The strip club occupies an almost mythical status in pop culture. It’s provided the setting for everything from The Sopranos to Showgirls and Hustlers to Zola; it’s the place where Top 40 songs are minted and fortunes can be made, if you’re savvy enough to stay ahead of the game.
The people you don’t often hear from, however, are strippers themselves – how they feel about their industry, their thoughts on punters or why they started working as a dancer in the first place.
Wanting You to Want Me aims to rectify that. Authors Bronwen Parker-Rhodes and Emily Dinsdale met while working at a strip club in the UK and were instantly drawn towards each other and the idea of capturing the “complicated beauty of this world”, as Parker-Rhodes puts it.
The duo’s collection of anonymous real-life stories from strippers working across London are accompanied by Parker-Rhodes’s photography, which transports readers into the beating heart of the club and the intimate dressing room areas where dancers gossip, get ready and hang out. “We want the reader to feel like they’re among friends,” Dinsdale explains.
“We wanted to illustrate that there isn’t just one single experience of being a stripper,” Parker-Rhodes adds. “It’s much more complicated and nuanced.”
Read on for an edited excerpt, out now on Hardie Grant. The names of clubs mentioned have been redacted as per the book.
Poppy: ‘I didn’t know anything about stripping’
My first stage show was... I didn’t know anything about stripping. I was wearing a bowler hat. I may as well have had a cane. So awful! I was doing high kicks with my hat. My mum always took me to dance classes when I was younger, so all I had in terms of dance technique was jazz, tap and musical theatre. So I really gave it some theatre on stage. And I think a lot of people must have been laughing at me. I thought I was great; you know like you do when you’re 18. But when I think back to my initial stage show – in fact, my stage shows in the first couple of years – I mean, they must have been awful. They must have been so funny to watch, proper comedy gold. I remember the audition song because it was always the same for everyone, it was that, you know, No diggity, I like the way you work it. So there I was doing the hat thing and the high kicks to “No Diggity”.
I had a guy at [redacted]. I was 18 at the time, so any money was big money to me – it was the easiest £50 ($70) I ever made. He told me he was a vampire and he had loads of rings and medallions on, he looked more like a vampire slayer if anything. He drank his bottle of beer, gave it to me and said, Fill it up with piss and I will drink it all and give you £50. So I went straight to the bathroom, I filled it up and then I watched him stare into my eyes and glug it down – then he gave me the £50 and I was like, Sweet. Easiest £50 I’ve ever made.
The reason he told me he was a vampire was that he liked menstrual blood, so he asked me if I was on my period and if he could have my tampon, but I wasn’t on. I love weird people like that.
One of my favourite clients used to come in on Wednesday daytime. Do you remember Mr. Magoo? Fred, the really old guy? He had big glasses and he was just proper filth. He was really old, like maybe nearly in his nineties. He’d come in every Wednesday and spend his pension money. He never gave me loads, but I will always remember him because he was so consistent. Every Wednesday. And all he wanted to do was, basically, you know that little private room? The one that was a singular private booth? He would sit at the end and I’d just lie on the floor with my legs spread doing my Kegels, making my pussy move. And I’d do that for maybe three songs and I’d get £60 ($80) out of it, then he’d always offer me a little mint. At the end, he’d be like, Do you want a Mento? As a character, I’ll just always remember him, even though I never made loads of money out of him.
Chiqui: ‘On the stage with a happy crowd is my most favourite place’
The first place I danced was [redacted] in Shoreditch. For me, the pub scene in London suited me better than the big clubs. It was not the most glamorous place on earth, it’s far from that, but that kind of dodgy environment somehow suited me better than a big club with leopard-print carpet and a hundred girls on a shift. So yeah, I started there and the money was okay actually, back in the day. This was in 2003. Also, let’s remember that I come from South America, so whatever money I was making, to me it was a lot.
I was coming from working in hospitality, doing bar work and stuff. So when I made money at, maybe compared to the big clubs it was nothing, but for me it was a lot. Even though the place was horrendous, it’s the only place where I really truly found a huge variety of dancers. You had big ladies, Black women, Asian girls, you even had this Bangladeshi dancer, too. So now when I look back at it, I regard it with love and compassion because of how fucking cool it was to have such a variety of girls. It’s actually one of the most diverse strip clubs I ever worked at. In fact, there was this dancer who was maybe, like, 70 years old, Mona. She was great. And I haven’t seen anything like it since then. After that it became pretty white and a lot of this doll-ish kind of look.
When I was working full time, the last thing I wanted to do was date anyone. I was so exhausted from having this chat, Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been here? You have those conversations 10 times a night in a club, so when you have time off you’re emotionally exhausted. Also, you’re being deeply performative so much, it sometimes becomes blurry when you’re actually acting and when you’re not. You’re being flirty and sassy and loving for six, nine hours a night. Now that I haven’t been dancing for well more than a year with the whole pandemic, I finally had the energy, so I went out with a guy for seven months. But the thing is, you see them so clearly, you become a lot less patient with men. I even struggle to sleep in the same bed with a guy, you know. I fuck and then I need to go home.
Maybe it’s also an age thing. I’m almost 40 now, so I guess your limits are a bit stricter but, yeah, it definitely makes you tell the good men from the bad men. I always say to guys what I do for a living straight away, and I feel like how they treat a marginalised group of women says a lot about them. I always say it pretty much on the first date. I’m like, This is what I do and it’s not going to change, because it’s such a big part of my life.
I look younger than my age, but I’ve never lied about it. Sometimes you get the ones that get really freaked out because they want the really young-looking girls, which I always found a bit creepy. But I’ve also found, for example, if there’s a father and a son, the father will go with a younger stripper and the son will go with me. I think at some point I became a source of experience for younger guys. They feel really attracted to that. So I get the occasional 20-somethings because they see you as this goddess of knowledge. But sometimes with older guys, you know, the decent ones, they feel more comfortable having a dance with me than with someone who’s 21.
I want to see more older women on stage. I want to start running workshops with women in their forties, fifties, sixties. Because I feel sexier than ever, you know, with all this wisdom and knowledge I have now. And I think it’s really cool to start breaking boundaries about who’s allowed to be sexy on stage. I’m like, Fuck it. I’m gonna be sexy on stage forever. And every time I see another woman with her tits out on stage, I’m like Fucking good for you. Let’s do it.
What’s the feeling of being on stage? I think to be honest, that’s my happy place. Out of everything in life, my most favourite moments are when I’m on stage in front of a good crowd. More than sex, more than eating, more than travelling – and I love travelling, I love going to new countries – but not even that, no. Oh, I just want to be on the fucking stage. And I want people to be having it! There’s nothing like it. That is the thing that makes me the happiest. More than anything, like even spaghetti Bolognese, which I fucking love. On the stage with a happy crowd is my most favourite place.
Wanting You to Want Me, by Bronwen Parker-Rhodes and Emily Dinsdale (Hardie Grant, £16.99) Photography © Bronwen Parker-Rhodes