On the cover North Coast Journal

June 9, 2005


High Heels & Dollar Bills [photo of feet in high heels]

On the cover: The platform shoes of a Tip Top Club dancer. Photo by Kyana Taillon.



MUSIC COMES THUMPING out into the parking lot of the Tip Top Gentlemen's Club just outside the Eureka city limits. A tall, muscular doorman in a fedora hat blocks the doorway as he explains club rules and accepts the $10 entrance fee. He gives change in ones -- the better to tip dancers with -- neatly bundled together with a tiny white decal depicting a buxom woman in silhouette.

Moving past the doorman into the heart of the club is like a descent into a warm cave where a sugary perfume, reminiscent of cookies, permeates the air. Black light bounces off revolving disco balls and plays over black carpet printed with pink go-go dancers and green cocktail glasses. Mirrors cover the walls.

On the small stage, an attractive young woman wearing an emerald satin bustier and thong twirls around a brass pole in the winking lights. She is surrounded by male customers seated in plush chairs, their eyes level with her knees, who stare up at her, entranced. In spite of the pounding beat of Missy Elliott's "Work It," the place seems strangely quiet, as the dancer's tall platform shoes hit the wooden stage floor with a loud thump, or her hand slaps her bare backside, or her skin squeaks against the brass pole as she slides down.

The dancer, whose stage name is "Glory," shimmies up the pole and grips it between her thighs. Crossing her high-heel clad feet daintily, she leans far outward until her long blond ponytail hangs upside down. Smiling at the men below, she removes her top over her head with a flourish. They utter a collective "Whoa" and, amid smatterings of applause, dollar bills begin to appear on the cushioned railing.

Strip clubs are something of a magic show, complete with stage lights, stage makeup, showmanship and dramatic illusion. The women appear sexier and act more interested in the patrons than they actually are. However illusory or ephemeral the fantasy may be, men will pay handsomely to engage in it, and pretty, young women can turn that willingness into profit.


"Customers like the pole tricks that look hard," Glory says. "Not so much the hard ones but the ones that look hard. Sometimes they're deceptively easy."

She sits on her couch in jeans and a T-shirt, eating microwaved lasagna. Without the artificial ponytail she wears on-stage, her hair is noticeably shorter and less blonde. Once shorn of her stilettos, she stands a diminutive five-foot-one. A 20-year-old English literature student at Humboldt State, she has been dancing at the Tip Top for nearly two years -- a job her mother considers to be research for a future novel, she says.

Glory, who grew up in the Bay Area, agreed to be interviewed only under her stage name. Many members of her family still do not know what she does for a living and she does not want them to find out yet.

She started out as a bartender at the club's alcohol-free bar -- a job she thought would be more fun than the average, run-of-the-mill college job. Despite her background in ballet, at first she never considered becoming a dancer.

That changed, though, when she saw how much her co-workers were making.Photo of exotic dancer's lingerie

"I watched the dancers make more in an hour than I was making in a paycheck," she says. "You just start to think, `I bet I could do that. It doesn't look that hard.' It turns out that it's not that hard, and anybody can do it."

Technically, the more than 20 women who regularly dance there are not employees of the Tip Top. They are independent contractors with business licenses issued by the county that declare the nature of the business, "touring dancer." In fact, dancers pay the club for the privilege of using its stage, a controversial but common business arrangement in the exotic dance industry. The stage fee at the Tip Top is $25 per night, with discounts for dancers who show up early. In addition, the club takes a pPhoto of exotic dancer's hair pieceortion of the charge for lap dances -- the private, one-on-one transactions that take place in small rooms located around the pePhoto of exotic dancer's legs and platform shoesrimeter of the club's two stages.

On an average weeknight, a stripper at the Tip Top nets between $100 and $300 and on weekends, $300 to $500. Glory has had even more profitable nights. "I think probably the best weekend I've ever had I made like $1,500 in a total of about nine hours," she says. "There are other girls who have done better. I definitely don't hold the record."

[Photos: Exotic dancer "Glory" models a few of her trappings of glamour -- sexy lingerie, a false hair piece and towering platform shoes.]

A small sign on the door of the club reads, "Tip Top RV Sales." It is an artifact from 1997, when club owner Tom Razooly skirted the county's reluctance to allow a topless bar to open by billing his business as an RV sales showroom. He carried plastic toy RVs and referred to the topless dancers as salespeople until he could obtain legal rights to operate the club.


But nowadays, the last vestiges of the club's sham identity have been all but erased. In contrast to the peacock-like vividness of the club's dancers, customers appear dim and shadowy. They move quietly around the club with eyes that consume everything.

Dancers start each set wearing something revealing, usually three articles of clothing: a bustier, a bikini top, or a figure-hugging tube dress, as well as a sheer pair of panties over a tiny thong. The top comes off during the first song, the panties in the next.

The dance consists mainly of striking a series of poses in a display of bare flesh punctuated by exaggerated wiggles. Glory's ballet dancing background is evident in her graceful, erect posture. On the floor, she squats, kneels, lies back, kicks her legs around, and does the splits.

When a customer places his dollar on the rail, she crawls to him and surreptitiously flicks the dollar behind her onto the stage floor. Then she does what she calls "quick boobies in the face." She grabs the man by the lapels and pulls him to her bosom. With a quick shimmy of her shoulders, she brushes his cheeks with her breasts for a second, then moves on.

There is a strict code of conduct at the Tip Top. Even though dancers frequently touch customers, touching the dancers is forbidden. According to Glory, the strict enforcement of rules like this is one of the reasons that the club is able to retain dancers.

Overseeing the show this afternoon is Jake, one of the club's managers. A youngish man with Asian features and a long, black pony-tail, one of his jobs tonight is to make sure that the club's clientele do not cross the line -- by reaching up and touching the dancers, say, or propositioning them.

"We have to have the ability to keep it professional," he says as a bare-breasted young woman leans past him to get a glass of water. Jake hardly glances at her. "The men who work here are not customers. That would make the girls uncomfortable."Photo of "no touching" policy sign

Glory says that the club's customers tend to be mostly blue-collar workers -- loggers, fishermen, truck drivers. Occasionally, a traveling businessman will show up. Southern Humboldt marijuana growers are a steady source of income.

"Growers and strippers have a very symbiotic relationship," she says. "We entertain them, and they give us lots of money."

Respectful customers, though rare, are the dancers' favorites. "We really appreciate gentlemanly men," Glory says. "You get the cool customer from time to time who will just want to sit and talk to you. Or one who will watch you dance but be really respectful about it, tell you you're beautiful, shake your hand, give you a tip and then leave.

"It really is a pleasure dancing for the guys who have manners, because then you feel like you're performing a little miniature piece of art, something to be appreciated."

Obnoxious customers are, unfortunately, commonplace. "Oh, boy, you wouldn't believe some of the guys we get in there!" Glory says. "One guy who came in had just been released from prison that day. He does a bunch of meth, comes into the strip club, and has a heart attack! We had to call the paramedics. It was a big ordeal. We get big dramatics like that and then we just get your average garden-variety asshole. The kind of guy who teases you with a dollar, `Come and get it, bitch.' At which point we just throw it at him."

Then there are the men who fall in love -- or so they think. Glory estimates that each dancer gets at least three serious marriage proposals a year.

"They're good guys but they've got this whole world of precious illusion," she says. "They simply don't understand that as much as we like them, and we're more than happy to take their money, no one's getting married! It's not that Pretty Woman kind of thing, where a guy's going to take us off to live in a little cottage with a white picket fence."

Glory, who is currently single, has no patience for such types, and says that they are the reason that strippers need solid relationships with respectful men -- even if they are professional relationships, like she has with Jake and other Tip Top employees.

"The good men in a stripper's life are so important," she says. "They remind you what you like about men. A job like this could really make you hate men."


Being a fantasy living in a human body requires a host of measures to maintain the illusion: minty breath mints, perfumed body spray, baby wipes, stage makeup, fake hairpieces, strategic lighting, and for a few dancers even plastic surgery.

Glory's backstage dressing area holds row upon row of towering platform shoes, in black, white and red; of latex, patent leather and vinyl; with buckles, straps and laces. One pair is made of clear plastic, its platform filled with blue water and goldfish.

Half-used makeup covers Glory's dressing table, beneath which an open metal trunk, covered in decals, spills out accessories and underthings. One night can require up to 10 outfits since dancers change after every stage set.

Despite these trappings of glamour, Glory says that whatever boost in self-esteem that dancers may get from men's lustful admiration fades quickly.

"At first it's fun having that much attention paid to you" she says. "Then eventually you get a bit jaded and start taking it for granted a little. At first, when some guy tells you you're hot, you say, `Thank you!' But after about a year you're like, `That's nice, now buy a dance.'"

Lap dances can cause job dissatisfaction because of what Glory calls "the hustle aspect" of it.

"It's a very difficult job to do if you're emotionally fragile," Glory explains. "Trying to sell lap dances entails going up to every customer in the club. In that sense it is trying to sell yourself. It is trying to sell one song with you naked. A lot of nights you just hear `no' over and over. To keep hearing that is hard."

Glory tries never to lose sight of the true impersonal nature of her interaction with customers.

"So often when they say no, it has very little to do with you," she says. "Either they don't have enough money, or they don't like blondes. You simply can't take it personally, because it's really never personal."

Not all dancers find the same success.

"It's very much a sink-or-swim kind of thing. There's this huge turnover rate. Some girls just can't do it, mentally and emotionally. They never get over the self-consciousness."

For others, though, the financial benefits outweigh any other considerations they may have. Aja -- a voluptuous 18-year-old dancer with dark eyes and long, wavy hair -- is one of those who came to the club out of a desire to escape a dead-end job.

"I was working at McDonald's for minimum wage," Aja says. "When Christmas came, I had money problems." So began her dancing career.


After she finishes her set on the stage, Glory walks around the room looking for men willing to pay her for a private lap dance.

The fully nude lap dance is a stripper's true and more lucrative business, for which stage dances are merely advertisements, Glory says. Lap dance rooms are built for fantasy -- in addition to the discreet closed circuit camera, each room has a plush loveseat and a boom box. The one called the Dungeon is equipped with shackles. Another sports pink fur walls.

Glory makes her way around the club, whispering into the ear of customer after customer until one decides to take up her offer. She takes hold of his hand and leads him to one of the private rooms.

Once inside, depending on what the customer wants, Glory will likely remove all of her clothing. She may sit on a customer's knee and press her breasts to his shoulder or his forehead. Unlike in other cities, in other clubs, she says that dancers at the Tip Top do not rub themselves against the customer's genitals.

For $35, the private session will last as long as one song. Customers may pay $175 for an extended, half-hour session. In the longer sessions, a man often just wants to talk, Glory says -- often to complain about his wife or girlfriend. She says she gets about two of those cases every week, usually regulars.

"I just laugh so hard when people say we're being taken advantage of, because the guys are paying (one of) us $35 to spend a few minutes with them," she says. "Who's taking advantage of who, really? Whose pockets are being emptied? Who's going home at the end of the night with the money?"

Glory plans to keep stripping until she finishes college.

"I've got one more year for my bachelor's and then I'm going to grad school," she says. "I'm just going all the way to get my doctorate. I'll probably be stripping until I'm a doctor! Because it's so universal, you know? You can do it anywhere."

Her dreams for the future are quiet and modest, a far cry from the adult entertainment world.

"I would like to own a little bookstore," she says "I'm going to grad school in England and I think I'll probably end up there." l






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