Stage set. Two ladies perched in the nail salon wearing velour track suits, getting their pedicure on. The topic was Fifty Shades of Grey, with its antihero's eyes like "sapphire pools of milky magic."
"What's it about?" the unenlightened one said.
"Only the most beautiful love story ever told," a nail tech replied.
"Is the writing at least good?"
"Oh, no, it's garbage."
The audience roared. This was Cuff Me: The Fifty Shades of Grey Musical Parody, not to be confused with Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody, not to be confused with 50 Shades! The Musical Parody. The musicals toured Tampa Bay in a flurry from October to January.
On this night, the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater was filled with a mostly female audience, welded in an odd sisterhood that allowed them to laugh, but also to publicly express some light interest in bondage. Can you think of anything else that does that? I can't.
Add the long-awaited movie coming out on Valentine's Day weekend (not a parody), plus the parade of cash-cow merchandise we'll talk about in a bit, and it was clear.
What was once a whisper has grown loud. For all its shock, Fifty Shades has lost its shock value, and the fans are fine with that. In Clearwater, it was just a girls' night out for the audience of 750, right next to Sex and the City and Skinnygirl margaritas.
"Ma-ma-ma-ma mommy porn, it's porn, it's porn," the cast sang to a Rihanna tune.
Fifty Shades has come off the Kindle and into the crowd.
• • •
Her name is Anastasia Steele. She's naive and virginal. His name is Christian Grey. He's an enigmatic billionaire. She interviews him for the college newspaper.
Do you know the rest? Christian is tortured for various reasons relating to his mother, but he's a hottie. Anastasia, or Ana, is his perfect submissive. He lets her into his world of BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) and sex contracts. There's a Red Room of Pain. He does unspeakable things to her. There's also romance. Yeah, I've read it.
British writer E L James started it as self-published Twilight fan fiction in 2009, and two more books followed the first volume. On the strength of its sales, the trilogy was picked up by traditional publisher Random House and released in 2012. It took off as a whole different animal, selling 100 million copies by this time last year.
The first book is a long row to hoe at more than 500 pages and is widely held in poor literary stead. In 2012, Tampa Bay Times book critic Colette Bancroft wrote:
"The prose is clunky, florid and gratingly repetitive. . . . Ana's first-person narrative voice sounds less like a college grad's than that of an 11-year-old girl who thinks she's seen Justin Bieber at the mall."
Casually, Colette told me she would find the characters more interesting had they both been hit by a bus.
Others have stabbed at the book's content: that it's antifeminist, that Ana is being abused, that it's not empowering or representative, that maybe in the end Christian Grey is just bananas and Ana is just dumb.
But the popularity is not up for debate. Why? You could overthink that part, or you could just accept that it's sexy, and there's this weird thing that happens sometimes, I dunno, where women enjoy sex.
Racy books are not new (think Fabio paperbacks in grocery carts) and continue to be a major force in publishing. The Romance Writers of America puts total sales of romance novels in 2013 at $1.08 billion. The overwhelming majority of the readers, 84 percent, are women. And many of the books, 39 percent, are downloaded on e-readers.
But it's tough to think of a smutty book that has clicked in the collective consciousness like Fifty Shades, to the point of spawning entirely new branded items.
There's a Fifty Shades bear from Vermont Teddy Bears. There's a Fifty Shades wine in flavors of Red Satin and White Silk. You can buy a Fifty Shades candle, a blindfold set, oils and a "vibrating ring" on an end cap, near the toothpaste, at Target.
Companies that have nothing to do with sex or romance are seizing an opportunity with the frailest of ties. Domino's Pizza in Israel unleashed a really creepy ad for Sriracha pizza. In it, a human tongue is restrained in chains and leather underwear. "You're going to suffer and enjoy every moment," the ad reads.
Pinterest is lit up with Fifty Shades party planning ideas. Sharon Denninger knows because it's part of her job. The 34-year-old consultant for Pure Romance, a purveyor of "mild to wild" in-home sex toy parties for women, recently worked a Fifty Shades party that featured "arti-choke" dip.
"When the books came out we saw a spike in some of our product lines," said Denninger, who lives in Riverview. "With the movie right around Valentine's Day, this is one of our busiest times."
Pure Romance has a Masterpiece Bondage Collection, which includes a flogger, a paddle, cuffs, a leash, a mask and so on. It is impossible to tell who wants to order what, Denninger said. After the presentation, women buy in private, often bucking the idea of that reductive term, "mommy porn."
"You have girls that are just out of school, young professionals, a wide range of careers," she said. "You have nurses, you have schoolteachers. You'll see a more mature audience, women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, maybe 70s. I've been down in Sun City Center. That was very interesting."
I called University of South Florida marketing professor Carol Osborne to talk consumer purchasing habits, but pretty quickly we got onto Valley of the Dolls. The 1966 book by Jacqueline Susann featured young women trapped in the patriarchy, in a plot full of drugs, sex and abortion.
"People were outraged," she said. "I remember one of my sisters telling me as I got older that she got in trouble from our mother because she was reading it, and she put a brown paper wrapper on it."
An early Kindle, I suggested.
More overt attempts to capitalize on heterosexual women's interest in erotic materials have not had the staying power of their male-oriented counterparts, Osborne said. (See Playgirl.) There's probably something at play with the science of what women find titillating.
From a more practical business standpoint, word of mouth is huge and helps move anything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades. If your friends are buying something, it's an automatic sale.
But when you get down to it, Osborne said, the reason something sells can be very simple.
"In marketing, we would say, obviously there's a need."
• • •
Plenty of smart and interesting women I know read the books. Plenty will see the movie, and surely they'll post about it. There's no shame, only warm "hellos" in the aisles.
At the Capitol, I heard my name in the crowd.
It was my friend Rebecca Lopez. We've known each other since we were teenagers. She's 32 now and married with a stunning family of three boys. At one point, she mentioned the word "Greybie."
I had to know more. Several nights later, I called her and asked if she'd talk to me about it for my story, and she agreed. See? No shame.
Rebecca got into Fifty Shades accidentally — or not, depending on how you look at it — through the Kindle. A fan of Twilight, she decided to give it a try when it popped up as a suggestion. She had never heard of it.
"I like a story," she said. "I like talking, dialogue. I like something that holds me."
She thought it would be a romance, or a thriller, or a mystery. When Christian visits Ana in the hardware store where she works, she said, "I thought he was going to kill her."
Soon it came into focus, and it was fun. Rebecca read it on the treadmill, shrinking the font on her Kindle in case anyone saw.
"It was a good read. It wasn't a challenging read. It was, 'My kids are in bed, and I can kind of go off into this other place.' And my husband really liked when I read it."
Nine months later, her third son was born.
"Someone was teasing me. 'You have a Greybie.' And I was like, 'I don't know what that is.' It was a baby born nine months after Fifty Shades came out.
"I mean, we were planning a third child, but —"
"It just helped a little?" I offered.
Rebecca looked for more books in that vein, including Sylvia Day's Crossfire series. In general, she just started reading again. Feeling free to talk Fifty Shades and any book like it in public became refreshing, she said.
That night at the Capitol, Rebecca was there with her mom, plus a dozen other women from the neighborhood, three rows deep.
• • •
Stage set again. Three ladies were at book club, but what would they read next? Soup for One? The Diary of Anne Frank? Someone suggested Fifty Shades of Grey.
"No one knows I'm reading porn!" the character shrieked.
The audience roared. This was 50 Shades! The Musical Parody, not to be confused with the other two. This one was in Ferguson Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The theater sat more than 1,000.
"There's a hole inside of me that needs to be filled!" Anastasia sang.
There was a totally unnecessary intermission with T-shirts and sex stuff for sale in the lobby, plus a game called Fifty Days of Play. In the bathroom line, women asked one another about the books. Had their friends read the books? They had to read the books.
The musical was coming to an end. The cast was now in choir robes, holding the book like a religious text. Finally, one spoke to the truth of the whole thing:
"Do you, all of you, vow to keep reading these books in public, no matter how uncomfortable it makes everyone around you?"
A thousand people cheered.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.