It starts out as a typical Humans of New York Instagram post. The speaker is a flamboyantly dressed woman who tells a tale about being kicked out and arrested as a teenager. But within a few sentences, it becomes clear that this woman has lived one helluva life. Tanqueray—whose real name is Stephanie Johnson—shares how her costume design skills earned her jobs dressing entertainers in 1970s New York.
From attending the Fashion Institute of Technology and wearing stolen mink coats from Bergdorf Goodman, to working in mob-controlled clubs and ending a relationship that nearly destroyed her life, Tanqueray has seen it all. So, who is Tanqueray, the woman who seems to have EVERYONE talking?
Her Humble Beginnings
“Tanqueray, Tanqueray, Tanqueray. When this photo was taken, ten thousand men in New York City knew that name,” Stephanie’s post began. “My signature meant something to them. They’d line up around the block whenever I was dancing in Times Square.” Her life may have been idyllic then, but it was a far cry from her humble beginnings and tumultuous childhood.
Stephanie grew up about an hour outside of Albany, New York. It wasn’t a great neighborhood, but her mother made sure that the house was kept in tip-top shape. That being said, the former dancer had a horrible relationship with her mother. “The only thing I liked about her was her style,” she explained to HONY.
A Troubled Mother-Daughter Relationship
Stephanie’s mother worked as an assistant to the Governor—which was a big deal back in the ’40s. According to the 76-year-old, her mother also tried her best to “fit into white society”; she “wanted nothing to with anything Black.” When Stephanie was little, her family moved into an all-white neighborhood, which completely changed the course of her childhood.
This move shaped her upbringing and gave her opportunities that just weren’t available to other Black children at that time. Stephanie attended a private Catholic school, where she studied classics like The Illiad, The Odyssey, and Tale of Two Cities. She also studied Latin and became quite the ballet dancer. Dancing was the only thing that she and her mother bonded over.
“Please Get Me Out of Here”
Her first crush was on a boy named Neil Murray. “He’s fat and bald now, but back then, he looked like a Kennedy,” Stephanie laughs. “Every day, he’d carry my books home from school. Until one day, the nuns gave us a lecture about how you can’t be interracial, so that stopped real quick.”
While all the other kids had “families like you’d see on television,” Stephanie says that her childhood was far from idyllic. Her parents didn’t sleep in the same room, and there were no hugs or kisses. She spent her time dressing up her dolls and pretending they were like a little family. Before bed, Stephanie would say her nightly prayer: “Lord, please get me out of here so I can find a family that loves me.”
I Don’t Belong
But then one night, Stephanie’s mother overheard her daughter’s prayer and came bursting into her room yelling. When she came home from school the next day, all of her dolls were gone. All Stephanie ever thought about was getting out of that house. By the time Stephanie was a teenager, she had begun to feel like she didn’t belong.
She longed to learn more about her Black culture, “which is probably why I fell in love with the first black guy who would talk to me.” Stephanie’s first real boyfriend was a guy named Birdie. But besides picking her up with his car and taking her places, Stephanie doesn’t remember that much about him.
The American Dream
Three months later, Stephanie got pregnant. She was scared that her mother would be furious. But when Birdie showed up with a fake diamond ring and promises of giving Stephanie a great life in the city, her mother seemed impressed. The plan was that Stephanie would drop out of high school, and Birdie would move to New York City to find them an apartment.
“I remember arriving in Penn Station four months pregnant, thinking I was about to have The American Dream,” Stephanie told HONY. But, sadly, that all went up in flames the minute she stepped off the train.
Leaving Albany for Good
After greeting her with flowers in his hand and a big kiss, Birdie gave Stephanie some devastating news. It turns out that he was already married and couldn’t leave his wife. Stephanie was devastated, and she knew that her mother wasn’t going to let her come back home.
So, she decided to leave Albany for good. “I was gonna go to New York and live a fantasy life like Esther Williams, with music and dancing and smiling people all around me,” Stephanie explained. But first, she needed to go back home and pack up the rest of her things.
Caught Red Handed
Stephanie waited until her parents were asleep before she climbed into her bedroom window. As soon as she began filling up her duffle bag, the lights flickered on. It was her mother standing in her bathrobe, furious as ever. The cops were called and arrested Stephanie for burglary.
The pregnant mother was given a choice: give her baby up for adoption and live with her mother or spend time in the Bedford Hills prison. She agreed to give her baby up, but she refused to live with her mother. “So I told the judge to send me to prison. The whole courtroom gasped,” the 76-year-old explained.
The Artist of Prison
Her son was born three weeks later and was sent off to St. Margaret’s Children’s Home. As for Stephanie, she was sent to Bedford Hills. Since she had no one to deposit money into her account, Stephanie got a job at the prison’s factory.
Back in those days, convicts made everyone’s bras and underwear—so that’s what she did. On the side, Stephanie would make marriage certificates written in crayon, and she even choreographed a dance for the prisoners on family day. Before long, Stephanie had a reputation for being the artist of the prison.
Everything Came True
The night before leaving prison, Stephanie had her palms read by a fellow inmate. Her name was Roberta and she had just arrived from Poughkeepsie Mental Hospital. She told Stephanie that she would live her entire life in New York City, but that she would only be in love once, and although she would have a tough and lonely life, one day everyone would know her name.
“And the craziest s*** about it is that every single thing came true. Well, almost everything,” Stephanie told HONY. “Roberta told me that I’d come into some real big money one day. And that better happen quick. ‘Cause I’m already 76.”
A Second Chance
Stephanie arrived in New York City on Valentine’s Day. “It was like being reborn. All my mistakes in life—the pregnancy, the prison time, everything—had been because I was trying to get away from something,” the former dancer explained. “But I was finally where I wanted to be.”
The first thing Stephanie did was get a room at the Salvation Army. Her only belongings were a pack of baby powder, $90, and a bar of prison soap. Her roommate Edna worked as a lady of the night and had the same bar of soap. But neither wanted to admit they had just been released from prison.
Fear of Missing Out
Stephanie began working at a clothing factory near Washington Square and took every opportunity she could to explore the city. At night, Stephanie would listen to the sounds of NYC and she eventually began to feel that she was missing out on something.
“That’s how New York sounds late at night, when you’re lying in bed and you’re scared of going back to where you came from,” the 76-year-old explained. “It sounds like you’re going to lose your place in line. And if you don’t get out of bed—the thing that was supposed to happen to you is gonna happen to someone else.”
Out on the Town
Every night, Stephanie would jump out of bed, put on her leather shoes, and hop on a bus to Times Square. She would walk down Broadway and past the adult theaters—where she would end up dancing one day. By the end of the night, Stephanie would find herself at the Peppermint Lounge.
It’s a parking garage today, but back then the Peppermint Lounge was the place you’d go to hear some good music. But as the club became more popular, it attracted more and more tourists. So Stephanie moved on to the next best thing: The Wagon Wheel.
The Wagon Wheel
The Wagon Wheel was just across the street, but it was a completely different world. There was no VIP section. Nor was there a champagne service or velvet ropes. Everyone—the hustlers, the pimps, the entertainers, tourists—mingled.
And back in the ’60s, nearly every bar in NYC built a stage for GoGo dancers because these clubs could make nearly double the money of a regular club. The girls would dance behind the bar and men would line up to choose a song on the jukebox. These girls were getting paid well.
Meeting Joe Dorsey
Stephanie soon found herself going out to the clubs every night and hanging around the same people every night. These people became a “make-believe family,” and it wasn’t long before the future dancer found herself hanging out with a crew of Italians. They began giving her side jobs here and there so she could earn some extra cash.
But most of her work came from a guy named Joe Dorsey. On the outside, Joe looked like he belonged on Wall Street. He was always put together and his wife was an upscale escort who was always wearing the latest designer clothes.
The Best Thief in Town
However, Joe was a thief, and a good one too. Back in the ’60s, wealthy women kept their jewelry and fur coats locked up in storage. And while they were getting their hair done, these ladies would brag about their fancy parties and what they planned on wearing.
Well, little did these women know that their hairstylists were on Joe’s payroll. The minute these women began talking, the hairstylists would sneak away to call Joe. All he needed was an address. By the time these ladies would come home from the hairdresser, their entire place would be ransacked.
Vicki, the Dancer
It was Stephanie’s job to resell the stolen fur coats. She’d wear them to the clubs and wait until she got a compliment before unloading the stash of coats hidden in the back. One of her best clients was a girl named Vicki.
She worked as a GoGo dancer at the Peppermint Lounge and made a lot of money on the side as a call girl. All of Vicki’s clients came through a woman by the name of Madame Blanche. The city’s most powerful men went through Blanche because they knew she wouldn’t talk. However, that didn’t mean that Vicki wouldn’t talk—and she told Stephanie everything.
Meeting the Temptations
One weekend, The Temptations came into town for a show at the Copacabana. This was a huge deal, as it was the first time a Black group performed there. At the time, Vicki was fooling around with one of the singers and asked Stephanie if she wanted to join them for a night on the town.
They all met at BB King’s in the basement of the Americana Hotel. The entire group was there, and soon Stephanie found herself talking with Dennis Edwards, “who happened to be the finest of them all.” When it was time to leave, the Temptations invited Vicki and Stephanie to their hotel room.
Turning Down Dennis
According to Stephanie, Dennis was expecting something out of her that she just couldn’t give. “I knew what he was expecting to happen, but I don’t do one-night stands,” the 76-year-old explained. After twenty minutes, Stephanie decided that it was time for her to go.
“On the way out, I could hear all the other Temps laughing,” she continued. “It was probably the only time that man had ever gotten turned down.” Every time the Motown group came to town, Stephanie would go to the concerts, but the two never saw each other again.
That Girl Can Dance
After getting fired from her job at the factory for passing on her manager’s advances, Stephanie found herself jobless in New York City. With her rent due in a week, Stephanie knew that she needed an income—and fast. That’s when Vicki suggested that she audition to be a GoGo dancer. So, Stephanie went out and bought herself a pair of five-inch heels.
“And the moment I walked in the door, the guy’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor,” Stephanie said of the talent agent running the audition. “I was the Blackest thing in the world. I think he’d already made up his mind that he was going to tell me ‘no.'”
Love at First Sight
But Stephanie did her thing, and the talent agent was blown away. He offered her a job on the spot. Before long, Stephanie found herself with a following. Then on New Year’s Eve that year, she met the love of her life while dancing at a bar in Midtown.
His name was Carmine, and he showed up that night dressed to the nines. “But I didn’t even talk to him that first night,” Stephanie said of their first encounter. “I might have smiled at him. But I smiled at everybody. So I’m not sure why he kept coming back.”
Falling in Love
Before long, Carmine began showing up at every one of Stephanie’s gigs. It was against the rules for customers to flirt with the dancers, but somehow, Carmine got permission to ask Stephanie out on a date. The two hit it off, and, within a few days, they were inseparable.
On her days off, she would take Carmine out on the town. He got along with everyone, danced well, and best of all, he gave Stephanie the freedom to do whatever she wanted. “That’s one thing I loved about Carmine. I always had my freedom,” Stephanie recalled.
Hitting the Road
One night, Stephanie began telling him a story about the one vacation she had ever been on. Her mother took her to visit her “long lost Uncle Pete”—who turned out to be just some guy she was dating on the side.
When she finished telling Carmine the story, he turned to her and asked if she wanted to take a trip now, in the middle of the night. She thought he was joking, but Carmine was dead serious. So they loaded up his convertible and made their way to Cape Cod.
The Happiest Day of Her Life
During that trip, Stephanie told him everything about her life— about her mother, the pregnancy, and jail time. “When I was finished talking, I looked over, and I kinda expected him to not be there anymore. But he was still right there,” the 76-year-old recalled.
The two talked until the sun came up. “Carmine had his arm around me, and I think it might have been the happiest I’d ever felt in my life.” Stephanie was in love. A few weeks later, the couple found an apartment on 34th Street and began their new life together.
Treating Her Right
Carmine treated Stephanie as she’d never been treated before. He was always showing up with flowers in one hand and gifts in another. He worked as a drug dealer on the side and a lot of his friends were thieves, so Carmine always had access to the nicest things money could buy.
He gave her clothes, her first diamond ring, and on her 25th birthday, Carmine gifted Stephanie a motorcycle. “It felt like I finally had a little family. Of course, Carmine could never tell his actual family about me,” the dancer reminisced. “They’d kill him if they knew he was with a Black girl.”
A One-Time Thing?
But after a few years, her relationship with Carmine took a wrong turn. A lady of the night had just moved into their apartment building and at first, Stephanie suspected that Carmine was cheating on her. But then one day, Stephanie caught the pair shooting up in the stairwell.
Carmine promised that it was a one-time thing, but Stephanie soon learned that her boyfriend had been using for years. She was just too in love to notice the signs. Carmine went to rehab, but he just couldn’t seem to fight off temptation.
Coming Up With a Plan
Carmine sensed that Stephanie was upset, and every day he asked her to marry him. Stephanie turned him down every time. The more drugs he took, the more times he asked. “It wasn’t because I didn’t love him,” the 76-year-old explained.
“I loved that man more than I’ve ever loved another person. I just couldn’t be with a junkie.” But Stephanie wasn’t stupid. She knew that the apartment was in his name and she didn’t have any savings. “At some point, I figured in my crazy mind that if I married him, I could divorce him. And if I divorced him, at least I could keep the apartment.”
It’s Payback Time
The next time Carmine proposed, Stephanie said yes. They headed down to city hall and officially tied the knot. Five weeks after Christmas that year, Stephanie filed for divorce. She didn’t want his money or the gifts he had given her. All she wanted was a place to call home.
But Carmine was furious. He began stalking Stephine and ringing her doorbell at all hours of the night. One day he showed up at Stephanie’s work with a gun in hand. Luckily, the bouncers saw what was going on and wrestled him to the ground.
Just Paying Her Bills
Carmine was out of his mind on drugs, and Stephanie was scared something bad was going to happen. So, she called Joe Dorsey and told him everything. She no longer worked for the coat thief, but they were still good friends. Later that night, Joe and some of his mob buddies hunted Carmine down and threatened him.
“Carmine stopped coming around after that,” Stephanie said. When things fell apart with Carmine, Stephanie knew that she needed a new job to pay her bills. GoGo dancers could make $100 a night, but burlesque? That gig paid a fortune.
Trying to Stand Out
Back then, burlesque dancers would make $150 dollars for an 18-minute set. So Stephanie got on board the burlesque train. She changed her name to “Tanqueray” and began booking gigs with the fire department.
But if Stephanie wanted to make big bucks like the other dancers (think $10,00 cash a week), she needed to start thinking outside of the box. She wasn’t interested in working “dirty” or hiring an agent—which was an even dirtier path. Stephanie needed a way to stand out. Then she came up with a great idea.
Stepping It Up
Her cousin had just bought a 6-foot snake from the pet store, but then decided that he didn’t want to keep it. Stephanie draped the snake around her shoulders and brought it with her to every show she worked. “But whenever I was working the floor at a private party, all the guys would freak out.”
“So I needed something different,” the dancer explained. Stephanie thought about swallowing a sword before she came up with her the trick that put her name on the map. “In the 1970s, if you were a certain kind of guy, and you heard the name Tanqueray, you thought of this trick.”
Slowing Fading Away
The trick is a little too PG-13 for this article, so all we’re going to say is that it involved shooting out chocolate milk into the crowd. We’ll let you use your imagination. Before long, Stephanie, or shall we say, Tanqueray, was one of the most sought-after dancers in the city.
Most of the other dancers were jealous of her success, but Tanqueray didn’t care—she was raking in $3,000 a week cash. And she never took herself as seriously as the other dancers anyways. But as Tanqueray got bigger and bigger, Stephanie felt herself fading away.
“I Don’t Even Exist”
When she was up on stage, everything was fine. The music was bumping, and the crowds were cheering. But when the dancer stepped offstage, she felt lonely and empty inside. “Some nights, I’d go back to the dressing room and look in the mirror, and I’d realize that I don’t even exist,” Stephanie told HONY.
“Nobody’s clapping for Stephanie. They’re clapping for Tanqueray.” Just thinking about it made her cry. She would remind herself that at least she had a career and at least she made people happy. But Tanqueray always remained onstage. It was Stephanie that went home alone.
Begging for Forgiveness
Carmine reached out to Stephanie a few years after their divorce. He showed up at her doorstep, claiming to be clean. He wanted to work on their relationship, but Stephanie was hesitant. “He seemed clean, but he had seemed clean when I was living with him,” the dancer explained to HONY.
“And if he started acting rough again—I had nobody to call. I didn’t know any mob guys anymore.” So, she told Carmine that she needed a few days to think about it and that she’d give him a call. That was the last time she ever saw him.
The Phone Stopped Ringing
Eventually, Stephanie stopped dancing burlesque. “It wasn’t some big thing,” she recalled. “They don’t throw you a retirement party at the Sheraton. The phone just stops ringing.” Stephanie needed to come up with different ways of making money. But the dancer wasn’t worried—she had been reinventing herself her entire life.
She went on to work some crazy jobs, including making baby clothes for adults and doing makeup for drag queens. “I have so many stories. Sometimes I’ll remember the things that happened to me and I’ll just start laughing,” she explained. “I hope when I get to heaven, God shows me a movie of my life. But just the funny parts.”
Starting to Give Up
While walking down the street in 2019, Tanqueray slipped on a patch of ice and fell—and she hasn’t been able to walk since. Up until HONY found Tanqueray, she had had nothing eventful in her life. Carmine had passed away a few years prior (the two still kept in touch), and no one comes over to visit.
“It was starting to feel like everything that was going to happen to me had already happened,” she explained. “There was nothing left but a bunch of stories. And those aren’t worth much when there’s nobody to listen.” But then things began to look up.
Her GoFund Me Page
Humans of New York’s 11 million followers just can’t seem to get enough of Tanqueray. She’s had not one, not two, but over 30 features on their Instagram page. And these fans want to help this viral sensation out as much as they can.
In the past few months, Tanqueray’s health has been on the decline, and fans have raised over $2.6 million so she can live out her life like the queen she is. It looks like Roberta (the woman who read her palms in jail) was right about her coming into some big money.