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It’s our 11th annual Best of the City issue, celebrating the best Las Vegas has to offer in everything from dining to entertainment to family fun! Also in this issue: Making sense of the Whitney Hologram Experience, an activist fights Big Solar with … poetry? Writer in Residence Krista Diamond considers The Real World’s infamous 31st season and how America’s Got Talent is changing Strip entertainment.

Hitting 21

The author in front of her pink Cadillac at the Mirage
Sarah Jane Woodall
Sarah Jane Woodall

I bounced around the neon maze of Las Vegas for two decades. But I didn't find fulfillment until I bounced out

Editor’s note: Sarah Jane Woodall, aka Wonderhussy, is a writer and YouTuber whose work humorously explores the quirkier side of the Southwest. After 21 years living and working in Las Vegas, Woodall recently moved to Death Valley to pursue her next chapter. This essay, based on one of her recent YouTube videos, is her fond farewell to Las Vegas.

I recently hit a milestone: the 21st anniversary of my move to Las Vegas. This isn’t just any old anniversary — 21 is a special number in Vegas. Being dealt 21 means you’ve hit it big! You beat the house at their own game! YOU’RE RICH!

When I look back at my 21 years here … well, I’m certainly not rich, and I wouldn’t even say I hit it medium, let alone big. But I have no criminal record, debt, or addictions — and I still have my original breasts, lips, and hair. So, in Vegas terms, I guess you could say I broke even!

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When I first announced my decision to move to Las Vegas in October 2000, most of my friends and relatives thought I was nuts: “Vegas is a second-chance town — why are you moving there?!” I guess it seemed an unlikely choice for someone with a newly minted art degree, a well-used library card, and an intact hymen. Why on earth would I move to Vegas, of all places?

Now you have to remember, this was Y2K — things were different. Vegas was still gross and dumpy — a place where you could get 99-cent shrimp cocktails and $2.99 steak and eggs while oxygen tank-toting grannies chain-smoked at the penny slots and busted old cowboys cried over their Crown Royal as some shitty lounge singer butchered “Solitaire.” A place where you could sit down at a nightclub without mortgaging your house! Times were different — and I loved it.

Nothing anyone said could dissuade me; I found Vegas — in all its tackiness, grittiness, fakeness, and realness — uniquely fascinating. And so it was that I embarked on my first, and greatest, Nevada adventure: becoming a Las Vegan.

At the time, I had a very particular idea of what the ultimate in Vegas glamour looked like, and I set out to achieve it in advance of my move: I threw away all my frumpy old hippie clothes and cultivated a new aesthetic I called “Ho Nouveau,” which involved a lot of Spandex, a lot of sequins, and a lot of pink — including my car.

Never mind that I already owned a sensible Nissan Sentra. In my mind, the ultimate Vegasmobile had to be fuel inefficient, American-made, and as square as the silent majority … so I traded that milquetoast 4-banger for some magic beans in the form of a grossly impractical and obscenely oversized 1986 Lincoln Town Car, which I had painted the color of Pepto Bismol. It had a white top, a white interior, ashtrays full of candy, and a leaky oil pan. And the very next day, I set sail across the Mojave Desert!

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I wasted no time upon arrival, securing a tidy one-bedroom across the street from Palace Station for $560/month, then hitting the streets to find a job. My original plan was to be a cocktail waitress at Caesars Palace … but back then, they didn’t just hire chicks for being cute; it was more of a merit-based grind of working your way up the union ranks from midweek graveyard at El Cortez, until one of the dinos at Caesars croaked to make way for fresh blood.

So I had to settle for lesser jobs, and in my 21 years in Vegas I did them all — go-go dancer, movie extra, cartoon mascot, camera girl, cigarette girl, Hooters girl, showgirl, convention model, nude model, fetish model … and now, YouTuber. Basically, anything that did not make use of my college degree, or allow me any measure of job security. But I sure had fun!

My first year in Vegas, I went to a different 24-hour coffee shop every night after work for chicken-fried steak — then burned the calories by dancing my pink hot pants off at all the clubs and lounges in town. And over the years, a pattern established itself: eat, drink, and be merry … for tomorrow we get old and ugly!

I once had a fortune cookie at Tao that read, “Those who say YES have more fun,” and I took it to heart. Drinks after work? YES! Dancing at the swingers’ club? SURE! Monday Night Football at the titty bar? WHY NOT??

I swilled rotgut in dive bars, champagne in high-limit rooms, cocktails in a converted laundry-room speakeasy, and bourbon at a biker bar where Manson Family look-alikes screamed obscenities through megaphones. I threw back boozy coffee drinks on Mt. Charleston and boozy slushies on Lake Mead — and vodka cranberries everywhere.

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And life was good. Party all day, hustle all night — or vice versa; it didn’t matter. As long as I made my monthly nut … well, there was nothing else to worry about. Stuff like goals and artistic fulfillment and the meaning of life — I successfully kept those black dogs at bay through a strict regimen of drinking, dancing, and professionally pandering to the lower-brow tastes of middle America.

But after a while, no amount of booze could stop self-awareness from creeping in, and I saw myself as a pinball — aimlessly bouncing around the blinking, flashing neon maze of the Strip from gig to gig, party to party, one fun thing to another. $100! Ding! $500 DING!! $1,000! DING DING DING! I was racking up points, and desperately working the flippers to avoid the void.

And then, gradually, my interests shifted. I’m not sure what started it, but I began spending more time exploring the rest of Nevada, outside Vegas — because turns out there’s a whole state outside the city limits! The pinball game lost its allure … and finally, one day I let go of the controls, and let gravity roll me between the flippers, down the hole, and out of the whole glittering machine. Out past the last Dotty’s and the last Del Taco, into the desert … finally coming to a stop somewhere just outside Death Valley.

From my new digs, I can still see the machine’s midnight glow, and feel its distant hum. And I still have a few quarters left, so I could insert a coin and be right back in the game any time I want, which might be fun to do — or even necessary, at some point.

But it’s been 21 years, y’all … 21 years!! You know what that is in Vegas years?! Ages!!! And for now, I’m okay just toasting my 21 and walking away from the table. They say you gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em — and though I might never be happy with what I have, I figure it’s prudent to cash out while the cashing’s good.

Sure, I’m still as artistically unfulfilled, unlucky in love and most definitely not-rich as ever — but who ever got rich at blackjack, anyway? Even the good casinos only pay 3 to 2.

And like I said earlier … I’m felony-free, addiction-free and debt-free — and still have my original breasts. I’ll take that as breaking even: I may be flat busted … but after 21 years in Vegas, at least I’m not broke!