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To reach Mistress Zaria's palace of pain, you must get on and off two freeways, negotiate tricky turns through a bland suburban subdivision, go over a bridge and continue right on through the looking glass. The black-clad kitten in spiked heels and Amy Winehouse eyeliner may or may not give you the most direct route to the rented two-story condo she uses for her appointments as a professional dominatrix. She often sends first-timers down a rabbit hole or two before allowing them to cross her threshold.
"If they finally make it, I might take them on," purrs Zaria (who will reveal only her nom de domme).
Pass the entrance exam and you will gain admittance to Mistress Zaria's "dungeon," a converted bedroom decorated in early Marquis de Sade. Black vinyl walls gleam under blood-red light bulbs, reflecting eerily in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. In the corner by blacked-out windows a massage table hulks under a thick vinyl sheet. A motorized hoist raises and lowers a leather swing.
In a closet hang tools of Zaria's trade: stiff wire brushes, brass knuckles, nipple clamps, paddles, riding crops, feather dusters, floggers, masks, blindfolds and gags. With her collection of props and contraptions, Zaria ties up, chains, handcuffs, whips, spanks and physically hurts and humiliates her clients, who pay $200 (and up) an hour for the privilege.
She'll grant almost any request as long as it's legal and not "too personal." Dominatrices do not have sex with the men (and very few women) who seek their services. Zaria's specialty is sadomasochism laced with fetishism. Want to be slapped, strapped, sat on and spit on? She's your girl. She'll fulfill your desire to have your bare fanny tanned by Wonder Woman (one of her most requested costumes), and she'll enthusiastically play the role of sassy secretary turning the tables on the boss. She'll shake Jacob Marley's chains for a naked make-believe Scrooge. But she won't do baby-diaper scenarios or "doctor stuff." Don't ask for strap-ons or "anal training." She has limits.
"One man wanted me to throw cream pies at him," Zaria says. "That sounded too easy, so I refused." Another offered to pay her $200 to take him to a barber for a haircut. "That was too much like a mommy thing. I didn't trust him."
Of her hundreds of clients—she books three to four a day, seven days a week, she says—at least 25 percent are into cross-dressing. They're the biggest flakes, she says, but she'll dress them up in frilly frocks and then dress them down, verbally, physically and emotionally, if they pay enough.
For more than a decade, Zaria, who's in her late 30s and has a degree in business, has entertained the whipping whims of a loyal clientele. She became a professional dominatrix—a woman who dominates others for pay—through her involvement in the local "leather community." A bondage-discipline-sadomasochism seminar taught safety measures such aspre-appointment phone interviews to weed out "weirdos." Good customer service, she learned, means no insulting penis size or weight—unless that's what the guy is into.
Who are her customers? Zaria says her average client is 45, white, Republican and holds a supervisory- or management-level position. He's married, has kids, goes to church and belongs to the country club. As often as twice a week, he visits Zaria's candlelit lair to give up all control and act the part of helpless submissive. In her appointment book are names of top executives at Merrill Lynch and American Airlines. Her youngest client is 22. Her oldest is 82.
At least a dozen professional dommes currently practice in the Dallas area. The legendary Mistress Ruth Cole, a 300-pound hard-core dominatrix, was the greatest of them all, by many accounts. She trained a number of currently practicing domination/submission specialists, including Mistress Zaria, before her sudden death in 1996.
Through conducting consensual acts of domination and submission for money, dommes permit clients to live out taboo fantasies in safe, sane environments. Relinquishing power to the domme, the submissive finds an emotional and erotic outlet. "Scenes," as sessions are called, use a "safe word" to prevent the dominatrix from going too far. "You have to be careful when you're dealing with someone's head," says Mistress Zaria. Some men say "no" or "stop" as part of their fantasy. Only by uttering the safe word—Zaria tells subs to say "mercy"—does all play end immediately.
In a quiet second-floor apartment overlooking a lake just outside the Dallas city limits, Mistress Montana looks more like a Junior League soccer mom than a veteran dominatrix. Dressed in a beige sweater, black skirt and leopard-print stomp-me pumps, the pretty 40-year-old blonde welcomes visitors into a living room appointed with beige furniture and watery art prints. She's a mother of two kids in private school and owns a home in an upscale bedroom community where neighbors have no idea she earns $200 to $300 a session applying hardwood paddles and cats o' nine tails to the pale buttocks of middle-aged CEOs, high-profile real estate developers and at least one local TV newsman.
A typical appointment involves conversation, maybe some light refreshments, then a trip to her dungeon. Montana's recreation room is a windowless red and black den filled with things that make men go "ouch," including a full-body swing that supports up to 850 pounds. Speaking in a hypnotic murmur, Montana will blindfold a client, run her fingernails up and down his naked torso—"I like to say I'm inspecting my property"—then transition to the dark side. "They can tell me what they like, but in here, it's my gig," says Montana, who expresses a preference for hardwood spanking devices. Like Mistress Zaria, her safe word is "mercy."
Montana was drawn toward domme-dom after working as a phone-sex operator 20 years ago. Most callers were submissives seeking discipline from a sexy-sounding dame. "I did research into the psychology of it, into the profile of the person who longs for that. It's almost like being a sex therapist," says Mistress Montana. "So many of them, their mamas really messed them up. They can't talk to anyone else about what they need. They'd feel too exposed telling their wives. So they come to me on their lunch hour."
What she won't do: fisting, knife play, blood sports, "brown showers" (look it up at your peril) and "Roman showers," which Zaria won't do either. (Don't look that last one up. You don't want to know.) She also refuses to take on personal slaves who want to dress like French maids and do household chores. "They never get the floor clean, and they're always underfoot," Montana says.
One of her favorite games involves attaching a line of wooden clothespins to sensitive areas, then suddenly ripping them away. Mercy. — Elaine Liner
You couldn't turn on a Top-40 radio station this year without hearing Justin Timberlake's bold declaration: "I'm bringing sexy back." At first, his claim seemed silly. Sexy told us it loved us, and it made us breakfast. But then sexy never called. Actresses lost so much weight that ribs became the new breasts. We were forced to visualize Senator Larry Craig legislating all over some dude in an airport bathroom. And in a final, crushing blow, Jenna Jameson gave up pornography, for fuck's sake (or, rather, for not fucking's sake.)
But watching sweet J.T. slink across a stage or a television screen does remind us that once, there was sexy. The same thing happens when you walk into the Velvet Hookah. Oversized plush cushions cover the floor, surrounded by gauzy jewel-toned curtains. Dim lighting casts shadows on the elaborate, phallic glass hookahs on every table. (There are no talking caterpillars sitting atop mushrooms, but if you have enough 'shrooms before you go, there might be.) The music, a blend of house, lounge and world beats, snakes suggestively through the Velvet Hookah's three smoking rooms, coaxing conversation, not silencing it.
"Sexy never left," says Jei Baker, the Velvet Hookah's founder and self-described "brand architect." "It was just over here." Even at its busiest, the bar is serene. Hookah requires nothing more than sitting and smoking. Low seating encourages guests to lean close together. Soft-focus lighting works better than the best beer goggles.
Memo to Dallas' exclusive, swanky nightspots perched atop certain luxury hotels with one-letter names: Sexy isn't about shoving remixed Top-40 hits into people's ears, charging $11 for drinks and encouraging patrons to dry hump on the dance floor before they even get a chance to swap names. That's just Carson's Live with a bigger tab at the end of the night. Real luxury is about a unique experience. And there's no place in town like Deep Ellum's Velvet Hookah.
"We have the best shisha in the world," Baker says, using the aficionado's term for specially flavored hookah tobacco, which he imports from Jordan before curing and flavoring every batch himself. Baker started making the Velvet Hookah's special proprietary blends when the bar opened on September 4, 2002. In five years, Baker has created 169 flavors of shisha.
Some restaurants may have hookah, says Baker, but nobody does it like Velvet. That's because, he says, he started the business without "the pre-sets that become limitations." Baker's a guy from southern Dallas. He used to travel a lot when he worked for Club Med before opening the bar, but he knew little about Arab culture, in which the hookah was popularized. And so mixing liquor with hookah, something Arabs would never do, didn't seem illogical to Baker. The Velvet Hookah was born after Baker's original business partner tried to join the dot-com boom by selling hookahs online. The site didn't take off, and "we had a garage full of hookahs."
With hookah, there's the sense that what you're smoking is actually a gas, not a cloud of filtered additives. Shisha is three things: tobacco, molasses or honey, which is used for curing; and fruit flavors or essences. The tobacco isn't burned, it's baked. Velvet uses traditional Egyptian hookahs, with one or two hoses. That engenders conversation, which was the original purpose of hookah.
"If you have the hookah," Baker says late one Monday night when the bar is closed, "you have the floor." He takes a hit of an orange-flavored blend in a miniature hookah he carries with him. "Mo-bowl technology," he calls it.
The Velvet Hookah, in the heart of Deep Ellum at the corner of Main and Crowdus streets, is an anchor in an area besieged by controversy and economic hardship.
It's hard, he says, staying afloat while the city's tearing up the northern access points to Deep Ellum to put in a DART station. And the homeless people are a problem too. But, he says, "violent crime doesn't happen down here," thanks to an increased police presence. Baker focuses on the future Deep Ellum. If that means losing the grit and grime that some believe are the soul of the neighborhood, too bad. "Gentrification is what it is," he says. And the Velvet Hookah is about constant reinvention.
When tall, modern tables and stark décor didn't work, they went Mediterranean. Belly dancing was OK for a while, but not anymore. Instead, Baker says, he's bringing in a Cirque du Soleil-trained trapeze act. And starting this month, Baker began selling trademarked Velvet Hookah shisha blends online. A fine idea, but the communal Velvet Hookah experience is a difficult one to replicate.
"All week long we section ourselves off" in cubicles and cars, Baker says. That's why there's only bar service these days at Velvet, no table service. It creates flow, which creates conversation, which creates community. And forcing people to ask for shisha blends called "Floral Fixation" and "Le Petite Mort," well, that creates sexy time. — Andrea Grimes