June 9, 2005
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On the cover: The platform
shoes of a Tip Top Club dancer. Photo by Kyana Taillon.
by KAROL WILCOX
photos by KYANA TAILLON
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
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
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.
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,
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
That changed, though, when she
saw how much her co-workers were making.
"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 portion of the charge
for lap dances -- the private, one-on-one transactions that take
place in small rooms located around the perimeter
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
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.
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
"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."
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
"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
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
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
Lap dances can cause job dissatisfaction
because of what Glory calls "the hustle aspect" of
"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
"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
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.
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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