SHE cuts a plucky but poignant figure, tiny and cartoon-like in faux fur, tight black jeans and towering heels, as she poses for photos on a busy Cork City street. Kate McGrew, aka Lady Grew, walks with her head held high.
Her flamboyant fashion and diminutive stature would draw stares anyway, but since the airing of Connected, RTE 2’s new reality TV series, in which she took part, people are staring because they recognise her. The Ohio-born singer, pole-dancer, and performance artist outed herself as a prostitute, or, as she put it, a “working girl,” and broke the news to her parents, during the show.
How have people been responding to her since Connected aired? “Frankly it’s been overwhelmingly positive”, Kate says. “I was bracing myself for all kinds of backlash. Maybe it’s because Irish people are so polite, maybe they’re saying things to each other and not to me. I’ve had so many people saying, ‘You go, girl,’ and people thanking me for instigating discussions and opening up topics.”
Kate busily sets up a camera as we talk, before seating herself; she’s still filming for Connected and has the camera for another ten days.
The response of the public aside, Kate has also been negotiating the more personal territory of her family’s response to her on-screen revelations.
“I had to convince my Mom to start watching the show. She was still too apprehensive to watch it. She’s been reading the press, and everything, but she hadn’t been watching the show and I’m like ‘Mom, please, watch the show! If anything, do it the other way round! Watch the show, it’s a really, really good show’,” she says.
Kathy McGrew, a retired professor of gerontology from Oxford, Ohio, is coming to terms with her daughter’s choices.
“As a mother, it’s something I never dreamed I’d be watching on my television,” she says.
“One thing is how I feel about her doing that kind of work and the other is how I feel about her being so public about it. I’m trying to understand both aspects of it. I’m working very hard to understand her decision to do that kind of work and I can definitely understand, on an intellectual level, but not so much on an emotional level.”
Kathy is optimistic about Kate’s motivations: “Of course, for Kate, it’s not just trying to be exhibitionist, I don’t think. I think she really believes in this work and that it’s her right to do it. I hope it’s not as much attention-seeking as it is consciousness-raising.”
Yet Kate is a performer with a burgeoning career. Was this why she took part in the TV show? “Of course, I was curious what kind of opportunities would arise, artistically, creatively and what might happen with exposure as an artist,” she says. “I always love doing my gigs and I used to joke that all I want is to have enough people at my gigs to crowd-surf. I always felt, ‘please, let there be more people see what I’m doing’!”
Opportunities are arising. Kate released a song, ‘Hey Lady,’ three weeks ago, and stood up and belted out a verse of it on The Saturday Night Show, with other stars of Connected, to discuss the reality show. She’s currently in talks with “pretty good labels” about doing an album and a tour.
‘Hey Lady’ is the closing number in her show, Sweet Pang, a “one-woman hip-hopera”, which she has taken to numerous festivals, winning an award at the San Diego Fringe Festival in July.
She’s received funding to bring the show to festivals in Hawaii, Belgium and Italy.
The media have been focussing on her sex work. In being so open, she is becoming a spokeswoman for sex workers, a role she embraces.
“I just feel like I have a responsibility to really, thoroughly be able to describe the industry and know how to communicate with people, so that working women can be in better and better environments in this industry,” Kate says.
Kate, with her college education and middle-class background, is hardly representative of all women working in the sex industry, though, is she?
Isn’t she worried about putting a pretty face on what is a very ugly and exploitative business? “I truly don’t mean to glamourise the sex industry,” she says.
“My heart absolutely goes out to women who are forced to do work they don’t want to do. That’s a global issue, stemming from poverty, and it’s not only in the sex industry. In order for the dark aspects of this particular industry to get better, there needs to be more transparency and more supportive laws and less stigma, because it’s those things that are endangering women,” she says.
Stigmatisation is a definite concern for Kathy McGrew. Although Kate’s close family are all being supportive, Kathy isn’t as comfortable with the responses in Kate’s hometown.
“If she’s performing, I’m happy to talk to all my friends about it. This is harder to talk about,” she said. “I ran into some friends the other day and they asked what Kate was doing and I talked all about her performing, but I kind of left this out. It’s easier to talk about something that’s clearly socially acceptable, like her singing,” Kathy says.
Kate describes her regular clients affectionately, and says the power balance is in her favour in her transactions with them. She says that her hour-long sessions with clients are an “essentially fun and lucrative transaction.”
I wonder if she believes that this is reflected globally in the experiences of women in the sex trade? She says: “I don’t know. I don’t know what the actual statistics are. It’s very hard to get any picture of what trafficking actually looks like, because in every country there are completely different parameters for what that means, so generally it’s an extremely wide net that they cast.
“Often times, people will be considered trafficked when they’re going of their own accord.”
Whatever paths open up for Kate in the coming months, her family are making every effort to be supportive. “Some family members are alarmed and concerned about her safety and health, as am I,” Kathy says.
“But Kate’s always thought outside the box, had a very open mind. Just a bit outrageous, a little bit flamboyant —that’s just Kate. It’s part of what we love about her, I’d have to say.”
“We’ve been in good communication anyway, I think that in this period she really needs to know that I’m being safe and sober and stuff like that,” says Kate.