fall preview 2019

Stripper Pole to Tent Pole

Roselyn Keo’s life inspired a major motion picture. What did she learn? What did we?

Roselyn Keo. Photo: David Williams
Roselyn Keo. Photo: David Williams

Everybody’s like, ‘What’s your passion? What do you want to do?,’ ” Roselyn Keo tells me as she curls up on a big brown recliner at the SoJo Spa Club in Edgewater, New Jersey. “Honestly, my passion was just to make money.” Keo’s brain is an archive of all sorts of knowledge, which served her well in her former life: she knows credit cards inside and out — by color, by credit limit, maybe even by weight. She’s talking about credit cards the way some people talk about their favorite NBA team. It’s like in Casino, how Robert De Niro’s character knows the ways basketballs bounce on different kinds of wood, because it helps him make better bets. In 2014, Keo was convicted of drugging Wall Street guys, luring them into strip clubs, and swiping their credit cards with abandon. Her story is now a movie called Hustlers, starring Constance Wu as Destiny, a character inspired by her, and Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, a character inspired by her partner in crime. This doesn’t seem to surprise her entirely: From the beginning, she knew she had a movie on her hands. She told everything to New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler to write an article upon which the movie was based, after all. (Although at the time, she also claimed she’d made it all up.)

Keo has the kind of slick, hyperaware charisma that’s not easy to fake. Even now that she is a stay-at-home mom and lives out here in the suburbs, Keo hasn’t gone soft: She immediately clocked a pair of women trying to eavesdrop on our conversation. “Let’s talk over here,” she said, her eyes narrowing. And she draws you in. Even if she ran up my cards, I’d still respond to her texts. She’s just the kind of person you want to keep talking to.

We’re talking about credit cards because we’re talking about the hustle at the center of Hustlers. “See, it’s a tricky game with American Express — there’s no preset limit, so you’d have to figure out what’s available,” Keo explains flatly. “If he has an American Express Platinum, Platinum has no limit. But just because there’s no limit doesn’t mean he has that much buying power.”

Neither the magazine story nor the movie is a tale of pure avarice. They’re parables about women with lots of curves but not lots of options. They needed money, but it also felt good to have a bit of power and control, especially with a guy who thinks he has you pegged. “The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules,” J.Lo’s character says, pitching the scam. Or as Keo says to me: “Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, it was like, I’m the she-wolf of Wall Street. I’m thinking me and Jordan Belfort should do some motivational speaking together.” I tell her she could out-Belfort Jordan himself; her story is much funnier.

“Is it?” she asks.

One of Keo’s talents was what she calls the “sweet hustle”: “If you have the gift of gab, if you play your cards right and you make somebody fall in love with you, they don’t just want your body. They want to get to know you.” There’s a glimmer in her eye, the kind that comes only from total proficiency. “[The men were] paying for my time to get to know me, but initially they were trying to make me fall in love with them. One of them spent about five years draining his accounts trying to make me fall in love with him,” she says, smiling. The way she says draining! His! Accounts! is a little fucked-up and a little inspiring, and definitely a little fucked-up how inspiring it is.

As a stripper turned single mother turned scammer named Destiny, Wu’s character is Hustlers’ moral center. Keo just seems pragmatic. “I had no cushion,” she says of her upbringing, on her own since she was 16, when her grandmother died. “My mom wasn’t able to help me. Who knows what kind of person I would’ve been if she was there to back me up. Would I have worked so hard, would I have hustled so hard, the way I did, knowing I had something to fall back on?” When they were at Scores, Keo and Samantha Foxx (who inspired the character of Ramona) thought they were like Kobe and Shaq. In the movie, Destiny and Ramona exchange luxe Christmas gifts, and even after Destiny takes a plea deal, Ramona seems to understand why, since she did it for her kid. In real life, Keo and Foxx haven’t spoken since. There wasn’t a deep friendship to salvage or to mourn — they just worked well together on something which happened to be illegal. She doesn’t see any of the old crew: Not everyone has grown the way she has, Keo notes. “It’s like when you move out of a neighborhood that wasn’t the greatest, and it’s like, why would you go backwards?”

Today Keo says she doesn’t go out anymore. She’s again in a relationship with her daughter’s father. “Any time I would fight with the father of my child, I was like, ‘I don’t need you, I’m gonna go back to work. Go ahead!,’ ” she says, laughing. She learned her lesson. “Now every time we fight, I don’t threaten to leave him. I have to bite my tongue and make it work for my family. I don’t have the option to just walk out the door and go make a quick thousand dollars like I used to.”

Hustlers’ main set pieces often look like music videos (starring J.Lo), with the women in stilettos and a bass line punctuating the action. There’s lots of shopping and bags and apartments that look like chic hotels. This morning at SoJo, Keo is wearing black leggings and a black tank top; the only callback to her days at the club is her beige Louis Vuitton Neverfull bag. Today she shops at Lululemon and Fashion Nova and watches Good Girls on Netflix. She’s working on a book and writes the title down for me in her small, neat handwriting: The Sophisticated Hustler.

“I’ve been getting up at 6 a.m. instead of going to bed at 6 a.m., which has been nice on my body. Because I’m well rested, I get more things done in the daytime than when I used to wake up at noon,” she says. But there has to be a hustle, right? It can’t all be gym days and after-school pickups. “Oh, my hustle,” Keo begins, grinning, “is for the PTA. I fund-raise. I do a lot of fund-raisers for my school. There isn’t a lot of drama, thank God. There is a little mean-girl thing, but at the end of the day, we all just care about our children. At the end of the day, when you have working moms, we don’t have time for the b.s. We’re just all about school, work, and children.” Her daughter, she tells me later in the afternoon over smoothies, doesn’t know anything about Hustlers or Scores; she just knows they’re making a movie about Mommy’s life, and that movie just happens to star J.Lo.

Keo went to a J.Lo concert recently. “These ladies that were in line to get into the concert, I promoted my IG to them and my book, and they were talking bad about me behind me,” she says, sighing about their judginess. “I think women like that are the ones who look at me like, ‘Omigod, you’re a criminal.’ I am a criminal! It doesn’t matter! You’re a criminal! I don’t care. She don’t pay my bills.

“I believe in God, and I believe, like, whatever I go through, it’s for a reason,” she continues. “Like He’s putting this hurdle in front of me for a reason. And when it happened, of course, why, why? And I knew what I did was wrong, you know? But I accepted it and changed from it.”

But wait — really? This redemption narrative seems awfully saccharine to me, and I tell her that. Watching the movie, I kept thinking, Is it really that terrible that a few Wall Street bros woke up in some debt while some women paid their rent, paid for a babysitter, paid for some Louboutins? “Wrong is relative,” I blurt. “What do you mean?” Keo asks. Her eyes again narrow, and she looks at me with a curiosity that feels almost like a test. “I think it’s natural that, especially now, people are rooting for women who are independent and self-reliant,” I say. “I’m rooting for you.” She laughs in a way that, almost imperceptibly, feels like she appreciates that I fell for the movie, which is maybe a sweet hustle all its own. “See, but that’s crazy,” she says. “I think a lot of women are rooting for me even though I was wrong.”

*A version of this article appears in the September 2, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

More on 'Hustlers'

See All
How Roselyn Keo’s Life Inspired the Hustlers Movie