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This essay appears in issue 26 of The Lifted Brow, an Australian magazine of letters.
When I walk into the club this is what I see: a long, low room with vinyl-padded walls. Dim red lighting. Low seats surrounding a catwalk with two poles. High round tables and bar stools. Other job applicants already filling out application forms. One elderly guy in a seat by the catwalk. A brunette woman in towering plastic shoes with LED lights in the soles, rotating slowly on one of the poles in a yellow g-string.
I get an application form from the bar and wait while the bartender finds a pen. The woman on stage looks bored as she suspends herself from the pole by her feet, chest thrust out. The old guy is loving it. I look at her breasts.
There are a few tables not claimed by my competition. I take a seat and study the application form. Name, age, nationality, previous bar experience, and three check boxes: bar staff, hostess, dancer. What is a hostess? There is no one else in the bar. I check the box anyway and eye the other girls. Maybe I should have worn something lower cut.
Eventually a guy in a suit and diamante earrings shows up, collects the forms, and starts interviewing at the end of the bar. As each applicant approaches, his heavy-lidded gaze does the slow, familiar drift from head to foot and back. The pole is taken by a blond woman with a flock of butterfly tattoos. The old guy tips enthusiastically.
* * * *
In the end I worked at the strip club for three months. It was a good job. I made friends, told excellent stories at parties, and saved enough money to go and live in Japan for a year. At first, my friends and my boyfriend expressed incredulity at the idea of a girl who was known to yell feminist slogans into the faces of leering men in utes* being okay with taking a job in the adult industry. I would shrug convincingly and say something about my financial empowerment cancelling out the moral quandary inherent in the business. But the further away I get from the place, the more I wonder what really kept me there, working nights in the borderlands of desire.
* * * *
At first I don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to jinx it. I catch the bus in the next evening, more heavily made-up than usual. Hostessing, Tony tells me, is basically just waitressing but with more flirting and fewer clothes. I’m taken upstairs, past the VIP bar and the lap dance room (furnished with enormous Star Trek captain’s chairs) into a brightly lit common room and a dressing room lined with mirrors. It’s full of women in various stages of undress. Among them are the red and purple liveried floor staff.
“That’s what you’ll be wearing,” says Tony. “Is that okay?”
The uniformed hostesses flit about like they’ve got somewhere to be. The rest of the women are taking their time, talking and laughing while they rub in fake tan, layer on eyeliner, and generously spray perfume.
“I didn’t shave my legs today,” one of them says. “Couldn’t be fucked.”
They ignore us. Tony introduces me to an impeccable older woman who looks a lot like the mother of one of my ex-boyfriends. She startles me further by asking me to call her ‘Mum’. Eventually I will learn that this is part of strip club vocabulary: Mum is the one who looks after the dancers, does their makeup sometimes, finds them shoes, and collects their house fee—the money they pay to the club in order to do business there. Strippers are independent contractors; hostesses work for the club.
* * * *
At 6pm, I walk the fifty meters from where my friends have dropped me. On the way men leer at me or yell from passing cars. I can feel the promise of sanctuary beckoning through the club’s automatic doors. When I slip through the club proper in civvie clothes, eyes follow me in bewilderment; all the other women here are wearing lingerie. Upstairs in the fluoros I change into my red corset and tiny skirt, take painkillers, apply lipstick, and re-emerge beautiful and ready to earn. Someone whistles. I offer to get him a drink.
I learn quickly. I hold my drink tray steady, with my tip jar near my hand to keep it balanced. I cajole men with near-empty glasses into ordering another drink, smiling, winking, patting arms. I tap the orders into the touch-screen by the bar, and when I take the punters their drinks with their change on a plastic tray in mostly coins, I hope desperately they’ll leave it all for me. I allow myself ten minutes an hour to sit on a toilet with my plastic heels off, massaging the balls of my feet. I pour Red Bull down my throat, crouched behind the bar. I loiter in the lap room out of sight of the security cameras, chatting with the controller who’s making sure no one gets penetrated, surrounded by naked women writhing on drunk men.
Soon after I start working, my boyfriend asks me about the stories I’m already telling about the drunks and idiots, the constant attempts to pick me up.
“Are you sure you’re okay with it?”
It’s hard to explain to him how it can be okay, after I’ve told him, fidgeting and angry, about the threat of harassment every time I walk somewhere alone. It’s hard to explain the weird protection that a place like the club—a man’s place, a fantasy place—provides me, with its rules and friendly security guards, protections I live without in real life. And it takes me a long time to recognize the triple reward that I gain from being willingly desirable: not just safety, but the power to remove those who threaten that safety—and the sweet compensation of a lot of money.
PATRON: Thanks a lot, love. You’re the real pretty-lookin’ one, aren’t you?
SGA: Thank you?
The hierarchy here is clear. The dancers, all women, all working for themselves, are at the bottom. Then the hostesses, all women. Then the bar staff (all men), the DJs (men), the managers (men), the owners (men), and the CEO of the venue chain, a vile woman called Tanya. There is no movement between the layers, except occasionally from dancer to hostess; it’s frozen, stratified, like feudal Japan.
Tony likes me—I sell a lot of drinks—so he includes me in the one-sided conversations in which he badmouths the dancers. They’re stupid, they’re ugly, they stink, they’re sluts. I like the dancers.
The bartenders let me know that Talia is “the hottest one.” She is a compact, very tanned 23-year-old with blonde hair extensions and thin lips. Her breast implants are huge and hemispherical. The women I think are most beautiful are: Ayla, who is German, married, an A-cup, and the best pole dancer in the club, with natural brown hair and Nordic bone structure; and Monique, the only black dancer. She’s Canadian and studies law. She can make her ass “clap.” (The bartenders love this; Monique will eventually teach me how to do it, for fun, on a slow night.) When she leaves at the end of the night, it’s in tracksuit pants, no makeup, and glasses, her hair in a bun with a pen through it. She carries a Country Road overnight bag and always wears thongs, even in the winter. I think she’s probably the sexiest woman to ever set foot in the venue.
But Talia is blonde and—I can’t help myself thinking this—healthy-looking. She glows, her skin plump with subcutaneous fat, her toes like pink jellybeans under the wide plastic strap of her heels. And she looks like she’s having fun. Maybe this is why she’s the hottest one. She is the fantasy being sold: beautiful women taking off their clothes for you not because you’re paying, but because they love it.
PATRON: You look nice. Do you take your clothes off?
The dancers wear every kind of lingerie conceivable, layers of it to provide something to strip off, but always flimsy or small enough that there’s thigh and cleavage visible, or the glint of a bellybutton ring. Ayla wears all black, all the time; Michelle has powder-blue silky things; Ashley favours dark red. In the dressing room upstairs there’s a sign that informs the dancers that denim, leather, cotton, and shoes with heels under six inches are forbidden. When a dancer is dancing, she won’t take her clothes off until someone sitting in the tipping seats by the stage hands her a bill that she can slide into the money clip held onto her thigh by an elastic garter. Five dollars will see her remove one item of clothing, slowly. Twenty will ensure nudity, and depending on her skill level, anything from a butt-shimmy in the face of the paying patron to an upside-down spread-legged spiral from the rail around the top of the pole. It’s the DJ’s job to introduce them to the stage.
“Up next, we have the beautiful Karly and the sexxxxy Alicia!” he croons into his cordless microphone, and the girls who have been waiting next to the stage swap places with those who’ve already had their three songs, who dismount naked and significantly richer, carrying their lingerie in a wadded up ball.
Being on the red, womblike venue floor is like looking through a Vaseline-coated lens. Out here all the dancers have flawless skin and smouldering eyes. Their lips glimmer in the dull light. On their breaks, they laugh about leaving orange rub-on tan all over businessmen’s shirts. It’s invisible under the red neon, but in any other light is as clear as a coffee stain. In the dressing room, their limbs are tide-marked with tan, layers overlapping like watercolours.
A pole dancing professional gives lessons before the club opens every Monday and Wednesday. I am invited to join; I decline. Much later, though, after we’ve closed and I’ve made good money and I’m feeling relaxed and physical, I’ll have a bash at the pole while all the lights inside are up. It feels more like a secret clubhouse than a strip club. The pole isn’t solid: it’s a metal sheath around a fixed core, so you can gain a lot of speed just by grabbing on and pushing off. There’s a lip at the bottom, and Michelle shows me how the rubber soles on her stripper shoes provide enough grip for her to perch on it. These shoes are tools: the space between the platform sole and the sturdy heel provides a foothold on the pole for climbing, and the solid plastic construction of the heels means that one can hang from the rail at the top by the ankles with some confidence. I watch Michelle and three others scale the poles for fun, showing off, the clank of plastic against metal unmuffled by music. They spin lazily, grinning, their core muscles rippling. They are less dancers than athletes, I realize, and wonder how many other female athletes make a thousand dollars a night in cash.
* * * *
A month in and I’m living off my tips. I’ve learned to sleep all day. I get home at dawn and wake up at dusk. I feel crisp and crinkly round the edges, like old laminate on a bar top. When I’m awake in the sunlight my eyes water.
But my ego balloons with every shift. If you want to feel good about yourself, the dancers say, work in a strip club.
“I was basically getting paid a grand or so a night to get a bit drunk and be told I was beautiful,” Kylie says. She danced for a year, amassed an enviable lingerie collection, donated $50,000 to her dad’s court battle, then met her current boyfriend and quit. Now she hostesses. She’s short, talkative and charming, and is covered in botanical tattoos. “I’m a sexual kind of person, anyway,” she says. “I like being told how sexy I am.”
For a while, I struggle to unpack my feelings about being complimented in this way. It comes thick and fast, lavish, hyperbolic. I’m praised for my collarbones, my eyebrows, my pantyhose-clad legs, my cheaply varnished nails. “You look like Marilyn Monroe,” they slur, and I squirm in discomfort. But the adulation seeps in until I’m bloated with it, and the excess praise runs off me like oil. Eventually I stop squirming. I learn to not worry about being loved.
But the job does not instill in me a love of men. I doubt they realize how feeble they are when they’re in that place, even when they come in, as they do, in packs—I watch men fall in love with me over the course of a night. It’s not like they can hide it, not in a place designed to coax their guard down and their wallets open. I watch them love me and I watch their hearts break when I turn them away and all it is is kind of boring. The only men I like are the ones who are free with their money. Sometimes they tip in fifties all night.
For one whole weekend, we host a big man from Mount Isa. He’s in town for a bowls competition, and he spends every night of his stay in the club. Every night he books the VIP room, spends hours with Ashley, to whom he has taken a special liking, and tips the attentive, gracious hostesses handsomely. This weekend pays for my ticket to Tokyo.
“I love this place,” he says amiably. “I get to come in here, have a conversation with a lovely lady,” he smiles at Ashley, who strokes his knee, “and get treated like a king. You’re doing a great job, love.” He pats another twenty into my jar.
Men from the mines tend to understand how the place works, maybe because their agenda is as clear as the club’s. These ones come in on a Wednesday, sitting back from the stage, mostly declining invitations for a dance from the girls but accepting refills of their Bundy & Cokes from me. Before they leave, they put into my hands all their loose change. It’s more than forty dollars.
“We reckon you’re the hottest girl here,” they grin. “Here ya go, darl.”
Sometimes my friends ask me if I meet anyone good-looking at work. The question is almost incomprehensible. Kylie might have met her boyfriend while she was working (was it a dream come true for him, to date a stripper?), but to me the men in the club are either co-workers or walking dollar signs. When they try to get me into conversation, it’s all I can do to not glance repeatedly and suggestively at my tip jar, as though their only purpose is to keep it full—just as my only purpose is to keep them alcoholically and visually sated.
I almost never go out with friends now, spending all my nights at work, but I have a Thursday off and we go to a gig. Kitty leaves me for a minute to get another drink, and I’m approached by an averagely attractive man my age, and before he’s even opened his mouth my hackles are up. Why should I be talking to this guy? Is he paying me? What’s possibly of value to me in this transaction?
Later, Kitty brags about my job to her male friends in front of me, and they goggle.
“Whoa! Do you really work there?” they gasp, reappraising me immediately.
I roll my eyes. It’s not even worth explaining.
SGA: That’s your Tanqueray and tonic with lime, your rum and Coke, and a–
PATRON 1: Excuse me, is that a wig?
PATRON 2: You look like a movie star, with your red lipstick and the blonde wig.
SGA: It’s not a–
PATRON 3: Cheers, love.
On slow weeknights, to distract myself from the frustration of poor tippers, I talk to Kylie and another ex-dancer, Steph. Steph is a classic beauty with an oval face and heart-shaped lips. Apparently she used to have a lot of piercings and waist-length black extensions, and people called her Raven. She has a silver pendant shaped like the club’s logo with ‘Raven’ engraved on the back. Kylie’s says ‘Marie.’ Neither of them is quick to condemn stripping, but I learn things. I learn, for example, about the weirdos. One was in love was his mother. That was all he and Steph would talk about. When his mum finally died, he brought in one of her nightgowns and tried to get Steph to wear it. Kylie had a guy with long hair, with whom she would exchange sessions of hair braiding at $300 per hour. Both Steph and Kylie are most repulsed by the sniffers.
“Some guys come in their pants, but…” Kylie shrugs. “Being sniffed, though. I mean–.” She grabs my arm and runs her nose up the length of it, inhaling noisily. “You can’t hide how gross it is. You just have to look away so they can’t see your face.” I shudder, and think about why the sniffing is so repulsive. Smell is important to a sexual encounter, and for a lonely man the smell of women must be intoxicating, but the club is not really a place for sex. The lap dance room is strictly monitored. There is no grinding, no penetration, only talk and gentle groping—it’s more pornography than prostitution, and when that line of intimacy is crossed, things get creepy.
The weirdos find me, too. One guy follows me around all night, not ordering drinks, not tipping, just staring at me, until I bark at him to back off and his friends take him away, apologizing. I lose count of swaying middle-aged men billowing clouds of rum breath as they lean towards the top of my corset. One night a twenty-year-old suggests I blow him. Young men always tip poorly. I warn him if he talks to me like that again I’ll throw him out. Ten minutes later he lifts my skirt up while I’m giving someone their drink. I grip him forcefully around the upper arm and thrust him towards the exit. His dopey smugness vanishes. I march him out, shoving him between the shoulder blades, brandishing my drink tray in the other hand.
“You’re a jerk,” I say. “No one likes you.”
“I love you,” he mumbles.
When I tell my boyfriend about what I wear when I work, my corset and tiny skirt and stupid, stupid shoes, he suggests bringing it home. The thought makes me queasy. Already I’m learning how to align myself along the border between the club and the street—fantasy and real life—and the thought of my paid sexiness spilling over into my relationship feels as wrong as the men who sniff.
FEMALE PATRON: (vomiting next to the bar)
SGA: Out. Out. Get out.
Val is a stocky, arrogant, Brazilian twenty-four-year-old with great hair and no patience. She deals with the VIPs upstairs. It’s a miracle she makes any tips; maybe some guys like being ordered around.
“I am not a cleaner,” she snaps, as we try to scrape vomit off the carpet and into a long-handled dustpan. It’s hard to do in our shoes. I’m dizzy with fatigue and pain and now this guy has vomited on the carpet while he was actually in motion, just turned his head and let it out, not even breaking his stride, and Val is having a go at whoever’s around. This can’t be legal, I think. Not vomit and torturous shoes and having to be nice to pricks and serving drinks. Not all at the same time. Then I think about all the times outside the club when I’ve done all of the above for free, pretty much.
TONY: Go tell that couple to stop making out.
TONY: You think other punters will know she’s not a dancer?
Women usually come to the club in groups for hens’ nights, but sometimes they’re one half of a couple. I am quietly baffled at the thought of a romantic date at the strip club, but the men usually tip well to impress. The women are not, as a rule, polite. Hens’ nights only show up in the early morning, when the rest of the Valley has started to get dangerous and repellent and the night people are in packs or prowling, stumbling loners. They show up falling down drunk with their tiaras askew, and half the time they throw a tantrum on the doorstep because they can’t get in for free.
“We’re females!” they snarl.
Once inside, they’re as leering and predatory as the men. “You’ve got a great arse,” they slur, as I dance out of reach of their grabbing hands. “You’re beautiful. Great legs.” And always: “I don’t need to tip. I’m a female!”
There is one woman who comes in semi-regularly, alone, who sits at a table with a good view, who drinks Coronas and tips moderately—the only gay woman I ever see in the club. The dancers approach her with an attitude between flirtatious and comradely. I never see her pay for a dance. What would it be like, being a woman, receiving a lap dance from a woman you desire, in a room full of men?
MICHELLE: I hate when guys like, twist your nipples while you’re giving them a lap dance.
DEVIN: I know! It’s like, uh, that hurts, you’re not turning me on!
Every interaction in the club has rules.
“Hey guys!” I purr. “Just letting you know that you need to be tipping the ladies if you’re in the tipping seats.” Eye contact. Smile. Hand on shoulder. A glance and a nod exchanged between the dancer and me.
A few minutes later, Ashley’s stopped dancing, and it’s like a record-scratch—this tiny long-haired woman in underwear and heels not gyrating excitingly but standing with legs apart, hand on hip, glowering down at three stubbly New Zealanders.
“Did you not understand how it works?” I say. Eye contact. No smile. Distance.
“We liked the other chick,” they say. “Don’t like this one.”
“Then you can leave the seats.”
“We’ve been tipping all night.”
“Bullshit,” says Ashley. They scoff.
“Who are you going to believe, her or–.”
I walk away. Edward, the security guard, is already approaching them. I can hear their protests behind me. After months of practice I can walk fast and powerfully in my plastic shoes.
Later on that night, as the dancers are finishing up their staggered shifts, I walk in on Ashley and another girl in the upstairs dressing room.
“I just want to be a good mum,” Ashley is saying. The other girl has her arm around Ashley’s shoulders, and I realize simultaneously how tiny and how old she is. Her lipliner has bled into the lines around her mouth; when she lowers her head into her hands, I can see the clips of her extensions showing through her hair. Without her massive shoes, she can’t be more than four foot ten.
“I’m never there for him,” she says into her palms, as the other girl coos and rubs her back, and I back out silently.
PATRON: (very drunk) You’re an angel.
SGA: (cleaning the smoking area) That’s nice of you to say.
PATRON: No, no—you shouldn’t be working here. You’re too beautiful. Come home with me, I’ll look after you.
SGA: I bet I earn more an hour than you do.
PATRON: You’re too good for this place.
SGA: You’re the one buying lap dances, mate, not me.
After I slink out of the switched-off auto doors at the end of my shift, I have to pass through the survivors of the night: girls in tight dresses with their shoes in their hands, mascara starting to migrate, sitting in gutters eating McDonalds; men in patterned T-shirts and white chisel-toed shoes with pies in their fists, staggering around blearily as I scuttle up the street to wait for a cab and the sun to come up. The gray light makes every face haggard. People topple out of the nightclub next door, and the security guard nods to me in recognition. Waiting on the corner for my lift, I’m scared of the men sloping past me. Every night the clothes I wear are further from my uniform: jeans and ugly t-shirts, big jackets. I take my makeup off before I go outside. The rules on the corner are not club rules.
* * * *
About three weeks before I left, a man came into the club and punched one of the other hostesses. He was her ex-boyfriend. He spat in her face first, and sprinted out of the club as soon as he’d leant over the bar to hit her. I found out later that she used to strip in a different club in the Valley, and when he’d heard she was working in another strip joint he’d gone to every one in town in order to find her. This meant he would have paid between ten and twenty dollars at each club in entry fees, gone in, searched fruitlessly, and left—until he found her, and when he did find her all he did was hit her and run away. This was why the boyfriends of the dancers weren’t allowed in, Tony told me. They don’t understand the rules.
* * * *
I know the rules. One rule is that when I am in uniform I am not allowed past the front steps of the club. Tonight Tanya, the CEO, has been making a visit, but I haven’t seen her and no one’s told me, so when my boyfriend texts me and asks me to come and see him outside, I do. Tanya is standing at the front steps. Before I can panic, two men spill out of the auto doors locked in a fully-fledged fistfight with the bouncers. My boyfriend leaps back and I vanish inside in the commotion, and when I see Edward’s chewed-plum black eye and Tony bandaging his hand in the sink upstairs (“He bit me!”), I feel the kind of responsibility I felt as a child whenever I witnessed an accident—did I make that happen? Standing out the front of the club in lingerie, reaching for my boyfriend and being forced back inside by a brawl: this is what happens when you break the rules.
In less than an hour, two police officers will arrive and do a slow walk-through of the whole club, and I will feel real life disturbing the air in their wake. One of the officers will be a woman, a ponytail protruding through the back of her cap, and I will watch patrons follow her upstairs with their eyes. But now, in the hum of music and male voices and women laughing, where the fight outside has barely even registered, I wonder why sex and violence always seem to go hand in hand. And then: sex and violence and money, I correct myself, picking up my drink tray. Always the money.
* * * *
“You’re the real pretty lookin’ one.”
“I love you.”
“You’re very beautiful.”
“You’re far too good for here, and if I were sober I’d be hitting on you, ’cause I could provide for you, you know.”
“I just want to buy you a big steak.”
“Oh she’s funny, I like her.”
“So, uh, you look nice. Do you take your clothes off?”
“Love the Marilyn Monroe look, very sexy.”
“You know how there’s always someone who goes too far? I’m going to do that, and say you should come home with me. Look, I guarantee I’m a better lover than your boyfriend.”
* * * *
After we close on a Sunday morning, I’m invited to the traditional six a.m. breakfast at the all-night pancake place up the road. Not many of the hostesses go, but I want to know what happens when these red-lit club people step into the daylight. Not a lot, it turns out—everyone just looks much more tired than I’d expected. The Valley is lightening up, the streets are grubby, and the few people on them are people like us, emerging from the night’s safe places.
At the restaurant, we meet the manager from the Petrie Terrace club, Paul, and his silent stripper girlfriend. He talks disparagingly about one of the dancers who works for him—”Face like a kicked-in shit tin”—and ignores me until I dig out a notepad to write down this gem.
“What’re you doing?
“I just thought it was a really good phrase.”
There’s a lull in the conversation. Paul exchanges a look with Tony. I keep my eyes on the paper.
“Whatever, mate,” he says finally, sitting back against the vinyl booth and breathing through his nose.
I catch a cab home. The dawn makes the river silver and streaks the buildings in the CBD with light. My mouth is dry and sticky from the Red Bull, and I still feel prickly about Paul. My lips are chapped where I’ve rubbed off my lipstick. My feet hurt; eventually the second toe on each foot will go permanently numb from shifting all my weight onto them for eight hours a day. I sigh and try to stretch my legs. The wallet in my bag is fat with fifties.
A week later, I have my first panic attack on the way to work. Leaning against a car in the alley next to the club, I cry into my hands. Over my hyperventilating I hear a man whistle at me as he walks past. When I look up, puffy and astonished, he makes eye contact, and whistles again.
*Australian for utility vehicle/pick-up truck.