Tanqueray Looks Back at Her Grand and Gritty New York Life

Stephanie Johnson has had two moments of fame. The first came when she was a burlesque dancer who went by the stage name Tanqueray in the gritty Times Square of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when “10,000 men in New York City knew my name,” as she once put it. She re-entered the spotlight three years ago as an internet sensation after she shared candid tales of her life with Humans of New York, a digital franchise with millions of followers on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Since her return to the public sphere, people from her past have occasionally tried to pop back into her life, including a man who got in touch a few months ago.

“He calls me: ‘Don’t you want some great sex?’” Ms. Johnson said over lunch at Zia Maria, a restaurant near her apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. “I said, ‘No.’ He’s aged horribly because he did a lot of cocaine.”

Ms. Johnson became an online star after meeting Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York, by chance in her neighborhood. “Back in the ’70s,” she told him, “I was the only Black girl making white girl money. I danced in so many mob clubs that I learned Italian.” Her colorful stories of a city of mobsters, prostitutes, businessmen and politicians, along with Mr. Stanton’s arresting portrait of Ms. Johnson in a patchwork coat with fur-trimmed cuffs and a fur hat, entranced people on social media.

In September 2020, nearly a year after her first Humans of New York appearance, Mr. Stanton provided more tales of Tanqueray in a series of posts that doubled as a fund-raiser for Ms. Johnson, whose health conditions required her to use a wheelchair. A GoFundMe campaign raised over $2.5 million from supporters who wanted to help pay for her medical expenses.

Now Ms. Johnson, in collaboration with Mr. Stanton, has written a frank, deadpan and often melancholy memoir, “Tanqueray,” to be published by St. Martin’s Press this week. The book describes an unhappy childhood in Albany, N.Y., and details her adventures as a dancer at New York clubs like the Wagon Wheel and Billy’s Topless. Along the way, she tells of her encounters with mobsters, celebrities, male sexual harassers, female porn stars and various denizens of clubland.

“The first person I ever met at the Wagon Wheel was a pimp named Silky,” she says in the book. “He was from Cleveland. Nobody knew why, but all the pimps were from Cleveland.”

Mr. Stanton called Ms. Johnson “a random jukebox of stories.”

“There’s something about a 78-year-old woman who talks like a sailor, who has the most bare-knuckle way of describing things, that is just so engaging,” he said.

At the restaurant in Chelsea, Ms. Johnson was dressed in a camouflage Henley top, a matching jacket and silver boots. Before the menus arrived, she was talking about a hot, young building superintendent who had been hitting on her.

“It’s very strange,” Ms. Johnson said. “He’s 38. I’m 78. And I’m in a wheelchair. What position do I get in?”

In the next breath, she told a story about her friend Vicki, a “tall, blond, gorgeous” go-go dancer at the Peppermint Lounge who had worked for a madame named Blanche. One of Blanche’s clients was a U.S. president, Ms. Johnson said.

“The Secret Service would pick Vicki up from her house on the East Side, go to where he was staying, take her through the back elevators and stand out in front of the door while they did it,” she said matter-of-factly.

Despite the circles she traveled in, Ms. Johnson viewed herself as strait-laced in her personal life. She said she never smoked, did drugs or slept around. In her memoir, she is constantly turning down sexual advances from lecherous employers, lonely club patrons and even a member of the Temptations.

Over lunch, Ms. Johnson said she had been in love only twice. The first time was with a man from New Jersey named Carmine, whom she met at a club and eventually married.

“He was swinging for a white boy,” Ms. Johnson said. “All his suits were custom-made. His shirts came from the custom shop. Gorgeous hair. And, in those days, Italians didn’t go to the barber; they went to the hair stylist, who sprayed their hair. So if you’re having sex — ‘Don’t touch my hair!’”

The marriage ended in divorce, she said, after he became addicted to heroin. She later married an incarcerated man in New Jersey with whom she had struck up a correspondence. She divorced him, too, when she discovered that he was cheating on her.

Her love of fashion has helped her through life’s ups and downs. She loved clothes as a child and later took courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology. During her Tanqueray years, she made her own stage wear, complete with beads, glitter and rhinestones. After she quit dancing in the early 1980s, she supported herself by making costumes for porn stars like Vanessa del Rio, drag queens, cross-dressers and adult men who liked to dress as babies.

“I used to go down to Hellfire, a fetish club,” Ms. Johnson said. “There was this guy walking around in diapers and rubber pants. I said to him, ‘Are you incontinent?’ He said, ‘No, I’m an adult baby.’ ‘Well, why don’t you have a dress?’ He said, ‘Nobody makes them in my size.’ Hello! I do.”

It was Ms. Johnson’s patchwork coat, which she designed herself using upholstery fabric, that caught Mr. Stanton’s eye and led him to strike up a conversation in 2019. “All my life, I get things from how I dress,” Ms. Johnson said, “because I don’t dress like anybody else. I have my own style.”

In the epilogue to the memoir, Mr. Stanton writes that Ms. Johnson has two sons, meaning she was a single mother for much of the time she was dancing as Tanqueray. The disclosure suggests that, despite her candid manner, parts of her life story have gone untold.

Mr. Stanton theorized that Ms. Johnson’s wild tales may be a defense mechanism. “A lot of the persona of Tanqueray, that’s not something that she lives every day of her life,” he said. “It’s something she uses to distract from the circumstances of her life.”

Those circumstances have improved in some ways since her story went viral. The fund-raising campaign allowed Ms. Johnson to have reconstructive hip surgery to alleviate excruciating pain. And she reconnected with one of her sons after a few years of estrangement. Mr. Stanton brokered a phone call between them.

Ms. Johnson said that when she first met Mr. Stanton, she was experiencing a great deal of sadness from being cut off from her family — so she opened up to him. “Because I was depressed, I started telling him stuff I have never told anybody in my life,” she said. “Then I totally forgot about it.”

Ms. Johnson seemed unfazed by the twists and turns her life had taken, including her latest chapter as a viral sensation.

“How can I say it?” she said. “I did it my way and it worked.”

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