Ten p.m. on Saturday night is when Ybor City and its club scene are at prime people-watching hours. The line outside of Czar is full of drunken, disorderly and difficult young adults. College freshman girls tramp by in see-through leotards, dragging their boyfriends behind them. A group of frat boys gather around a large bald man holding a snake. The notorious Ybor Shoelicker sings and dances jubilantly on the sidewalk to a song in his own head.
All of this unfolds in front of Kelli Tanner, Czar’s VIP attendant. Tanner, however, only has eyes for one person in particular: the woman staring back at her from an Instagram picture on Tanner’s smartphone screen. This is Gia, Tanner’s long term girlfriend in the European country Estonia, whom she has never actually met.
Tanner and Gia connected over OKCupid in the summer of 2014. Tanner’s account was set to only match her with women in the Tampa area, yet somehow Gia, a 31-year-old designer and model from Estonia, still found her. Friendly messaging soon developed into regular dates over Skype and eventually into a committed relationship.
“She first messaged me because of how I look,” Tanner said. “Most people that look like me in Europe with dark hair and dark eyes are very egotistical, but I wasn’t like that. I’m a Leo so I don’t have any problems with self esteem, but I’m not an asshole.”
Yet Tanner is much more than dark hair and dark eyes, and she certainly doesn’t look like the average 25-year-old. The sides of her head are bare, but a plume of jet-black hair rises, swirling over four inches from the top of her skull and comes to rest on her forehead. She only needs to wash her hair about once a month, but conditions regularly. Her chest, arms, knuckles and the tops of her hands are covered in tattoos: Lumpy Space Princess lives by Tanner’s left elbow and a skeleton butterfly plays the keytar on her upper left bicep: both characters from the cartoon “Adventure Time.”
Tanner’s newest tattoo is an ornate mandala that stretches across the whole front of her neck. A silver horseshoe-shaped ring is pierced through her septum and eraser sized gauges expand her earlobes in light blue circles. Tanner’s eyes are a deep blackish brown, “hamster eyes,” as she likes to call them. Tonight she dons all black. Her black blazer, black button up shirt and black wide brimmed hat all fit well on her small framed figure.
Tanner greets almost every VIP and Czar “Comrade” with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She updates them on her budding romance, something almost every one of Tanner’s friends and customers know about. A big, warm grin spreads across her face as she swipes through Instagram pictures of a dark haired and tattooed Gia wearing her T-shirts after Tanner sent them to Estonia.
After their first Skype date, Tanner knew her connection with Gia meant more than just having things in common. The day after they met over webcam, Tanner got Gia’s initials tattooed on her wrist. Two weeks later she booked a trip to Europe.
“I fell in love almost immediately,” she said. “I’ve been in relationships where we’ve lived together and had animals together and built whole lives together, but I’ve never felt like this.”
After Skype-dating for a few weeks Tanner and Gia decided to remain exclusive. They’ve also decided the best way their relationship will work is to have everything planned out. Within the next year Tanner will visit Estonia for two weeks, Gia will stay with Tanner in the summer, Tanner will go back to Europe in August and Gia with come back to Tampa for Christmas.
Right now the couple’s biggest issue is the time difference. Estonia is seven hours ahead of Florida, which means for Tanner and Gia to Skype one of them has to wake up or stay up until 4 to 6 a.m. This can be hard to manage when Tanner works 80 hours a week between Czar’s VIP line and styling hair at Tribeca Colorsalon, and Gia works up to 100 hours designing and modeling.
Tanner sucks down cigarettes and gulps Red Bull to stay awake through the rest of her 4 a.m. shift, but as long as her phone keeps buzzing with messages from Gia she wears a smile.
Each person who skips the line and pays to be VIP or is a “Czar Nation Comrade” must go through Tanner. A cigarette dangles from her lips as she checks everyone’s IDs and bands their wrists. Comrades receive a special free drink of the night and don’t need to pay cover. Tonight’s free drink is an ice shot. To further the VIP experience customers can order a bottle. Russian Standard, Jameson, and Beefeaters are available starting at $150.
A 30-something guy with scraggly yellow-blonde hair comes up to the counter next. Tanner checks him off under someone else’s name on the list and sends him into the club with a hug and an ice shot. “He’s been banned from here at least three times,” she says. “They just keep letting him back in though.”
Lai, the bottle girl, smiles and reveals gold lipstick stains on her cigarette as she pulls it out of her mouth to listen to Tanner tell her about the care package she recently received from Gia full of Haribo gummi products. Last month Tanner sent Gia a package with a few of her T-shirts, her favorite book (“The Horse and his Boy” by C.S. Lewis), plants from her garden, tea and coffee from Buddy Brew and a vinyl California Raisin.
Aside from keeping to a strict diet of Red Bull and Marlboro NXT’s at Czar, Tanner spends her daytime eating rigorously healthy. Gia has set up Tanner with a meeting at her modeling company, so she wants to all she can to look her best. At her other job at Tribeca Colorsalon Tanner takes breaks to eat every two hours. Each small meal is either two fruits, two veggies, or a small lunch. She’s lost 14 pounds since she began dieting in the beginning of February.
Tanner works to fund not only her travel to see Gia, but also goals further down the line in their relationship. After 2016 begins, Tanner said she and Gia will probably be engaged. Tanner has the ring picked out already, and until she can afford it she wears a silver vintage Marc Jacobs band from her childhood. She plans to find a matching gold version to bring to Gia on her visit to Estonia.
At 2:00 a.m. Tanner’s shift at the VIP booth is finally over. She’ll spend the rest of her shift inside the club getting ready to close. She sits at the bar and sips on a Red Bull and Vodka. A song from the new Drake album blasts from the surround sound speakers and strobe lights flash from the dance floor in the next room. She looks at a message from Gia and grins, squinting her “hamster eyes.”
“I honestly never thought I would get married,” Tanner shouts over the music. “I got to share parts of me and it made us feel close, even from so far. I love her passion for life, for her career, and her ability to believe in something magical.”
Selene San Felice can be reached at Selene.Sanfelice@theminaretonline.com