I recently tuned in to the season finale of MasterChef to get my weekly dose of entertainment. I expected to watch two chefs duke it out for first place. I ended up watching a young woman apologize for her life choices.
For those unfamiliar with the FOX hit, MasterChef follows 22 amateur chefs who compete for the chance to win three coveted prizes — $250,000, a trophy and the opportunity to publish a cookbook. The hopefuls come from different walks of life, and their occupations are often displayed during confessionals. Some particular professions shown were “video game designer,” “petroleum landman,” “high school student” and just plain-old “unemployed,” but one stood out from the rest for the TV-viewing crowd: “aerial dancer.”
Courtney Lapresi is many things: a Philadelphia resident, the latest MasterChef winner and a former stripper. Once a dance student at the University of the Arts, she incorporated her field of study into striptease acts when tuition proved to be too much to handle. Like for many others, sex work provided a seemingly stable way to make fast cash, and she took her job in stride. Until she entered the MasterChef kitchen, that is.
As soon as Lapresi was billed as an aerial dancer, the claws came out. One of her fellow contestants took offense to her work, stating, “When I think legit aerial dancer, I think Cirque du Soleil, not boobs out on a pole.” Bloggers went out of their way to uncover racy pictures of her performing on stage, attempting to weaken the validity of the talent she displayed on the show. Some critics claimed that her history was untrustworthy and that her success could potentially be linked to “sexual favors” given to the producers.
The public’s reaction to Lapresi’s background might have left a bad taste in my mouth, but MasterChef’s response left me with a burned tongue.
“It’s very hard for me to talk about this,” Lapresi said, donning her chef’s jacket as she uncomfortably worked her way through the confessional. “I’ve done things I’m not proud of. Not being able to pay my rent, I made the difficult, embarrassing decision to work in a gentlemen’s club.”
The truth was officially out, wrapped within an expression of regret, but quite honestly, the apology was as unnecessary as it was abrupt. Did Lapresi need to apologize, on national television, for the “difficult, embarrassing” decision she made? Did she need to treat her former occupation with distaste? Did she need to feel ashamed?
The answer is simple: absolutely not.
We live in a society where sex workers are treated with repugnance and contempt. The common “stripper” is often stigmatized for trying to make an honest living, and revealing that someone used to perform such acts could ruin a career. But this shouldn’t be the case.
Lapresi shouldn’t have to feel ashamed for the decisions she made in life. She shouldn’t have to sit in front of a camera, face penitent and contrite, practically pleading for America to forgive her just because of the route she took to pay her bills. Her narrative — resorting to sex work to pay her tuition — is almost reminiscent of Miriam Weeks, the Duke student-turned-porn star, and the public’s reception of both women has been anything but lukewarm. Both have been ridiculed and derided by the masses, but for what? Working hard to earn a paycheck?
Sex workers are people, too; they are dreamers, students and diligent workers. Working at a gentlemen’s club does not lessen one’s value and it should not detract from one’s accomplishments. Instead of shaming exotic dancers for their occupations, we should learn to be more progressive, more receptive and more accepting.
Lapresi may have been a stripper, sure, but one thing is for certain — you can expect to see her cookbook on shelves soon.