either side. They disappeared down a hallway.
"Yeah," sighed Alex. "That's what I'm talking about."
Alex told me a relative of his had just joined TBR, and she'd only found out that night that some people in the group might be in it for sex. It upset her. I asked him if it was a swingers' club.
"I'm comfortable being an outsider," he responded with a smirk. "Let's just say there are different levels of integration into The Beautiful Room."
A few weeks after the photo shoot, I joined a few of my closest beautiful friends at a housewarming party for member Shawn, a short, pudgy, dark-haired guy who, on the first night we'd met, called me at 3 a.m. asking me to join him and his friends in their room at Hotel ZaZa.
Shawn's North Dallas house is typical of area yuppies, outfitted with flat-screen televisions and a swimming pool. And a stripper pole mounted on a stage in his game room. And no fewer than eight fully adjustable showerheads at varying heights in the master suite bathroom.
According to the founders, the Beautiful Room is not a swingers' club and has nothing to do with sex. I never saw anything other than some drunken make-out sessions and adept mounting of Shawn's stripper pole. But does anything I've seen or heard make me comfortable dipping into The Beautiful Room petri dish? No freaking way.
Back at the Absinthe Lounge, where the party is winding down, I'm wound up. One of the event organizers is busy having a cow. The party, she says, is a disaster: The founder is plastered, and a guy named Jon is rambling over the DJ's mic. Out of the corner of my eye, I see three or four bodies writhing around on the lounge's low, canopied bed. You couldn't pay me to lay on that thing, I think. Not for all the Valtrex in the world.
I clutch my purse and trudge into the parking lot, muttering to myself like a proper crazy person.
"Freaking $30,000 millionaires." I stumble on the gravel. "Freaking Lexus and freaking Mercedes...Freaking...freaking...stripper poles."
I speed away in my busted-up Jeep, hoping to make it home before Drunken Porno Bunny gets behind the wheel. If, in the Beautiful Room, it's what's inside that counts, I decide I'll be perfectly, insanely happy as an outsider.
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