A young woman is hitchiking from what appears to be a truck stop; snow capped mountains are seen in the distance which sets it either in Colorado or an upstate U.S. state. A pickup truck pulls over for her, driven by a man who looks like a shady character. The young woman is unsure about whether she should accept the ride, but gets in cautiously when the man tells her he's going to Vegas. She tells him her name is Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley
) and that she's going to Vegas to dance. When the man tries to hit on her, Nomi pulls out a switchblade. After the man freaks out and almost causes a collision with a tractor trailer, Nomi agrees to put the knife away. Once they get to Las Vegas, the man takes Nomi to a casino under the pretense of getting her a job; he convinces Nomi to leave her suitcase inside the truck. Inside the casino, he leaves her with ten dollars at a slot machine, then disappears; by the time Nomi realizes what has happened, she returns to the parking lot to find his truck gone, the man having abandoned her and stolen her suitcase. As Nomi is crying and banging her fists on the side of a nearby car, the car's owner, Molly (Gina Ravera
), a seamstress, confronts her. The impulsive Nomi dashes out into traffic, but Molly pulls her back just in time. After talking and discovering Nomi does not have any family or place to go, Molly takes her into her trailer park home.
Two months later. Nomi gets a job as a stripper at the sleazy Cheetah's Topless Club which is managed and run by the sleazy Al Torres (Robert Davi
) who also appears as the club's MC. Nomi considers herself a dancer, and she apparently sees that the Cheetah is a place where she can do this and still make a living. While out dancing for fun at a nightclub called The Crave Club, Nomi meets a bouncer named James Smith (Glenn Plummer
). James admires her dancing and Nomi is flattered until he dares to criticize what she's doing. In retaliation, Nomi kicks him between the legs and he falls into another patron, sparking a brawl. Nomi delights in what she's done, smiling to herself as all the men begin to throw punches, until someone recognizes her as the instigator and she's taken to jail. James bails her out the next morning, but Nomi still will not forgive him for his comments.
One night Nomi accompanies Molly backstage at Goddess, the topless Vegas show at the Stardust Hotel where Molly works as the costume seamstress. Since it is Nomi's dream to be a showgirl, she is thrilled to watch the show and see the backstage area. Molly introduces her to Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon
), the diva-like star of the show. Molly tells Cristal that Nomi is a dancer as well, but when Nomi tells her she dances at the Cheetah, Cristal derisively tells Nomi that what she does is akin to prostitution. Nomi becomes furious, and her reaction intrigues Cristal, who is bisexual and apparently attracted to Nomi.
The next evening, Cristal and her cocaine-snorting boyfriend Zach Carey (Kyle MacLachlan
), the entertainment director at the Stardust, visit the Cheetah and pay Nomi $500 for a lap dance. Nomi does not want to do the private dance, for fear it will prove her to be the prostitute Cristal made her out to be, but is forced to do so by Torres, much to her embarrassment. James, who lurks in the Cheetah and sees Nomi performing her private dance with Zack and Cristal, confronts Nomi at her home the next day. He feels that Nomi has too much talent to be performing as a stripper, not to mention that he, too, considers it to be something similar to prostitution. Nomi angrily rebuffs him once more.
A few days later, Nomi discovers that Cristal has arranged for her to have an audition as an ensemble dancer in Goddess. At the audition, the callous director of Goddess, Tony Moss (Alan Rachins
), refers to Nomi as "Pollyanna" because of her outfit. Nomi dashes backstage, removes her blouse and dances in her underwear, but she notices Cristal watching silently from the darkened theater. When Nomi is told by Moss to use ice to make her nipples hard for the second part of the audition, she gets upset and leaves. Cristal approaches her as she cries backstage, and Nomi tells Cristal that she hates her.
Leaving the Stardust upset, Nomi finds James working as a bellhop and he takes her back to his apartment. They have an intimate moment as James demonstrates a dance number that he conceived in honor of Nomi and her career as a private dancer.
Despite the audition, Nomi gets the job and immediately quits the Cheetah and mouths off to Al Torres one final time. She excitedly rushes over to tell James about her new job, but she finds him having an intimate moment with another woman; ironically the woman is Penny (Rena Riffel
), one of her former co-dancers at the Cheetah.
Meeting with the producers of Goddess, Nomi wears a brand new dress she bought at Versace. Here, Nomi inadvertently reveals her uneducated upbringing when she mispronounces her Versace dress design as "Vur-SAYSS" in front of everyone. Nobody corrects her on it except Zach, who tells her she looks beautiful and has great taste. Nomi makes her debut the next night at the Goddess show, and she gets many compliments from the cast members and stagehands alike for her talent at her dance moves.
Afterwords, Cristal calls a truce and takes Nomi out for lunch at a fancy restaurant. While talking, they discover they have similar backgrounds; both have had troubled and unhappy childhoods and left home at a young age to make something of themselves. Cristal, however, calls Nomi a whore again, which Nomi angrily denies. The way Cristal sees it, they are all whores because they exchange sexual titillation for cash. Cristal also acknowledges that she is attracted to Nomi, as well as "plays for both teams", but Nomi does not consider herself bisexual. Nevertheless, she allows Cristal to engage her in an erotic dance when they are alone in the theater at the Stardust, allowing Cristal to pull down her top and caress her bare breasts. As she leans in for a kiss, Cristal sneers at Nomi and says: "See, darlin? You ARE a whore." Nomi storms out again in a fury.
From this point on, the two are rivals once more. Cristal repeatedly takes malicious swipes at Nomi on and off stage in a never-ending attempt to portray Nomi as a cheap whore, including sending Nomi on a promotional appearance with Zach's assistant, Phil Newkirk (Greg Travis
). Cristal knows from experience that Nomi will be approached to have sex for cash. Nomi furiously rejects Phil's proposition and she mistakenly thinks she has an ally in Zach, who pretends to bawl Phil out over the incident.
One night, Nomi agrees to a car ride from Zach, and they end up at his large estate outside of the city. Nomi seduces Zach, and they have sex in his swimming pool. As Nomi leaves the next morning, Zack mentions that there is an audition for Cristal's understudy. (Earlier, a rivalry between two other showgirls has led to an onstage sabotage incident, where one of the rivals breaks her knee after the other dancer trips her on stage during a show.) Zach tells Nomi she should try out for the position.
At the audition, Cristal senses a shift in the tide; Zach suggests Nomi as Cristal's understudy, and the choreographer agrees that Nomi has what it takes. Tony Moss disagrees but makes a remark about Cristal's age. Cristal also finds out that Zach slept with Nomi, and Zach gloats over it. When Nomi gets the position as understudy, Cristal is furious, and Nomi feels she finally has the upper hand. As a result, Cristal threatens to leave the show and sue the producers, so they feel they cannot do anything but reverse their decision. Nomi is, of course, furious; her clumsy grab for power has alienated most of the other dancers, and now Cristal seems to be in control.
Nomi goes to see James perform his dance and music number at the Crave Club, where he and his co-dancers are booed off the stage. James takes the bad experience it fairly well, telling Nomi that he is giving up dancing to work in a grocery store now that his girlfriend, Penny, is now pregnant. Nomi bids him farewell.
During the performance of Goddess that night, Cristal taunts on-stage Nomi about her disappointment. As the dancers leave the stage, Nomi impulsively pushes Cristal down a flight of stairs which leads to the dressing rooms, injuring her badly and sending her to the hospital. Molly knows Nomi pushed Cristal, but another dancer (the same one who injured the rival dancer earlier and whom Nomi covered for) backs up Nomi's story that it really was an accident and pretends that she saw the whole thing. With Cristal unable to perform, Nomi ends up getting Cristal's lead in the show, where she makes a dazzling debut and is suddenly the talk of the town. Molly has deduced that Nomi has actually pushed Cristal down, and confronts her with the truth. Molly storms out of the place, so Nomi tries to make amends: she includes her in the guest list of the premiere party.
Things seem to be going well for Nomi; she has finally secured the fame and fortune she initially sought. However, at the opening night party, Molly is brutally raped and beaten by famous musician Andrew Carver (William Shockley
) and his two security guards.
Molly is taken to the hospital to treat her injuries. Zach tells Nomi that they will give Molly some money to keep her quiet; their primary interest is in protecting their high-profile celebrity client, not in seeking justice for Molly. When Nomi decides to make an anonymous phone call to the police, Zach then confronts her with the truth he has just discovered when he addresses Nomi as "Polly". Apparently, Zach made a background check on Nomi and became suspicious after learning that some of her references were false. After Zach also learned about Nomi's arrest several weeks earlier at the Crave Club, he acquired her fingerprints from her arrest and has a police file containing the truth: Nomi is actually a runaway and former prostitute named Polly Ann Costello from San Francisco. Back in 1989 at age 15, Polly's father murdered her mother and then killed himself in a drunken rage. Polly then ran away from a foster home in nearby Oakland, and has drifted around the country ever since. She changed her name several times and has been arrested several times in several states for an assortment of crimes ranging from drug possession, to prostitution, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Finally confronted with her seedy past being made public, and frightened at the selfish and greedy person she has become and what lies ahead, Nomi decides to flee Las Vegas, but not before she pays a visit to Andrew Carver. Because Carver has made propositions to her from the moment he met her, Nomi has no problem inviting herself up to his hotel room. Once they are alone, she strips for him, but then pulls out a switchblade and swears that she will kill him if he makes a sound. She then proceeds to kick him repeatedly with her boots until he is bloodied and unconscious. Nomi then slips out of the room and away from his bodyguards.
Later, Nomi arrives at the hospital and bids goodbye to a semi-conscious Molly, informing her that she obtained some kind of vengeance for her by beating Andrew Carver up. Nomi also visits the hospital room of Cristal, who doesn't seem particularly bitter about Nomi's stunt that she pulled, as she has been granted a huge indemnity sum by her lawyers. Cristal tells Nomi that she, too, got ahead by similar means. "There's always someone younger and hungrier than you coming down the stairs behind you," Cristal says. Nomi says goodbye, but grants Cristal a passionate kiss before she leaves.
The movie comes full circle when Nomi coincidentally hitches a ride to Los Angeles with the very same guy who robbed her in the beginning, and attacks him for what he did to her, and both drive in the direction of L.A.