To work as a stripper is to be involved in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world. One where dancers are encouraged to pit themselves against each other for the attention of customers. And while some come into the industry with visions of raking in thousands a night, the reality is one of an increasingly competitive environment where dancers have to become hustlers to make a decent wage.
Perhaps it's not surprising that few organizations have succeeded in bringing these women together to fight for their rights. This is where the East London Strippers Collective steps in. The group is trying to take on exploitative employment practices, provide a support network for dancers, and fight the stigma attached to the work they do. It is quite an undertaking, but one that founder Stacey Clare is happy to be tackling.
"Right when I first started dancing, I very quickly started to see the ways dancers were being exploited," she says. "I would sit in clubs, calculate how much the bar was making, how much was taken on the door, how much the barman would be paid. I would be doing sums, and I would think, Hang on a minute. The club is making all their money from us. We are the main attraction. There wouldn't be a business model if we weren't dancing. And I really quickly saw it wasn't a reciprocal relationship."
While dancers are classed as self employed, they are also subject to harsher rules than most other workers.
"If you've been working for hours, and are bored out of your nut, and you glance at your phone, you'll be fined [$30]. If you're chewing gum, another [$30]. Or you don't have exactly the right dress, same again," says Samantha, a dancer who has been with the group since its inception in April.
"We are supposed to be self employed, but we're not really. We really get the worst of both worlds," she says.
The dancers talk about owners and managers who run their clubs like personal fiefdoms. They paint a picture of a world where most managers are bullies, a culture in which the people at the top treat everyone below them as cash cows.
"You get medieval levels of maltreatment and emotional brutality. I can't count the times I've been threatened with the sack for simply questioning the shift patterns, or speaking out of turn, or not having the right outfit," Clare says.
Despite these working conditions, none of the women I talk to want to be rescued from the industry. They feel the 2003 reforms to the licensing laws, and rules introduced in 2009 that allow councils to put a block on the granting of any new licenses, have seriously damaged their working conditions. (Both laws were promoted by people claiming to care about dancers' interests.)
The changes made it easier to close down clubs, and increased the cost of a license, which can be as much as $47,000 more a year. But these prohibitive moves haven't improved conditions or helped dancers leave the industry.
As more clubs close down, and those that stay open scrape around for more money, owners ramp up house fees (the charge strippers pay for their chance to dance each night) and cram more and more girls into clubs, regardless of how many customers come through the door.
Collective member Suzi says that when she started stripping 12 years ago, only around one third of clubs in London offered private dancing, with the rest only featuring dancers on stage. Now not a single venue operates under that model.
"That means it becomes more and more of a sales job, with girls fighting it out for private dances. It kills the creative side of it, which is a lot of the appeal for dancers and customers," she says. "I used to do one routine to 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' by Kylie [Minogue] where I would put on fake tattoos and get properly dressed up, put a lot of effort in. But you can't do that if you've got to get straight off stage and be hustling on the floor. Now it's just girls in easy-on easy-off mini-dresses."
Increasingly there is a feeling that as clubs struggle to get by they see the house fees as a way to prop up their revenues.
"It's actually genius when you think about it. Your workers are paying you to work for them," says Samantha. "At some of the big clubs, there's always the chance you can leave with nothing. There's this hope you will leave with a grand tonight, but that's very rare, and you're constantly chasing it. Most nights there are more girls than guys, and you are left running after customers for money."
The collective wants house fees to be capped, and a contract to be drawn up by clubs that clearly lays out the charges, while also promising to consult dancers on any changes. But the group is also taking matters into its own hands, with plans to develop a database, open to all dancers and customers, that will reveal how much they are made to pay in each club.
Clare wants to see house fees reserved for improvements such as better changing facilities rather than going into owners' pockets. "Often the front of these clubs can be made up like [reality TV star] Katie Price's wet dream, but the backstage areas are horribly run down," she says. "I remember the toilet in this one club that was disgusting, with one girl puking in the toilet and another having to piss in the sink while others got changed in there. It was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting."
Suzi backs up this impression: "If you are feeling under the weather, there is a choice of cancelling your shift and usually getting fined (either financially or in the shape of having another shift taken away) or coming to work somewhere with rain coming in through the toilet ceiling [where you're expected to change] with no heating, and risking making yourself more ill. But if you complain about the conditions, you get fired."
Even if there are proper dressing rooms, the chances are there are 20 girls crammed into what was designed for five, she tells me.
But uniting strippers to stand up to their bosses can prove difficult. Clare recounts an experience at a club in Newcastle that demonstrated to her how disempowered dancers are. "The manager at this place was a real brute. We were working the Saturday afternoon shift and dances were just [$5]. We made OK money, but at the end of the shift, we all got wind that he wanted 50 [bucks] off each of us, and we decided together that we wouldn't pay it. We would make a stand.
"When he opened the hatch into the changing room as usual and we all lined up to pay, the atmosphere was so tense. But everyone silently did as they were told, because everyone realized that the reality was that ten people would be sacked otherwise."
Another collective member, Zoe, who now works in a small Shoreditch club, tells me about her time at one of the large West End venues: "It can be very hard to organize and even make friends. There are so many girls and you are so agitated and so worried the whole time. I remember being in a panic every day at work, thinking, I'm not going to make any money. I don't have time to [make] friends with these girls, let alone organize."
But the collective has succeeded in bringing some dancers together and is working to get its voice out there. It plans to hold its first public meeting at the Bell in Aldgate on November 20.
It's important, Samantha says, to have a collective voice. "When the licensing changes came in, the industry was represented by Peter Stringfellow. Come on, we really don't want him representing us because, let's face it, he is ridiculous and doesn't have our interests at heart. No one consulted us and asked us what needs to be improved. But we are now ready to provide a voice and say, 'No, actually you need to listen to us. We are the ones who work in the industry.'"
This lack of consultation has meant that the smaller clubs, where conditions are often better, get closed down, Samantha says: "Moral campaigners have no idea which are the clubs that need to be closed down, where poor practices are going on. They just oppose them on moral grounds."
But for some of the women involved, the collective is largely about changing public attitudes towards their work. For Zoe, casting off the stigma is the main reason she joined the collective. "Having to hide what I do from people constantly is really not nice," she says. "When I had a day job as well, I'd constantly be lying and covering my tracks. And moving on to another career is really hard. What do I put on my [resume] for the time I've spent dancing?"
The collective is also looking to lead by example by holding its own pop-up events. They want to show what clubs could be like. No hustling, no pressure, no house fees. To allow dancers to be more creative and to attract the audience that they want. Their success would mean happy dancers and a happy audience, they say.
Clare goes further and says that she would eventually like to set up a cooperative strip club run by the girls, for the girls: "I think that this would create a culture of respect and reciprocity. You would attract a different audience. If we were to create this club and attract dancers from all over the world, who have worked for years in shit clubs, and they came to a club where they experience appreciation in a work environment that supports them and encourages them to flourish, that would be a beacon."
But there have been previous efforts to organize dancers in London. Every ten years or so, Suzi tells me, there is a push. None have achieved a great deal. She believes this time is different: "This is the first time anything like this has been attempted in the age of social media. We can connect with so many more girls in a way that we never could before. That's going to make a big difference." For the sake of Britain's beleaguered strippers, let's hope she's right.