Harpies, the UK's first-ever LGBTQIA+ strip club, has finally kicked open its doors after a year on pause.
Last weekend multi-coloured dollar bills emblazoned with the image of Lucia Blayke – founder of Harpies as well as London Trans+ Pride – rain down from the ceilings of their new east end location. On stage, sweat-soaked dancers flex their arsenal of pulse-racing moves at a lava-like pace up and down the pole. Hips undulate, hair whips and flicks, a packed out audience of writhing admirers erupts into applause.
This release has been a long time coming for Blayke and the Harpies family, many of whom have struggled both financially and emotionally throughout the pandemic as nightlife ground to a halt. However, the club’s return hasn’t come without a fight.
Harpie’s first launched in the height of 2019's blazing summer, when Lucia sent a powerful announcement out that she'd be taking London's outdated strip scene by storm. "Harpies will centre bodies of all genders and sexualities,” they said at the time. “But especially trans+ strippers as we aim to celebrate trans+ bodies loud and proud, to kill the shame thrust upon us by cis society!"
The concept resonated far and wide. Less than a year into the game, Harpies had locked down a spot on the London Fashion Week official schedule performing after Burberry and Vivienne Westwood. Personal invites poured in from trans women in India who were fans of Harpies and wanted to organise a multi-hotel show. A world tour was in the works. Then the pandemic struck.
Thankfully support from online streams kept most of the Harpies family going, but not everyone was as lucky. With little to no financial support from the government, sex workers found themselves without an income and without the luxury to follow the restrictions that were put in place. Sadly, the community lost some trans women in the process.
It felt like Harpies was finally rising from the ashes when plans to return to a new location in Soho – the birthplace of sex and hedonism in London – were announced in August. But they were met with yet another roadblock when the notoriously strict sexual entertainment licensing and the even more stringent Westminster council could not meet eye to eye.
Still, Lucia is no stranger to adversity, defying limitations and putting up a fierce fight when it comes to pursuing her dreams. And after some negotiation they found a new home for at The White Swan in Aldgate. Now not only is Harpies feverishly back in action but the dancers are booked and busier than ever.
High off the hype of Harpies second coming, VICE caught up with Lucia and Harpies alumni Hellikisto and Barbs, as well as Harpies new-gen Bawbiey, to talk about revolutionising the industry and what it feels like to be back stripping it all off together.
VICE: Hi everyone! How did it feel to be back on stage?
Barbs: It felt incredible to be back at Harpies. I was there at the beginning, when Lucia was just talking about it. So it’s just been really beautiful to see how Harpies has grown. It’s such a needed and unique space. We’re like this little family. You have to come to feel the queer, trans sex magic in that place, and in that party!
Hellikitso: I felt so grateful to see so many faces old and new. I felt sexy, I felt hot and it was just super reaffirming that this is exactly where I need to be. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever would have found the confidence I have now in myself if Lucia hadn’t approached me as this little shy gay boy walking around in heels and asked me to dance.
When was your first time on stage, and were you nervous?
Lucia: Unbelievably so. The good thing was that all of us were trans and none of us had danced before, so at least was that we were all shaking together. I was so scared I’d drank and done whatever I could get my hands on!
The first lap dance I ever did was for a guy and a girl. I jumped up and spun around this pole but it was in an archway with a chandelier and hit one of the lightbulbs with my head! I carried on dancing but all this blood started trickling down my face. The couple were like ‘Oh my god you’re bleeding, let’s go get you an ambulance or some help’ and I was like ‘Sit back down! You will enjoy this!’ I just carried on dancing. In the end, she finally ran off to get me a bandage and he threw in an extra £100 as a tip. He said it was the most entertaining lap dance they’d ever seen in their whole life.
Hellikitso: I was incredibly shy, but as soon as I slide down the pole and my track came on I just came alive. I was able to immerse myself in the music and it was the best high that I’ve ever felt.
How has stripping impacted your perception of your body?
Barbs: The biggest rush I get from dancing at Harpies has to be the confidence I get and the validation that my body, my gender and the way I express myself is valid and sexy and gorgeous. Even if it may be out of the mainstream of what we’re conditioned to believe is “sexy”. Harpies is a space that’s really allowed me to be my true self, be free and embrace my femininity. Also, who doesn’t love getting loads of money chucked at them? That’s probably the biggest rush!
Bawbaiy: Stripping has helped me feel and also want to be more healthy. I’ve met so many dancers who take care of themselves, eat healthily and focus on self-care and so it’s inspired me to do the same.
Lucia: I didn’t have breasts when I started stripping, and that really was something that used to make me feel insecure. I struggled a lot. But when people started giving me their hard-earned cash, I thought ‘They took the time to make this money, so that they could give it to me and admire my body’ and that finally taught me ‘Oh wait, actually, I probably can’t be that repulsive and ugly if people are parting with their money to see it’. That really was a token of self-worth for me at the beginning. Combine that with the confidence you get from all the applause and clapping and now I want to get naked everywhere! I used to have no ego before Harpies and be humble. Now, because of Harpies, I’m in love with my body.
Speaking of tits, Lucia you have a brand new beautiful pair that made their grand debut at Harpies. How did that feel?
Lucia: Like a fucking goddess! I love tits, they’re such a symbol of fun! As soon as a room full of people partying see a pair of tits they suddenly know there are no rules anymore. I suddenly feel like I have this weapon on my chest that will make a room go wild. They’re money well spent!
What would you say is the most important skill you have to posses in order to run a strip club?
Lucia: Empathy, if you can call that a skill. You need to make sure that you always view these dancers as human beings. They’re not objects. A lot of dancers come in using aliases, and that can become complex for the owner to think of them outside of this character. You have to remember, stripping is an acting job as well as a dancing job. Some girls might pretend they’re more stupid than they actually are, they might make up stories to play a part, like ‘I’m saving up to put my kids through university’. So you have to remember who they are outside of these personas. You have to be open-minded, observant and be able to read people. That includes the dancer’s emotions, as well as the customers who walk through the door. Are they good people? Are they accepting people? Are they rich people? Are they easy to sell dances too?
What’s the most important skill for a stripper to have?
Lucia: I look for an abundance of energy. It’s not just necessarily confidence, they have to have a fire. I want a dancer that’s able to go up on stage and make the whole room go silent. It’s not even about looks, having the perfect body, or being gorgeous. You can be the hottest person in the world and have no presence when you walk into a room. You can be someone who is conventionally unattractive and totally command a room – that’s who I want performing at Harpies! It’s all about the energy you give off. You have to have a flame burning underneath you that gives you the gull to know what you want, and also how to go out and get it.
Do you look for trained dancers or athletes?
Lucia: I’ve had so many professionally trained dancers come into auditions. They’ve moved their bodies in amazing ways, but I’ve been so bored. I don’t want to look at you in a strip club and think ‘Wow, you’ve danced since you were a child.’ I wanna look at you and think ‘This person is hilarious! This person is insane! This person is mysterious!’ I wanna be so intrigued that I can’t take my eyes off you.
Hellikitso: You don’t actually don’t have to be athletic at all to be a stripper. You don’t have to be twirling and doing mad tricks that people are doing on Instagram. If you feel good when you step on that stage, everything else follows. Get up there and own it! Sell everything you got and I promise you, people will buy it!
What drives you to continue being a stripper at Harpies?
Barbs: I’m so humbled to be a part of Harpies and to have this experience. Some of my fondest memories are stripping. Even when I’m old and looking back. I’ll think, ‘I was a stripper with all my other amazing queer mates and we were absolutely smashing it!’
Bawbiey: I had a trans sister, Elie Che, who passed away last year and I would not be doing this if it wasn’t for her. Whatever I’m doing in this industry and on stage, it’s for her. It’s still just the beginning for me, I’m only 20-years-old, so I’ve got a long way to go. But I’m thanking Lucia and all my fellow Harpies [dancers] for the experiences they’re giving me and the wisdom they’re sharing. I feel so strong and so loved. Dancing at Harpies and being surrounded by all these fierce strippers, as well as having my mother’s support behind me to do it, has helped me find that same strength in myself. This is my dream.
Hellikitso: You don’t have to conform to anything if you’re a stripper. No matter what you’ve gone through, just channel that and let it all out on the stage. I’ve witnessed how stripping has helped so many people with traumas heal, it’s a very good tool for that.
What’s the first song you’ll give a lap dance to?
Lucia: Private dances are my favourite. I find them so intimate. I love that feeling of being sensual with sex. I love all that build-up before and all the teasing. The actual act for me is not nearly as much of a rush. I want to want it, I don’t want to have it!
In the past, we’ve always had to dance to whatever the DJ was playing in the club. It used to piss me off, but we can change that now. The first song that I want to give a lap dance too is “Glory Box” by Portishead. I really want to play with it, especially as a trans woman. When [Beth Gibbons] sings the lines “I just wanna be a woman” – that will get a guys dick so hard!
What else can people expect from Harpies’ return?
Lucia: When you walk into Harpies, you can expect to be there with people who have wanted it more than ever. Strippers are going to get up on stage and dance like it's the last time they're going to dance in their lives. Customers are going to party like it's the last party of their lives. DJs are going to play like mad. Everybody will pour more power, energy and passion into the night than they ever did, because we lost this amazing thing once before, and we could lose it again.
No one knows where the world is headed. If we lose Harpies, then we lose the chance to revolutionise the stripping industry. I always knew that Harpies was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I didn’t think I could appreciate that club more, but I do now. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got to keep it going and give every fibre of my being to relish this amazing thing we’ve all created together!
Photos by Roxy Lee unless otherwise stated.
Interview: @luciablayke, @hellikisto, @barbs.co.uk, @bawbiey