Jessica Pressler is an American journalist who currently works as a contributing editor at New York Magazine. Her article “The Hustlers at Scores”, originally published in 2015, is the source material for the new film Hustlers (2019), written for the screen and directed by Lorene Scafaria. The true-crime narrative concerns a small group of former strippers, including and led by Samantha Barbash and Roselyn Keo, who embezzled thousands of dollars from finance professionals in New York City amidst the post-’08 recession. We spoke to Pressler, a native of Marblehead, about both the article and the film via phone last week.
DIG: Did you always want to work in journalism?
I went to college for a year and change at the arts division of Boston University, thinking that I wanted to be an artist. But I wasn’t very good at art. So I decided to be a writer because I discovered in school that I really liked writing and it was something I could do… I remember trying to intern at The Boston Phoenix and dropping off a hard copy of a resume! That and The Improper Bostonian both had an influence on me. Like, the guy that did those [Improper] Q&As? [It was Jonathan Soroff, of “Soroff On”.] I read those and I remember thinking, I wanna do that!
But ultimately, I went to college in Philadelphia and got a job at an alt-weekly there, The Philadelphia Weekly, while I was in school. And I briefly worked at Philadelphia Magazine, which is owned by the same people that own Boston, so I wrote for Boston once. I’ve been on this city magazine beat for a long time, which I’m just now realizing as I say it out loud! And from Philadelphia, I went to New York Magazine. I’ve also written for other publications from time to time.
How did you end up writing “The Hustlers at Scores”? Was it something you heard about through the grapevine and sought it out further? Or was it presented to you?
It’s kind of a strange set of circumstances. Before, I had written a story about a woman who had been a dancer at Scores. She ended up marrying one of her customers, an accountant, and he was later arrested for running a huge Ponzi scheme. Like right after the recession, so 2010, 2011. He went to jail and she became this single mom who was now living this kind of reverse-Cinderella story. She had been rich for a short period of time and then it all went away when he went to jail.
She was an incredibly thoughtful person, her name is Diane Passage. She told me how working at a strip club changed her and made her more materialistic. Working there kind of diverted her attitude and warped her attitude towards men. She thought of them less as human beings.
So fast forward to 2013, I was reading the New York Daily News—and it was my husband that found it first—a story about a “stripper crime ring,” in which these women had drugged men and stolen money by swiping their credit cards. It reminded me of what Diane had said about her attitude towards men, and I saw how that attitude could manifest, and wondered about that further. I reached out to the girls [including Keo and Barbash]. I was interested in hearing more about their perspective. They had felt a bit minimized in the Daily News story, since it was from the victim’s perspective—which is fair—but the story also had the women pictured in bikinis, and the women felt a little glossed over. I began what was ultimately a pretty long process in getting to know them.
Do you recall your thoughts about the story as you were writing it and even after it was published? As the writer, were there elements or truths that were difficult to highlight in your reporting?
I think once I met Roselyn Keo, Rosie, she was such a compelling personality and the things that she said were so interesting. Like how she analyzed the situation and made comparisons between the Wall Street guys and the dancers at the club, and how there was this symbiotic yet contentious relationship. It kind of clicked into place from there as far as understanding the story, the dynamics, the strangeness of it all, this microcosm. It was really her. Rosie was such a voice. We spent hours on the phone just talking.
At the time the article was published, back in December 2015, what were the responses and feedback like?
I do remember that it got a big response and people liked it and responded to Rosie and her voice. A lot of people were just like, It’s weird, but I’m rooting for this person, even though she’s not doing a good thing! The movie is similar in tone and scope in that people are fascinated, and likely haven’t heard a story like this before.
Readers were able to connect to it! To the contrary of how outrageous the crimes were.
Everybody has experienced some version of Hustlers, even if it was or never will be as extreme!
Like other films in the past that were based on articles, such as The Fast and the Furious (2001) and Coyote Ugly (2000), “The Hustlers at Scores” was optioned for a feature film, in this case by producer Jessica Elbaum. How remarkable was it to witness the cinematic journey of the article?
I only know my side! But basically what happened is that in 2015, while a draft of that article was done, I was assigned a profile on Adam McKay, who directed The Big Short (2015). I did that and thought he was so interesting, and I had covered the financial crisis myself, and already knew that it was part of the hustler’s story too.
When “The Hustlers at Scores” was published, I knew that Adam would enjoy it as a person. So I emailed it to him and as it happened, his production company at the time, Gary Sanchez, had just started a female-focused sister production company called Gloria Sanchez that was run by Jessica Elbaum. He wrote back saying how it was a great story and that it should be developed. He introduced me to Jessica and I met her and she totally got it. All the themes and all the things she found interesting, I had found too. Like, how these women weren’t like the characters in The Big Short. They weren’t perfect heroes. They were flawed and complicated.
I wasn’t a part of the day-to-day production of the movie, but they gave me updates! I just got to enjoy it as it happened, which was great. Ultimately, with Jessica and Lorene Scafaria together, they made the movie happen and were so passionate about it for all the right reasons.
And it was pretty fast how it happened. The article was published in 2015, you and Jessica Elbaum connected in 2016, and then I read in The New York Times how the movie’s release is only six months after production wrapped!
Yeah, they did not lose momentum, which was fantastic. And it was amazing seeing the cast fall into place. It was such a delight, like, really?! I only visited set once, as I was really in the throes of reporting on another story at the time. I went the day they did the drug baking scene.
In both the article and the movie, sexual and gender politics, the “American Dream”, and radical populism are all at the moral compass and intellectual crux of Hustlers. In addition to that, these women, by way of their crimes—which the movie doesn’t excuse them of—were ahead of the larger cultural discussions of female agency and sex worker rights, making the film remarkably timely, and specifically for women who have been marginalized and maligned socially, politically and pop-culturally.
In regards to both takes—the article and the movie—there seems to be two lenses in which to view the obstacles, victories, downfall, and impact of the characters. First, the use or implication of sex by any means necessary, and how that in itself challenges the limits of one’s autonomy. Or, the retrospective analysis of survival and what happens when we hustle harder versus smarter. Is there a takeaway at all for the audience?
It’s funny because when you emailed and mentioned Boston and it brought me back to my days of working on Lansdowne Street, that was so weird at the same time because I thought, Where did that come from? But the reason it did is because in college, I got a job working at the Lansdowne clubs and handing out fliers to people on the street and being a door girl. Really just being “a girl.”
It was a little bit like fishing, like how they do in Hustlers, by bringing the guys into the clubs. And while not in the same way, the Lansdowne clubs were thinking, We’re going to use the girls. And I was a cocktail waitress for awhile too. It was a formative experience in which I learned, as we all learn as women, that in a lot of ways, your value is in your looks. It’s kind of the direction you’re steered into. And Lorene touched on this a lot in Hustlers. How women are valued on their looks and men are valued on how much money they make and what they do.
I think that’s a part of the story and why Rosie and these women did what they did. In both the movie and the article, there are all these references too, such as Howard Stern, Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007-), and all these cultural influences that are pushing women into this direction of what society values. And there was anger at that. Women felt repressed—and that bubbled up for sure after Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.
So that was definitely a theme, and Rosie felt that, and many women have felt that, and it’s why they’re such relatable characters despite doing something that most of us wouldn’t do. We relate to that pressure. It’s so embedded. The other major takeaway is that these women did a bad thing but they aren’t bad people, necessarily. Everybody has had the experience of a slippery slope. It’s a very human story.
It’s layered and they were frustrated. I had to ask myself, would I have done some of that shit? In the van with Ramona, on our way to the next scam? I graduated from college two years after the recession. I witnessed Occupy Wall Street as it was happening in New York City. Watching Hustlers brought back those memories of how people felt betrayed, denied, like they had been duped during the recession. Hustlers is heavier than I would have imagined. When you do have power, there is potential to go over-the-top, such as becoming materialistic. It all feels like payback time.
Yeah. It’s like that Jennifer Lopez line in the movie, that we all learn the system is rigged, and then a kind of screw-you feeling arises. It starts to fill the air.
What I thought was a wonderful, delicate detail of Hustlers was that it touched on female friendship. From the power of it to the potentially damning dissolution of it. Could you speak more about why Rosie and Sam’s friendship, reimagined here as Ramona and Dorothy/Destiny (portrayed by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez) was emphasized in the movie? And when you interviewed them separately for your article, did you feel there was still a kinship between them?
It’s complicated. When I first met Samantha, and I met her first, she was definitely trying to keep the band together. But in reality, they were all sort of breaking up. They wouldn’t say that they were friends now. They would say that they were business acquaintances. But that’s also hindsight.
There was definitely a bond, an intimacy to the whole thing. Being in this with somebody else and together all the time. And in having a kind of secret. They were like Kobe and Shaq. That was a real line [that you hear in the movie]! They were a team. But Rosie and Sam haven’t spoken in years. They don’t have a lot in common in real life. They bonded through this lifestyle that they shared.
There’s an inherent truth to the scene in which Destiny [Rosie] calls [the reporter] Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) to ask about Ramona [Sam]. We had discussions like that and it’s something that Lorene picked up on based on my notes.
In the film, Julia Stiles is you, under the name of Elizabeth!
Julia has graciously said that it’s me and it is me in the sense of, I was the reporter. But again, it’s all inspired by!
What is your relationship like with Rosie and Sam today? Rosie has embraced Hustlers, while Sam, on the other hand, has thrown a lot of subliminals.
Rosie and I are definitely in touch. We have talked like everyday for the past few weeks for sure. She is a huge amount of the reason why Hustlers became what it is. She has her own memoir coming out and it’s enjoyable.
And Samantha. While she’s made her comments, I don’t know what’s going on with that, she’s always been really lovely to me. Even recently, I got a message from her saying how even though she chose not to get involved with the movie, that she was really proud of me and that I deserved the best. She’s been warm and friendly to me.
Sam may be embracing it in her own way. I advocate for both of them when I can because they’re so important to the story and have found their way of telling their side.
Conversation has been edited for clarity.
HUSTLERS. RATED R. NOW PLAYING IN MULTIPLEXES NATIONWIDE.