CAMERON YATES’ “THE CANAL STREET MADAM”|
By Alicia Van Couvering
What’s it like to get out of jail and try to rebuild your life when that life was running a hugely successful brothel in the middle of New Orleans and the Lifetime movie of your experience is about to air? Cameron Yates’ new documentary, The Canal Street Madam, asks that question of Jeanette Maier and generates even more questions than answers. Was Maier a dangerous criminal, transporting women across state lines for the purposes of her own profit and their vicitimization as sex workers, or was she herself the victim of a hypocritical system that convicted and exposed her but protected the male clientele?
As the Lifetime movie, starring Annabella Sciora and Dominique Swain, makes clear, this was a three-generation affair; both Maier’s mother and daughter were involved. Her prostitution began as a way to support her three children and grew into the brothel that she thought was making their dreams come true — lavish Christmas gifts, a nice house. But when her daughter became a teenager, she insisted on joining the family business; Maier decided to let that happen under the roof of her own business (to avoid watching her daughter walk the streets with no supervision). Likewise, the son she showered with gifts as a baby would turn to drug abuse and crime in her absence.
Yates started out simply wanting to make a “humanistic portrait of a sex worker,” but the film turned into much more than that. Maier insists that prostitution should be legal, and she has become a popular figurehead for that movement. She is wild, shrewd, intense, generous, manipulative, loyal, self-aggrandizing, incredibly sad and incredibly funny. The Canal Street Madam is a portrait of a very complicated woman living a very complicated life, but its humanity is as simple as Jeanette’s will to survive.
Filmmaker: How did you meet Jeanette?
Cameron Yates: I was in New Orleans over the summer, and I read about the — it was just about the time that she was going to serve her time in the halfway house, after she had been busted. I believe I contacted her lawyer, and sent her my first film. We talked for the first time for about three hours — we talked about everything, from all the different guys who have been in the house who have walked out free, to the women in the house, to her past and her future. I think we just bonded over the phone, and met in person soon after. It’s strange. I didn’t really propose how long we’d be filming. I told her I would be interested in seeing the journey of her post-prison period.
Filmmaker: She was already so infamous, what story did you think you could tell beyond that?
Yates: The story in the media had been “three generations in a brothel” — the fact that she had worked her daughter, and that her mother was involved. But for me the story was about what comes next – what happens after you’re turned into the notorious Canal Street Madam? Can you get a job? She’s also a felon. She was very happy with her job and her profession. She was a strong business-woman and she didn’t see anything wrong in it. So that really interested me. My basic idea was to do a humanistic portrait of a business-woman who happened to be in the sex industry.
Filmmaker: Was she suspicious or reluctant, to have a movie made about her?
Yates: You know, she wasn’t suspicious, she was really interested in it, because everyone was so focused on the brothel and the sex — I think she wanted to tell her whole story, rather than have it reduced to sound bites on the nightly news. We met for the first time — just me and the camera – and started filming right away.
Filmmaker: Did her relationship with being filmed change over time?
Yates: Because she had been doing all this media during the time of her trial — 48 Hours came to her and ABC Primetime, she was also sound-biting her stories. I had to get her out of that mode. She had these really specific anecdotes she would tell, and I didn’t want that. It was fine for her to tell me those, too, but after like the third time hearing them, we need to go elsewhere. It just took time spending time with her to break that down.
Filmmaker: How did you that, break down the wall of sound-bites?
Yates: We drove around New Orleans a lot in her truck – you know, her truck is like her office. There is something about when you’re driving with somebody — they’re focused on other things, they’re focused on the road — and they sort of let their guard down a little bit and just, talk. And because it was just me and not a crew and no lights etcetera, because it was just the two of us, I think that also helped quite a bit.
Filmmaker: And you get into some heavy stuff in her life — scenes with her dealing with her son’s drug addiction, awful stories from her past. This life is not exactly, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; she’s not a simple character…
Yates: Exactly. And I have to say that I went into making this film thinking, “Oh, it’s just gonna be great, this humanist portrait of a sex-worker;” I think I thought it was going to be a lot brighter and more fun than it ended up being. My main goal is for people to connect with her as a mother and as a person. The overarching story became about how she protects their children, how one thinks they’re protecting their children when they might not be, and how impossible it is to protect them all the time. I just hope that people connect to her picture in respect to their lives. But as far as her complexity, [when I first began] her legal case was sort of based on getting the word out to the media that she had been molested by her uncle, that she had turned her first trick for a quarter, that kind of thing. And these stories are really important and these stories are important in the film, but the way the media presented her was: ‘here’s why she became a prostitute, because she was molested by her uncle; thus, she distrusted men, and had post-partum depression,’ instead of looking at the bigger picture. I think it’s important to look at her mother and her daughter as well, and see the paths that they chose.
Filmmaker: Had you ever been to Louisiana?
Yates: I’d been there a few times. I am from Virginia so I consider myself as being part of the South, whereas in New Orleans they definitely don’t consider themselves as part of the South. I’d been reading a lot about this one Madame called Norma Wallace, whose heyday had been in the 1940’s to the 1960’s; she was very well-respected, had been given a key to the city. It was a similar kind of story where all the politicians in town came to her house, and then she finally was busted. The film definitely became about more than Jeanette. When I went down there, I don’t think I had any idea that she would sort of be this local celebrity. I found it fascinating to explore how you might try to market this newfound celebrity, sort of like becoming the Heidi Klum of New Orleans, because that really was the only option that she had. I mean she’s a felon on probation, no one is going to hire a notorious Madam; I mean she couldn’t even get a job at Hooters. Everybody is scared of her — especially the men down there, because there is this whole mystery about who is on the list, and no one wanted to be seen with her for fear that everyone would suspect they were on the list. “Oh, wait, maybe someone is going to think that I am on the list!” So it’s like this thing where everybody is fascinated by her — and when she walks into the room it’s like she’s a politician, people would be drawn to her and she would galvanize the crowd — but at the same time she couldn’t get a job. Then she made this sex video, and she couldn’t sell the sex video. And for me that’s sort of what the film is about, being so stigmatized and being so exposed. Her family was exposed, and the women’s families were exposed, but how the men escaped that exposure.
Filmmaker: How is that possible, that it the men’s names weren’t made public but the women’s were?
Yates: Prostitution in general is legislated state-by-state. The state government deals with it. It’s usually, I believe, a misdemeanor. The reason that the federal government and the F.B.I. got involved in this case was that they were tipped off by this doctor who was committing Medicare fraud who spent over three-hundred thousand dollars at the brothel. To get a lighter sentence he started spinning tales about Jeanette and the Canal Street Brothel, saying that they were a mafia organization and that they were selling drugs and that they were bringing women in from across state lines. Now, none of these things were true, except that the brothel was connected with a circle of brothels all around the country. Women would fly from the Miami brothel to the New York brothel to the New Orleans brothel, because ‘Men like variety’, as Jeanette says. So the F.B.I. ended up spending a ridiculous amount of taxpayer money wiretapping their phones, and in the end the only thing they could bust them for is what they call “interstate trafficking of women.” But the screwed up thing about it is that because the F.B.I. was involved, they called it “conspiracy to commit acts of prostitution” – and in the conspiracy both parties are supposed to be charged. But they just flat-out didn’t charge the men. We found out later on that it was because a U.S. Senator was on the list, and all the local politicians were on the list, and judges and doctors and lawyers. At one point the prosecuting attorneys were like, “Charging them will only bring harm to those men’s families’ and they should be protected.” It’s just this obscene double standard. So Jeanette spends a lot of the film now fighting to deal with these hypocritical politicians.
Filmmaker: Jeanette says she wants to ‘decriminalize’ prostitution, but not legalize it.
Yates: For instance, in Nevada, she feels that it’s under the control of the government, and it’s taxed, and it’s regulated and usually, for the most part, the brothels are still owned by men and the women who come in to work in the brothels are kind of on lock down. They come in for two weeks at a time. There’s a fear that if the women don’t stay in the brothel that they’ll take the business to a motel nearby and the brothel won’t get their cut. So it’s very regulated by the government but also by the brothel owners. So Jeanette’s theory is that if you decriminalize it, then it’s not a crime at all, but it doesn’t have to be regulated by the government, so someone could open up a little room in their apartment or whatever and work out of their house. I believe, though, that if there were a choice between legalizing it and making it wholly illegal she would go with legalizing it.
But, yeah, it’s illegal in New Orleans, so she isn’t in the business anymore, but she is selling her candles on the web and at craft fairs.
Filmmaker: How did you go through 3,000 hours of wiretaps?
Yates: With the help of interns! A lot of them were actually just hang-ups and stuff. But to me what’s interesting – and there’s so many that we would have loved to have put in the film ‚ so many are just these mundane conversations between mother and daughter, daughter and grandmother, mother and grandmother. I mean people are so off guard on the phone because you don’t think anyone’s listening. So, for instance the conversation with Monica when she is in the hospital with her new daughter, where she’s telling Jeantte about her granddaughter — you definitely couldn’t capture that on camera. And so I wanted to explore the wiretaps and all their human emotion – and the fact that the F.B.I. was listening in to these personal conversations for months and months. And the wiretaps – we would have loved to have done more wiretaps, but we couldn’t, the whole film can’t be wiretaps. And my editor, Shannon Kennedy, did a really good job weaving them through, [to make visible] these sort of unidentified men standing the shadows. Obviously without the men, there wouldn’t be the business, and there wouldn’t be clients and there wouldn’t be a reason to have prostitution. It’s just one of those things where I think I a dialogue needs to be started, and I hope the film can help do that.