Racy ‘secret’ mum kept hidden for 18 years
Mercedes Michaels has worn many hats in her professional life - she's been a model, hairdresser and is now an author.
But there was one job she did that the Perth mum kept secret for almost 20 years - she had worked as a stripper on and off since her late teens.
Ms Michaels would turn to exotic dancing to supplement her income when needed, with the well-paid job ensuring she was able to provide for her daughter. But the whole time she was terrified that people would find out.
"There was always that feeling of, 'Oh when is this going to catch up with me?'" Ms Michaels told news.com.au.
That feeling persisted until last year when Ms Michaels returned to stripping again and decided to "come out" about her career.
Now she's written a book, The Soulful Stripper, about what it was like to keep her work a secret for so long and how freeing it was to finally confess to those around her.
'IT DREW ME IN'
Ms Michaels, 36, began working as a stripper when at age 18 she went to a club and became beguiled by the world she saw there.
"I moved out of home very young and I've always been a dancer my whole life," she said.
"I was in a nightclub one night because everything was shut during the week … I went to have a few drinks and was kind of intrigued, it drew me in from there. I started about two weeks after that first experience."
Soon, Ms Michaels went from making $7 an hour working in an ice cream shop to hundreds of dollars a night. She found her new well-paid job thrilling.
"I found that as I didn't really have a very enjoyable teens, there was a lot going on in my life at the time, my dad was ill," she said.
"So for me it was kind of like an escape, this other world with bright lights and high heels and makeup and money, so it was this excitement that came with it."
But soon anxiety about her night time gig crept in when Ms Michaels began getting other jobs.
She became paranoid about what would happen if people knew that she also worked as a stripper.
"I've sabotaged myself for years out of fears that this would come out," she said. "In the early 2000s I was going quite well in the modelling industry, getting lots of interest and I was always concerned or worried."
'OH MY GOD, PLEASE DON'T LET THEM RECOGNISE ME'
Ms Michaels continued to work on and off as stripper but the fear and secrecy over her work never left her.
Her mother found out and was devastated, wrongly assuming that being a stripper meant that Ms Michaels was providing sexual services to men.
"A lot of it was (brought) on by my mother's disappointment in my choices," she said. "I think a lot of that unknowingly carried over to me that I felt like I was disappointed in myself."
The fear over her secret job extended to her professional life, where she was plagued by stress daily.
"I remember I was working in a hair salon and every male client that came through I was like, 'Oh my god please don't let them recognise me, please don't let them be from somewhere and tell my boss'," she recalled.
Things became harder when Ms Michaels found herself single and trying to date while still working as a stripper.
"Then being single at 30 and because I carried so much guilt and shame around it. There was always (these thoughts) when I'm dating: how do I bring this up, how do I tell them about it, are they going to judge me for this, can they really accept it?" she said.
Ms Michaels' mum would eventually accept her daughter's work as a stripper and today they have a loving relationship.
Ms Michaels returned to stripping reluctantly last year, admitting she at first felt "shame and guilt" about having to re-enter the profession
"I ended up finding myself back in the industry, not in clubs, but in the freelance network in Perth," Ms Michaels said.
"As a single mum working as couple of hours on the weekend and making the same that I would make in a whole week was kind of a no-brainer.
"But I guess being at that age and having to come back to that even last year when I moved back to Perth from Bali after trying to invest in some businesses back there and them not working I found myself again being like, 'Oh no that's it'."
But then Ms Michaels had what she described as her "aha moment", realising that if she was OK with her work, others would be too.
"There was this aha moment because I'd done a lot of work on myself and realised this isn't mine, I'm good at what I do, I make great money, I'm not hurting anyone," she said. "I provide financially for my daughter. I can set myself back up in the blink of an eye."
While stripping had once been a secret she had only revealed to her close friends and family, she began telling everyone.
"What I've come to realise is it's actually opened connection rather than what I thought would happen (which would be people saying), 'Oh, we don't know how to deal with you'," she explained.
"I've said it to school mums who I thought were going to be the worst, judgey people and they're like, 'Oh you might know my cousin' … so this secret that I thought I had to keep to feel accepted was actually creating isolation."
Accepting herself and "coming out" with her work as a stripper also helped Ms Michaels find love.
"The moment that I accepted it I met someone who is so supportive who has my back," she said. "They didn't care whether I was a painter or a plumber or a stripper, they just saw me."
Ms Michaels now wants to help others set themselves free from secrets that might be holding them back. She's written a book about her experience and now works as a love and life coach as well as a speaker.
"I decided OK, I'm going to come out about this and use this to launch my new career and new step in my life, and allow people permission to be totally OK with who they are," she said.