Interview with Mistress Cleo Dubois

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Interview Copyright © 1995 by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Originally published in Spectator


WAH: How long have you been playing with SM?

Mst Cléo: Iíve been playing with SM privately since 1981, and professionally since 1983.

WAH: How did you get interested in SM in the first place?

Mst Cléo: I had a revelation. In 1981 a friend took me to a workshop/demonstration given by Kat Sunlove and her partner Layne [Winklebleck], during which they set up parameters and boundaries, she whipped him, and they talked about consensual SM. A light went off in my head. It felt like something I wanted to do – and it was hot. It turned me on. The energy got my entire attention.

WAH: You hadnít known anything about SM before that?

Mst Cléo: Iím French. Any European knows about sadomasochism, and knows of the Marquis de Sade and [Leopold von] Sacher-Masoch. But I didnít know anything about SM in my life; I didnít think of myself as an SM person. I knew there was heat in some sort of ritual violence but I didnít know how to make it safe and consensual. Instead I used to pick fights with one specific boyfriend so he would slam me against the wall and push me around and slap my face. Then he would feel horribly sorry and heíd apologize and weíd have great sex. But I never said it was SM: it was just having a horrible fight and having great sex afterwards.

WAH: When you attended Kat and Layneís workshop did you start playing right away?

Mst Cléo: Right away. Kat volunteered that there was a Society of Janus [San Franciscoís pansexual BDSM support group, on the web at – WAH], and I joined. I got into it immediately.

WAH: What happened during the next two years that got you doing SM professionally?

Mst Cléo: Iíd been a burlesque dancer, and the entire profession was disappearing, being taken over by lap dancing. I had to think of what else to do with my life. For me, striptease was not really seduction, it was aggressive – my attitude onstage was, "Iím going to make you look at me, or Iím going to punch your eyes out with my high-heeled shoes." Once I had a name for that energy, and skills and safety and consensuality to go with it, I started thinking I could do this work. In í83, a woman then known as Mistress M hired me and said she would show me how. I was very involved in playing privately at that time as a switch – as both a top and a bottom – and SM became almost the whole of my life. But Mistress Mís understanding of SM work was completely different from mine. She looked on it as taking revenge on men. I thought it was very exciting, very honorable, and valid. I didnít get training, but I got ideas about what men wanted as fantasy play, and by switching in my private life I got an understanding of what made SM work for me and for my partners. I applied what I learned to other people, thinking if it worked for me it might work for them. I started working on my own about nine months later. I sort of got training by default.

WAH: Tell me a little bit about your childhood in France, and about how you came to be here.

Mst Cléo: I was raised in a very abusive, dysfunctional family with a lot of power games I did not understand at the time. My mother was a writer at a newspaper, very intense and very right-wing politically. My father worked on machines in many different factories. I suppose he got kicked out of jobs because of his drinking. As the eldest child I was in charge of my sisters, two and nine years younger. They are now both born-again Christian religious fanatics.

WAH: Were you close to anybody in your family?

Mst Cléo: My grandmother on my motherís side. My mother put me under her guard, and I could manipulate her very well. We had secrets and put up a front when my father was around, as if I didnít look at boys, or listen to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan – which I was never supposed to do. I was just supposed to be a good girl. And I was raised Catholic, so there was this thing about punishment and guilt I did not like. But I was a very good student in a situation that was like going to a military school run by nuns. School was very tight on discipline, and home was very unpleasant with a lot of fear and alcoholism. I was either going to go to college and stay home and be abused, or get the hell out of there on my own. I escaped as soon as I could, when I was 16 years old.

I lived by myself in Paris until I was 18, which is the legal age you can leave your family in France. In 1969, while I was a secretary in a film company, there was a student revolution in France where everybody talked about ideals, and how the world could really be run, and how the patriarchy could be overthrown, and how we could make life really worth living. The revolution was in the street and I totally went for it. But it collapsed because of money. One of the most prized French beliefs is that you are owed a whole month of paid vacation every year; but since the revolution started in May, nobody was going to have a paid vacation if we didnít go back to work by the end of July. So everybody went back to work, the whole thing collapsed, and I got seriously depressed that life was going to be total boredom forever and I would be stuck doing menial jobs because I chose not to go to college. That was when I decided to go to San Francisco where there was hippie movement and freedom and you could wear flowers in your hair (laughs).

WAH: How did you choose your new life?

Mst Cléo: Well, I donít know if I really chose, I was way young. I think I went for an adventure because I didnít like what I saw as possible for me in France. I was kind of like a pioneer in my own head. I was going to go to San Francisco to find out what this other life could be and make it up as I went along. I didnít really have a plan. I just had the impulse. When I got to California I stayed with a friend in Santa Barbara for three months. I learned a few more words of English so I could kind of get around, then I came to San Francisco and tried to meet people. I babysat kids Marin County whose parents wanted them to learn French, I taught French as a private tutor, and I worked in a massage parlor when I had no idea what the slang for French meant. I was a very innocent girl. There was a big craze for belly dancing in the early 70s and I had a vision that it was my gift in life, so I studied belly dancing and then I performed at the two clubs here that liked belly dancers. Which led to burlesque, which led to SM. In 1981 I was getting bored with the burlesque fantasy, and I started being part of the "avant garde" theater at the time. I didnít really pursue that, but Iím glad it pursued itself: I see a lot of good things now. But in my SM I actually use skills I learned from doing contact improvisation and improvisational monologue work.

WAH: Which skills?

Mst Cléo: Staging, timing, combining phrasings in a scene from fast to slow, up and down, intense and soft. How to mix and match emotion, activity, and train of thought to keep people off guard or to build up tension. To be direct, to trust my intuition, to be real and human. To be able to be seen. To trust that if Iím presenting a piece of work, whether itís on the stage for lots of people or in the little, private, created environment of my dungeon with one other person, there is a connection between us. I donít have time to pursue theater now because my life is not as simple as I wish it to be, but part of SM is theater for me. Itís personal theater but itís theater nonetheless, and I certainly maintain an interest in performing, and most certainly go to see other performances.

WAH: What are your other interests, outside performing and SM?

Mst Cléo: Keeping my home together. Getting some of the education that I didnít get, which I like to do by watching PBS. Training other people. Riding my bicycle. Being with friends, keeping friendships, and working on friendship. Spiritual seeking for myself: working on myself, learning who I really am.

WAH: Whatís important to you about working on yourself and having a spiritual path?

Mst Cléo: Iím working with a therapist to sort out some of my private issues. I think it is very important for me to learn who I am, because I give of myself when I work with peopleís psyches and erotic energy. If I donít know who I am it can tip me over and I take on their anxiety or their darkness. It can really wipe me out, or turn me into a machine, or close my heart. I like to think that light comes out of darkness, and Iím looking for the light in my life as I play these SM arts, as well as maybe helping people feel less guilty about their needs that involve ritualized violence. I have to be strong and centered to work in that sort of quick intimacy with strangers.

WAH: Is your therapy part of a spiritual path for you?

Mst Cléo: Yes, I would say that. And I think there are instances where SM can be a shamanic force. It can bring healing, and a crystal clear sort of trust in humanity. When the person Iím working on is totally trusting me, I can see his beauty. Or hers. So I think that for me SM is a kind of magic.

Now, magic is a funny word. In this society we operate on very little trust. But if there is a clean connection between me and another human in my dungeon, a space opens up that is not just about me and that person: itís about a sort of belief that in our human nature we can honor each other – that we can honor the sacred with each other, even if it does not look like anything sacred from the outside.

This deep connection that can happen with someone I donít even know is related to healing; it gives me courage to be more real, to be who I am as an archetypal woman power figure. SM can bring healing into my life as well as other peopleís lives by releasing emotions that are hidden, by giving permission for erotic feelings that society says are bad, by letting light show on fantasies one is ashamed of, by releasing trauma – sometimes something happened to the person in the past and through SM they are able to release grief about it.

I also work with sensory deprivation sometimes, and when I do, when Iím really there and concentrating on it and letting it happen – as well as when I experience it myself in my private life, blindfolded and tied down – itís possible to reach an altered state that feels like meditation, where things about oneís life can be revealed. My clients would usually not put it in those words – they might say, "Oh I really went on a trip, this was incredible" – but they would mean the same thing. A part of this work can be to help access spiritual reality.

If one is relaxed enough and trusts enough and is in the hands of a top who knows what he or she is doing, and the erotic energy is played with but not released when it starts rising, then you can have an experience of your own body, your heart, your mind, and your psyche, all at once. A lot of the work of sensory deprivation has to do with that: you donít just lie there and get bored. Usually youíre turned on, but you canít release your energy so you start using it for going in, for tripping out, for getting higher.

WAH: What youíre describing sounds like the energy exchange some SM people talk about.

Mst Cléo: It can be, or it can be just trust. I suppose trust is related to the energy exchange because, for me at least, if there is no trust there is no energy exchange: Iím on my guard and the other personís on his guard. The deeper the trust the more possibility there is for energy exchange.

WAH: Are there clients you especially like to play with?

Mst Cléo: I like people who like intense input and can really travel with it, so the input is not necessarily punishment but can be pure masochism. People who are masochistic are my favorite people to play with. They donít have to be submissive, they can be captive masochists for instance, so they have a chance to be provocative within limits. And I enjoy playing with people who are willing to push their limits, whatever those limits might be: to explore psychic territory theyíre not so sure theyíll like but theyíre going to go that extra step anyway, either to please me or to please my sadistic nature or just because they trust that the worst thatís going to happen is that itís going to hurt like hell but then it will be over, and the best thatís going to happen is itís going to completely flip: it will stop hurting and be incredibly electric. And I also like some quirky, weird fantasies.

WAH: What quirky, weird fantasies do you like?

Mst Cléo: Interrogation scenes, no matter what type of interrogation, because they push my limits as well: I donít have to be overly nurturing, I can be a little bit pushy and bully-like. I donít have to ask permission every step of the way. I like that.

WAH: I know you donít switch professionally, but you mentioned earlier that you switch privately. When you bottom, what do you like?

Mst Cléo: I like to fly, to release my tension. I like to cry, I like to laugh, I like to feel the fire of the play. I like the same things I like to do to people, but not with the people I do it to.

WAH: Are there specific people you bottom to?

Mst Cléo: Yes.

WAH: A lot? A few?

Mst Cléo: It depends what level of bottoming youíre talking about. When I want to go all the way down and cry and get fisted or fucked and let myself be totally vulnerable, very few. To bottom casually and get a whipping, more. Friends in the community who, like me, identify as bisexual or at least bi-kinky or queer. In my private life I play with friends and people I really trust, who believe in the value of release and vulnerability as a good thing rather than as something to be ashamed of. I play with people who like to push limits: who donít put you down for being vulnerable, but nurture and value you for letting yourself go to those difficult places where you can really scream and experience grief: where you can be little, as a friend of mine says, even if youíre afraid.

WAH: This all seems to be very positive for you, whether you top or bottom. Is that why SM is not punishment for you?

Mst Cléo: Yes, although I can play punishment games, especially if I give someone an order and he doesnít follow it. But I personally distinguish between punishment – which should be way intense, or way boring, or should hurt – and lovely, slowly built whipping, which doesnít really have to hurt. The first thing a lot of people say who want to get whipped or beaten or caned or spanked is that they want to be punished. But if I ask why, they say they donít know. Well, Iím not really going to punish someone unless there is a reason. Could it possibly be, I ask, that you just want to feel the sensation? That you really wish to get whipped? Oh yeah, they say, thatís what I meant. Well thatís not really what they said. But it is possible to get whipped without punishment, simply because I like to whip and Iím willing to give someone that experience. We can set a game that doesnít have anything to do with being punished.

WAH: You sometimes play punishment games and you sometimes play sensation games, and you sometimes play interrogation games....

Mst Cléo: And psychological games, and humiliation games, and I also love to play with embarrassment, whether itís physical or the trickier area of psychological embarrassment. But people who are into it care about how they can be caught in psychological embarrassment.

WAH: Can you give me an example of psychological embarrassment you enjoy?

Mst Cléo: I set a really simple task for someone to do like walk behind me on his hands and knees in a certain way with his hands in a certain relationship to my shoes, and if he canít do it then I start embarrassing him about his concentration, or whether heís so horny he canít think straight. I build the embarrassment game as a reality in the room, rather than pretend he stole $5 from his sister. I like to create the game, but I donít play games that are not real. Thereís a very widespread fantasy about crossdressers wanting to steal lingerie from their auntís or their sisterís closet. Iím willing to leave a piece of lingerie somewhere in the room and catch someone stealing it, but thatís only the beginning of the game. Then I will really interrogate the person about it: what does he like about that specific piece of lingerie, what does he wish to do with it, what secret fantasy does he have. I try to take elements of his fantasy and make it real, so the theater Iím doing is real, and not some script somebody else wrote that Iím trying to act.

WAH: What do you enjoy about embarrassment games?

Mst Cléo: They make me laugh and I enjoy laughing (laughs). I find it really amusing, especially since many people are embarrassed just because part of their anatomy is showing when Iím dressed and theyíre not. Itís just really funny.

WAH: What do you enjoy about interrogation games?

Mst Cléo: Being cruel. Pushing people until they are absolutely begging me to stop because they canít stand it any more but they are still not telling me what I want to know. That turns me on. I like to use my electric machine, to keep turning the knobs little by little until someone absolutely has to give up because the erotic electrical input on his dick is just too intense, he absolutely cannot deal with it. I like that Iím so remote and yet so in control. I like caning because itís specific and controlled. And I like to use stingy whips because theyíre specific and controlled, much more than heavy floggers. I like subtle, intense sensations. Thereís a beauty there I like. A client just sent me a letter saying he thought I was a master of erotic painful sculpture. He thinks of himself as an erotic painful sculpture.

WAH: It sounds as if SM is an art for you. Is that true?

Mst Cléo: Well it is. Thatís a part of my enjoyment. Aesthetics is not just a look: it reveals parts of people to themselves that they donít see normally. Someone might be tied up with a hood on his face, it might even look bizarre, but thereís a beauty in that bizarreness. The human connection is real, we can have a mutual acceptance. I accept the submissive or masochist, and he accepts me as a dominant sadist. The forbidden fantasies, the dark stuff that involves being humble or humiliated – not degraded – is still forbidden and misunderstood, which makes it really hard to accept by some people, which also makes it really sexy. Beauty has a great deal to do with it.

WAH: It also sounds as if you like working in taboo areas.

Mst Cléo: Theyíre hotbeds, the taboo areas. Whatís forbidden is hot. Itís a turn-on. It turns me on and it turns the client on.

WAH: And thereís an aesthetic to that.

Mst Cléo: Thatís what Iím saying. I have to be genuinely interested in what Iím doing, so I try to create something that interests me. It might be with bondage, or with the kind of marks Iím making with the whip, or the arrangement of clamps Iím putting on someone, or the kind of strange creation Iím making of his body. I try to find something beautiful in each person, and then I try to show it to him. I say, Look, youíre beautiful: youíre beautiful with that lipstick on your face, all tied up in this strange position with your dick sticking straight out and all these clothespins on your groin in a fan shape, and these whimsical little feathers on top of your piercing. I try to create something I personally like to look at, that works for me as an aesthetic experience, while using a process that works with the other personís tendencies and what heís willing to explore. Thatís why I do a lot of suspension, and why I have all this fabulous equipment: so I can create beautiful, aesthetic kinkiness.

WAH: What else do you do thatís part of this aesthetic?

Mst Cléo: Bondage has a lot of aesthetic for me. Bondage that maybe pulls the nipple one way and the genitals another way and the hands a different way.

WAH: As your client wrote: youíre an erotic sculptor.

Mst Cléo: In a way. Itís nice to think about that way. I also like to get to the place where the whole rest of the world disappears. Then I donít think if I had a bad week, or if a phone freak has been bothering me. Iím just in my dungeon doing that magical thing with someone until it gets really electric. Then there might be a sexual release – or not – and the room starts being electric, and itís very quiet in a way. Thatís what keeps me doing this work, these moments of trust and beauty.

WAH: When you heard Kat and Layne it was back before AIDS. Now that HIV and other health concerns are so troubling, what do you do personally and professionally to insure your safety and the safety of your play partners?

Mst Cléo: Iíve never been the kind of mistress who offered oral service to my clients because that was a private boundary for me, so Iím really using the same safety precautions I always have. If I do piercing I wear gloves, I have sharps containers, and Iím very careful not to prick myself with needles. If I do anything that requires barrier protection I use it. In my private life, playing with my friends, the same guidelines apply: I definitely do safer sex, and Iím probably less promiscuous than I would be if the times were different.

WAH: What are your limits as a player?

Mst Cléo: Professionally I have very clear boundaries: I donít go out to dinner, to drinks, to whatever, with any of my clients. I like to keep the scene as a magical interaction that happens in my dungeon. I donít socialize with any of my clients even if Iíve seen them for ten years. I donít have sex with my clients, I donít use them for sexual gratification. I like the turn-on that I get, I like that feeling of aliveness of being turned on, but itís up to me to decide what Iím going to do with it after they leave. In my private life I am in a relationship, and I share any sexual encounter I have outside that relationship with my partner, so that he knows who Iím playing with and what Iím doing with them.

WAH: You describe yourself as a sadist, both in this interview and in your ads. How do you distinguish being a sadist from being a dominant?

Mst Cléo: I think itís a different flavor. Iím a dominant sadist, but I like to put the word sadist first, because for me to play with someone professionally I need something besides money or else I wonít be able to do a good job. If somebody wants a session that involves only fetish worship, I donít want to do it. There is nothing in the scene for me, so I feel more like a servant than a dominant. Iím providing a dominant service anyway, but I have to feel Iím doing something I want to do, that there is some level of control that feels good to me. Thatís why I identify as a sadistic dominant, rather than as a tease mistress or a worship mistress, or whatever it is some peopleís fantasies might be.

WAH: Iíve heard Mistress Cybelle [Sybil Holiday] describe her style as, "seduce, seduce, seduce, push," and your style as "push, push, push, seduce." Is that your experience?

Mst Cléo: Yeah, itís pretty true.

WAH: Do you have a philosophy that goes with your style?

Mst Cléo: Itís difficult to talk about because this work is so misunderstood. SM has been popularized through the media in the last couple of years, through advertisements and through movies that show some SM images. As it becomes more popular the standards of what it could be fall, and as the standards fall more women call themselves professional and do the work and more men call with no intention of making an appointment. But the women are only doing a minimal level of the work, and the men expect the work to be like prostitution. As SM has gotten more popular it has gotten less valued, and a certain possibility of beauty is disappearing in the profession. Even among people who have submission fantasies, many are abusive when they call in response to one of my ads. They lack respect for themselves and their own fantasies, so they pester professional dominants. They donít think about why theyíre calling, donít think about what they want, and expect me to sort out their needs for them. Then they hang up the phone if they donít like something Iíve said, or they donít keep appointments. They take my time, they take my energy, they take whatever else they can, just because I advertise what seems to them to be only an erotic service. Possibly they are afraid of their own desires, their own needs. As a professional dominant I would like to be respected the same way any professional wants to be respected, so I try to do a lot of screening on the phone when I have the patience.

So my philosophy: since my clients are usually men, doing my work my way is related to women asserting power over men erotically, and that, I think, is a good thing. I celebrate sexuality and the dark areas of sexuality like the need to be out of control, the need to feel intense sensation to get one out of oneís head. In a way I see this as an offering to a woman. I look at a man who really wants to submit as an offering to womanís power, to the female principle. And that need to submit is an offering I want and respect. It might not be my style, and I might not want some person to submit to me if whatever he thinks of submission is not be something Iím willing to play with, but I donít put anybody down for needing to submit. I donít think theyíre fools, or laugh at them. I believe this is valid human connection. It can raise the balance in a world that is really out of balance with rape, bad ecology, and abusive patriarchal values that deny people the right to their own sexuality, and to freedom of choice.

The reason we really arenít progressing much is not that SM is in the media, or that dominant garb is for sale on the street corner: thatís just making a lower denominator of SM accessible. In order to do something to improve SM standards Iím creating an intensive workshop that will be open to men and women beginning early this year. I want to teach negotiation skills, trust, and SM skills, all from a compassionate human standpoint. Anybody who is interested in such a professional SM intensive workshop can write to me.


Since this interview Cléo Dubois has shifted her focus to her Academy of S/M Arts, teaching classes in community venues and working with couples. She offers demonstrations and private guided play sessions tailored to each coupleís needs, desires, and level of experience. She now has a more optimistic view on the preservation of the magic of S/M as more and more couples are exploring BDSM as a path to empowerment, intimacy, and bigger erotic lives. She thanks the Internet for the opening of that closet.

Cléo Dubois can be reached by mail at Cléo Dubois' Academy of SM Arts, POB 2575, Menlo Park, CA 94026-2575, by phone at (650)322-0124, or on the web at

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