What do you get when you cross two prostitutes of a certain age with a videocamera? A vlog like no other, of course, capturing the daily lives and adventures of Amsterdam’s oldest and certainly most colorful ouwehoeren or “old whores,” as they call themselves.
Louise and Martine Fokkens are 75-year-old twins who dress alike, finish each other’s sentences, and gush about a collective century of experience as sex workers in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. With a bittersweet mix of wit and glee, the sisters wax nostalgic about careers born of domestic violence, that have yielded pain and pleasure, as well as a goldmine of stories offering insight into the changing landscape of prostitution in the Netherlands.
Born in war-torn Holland, Louise and Martine still deal with the trauma of growing up half-Jewish during Hitler’s antisemitic regime. In the absence of helmets, they covered their heads with frying pans while hiding in an Amsterdam basement with their parents and three siblings during wartime air raids. But even the sturdiest skillet would offer little protection against German bombs, much less the threat of their Jewish mother being hauled away by the Nazis, along with other Jews who hid in their home during World War II. Memories of such early traumas provide inspiration for the twins’ paintings.
By her own account, Louise married the love of her life after the war ended. But Wimpie soon turned abusive and refused to work as anything but a pimp. “He said he would leave me if I didn’t sell sex to make us more money,” she remembers. “I always say my husband beat me into it. What a douche,” she concludes while affection for the man who exploited her still glimmers in her pale eyes.
Barely out of her teens, Louise had three children and was struggling to support her family as a hooker in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. A fourth child came later, fathered by Jose Peppe, a second husband. Ever proud, Louise says she paid for her children’s care when they were taken into foster homes.
Martine followed her sister into the sex trade when she was in her early 20s, initially working as a window cleaner in the brothel Louise opened after leaving her husband-turned-pimp. Naturally, customers confused Martine, also newly single and pimpless, with her identical twin, and dual careers in prostitution were born.
Even without pimps, the sisters strolled the streets of De Wallen and sat in red-lit windows wearing knee-high boots and seductive outfits for decades. Asked why they never left prostitution to pursue design or other careers they’d dabbled in during their youth, Louise explains, “Working in the district had become our lives. Our business became a source of pride and also a kind of sport.”
While generally upbeat about their past, there’s ample regret in the twins’ story. “When we were teenagers, we had dreams. We were creative. We never thought we’d spend our lives as hookers,” Martine says. Yet bitterness evaporates as she adds, “We wouldn’t have done it any other way. This is what we know. If we didn’t do hooking then what would we do? This is our life.”
Although Martine still services a few regulars, Louise retired from prostitution a few years ago due to severe arthritis—an affliction that impedes artful sex. These days, she and her twin concentrate on surviving on government pensions supplemented by the sale of books and Meet the Fokkens, a documentary that earned them global celebrity. Since its 2011 release and the publication of numerous autobiographies in multiple languages, the sisters can’t walk through their old ‘hood without attracting a crush of onlookers eager to snap souvenir photos.
They’re prepared for spontaneous sales opportunities with a roving bag of books and arty trinkets. While flirting with fans and videotaping new episodes for their ever-evolving vlog, the twins sell copies of tales written as they whiled away time between customers. Their celebrity has helped to ease the social stigma of prostitution, they maintain, as informed respect begins to replace ignorant abuse.
How Times Have Changed
While shrugging off criticism, both sisters say they miss the good old days of post-war euphoria, when De Wallen was filled with local girls and fit Yankee boys. “The boys are different today,” Louise reflects. “They’re fat, they drink too much, and they don’t respect you—not like the strong, Dutch boys on their bikes that were our clients.”
Since the government crackdown on criminal activity in the Red Light District nearly a decade ago, the Fokkens hardly recognize the neighborhood that was once their place of business. There are fewer windows, virtually no brothels, and an influx of foreigners has changed the business landscape of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
“Everything’s plastic now and all the girls are foreign and under 25,” Louise laments. “We used to work with Dutch girls and local customers. Now, everyone’s a tourist.” In case there’s any doubt, she adds, “We’re the real deal, honey. We know the tricks and what the customers want. And we know how to make them laugh, too.” That was evident at Amsterdam’s Red Light Secrets Museum, when the twins got up to their old tricks, spontaneously vamping in a red-lit upstairs window for the amusement of a growing crowd.
What the Future Holds
Like typical seniors, the Fokkens spend more time than they once did with their children and grandchildren. Their collective brood includes seven kids and 10 grandkids, all living in Dutch cities on the outskirts of Amsterdam like the twins. Despite their wealth of experience, Louise and Martine are ill-prepared financially for retirement and still struggle against exploitation. Sales of paintings that recapture their youth in a style as raw and primitive as their banter help them get by, but old age is a slippery slope, especially for retired hookers.
If you’d like to buy a little piece of Red Light District history, leave a comment below with your contact details. Like any artists, Louise and Martine Fokkens will be grateful for your patronage.