EDINBURG — An older gentleman sat alone at a table, a bouquet of flowers resting beside his drink, as he waited patiently for the woman he hoped to meet, no matter how brief the conversation.
The DJ announced over a mix of rap and reggaeton music that she wouldn’t be on stage until 10:30 p.m., making Stormy Daniels fashionably late for what was billed as a 9 p.m. appearance.
This wasn’t just any Wednesday night at Tex Mex Lounge in Edinburg, apparent from the cover charge. The usual $10 fee to get in the gentlemen’s club was bumped up to at least $50 to see the woman ensnared in a legal battle with the nation’s president.
While Hidalgo County is known as a traditionally blue region, with more than 68 percent of the vote going to Hillary Clinton in 2016, much of the floor was empty for Daniels, a polarizing figure who has become an unlikely symbol of resistance to an unconventional presidency.
Daniels — legally known as Stephanie Clifford, 39 — claims she was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006, 10 years before he was elected president. The allegations prompted a response from Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen, who told The New York Times that the president “vehemently denies” her claims, though Cohen has since acknowledged the payment.
Tex Mex owner Roy Lopez said he booked Daniels for two nights, including on the Fourth of July, to give patrons “something different from the everyday happenings.”
While it’s not every day that Daniels — who according to her pre-recorded intro has “trumped the competition” in the adult entertainment industry, and whose “60 Minutes interview was the most watched in the last 10 years” — is in the Rio Grande Valley, she is stopping anywhere on her “Make America Horny Again” tour if the money is right.
Lopez wouldn’t disclose how much he paid Daniels, but said she was one of the more expensive acts his club has featured.
Daniels wouldn’t conduct media interviews, according to Lopez, and said little in the less than an hour she spent on the club floor over the course of her two shows Wednesday, each lasting 15 minutes followed by a brief meet-and-greet with patrons. A photo with her — taken with patrons’ cellphones in front of a tattered American flag graphic and Miller Lite poster affixed to the wall — cost $20.
‘A story to tell’
For the few choosing to spend their Independence Day at the strip club, Daniels ranged from a hero to a villain, to a pop-culture icon or simply a memorable adult-film actress from their teenage years.
The older gentleman admired his photo with her on his flip phone, content she’d thanked him for the flowers and seemed to be relaxing. The Donna resident identifies as a Republican, but didn’t vote in 2016 because Trump’s “an idiot,” he said. The question he wanted to ask Daniels was whether she knew any of his friends in the adult entertainment business.
“She’s very defensive with all the lawyers right now; she’s very timid,” he said of her demeanor.
Lopez also expressed disappointment at just how closed off Daniels was with patrons. Gaze downcast, she was flanked by bodyguards as she made her way on and off stage, where she said nothing, instead letting the music do the talking as she danced to classics like Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil.”
“It was too much security; it’s a very friendly crowd here,” Lopez said. “It was like she was kind of scared or something. Probably they tell her not to talk to many people, or let them get close to her.”
A handful of men approached the stage so they could have the opportunity to get acquainted with Daniels, who threw the bills she amassed to her production staff, who were quick to collect the cash in a plastic laundry basket.
“Acércate, so you can say you touched a porn star,” the DJ said, encouraging attendees to approach when those lining up dwindled to the club’s dancers, who at times seemed to outnumber the patrons. “Go home with a story to tell.”
‘A degree of separation’
For Edinburg residents Jesse, 27, and Diego, 28 — both declining to give their last names — the experience of standing inches from Daniels was “surreal” yet “superficial,” and far too commercial. Neither of the Clinton supporters had heard of Daniels prior to the Trump scandal.
“I just wanted to be a degree of separation from the president,” Diego said.
Speaking of what attracted him to the event, Jesse said, “I think it was her notoriety. I wanted the story. I wanted to say this is what I did for the Fourth of July.”
Yet, Michael, a 23-year-old Edinburg resident who also declined to give his last name, was pleased with the event. He said he was first introduced to Daniels back in 2007 when he saw one of her adult videos, adding he would have attended regardless of the political scandal.
That scandal was the only draw for McAllen resident Joey Cepeda, 37, who came armed with questions for Daniels, but didn’t think he’d get close enough to actually talk to the woman he said the “mainstream media” has given a platform and “promoted as a savior.”
“Why did you lie about the attacker?” Cepeda said he asked her, referring to allegations Daniels made in her March “60 Minutes” interview with CBS of being physically threatened in 2011, when she first attempted to go public with her story about the Trump affair.
“And she just laughed,” Cepeda said of Daniels’ response.
Cepeda, who identifies as a conservative, questions the validity of Daniels’ story because of the timing in which she has revealed details.
“Lo and behold, (Trump) wins and now she’s seeing more dollar signs,” he said. “Her doing this tour supports my theory that she’s kind of money-hungry and does anything for money.”
One of the only female ticket holders in the audience came with her husband as a show of solidarity with women, she said, and didn’t see it as a political act.
“I just admire her for stepping up for women,” the middle-aged woman said, preferring not to be identified. “A lot of women won’t agree with me for what she does, but to have the guts to come out and fight the guy … I just admire her for that.
“He tried to shut her up, and it just pissed me off,” the woman said of the president. “The girl has some guts. I’ve got to meet this girl.”
For his part, Lopez remained optimistic Thursday’s shows would have a better turnout than the holiday and that Daniels has remained relevant among the mounting scandals facing the Trump presidency.
Not everyone was as enthused.
As Jesse made his way out of the club, having stayed for both of the holiday shows, he said the event was not worth the money.
“I would definitely lie about (the show) to my friends and say it was totally worth it,” he said with a laugh.
And when Cepeda asked Daniels whether she actually misses Trump, he said: “She said, ‘yes, I do,’ and she laughed.”