By: Ruisi Liu
When I say stripper, what’s the image that comes to mind?
A wrinkled 25-year-old highschool dropout holding a cigarette? Cardi B? A sassy, lip-glossed girl with huge hoop earrings and an unconquerable attitude? Someone curvaceous but essentially brainless?
Despite all these presumptions, I will never see them as anything less than powerful, every-day women.
Just last year, two of my childhood best friends became exotic dancers, now called upon on a neon strobe-lit stage by the stagenames Kitty and Fantasia.
Once or twice a week in the summer, I went to their shows. I sat with the crowd amongst men who gazed upon the girls doing slow-motion acrobatics on shiny silver poles as popular hip hop songs blasted from bassy speakers.
Kitty and Fantasia both had a troubled past. They had weak relationships with parents and grew up with anxieties in their younger years. They likely had more sexual tribulations than the average suburban teen. They may not have been the best academics but they possessed the most selfless hearts of gold and would do anything for someone they loved.
What exactly drove them to work at a strip club?
“The main reason I was attracted to this job was the money,” Kitty says. “On average I make approximately $100 per hour, which is a huge difference than a minimum wage job.”
Due to her mental health struggles, Kitty has had trouble holding down jobs in the past.
“I wasn’t able to commit to regular hours, often not showing up to shifts or needing to leave early all the time,” she says. “As a stripper I choose my own schedule and hours and book them day to day so if I’m having a bad day I can take care of myself without worrying about my commitment to work.”
Fantasia similarly chose to become an exotic dancer for the money. “I chose to do this because I worked for over a year minimum wage at Tim Hortons.” She says after being broke, mistreated and underpaid, she looked for a new career path.
How do they really make their money?
I’ve known these girls for years. It was a great privilege to watch them acquire confidence and boundaries from the industry. But the men who watch them work on their poles will never get to know this side of them. What they see is simply a sexy woman, who is down for a fun time and some cash.
Some men stay for hours. Others simply grab a drink and leave after half an hour. It’s nothing like movies where money gets thrown on stage like rain.
Almost all of Kitty and Fantasia’s money, like many other exotic dancers, comes from champagne rooms, located in the basement of their workplace. $20 per song in a private room. The champagne rooms often allow their dancers to be nude as well. The rules are simple: strictly no touching near the vagina.
Who is their usual clientele?
When I would go watch Kitty and Fantasia, the women wait their turns, strutting onto the stage when their song begins to play. Their bodies swayed slowly around the centered stage. The men who sat around observed intently. The younger onlookers watched with an astonished, boyish awe. The older ones watched with a sense of hollowness.
The crowd is different every time. On Friday nights, university students crowd the place with groups of friends, giggling and patting their friends on the back when they go downstairs with a girl to the champagne rooms. On Mondays at noon, the place is near empty except for regulars: often retired men with lots of time, money and not enough affection in their lives.
Do they really feel safe at work?
This uniquely vulnerable career of being skin-to-skin on a strangers lap has its own risks. Sometimes though, clients will open up about their deepest family scars.
Both the Kitty and Fantasia have given lap dance sessions ending in tears and a somewhat motivational pep-talk and hugs. Though it’s not usually presented as such, it’s a form of indirect therapy.
“I wish people knew how safe and fun this industry really is,” Fantasia says. “Girls go there to gain confidence or show off the confidence they already have and to build themselves up.”
Fantasia says she enjoys providing companionship to her clients when they are lonely and sad.
Kitty’s point of view is similar. At work she feels she learns about the experience of the raw human soul.
“My favourite part of my job is honestly all the things I learn,” she says. “My clients often range from criminals straight out of prison to highly educated business CEOs all in one day.”
“Because of my job clients often feel comfortable to tell me their most intimate feelings and thoughts, exposing a vulnerable and very human side to people who would usually not share those things,” Kitty says.
Despite the beauty, there is also sometimes the ugly. In the champagne rooms, clients can get too handsy.
When this happens, Kitty warns them to stop. Fantasia grabs the client’s wrists and twists them. This fun-loving-sexy-girl illusion sheds itself and is replaced with their true, unbreakable core.
“The thing that bothers me the most about my job is at times there can be some difficult clients,” Kitty says. “Often, clients will try to buy me to bring me home or do sexual favours. It’s very degrading.”
“Some clients can become very attached, try to follow you home, try to hurt you, try to buy you and try to manipulate you,” she says. “This is again why boundaries are so important in this work environment as they will be constantly tested.”
To thrive, they must learn the tricks. The good clients, luckily, outnumber the bad. And if the client doesn’t pay, they will be met with a brutal physical punishment by the muscular security guards at the door.
“A lot of the time the strip club is associated with negative things and often make people disgusted,” Kitty says. “It is dangerous and you do need to be careful but I don’t believe strip clubs are just about naked girls, partying and being sexual.”
“I think strip clubs serve a larger purpose of being therapeutic. Here people feel comfortable to be the grossest and most honest versions of themselves,” she says. “They share their deepest wishes and most painful stories and are looking for a way to connect with another person to release the burden of everything heavy on their hearts and minds. I wish people could understand how freeing it can be to be so vulnerable as both a dancer and a client.”
What does the future hold for them?
Fantasia wishes to work in the industry forever. With more strip clubs closing every year due to lessening visitors, her spirits sink.
Freshly graduated from highschool, Kitty hopes to pursue higher education someday. The situation is uncertain because her parents have last-minute declined to fund her university studies. She now lives with her boyfriend, who was once her client. She hopes to buy an apartment soon and get married.
For these girls, their future is as uncertain as their wage. They could walk out with $0 and still pay bar fee or end up with over a thousand dollars: all depending on how they hustle.
Under the strobe lights, I see Fantasia walk off stage and the men whistle and clap. I see Kitty walk up to a table and head downstairs with a client five seconds later, stilettos clicking on the stairwell to the beat of the music. I see other girls walking around slowly in strappy lingerie, their eyes scanning the room for possible clients.
At the same time, I wonder if these clients would believe me if I said Kitty and I talked until 3 a.m. last night on the concept of flawed institutions and psychology.
I wonder if these men would believe me if Fantasia had just talked about her journey of spiritual healing while we sat in the public transit to the strip club.
I wonder if these men would like the same memes that Kitty does.
I wonder what they would think if they knew Fantasia and I used to have a ‘Seal Club’ in third grade, where we obsessed and doodled cute and fluffy baby harp seals everywhere.
Most of these clients may never get the privilege to know them beyond their bodies. However, if the client and the dancers are able to bare their souls even just for a brief moment, there could be a genuine understanding that goes beyond artificial intimacy. Beyond loneliness and transcending judgement.
Perhaps this is just enough to acknowledge one another’s valuable existence, even if it’s only for the timeframe of one slow song.