Bella Cummins is America’s longest-serving brothel madam. The wide-eyed, horse-loving 74-year-old has done it for 37 years. She was born in Chicago and grew up in rural New York state; never a city girl, life took her to America’s southwest. Her legal brothel, Bella’s Hacienda Ranch, located in the tiny Nevadan city of Wells (population 1,237) attracts hopeful, amorous customers from across the US and beyond. Two major highways intersect Wells, making it, as Cummins tells me, “the crossroads of the western United States”. At Bella’s, Cummins pioneered a female-led approach, and it’s the only legal brothel entirely run by sex workers.
Cummins introduces herself to me as “America’s madam”, and the subsequent two hours feel like a Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends-esque journey into sex and legislation, social history and American capitalism. Cummins, however, has the receipts: Hundreds of thousands of men and women have come through the doors of Bella’s, and she says she’s spoken to nearly all of them. Now, at the age of 74, she wants to impart what she knows to the world, whether it’s management techniques or the evolution of condoms. What drives her is a burning desire to spread Nevada’s legalised prostitution model – in which counties vote on whether to permit brothels or not – far beyond the southwest.
Ten of Nevada’s 16 counties allow sex work, though the vast majority of it takes place illegally in two of the state’s metropolitan areas, Las Vegas and Reno. There have been legal brothels in Nevada since the middle of the 20th century, and, according to Cummins, the model should serve as the blueprint for sex work globally. She says she will argue that case in her upcoming book, Sexual Healing. Read on to hear Cummins’ pearls of wisdom from a colourful life well-lived.
VICE: How did you find yourself at what would become Bella’s Hacienda Ranch?
Bella Cummins: I was introduced to an older gentleman who I eventually married. He’d purchased this brothel – he mortgaged the home he was in to do it. When I came along, he was in a panic financially. He needed me to step up and figure out bookkeeping. Besides really not knowing anything about bookkeeping, I knew even less about the workings of a brothel. I did probably everything that a person could do wrong, more times than I’d like to admit, but I got it.
From there, it went beyond numbers. It went to leadership [at the brothel], it went to watching the transformation of an industry that had been legalised in 1970 and watching it go from it being legal to have sex without a condom, to HIV, to the evolution of condoms, the evolution of lubricant, drugs, pimps. I was there at the 20th century’s last great times, but it was still dominated by manipulative individuals a huge percentage of the time.
My young vision – I think I was maybe 34 – was, “Women should hang on to their own money. What the frick’s going on here?” It was pre-cellphone, it was pre-internet, it was pre-everything. I just watched, grew and adapted, and became a better mentor over 37 years. Now, the women who are choosing to be in this field aren’t handing their money to someone else; they can’t even imagine sex without a condom. They just roll their eyes and go, “No, you gotta be kidding, Bella.”
Tell me about your courtesans – I think that’s what you call them, right?
Courtesans, yes. I have an incredibly honest group of courtesans. Between about two in the morning and six in the morning, when it’s a little bit quieter, they answer the door, they book their own money, they do all the things that a normal staff member would do. Why is that such a good thing? Because it proves that courtesans can handle responsibility. They can be independent businesswomen, learning to become even better businesswomen. This is a time that I once dreamt of, but it’s here. The other houses [brothels] aren’t this way.
The women that choose to work with me, they’ve got a Nevada state business licence. They don’t work under me, they work with me. I’m just a person who has the longevity to say, “OK, what are your dreams and goals? How are you going to get there?” That’s a really nice place to be.
Are the clientele coming from far and wide, because Wells is a small town, or even smaller than that, right?
Right – it’s a small, rural community. But remember, it’s the crossroads of the western United States. We are closest to Utah and Idaho, but they travel from everywhere. On Sunday, it just happened to be South Africa’s Day. And they [South African customers] all showed up and had a great experience.
Not everyone gets to have the love of their life. There are people who are focused on their occupation – they still have the same needs, but they less than need the obligations associated with that commitment. Or there are people who are long-haul, over-the-road – what I call “trucks”. We get our fair share – they have money, they have a need, they’re going all the time.
What are your thoughts about other models of approach to sex work?
We don’t need to make criminals out of people who want to trade sex for money – I see no reason for that. But I also know that as a globe, everyone came here to have sex somehow, and it becomes an industry when people are trading money for intimacy. So how do we take that and find the correct solution?
In Nevada’s brothels, there are regulations that make sure to the very best of our ability that they’re upstanding gals. There are fingerprints; there are medical checks every week. The ladies, they don’t want [STDs]. So it’s this incredible place where we don’t deal with disease. I’m really passionate about it. And decriminalisation won’t do that, because there’s nothing that regulates it.
You don’t like to think of the courtesans as being sex workers. Why is that, and how do you see their roles as being different?
I believe labels matter, and that is an assumption being made that sex is happening. So I prefer “sensual-sexual service provider”. There are plenty of clients that come in and it has nothing to do with intercourse. Just because they’re a courtesan, never should a person assume that penetration has happened! They aren’t behind the closed door – they don’t know. Why put a label on something that’s an assumption?
Courtesan – yes, it still means prostitute. But it means prostitute of the elite, of the upper society; people who have some education about who they are as a person, right? Something has to differentiate between someone being an entrepreneur, putting their neck in the noose for their success, and someone who has no licencing, no medical checks. You can’t label them the same. They’re two totally different industries at that point.
What does it mean to you to be a good madam?
A good madam has incredible compassion and can be very understanding of women at different ages in their lives. However, that compassion doesn’t preempt consistency. It has to be consistent for them to get over the roughest spots in their growth – the things that they came to attain as a young woman, using this particular industry to further what I call her “security”. The consistency helps them with their own boundaries. They tend to be like, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Well they don’t get a tomorrow. We just get another today. And I think [it helps] being loving, unconditionally accepting everyone, no matter, race, or age… that we’re all perfect. I work to help them understand there is no competition. There’s one of them. Be the best them they can be.
How much money can your courtesans make?
I’ll start with a slightly different question and give you an answer. There are approximately 400,000 people that visit brothels. And Bella’s gets her fair share. The courtesans within the business, depending on where they’re at in their career – they don’t necessarily start out making maybe more than a few $1,000 a week. But as they progress, that can reach an undetermined amount of money.
Do you think there’ll be a successful uptake of Nevada’s model elsewhere?
Will I live long enough? I don’t know. But I’ll keep talking about it. I’ll keep giving women a safe environment – and clients, as well – to express themself, sensually, sexually. My journey has been about helping people understand how to be human correctly.
I was wondering if you ever got petitioned by the Westboro Baptist Church or anything like that?
No, I can’t say I have. But there’s [Mormon] groups just across the border of Nevada [in Utah]. They have a problem, but you know, they’re doing their thing their way. I’m doing this here, and this has worked for a very long time. You don’t need to come in and decide that I’m doing something, suddenly, that’s wrong, just because of your belief system. I’ve had a few debates with Mormon bishops, and I would win every time. One said to me one day, “You know, Bella, if I can’t keep them [courtesans] from coming to your door, at least I know when they go through the door, they’re safe.” Bingo!
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