My meeting with a self-taught dominatrix
It's my first time paying a dominatrix and my hands are a little shaky as I pull out two fifties and two twenties.
What's the etiquette? Pay beforehand? Afterwards?
The dominatrix* waits, one eyebrow raised. She's seen it all before.
I blather my way through a few self-justifications and she nods without listening. Heard it all before too.
"My, uh, wife knows I'm here," I say, and this gets her attention.
"Really?" I nod sheepishly. She seems unconvinced.
"Riiiight. Well, let's get on with it then."
We're in an anonymous apartment in the boom-town western end of Melbourne's CBD.
It's new to me - the city remade, the view of the Docklands and its architectural quirks across to once-gritty Footscray, now under siege from the would-be landed gentry.
Ten years back, the city's west was best known for its decrepit power station, often infiltrated by ravers, Cave Clan urban explorers and the homeless, and anyone else willing to brave the asbestos-riddled wasteland. Now, it's apartment towers and offices.
When I arrived, the dominatrix buzzed me in through a camera-enabled security screen and I snuck into the elevator behind a crop of stylish Koreans talking about assignments. Up, up up in the lift, ears popping, dark corridors and beige doors.
Sleek and anonymous and secure - the reasons why she chooses to conduct her work here. She shifts apartment every week, moving around the city.
But when I steel my courage to knock and she invites me in - suddenly, life. An elegant apartment lit by sparks of late afternoon sun, a view over the harbour, indoor greenery. The TV chatters, the place is warm.
I take my shoes off at the door as per her request. One of her phones rings.
"Three hours? $670. You want the usual or something different?" she asks her client, matter of fact. A regular.
She steers me inside while negotiating her rate, gives me a glass of water, conducts business. And then she asks me for my payment for the interview.
The woman is a self-taught dominatrix, expert in inflicting emotional or physical pain on masochists who pay for it.
Her surface life circles around bar-work, a desultory path through uni, and negotiating the expectations of her Vietnamese parents.
Her private life is based on making bank from the exotic-Asian stereotype. Fake lashes, hooded eyes, the mystery and pain of the Orient. Her accent, though, is distinctly ocker.
Bleach-blond on black Vietnamese hair, an oval face, a casual manner. She flicks a stray lock from her eyes in a way that reminds me of 90s goths, that kohl-darkened hidden-motives look. She's busty, short and energetic - certainly not the austere, tall ice queen I'd imagined. She notices my inspection and assesses herself clinically, holds out one arm to see it better.
"This is me. I'm not beautiful, not ugly. I'm in-between," she says.
She has found the fantasy useful - and lucrative. She couples her Vietnamese background with fake lashes to give her the appearance of innocence. And of course, many men request a school uniform.
"I don't look dominant. I look very innocent," she says.
"So they don't see it coming when I say something nasty."
Three years ago, she was engaged to be married to an abusive man. It was the latest of many. Her whole life, she says, has been framed by abuse. What was it about her, she wondered, that drew the bullies and domineering men? What weakness? And what, exactly, told abusive men that here was a well-trained victim? What gave away her suicide attempts, her inner turmoil? How did they know?
It must be innate, something small, something pathetic about her. She deserved it. It was who she was. And so she cut herself, traded catharsis for scars, a final attempt to try to escape the crippling self-doubt and depression and savage self-loathing that had dogged her throughout life.
This time, though, she was determined to break the habit of victimhood. When she finally freed herself of her latest hateful lover and moved back in with her parents, she took along with her a gift she'd planned to give him.
He was dominant. He loved displaying his power, and expected her complete submission. She'd bought paddles and chains, ball-gags and handcuffs as a sign that she was his, submissive and attentive, the imbalance of their relationship converted into a kink. Now that she'd won free of him, the equipment lay there in a cupboard at her parent's house, unused.
Now she needed money to start life again and pay down a massive credit card debt. Working at a bar was okay money, but she needed more.
So she set out as an independent operator. She got business, but not enough. It wasn't easy to stand out from the escorts or nude masseuses who routinely advertise online. Then she remembered her gear. Could she invert her personality, go from submissive take-it-all victim to the inflicter of pain?
She could. And better - she was good at it.
It felt cathartic. Every time she mocked a CEO's modest little d*ck that didn't hang properly or made a middle-manager weep at his cheating ways or landed a paddle on a macho bloke's naked arse - it felt like victory, doubly sweet because she was being paid handsomely for it.
"It's like my therapy," she says, grinning.
"This industry helps me a lot. I used to be so angry and I took it out on myself."
Now, she gets paid to get angry - cuttingly, coldly angry - at Generic Men who shuffle in and out.
"With most clients, I inflict emotional abuse and they really like that."
She turns the tricks of her old abusers on men who pay for it.
Her clients range from 18 year old novices to 85 year olds keen to finally try out their latent kink. She has more than a thousand on her books.
On a good three-day stint during, say the Grand Final weekend when many more men are in town, she can make $3K after renting the room. And best of all, she doesn't have to get her hands dirty. If clients want to jerk off, that's their business. But she's not about to help them.
As soon as they walk into her rented room, she tries to figure them out. What makes them tick? What are the weaknesses she might exploit? What are they vulnerable to? What do they most fear? Then she uses it ruthlessly.
She tells a crossdresser who only wears women's clothes in secret that he must have mummy issues, that his gender identity is totally wrong. She smears makeup on his face so he can know his true worthlessness as a little wh*re. One client was racked with guilt about cheating on his wife. So she told him she would tell his wife what a piece of crap he was, and watched with delight as he writhed.
"These are the words they say to themselves," she says.
As a longtime self-hater, she knows what works. She reflects back their own worst fears, their own self-loathing, and amplifies it. She takes the most lethal phrases aimed at her during her time under the abuser's boot, and turns them around. She takes a special joy in watching a good insult make contact.
"I know how to manipulate them. I'm not dumb," she says.
"I release the kraken."
It's a fine line, though, between play and making actual contact. Some of her clients genuinely loathe themselves and the release they seek is having that validated. As a suicide survivor, she knows some of the signs. So she'll sit down with these clients at the end, and say this is not who you are.
"I say you're a wonderful person."
So far, she's attracted one stalker. His obsession has made her extra vigilant about changing her location, and she takes other security precautions.
"I'm a tough cookie," she says.
Why do men like being told they're terrible, I ask. She snorts.
"Many are CEOs or managers in real life. They like that one hour break."
Her work phone constantly beeps and vibrates. She checks one message.
"Ew. Anal. No."
Tyra's mother is the strong one at home. She's the breadwinner, working at a cement factory, while her father - suffering cancer - has always been a mild presence.
"Most women I know are dominant," she says.
She lives at home and conceals her second life. When money is tight, as it often is, she chips in and her mum has learned not to ask where the wad of cash came from. Her mother comes from Vietnam's north, her father from the south. They met in Australia. Her mum got the plane, her dad had to risk it on the boat to flee. A haven, far from the war.
But for their daughter, Australia was home and hell. An acutely sensitive girl, she remembers being bullied even in kindergarten. Then came primary school, where she was bullied, followed by an all-girls high school, where she was eaten alive.
"They said I was ugly. I used to eat lunch in the toilets and never come out. I had no friends, I was isolated."
She looks at me.
"You've got a daughter, right?" I nod.
"Never, ever send her to a single sex school. Girls are b*tches."
She closes her eyes, fake lashes on eyelids, to better recall her horrors. Far too many.
She plays idly with her necklace as she talks, eyes closed, about bad relationships, about the three times she was raped in bad relationships, about being molested as a kid, about her suicide attempts, about her desperate efforts to escape, to run away, only for her mum to put the hard word on her - I need you. Don't leave. Live with us till you're married.
"I've been through a lot. So I'm not judgmental," she says.
"I guess these things play a massive part in who I am. But I don't regret them. They make me stronger. You can look back and go boohoo. But there's nothing you can do about the past."
It wasn't long into her secret career that she discovered the usefulness of submissive men who consider themselves slaves.
One regular client loves being a sissy-slave, where he dresses up in girlish clothing and puts on make up and has to do degrading things.
Another slave client pays her good money to clean her rented apartment and cook for her. He wanted more degrading cleaning, so Tyra asked her tradie mate if he wanted his filthy stag house in St Kilda cleaned.
Tyra sat there, watching her slave sweat for three hours as he carted out the accrued filth of a tradie living alone.
Can I see the gear, I ask. She ushers me into the bedroom and empties out her backpacks. Panties for the fashion designer client who likes to wear them, a girlish wig for sissies, suspenders for her closeted transvestites, chastity devices for the ex-Catholics, and a French maid dress Tyra originally bought for muck-up day.
"They have to wear that, not me. It's not my thing," she says, laughing.
Canes, horse-crops, nipple-pegs. She clips a peg onto my arm and I wince.
"Soft. The guys who are really into pain won't even feel this."
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I, uh, I didn't realise quite how vanilla I was, I say. She laughs openly. Then she switches mode.
"We women are powerful. We can be deceiving, manipulative, play roles if we must. This is the best thing I could possibly do for myself. Using the power of a p*ssy."
It's heading towards 5pm and the light is waning. A loud knock at the door makes us both jump. A client? I panic. She shakes her head.
"I haven't put my ad up yet."
She glides to the door, moving soundlessly and looks through the peephole. Then she gestures at me to get into the bathroom. I obey, of course.
I try to hide in the towel rack and fail, so I settle for hiding behind the door. Tyra opens the door. It's the man who holds the lease on the apartment. He's brought shampoo and come to see if everything is alright.
She turns on the charm, coos and thanks him profusely. I can feel him preening under her attention, even from my hiding place. I sneak a look around the corner, but she has one hand behind her back, waving frantically - stay hidden.
When he's gone, she makes me wait until we hear the lift doors close. Then she shoos me out unceremoniously. Time's up.
That night, still vaguely dazed from Vanilla Man's visit to the self-taught dominatrix, I check Twitter.
She is on a rampage, posting screencaps of men - their full names and emails included - who promised to pay their mistress for the pleasure of her scorn and then reneged.
The kraken is angry today.
*Names have been kept anonymous to protect privacy
- Doug Hendrie is a journalist and feature writer. Continue the conversation on Twitter @doughendrie