How Does a New York Private School Girl Become a Dominatrix?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Sept. 4 2012 4:15 AM

What Does It Take To Be a Dominatrix?

How an Upper East Side private school girl ends up with a dungeon for an office.

This story is adapted from Katie Roiphe’s new book of essays, In Praise of Messy Lives.

Dominatrix Portrait
Alexis Lass Trbojevic.

Photograph by Andrew Brucker.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

When you start, the dominatrix says, it feels like being thrown into a deep ocean when you don’t know how to swim. You are coughing up water, choking, feeling like you are drowning.

Her first week at the dungeon Alexis Lass Trbojevic was overwhelmed by what she saw. What she saw was subs being whipped and caned, subs with bloody welts, subs walking on all fours on leashes, subs getting slapped in the face and spat on, subs licking the bottoms of women’s shoes, subs left bound in cages for six or eight hours. She had to remind herself of a line from The Night of the Iguana, “Nothing human disgusts me …”

She thought of her mother saying that you become brave by acting brave. Though she also thought of other things her mother would say about what she was doing. In the beginning it was very hard to get the voice of her Upper East Side upbringing out of her head, to separate the flock of preppie Spence girls in their green plaid uniforms, the blocks of doorman buildings and tulip lined avenues, from the the amorphous entity she was beginning to think of as her self. Those first days in the dungeon, wearing latex, whip in her hands, she hears a voice call her trashy, a whore, a loser, but she doesn’t know if it’s her voice.

Then somewhere she crosses over. The world she has moved into is so extreme, so profoundly and flamboyantly unacceptable that it frees her from the narrow or confining definitions of a successful life; it’s not like failing a little, or not fitting in a little. It’s like going to Mars.

The abstractions here are easier to understand than the specifics. By that I mean that if you watch 30 seconds of one of the fetish films Alexis makes, in which a woman steps in stiletto heels on a man’s genitals, you will not see Alexis’ world as clearly as if you read Susan Sontag’s essay on sadomasochism and fascism: “The color is black, the material is leather, the justification is truth, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”

When Alexis first told her mother what she was doing her mother said, “Don’t come in the house.” Alexis' mother was the closest person in the world to her. Alexis said, “Fine if that’s what you want.”

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In the end her mother let her back into the house. But the break is still there, not visible, but there, the break where you find in yourself the ability to walk away from everything you have known; the break is thrilling, liberating and, as Alexis says, a little like dying.

Alexis describes her mother as a dark, remote, beautiful creature, drinking coffee, smoking long cigarettes reading her books by dead Russians. “She would probably be the best domme in the world,” Alexis says.

* * *

One of the tricky financial issues that Alexis runs into with her fetish film business is that she can’t resist spending money on the aesthetics: She wants a real goat skull for the Viking shoot, or an antique morgue table from the thirties, or the perfect cigarette holder for a film noirish shoot, or an art deco chaise longue, or a Caroline Herrera vintage Roman gown.

It could be her weakness as a businesswoman that Alexis cares about how her films look more than she cares about cheaply and efficiently delivering the fetish. In fact it seems like her heart is most unambiguously in painting the sets, in the installation, in the design, in the construction work, in the hunt for costumes and props, in the composition, in the look.

Alexis often explains her attraction to sadomasochism in general as aesthetic. “There is something beautiful about the sound of a whip in the dark,” she tells me when she is describing her first days in the dungeon. For her there is also something beautiful in the inversion of regular life: the way the men are on their knees, small, bent over, and the women are taller.

I begin to notice that Alexis uses the word “aesthetically” when she wants to distance herself from other things that are happening. On the other hand she is truly interested in the aesthetics of sadomasochism, and I can’t think of a time where I have seen her where she doesn’t have paint under her fingernails.

Of course I want to know why Alexis is drawn into the Scene. This will not be a question that she answers easily, though she is generous enough to try. In fact she has already told me that this is the very question the Scene is designed to obscure; it is behind stage, off limits, hidden in some box with chains.

“I know no one goes through this world untouched,” she says. “But I needed to be touched more.”

One day when she was still trying to be an actress a man came up to her on the street and told her she should be a dominatrix. He had seen some mannish edge, some unusual confidence in her walk.

In this version of events, the Scene has chosen her. But Alexis has other versions, like the one where she is an aspiring actress, an artist, a smart, dyslexic girl from the Upper East Side without obvious office skills in an expensive and demanding city, and she accidentally stumbles on an easy way to make a living.

But why this particular easy way to make a living? Or maybe a better question is why is this particular way to make a living easy for her? Alexis says that she has “anger issues,” but she is not sure where they come from.

One day she tells me about a boyfriend she had who was an editor at the New York Times. She was drinking then, and one night at Elaine’s, for reasons that are obscure to her, she punched him.

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Recently she was angry at her current boyfriend for not doing something that he said he would do. There was a whip in front of her, and sort of instinctually she reached for it. He started running. She says, “What could he do? A big, strong man can’t grab a whip. That’s what so fascinating; you can decapitate someone with a whip.” She laughs as she tells this story. “Of course I was like, I am sorry I am sorry I am sorry! It’s bad. It’s like I don’t know how else to act.”

Some of her anger she attributes to the frustrations of being a wild, imaginative child trying to fit in at Spence, a rigid, highly structured Upper East Side girls’ school, where she learned, among other things, to curtsey. There, from a very early age, she would come up with elaborate lies to cover up for her dyslexia, to try to obscure the reasons she couldn’t read aloud or fast enough or well enough.

She remembers one day in art class they were making clay figures. Alexis made hers with breasts, and the other girls thought she was strange.

When Alexis was growing up there were no other children in the house but there were cats. When she was 3 or 4, she remembers going to the birthday party of a classmate, who was a maharajah’s grandson. His face was covered in scratches because she had scratched him. “I didn’t have siblings,” she explains. “I learned to fight from the cats.”

Once, right out of college, Alexis had a very brief marriage. She knew it was over because she began to order wild animals over the Internet. For a while she had one wolf and one half-wolf running around her apartment on the waterfront in Brooklyn.

When I ask her what separates her from the girls in her films, the other dommes and adult actresses she hires, who are not as compelling to watch, she says, “I hit harder.”  

* * *

Sessions are exhausting because you are managing someone else’s fantasy. Alexis describes it as “walking on eggshells upon eggshells.” She watches her subs very closely, for a glance averted, a flicker of an eyelid, tension in shoulders, for the slightest alterations in body posture, for signs that she is going too far or not far enough or in the wrong direction. She is intuiting the fantasy from them, almost drawing it out of their bodies, and she has to be fluid, shifting, perfectly responsive. These guys, she says, are about to blow.

What is striking in her description is that it is the slaves who sound dangerous. The way she talks about it, it is like there is an explosion that she is working around, managing, navigating, negotiating. She compares it to being with mental patients on a ward without guards.

Alexis describes the sadomasochistic drama as being organized around the idea of not facing what there is to face; the whole structure of the fetish replaces any kind of rigorous introspection. She says, “It’s like these guys walk in and need surgery, and we are giving them a massage.

“Is it acting? Well, yeah. But to be good at a role, it has to be you. And this one comes very naturally to me.” She says, “It’s a way to get out my anger, and I don’t feel bad for them because I have this 6-foot-tall man standing in front of me, and I am like poor you. Poor fucking you. … I mean they could get up at any moment and punch me in the face. Game over.”

I wonder if with her particular array of skills and talents, she is ever tempted to find a rich sub who would buy her an apartment. But for some reason this fantasy doesn’t work for Alexis. Even the idea of a rich boyfriend who buys her presents somehow ruffles her, and when in a former life she did have rich boyfriends buy her presents, she didn’t want them, thinking “What am I, your doll?” For her being dependent on a man is as repellent and unthinkable as what she does would seem to many of the stay-at-home moms sipping $11 lattes at D’Ambrosios on Madison Avenue.

I ask Alexis how she would reply to an imaginary feminist who argues that she is degrading herself to fulfill male fantasies for money, that she is being exploited, in her latex dishabille, for oppressive patriarchal fantasies.

Alexis Dominatrix
Alexis Lass Trbojevic as a redhead.

Aerik Von.

This is not how she thinks about the power relations in what she does, and she thinks about them a lot. Being dependent on one man’s fantasies or whims is different from being dependent on various fairly interchangeable and shifting subs’ payments for services rendered.

She also points out that the payments are called “tributes.” She sees that money as equalizing the situation, undoing the humiliation a little, delivering back to these men their ego after they have been totally broken down; in some way the tribute or payment restores these bent over, shirtless, beaten men back to the often exalted place they have in the outside world.

* * *

Alexis’ dungeon slash studio floats above an anonymous, midtown street; the dungeon is very clean and well lit and tastefully furnished for a dungeon. Somehow it feels like early morning here, even though it is 2 in the afternoon. There is a skinny gray cat wandering past the giant wooden cross, and a fluffy black one curled up on the ’30s morgue table, and one curled up asleep on the low mattress that is there for late nights.

Alexis is tired from staying up until 2 shooting photographs of a Viking girl covered in silver body paint with a goat skull.

We are talking about Story of O, a famous French novel from the ’50s about sadomasochism. I am somehow simultaneously bored and disturbed by the extremes of how O. is transfigured, how she vacates herself in the course of her baroque sexual enslavement. When Susan Sontag writes about O. she talks about “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness.”

I mention the scene where O. is branded, and Alexis says that she once took part in a branding. She was with another domme who had a sub who was a math teacher from Ohio and wanted to be branded. They somehow found a branding iron that said “m.” It was just what they happened to find, but they thought maybe “m” could stand for “mistress.”

Alexis thought that she could hold the blowtorch because she had done welding before. She was nervous, and the slave was nervous, but she held it steady, the flame blue and red. She stood in a leather bikini and stilettos, holding it very still, while the other domme took the branding iron and put it on his skin. After it was over the dominatrixes started laughing, not a mean laugh, she explains, but nervous, relieved, scared. They had never done anything like that before.

Alexis said to the other domme, “Are you just going to leave him like that?” And the other domme got some Neosporin, and a bandage. But now she thinks the branding was going too far; she would never do anything like that anymore.

I think of other people I know with what Alexis calls “anger issues,” the way it seeps into and poisons the lives of those around them, in socially acceptable ways, in ways not visible to the outside world, how things happen, minor dramas in the kitchen, books or other objects thrown or torn into pieces, fetishes unnamed and unwanted but still playing themselves out, accidental rituals of humiliation, humdrum or otherwise, little, banal stories of O. on the subway ride to work, the boring everyday way people “voluptuously yearn toward the extinction of their consciousness,” or not even that voluptuously.

The Viking girl already sent Alexis a text this morning saying she is having second thoughts about the topless photos with silver body paint because her fundamentalist Christian family in Texas might see them. Alexis is more or less taking the position that body paint is clothes.

Somewhere in the middle of this Alexis is telling me about a dinner party she went to with her parents on the Upper East Side, at the house of an important judge. They are sitting around the table, the judge, his wife, his son who goes to an all boys’ school, his 85-year-old mother with dyed red hair, Alexis and her family, and a couple of other Upper East Side friends, eating a pork roast from Lobel’s, with horseradish sauce. They are talking about things they regret not doing. Someone turns politely to the the important judge’s 85-year old mother and asks her what she regrets not doing. She says, “I wish I’d been a stripper.”

In the dungeon, the window to the fire escape is criss-crossed with bars. Alexis takes another sip of her orange soda and lights a menthol cigarette.

Related Slideshow: The Many Faces of a Dominatrix

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