BATTLE MOUNTAIN — Madam Jennifer O’Kane knows a stark little truism about the world’s oldest profession: Discretion is a working girl’s best friend.
Everything happens behind closed doors between consenting adults. And any release of personal details could not only crush the spirit of a brothel worker’s unsuspecting family, she insists, it could even threaten a woman’s safety.
But an October scandal — in which former NBA basketball star Lamar Odom collapsed and nearly died from a drug overdose inside a Nye County cathouse — has cast a chill over the state’s 17 brothels, hideaways with names such as Angel’s Ladies and the Cherry Patch II.
Paranoia over personal privacy has even hit O’Kane’s Calico brothel in this windblown Northern Nevada town, the only bordello in rural Lander County.
Following obsessive press coverage that included disclosures by Love Ranch brothel owner Dennis Hof about the names and sexual orientation of two employees who had been with Odom, both prostitutes and their customers are now looking over their shoulders, O’Kane said.
“Heidi Fleiss went to federal prison to protect her little black book,” said O’Kane, a 40-something former prostitute with fleshy Steven Tyler-like lips and a throaty voice. “Now the word is out that a girl can be compromised, and that’s not good.”
Some younger women have even returned to the dangerous vagaries of working the street rather than risk public release of their names and photographs. Others no longer want their images included on come-on websites, she said.
Scandal good for business?
At the Calico, O’Kane has tried to reassure both employees and clients. Placards now forbid the use of cameras or cellphones. Still, male customers often spot the security camera hanging over the dimly lit bar: “Who’s going to see this?” many ask. “I’m not going to be on TV or anything, am I? Because I can’t afford that.”
Other brothel industry insiders deny the Odom incident has hurt business. Some owners claim profits are better than ever. Newer, younger girls have joined the trade after seeing news coverage of Odom, they add.
“We haven’t seen any negative impact,” said Richard Hunter, a spokesman for Dennis Hof, who owns several brothels. “The girls directly involved with Lamar Odom are back at work. No girls have run away; neither have any of our customs.”
George Flint, a longtime brothel lobbyist, said the trade has bounced back from worse debacles.
He said a faltering economy and new brothel owners with little familiarity of the business are much bigger threats than any controversy involving an ex-professional basketball player.
“Brothel owners cannot become complacent,” he said. “Remember, legalized prostitution is still not a normal thing in the minds of a high percentage of state residents. You’re never going to have a community that will just shrug its shoulders and say ‘We’re totally OK with this.’ “
No place for drugs
Three years ago, O’Kane decided she wasn’t OK with what she calls the ugly realities of brothel life: a realm of demanding male owners where drug use among workers and clients is often rampant, despite denials by management.
As a employee at Hof’s Love Ranch, she said she regularly took drugs. “If girls wanted pills, they got pills. It’s not supposed to happen, but it did. Guys come in and say, ‘Let’s exchange drugs for sex.’ It happens at all brothels, no matter what people say.”
Hunter denied the claim, saying brothel owners have too much at stake and could lose their licenses by allowing drug use. Yet he acknowledged that brothel security did not check Odom.
He also does not want to see such anti-drug precautions coming in the future.
“Clients aren’t searched,” he said. “We don’t go through pockets or backpacks. If you do drugs in your car of a restroom, we may not know.”
But O’Kane says she now makes it her business to know.
She entered the trade more than a decade ago after surviving an abusive husband in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2012, she bought an existing brothel here with plans to create a new atmosphere for working girls. “A lot of bad things go on in brothels,” she said. “Male owners have a lot of power; they have too much power.”
She tore down a fence surrounding the property and plans to install new larger windows in worker rooms to replace the cell-sized portals.
“We’re not sex slaves; women are not locked up here,” said O’Kane, who says she once worked as a car dealership finance director. “I want to teach girls how to become businesswomen.”
Employees don’t have to parade in front of clients in tacky Playboy Mansion-type lingerie and high heels. Instead, she said, women wear what they want, including shorts and boots.
Part of the community
O’Kane also attends public meetings — encouraging her workers to join her — to demonstrate a concern for the community and so “people don’t throw eggs at my place.”
“I want people to look at this house like they would a tire factory down the street,” she said, standing before a silk-screen curtain featuring a life-size image of Marilyn Monroe, whom O’Kane calls “the highest-paid prostitute in history.”
She looked around: “I want this to be known as a true house of prostitutes.”
County Sheriff Ron Unger said he has taken O’Kane’s invitation to visit the brothel to assure workers he’s there to protect them.
“She’s trying to run that brothel as best she can,” he said.
But O’Kane knows her business is a work in progress. The three buildings — a brothel, living quarters and strip club — appear in a state of perpetual construction. One bathroom has no door, just a hole ripped into a wall. Another room houses O’Kane’s eight pet ferrets.
On a recent weekend, almost all of her workers were away for the holidays — their empty rooms dark, dank and grim. The cold cement floors gave the place the forlorn feel of an internment camp, with a strong odor of disinfectant you presume isn’t doing its job.
Still, the novice madam stayed upbeat. On a cold December night, the house’s only entertainment was a stripper named Geneva, who applied her makeup and donned her baby-doll outfit in a room she rents at the brothel.
As the red light over the Calico beamed into darkened skies, the madam prepared to play disc jockey for a young woman who stood forlornly at a stripper’s pole, without a customer in sight.