The social working space Forge & Co on Shoreditch High Street is a good place to talk about stripping in London. On the outskirts of the City, this is stripper country — The Rainbow Sports Bar is just across the road; further up, Browns squats across the top of the street, The Horns is mounted up near Old Street, while down in Whitechapel there's the knackered old Nags Head, and secreted further into Hackney is The Old Axe.
We’re meeting three members of the East London Strippers Collective, a group of mostly women looking to improve the lot of London’s strip-teasers and reinvent the job for a 21st century city.
Everyone’s name is a 'nom-de-nude': Chiqui Love is Venezuelan but grew up in the Canaries; she’s all warmth and vigour and glitter on her skin. She has a carrot juice. Zoe Trope (white wine, red curls, white skin, punk attitude) is from the USA and has been in London for four years. We think Lily has recently escaped back through the looking-glass; she is an adult Alice, still a little-way down the rabbit hole. All three are bright but Lily’s outlook is offbeat with it; she has a double-espresso.
We wanted to see behind the boarded-up windows and stereotypes of strippers and the London stripping world. Chiqui, Lily and Zoe are not almost-starving single mothers or drug addicts, but they did all begin as the newer cliché says, when they were students. Chiqui has "shown her tits all over London" including venues without a stage where "you have to get your knickers off on a pool table" and says that stripping paid for her degree.
Zoe did the final paper for her Psychology of Gender, Race and Ethnicity on stripping after becoming interested in what she sees as its reversal of power. Working in a strip club offered women the opportunity to draw their own lines and be in control in a way the outside world did not. She tried it herself, loved performing, loved the money and has been doing it for seven years now.
Lily started stripping as an experiment too; she was working behind the bar in a strip club in Manchester where women earn £5 for a dance and their underwear doesn't travel further down than the knees. She was at university and thought that she was such a tomboy she wouldn’t be allowed to dance by the management. She was wrong; she went to a place in Liverpool where the knickers can go where they please and it’s £20 for a dance, before moving down to London. Lily says she created a mimicry of "a sexy woman, an illusion of sexuality" while all the time knowing she was "a slob". She says: "I thought I’d get rumbled but I didn’t."
The one thing unique to London is the strip-pub environment. Zoe seems fond and a little in awe of it. "£1 in a pint glass, girls walking around in their underwear in the pub, I’d never seen that." Public dances are paid for by each punter putting a pound in a beer glass, each dancer collects their own. The pubs are one of the few places where dancers can put on a show for an audience rather than spending the night tempting men into a private dance. They all love performing and hang on to that.
As opposed to clubs like Spearmint Rhino, these pubs are independently-run. Shoreditch’s best-known venues The Horns and Browns are run by women. The Griffin, near the corner of Clerkenwell Road and Gray's Inn Road, is run by the brother of the Horns and Browns' manageress.
Licensing issues for the pubs and clubs have regularly been in the news in recent years, including a 30-strong Fight the Strip Ban protest outside Hackney Town Hall in December 2010. That old devil gentrification is also encroaching and as Shoreditch and Spitalfields are desirable places to live, the new residents do not take so kindly to the pre-existing noisy, late night venues.
"The hoighty toighty venues are pushing the older places out," says Zoe. "This area is facing gentrification and it will become like..." Lily interjects, "west London". Then Zoe, "Angel" — each sharing their own ideas of what constitutes London 'tamed'.
Chiqui may be happy to see the back of London’s strip pubs. She's left stripping for a job at a music venue and while she is positive about the time she spent working at strip pubs, she feels they are are now out of date. Pub punters have been paying £1 per dance for a long time, so the women have been having an incremental pay decrease. She also thinks the men have become more disrespectful and reluctant to pay.
Each strip venue has different rules, some strange. The Metropolis in Hackney fines dancers if they show their knees before midnight.
And, says Chiqui, there're another, glittery, death-knell to the scene: the rise of burlesque. "Seeing a girl get naked for £1 is very old fashioned," she says, "but burlesque represents women in a much more glamorous way that women can look at too. Women won’t come and see women getting everything out for £1. Do something more modern," she counsels the strip-pubs. "Treat women better, maybe having some guys stripping too, because when the women are happy, the men are happy."
Each strip venue is different and with different rules: some restrictive, some strange. The Metropolis in Hackney, Lily tells us, fines dancers if they show their knees before midnight. When not stripping they have to wear a long elegant dress then after midnight they can wear lingerie. It’s like a Victorian strip club where the ankle can be shown but not the knee.
"They’re paying to see your fanny anyway," she observes.
Many strip pubs and clubs now insist that the women do not work at rival venues, despite being freelance performers; and there are issues about women paying to dance in public as adverts for the paid private dances that follow. There are no employment contracts and, as Chiqui says, dismissal can be instant and arbitrary: "It's like: 'if you don’t agree with what I say, then get fucked’ — a very autocratic form of management. You put on a bit of weight or you can’t agree with something or you can’t do one shift — the reason can be absolutely anything." Lily adds: "There’s no notice period. It’s 'go get your bags' and out."
Chiqui says the main reason she's leaving stripping is because of the fees they need to pay to work: "I don’t like paying to work."
Fees per shift can vary between £70 and £150. And, according to emailed instructions we've seen, a venue "can take a commission from everything we earn. Plus they can charge fines. There are no legal controls on clubs to limit the amount they can take off the girls."
There is still stigma and prejudice attached to women who strip. "When I moved to the UK I was really shocked by how much stigma was attached to being a stripper," says Zoe. "People felt uncomfortable when I told them and I wasn’t used to being made to feel uncomfortable. People were cool with it in America."
"There’s the idea," says Lily "that people think, or say, 'you poor thing, what happened to you?'. There's an implied idea that we are victims somehow. Or we’re asked 'what do you really want to do?' 'what is your actual job?'"
It's the opposite to how male strippers are viewed, say the women. "When a man says he’s a male stripper everyone says ‘oh, big cock, cool guy’ when it’s a woman stripper it’s ‘what a whore’!," notes Chiqui.
Lily is enraged by the Magic Mike films: "It’s about male strippers and how deep and soulful their lives are: where’s the film for women? 95% of strippers are women."
Fighting for rights
It's a combination of the house fees, working conditions, how strippers are treated and the stigma attached to the job that created conversations which evolved into the founding of the East London Strippers Collective. The person who brought people together was fellow dancer Stacy Clare who first began talking to everyone about their work.
“Stacy Clare recruited me,” says Chiqui “She asked me ‘are you 100% happy?’ What would you like to see done differently? I like the Australian model which works by percentage, where everyone makes money and girls are treated with respect.”
“Clare was the catalyst to it,” says Zoe, “we got together to cook a big dinner. It took four hours to cook and we had great fun, talked about a lot of things and had a lot to say to one-another, big ideas and laughter.”
The group organised a night of talking about stripping in 2014 and now parties to demo their idea of how stripping should be. Men and women come to these, young and old. The atmosphere is very different to a pub full of men and, importantly, the strippers are in as complete control as possible. Stacy Clare has taken the ethos and delivered a TED Talk.
“I’m surprised that here has been nothing like this before,” says Chiqui, “even though stripping is underground it is worldwide. It feeds a lot of girls and a lot of boyfriends too.”
“It’s going to be big for stigma fighting in the community,” Zoe says. “We’re inviting academics to speak on employment practice and events showing us as actual people. It’s very easy to look at us just as strippers, objectifying us as strippers or victims and this festival is putting the power in our hands to create something new.”
“There’s a life drawing class, simple lessons on how to pole dance,” says Lily, “it’s a way of saying ‘Hey, look at this’ and have some fun. I’m also looking forward to pouring blue paint on myself and rolling all over the floor."
There is, of course, some parts of stripping where it is women who do it without alternative but Chiqui, Lily and Zoe think that is a minority and perhaps further away from the world of their newly-fledged collective and it’s members. “Some of the stereotypes exist, especially coming from the States,” says Zoe, “where it’s a single mother or junkie but they are a minority. Where we work there isn’t anyone who hates coming into work. When you go back to doing a regular job it’s hard to take orders when you’ve been so in control of the person who’s paying you. I don’t take any crap from a customer and I won’t take it from a boss. I can’t do it for any old job now.”
I’m tired of hiding. We would be able to tell people what we do and not feel any shame.
“I worked as a PA for a few years,” says Lily, “and I was so depressed getting the tube every morning: absolute hate and rage. I thought I’d rather be a stripper, I go to work happy: happier than getting the tube and working in an air-conditioned office. A lot of people who aren’t strippers hate their jobs but need the money."
Stripping, despite the disadvantages, suits them. They all love performing; despite retiring from the strip-world Chiqui still dances for the Belle Epoque club night.
"Lots of girls in the collective have created art," says Lily. "Chiqui makes brilliant underwear as does another girl called Rosie. Some of us make show-pieces, others make films."
The sense is that these women are creative people, on and off stage, and that stripping allows them to perform and finance their creative lives. We ask them to imagine what the world of stripping would be like if the collective achieved their goals.
Zoe addresses the others: "I’m tired of hiding. We would be able to tell people what we do and not feel any shame. People would think: ‘She’s fine, she’s an artist’ and think strippers are cool bitches.”
Lily says “We’d have our own club and we’d have male strippers. We’d give advice to dancers and we’d have laws to protect us. And we’d be rich.”
Chiqui would like to see improved working conditions. “I just love performing. I need money but I’m not driven by money.” “I’m just really greedy” interjects Zoe. “I’m not saying why I do it,” says Lily, before muttering “I’m a pervert.”
Chiqui continues: “Girls need to work, we’d work as an agency to provide entertainment and they’d be empowered. We’re everybody. Great things happen when we get together.”