Writer, fashion designer, and advocate Zoe Hansen’s creative endeavors are postcards from a life pushed to the edge and lived to the fullest, with no regrets, and a mad dash of English elegance. Zoe’s most ambitious work of all is her journey, and her tangible creations are souvenirs from the places she has experienced. Each piece of manifested expression is unique and imperfect like a soul, and filled with authenticity and grace.
In 1984, she moved from London, England to New York’s East Village—back when NYC was a warzone—and settled into a life of prowling the streets to score heroin and hustling as a sex worker. Cocooning herself in her habit, she later relocated to the infamous Chelsea Hotel and disappeared into a sedentary life shooting dope in the actual room of the Sid and Nancy stabbing. By the 1990s, she climbed through the ranks, starting as a call girl and ending up a madam, owning and operating five of Gotham’s finest brothels. Soon after, in 1996, she took another important step upward; she got clean.
“One day, I came downstairs to do my routine and everything was set up like usual – dope, vodka, and coke – and I just couldn’t do it. I flushed it all down the toilet. I was done. I was getting so paranoid looking out of peepholes and I couldn’t take it anymore,” she explains. “Getting sober was an overwhelming and confusing process, as my emotions began to come back. I remember feeling the wind blow on my arm. I hadn’t felt that in ten years. I hadn’t felt warmth, cold, hatred or love, but day by day, I felt better.”
Zoe closed her last brothel in 2000, and since then, her Second Act has been as vigorous as the First Act was. Liberated from the shackles of substance abuse, she was now able to fully explore her creativity. Sharing her exploits with others via readings and published short stories, Zoe began to amass a highly engaged following of fans energized by her edge-of-the-seat stories and emotionally bold prose. Soon her work began appearing in well-regarded fringe culture literature anthologies. Her work has now been praised by the New York Times, and her short stories have appeared in Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, as well as legendary novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl’s (Permanent Midnight, Zoolander) curated collection, The Heroin Chronicles, among many other publications.
Zoe has now emerged as a highly promising fashion designer with a flair for mixing grit with glamor. Informed by a youth spent in the epicenter of English punk rock in its heyday, Zoe’s new work exudes the iconic and playful irreverence of the UK’s first wave of punk. Her debut fashion imprint, Fear City has become the hallmark of “sleazy cool” for those “in the know” around the New York City fashion scene.
Most importantly, Zoe has an altruistic, and incredibly deep passion for “harm reduction”; in other words, she reaches out to drug users “where they are at” in order to reduce the negative effects of their lifestyle. Starting from its most basic level, this brand of noninvasive intercession advocates for clean needles, in order to minimize the spread of diseases. Zoe truly believes in the importance of empowering people in the depths of addiction to improve their lives slowly and incrementally, working to build a natural bridge to rehabilitation without becoming alienated by heavy dogma.
Zoe’s personal life has been transformed in an equally inspiring way as her professional life. She currently resides back in the East Village – which has now been her home base for three decades – with Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Handsome Dick Manitoba, of the pioneering punk band The Dictators, and their son. The two own and run the successful East Village rock ‘n’ roll bar Manitoba’s, which has become something of a rock museum, adorned with breathtaking and legendary photos.
Reflecting back on the First and Second Acts of her career, Zoe says: “It’s a miracle I didn’t end up in jail or dead. I feel like maybe there is a guardian angel looking over me. But I really love life. I never got caught up, or acted because of depression. I tend to have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about it all. For me, life has been about thrills and exploration.”
Gif by Pinky Slim
Photograph by Robert Butcher