“I emailed Bongz & Thongz and said, ‘If you’re having trouble moving this merchandise, I’m the one who can do it for you,'” says Tanya Brown. Eight months later (mainly because Bongz & Thongz owners don’t look at their Facebook email much), Get Curious with Safety Girl was reborn in the smoke shop’s basement.
Bongz & Thongz took a beating when it opened last summer on Liberty. An inhospitable city, invoking legal limits on sex-toy sales, managed to squelch the “thongz” part of the business, leaving owners Steve Abouna and Kilo Hassan with boxes of them sitting in storage–until Safety Girl showed up.
Safety Girl (Brown) is a name from the 1990s. She too tried selling sex paraphernalia on Liberty, but she’s better known for pushing community access TV programming (and, many believed, common decency) to its limits. Co-hosting a half-hour show with dominatrix Butch Curious, she preached safe sex, especially “outercourse,” with free-spirited glee for about 100 episodes.
Brown’s outsize personality resurfaced a few years ago in the form of Ypsi Girl. Though she lives in Ann Arbor, she felt Ypsi needed help, and she missed being in front of the camera. That was enough to launch a new persona that promotes Ypsi in blog, video, and publicity stunts. Last year, she says, “I was getting all these hits on the Ypsi Girl website, about Bongz & Thongz,” from old Safety Girl fans, who suspected the story of sexual censorship would find a sympathetic ear with her.
She was more than sympathetic. She wanted a piece of the action.
Brown says people didn’t see much of her in the mid-2000s for a reason: “I left a traumatic second marriage,” she says, and she means “trauma” in its precise literal sense: she says her husband beat her. “Five years ago, I was in a domestic violence shelter with my baby in Wayne County. I lived there, and in my car, and on friends’ couches.”
Now she’s married to longtime friend Jesse Sinatra, a wedding singer (“I call him my hippie in shining armor”); she’s lost fifty pounds (“I always gain weight after my marriage breaks up,” she says airily); and she’s living in public housing (“I’m in no rush to move. I love where I live. I’m proud of who I am, where I came from, and where I am right now”).
In her Ypsi Girl videos, camped up in a pink wig, Brown could be Lady Gaga’s shorter, plumper sister, but Brown the shopkeeper is slim, with long blond hair, and wearing a demure vintage dress that on a less vivid personality might almost be called dowdy.
The front half of her small basement shop is stocked with vintage women’s clothing, and a good bit of it isn’t even particularly racy. She says she gets it from “a compulsive hoarder. But she’s a meticulous hoarder,” who dry cleans, sorts, and labels, and over the years has amassed “seven rooms” of pristine clothing. “She’s helping me and I’m helping her. Her taste is exquisite. I have inventory for the next several years.”
The sex toys are in the back: “My pride and joy are the gourmet love baskets,” shrink-wrapped kits of goodies she puts together herself. “Oh, here’s one I call My First Vibrator!” she chirps.
Her former co-host, Butch Curious, is also working in the shop, mainly evenings, with her own distinctive approach to retail. “Last week, she was showing a customer how to use [a battery-powered whip], and she broke it on him,” Brown says. “She made him buy it anyway.”
Brown’s original generation of fans might be more titillated to learn how she managed to lose fifty pounds. “I’m not going to lie. It took me three years. I made a complete lifestyle change. I became 95 percent vegetarian, and do Tai Bo at home in front of the TV. After I lost the first twenty pounds, I told my husband and my daughter, ‘The house is going to be a mess until mommy loses the rest of the weight, so deal with it.'”
As soon as she finishes organizing her shop, all her Safety Girl VHS tapes will be available for playing and watching in the shop. “I have them all, and they’re not on the Internet. You can get anything on the Internet, but not these.”
Get Curious with Safety Girl, 119 E. Liberty, 531-6281. Tues. noon-6 p.m., Wed. & Thurs. noon-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. noon-10 p.m. Closed Mon.