In July 2015, on a normal night’s work, a girl sat down next to me and urinated on her chair. I shoved the dancewear I was selling into suitcases to avoid the encroaching river of yellow. Sammy, dance manager of the now-defunct Opium Lounge, stopped me on my way downstairs, demanding to look through my stuff to see if I had stolen anything. You know, like a G-string or an iPhone. I had to laugh at the insinuation: back then I sometimes out-earned the dancers.
Until March 2016, when single motherhood forced me to abandon night shifts, I spent my weekends in strip clubs selling lingerie. My phone is still full of numbers tagged MG, GF, B20 or SR for Men’s Gallery, Goldfingers, Showgirls Bar 20 and Spearmint Rhino. I’d record bra and stripper shoe sizes next to dancers’ stage names to differentiate between all the Brookes and Charlies. Some called me the Panty Devil, putting their fingers together in the sign of the cross, knowing how I might tempt them to part with their hard-earned cash. I’d dangle sparkly bikinis like bait as they tidied up their makeup and fixed their fishnet stay ups. ‘Go empty their wallets,’ I’d say, reminding them that instant gratification could be theirs for the price of a dance or two.
I started my business at the time of the global financial crisis, at the height of recession-era tackiness. Logo clothing was oh so hot: dancers wore coordinated brand-name tracksuits to work. They shimmied into bodycon dresses to party and wore chainmail cowl-neck tops, corsets, hip-hugging bootie shorts and all-bling everything when working the floor. They carried Louis Vuitton handbags — some things never change. I’m still haunted by all the Ed Hardy clothing I sold.
As I exited the biz, my clientele, who had previously aspired to porn star Jenna Jameson’s silicones-on-a-lollipop look, were morphing into Kim K clones, complete with high-cut Calvin Klein undies, lip injections, thickly feathered brows and the deepest of spray tans. Out went the longstanding dress codes that required cookie-cutter bejeweled gowns, and in came strappy bondage-style lingerie and G-string leotards that highlighted the results of weighted squats and Brazilian butt lifts. Let’s face it: at 36, after ten years of hustling lingerie, I felt completely out of touch with the evolving standards of beauty. I had lost my game.
Now, hot on the high heels of the J Lo star vehicle and blockbusting film Hustlers, I decide to revisit the world I once knew and loved. But things have changed. After I quit the industry, Showgirls Bar 20 closed shop. The location was sold to Rialto, a mega conglomerate, which for years has gobbled up properties to ‘clean up’ King Street. I wonder whether strip clubs are an endangered species in this woke, post-#MeToo world, or if it’s business as usual. I reach out to a seasoned expert for the down low.
Rachel Payne worked as a burlesque artist in Paris and then as a stripper in Melbourne to finance her Master’s degree in public policy. Her studies led to an internship with Fiona Patten of the Reason Party (formerly the Sex Party) and then a bid for parliament in 2019. Rachel is now general manager of the Australian adults-only lobby group and association Eros. Rachel and I nestle into a comfy couch at Brioche, across the street from her offices on Queen Street. Dressed in a demure red knit cardigan and slim black pencil skirt, Rachel’s blue eyes twinkle beneath her blunt fringe cut as she speaks candidly about her industry experience. Her voice is soft yet firm, with an easy cadence that makes me feel like she has all the time in the world to chat with me, despite her hectic schedule.
‘Dancing was a way to have opportunities to make money but also to have my days free,’ she says. ‘I found the experience quite liberating. My mum said to me, “There’s a lot more money to be made than what you’re making in burlesque, so why don’t you think about working in a strip club?” What’s the difference, really?’
As a bisexual woman, Rachel found her niche was to help couples explore their sexuality within the club setting. ‘You encourage each other to watch and play and make it a fantasy,’ she says. ‘It was quite a powerful role. It’s not always about getting naked, that’s for sure.’
Rachel insists that the intimacy most people crave is less about physicality than simply ‘allowing someone to talk about whatever it is they want to talk about without being judged.’
I ask for Rachel’s opinion on a scathing report released by the Coalition Against Trafficking Women (CATWA), titled ‘Not Just Harmless Fun: The Strip Club Industry in Victoria’. It alleges that all sex work, including stripping, harms women. CATWA advocates for implementing the Nordic Model of legislation, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services. This report is often used as the basis of anti-sex work arguments.
Rachel explains how Collective Shout are the very vocal alt-right feminists behind smear campaigns against lingerie empire Honey Birdette and the Club X sex shops. She says, ‘They essentially tout that women in the sex industry are victims, that women are objectified, that they’re only there for male pleasure and that sex shouldn’t be able to bought.’
To call a stripper a victim is to negate her experience of sexual empowerment, that feeling of strapping on a pair of seven-inch Pleasers and towering over the customers who can’t help themselves. Stripping is a caricature performance of hyper-femininity, but it is one in which women are financially autonomous. They don’t need any heroes; there are no pimps in the wings.
Stripping is not a passive act: it is a doing, rather than a being done to. Money changes hands before any concessions are made, because hard currency is everything and promises aren’t worth a trick on the pole. Much to the chagrin of customers who come equipped with their same-same pickup lines, it’s only for money that dancers work the floor at all. Fall in love and you’re an idiot. Get too handsy or stalky and the bouncer will eject you, no refunds.
‘Your radical feminists are of the opinion that if women are using their sexuality, they must be doing that because of the patriarchy, because that’s how they’ve been taught, and that there’s an exchange that goes on that lessens them,’ Rachel says.
The hierarchy of the sexes ensures that men are economically superior, but only in the real world where, in Australia at least, there’s a 21.3% gender pay gap. In the dream-like realm of the strip club, the roles are reversed. Here the women are goddesses and men bleed cash under the spell of a fantasy that they can never own. Although a customer might appear to assert financial dominance, this does not make the dancers entirely subservient, and if so, it’s only an act. They can only pay for her attention: three songs for $50, and then another and another until their cash cards run dry.
Although classed as a sex act in Victoria, stripping is designed to leave customers still wanting, coming back, never fully satisfied. It’s the can’t-having that sparks desire. (Otherwise a brothel is the cheaper option.)
‘Just because someone is doing their job with lingerie on,’ Rachel says, ‘doesn’t make them exploited. Both people are getting something out of that exchange.’
The reality is that the same men who are so bad at reading our signals, who have historically ignored the fact that no means no, can’t get away with feigned innocence in a strip club. Rules are rules. No touching here, here or here. Catcalls, ogling, groping, overt sexism and micro aggressions — even prepubescent girls are aware of how icky those typical male behaviours make us feel. We have all at some point been jolted from our reverie, been made to feel small and powerless under the penetrating, petrifying male gaze. Stripping requires men to pay for what they might otherwise take for free.
Pop culture critic Dahlia Schweitzer describes stripping as a transgressive act. She writes: ‘With men the suckers, and women pocketing the cash, the striptease becomes a reversal of society’s conventional male/female roles. Striptease is, at its core, a form of role removal’ — one in which women are ‘clearly in charge.’ ‘By removing her clothes,’ Dahlia writes, ‘the stripper disrupts years of patriarchal hegemony.’
Rachel Payne confirms that #MeToo hasn’t had a marked impact on strip clubs. ‘Strippers have always been pretty enlightened,’ she says, ‘and if anyone misbehaves, security are right there. I have had more threats hurled at me working in a pub than I have ever had working in a club. I think everyone should get on stage and have an opportunity to striptease in front of people and feel how liberating that actually is.’
Rachel, whose experience of strip clubs was not all disco balls and raining dollar bills, says, ‘Like any job, particularly working night shift, it’s hard on your body. You’re more excluded from your social circles because you’re generally working weekends and nights. You’re in an environment where people are drinking and having fun. You can get caught up in that.’
Despite the industry’s reputation as a harbour for addicts, no reputable club will roster on a dancer that makes them look bad, like that drug-affected dancer who peed on the chair next to me in the dressing room at Opium Lounge. Clubs that hire junkies don’t survive. Who even remembers Opium Lounge?
‘Club management is always very aware if anyone is not well,’ Rachel says. ‘Bar 20 have now introduced a mental health officer to provide support if there’s issues around drug or alcohol abuse.’
On a busy Friday night, I unload my suitcases onto Lonsdale Street and head into the Men’s Gallery, the longest-running strip club in Melbourne. This upscale club was recently remodelled to include VIP karaoke rooms and a double-stage shower room. Their chef cooks a mean steak that is the opposite of what you might imagine strip club fare to be. This is what the future of strip clubs looks like.
A security keypad ensures that uninvited visitors are locked out of the sanctuary of the dressing room. Informational posters on corkboards advise that a FULL FACE OF MAKEUP IS REQUIRED FOR ALL SHIFTS and that dancers must dress for their figure or else risk the long dress rule being reinstated. (Most dancers hate having to be so covered up, as it complicates the routine of dressing and undressing for private dances.) A staircase leads down to the well-lit dressing room, where rows upon rows of vanity mirrors accommodate the myriad dancers in their various states of undress.
Here in the belly of the club, entertainment manager Beck Porter rules the roster with an iron grip and, with her background as a professionally trained dancer, ensures that the choreography and entertainment value of the shows are on point. Her casual uniform of baggy t-shirts and trackies belies the power she holds in this money-spinning factory. Her dancers regularly take out national titles such as Miss Nude Victoria, Miss Nude Australia, Miss Erotic Australia and even Miss Nude World.
Dan, a deejay and dance supervisor, fills in the third page of the nightly roster. There are close to 100 dancers on tonight, most of who enter the club in tracksuits before they transform themselves into pouty glamazons. The steamy waft of hair being singed by straighteners mixes with the full-bodied musk of hair spray, perfume and fake tan.
‘I just came back from a ten-day meditation retreat. No talking, no eye contact, no body contact,’ says one dancer, who understands the importance of self-care and time off. She hands over her $120 house fee to Dan. For dancers who don’t pay their house fee on the night they work, it doubles.
Miss Nude World ‘Ultimate Showgirl’ Tia Carrera turns pique, barefoot, across the carpeted floor in a rich blue velvet peacock ballerina costume. Showgirl Sasha pirouettes after her in matching attire, her breasts escaping from the feathered bodice as she lifts her arms in port des bras. Blonde and athletic, Tia, who has almost 23,000 followers on her @tia_carrera_ Instagram page, and the long and lean Sasha came to work straight from the State Theatre, where they watched the Australian Ballet perform The Nutcracker.
‘I think most strippers were ballerinas,’ Sasha says, as someone uploads a video story of Sasha to Insta. ‘Look Mum, your dream’s come true!’
Stripping is losing its stigma, as evidenced by the popularity of Rachel Kushner’s New York Times bestselling book The Mars Room, and the Hustlers movie, both of which provide a more three-dimensional view into exotic dancing. Dancers used to keep their double lives separate from their real lives. Now we witness the rise of Insta-famous strippers who populate their social media profiles with selfies and status updates in order to maximise their hustle.
It’s smart marketing, because dancers mostly work as independent contractors and must pay to work a shift. The bigger the social media following, the easier it is to get put on a roster and to generate business, earning money through private dances and tips. Unfortunately, not all social media accounts are treated equally.
Stripper-comedian Jacqueline Frances, whose books include Striptastic, The Beaver Show and How To Not Be A Dick At A Strip Club, jokes about working a consultant on the Hustlers movie ‘in order to be fondled by @jlo’ and, more seriously, to embrace ‘pop culture’s willingness to put stripper stories at the forefront of the narrative.’ She uses her @jacqthestripper Instagram platform to point out ‘how social media censorship of women is classist trash’ and asks us to consider ‘why a Hollywood movie gets to post all over instagram [sic] while real workers are getting deleted and censored every day.’
Ashton Avenue, the most famous Aussie stripper I know, verifies Jacq’s claims about Instagram censoring sex workers’ accounts. Ashton, a Penthouse Black Label cover model and star of reality show The Baddie House, DMs me from the third incarnation of her Insta account @ashton00avenue. ‘I lost this account twice while I was in Spain,’ she writes. She had around 177k followers then (and almost 300k now). She lost her first two accounts before there was an appeals process.
Ashton’s friend Rosey Sin had it worse. Her Insta was deleted at one million followers, and her new account has gained only a fraction of the traction of the one voided by Instagram.
For influencers who depend on social media in order to interact with fans and to provide value to media partners and sponsors, losing an account is akin to having your bank account erased. You don’t see this happening to superstar influencers outside of the adult industry, even though my customers are no more and no less naked in their compulsive pictorial uploads than the ubiquitous Kardashians or even Miley Cyrus. Everyone knows that sex sells. Some people are just more honest than others about the currency they trade in.
Time moves in slow motion in the Men’s Gallery dressing room. Dancers stash Uber Eats in the fridge, freshen their breath with candies from the communal jar of mints and discuss the show Naked Attraction, where the naked bodies of potential romantic matches are revealed first and their faces last. The click-clack of heels and throbbing bass comes through the ceiling muffled.
Costume designer Marika Robassa lugs her suitcase down the stairs, avoiding the wads of gum stuck on the ledge next to the railings. She hangs her exquisite handmade creations on the clothing rack.
Marika designed the Avatar-themed costume that Tia Carrera wears for the show, which earned her a slot at Miss Nude World in Las Vegas. Marika also designed the gown Tia wore to accept her crown for Miss Nude Australia. According to Marika, who designs under the label Hornbag Dance Apparel, performers will budget between $300–1200 for complicated designs that are uncomplicated to remove.
Marika fits Neusi, a World Fitness Federation pro model, with a miniscule red-ruched Brazilian bikini bottom that disappears into Neusi’s rock-hard glutes. Neusi won Overall Fitness Champion in 2019 and is weeks out from her next comp. It’s a demanding process to craft and bejewel a bikini for a shrinking body.
‘I don’t want to get disqualified,’ Neusi says.
‘How much weight will you shed?’ Marika asks.
I ask, rhetorically, whether the officials get out a ruler. Neusi and Marika finally settle on thinner elastic and a cut that is one centimetre wider on either side.
Marika holds up a text from a world-famous showgirl-cum-porn star who wants a discount on a custom-made bra and G-string set, bringing the margins down to nothing.
‘I’ll just say I’m busy,’ Marika says, tactfully.
A blonde holds up a bodysuit and says, ‘An American flag? Stop it!’
Her brunette friend jokes, ‘You wouldn’t want to wear an Australian flag. You’d look like a bogan.’
I whisper to Marika, ‘Is it me, or do they all look alike?’
I get the feeling that everyone is so bent on transmogrifying into Kylie Jenner, including Kylie herself, that the original is lost amidst a sea of carbon copies. I’m staring into a filtered sea of Kardashian avatars. I struggle to relate.
‘It’s like they all use the same surgeon,’ Marika says. ‘They suck out the fat from their lower waist and inject it into their butts.’
I leant their faces. But yeah, that too.
I sell three G-string bikinis, or rather, three G-string bikinis sell themselves. I’ve been perched on a stool for four hours, feeling overwhelmed. Back in the day, I would have worked harder to engage with my customers and make more sales. Some nights for us dressmakers, just as for the dancers, result in lots of effort for little reward.
Rachel Payne, former dancer and current general manager of Eros, summarises the conundrum: ‘Sometimes you turn up for work and you pay your house fee and you pay for your taxis to and from work and you walk away with nothing because there’s just no customers or it’s just not your night. You have to have the ability to have a thick skin because you are essentially self-employed.’
Yawning, I pack up my suitcase and am out the doors by 11:30 p.m., snapping a photo of the psychedelic gold and black swirl carpet on the way out. Dancers are still arriving as I make my way past security onto Lonsdale Street. Once upon a time I would have continued on to other clubs until sunrise, pressing my luck. For the many dancers on the floor, and for the swelling weekend crowd, their night has only just begun.
At home I hang the contents of my suitcase on a portable rack to air out the lingering strip-club smell that permeates the garments. It will take a week for the scent to fade before I can pack everything away into boxes again. A number of dancers asked me when I’d be back, but I’m not so sure. The truth is that I brought my insecurities with me tonight, and the work that once constituted my entire identity feels foreign. What’s important now is having the freedom to choose whether I want to work in the industry or not.
Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in SCUM, FOLIO, Travel Play Live, Gone Lawn, Montana Mouthful, Vanishing Act, The Account and The Manhattanville Review. She’s writing an experimental memoir about the way that gendered violence fractures one’s sense of self. She lives in Melbourne with her son.