Tess Sweet stood on an empty stage inside the Berkeley Rep on a recent Sunday afternoon and said, “I’ve got that nervous feeling that no one is going to show up.”
She was hosting an open audition to cast the instructor role in her sex fitness video, Sweet Moves 2. The original Sweet Moves, which she produced in Berkeley’s public-access television studio last year, has acquired a cult following among the East Bay’s young ‘n’ hip. Led by Sweet, who adopted a 1980s Jazzercise look, the film was part sex-positive sermon and part workout video kitsch – “And one and two and in and out and push it!” The video ends with Sweet performing Kegel exercises that she says will help you “make love like a rock star!”
Since completing Sweet Moves, Sweet has been learning some new lessons of her own. She recently hosted an all-female Masturbate-a-Thon in New York City that is set to air on HBO’s Real Sex in November, and she’d just returned from a film festival in Los Angeles where Sweet Moves played before an Annie Sprinkle documentary. Afterward, “People were asking me for my autograph,” she said. “It was wild.”
She briefly allowed herself to bask in the moment. After all, the acclaim garnered by Sweet Moves has teased her with a whiff of the Dream: A life built on her artistic vision, a touch of fame, and enough cash flow to make a decent living. The only problem now is the other people. You have to work with them. Depend on them. Wait for them.
Sweet booked eight would-be rock stars for today’s audition. A major distributor recently contacted her about carrying Sweet Moves, so her project is now primed to go to the next level. “You just never know who will show up,” she said. “Or if they’ll show up.”
Kimmy Chen, a 26-year-old student from San Francisco, arrived on stage wearing a strawflower hat, white silk blouse, and a black miniskirt with a slit up the side. She wore white platform tennis shoes and white ankle socks. She giggled like a freshman ready for a tryout with the spirit squad, and made a point to shake everyone’s hand, hold eye contact, and then offer a firm, “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m going to try and remember everyone’s names,” she said, rolling her shoulders back.
Chen removed her hat and took a seat across from Sweet and three men who had worked with her on the first video. Chen said she had just driven from Los Angeles, where she was up until 5 a.m., playing Truth or Dare at a party. She was the life of the party, she added, and skinny-dipping had occurred at her urging. “But I was the sober one,” she said.
Sweet asked Chen to fill out the written questionnaire. One question asked, “What interests you about this audition?” so Chen wrote, “Sexy moves, doing sexual things. Love dancing. Dancer = good in bed.”
When she finished, Chen handed the clipboard back to Sweet, who asked her again why she wanted the gig.
“I just like the idea of it,” Chen said. “It’s, you know, as a kid … I was a big fan of Michael Jackson. I liked his dancing.”
Sweet and her panelists nodded, not sure what to make of this reason.
“Your passion carries through in bed,” Chen continued. “That’s what I tell people. If I go out dancing, and you’re out there on the floor and I see a guy who’s out there dancing …” Her voice trailed off to suggest that she was watching a male dancer exude passion. “Then I know he’s fuckin’ hot in bed.”
Sweet and the panelists raised their eyebrows and smiled. They liked this answer.
“Same thing with a girl,” Chen added. “See, in my culture talking about sex is taboo.” She said she liked to tease her mother about her old-fashioned ways, just to get a rise out of her. “I say, ‘Mom, what would you do if you ever caught me having sex with two girls at the same time?'”
Chen laughed hard and held her stomach. The panelists smiled back and laughed along with her.
“Okay,” Sweet said, “can you show us some of your moves?
“I’d love to,” Chen replied. She cued the CD player to a Britney Spears song and began bobbing her head, instantly finding a rhythm. She walked to the front of the stage as Sweet and another panelist fell in behind her in a triangle formation. The dancers each dropped a blue workout mat at their feet.
“Okay,” Chen yelled over the throbbing music, “We’re gonna work on this right here.” She began gyrating her hips up and down and side to side. Sweet and a male dancer followed the motion.
Chen followed the beat into her next move, a more seductive version of the first: She looked like she was hula-hooping in slow motion, keeping the hoop from dropping to the floor every few seconds. After she was done, she circled around, bent over, stuck her butt out, and palmed her inner thighs. “Feel it burn in here,” Chen coached, as she squatted and rose up. “You feel that?”
Chen was leading her partners just fine, but Sweet was hoping for more pillow talk. Chen led her partners into a minutes-long set of crunches; Sweet, wiped out, stopped for a breather.
“I want to see if you’re comfortable talking about sex,” Sweet said, politely. “So … if you could … you know?”
“Okay, okay,” Chen said, with a determined enthusiasm, the music still blaring in the theater. For a moment, she looked challenged by the demand to ad-lib hot talk: What to say? Then she recovered. Dancing her way down, she got on her knees and assumed a woman-on-top position. “Straddle him,” Chen demanded, the sound of forced empowerment in her voice. “You want to be able to go a long time.”
A minute later, she rolled over flat on her back. Her fitness partners followed her lead. Chen paused, looking up at the ceiling, searching for inspiration.
She pulled her left knee up to her chest and opened up her legs. “This one’s going to be a little difficult,” she announced. While she held her knee at her chest, she arched her back up, balancing her entire body on her shoulder blades and right heel. She instructed her mates to follow, but they were having trouble maneuvering into position.
Chen lifted up slowly, carefully, and then back down. “And up … and down … and up … and down.”
After that, Chen ran out of moves. She twirled around. But the music was still pounding away. Since she was still auditioning, she returned again to an imaginary woman-on-top position.
“That’s okay,” Sweet said, calling it off. “That’s enough for now.”
Used to be, Tess Sweet didn’t know when to say “enough.” Four years ago, she chased love to Oakland. She’d met him at Burning Man, and fell so hard she returned to her Seattle home only long enough to pack her bags and quit her job as a sex educator at the adult store Toys in Babeland.
Two months later, the romance crashed. The fallout cast Sweet into the kind of heart-funk that leads to boozing. And then using. And then more boozing. It took two years and a New Year’s Eve overdose to check herself into the New Bridge Foundation rehab center in the Berkeley Hills. In 2001, she moved downtown into a halfway house.
“Living there, I had a lot of time on my hands to learn who I was,” Sweet recalled. “In that time, I decided to get busy living.”
She got a membership at the downtown YMCA, a move that would change her life. “Exercise to me as a whole concept was an entirely new idea,” she explained. Instead of meeting people for drinks at a bar, she was meeting friends in her noon cardio class. With the cloud of booze lifted, she found it easier to seek out new habits, better projects. She signed up for a video class.
Today, Sweet looks like the sort of artist you’d find in West Oakland. She rents a live-work loft on the cheap. She has flowers and stars tattooed up her forearms and wings down the small of her back. Her short-cropped hair is bleached blonde and she wears oversize Jackie-O sunglasses, if she’s not wearing a funky red wig. Fifty pounds lighter since she stopped drinking, she has the Sheryl Crow jawline that comes with carb-aversion.
But she distinguishes herself from the barstool-dreaming hipsters by showing some follow-through. After she finished video classes, Sweet signed up for a public-access slot at Berkeley Community Media. She wrote and produced Sexpro, a Saturday Night Live-style variety show that aired in the wee hours. For one skit, she MC’d a lusty quiz show. In another, her cohorts reviewed new products, like the remote-control butt plug. When bands showed up on set, they played sex-themed ballads, such as one titled “Magic Vagina.”
“I keep things light, I interject some humor,” Sweet says. “We’re all about having fun.”
The idea for Sweet Moves came from personal experience with a guy she was dating at the time. “One time I got on top of him and I couldn’t last more than a couple minutes,” she recalls. “My knees were screaming, ‘Aggggghhhh!!!!’… That’s when I realized to have good sex you need to be in good shape in specific places. … That’s when the lightbulb went on.”
Sweet Moves first appeared as a skit. But just as in SNL spin-offs, Sweet spun her workout diva character into an entire thirty-minute video, complete with set changes from a tropical beach to a low-rent futuristic set. As it turns out, the niche market for sex-exercise instruction videos is quite large, but with plenty of room to spare — especially for those who infuse a wink into their workout.
Recently, Sweet has been in negotiations with a national distributor who may put her project in stores around the country. The HBO Real Sex gig was yet another notch in her professed goal of “building an empire.” The crowd in Los Angeles, which was pumped up for Annie Sprinkle, roared for Tess Sweet. Afterward, a director insisted he play Sweet Moves at his after-hours party, and by the time the guest of honor arrived at the fabulous affair, she was showered in applause and Sharpie pens.
In typical Sweet fashion, she rolled out a large red carpet to offer her thank-you speech at the premiere. She carried an award ceremony envelope, opened it, and revealed that the winner for the one-of-a-kind Oscar that year had been awarded to Tess Sweet for “Finally Finishing Something.”
After Kimmy Chen departed, Sweet and her producers rehashed her performance. The consensus was that it lacked edge, but that Chen at least had the goodie-girl thing going for her.
“Bless her heart,” Sweet said. “She wanted the part so bad.”
“Too much dance, not enough sex,” the male dancer decreed.
“Her talking about sex was so junior high,” Sweet said. “It was” — she raised her voice to a little girl’s squeal — “pee-pee poo-poo ca-ca ha-ha-ha.”
The team laughed, and waited for the next rock star to arrive.
But none did. Sweet and her fellow panelists watched appointment after appointment come and go with no appointees. The married couple that had been so anxious to perform called to say their kids had sudden plans. The two friends Sweet thought for sure would pull through didn’t even call, the flakes. And the people who responded to her Craigslist ad? Nada.
This was a speed bump for Sweet. She’d envisioned an American Idol scene at her weekend audition, where she’d be forced into the difficult task of anointing America’s next Sweet Moves instructor. What she got was the empty promises from the uncommitted, unaware they were messing with someone’s plan to build an empire. But if Sweet was disappointed in the day’s waste, she didn’t allow it to stick to her for more than a second.
“That’s okay,” Sweet said as she directed the producers to pack up. “If they can’t make it to an audition, I didn’t want to work with them anyway.”