Humans of New York's Tanqueray Shares Life Story as Fans Donate More Than $2.5 Million
When Tanqueray first popped up on the popular Humans of New York page in November 2019, people were immediately taken with her enthralling stories about life as a burlesque dancer in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Tanqueray, whose real name is Stephanie Johnson, quickly went viral on the social media account — and now, nearly a year later, the account’s creator is sharing dozens more posts about her incredible life with the hopes of raising money to support her medical expenses.
“Tanqueray caused quite a stir a few months ago when she dropped some truth bombs on us, while wearing a hand-beaded faux mink coat that she made herself,” creator Brandon Stanton wrote on Instagram. “What you don’t know is what happened afterward. Tanqueray – whose real name is Stephanie – sat for a series of twenty interviews with me, during which time I transcribed her entire life story. And whoa boy, what a story.”
Though Stanton initially intended to make 76-year-old Johnson’s story into a podcast, a bad fall last winter that left her unable to walk has expedited the need for donations. So far, the 32-part “Tattletales from Tanqueray” series has brought in more than $2.5 million on GoFundMe.
Stanton wrote that he was sharing her life’s tale to raise enough money to ensure she “can live the rest of her life in comfort and dignity.”
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(32/32) “I was walking down the street last winter. I don’t remember what I was thinking about, but I was crying so I couldn’t see much. And I slipped on a patch of ice. I wasn’t on the ground for very long. Somebody rushed over and lifted me off the sidewalk– but I haven’t been able to walk since. Not much goes on in this apartment. Nothing really changes but the TV channels. So after awhile I started thinking that maybe the show was over for good. And to be honest I was kinda ready. It’s not like I could go anywhere. And nobody was coming over to see me. It was starting to feel like everything that was going to happen to me had already happened. There was nothing left but a bunch of stories. And those aren’t worth much when there’s nobody to listen. But then I got this one last gig. Right as the curtain was coming down, I get this one last chance to be on stage. One last chance to be Tanqueray. And I haven’t forgotten how to do it. Maybe I can’t wear my heels anymore, but I can put on my make-up. And I might not be able to dance but I can talk like I need to talk. To make people smile. And laugh. And to keep them looking at me—so I can feel like I exist for just a few more minutes, before the lights go out for good. It’s just a few minutes. That’s how long you’ve got to hold em’. It’s not very long at all. But if you’re doing it right—it can feel like forever.”
The dozens of new posts about Johnson’s life have been rolled out over the last week, and they start at the very beginning, when she was a child growing up outside of Albany and dealing with a difficult relationship with her mother.
When she became pregnant as a teenager, she headed to New York City — but after stopping at home to fetch her personal belongings, her mother called the police and had her arrested for burglary.
Johnson said she agreed to give her unborn son up for adoption and headed to prison at just 18 years old, eventually leaving for New York City after she was released on parole.
She got a job working at a clothing factory and spent her days exploring the city — but when she learned that go-go dancers could make $100 in tips on a five-hour shift, she knew what she wanted to do.
“I was a better dancer than all of them,” she said. “But I knew the clubs wouldn’t hire me. Because go-go dancers had to be perfect. They couldn’t have stretch marks. Couldn’t have tattoos. And they couldn’t be Black.”
Johnson said she made a name for herself dancing at clubs anyway, and mingled with the rich and famous, including members of The Temptations. Following a brief marriage to a man named Carmine — whom she called “the only one” to ever love Stephanie and not just Tanqueray — she began working as a burlesque dancer, as they made more money than go-go dancers.
“My first gig was at a volunteer firehouse in Long Island. I was so nervous that I had to pee every five minutes. And I kept having to stop the performance while they drove away on calls. But I must have done something right, because they booked me again on the spot… I decided right then to make a career out of it,” she said.
It was at that time that she began going by Tanqueray, and soon incorporated a snake and sword swallowing into her act to stand out.
Johnson even authored her own column called Tattletales from Tanqueray in the adult magazine High Society, which she said gained her an entirely new legion of fans.
“And after the first issues came out, I was like famous,” she said. “[Publisher and porn actress] Gloria [Leonard] would send boxes of the latest issue to all of my gigs. Guys would be lining up on the street to get a signature. And my salary went up — big time.”
Eventually, Johnson decided she preferred to live life as Stephanie over that of Tanqueray, and stopped dancing, instead picking up various jobs over the years like brothel manager and dominatrix.
“Sometimes I’ll remember the things that happened to me and I’ll just start laughing,” she said. “I hope when I get to heaven God shows me a movie of my life. But just the funny parts. Not the in-between parts, ‘cause then we’d both start crying.”
Stanton said money raised will go toward making Johnson, who does not have insurance, is taken care of, as she now has a 24-hour home health aide and a physical therapist.
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