Hooked on the street

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July 16, 2002 // UPDATED 1:27 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Featherly
Kevin Featherly

Cover Girl is 19 and homeless, not that you'd know it. She's elegant in her $98 denim Sergio Valente mini-skirt and her white $45 Valente tank top. She has a serene face, honey voice, doe eyes -- and incongruously iron-muscled arms.

Cover Girl, of course, is only her "stage name" for the streets. She is a man, and a prostitute. On most busy nights Downtown, you could find her (she prefers to be referred to as a woman) working the corner of 4th and Hennepin near the Gay '90s tavern, lost in the crowd, trolling for dates with the other "entertainers."

Right now, things aren't looking up. She just fled her "home," the Downtown apartment of a disabled 45-year-old man who gets his kicks exploiting teen-aged transsexuals. Cover Girl's 16-year-old friend "Buttercup" is still there, but Cover Girl split when the guy demanded more than the agreed-upon $30-a-month rent.

Not long before that, she'd had a job and was living with her boyfriend and his father. But she lost her car and the job. About the same time, her boyfriend's dad peeked through a bathroom keyhole while she was taking a bath, discovering her secret maleness. She was booted out.

"When it rains it pours, please believe me," she said.

Cover Girl is at the YouthLink crisis center at 41 N. 12th St., Officials there have helped her find lodging in a teen shelter near the Loring Station post office.

YouthLink is an organization that helps young people repair relationships with their families, or to provide assistance to teens who have no adults in their lives. It operates two programs. Project OffStreets helps homeless kids get off the streets, while NewPath Partners offers truancy intervention, diversion for shoplifters and family case management, among other services.

To a visitor at the crisis center, she spoke of many disappointments, not the least of which is falling back into "tipping" -- prostitution.

She has aspirations. She wants to be a nurse's assistant, and to open a beauty parlor by age 25. She wants more surgical alteration of her already collagen-injected body. One day, she even wants a husband.

Ultimately, Cover Girl is a messed-up kid inhabiting Downtown's seedy underside, where she considers herself both prey and predator in an environment where selfish gratification is everything.

Still, Cover Girl has a powerful dignity and doesn't apologize to anyone for what she is, though she does pray for forgiveness, nightly. And lately, the depression has returned. She has little patience with it; in the street, the blues are dangerous baggage.

"There's no reason for me to be here now and pity myself," she said. "This is bullshit. I should not be where I am right now, but I am and I'm going to deal with it the best way I can. And I am dealing with it the best way I can."

The life

Cover Girl, a New Jersey native who said her mother moved her to Minnesota to get higher welfare benefits, pulled her first trick at age 16. In Minnesota, according to YouthLink and Minneapolis police, most kids start at 14. Over time, the average age of entry is falling, police and youth workers say.

Cover Girl's early family life was a mess, and she was forced to hide the sexuality she discovered in kindergarten when she first flirted with a little boy. Eventually, she began hanging out with other kids who got money by selling their bodies. Before long, she was lured in.

"I was really hungry for some money, but I was kind of scared," she said. "I didn't want to do it, but once you get into something like that and the money is coming in so fast, it's almost like an addiction."

It's a habit she's trying to kick. Deanna Shellito, a case manager at YouthLink, said it's a big stride for Cover Girl to lodge in a Downtown youth shelter. Like many prostitutes, Cover Girl is so image-driven that normally it would seem better to brave the streets, Shellito said.

"She's figuring out that she needs help and what she's doing now is not OK," Shellito said. "She's not safe."

Not that Cover Girl seems scared. Compared to tipping in Patterson, N.J., where she started, or in Brooklyn where a friend was beaten to death by a "trick" who didn't realize she was male, prostitution in Minneapolis is a cakewalk, she said.

Most of her Downtown dates are white, suburban and nearly always heterosexual. They don't linger after a trick, and they don't haggle over her $50 fee for oral sex. Most have a lot to lose -- some are big shots in business with publicly recognizable names, she said. Some are cops, some are bail bondsmen, some are cab drivers. Many of them are married. She doesn't feel they're very dangerous.

"They're not too much worried about paying you because they have the money," she explained.

In truth, sex is a dangerous business, here as elsewhere. In June, Cover Girl stabbed a man who tried to force her into sex without paying. She didn't seriously hurt him, she said, but he got the message and ran away. Now she carries a gun.

It's typical, according to Minneapolis Police Sgt. Andrew Schmidt, who has worked the vice detail for six years. "They all have bad-trick stories," he said.

"Johns" are also at risk, and not just from cops and disease, according to Schmidt.

A few years ago, there was a rash of robberies in Loring Park committed by men posing as gay prostitutes. Near Lake Street, where most prostitution occurs, female hookers have been known to team with armed men in robbery set-ups.

Once in a while, prostitutes get murdered. As a class, Schmidt said, they comprise the most "vulnerable victim pool" imaginable.

"No one else is going to notice if you get in a car with some guy, that's what they expect you to do," Schmidt said. "Even if [a prostitute] disappears for three days, or even for good, nobody may notice.

"It's very destructive."

On Hennepin, she's "mom"

Today, among the eight or so transsexuals with whom she works Hennepin Avenue, Cover Girl is the veteran, the "mom." A couple of kids, 15 and 16, are her "nieces." She also has an older "sister," and some younger sisters. They are all part of a de facto family. None of them has any other.

Cover Girl says she takes it upon herself to school the youngsters. She does not counsel them to find a way out, but rather to avoid getting taken and to not get hurt.

But Cover Girl is tired. Alone among her street-corner peers, she says, she wants out. She is applying for college, and plans to leave prostitution within five months. Or, maybe in a couple of years.

She is ambivalent about many such things. She wants her own place, she wants to go to school, and she is socking away some of the tax-free $1,200 she makes each week. But the savings are targeted for a clothes-shopping excursion to New York.

"I should be saving up to get me a place or whatnot, but I don't have a job right now," she said. "Once I get into school, I'm going to get me a job. And once I get me a job, I'm going to stop prostituting. I'm going to try."

Tanya Ness, a psychologist at YouthLink, says girls in Cover Girl's shoes need long-term counseling to define their self-worth. Despite all the bravado, cracks show in Cover Girl's facade.

"I'm out here prostituting, how could I say that phrase and not say I hate myself?" she said. "I can't tell you I love myself, it would just be a lie."

Ness said kids like Cover Girl are in a tough spot with no support. They get into a dangerous life where money is easy, where they never develop realistic priorities. They are under-educated, have no job histories, can't verify employment, never mature properly. Often they turn to drugs and other destructive behaviors.

It's a cycle that can be broken, Ness says, especially if they get help. Or it can go on a lifetime. All too often, they hit obstacles, then flee back to the street. "Because for that five minutes, somebody wants them," Ness said. "They are needed."

The trade weighs heavily even after tricking ends, said Shellito. She worked with one young woman who, having left prostitution, still felt the eyes of a condemning world and the predatory gaze of men she believed still wanted her to turn tricks.

Shellito said prostitutes she sees too often occupy a slow revolving door. They come into her center for help, get settled, leave the life. Then, four or five months later, they're back tipping again. Then they come back for help. Then they go back out.

It might be different for Cover Girl. Or it might not.

"It seems like maybe some of these people need to hit rock bottom to finally get out," Shellito offered. "I don't know if Cover Girl's done that. It's hard to say. You can only hope that she can turn things around."