PAHRUMP, Nevada: Sex is the commodity that Heidi Fleiss says she knows best, but for now she is settling for fabric softener.
Since her release from prison after serving a three-year sentence on tax-evasion, money-laundering and pandering charges, Fleiss, once known as the Hollywood Madam, has made a go as retailer, author and promoter for a publicly traded sex business in Australia.
Now Fleiss, whose prostitution ring in Los Angeles served wealthy denizens of Hollywood and high finance, said she planned to open a brothel here in Nye County, one of several counties in Nevada that permit prostitution. Her brothel, she said, would offer a twist: she would have only male prostitutes, serving a female customer base.
Fleiss also plans to take over a massage parlor attached to a strip club.
But these professional goals have been stymied by legal issues surrounding another brothel owner, and the matter of a license application that she has yet to complete.
For now, Fleiss is overseeing a small coin-operated laundry here, some 60 miles, or 100 kilometers, west of Las Vegas and near her home in Crystal, where she hopes to build her brothel.
"I tried to pick a business that fit with the demographics of the community," Fleiss said about her casino-themed business, Dirty Laundry, which features panels from slot machines in its decoration and a rather pleasant, dim restroom.
The drive from Las Vegas to Pahrump is on a mostly two-lane road, through largely barren landscape peppered with signs that warn motorists about errant burros. At the town's border, there are housing developments, a strip club and a few casinos. Not so far down the main drag is a strip mall with a jewelry store, a payday loan business and Dirty Laundry, where fluff and fold costs 65 cents a pound and horse blankets are strictly forbidden.
From her market research at the nearby Nugget casino, Fleiss gleaned that she should offer competitive pricing and invest in washing machines that offer such efficient extraction of water that drying times are lessened. "People told me that water softener is imperative," she said.
Fleiss also tried to make Dirty Laundry, which opened last summer, a more pleasant place to wash clothes than the average laundry, eschewing plastic tables chained to hard-backed chairs for wooden tables, ceiling tiles that resemble those found in fancy hotel lobbies and the casino-themed walls. "If you're doing laundry," she said, "you can have a little fantasy. 'Hey, I'm going to win a $20 million jackpot.' "
But as profitable as Fleiss says her clothes-washing business has become, she still longs to open her provisionally named Stud Farm - if she can get a license.
"I really do know the sex business better than anyone," she said in an interview near a washing machine. "I'm not saying that to be arrogant."
Fleiss bought the land in Crystal. She visited brothels from Pahrump to Reno to study best prostitution practices. She picked an architect.
But Fleiss introduced a would-be business partner, Joe Richards, owner of brothels in Crystal and the strip club in Pahrump, to a former county commissioner who happened to be a cooperating witness in an FBI corruption inquiry.
Richards was indicted last year on charges of wire fraud and deprivation of honest service in connection with his effort to build a new brothel. He has pleaded not guilty and filed a motion for dismissal; a trial is scheduled in Las Vegas next May.
Although Fleiss is not a defendant in the case, she says she gave testimony to a grand jury (which the U.S. attorney's office in Las Vegas would not comment on) and therefore feels compelled to hold off for now on her plans to open the brothel.
Her antipathy for Richards notwithstanding - "He fined a girl $1,000 for eating a tomato. I don't do business like that," she said - Fleiss took a reporter on a tour of a never-opened massage parlor space in his strip club, which she said he had given her permission to manage. "My business philosophy is to have a superior product," she said.
Richards did not return several calls seeking comment.
Whether or not Fleiss could actually get a brothel license from Nye County is a question worthy of introspection and debate. According to the county Web site, the board that oversees liquor, casino and brothel licenses may refuse to grant a license if the applicant has been convicted of a felony or a crime involving "moral turpitude."
Sheriff Tony De Meo of Nye County, a voting member of the board, said failed brothel owners usually were done in because they lacked the assets needed to support the enterprise.
Though Fleiss's Web site, Heidistud farm.com, is up and running and taking applications, she is stuck for now with the spin cycle.