Stripper Mom Sheila Hageman's Addiction Began With Dad's Porn Chest

Writer Sheila Hageman looks back with no regrets about sordid past.

March 29, 2012, 4:57 PM

March 29, 2012— -- Kyrie [Eleison] is Greek for "Lord Have Mercy," and it was the name Sheila Hageman took when she abandoned any notion of going to college and became a stripper at the age of 18.

For seven years, Hageman had a split identity: the good girl who appeared in local theater productions, and the naughty one who writhed before men in dark and dingy strip clubs.

"Through my teen years, everyone knew me as a sweet girl, smart, a writer -- and there was part of me creating this other side," said the Connecticut author. "It was a place where I could hide everything I hated about myself -- all in a detached way."

She became obsessed with her body image, becoming nearly anorexic as a teen, then turned to stripping.

Today, Hageman, 40, is the mother of three children, but she is unapologetic.

In her new memoir, "Stripping Down," she writes that the mistakes she made along the journey to self-discovery may have ultimately made her a better parent.

Hageman's book, like her life, doesn't follow a straight path, but weaves between her stripper days, her mother's death from breast cancer and, finally, her role as mother of three children, now 7, 3 and 18 months old.

Hageman believes her obsession with her body began at the age of 12, just after her parents' divorce, when she stumbled across a trunk-full of her father's pornography hidden in a chest in their Connecticut basement.

Women in erotic poses gave her the first glimpses of what a woman could do with her body and how it could please men.

"I think a lot had to do with my age," she said. "I was a scrawny little kid who was confused and depressed and had gotten forgotten in the divorce mess. I hooked on to some role -- some image that seemed to promise something."

She kept returning to the porn and to images of women she tried to emulate.

"I was coming into my sexuality and, instead, I split off and didn't integrate," she said. "I saw it as a separate self."

When Hageman was about 13, she did some modeling and her body-image issues escalated. She became borderline anorexic, wanting to be "perfect and beautiful."

"Although deep down I knew there were more important things than my looks, I got caught up in wanting and needing to be the prettiest, the best," she said. "I thought that would bring me the love I longed for."

Nowhere was her lean figure more appreciated than at the strip clubs where she was known as Kyrie [pronounced like Perrier].

After graduation from high school, much to her mother's disapproval, Hageman decided to pursue acting, where she could create a new life for herself. Stripping provided her with the cash to pursue her dream.

Her first gig, while Hageman was still living at home, was at The Hideaway, a club tucked away in an industrial park off Interstate 95. There, she earned $32 for just a half hour's work.

"So, as a naive 18-year-old, I stepped onto a stage and took my clothes off," she said. "I did it for years, reminding myself that I was only playing a part -- that just because I worked as an exotic dancer, that didn't 'make' me an exotic dancer."

But every once in awhile she would scribble down notes as she noticed the sexual world around her.

"I knew there would come a point in my life when I would have escaped the dingy changing rooms to a better life," she said, "a life where I could flesh out my story."

By the time she was 21, she had been stripping for three years to support a move to New York City for her acting career. A few weeks before her birthday, not even legally old enough to drink, she married Tim.

Hageman cheated on her new husband while on the road touring and they separated after two years.

"I loved him deeply," she said. "But I was too busy acting out my inner demons through my sexuality to remain faithful."

Mother's Cancer Is 'Wake-Up Call'

By 23, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and for Hageman it was a "wake-up call."

"My mother was very upset about my stripping," she said. "She still loved me, but she couldn't stop me."

Later, after her mother's death in 2006 at the age of 63, a family friend told Hageman that her mother "never talked down" about her daughter.

"She trusted I would get through it. That meant a lot to me," she said.

Though Hageman vowed to give up stripping, she was drawn back, thinking she could handle the double life. "But it was a horrendous mistake and I decided cold I couldn't do it anymore."

Before Hageman finally came to a realization that she was worth more, she admitted to having an addiction to sex.

"Walking on the edge was so exciting," she said. "And then I would do things and a horrible guilt would wash over me. ... I couldn't stop and I couldn't talk to anyone about it."

She claims she went through a damaging relationship before meeting her second husband. That second marriage also ended in divorce.

Ultimately, she returned to school, graduating in five years from Hunter College. Hageman was valedictorian.

As her mother's cancer progressed, Hageman knew that she "had to get honest with myself," and life began to change.

She met Nick, who had lived in her apartment building for 10 years, and they married and began a family.

When her mother died, the couple moved back to Connecticut to care for her aging grandparents until their death.

The idea for Hageman's book began to germinate as she entered an MFA program in writing.

"I thought about writing about being a stripper, but then I realized so much else was going on -- my experience as a new mother and with my own mother," she said. "It was kind of a gradual awakening and these stories were so intermingled. I didn't have just one story to tell."

Today, Hageman raises two sons and a daughter, and teaches writing online for Kaplan University and Housatonic Community College.

She is still in therapy.

"I probably always will be," she said. "I unpeel layers upon layers."

"Women's lives are so twisted," she said. "They have so many roles to play and part of my story was accepting that I will never completely have one role in life."

Hageman doesn't condemn all strippers, even though for her she believes it was self-destructive.

"Some women can handle it better than others," she said.

"My big message is that as women, our life is a journey and a process," she said. "To be self-confident, a woman needs to accept her past and not be ashamed of it."

With her own children, Hageman is comfortable with her body and "open and honest" with her children about theirs.

Hageman's daughter is still too young to be exposed to sexuality and, so far, she seems a "happy and confident" 7-year-old, according to her mother.

"I try hard not to talk about how girls look," said Hageman. "When other parents say, 'Oh, you look so pretty,' I say, 'Oh, you look so smart.'"

She hopes her daughter Genny has a healthier body image than she did.

As for Hageman's past, "It's definitely something I am going to talk to her about," she said. "I wrote about it, so it's in the world."

"God help me if she ever she ever wants to ask me if she can strip," said Hageman.

But Hageman said she still refuses to be ashamed that she was once a stripper. And her husband, too, is "wonderfully supportive."

"I take responsibility for what I did," she said. "I look back past and see my roots. I do forgive myself. I did the best I could.

"I was entering a world where sex was a secret, dirty kind of thing and it wasn't until I stopped stripping that I was able, over time and through relationships, to accept that what I did wasn't all that bad."

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