Kelly Master knows that women who dance naked for a living can see through phonies instantly.

"The new girls always stare at you. They can read you in a heartbeat. It's like, 'who are you, what are you doing here, and what do you want from me?' "

A committed Christian and mother of five who lives in Collingswood, where she grew up, Master wants nothing more than to befriend the dancers at South Jersey and Philly strip clubs.

She and members of a group of about 20 volunteers offer gift bags, hugs, and help — including connections to detox and treatment for an increasing number of young women hooked on heroin.

"We fully respect these girls where they are in their lives," Master said. "We get much further with them than we would if we came in saying, 'You're in sin, you're going to hell.' You get nowhere with that."

Master, who grew up Catholic, was never a stripper. "The club would have gone out of business," she said, her laugh as big and openhearted as the personality she accurately described as "exuberant."

In the '80s, however, Master was the coked-up hostess at wild pool parties,  a "total daily pass-out, blackout drunk whose dream was to die in a pile of cocaine."

Instead, she got clean and sober in 1992. "My husband left me, I had two school-age kids, I was a shattered mess," she recalled. "My life kind of got put back together, and faith was instrumental to me. I started going to a charismatic Christian church."

Eventually, Master remarried, had three more children, and joined the Assemblies of God denomination. She attends Kingsway Church, where the pastor, Rev. Bryon White, is a major supporter of her work.

She credits a former sister-in-law named Darlene Anderson with inspiring her to believe in herself — and eventually, to establish a nonprofit organization now called For Dignity (fordignity1.org). She's also written and published a wise little book called Shine (Uplifting Words for Girls in Stilettos).

Kelly Master wrote and distributes an inspirational book called “Shine” to strippers. She says the uplifting message is for club dancers who feel degraded, exhausted, and hopeless. “You are not forsaken or forgotten,” she writes.
AKIRA SUWA
Kelly Master wrote and distributes an inspirational book called “Shine” to strippers. She says the uplifting message is for club dancers who feel degraded, exhausted, and hopeless. “You are not forsaken or forgotten,” she writes.

"I am just amazed by Kelly," said Anderson, who lives in Marlton. "She is inspiring to so many, and she's so passionate about her work."

Anderson also said she is humbled that Master credits her with playing an instrumental role: "It just makes me think how much impact we have on others without even realizing it."

That notion is central to Master's mission, which is not about sin, shame, or shutting down strip clubs.

"I'm a firm believer that it only takes one person in your corner, one person to believe in you, and your whole destiny can change," she said.

"If a girl chooses to dance, awesome. But if she believes she has no choice but to dance, that's not awesome.

"I want to give the girls choices they might not have known were available. I want them to know God loves them. I want to elevate them and empower them to fulfill their destiny. Just like Darlene did for me.

"These girls don't have someone in their corner," she added. "And if they do, it's someone who says, 'Show me your breasts.' "

The dancer and entertainer Saybriel Mickey met Master four years ago while working at Cheerleaders, a club on Route 130 where Gloucester City meets Haddon Township.

"One day Kelly and her friends just came in, and I said to the girls, 'What the hell is this?' They said, 'Oh, it's the church ladies,' " said Mickey.

"I'm not a Christian, so I was already irritated. But they were super nice and brought this great energy. They brought goodie bags and offered to pray for us if we wanted it," the 25-year-old Camden County resident said. "I always had a lot of building blocks in my life, but a lot of us [dancers] are lost souls."

The volunteers "made sure we had somewhere to go if we needed it," said Mickey. "They gave one girl a baby shower. Kelly showed up for my mom's funeral."

Volunteer and longtime Christian missionary Tammy Adams, of Medford, said she "feels comfortable" going into a strip club with Master.

"Never once have I been afraid," she said. "The girls love us, and we have such a good rapport with the managers, the security guys, the DJs. … We're just there to let these girls know they're valuable. They're precious."

In 2011, when Master founded the organization that is now For Dignity, her focus was on human trafficking. That's when I met and wrote a column about her and her work, which I deeply admire.

Sex trafficking is still a concern. But the challenges for women who work in the sex industry now command much of Master's attention. And in six years of doing outreach in clubs, she has never seen anything like the impact of the heroin epidemic.

"We're losing girls left and right," she said. "Every time I turn around I hear about another girl who has overdosed. Most of the girls I've met have a history of sexual abuse, like I do. They turn to drugs because of it.

"So we've been getting girls into detoxes and rehabs and safe homes," Master added. "Afterward we get them into counseling. Many need help finding jobs outside the clubs to support themselves and their kids. What do you put on your resumé? That you've been dancing for eight years?"

Master also said the national furor about sexual harassment and exploitation of women has impacted the sex industry, where rape, as distinct from commercial or consensual sex, is not uncommon.

"There's a united voice that's rising, one that's very powerful and very necessary," she said. "There's going to have to be a voice that rises from the sex industry, too."

Master is well aware that some devout Christians would likely question why she so deeply empathizes with women who are making money by showing or selling their bodies. Or why she wrote an enthusiastic post about a Seattle LGBTQ celebrity she calls a "Drag Queen Evangelist" (and who calls himself  "Mama T–").

 "Strippers, porn stars, prostitutes, and cross-dressers are now my friends. I invest in them with prayer, time, money, and energy. I love them, and I know God does too," Master wrote, adding that when she watched a video of "Mama T preaching love, I stood up and shouted out Amen."

Me, too.