Chelsea Haywood left northern B.C. at 17 to see the world. When she was 20, the former model went to Japan to research and write a book, 90-Day Geisha, the first insider account of the hostess industry.
Q: At 20, were you too old to model anymore?
A: No. At 24 you’re too old! But I’d put on five pounds and my agents were saying I wasn’t thin enough. I was 112 lb., five foot ten and running 18 km a day to stay at that weight, and I wasn’t getting work.
Q: So you decided to go to Japan, become a hostess, and write a book about it. What’s the job description of a Tokyo hostess?
A: You work in a club where you are paid to drink with the customers, light their cigarettes, sing karaoke with them and engage in conversation.
Q: But not sex.
A: Right. The hostess is “available but unobtainable,” that’s the key. In fact, you’d be fired if the management found out you were having sex with a customer—it would tarnish the image of the club.
Q: You write, “Your personality is your commodity.” But could a homely girl with a great personality be a hostess?
A: I think you have to have average looks. The interpretation of what’s good-looking can be skewed from a Japanese perspective. For instance, all blonds could work at a hostess club.
Q: So walk us through this. A man comes into the club and . . . ?
A: He’s greeted at the door by a waiter, who does a full 90-degree bow, then escorts him to a table. The customer will request a hostess or, if not, the waiter selects one, who comes to the table. You exchange business cards with the customer as you sit down, and make a very polite introduction. Most of the men are quite congenial, with a really good sense of humour, so it’s easy to start a conversation. A common question is, “What are your hobbies?” As soon as they find out you’re from Canada, they want to know about skiing and nature, so you have a platform.
Q: You worked in a high-end club where the customers were captains of industry, millionaires, even billionaires. What did they get out of this?
A: That was something I questioned the whole time: I have no track record of achievement, why on earth are you interested in speaking to me? I think it was just a fascination and curiosity on both sides, because our cultures are very different and quite alien to each other. English remains a status symbol in Japan, there’s such curiosity about speaking to and being entertained by someone from Canada or another Western country. It’s still a homogenous society, so occasions for them to meet Western women are slight.
Q: You’re supposed to flatter them, listen to their problems, be a therapist of sorts, right?
A: Definitely. But then the hostess needs a therapist as well!
Q: Because you’re absorbing their angst?
A: Yes, and because there’s a stigma, in your mind: you’re trying to justify your role, which is in conflict with your own culture. Some hostesses would say, “I feel like I’m an emotional prostitute.” I think it stems from not being themselves, from feeling they need to have a facade, in order to be entertaining.
Q: What’s the average age of the hostesses?
A: Twenty. You never wanted to say that you were older than 25. There’s a saying in Japan that once a woman reaches her 25th birthday, she’s “spoilt sponge cake,” which is a reference to puddings that go on sale after Christmas and are very rarely bought.
Q: And why are they doing it?
A: For girls coming from Western, high-GDP countries, there’s the allure of a glamorous lifestyle, making quite a bit of money in a very short period of time, then being able to travel elsewhere.
Q: It sounds easy.
A: Yes, it sounds like you’re going to be an English teacher in a cocktail dress. But then you find there are emotional demands, spending all this time with these men. And it’s exhausting, you get home at 5 or 6 a.m. By the third month, there’s usually a lot of disdain toward the customers and Japanese culture. But it’s strange, many hostesses still stay, because of the money and the fact that there’s lots of drinking and drugs, and also the adulation they’re receiving.
Q: You mean the customers are saying, “You’re beautiful, you’re fascinating”?
A: Yes, and it’s empty, and happens to absolutely everyone. If you feel down, one or two of those remarks can brighten your day, pathetic as that sounds. The danger is that after a certain amount of time you start believing it.
Q: Hostesses could drink oolong tea, juice or alcohol. What did most of them choose?
A: Alcohol. My first evening, a customer told me I’d have to drink to be on the same frequency as the customers, and that proved to be the case. I don’t think you can engage in the frivolous level of conversation that’s required if you don’t drink, and the customers wanted us to drink. Many hostesses had 15 to 20 standard drinks a night.
Q: On average, what would a man pay the club to talk to you?
A: Four hundred dollars for an individual would be low, but it could get up to $1,000 or $1,500, depending on how much he drank. Groups would spend thousands of dollars. One man who regularly spent thousands was the CEO of 17 companies, he came in three or four times a week to entertain subordinates. Funnily enough, he’d sit down and fall asleep, while they’d be drinking and singing.
Q: How much could a hostess make in a night?
A: At our club you were paid $30 or $40 an hour, and you worked six hours a night. If someone requested you, you got an extra $20. And you might get tips. One of my regulars, a surgeon, gave me $100 each time. He was my prime cash benefactor. You can also go on a dohan: a customer pays the club $250 for the privilege of taking you out to dinner. The hostess only gets about $25, but a free meal, obviously.
Q: Some of your customers also bought you thousands of dollars worth of clothes. What was going through your head on these shopping sprees?
A: I felt ridiculous. It was a very strange experience to be taken shopping by men you’d only known a few hours, and have them say, “Would you like more? Pants, maybe? These $800 shoes?”
Q: What was in it for them?
A: I wonder if it wasn’t just being seen in public with a Western hostess, showing off.
Q: Are Japanese alpha males different from Western ones?
A: In that they go to hostess clubs, yes. I could not imagine anyone from Canada, at that level, paying hundreds or thousands of dollars just to have a conversation with a Japanese woman about the geography of Japan, the history of the kamikaze, things like that. I think Japanese men are very driven, overworked and constantly tired, and there was an aspect of loneliness. As a couple of men explained to me, in Japan, you have a public face and a private face. At the hostess club I think they felt they could relax.
Q: Did you ever feel guilty about their wives?
A: Oh sure. The customer is showing you on his mobile phone how cute his baby is, and his wife, isn’t she beautiful? And I’m thinking, “It’s 2 a.m., why aren’t you home with them?” I don’t see going out and talking to young women as conducive to a healthy relationship, oddly enough.
Q: After a while, though, you were no longer an objective observer but an active participant in the lifestyle. What was the most seductive thing about it?
A: Looking back on it, nothing. By the end, I felt I wasn’t myself, that I’d changed and maybe not for the better. But when I was immersed in it, the seductive part was the unparalleled access to charismatic, interesting individuals you’d otherwise never to get to meet at that age. They were very accomplished men, and I’d mine them for information. One customer, who was hosted by a medical association, was head of stem cell research at a Beijing hospital, and I sat with him for three hours, finding out about the research, which countries were at the forefront, and also his personal life.
Q: But there’s also an element of danger. You worked at the same club as Lucie Blackman, a British hostess who was raped and killed on a dohan in 2000.
A: I didn’t know that for the first six weeks, and that was a revelation that made me quite seriously consider leaving. The customers and the girls, however, viewed it as an isolated tragedy that was not indicative of the hostess subculture.
Q: Some customers wanted you to go away with them, and you did. That sounds pretty dodgy.
A: Doesn’t it? When I first got to the hostess club and the other girls were talking about their trips with customers to Guam and Hawaii and Hiroshima, I thought I would never do such a thing. I felt very uncomfortable even about the idea of going out to dinner with a customer. But by the time Yoshi proposed that we go to a private island on his small yacht, I thought, “This is a common aspect of being a hostess and I need to do it.”
Q: For the book?
A: That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Q: Because actually you liked Yoshi?
A: I regard the relationship I formed with him as quite different, outside the context of the regular hostess-customer relationship. He was very charismatic, highly educated, he spoke four or five languages, and was the head of an entertainment industry. He was very easy to talk to and something just clicked between the two of us.
Q: Did you get paid extra to travel with him?
A: He was adamant that he wasn’t my sugar daddy, and never paid me cash for anything. I didn’t ever hear of hostesses being paid extra to take trips, actually, but everything was first class and in most instances you have your own room and certainly your own bed. It’s quite formal. A lot of the time, it was the more elderly customers who wanted to take hostesses on trips, in a bizarre educational role. For instance, one girl at our club went to see the war memorial in Hiroshima with a customer she called Grandpa. But education wasn’t Yoshi’s motive. I think he wanted me to become his girlfriend.
Q: What did you learn about men?
A: [Laughs] I don’t know what to say without insulting them. I think there are buttons that, when pushed, create predictable results. If you contribute to men feeling powerful and of worth, mostly through flattery, they become very pliable.
Q: You were in Tokyo with your husband. Didn’t hostessing put a strain on your marriage?
A: He was incredibly supportive. If he hadn’t been there, I think I would’ve fled after the third night. But it was very hard for him, and hostessing created fractures in our marriage that we spent years trying to repair, and it contributed to the demise of our relationship. Actually, our divorce papers are going through this month.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.