When Topless Bottomed Out

updated 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For more than 20 years, topless dancer Carol Doda has been known the world over as two of San Francisco's most famous landmarks. A fixture in the city's arty-tawdry North Beach district, she helped launch the topless craze—and set off a wave of headlines—when she first shed her T-shirt in 1964. She gained further notoriety a few months later when, in a much-publicized effort to increase her assets and audience, she became one of the first American women to have her breasts injected with silicone.

Alas, the age of go-go seems to be almost gone-gone. Nowadays tourists, who were the topless clubs' mainstay, prefer brie and fine wine to an evening of cheesecake. Many North Beach night spots have shut down, and last November, after she was asked to take a pay cut, Doda decided to hang up her G-string. Now 40ish, she lives alone in a San Francisco high-rise apartment house and plans to make her living marketing a line of lingerie and hosting a cable TV chat show.

When I first started out at the Condor Club, I was a teenage cocktail waitress. I was always jumping around, wearing just this skimpy little leotard. Even then I was kind of a ham and liked joking around with the men at the bar. One day my boss came in and said, "You like to go-go so much, here's your new costume."

I didn't realize what it was until I got up to the dressing room and tried it on. It was one of those Rudi Gernreich topless bathing suits, which were a pretty big deal back then. I went downstairs and said to my boss, "You know, if I'm gonna be wearing this, I don't think I can wait on tables, anymore. Because the customers won't be grabbing just for the change—they'll be grabbing for me."

And I never did wait on tables anymore. At the time, we had this piano that went up and down, and I can remember riding down on it the first time I went topless and thinking, "Do I really wanna show my boobs to all these men?" Then I thought, "You know, Carol, you're always running up on the stage, always telling jokes to people. You must really want to be in show business." So I decided to show these guys my business.

At first I was a little shy, but I didn't think it was immoral or sinful. I just enjoyed being in front of an audience and entertaining.

And the men acted like they had never seen a pair of boobs before. There had been plenty of stripping going on, but all the women wore pasties, so nobody ever saw the naked truth onstage. I would just ride down on the piano and go-go to whatever rock 'n' roll music was popular. A lot of people were shocked since it was the first time anyone had done it. But most people who had any sense thought it was entertaining. Mainly I got a lot of favorable response.

I got even more response about two or three months later when I delved into the silicone boom. I began to realize that just being topless wasn't enough—you needed an angle. I knew if I wanted people to keep coming to see me, I'd have to give them a little something extra. And I did. I got one shot a week in each breast for 20 weeks—sort of like going to a gas station and saying, "Fill 'er up, Mack." The procedure was kinda new, but I wasn't afraid. People used to literally come in week after week just to see me grow.

I went from a 36 to a 44 double D cup. The silicone shrinks when it's really cold, so I avoid Alaska. We used to have busloads of Japanese tourists come into the club, and since the doctor who did my injections was Japanese, and the formula he used was Japanese, I told the tourists, "I'm half Japanese, from here to here."

To me, my breasts are like my props. I paid almost three grand for them, so I sure as heck am gonna use them. Even now, after I stopped stripping, I've never really thought about deflating them even if I could. Sure, they're a little firm, but there's no use crying over spilled silicone. Better living through chemistry, I always say.

Between the stripping and the silicone, I started to become famous. I was just doing my job, then all of a sudden there was worldwide attention focused on me. Some people live in the glory of their stardom. But I never had that feeling. I just felt relatively happy to be making a living. But to be honest, I made more as a cocktail waitress than I did dancing topless.

Before long all the controversy got to be draining. I got caught up in kind of a daze, going up and down, up and down on that piano night after night. I began to think I should be an elevator operator or something. I felt like a yo-yo. After a year and a half, I ended up in the hospital, totally exhausted. It took me three or four months resting, before I began to feel better.

Right after I got out of the hospital, I went to Vegas because I thought I was in love with a drummer down there. I was still very young then and very immature, and needless to say it didn't work out.

A lot of people think that with my job it was easy to meet men. I've had a lot of relationships, a lot of boyfriends, a lot of one-night stands. But they didn't make me feel too good. I never got a chance to date the men I met at the club. I wish I had. Some of them were pretty nice looking. But by the time I finished my last show and changed, the club was closed, and they were gone. So how do you meet men? I never knew. Ironic, isn't it?

Anyway, after a while I came back and worked at the Condor again. But I couldn't just keep doing the same thing over and over again. I started taking voice training because I knew the only reason I got into all of this was for show business. But the Condor wouldn't even let me try anything new with my act.

So I decided to move down the street to this other club. The owners changed its name to the Carol Doda Club and told me I'd get a percentage, but I never made much money.

The place was always packed, and I got a chance to do really interesting shows, like coming on in a Carmen Miranda outfit singing The Girl From Ipanema and then taking my top off.

I never spoke a word in my act until one night I looked out into the audience and saw this man who looked bored. Bored! That's when I opened my mouth and said, "What's the matter with you? You studying to be a monk or something?" After that I started doing all my one-liners. I don't think I've lasted this long just because I was up there taking my top off. I hope it's because people liked my sense of humor, too. I liked stripping, but I always liked to make them laugh first and then take off my clothes.

I've met some strange ones over the years. Like the blind couple from New York that came in to see the show. They said they were sight-seeing—that was the word they used—and that I was one of the focal points of their trip. After the show the woman asked, "Do you think my husband could have a feel of your breasts?" I mean, what do you say when a blind man asks to feel your breasts? I told them sorry, but it's against the law, which it was. I really think they were blind, though, and not just pretending so he could cop a feel.

After the Carol Doda Club folded in the late '60s, I went back to the Condor. I really cared about the place becoming successful, and I knew the club better than anybody. So it really hurt me that people were unwilling to spend money to promote it. In order to have something that's durable and long lasting, you have to put money and creativity back into your business. You can't just drain it like milking a cow, 'cause one day you'll end up with curdled milk. But that's exactly what happened. People would do their job and collect their money, and that was it. I could see it going down and getting seedier and seedier, and no one would lift a finger to help it. I used to have to go out and get gels for my lights because no one else would. I felt responsible for everything. I started getting migraine headaches. Then, after all that, after all the blood, sweat and tears I put into the place, I was asked to take a cut in pay. So I left two days after Thanksgiving.

But even before that, I think I knew it was time to move on. Either you go with the flow or you stay stuck. You gotta change things once in a while.

Right now I'm in something of a transitional period. I've always been in the public eye, but being an eyeful hasn't been my sole ambition. I've always involved myself in the life of the city. I was a part of the community, here. After I left the Condor, I worried about how people would react to me. But a lot of folks have come up to me and said, "It's like a good part of the city is all of a sudden gone." That has been a wonderful surprise for me. I never really knew anyone cared.

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