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Power prostitutes

A new series dives into the glamour end of the sex trade, writes Bridget McManus.

NOT since Julia Roberts flashed her heart of gold beneath that hot pink crop top in the 1990 box office hit Pretty Woman have working girls been so positively portrayed as they are in Roger Simpson and Andy Walker's Foxtel drama Satisfaction.

Billed as "shocking, intelligent and sexy", the series tells the personal and professional stories of six escorts working from a plush fictional Melbourne brothel called 232. There are no Russian Dolls, Asian sex slaves or CSI-style exhibit As in this show. These are savvy women, who cherry-pick their clients and are always in control.

But just like the opulent nightclub in which 232 is filmed — all dripping chandeliers and undulating velvet — power prostitutes are something of an illusion. As the women's stories unfold — over ten episodes and between almost constant sex scenes — the cracks in their lives begin to show. But never enough to shatter the shimmering fantasy of the industry's top end, which is what Satisfaction is strictly about.

"232 is better than any brothel you'd walk into," says Simpson. "The world is quite luxurious and fantasy-like. The stories are real but the environment's very luscious — more like a French bordello than an Australian massage parlour. It's a largely metaphorical world because it's really about men and women — human beings and sex.

"It's about the prostitute in us all. We all prostitute ourselves and we get what we want and to hell with the consequences and we trade with the devil. We are ruthless in terms of getting what we want in the sexual arena."

Simpson and Walker, along with their writers, directors and leading ladies, visited several brothels in the name of research, finding their subjects overwhelmingly willing to share what is essentially a secret existence.

"The women who operate at that kind of echelon, clients almost apply to see them, so there's a really heavy screening process," says Walker. "There are women in Sydney that we're aware of who cost thousands of dollars a night."

"We're not portraying the street worker or that end of the market at all," says Simpson. "As soon as we have a heroin addict we've got a heroin story and I've no desire to add to the heroin stories in Australia, both in film and television. Or child abuse or all those cliches of the prostitution industry.

"It just gets in the way of the stories we want to tell. It's not like the entire industry is hooked on heroin; it's a minority activity. At a higher level, the industry is incredibly well regulated and women on heroin wouldn't be tolerated in a brothel like ours. We don't tell it as an easy life. It has its costs and we dramatise those too," says Simpson.

"The brothel is a female-dominated space, which is something that we often think of as the complete reverse but it makes perfect sense," says Walker.

For all the strong women who drive 232 — manager Natalie (Kestie Morassi), seasoned star Chloe (Diana Glenn), breakaway Mel (Madeleine West), sweet young Tippi (Bojana Novakovic), lesbian Heather (Peta Sergeant) and divorcee and novice Lauren (Alison Whyte) — the brothel is owned by a man, an ex-con called Nick (Robert Mammone).

"Nick does not fit what you would imagine a pimp to be," says Mammone.

"He's reasonably articulate, he likes the finer things in life, he's very pragmatic about the adult industry. It's a business and he's providing a service for people. But he is also a bloke who wants to better himself."

Mammone says his research for the role led him to rationalise why men visit brothels. "There are some men who are out every weekend, dressing themselves up, buying drinks for the ladies, they're doing their best to meet someone."

"Then maybe later on, they might have been with someone they don't want to spend any more time with, but you're getting all that 'after' stuff and I know blokes go, 'Well, look, the night is costing me three or four hundred bucks anyway, I may as well just go and spend two hundred, go and have a good time and then I'm free to go watch the footy'.

"I know blokes justify it in that way. But of course, they'll never admit it because everyone wants their mates to see them as desired."

A plethora of perversions woven into the script makes for some awkward, touching and very funny moments.

"It was interesting because you're dealing with male sexuality in a very concentrated way," says Alison Whyte.

"So I was looking at men differently when we were shooting it. We got a little bit into fetish stuff as well. Learning all about that was quite eye-opening. Oh man, there are some really strange folk out there in terms of what they need. 'Plushies' are pretty bizarre. People dress up in furry (animal) outfits with flaps at the back or the front.

"There was one woman who'd stand on an apple box next to a pole and her partner would wrap her up with Glad Wrap really tight with her back to the pole and then take the apple box away and then she would just slide slowly down the pole and that was her thing," says Whyte.

"There are foot fetishes," adds Mammone, "blokes that want to wear nappies, that want to be trodden on with stilettos. Or rolled up or dressed in babies' clothes. You think of it, people are doing it."

Casting "really good male actors" as clients was not easy, says Simpson. Often they would be required for only one scene where nudity was guaranteed but dignity was not. But any discomfort for the men was trifling compared to what was asked of the female leads, who spent their first day on set shooting back-to-back sex scenes.

Of course, the set was as closed as could be, scenes were mapped out on storyboards and positions practised with clothes on. From the first audition, the actors knew what they were in for. They were shown erotic European films to demonstrate the desired cinematic style.

"I trusted (director) Ken (Cameron) and Andy and the crew," says Glenn. "You couldn't make them tell a dirty joke. They were all hand-picked so that they would be respectful and they were sensational. After the first go, you're thinking, 'They're looking at my cellulite!' And when you get past that, you're like, 'OK, bring on the next one'."

Glenn and Whyte describe filming Satisfaction as a fun, liberating, empowering project that opened their eyes to the industry.

"The women we spoke to said that the reason people go to those places is that it is a sort of intimacy that they want, even though it's a faked intimacy," says Whyte. "And not just a physical intimacy, obviously. It's psychological and emotional as well, but it's fake."

Glenn sees parallels with the acting industry: "We prostitute ourselves as actors constantly — using what you have, what you look like — all those things to make a buck when you need to, and putting your integrity on the shelf sometimes. As women and men come into their sexuality, you do kind of push the boundaries to see how far it takes you and what you can get with it. The thing about these girls is at least there's an honest transaction."

The girls of 232 may be beautiful and their surroundings prestigious, but the actresses are wary of glamorising the profession.

"I don't want to glorify prostitution," says Glenn. "I know it has to look a certain way for it to be palatable television but I remember saying (to Simpson and Walker), it's really important that you give (the women) moments of reflection and knowing that what they do costs them something, because otherwise it's not fair to the women whose stories we're telling.

"And also I don't want to promote the idea of 'Become a prostitute and you can have nice clothes and a nice car and life is rosy'. It must be hard. You have to set certain boundaries as a sex worker so that you have something to take home, which is why a lot of them don't kiss, which is why some acts they don't do.

"To let your body be touched by one man who's paying for it and another man who you love must get kind of tricky. Your body doesn't really know the difference. I found it, even as an actor, sometimes tricky."

By Bridget McManus
November 29, 2007
The Age