Tanqueray by Stephanie Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you’re familiar with or follow Humans of New York (@humansofny) on Instagram run by photographer Brandon Stanton, then you may be already familiar with Stephanie Johnson, better known as Tanqueray. If you’re not familiar or don’t follow, then let the story of a spunky elderly lady in her 70s, born and raised in Upstate New York who ran away to the city for a more glamorous life, be your sign to do so.
On the Humans of New York page, Stanton encounters and photographs random New Yorkers and asks them to share life anecdotes. They range from childhood stories, relationships, jobs, and coming-of-age. Sad, funny, inspiring, and others like, Tanqueray’s are so unbelievably intriguing that you want more. A majority of the posts are one-offs. They may have multiple slides contained in a single post. Others may be a series of posts, which is indicated by a parenthetical number count, such as (1/12), (2/12), etc. at the beginning of the caption, telling you to brace yourself for a doozy of a story. They’re also usually spaced out, so it’s up to you to wait until all are posted to read straight-through, or wait with baited breath at the cliffhanger.
In an unusual move, by popular demand Stanton devoted 32 posts to Tanqueray as she detailed her escapades of the 70s. Those posts evolved into the wonderful purple-covered memoir Tanqueray. After a short stint in prison as a teen she made her way down to the city. It wasn’t long before through a series of events, some coincidental opportunities, some self-made, she managed to dig herself out of a struggle life. Even though she was faced with racism, she became a Go-Go dancer and worked with the mob selling stolen goods like fur coats. In fact, when Stanton first encountered her when he was leaving the gym, she was draped in a floor-length faux fur. When hustles were slow, Tanqueary always fell back on her talent of being able to sew and make clothing, including plus-size lingerie.
The audiobook clocked in at three hours, and that’s only because it included an exclusive bonus interview between Stanton and Tanqueray, who forged a friendship during the drafting of the book. The book itself is basically an elaboration of the posts. Having listened to the audiobook, I wonder/regret if I missed out on seeing some colorful and interesting photos that weren’t included online.
During their time together in 2020, Tanqueray needed medical attention, for which Stanton created a GoFundMe funded by his followers. It has since been closed and exceeded the goal, earning over $2 million. The money was placed in a trust for Stephanie’s care and the remaining balance after her death will be donated to The Association To Benefit Children Not only did the popularity of the posts lead to the publication of her memoir, but a reconciliation between Stephanie and her children. She does not go in-depth about them to protect their privacy. She seems to understand and respect why there was tension between them, unlike the contentious relationship she had with her mother. There was no love lost between she and her mother, who not only called the cops on Stephanie to have her arrested for burglary when she attempted to gather her things to move out, but also spoke out against her being paroled when she was up for it. Lucky for her, there were some people on her side, looking out for her.
Tanqueray had the type of storied life that if you were watching a movie not knowing it were based on a true story you’d have a hard time believing. Even the story behind her earning her burlesque name is interesting, though it doesn’t match with the part of her act where she would shoot milk from bottle nipples in her top. That seems tame in comparison to another dancer who would shoot hot dogs out of her vagina. I appreciate her honesty about the ups and downs and her checkered past, but I’m skeptical about her claims of not indulging in drugs or casual sex, even though she has disdain for those who did. She and some other dancers put itching powder in another dancer’s costume when they discovered she was sleeping with a patron, thereby interfering with their tips. As noted by Brandon, Stephanie was and still is spunky. It would be impossible not to be entertained reading this memoir.
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