Wonderland.

ELARICA JOHNSON

The P-Valley star unpacks the show’s layered storylines and the lessons we should take from them.

Elarica wearing brown jacket and skirt

All clothing by FENDI and shoes by LANVIN.

Elarica wearing brown jacket and skirt
All clothing by FENDI and shoes by LANVIN.

Taken from the Autumn 2020 issue. Order your copy now.

Since Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers in 2019, the world of stripping has been thrown into the spotlight. With seedy drug deals and bitchy back rooms ex-posed, the stigma around it crept back up into the open and soon became a heated topic of discussion. But one show aims to break away from that. Down in ‘The Dirty South’ of the Mississippi Delta, where problems can’t be covered with Birkin bags and giant fur coats, we’re thrust into the neon-hued, dollar bill-covered walls of P-Valley.

“This show is real and so honest that you feel like you’re at a strip club for real,” Elarica Johnson warns. “That’s all because of Katori [Hall]’s writing. She’s weaved in the dark stuff — the issues that these girls have, the issues that the patrons who come to the club bring — this world that is really unfair. The kind of forgotten America.”

Here, we’re introduced to the complex and mysterious world of Johnson’s character, Autumn Night — who carries an abundance of problems and fake IDs in a stolen YSL bag. “I feel like she has a variety of emotions. She’s a complex character,” she says of Autumn, who struggles with PTSD from a past abusive relationship, and is trying to find her feet in an unforgiving world. “But so are the rest of the characters. We’re not sugarcoating things, because the world isn’t sugarcoated. In fact, we are dealing with some serious stuff right now. People are very hurt and very upset, and the show doesn’t shy away from that.” When she first heard about the series, which is adapted from Katori Hall’s play Pussy Valley, Johnson wasn’t sure about stepping into platform heels and wear-ing barely-there, diamanté-covered bodysuits. But when she read Hall’s writing, she was sold. “I’d always known her for theatre, and my agent said have a read… The first four pages I was like ‘Oh my god, this is so sick!’” Known for her exploration of un-easy truths, the Olivier Award-winning playwright is making her TV debut with the exhilarating show, boldly highlighting how thin the line between hustling and exploitation can be for sex workers.

Elarica wearing pink boots and floral dress

Dress by RICHARD QUINN, boots by MOSCHINO, rings (right) CARTIER and ring (left) by ALAN CROCETTI.

Elarica wearing pink boots and floral dress
Dress by RICHARD QUINN, boots by MOSCHINO, rings (right) CARTIER and ring (left) by ALAN CROCETTI.

With Cirque du Soleil-style pole dancing and extravagant tricks, the series projects fierce athleticism against a backdrop of ominous City Girls’ trap beats and rainfalls of $100 bills. As we both laugh and reminisce about failed pole dancing attempts, she assures me there was nothing easy about training. “I always thought if I was to fall off a cliff I’d be fine; I’d be able to hold myself up and hang on to dear life… No, I would have dropped straight away because I had no upper body strength at all!” She laughs. “It’s funny, because when I first went to Atlanta we did some preparation and went to Magic City for research. I’d never seen anything like it. We had this amazing trainer Jo, who put the music on and I’m telling you, we weren’t allowed to stop. We were in heels, twerking for hours! But I loved it.”

The technicality and finesse that went into perfecting the moves doesn’t surprise me, as from the very start of the series any preconceptions and judgement about pole dancing is obliterated when we see Mercedes climb up the pole, the cheers slowly fading beneath her as we’re left hearing the strength and willpower in her breath. The deliberate sound-cut moment breaks the objectivity of female dancers reminding us that they are fearless and empowering women fighting for a change.

But P-Valley isn’t just about sex work and all of its challenges; it also explores racism, colourism and homophobia within the Black community. Each episode peels back layers of deep-rooted insecurities, laid thick with Southern accents and cold demeanours exposing the intricate web of untreated PTSD and Black generational trauma. Hall and her team of all-female film directors cleverly construct a world where each character’s story can be told, unafraid to shatter preconceptions and old narratives.

Elarica wearing long pencil skirt and shirt
Close up of elarica black and white
Elarica wearing long pencil skirt and shirt
Dress by RICHARD QUINN, boots by MOSCHINO, rings (right) CARTIER and ring (left) by ALAN CROCETTI.
Close up of elarica black and white

Between the doors of drug-fuelled strip-club the Pynk, tensions evolve between newcomer Autumn and soon-to-be retiring stripper Mercedes. The show unpacks their relationship beyond the lights of the stage, exploring colourism and the pressures of sisterhood in a relentless setting as we see the long-standing “OG” snubbed in favour of the lighter-skinned newbie. “Mercedes is forced to be around her [Autumn],” Johnson explains. “And usually, if you’re forced to be around somebody you either just take it and be like ‘OK, I’m going to get through this’, or you try and approach it differently and try a friendship. Mercedes ain’t a friendship type, so it’s a struggle between the two of them […] but there is something to look forward to, I would say, for the audience in [the] dynamics between the two of them. But friendship? That’s questionable.”
“I think there’s a lot of lessons to learn within the show,” Johnson underlines. “There’s political situations in there, there’s different journeys, different lifestyles and I feel like we are hopefully awakening people… Like a spyhole into a different world from there. If you are living a completely different life, if you are in a completely different town with different people, or don’t experience trans [people] or any of the LGBTQ+ community — here we are. It’s here on a plate for you to learn and come away with something.”

As we bring our late lunch phone call to an end Johnson and I ponder over ideas for a second season, deliberating how to perform double aerial gymnastics in six-inch platform stilettos. “We have a huge amount of other stories to tell,” she says excitedly. “Yes, these women take off their clothes for money. Yes, they dance for men and for women for money. It’s their job; it does not define who they are as people. They are still human beings — and great, empowering human beings — and we’ve still got to explore more of their complex lives.”

Elarica in fur boots and dress black and white

Dress by LANVIN, boots by DSQUARED2, ring by ALAN CROCETTI and earrings by CARTIER.

Elarica in fur boots and dress black and white
Dress by LANVIN, boots by DSQUARED2, ring by ALAN CROCETTI and earrings by CARTIER.
Photography
Bartek Szmigulski
Fashion
Kieran Fenney
Words
Dayna Southall
ELARICA JOHNSON