Wearing a metallic red spandex top with holes that show off her melon-size breasts, a matching skirt slit to the top of her model-long legs, and silver lace-up go-go boots with four-inch stiletto heels, Leslie Glass is dressed for work.
Writhing on stage and then pirouetting around a brass pole, she looks similar to the other strippers at Pure Platinum in Fort Lauderdale with one major exception: her hair. The other erotic entertainers have long hair cascading down their backs, mostly blond. But Glass' hair is just a quarter-inch long and bleached white, a sleek cap outlining her heavily made-up face.
The short hair gives Glass a striking, sexy image, but the look is not intentional. It's a result of massive doses of chemotherapy and the only outward sign of the war that is raging inside her body.
The men in the audience -- a mixture of young, middle-aged, and grandfatherly customers -- ogle Glass appreciatively. What they don't know is that the seemingly perfect physical specimen displayed in front of them has advanced cancer and just returned from a hospital, where her tumors were fried with a special needle inserted into her liver. The patrons have no clue that the dancing is ripping apart the scar tissue forming in her liver and the pain is so intense Glass had to pop a Percocet before going on stage. Glass doesn't want them to know that.
"It's not good for the men to know about my cancer, because it ruins the fantasy," she says. "They're not going to want a table dance from me if they know I have cancer."
Eighteen months ago, at the age of 35, Glass was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer that had by then spread to her liver. The cancer was so advanced that her liver was sprinkled with 72 tumors. A blood test that detects the presence of tumors was at a level of 6500; 4000 is considered fatal. She was given two weeks to live.
The night she was supposed to die, Glass dragged her weak, 15-pounds-underweight body on stage, determined to prove the doctors wrong. She's been astonishing them ever since.
News of Glass' illness rocked the adult-entertainment world, where she is a star. Glass, who got her start as one of the original professional wrestling "ring girls," was the 1994 International Penthouse Pet of the Year and has appeared in Penthouse 86 times. She starred in seven adult films for Vivid Videos, including Where the Boys Aren't Part 10; served as set decoration in music videos for Tone Loc and Extreme; and guested on the Howard Stern radio show three times, once as the "Snapple girl," a spokesmodel for the soft drink.
Members of the adult industry were distressed about the news because of her lifelong contribution to helping animals, her down-to-earth attitude, and the grace with which she was handling the illness, says Craig Korka, a Pure Platinum manager. In her hometown of Baltimore, Glass ran a shelter for abused and stray animals called Two by Two and says that for years she spent all her money on animals, visiting shelters wherever she was traveling and flying injured animals back home. She also started a nonprofit organization called Pets-4-Pets, in which scantily clad Penthouse Pets are featured in posters and calendars with their pets, with the proceeds going to a shelter for abused animals in West Virginia.
"She's fighting a fight no one would want to fight and doing it more gallantly than anyone," says Korka. "She's never gone around looking for pity. We sold posters of hers, and she contributed half to her treatment and half to the animals. Who would do that? And she still manages to look sexy. It's unbelievable."
"She's a very courageous girl," says a stripper at Pure Platinum who goes by the name Brandy. "She's been through a lot of ups and downs, and she's a big fighter. We all love her."
The cancer might have shocked others, but it was not a surprise to Glass. She had stomach pains and bloody diarrhea for years and thought she had an ulcer. "I'd never drink alcohol because it would burn," she says. "I knew something was wrong." But doctors glanced at the gorgeous young porn star with a mane of chestnut hair and called her a hypochondriac. At her urging they took stool samples and performed a colonoscopy in February 1998. Finding nothing the doctors told her she had irritable bowel syndrome, a mild illness often psychological in origin.
In July 1998 her abdomen swelled up so much she looked five months pregnant. She was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, and an ultrasound revealed a grapefruit-size tumor in her colon. Suspecting cancer, her doctor promptly shipped her to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. After 13 hours on the operating table, Glass awoke to grim news from the surgeon, who she says could not look her in the eye. "He said, 'We did everything we could,'" recalls Glass, and informed her he had removed one ovary, which the cancer had swallowed, and a piece of her colon and stomach. Says Glass: "He knew I was going to die. I felt sorry for him."
Glass is thankful to the surgeon for one thing: giving her a tiny C-section-type scar instead of slicing her down the middle. That could have ended her career.
But she's bitter about her lack of early diagnosis and treatment. Glass is convinced either the lab or the doctors screwed up. "If they caught it in time, I might still have had cancer on my liver, but probably only two or three lesions that could have been cut off. You can't cut out 72 lesions."
Right from the start, Glass was determined to beat the cancer, which kills 95 percent of sufferers within five years. "I'm strong as hell," says the talkative, gravelly voiced woman. "I wasn't going to let it kick my ass."
After doing research on the Internet, Glass visited the top hospitals in the country for treating her disease. Each doctor took one look at her liver scans and shook his head -- except Dr. David Van Echo at the University of Maryland. He told her she would likely die in two weeks but nonetheless agreed to fight the disease with every weapon in his arsenal. He made Glass a human guinea pig, using the latest, most aggressive treatments. "Leslie is the first one I tried all these procedures on," says Van Echo.
He started with a 29-hour infusion of a three-drug chemotherapeutic cocktail commonly used in Europe. He then moved to a treatment in which chemotherapeutic medicine is injected directly into each tumor, thus avoiding the side effects of traditional chemotherapy. Van Echo next tried a procedure in which a large needle hooked up to a radio frequency is inserted into the tumor and fries it away.
Van Echo, who'd never heard of his famous patient before, couldn't help being wowed by her: "She has a can-do attitude and doesn't want to give up. She also has a charismatic personality -- it's part of her job. She gets people to like her and to try to help her."
Indeed. With no health insurance, Glass rang up her friends in the adult-entertainment industry. "Believe it or not, this is a big-hearted industry," she says. Penthouse paid her airfare to various hospitals; Vivid Video, her rent for a year. A rich benefactor in Connecticut, who had donated to her animal shelter, paid for a year's worth of health insurance. Pure Platinum sold her Pets-4-Pets poster every night for a year. It paid for her treatment until Medicaid kicked in.
"We care about her, and we care about this cause," says Jeff Collins, promotions manager at Penthouse. "[Penthouse publisher] Bob Guccione's wife died of breast cancer, so he's well aware of the effects of this disease in this country."
The treatments exacted a huge toll. Glass calls chemotherapy "the most horrific trip I've ever gone through." She recalls leaving the stage at Pure Platinum to vomit and then running back to continue her set. Her liver is now dotted with holes, cracks, and scars where the tumors used to be.
But the latest scan reveals the aggressive killer still lingers in her blood and liver, although it has not surfaced anywhere else in her body. She is taking a drug holiday for a few months before Van Echo starts a new treatment: injecting radioactive pellets into her liver. "Who knows," Van Echo says when asked about her prognosis. "We have several more procedures left to try."
But Glass refuses to stop her battle for even a second. She will fly to the Bahamas this week for an alternative treatment in which vials of her blood are drawn, sent to Germany, activated with gene therapy to boost the white blood cell count, and reinjected in her veins.
Nor is she curtailing her busy schedule. Not only does she need to make a living, but "I believe when you sit in bed and eat Percocet all day is when you die. I go out there and dance no matter how bad I feel." Glass just returned from Los Angeles, where she did a photo shoot as the first bald Penthouse Pet (looking like a Star Trek babe). The photo will be part of a planned October issue devoted to breast cancer awareness. Two weeks ago she was in New York for a Penthouse breast cancer benefit and Howard Stern appearance, where, with two other Penthouse Pets in tow, she promoted the cancer benefit.
When she's in town, Glass still performs at Pure Platinum. She'd like to quit and open a ranch in Davie for abused animals and kids with cancer -- provided some rich benefactor like Donald Trump, who she says asked her out, or Stern gives her a donation. She'd also like to have a child.
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Mostly she just wants to live.
"Am I going to die?" Glass wonders aloud. "I don't know. I used to have nightmares of death. It never leaves your head. You feel these things in your insides, and it's like having an alien in there. I want to be an example for people with cancer."
Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address: