Strip down to your underwear and get up on stage,” barked Rebecca. I took a deep breath and steeled myself. This was the moment I’d been preparing for, the reason I’d purchased a new bra and matching underwear. Rebecca was the dancer manager responsible for hiring the strippers (excuse me, dancers) of an upmarket “gentlemen’s club” in the red-light district.
This was the first time I’d ever been in a strip club. No music was playing and an eerie silence filled the space around me, along with the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke.
I felt like an imposter, as if I was getting away with something (which I guess, given my age, I really was).
She flicked a few switches and the club transformed into a mystical dark pit, with sparkling red and pink lights that cast beautiful, swirling patterns across the stage. The poles gleamed and music flowed out of speakers in the ceiling. It was time.
“Now,” said Rebecca. I looked around, completely stricken. I was 17 and had no idea what to do. I was here on a day between two of my final year-12 exams – a pimply redhead with a plethora of freckles and skin so white it was practically translucent. This was a long way from the exam room, where I had been writing essays only the day before.
The other girls in my group were undressing and climbing onto the different stages. I took a deep breath, and clambered up, gripping the pole tightly with both hands and beginning to sway my hips to the beat. The girl nearest to me, Jasmine, had worked as a stripper before, so I watched her closely, trying my best to emulate how she moved.
“When you feel ready, take your tops off so we can see your boobs.” Aware I was being judged, but not entirely sure under what criteria, I waited until Jasmine “felt ready”, took her top off, and began gently rubbing her (fake) DD boobs. Feeling awkward and unsure, I unhooked my Target bra and did my best to copy what she was doing. A couple of minutes later, it was over. The lights back on, we dressed and lined up in front of Rebecca for our evaluation.
“Fake tan,” she said to me.
“Now, let’s get your names down for some shifts, ladies. What do each of you want to be called?”
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Deciding on your stripper name is a rite of passage. Once you pick one, you are pretty much stuck with it for your entire career, because you develop a following of loyal customers who ask after you by name.
I’d already chosen my name: Amber.
“Sorry,” Rebecca said, “we already have an Amber.”
Undeterred, I tried my second choice – Amy.
“Sorry, Amy is taken, too.”
Crestfallen, I tried my real name – Emma.
“Nope, we have an Emma.”
What? I couldn’t even use my real name?
“Fine,” I said, giving up in frustration.
“You give me a name. Something small, cute and bouncy.” Rebecca paused for a second, and looked me up and down.
“How about … Suzie?”
“Suzie.” I turned the name over in my mind before nodding slowly. I can work with Suzie.
I showed up early for my first shift after the audition. Too early – the club wasn’t even open yet. I wandered through the dingier parts of the redlight district to kill time, fingering the fabric of the barely there outfits in sex shops, staring at the working girls on the street corners and looking at the flashing neon lights, thinking, “I’m part of this now.”
I still couldn’t quite believe it. I felt like an imposter, as if I was getting away with something (which I guess, given my age, I really was).
At the club, amid the clouds of hairspray and body glitter, I introduced myself to the other dancers, and told them if they saw me doing anything wrong, could they please stop me. It was very important to me that I was a “good” stripper. That I got this “right”.
They nodded vaguely as I stared enviously at their towering stilettos and sexy lycra dresses. I was an awkward, pale child, wearing knee-high lace-up boots and a tight black dress I’d bought for $1 at a secondhand store, standing in a room full of bronzed, blonde goddesses with amazing boobs and bodies. My eyelids were filled in with blue eye shadow, my mouth painted a garish shade of red. At least I’d lashed out on a “proper” stripping bra and G-string (with side clips for easy removal), made of black spider-web mesh.
“I can do this,” I repeated silently to myself, as I danced onstage for my first podium, where customers put tipping dollars into my garter.
I tried my best to remember a few of Jasmine’s body movements at my audition. I kept repeating to myself: I’m hot; I’m gorgeous; I can do this. I befriended a group of four men sitting close to the stage, who were delighted to learn this was not only my first night – but my first podium! They called it my “initiation” and, as I clambered down from the stage, they formed a protective circle around me and herded me to reception to book me for my first private show – known within the club as a “Private”.
A security guard walked us down a dimly lit corridor to an empty room that was to be mine for the 15-minute show. “No touching, you understand?” the security guard said. “You keep yourselves one metre away from her at all times. I will be watching.” On his way out, he locked eyes with me, asking if I was okay. I nodded gamely, hoping I looked a lot braver than I felt.
I writhed around onstage, played with my boobs and parted my legs for them. I was still working part-time in the gift-wrapping department of a large store. In that job, I wrapped presents. At the club, I was the present. I unwrapped myself and showed men parts of my body. I had no qualms about showing my private parts.
They told me my body was beautiful and said those magic words, “You’re doing great.”
At the end of the group show, Hawaiian Shirt said he would like to book me for another show – just me and him. At first I was happy. Then I felt worried. I only had a limited repertoire of sexy moves; he was just going to see the same thing.
He did and he didn’t care, booking me for a third dance. Then one of the other guys booked me. I did the same show. Then another guy, then Hawaiian Shirt again.
By the time I’d performed the same striptease for each of those four men, my 15-minute routine was down pat and I knew that not only could I do this, but I could also be good at it. Really good.
I was smiling to myself on my way back to the change room to freshen up after that first wave of Privates, when familiar white dots started dancing in front of my eyes. Not now.
I couldn’t have a migraine. But I was called on stage just as the long icy fingers of pain started snaking their way up the back of my skull. I only just made it through my 15-minute podium before stumbling upstairs and emptying my guts into the toilet.
I explained myself and my migraine to the receptionist, who granted me an early mark. I was stunned when she slid a pile of $50 notes into my hand. Despite only completing half a shift, I had made $357. To my 17-year-old self, this was a small fortune! And it would vastly speed up saving for an apartment deposit.
There are serious perks to working in “gentlemen’s clubs”. Firstly, the compliments – any lingering issues I may have had about my body were quickly dispersed. Men complimented my pale skin, little pot belly and natural boobs.
The money was (usually) great and I had conversations with some very successful men. I enjoyed the chatting almost as much as I loved the performing. I was not a “wham bam, thank you ma’am” kind of stripper. I wanted to get to know my customers.
Despite it being against the rules, I did occasionally venture out of the club with regular customers. Freddy was a high roller who paid for you to sit at his table in the Diamond Room and entertain his friends during his extravagant client luncheons.
The Diamond Room was the function room of the club, where customers paid a premium to be served elaborate seafood platters and to watch full-nude shows performed by showgirls.
For us “regular” girls, nudity was compulsory on podiums in the Diamond Room, which made selling Privates a challenge – you had to try and convince a customer to pay for what he’d already seen for free.
Sometimes Freddy took a bunch of us girls out with him in the evening – we got paid $500 each. Often it was a scramble in the change room, as we pooled clothing resources to put together an appropriate outfit.
The camaraderie in a strip-club change room is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Toilet doors were never closed so we chatted while we were peeing, and sometimes we were booked together for double shows (where a customer booked two girls at once). This meant we got to know the intimate details of each other’s bodies – but often very little about our real lives outside the club.
I sometimes eavesdropped on the other dancers – some of the girls flatted together and the change room was like a naked version of Flatmate Finders. I guess it was easier than trying to explain your irregular hours, unusual clothes and lifestyle to a “normal” flatmate. I was still living at home. Mum thought I was waiting tables at a 24-hour cafe in the city.
One night, two of the girls were discussing the rent on a luxury apartment that they were proposing to rent together. “It’s $800 a week. So $400 each.”
“Oh my god, that’s eight Privates, just to cover the rent!” (Everything in the stripper economy is calculated in “How many Privates?” “I love that dress. Ah, it’s just three Privates! I’ll take it!”)
I was quietly horrified at the idea of blowing that much cash on rent. I was still dedicated to my mission of being a property owner. I was pretty sure $400 a week would more than cover a mortgage repayment on a modest apartment in outer Sydney. With my sights set on a mortgage (and paying it off as quickly as possible), I settled into life at the club.
This is an edited extract from The Stripper Next Door (New Holland Publishers).