TAO Nightclub’s entrance is a quiet enclave of the massive Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. A golden goddess statue stands in a yoga-like trance to the left, her 16 arms outstretched in rays of peace. It’s easy to walk past this Asian corner of an Italian-themed resort without a second glance. From the dim lantern and candle-flanked entrance, it looks like another Vegas sushi bar.
But the name and its reputation hint at the hidden wonderland in the goddess’s secret passages; a dark palace where girls bathe in bath petals and stick sparklers in $5000 bottles of champagne. Where Scott Disick can drown in aspiring models and Rihanna and Drake can decide if they’re on or off. TAO bubbled up constantly in the celebrity gossip columns I read since high school; a hiding spot for the rich and gorgeous to gorge on sashimi and sex. Only a three-minute walk and escalator ride from Omaha grandmothers feeding nickel fortunes into I Dream of Jeannie machines, the elite held court in an alternate universe. TAO was Narnia.
In the dozens of times I passed the magic entrance, on family trips to Vegas and weekend getaways with my husband, I never considered trying to get inside. Just like I’d never been inside any of the opulent nightclubs that are as common in strip casinos as buffets. I wasn’t hot enough. My bank account wasn’t full enough. My dancing was not anywhere close to passable.
So when my sister Brianna announced that the must-do, non-negotiable part of her bachelorette party trip to Las Vegas would be “a club night at TAO,” I panicked.
“Are you sure we’ll be able to get in?” I asked. “Doesn’t it cost thousands of dollars? Don’t you have to be famous?”
“We’re a hot group of girls,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”
Brianna’s confidence wasn’t misplaced, at least when speaking of herself. We’d grown up just three years apart, but in alternate social universes. Brianna was the one who hogged all the good metabolism and hand-eye coordination; while she rose through the high school cheerleading ranks, I huddled my size 14 self in the Model United Nations Club and Honor Society. Her other bridesmaids were collected from this strange, gorgeous life I only caught begrudging glimpses of while my best friend and I stayed in on Friday nights with Papa Murphy’s pizza and Comedy Central stand-up specials. They looked like Taylor Swift’s squad.
“Uh huh,” my friends and co-workers would roll their eyes when I tried to explain exactly what I was up against.
“No, seriously, you don’t understand,” I’d tell them, and then pause the conversation to pull up a group shot of us at Brianna’s bridal shower. Their smile collapsed into a gaping stare as they flicked my screen, trying to enlarge the freakishly beautiful lineup. We all agreed. It wasn’t natural.
I panicked about the trip for almost a year, running every Google search I could think of in an effort to prepare—to somehow transform. I learned about entrance covers and how they fluctuated depending on whether the DJ was someone you’d recognize as formerly dating Katy Perry. I understood the breakdowns of table costs and bottle service, and how important it was to get to cut in line for the bathroom. I knew that heels were a non-negotiable and each guy in the group made it exponentially harder to get through the line.
Alone with my laptop, I’d type in the words I was ashamed to even ask: am I too fat to go to a club?
I’d been up and down a 40-pound range since high school, never what Hollywood would consider “small” or even “acceptable,” even on my lowest end. I was healthy but broad, and after years of pushing against a shape that didn’t want to change, I was learning to accept what I looked like. I built a personal style around my curves that filled rockabilly Bernie Dexter and ModCloth pinup dresses. I found ways to make myself look how I felt, which was cute and quirky.
Dressing sexy, though? Sexy wasn’t on the menu. It was an aspiration I eliminated for myself. Not my style I’d say, masking the truth I couldn’t kick, no matter how many body-positive memes I retweeted. Not my body.
Clubs are for every body! My Google search promised. Just go and have fun! No one cares!
“Bullshit,” I muttered to myself, flicking through a hundred club promo slideshow pictures of silicone-sculpted perfection.
A few weeks before our planes took off for Vegas, I went through my closet and took out any dress that was maybe slightly low-cut or rode up to the thigh. A few cocktail dresses from office Christmas parties, all adorable candidates that resulted in pitch-perfect selfies. “These are all super cute,” Brianna said. “But they’re not, you know, right for a club.”
My answer was clear. I was going to be the Zach Galifianakis of this trip.
“So glad you could make it tonight, ladies,” Armani Suit Josh said, ushering me, Brianna, and her three gorgeous best friends to the left of a giant line that snaked around the octopus-armed TAO goddess like a summer wait for Disneyland’s Splash Mountain. “I’ve got a table upstairs; it should only be a few minutes.” We circled around lush red velvet sofas in the lounge; I could still glimpse the Viva Las Vegas souvenir store past the line, through the entrance and back in the world I’d just effortlessly transcended.
I could feel my phone vibrating in my wristlet. The texts from begging men wouldn’t stop—we couldn’t walk a block down the Las Vegas strip without boys throwing us free drink coupons, concert tickets, and table access at clubs from Hyde to XS.
“I feel bad. All these other guys wanted us to come to their clubs, too. They keep asking if we’re on our way,” I told Andrea, my hotel suite-mate and new best friend. We shared a Type A personality and inability to sleep past 8 a.m., while Brianna and her much more chill bridesmaids Bonnie and Jamie encroached on noon. That morning I’d made a confession to her: “I don’t think I have anything to wear to the club.” The night before was “Casual Night” on Old Vegas Fremont Street, where my sister decreed we’d all wear cozy sweaters and leggings.
Even their sweaters have cleavage, I realized while I frumped along in a baggy Ann Taylor Loft monstrosity.
We crossed an empty Las Vegas Boulevard to Macy’s at Fashion Square Mall, which was unlike any other Macy’s I’d visited in my entire Pacific Northwest life. At home, they corral all the sequins into the Mother of the Bride dress corner. Here every rack glittered and preened with feather collars and cuffs.
I wandered between shimmering crop tops and miniskirts until a spandex confection peeked into my periphery. A Guess black bodycon dress styled after a stripper cage, with straps down to the small of the back, and a neckline that made my bare bra feel extremely conservative.
“That is perfect!” Andrea insisted, and in a trancelike casino-induced state, I had to agree. It was strangely supportive, clingy with structure, like a corset for my entire body.
“How do I even wear this?” I asked as the cashier ran my Macy’s card. “Do they even make a bra that you can wear under something this low?”
“Nope. But they make duct tape.”
That night, all of the tiniest dresses came out of the suitcases. Brianna took her magic roll of boob tape out of her carry-on and strapped my 38 double-D cups up in place. “Kim Kardashian had a video on this,” she said. “It’s probably the only useful thing I’ve learned from watching that show.”
Andrea curled my hair and Jamie zipped up my strappy back. “Look at your boobs!” They all proclaimed, as if they were lost treasures dredged up from the Titanic. To be honest they were, even to me—I stared in the full-length hotel suite mirror, stunned by a self I had long forgotten, maybe one that never actually existed. A leggy self in clinging black cut with deep, plunging peeks of flesh.
In the reflection I felt strangely incredible, but my mind was quick to remind me, this wasn’t a normal reaction. I couldn’t pull this off. Someone would know. The doorman or bouncer, he’d smell it on me. She’s in a hotness costume. It’s a DISGUISE!
“What’s wrong?” Brianna wanted to know.
“You have to understand, I’ve never gone out like this,” I said. “I’m worried I won’t look right.”
She rolled her retired cheerleader eyes and shook her bridal tiara head. “That is a whole bunch of bullshit all in your head. That’s just you. No one else thinks that.”
“Are we all ready?” Andrea wanted to know, corralling the last-minute hair-curls and mirror selfies.
I heaved a ginormous breath into my almost-naked chest. More ready than I ever dreamed possible.
“Ladies, if you’re ready to go upstairs, just follow me,” Armani Josh said. He was with two other men in black suits with Secret Service stature. We’d only been lounging for a few minutes, not even long enough to finish the vodka-sodas that magically appeared alongside edamame and chicken skewers. We walked past groups that had been there when we arrived, like the giant posse of 21st birthday revelers. Behind the line was a dark, secret staircase lit only by sporadic tealights and guarded by sentinel security nodding us up at Armani Josh’s command. We were herded to a table overlooking the sweaty shoulder-to-shoulder-packed dance floor and DJ, a table generously spaced between two parties of men who’d spent $7,000 simply for the privilege a night within view of our party and buying $500 bottles of Absolut. Behind our deep lounge couch was a private elevated dance bar that gave the girls at surrounding tables comfortable room to dance and show off above the cover-paying, line-waiting commoners below. A row of giant security guards barred us like million dollar bills.
As my sister got up to dance all night, I realized—I was here, too. I hadn’t been pulled aside by anyone along the staircase for any superficial violations. I hadn’t slowed down the party from ascending from lounge purgatory. I looked like I belonged here. But more than that, I felt like I did.
One more vodka-soda and I was up on the private dance floor, dipping as Lil John played, probably badly but no one noticed. A man from the neighbor table stepped up next to me, and was immediately yanked down by one of the security guards. In the sudden confusion, I quickly stepped back to the table. Shit, I thought. I wasn’t good enough after all. I was being removed before I offended the well-paying patrons.
“Oh no sweetheart, I’m sorry, the dance floor is just Ladies Only,” the security guard whisper-shouted into my ear over the decadent, endless noise. “Get that ass back up there!”
I took it as a command. I would not deprive TAO of me, my smile, and my impeccably taped boobs. “Are you having a good time?” My drunk, dazzling sister wanted to know.
“THE BEST,” I screamed. Maybe this was my first and last club night. Maybe the dress would end up hidden in my closet for years until I finally purged it out into the Goodwill pile. But this knowledge that I could be this person here, in the sparkling dark, unafraid of my skin, unafraid of being seen, that was forever. That was truly me.