Editor’s Note: Names in this story have been changed to protect identities.
Heather wakes up in Brooklyn at 7:30 a.m., already late for her unpaid internship at an art gallery in Chelsea. Hung over from work the night before, she runs to the bathroom, puking bile and whisky Diet Cokes into a toilet that the rest of her fellow 23-year-old roommates will visit before leaving for their own jobs and internships.
Heather’s internship is full-time but offers no compensation other than “experience,” so she needs a paying job at night. Her night job requires a minimal time commitment of just two nights a week: Thursday and Friday. The money is nice, and she gets all the free booze she wants. With this income Heather pays for her share of an apartment, and she gets to do everything her friends are doing – like go to bars, concerts and brunches and pay student loans.
So Heather has turned to one of the world’s oldest industries to make some cash—the sex industry. No, she doesn’t work as an escort. But she does provide more of a “girlfriend experience” than your average stripper. For $20 a song she keeps her panties on but will occasionally partake in a make-out session. Heather’s workplace is an underground strip club organized by a man who once told her that a “table dance is whatever you want it to mean.” Touching is allowed. The club, which changes up locations for reasons that are not difficult to comprehend, profits from a slew of men who love the concept of getting straddled and teased not by a stripper but by the girl next door.
After gurgling mouthwash and leaving the bathroom, Heather dons a high-cut top, a high-waist skirt, low-heel shoes and her favorite sweater, a Chanel that she found in a thrift store. She has small breasts, and her abs are not toned, but she has the legs and butt of a dancer and shiny, strawberry blond hair. Her sex appeal means she is used to male attention, which I’ve observed in my years of friendship with her, but you’d never envision her making money from it.
With the alcohol out of her system, she readjusts her sweater and jogs to the train, looking collected and professional. Art is Heather’s passion, but even with her four-year degree in art history, getting paid to work in the field as a newcomer to the city isn’t easy. No one at the art gallery asks what Heather does to pay the bills. With her sweet, young face and shy demeanor, they wouldn’t guess.
Sometimes she worries about seeing a client or a peer from her internship while working at her night job, but she shrugs it off as unlikely.
The men who go to the club tend to be professionals—an “after-work crowd,” says Jeremy, a guy who’s been attending the club where Heather works for a couple of years. Jeremy, who is in his late 30s and works in finance, tells me that plenty of his fellow patrons are lawyers and doctors, ranging from their late 20s to 50s. “If you’re 25, you’d be a little out of place,” he says. It would make you a bit too close to the age of the women.
So who are these women? A good number of them are students, or, like Heather, interns or underpaid, entry-level employees in creative fields. Not all of them work at the events regularly. Marie, for example, only worked an event once. The slim brunette aspires to be a director. She picks up sporadic film jobs as an assistant, struggling to make her pay last between gigs. She looks exactly like you’d imagine a young woman on set to look—clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, she plays down her casual good looks by avoiding makeup. She learned about these underground events from a mutual friend of Heather’s. This friend didn’t work at the same club as Heather, but a smaller, lesser-known version to which Marie accompanied her one night and one night only, seeking cash and a chance to satiate her curiosity about the events.
Not every woman who works these events fits the Heather profile. While Heather and Marie hail from out of town and moved to New York after graduating from college, Carla grew up in the Bronx. She is Dominican with a sweet, young face like Heather’s and a slim but curvy body. She was serving at a restaurant when she started looking into ways to make more money, not to supplement some kind of specific career goal. She ended up finding an ad on Craigslist for “private, upscale events,” very much like the ad to which Heather first responded to get her nighttime gig. This ad ultimately led Carla to becoming a regular at the event where Marie spent a single, cash-filled night.
Heather came across the ad that attracted her to the world of underground stripping while sitting at the front desk of the art gallery where she interns. Much of Heather’s day there consists of sitting at that desk, making a point not to smile at anyone who enters. People who sit at the front desk of art galleries don’t smile—it helps create an air of exclusivity crucial to the world of art buying.
This gave Heather plenty of time to respond to the following:
“Perfect job for college students, models, actors, dancers, host/hostess types,” the ad promised in the food/beverage/hospitality section of Craigslist. There was no mention of lap dances or stripping.
Craigslist is rife with ads like this. Tucked into sections that young, pretty women presumably look at (events, TV/film/radio, talent, hospitality, even “creative”), they promise high wages in exchange for an “open mind,” often using those words exactly. Some are for legitimate strip clubs; many represent private events, “bachelor parties” or just “fun, safe, high-paying gigs” (“breast worship” sometimes required).
The Craigslist ad Carla found brought her first to a bachelor party for a bunch of 30-to-50-year-old men from Westchester. She traveled from her home in the Bronx to Manhattan to interview for the party, which was set to take place that same evening. She was instructed to bring a “cocktail dress” in case she decided to stay. The event’s organizer “gave me the rundown of how everything would work,” she explained. “It was definitely a lap dance party and nothing more.”
The “cocktail dress” (AKA a clubbing dress) Carla had worn for the bachelor party resembled what Heather wears to the club, and in a nutshell it sums up the difference between these “clubs” and your average strip club. Unlike strip joints, what you wear, Heather says, “doesn’t matter.” When she underwear shops for the job, she describes the standards as “bizarre and low—like matching. Maybe lacy?”
So as it draws near the gallery’s closing time, Heather’s barely contemplating what to wear this Friday, and at 5 p.m. on the nose she’s out the door, her briefcase-sized bag swinging on her arm as she waves goodbye to her supervisor. Back on the train Heather plans her outfit in peace before the mad rush that will take place in front of her roommates as she gets ready for work in their modest apartment.
No one’s going to be paying much attention to Heather’s outfit tonight because where she works is dark, and there’s no stage. Instead, Heather and the other strippers, dressed in cocktail dresses, will mingle with the mostly male guests in a bar-type setting before they pair off and retreat to the single back room designated for dancing. “Dancing” is a loose word. When Heather asked at the interview if dancing skills were required, the response was laughter and, “No.“
With the living room and the kitchen located in between Heather’s bedroom and the bathroom, her roommates, their dog, and the friends/significant others they have over watch as she rushes back and forth, first in her work clothes, then in a big T-shirt as she fluffs up her hair and puts on her makeup, then in her maybe matching bra and panties.
She walks out of her room like this and realizes a roommate’s boyfriend is over, so she goes back in, emerging, lastly, in a shiny, red dress, pink heels (seriously, matching does not matter) and a choker.
She throws a sweater and sweatpants over that outfit so as to go incognito on the train, grabs a bag containing lotion, a change of shoes, and a little purse to carry with her throughout the evening and is back out the door.
Her roommate’s boyfriend has questions, and she can hear her roommates giggling in answer as the door closes.
Arriving at the venue, Heather greets the bouncers and heads to what she calls “backstage” but is really the establishment’s kitchen. It’s crowded. “All the girls, everyone’s late and everyone’s rushing, looking like shit showing up,” she says, “and you can see who are the new people. They don’t know where to put their stuff, and they look a little scared.”
Heather remembers when she first assumed the role of one of the event’s veterans, answering the new girls’ questions, explaining the brief set of rules (no touching below the waist and no exchanging contact information with guests). It made her feel like she’d been doing this for too long, but not long enough to make her quit.
Other lap dance parties—smaller, more private ones—have less hectic behind-the-scenes areas, mostly because of their size. Twenty girls changing over the course of 30 minutes is a lot calmer than 50 doing the same. The place where erstwhile restaurant server Carla worked, for example, looked like a cross between a private lounge and a secret bar and an immaculate bachelor pad. She arrived and changed either in a one-person bathroom or in the room that would later be used for lap dances—quite the opposite of the crowded kitchen where Heather applies one last layer of lipstick before getting to work on Thursday and Friday nights.
Another venue where a friend of Heather’s worked, which held parties in a room upstairs while the downstairs still functioned as a regular bar, offered silky, black robes for the women to wear after getting changed into their lingerie in the bathrooms, which were located downstairs. There were no inconspicuous cocktail dresses at this lap dance party—rather, the women wore masks, perhaps as a gimmick to set these parties apart, or maybe as a way to let them feel more comfortably anonymous.
Since Heather’s basically ready upon her arrival, she gets out on the floor and talks with a few of the other women. The boss wants all of them on the floor at 7 p.m., even if no men are there yet, though a small handful trickle in early. Heather hangs back at a booth in the corner, sipping her single, allotted free drink. Men will be buying after that, as they did for her last night, and she tells herself to turn more of them down.
Heather surveys the scene to see who will be her best bet. Unlike at the gallery, she smiles at everyone. She will face rejection but has learned not to take it personally. She may not have the specific look a man is going for. As a blond, white woman, for instance, Heather has found good luck with non-white men. “It’s a fantasy thing,” she says, though some of her white co-workers say they do better with white guys. A light-skinned black woman Heather’s gotten to be friendly with does well with just about everybody, because whatever race they guess she is, she goes with it.
Carla, who has darker skin than the majority white women working at these events, made an especially favorable impression on her white, male employer at her initial interview. It turned into a steady lap dancing gig that lasted about a year. Now Carla works at a real strip club—fully nude, with no alcohol served. “They’re looking for white girls,” she says.
What mostly sets the lap dance parties where Carla worked apart from the strip joint where she works now is the “girl next door” aspect, which some men appreciate. “There are younger girls, which I was surprised to see,” Jeremy says. “There’s also less pressure, more of a bar type atmosphere, and the girls aren’t wearing, like, stripper clothes. (They’re wearing) tight skirts and heels, but they look like they could be provocatively dressed for a bar rather than wearing, like, a garter belt with dollar bills in it.”
Jeremy learned about Heather’s nighttime workplace from a friend.
“I couldn’t believe such a place existed,” says Jeremy, who’s long been turned off by the high-pressure approach of traditional strip clubs, where men are forced to sit and women approach with a whisper in the ear and an unsolicited crotch grab. But what ultimately makes the club where Heather works so unique is the fact that girls like Heather work there.
Though Heather may be young, 23, she knows this job, which starts with chatting up the guys as if she were out to flirt in any, old bar on a Friday night. First, she approaches a white man who looks to be in his 30s sitting alone at the bar, clearly already wasted. She asks, and receives, the typical questions. Where are you from? What do you when you’re not here? Oh, you’re in college—what’s your major?
Finally, after drinking a whisky Coke the man bought for her, Heather asks him if he “wants a dance.” He does. Heather takes his hand and leads him toward the dark back room where all of the dances take place.
As Heather moves from stripping slowly in front of him to straddling him in just her bra and panties, he drunkenly says loudly in her ear, “I love you. You’re the hottest girl who ever went to Dartmouth.”
She takes off her bra. She had never told him she went to Dartmouth (nor had she actually gone there). He proceeds to get teary-eyed. “You shouldn’t be here.” After six more songs, the man gives Heather all of his money “to leave.” She makes it clear that she will not be leaving but happily puts the cash in her purse.
"When I told a friend at the club about the guy, I thought it was funny, but she told me she hated that shit, because we are not helplessly there,” says Heather. “We are working it, and working them. We know what we’re doing, and some girls even love it, or it turns them on.”
Such moments are par for the course for the women who work at these sorts of events. Because they look like some woman a guest went to college with or like the neighbor he always sees going to the gym, he seems to feel like she deserves better than being a stripper or that he’s accomplished something by getting her into the venue’s back room.
Aspiring director Marie’s one night at a smaller NYC lap dance party revealed the same sentiment when it came to male guests. “They want to think that this is real,” she says, “like this girl that I might have met anywhere wants to take off her clothes and dance for me.”
This explains an encounter Heather had on another evening. “I gave one guy a dance, and then later asked his friend in front of him. The second guy turned me down at first, but then I convinced him later. He told me he couldn’t say yes in front of his friend because the friend liked me and was jealous. I really wanted to say, ‘You know I’m a stripper, right?’ But I held my tongue.”
Not all guys have been so complimentary. “There are definitely some who are terrible,” says Heather. “Like the guy who put his finger in my mouth, so I bit it. And some don’t want to pay enough, but I never felt like I’ve had to be nice to someone who weirded me out. But you can’t really help but feel like a piece of meat.”
Lap dance after lap dance to the sound of the R&B Top 40 later, it is time for Heather to go home. She has pared down from her dress to just her underwear, having transitioned from talking guys up (“Make the most inane conversation,” is what a more experienced dancer had told Marie on her one night at a lap dance party) to simply asking for dances up front.
Heather gets in a cab, considering it just another part of her tip out (she’s had to tip the house $100, the bag check girls $20, and the bouncers $20). Still, Heather has over $700 in her little purse, swaddled by her dress and high heels in her bigger bag. For Heather, a bad night is $200 or $300. Her best was around $900.
Though Heather is happy with her take-home pay, Jeremy insists that the girls at these parties “are so young they don’t know what their worth is…I think it’s safe to say that if they worked at a strip club, they’d be…making a certain multiple more. They don’t realize they could be working at a strip club and be doing basically the same thing.”
Carla had a similar pay range at the lap dance parties she worked at, though it skewed a little lower. The parties, being less populated and less of an established business, were more flexible and lasted fewer hours. She ultimately stopped doing them because they fizzled out. Not enough men were showing up. “I would have preferred to keep doing the (lap dance parties) if I was making a good amount of money at the end,” Carla explains. “Then I thought, if I could do that, why not try the real deal?”
At “the real deal,” the women Carla works with are “the total opposite” of those she worked with at the lap dance parties, the non-professionals. “It’s like a whole other ball game, very competitive.” Plus, not just anything goes in terms of attire, and Carla’s had to shell out “hundreds to thousands” on outfits, lingerie, and makeup—all the tools of the trade, which girls next door giving lap dances simply don’t need.
Heather has since moved onto another quintessential stage for the women who work at NYC’s underground lap dance parties—she has quit. The job served its purpose as quick cash while Heather pursued a career, the entry into which was less than lucrative. Now, her nine-to-five pays, slowly but surely, for her rent, her brunches and her student loans.
However, the parties are more than just quick cash for some of the “girls next door.” Marie tried her one night for money, sure, but also out of curiosity because her friend had been coming back from the parties—with stories—for months.
And Carla? “I was single, I was coming into my own as a woman, I basically wanted to try something different and wanted to get off the good girl wagon,” she says of her initial interest. “Oh yeah, definitely for the money it was something easy, and I like to dance, so I was like that’s cool, you’re paid to dance.”
This article originally was published on Nov. 9, 2015.
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