“What is it that you really want?” a glossy-haired brunette purrs into a microphone as she ascends a stage covered in tea lights.
The all-female audience murmurs excitedly amongst itself until a petite Japanese woman in a Rag & Bone blazer shouts, “I want more!” from the back of the packed auditorium.
‘Of course you do…’ the brunette responds with a grin. A slit in her tight pencil skirt reveals she’s wearing leather thigh-high stiletto boots.
The crowd gains confidence. “I don’t want to be so polite!” adds a leggy blonde in a vintage T-shirt next to me. Everyone mutters in agreement. Suddenly a woman with an impeccable blow-out on the second row explodes with, “I WANT TO PUT MY FEET ON MY BOSS’S DESK IN LOUBOUTINS AND TELL HIM TO GO SUCK IT!”
“Beautiful! That is so beautiful…” the brunette chuckles dirtily into the microphone…
The woman on stage is called Kasia and the best way I can describe her is that she looks like a pint-sized Angelina Jolie with the gravelly voice of Juliette Lewis. I was encouraged to go hear her speak by a female friend over brunch. ‘This woman is off the chain,’ my friend Claire exclaimed excitedly between forkfuls of steak tartare at Café Cluny, ‘you come out completely pumped.’ After asking what she spoke about Claire said she ‘teaches you about being a badass basically, how to have that internal confidence feeling that I’ve always lacked, you know?’
I do know, in fact. Despite spending my life on stage, speaking publicly and generally thinking of myself as socially outgoing I have spent most of my twenties and early thirties battling with a sort of ‘good-girl persona.’ Working hard, getting A’s, going to Oxford and being totally, totally terrified of failure. Instead of addressing this directly I would furiously over-prepare, insist on excellence from myself and avoid any situation in which my presence wasn’t ratified by my peers or employers. Any person that promised to fill me with the ease of effortless confidence was worth my attention.
This is how I found myself at a talk called ‘Fearless Desire’ in the marble-clad ballroom of the Bryant Park Hotel in New York City. It has to be said that the experience was a tad weird. The talk had a cultish feel and it was clear from the way these women hung on Kasia’s every word that many of them had heard her speak before. There is also the fact that Kasia Urbaniak herself is pretty unusual. An ex-dominatrix turned female empowerment coach she now runs an increasingly on-trend school called ‘The Academy’ which promises to give you the practical tools to break out of years of ‘good-girl conditioning’ and step into your power.
The courses aren’t cheap. ‘Power with Men 101’ costs around a grand for a couple of weekends. With a large body of women, however, woken up to a new sense of possibility in the MeToo era there seems to be no shortage of women willing to give their money and time to feel more empowered. But what does she teach in these classes which are almost all sold out on her website? Kasia’s focus is that women must access their desire. Desire, Kasia claims, is key to giving you the ‘juice’ to move from a less desirable sense of fear to a more freeing sense of fearlessness.
Finding out what you actually want, however, is particularly hard for women, Kasia argues, because societally women are encouraged to suppress their desire in favour of being “nice” and answering every question with a habitual ‘I’m fine!’ As I looked around the auditorium it was clear that desire was what I was encountering right now. Suppressed female desire finally given permission to make itself heard.
The talk turned out to be rather emotional as women started to tell this large group of strangers what they truly desired. This ranged from setting up a billion-dollar company to having a baby with their partner, but each woman seemed moved by having their desire listened to and voiced out loud. The lack of apology in the room really reverberated with me. I suddenly found myself amongst these women thinking back on all the times I’ve had to apologise for what I’ve wanted. All the moments when I’ve held back merely to please other people or accommodate a male voice over my own.
Kasia then started getting women up on stage to perform her ‘Asking Practice.’ Her basic point is that once you’ve worked out what it is you want it’s important to be able to ask for it. And particularly from men. I’d never really thought about this being a problem for me but the more I thought about it maybe it was. I, like many women I know, fear the words ‘pushy,’ ‘ambitious’ or ‘bitchy’ which seem regularly hurled at successful women. Kasia, however, said that the fear of looking too assertive is due to years of cultural conditioning and that it is vital to inoculate yourself against the fear of rejection or insult by asking for what you want. The only way to do this is through practice.
Kasia then brought a male actor on stage and called women up individually to role-play asking a man to grant their wildest desires. “Ask him for anything,” she encouraged like a true dominatrix, “to treat you like a goddess, to give you a foot rub or to make you the CEO…” A lot of women felt highly embarrassed doing this and would fidget and look at the floor until Kasia would say, “…what would you ask for if you were a really selfish bitch…” after which the woman would smile and ask for something with surprising confidence.
The male actor is then instructed to say ‘no’ to each and every one of your multiple requests. It’s an unusual exercise but it does make you feel like you are totally immune to embarrassment. It reminded me of reading about pick up artists who would tour bars with socially anxious men encouraging them to ask out multiple woman until the crushing anxiety around it disappeared. The resulting fearlessness is hugely liberating. You ask your boss for a raise and he says no. So what? You ask him for a little less and see where the leeway is. Overcoming the shame of asking gives you the power to negotiate and not slink away with your tail between your legs.
As Claire promised when the talk ended I was completely pumped. Never again was I going to apologise for anything. ‘She’s good isn’t she?’ the blonde next to me said. ‘Amazing…’ I stuttered back. We got chatting and she revealed to me that many of the women at tonight’s talk knew each other from the ‘Mama Gena network.’ ‘The what?’ I asked. The blonde went on to explain that “Mama Gena’ was a pet name for Regena Thomashauer; another empowerment guru who ran ‘The School of Womanly Arts’ on 116th Street.
As soon as I got home I looked up Regena’s website. Similar to Kasia all her workshops were sold out. I really was behind the curve on this empowerment coach thing. Thwarted I emailed the school asking for a meeting and in the meantime contented myself with googling her. Regena is about fifteen years older that Kasia but is also mind-blowingly charismatic. Her TEDxFidiWomen talk on ‘YouTube,’ for example, starts with her being carried onto a stage by a male entourage with Pitbull’s ‘I know you want me’ blaring on the speakers. She then spends the first minute of the TED talk gyrating to the beat with a huge smile on her face. She obviously also had confidence in the truck load.
The second surprise was finding that Regena’s most recent book, ‘Pussy: A Reclamation,’ was already a New York Times best seller. I swiftly downloaded it on ‘Audible’ having never heard of it before. The gist was essentially that the patriarchy has pulled an elaborate con on women encouraging them to hate their bodies, fear other women and become disconnected from the divine feminine.
To fight back, Regena argues, women need to start celebrating themselves, their feminine experience and their anatomy. Literally revisioning themselves as ‘goddesses,’ which is a term she uses a lot. “I want women to be turned on again,” she said simply when I got her on the phone. “When I looked at the women around me they seemed unplugged and uninspired. I want to help them find their power and enthusiasm.”
But how does she do this? Well, one of the first lessons you learn at the ‘School of Womanly Arts’ is the art of ‘bragging’ she explained. This involves celebrating yourself and your achievements out loud and encouraging other “sister goddesses” to do the same. This resonated with me as I often notice myself and my female friends routinely self-deprecate in front of each other in a way which is frankly a tad depressing.
Regena, like Kasia, also describes exercises to break out of the meek ‘feminine’ mould and instead encouraging women to live out ‘all eighty eight keys’ of the feminine experience. Ecstatic dance breaks are encouraged to pumping hip hop as is “swamping” in which women cry and emit primal howls on stage; connecting up with their bodies and the full range of their emotional experience.
At the end of a long call Regena asked me to brag to her. I hesitated with embarrassment before eventually sharing that I’d booked an adventure to a meditation retreat in Indonesia the other day which had been lurking on my bucket list for the best part of ten years. “That is beautiful,” she said, “What an achievement. Well done you.” It felt pretty good. It was true I was proud of doing it and celebrating it with her made me feel doubly so. She felt like the twinkly-eyed godmother I’d never had.
As I put down the phone I realised meeting these two women had had remarkably different effects on me. I walked out of Kasia’s class feeling all jacked up and ready to take on anyone male or female. Whereas Regena referred to me on the phone as a “sister goddess” whose job it was to “turn on” and I felt, for the first time in a long time, in love with the idea of being a woman.
Was I brimming over with inner confidence? Perhaps not yet. But even being in proximity to these new gurus made me feel more playful, more sparkly and just a little bit more of a badass.