Stripping definitely has a reputation as being on the shadowy side of professions, so it comes as no surprise the misconceptions surrounding women who pursue a career in stripping are plentiful.
Although there might be some truth to these clichés, the women who strip for their own happiness or the women who simply feel empowered by what they do, are not nearly as well recognised.
However, times are changing as more and more women in the industry are on a mission to break the stereotypes, change stigmatisation and speak out about matters surrounding erotic dancing.
On the second floor of an East London pub lies a venue that was once home to strippers and showgirls. Back in the days, the Filthy Fanny’s, a room in the upper story of The Crown and Shuttle, was packed with entertainers from comedians to live bands, all there to amuse rowdy boozers.
Today, however, the venue has been given a different purpose. The ex-strip pub now holds life drawing classes in collaboration with the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC) – a self-organisation of strippers and lap dancers that aim to “challenge societal attitudes towards strip club activity by uniting performers, creating their own working conditions and empowering dancers”.
“I’ve been a stripper myself for over ten years, and I also did a Fine Arts Degree at Glasgow School of Art. I had the idea to combine life drawing with pole dancing when I was a student and attended some intensive life drawing classes where the tutor was getting the model to move around and inviting us to capture movement. I thought to myself ‘hang on, we could put up a pole in here and do this with a pole dancer’. I tried it, and the project was a huge success.” says Stacey Clare, founder of the ELSC and the life drawing class.
In front of professional artists, designers, sketchers, illustrators, animators and doodlers, strippers perform what the ELSC calls a “strip-freeze” – a striptease routine where the model, a stripper, will stop her dancing for one minute and pose for the class to capture her on paper.
As time goes by, and the model has removed all of her clothing, she will do longer and less demanding poses, ranging from five to ten minutes. This final part of the evening provides a more traditional approach to life drawing classes where artists have a chance to capture the model’s body and face in detail.
Having never witnessed a “real” striptease before, and only having been to a regular life drawing classes where models don’t tend to do stripteases, I instantly felt curious when I heard about the event. As it turns out, the class is really popular, and spaces are limited – I had to wait two weeks for a spot on the Monday evening class to open up.
“You only have to look at Matisse’s dances and read a bit about the relationship between artist and muse to see why these classes have become so popular. It’s like the latest instalment of a historical tradition, and we are very happy to have hit upon something genuinely unique. As far as I know there has not been another class like this one in the world,” says Clare, explaining the popularity of the classes.
It’s finally Monday, and I’m in the venue, ready to draw a stripper. Sat down in a dimly-lit room, surrounded by people of all ages and ethnicities, I watch as a woman in high heels walks in. With drawing-pads in our laps and pens in our hands, me and 20 others people observe her as she takes smooth steps towards the metallic pole in the centre of the room.
The stereo is now blasting sensual tunes by Christina Aguilera, and it’s obvious the class is about to start. Wearing a tube top over her bum and breasts, and her curly hair let loose, she begins the tease. She dances slowly around the room, occasionally rubbing her hands over her body or hooking her leg around the pole.
The music intensifies, and much like a cat, she moves around erotically, curving her body just inches away from her audience. The atmosphere in the room is pressing, and her body becomes the centre of attention. As she slides on to her knees, arches her back and becomes one with the music, we’re awakened from what feels like a trance.
“Freeze!” The class-leader calls out – it’s time for the model to strike a pose. She’s still fully clothed and has now made her way up the pole, almost touching the ceiling. With her legs spread apart, she holds on to the pole with her muscular arms as we begin drawing.
Watching her is the easy part. Translating her body onto paper is a lot harder than expected. I consider myself a decent drawer, but life drawing is truly something else. You are challenged by the limited time you have and the fact that there’s an actual person with wrinkles, hair, toes and moles that you need to draw. I have barely finished drawing her arms and legs when she makes her way down to the floor again and continues her dance.
Once the first section of the class is over people make their way downstairs to buy drinks and snacks, before the session resumes. It’s almost as if the vibe in the room has changed. There are no avoiding eyes and bowed heads in the room anymore. The obvious awkward feeling once evident is gone as we’re all now comfortable watching the model’s naked body. We know what everything looks like, and it’s OK to stare – I mean, that’s what we’re here for.
The second half goes by quickly. The model, now fully naked, does longer and more comfortable poses. Some of them she does on the floor, either lying on pillows and a sheep’s wool blanket or sitting comfortably on a bar stool. At the end of the class, the model chooses three people to whom she performs a lap-dance. This allows the class a chance to draw the model interacting with another person.
What I believe makes watching a woman performing a striptease so enjoyable, is the confidence that she has within herself. She’s aware of her own body and knows she looks great and holds power over her audience. Just by moving a certain way makes that confidence reflect all over. It’s also the fact that someone is so comfortable with themselves that makes it so fun to watch.
After class I have the chance to sit down with Bex, the model, to discuss pros and cons of being a stripper, the stereotypical customer at strip clubs and advice for people who are interested in taking it up.
How did you get into stripping?
I trained as a dancer in the UK. I got involved with all kinds of performers and just found it suited me. I was 21 years-old when I started out in Paris, where I ended up dancing for a year. I had tried doing 9-to-5 jobs, but it just wasn’t a good fit for me.
How did your parents react to you working as a stripper in Paris?
My parents are pretty liberal, so they didn’t react a lot. They’re actually crazier than me. I know some girls end up lying to their parents but I just never felt like I had to lie about it. I rang my mum earlier, and she said what are you up to, and I told her about the life drawing class, and she was like “Oh that’s so nice!”.
Why do you do the life drawing class?
Well, it’s my first time today! I’ve been in touch with the ELSC for a while now, they have great events and stuff. I’m kind of someone who goes for new experiences. I try to just say yes to things that sit well with me.
How does the monetary side of stripping work?
We’re self-employed. The system depends very much on the club – some clubs charge a high house fee on entry. It could be £80 or £100 even. Some of those clubs have a toxic atmosphere. There are however many clubs that will charge you like £20 pounds, and after that what you make is your own money. I’ve made up to £8,000 a month, but the least I’ve made is £2,000 to £3,000. If you want to make better money, you have to stick in it and become quite regular with it [stripping]. Sometimes you make nothing, or you can make £2,000 a night – it’s totally random.
What is the best part of stripping?
You get so much confidence from being a stripper, and you do learn a lot of skills. I love the freedom that it gives me to work when I want to work, and the freedom it gives me to do other things. I also like the social element of it. There’s probably people that would assume were just really bitchy with each other, but actually, I’ve made some amazing friends. The female camaraderie in some clubs is excellent. Also, I just fucking like getting dressed up. The glamming up is fun and the performing is a fucking laugh. Especially when it’s going well for you and you’ve got those fucking lashes on, your hairs done, the glitter and you’re like “Ta-Daa!” It’s a laugh.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The bad parts of the job is certain ways some clubs run. You have some clubs where managers get an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Managers at a lot of clubs tend to be men and obviously we’re women, so you’re thinking “I came here to strip because I want to do what I want as a woman.” Sometimes clubs will try to figure out how they get more money out of us and take more commission.
What about health insurance?
If you’re sick, you’re sick. If you get an injury – tough shit.
How do people usually react when you tell them what you do for a living?
I don’t know what people say behind my back, but most people are really fascinated and full of questions. Often it’s women that are more interested than men. A lot of women do come into strip clubs, and they like watching the women and think “Ohh how does that work?” Half of them I think are interested in starting themselves.
Who can become a stripper?
A lot of strippers are quite feisty characters, and it takes a lot of bollocks to start. You have to be quite a character.
What about being in a relationship as a stripper?
It can be a little bit hard to get into relationships. You know how it is when you got a boyfriend and you’re not getting along with his friends, that’s [stripping] going to be the first excuse, like “Oh well she’s a stripper” you know. A guy who did have a problem with it [stripping], I think it was because I was making more money than him. If the trust starts failing in a relationship they might think there’s something going on at work. It’s not about your work. Whether you work or whether you’re going out with your mates, they’re not going to trust you anyway.
What are the most common misconceptions about strippers?
The first one is that we’re like absolute sluts. We’re not, we just like being naked and sexually expressive. Or that we’re all completely fucked up. Of course, some of us are fucked up, but we’re not all fucked up. There’s girls with brains and creative people, we’re not just a bunch of losers, we really are not. Also that we’re greedy gold diggers, maybe we are (she laughs). I don’t know. Of course, everyone likes money.
Describe a normal work day?
I usually like to do my make-up at work. It’s part of my ritual of getting ready and getting into the role. I probably do my make-up for about half-an-hour, have a gossip in the changing room, faff around, make myself a cup of tea. Then I kind of get myself on to the floor and make sure I’m present in the moment and get into where I am. If your head’s somewhere else and if you’re off thinking about a thousand other things you’re probably not going to make any money that night. You have to be present and listening to people. Then I’ll see who else is in that I can potentially work with that night. I’ll look at whoever comes in and whoever’s closest to the table. Private shows you do separately. People pay you buy a dance, or they can pay you buy time. Contrary to what people think, there are a lot of times when people just chat to you.
Do you get money thrown at you or put in your panties?
Not in the UK. We do have a jug collection for money, but throwing one pound coins would be a bit hard.
Who goes to strip clubs?
Everyone. Gay guys, straight guys, straight women, gay women, rich people, poor people, fat people, thin people, Asian people, fucking every kind of people.
What about fat, rich men?
I wish there was more of them! They’re great spenders. When you get a fat rich guy through the door, it’s amazing. When the dirty old men come in I’m like great. Half the time they want to fucking sit and chat bollocks about their ex-wife.
Advice for someone who wants to start stripping?
Pick a club that’s decent and speak to girls who are already in the industry about what kind of outfits you need to get, also some kind of hustling tips on how to approach customers. You need to take care of your appearance, you have to be presentable and in shape. It’s a physical job. Don’t get too drunk on the job – nobody likes that. Also, don’t bother lying about it. When people lie to their friends and family, I think it creates a burden on people. Fucking own it.
You can follow the ELSC on their facebook page, and the life drawing class’s Instagram @lifedrawingwithelsc
All images by Sara Silvennoinen