After a huge opening weekend and Oscar buzz for producer/star Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers—a film written by, directed by, and starring a cast full of women—is shaping up to be a bonafide success. That it's a story about sex workers is also important, as the sex work community has frequently been shamed, misinterpreted, or otherwise disregarded by Hollywood, as is often the case in real life.
This is why some people are now questioning the fact that the dancers of Show Palace in New York's Long Island City were not compensated for lost wages for the five days Hustlers spent filming inside, effectively closing the club for a good portion of one week last year.
The production company for Hustlers rented out Show Palace—where they had scouted for actors as well—for five days in April 2019, according to people who work there. As few as three employees were cast in the film. Dancers who weren't hired by the production were unable to work during those days, and told VICE that Show Palace did not compensate them. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria confirmed this in an Instagram post on Monday, the same day a Daily Beast piece mentioned lost wages in the second-to-last paragraph. One dancer said she lost thousands of dollars as a result. Sex work advocates say that even though dancers are independent contractors who aren't legally owed wages, the club still should have paid them.
Show Palace, Scafaria, and Sunshine Sachs, the PR agency that reps the film, have not responded to VICE's requests for comment.
Two Show Palace dancers and a manager were cast in Hustlers, according to Ashley Neal, who played Georgia in the film. Neal told VICE she's worked at Show Palace for a little over a year and was still fairly new when the auditions happened, and she was surprised but thrilled to be cast in the film as Georgia, a dancer alongside J.Lo, Constance Wu, Lizzo, and former dancers Cardi B and Trace Lysette.
"There's actually a lot of backlash online saying that the girls were not paid," Neal acknowledged, "just a lot of angry comments. But you know at Show Palace, I feel like the girls are so excited for it. They were really happy."
Suzana Mae, another Show Palace dancer who wasn't in the film, told VICE she likely lost out on $2,000 to $4,000 during the five-day period the film shot at the club.
"No, I was not compensated and there was really nothing we can do as dancers. We have no say," she said, adding that she thinks they should form a union.
This is only one illustration of they many ways sex workers are denied workers’ rights; they are also routinely banned from social media and payment platforms for selling access to private pornographic accounts or, in some cases, workers say they've been reported simply for being a sex worker and that they haven't violated any content rules.
Melissa Sontag Broudo, co-founder and co-executive director of the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute that advocates for sex workers, said that because dancers are classified as independent contractors, they aren't legally owed lost wages.
"But the point is that dancers are often treated like employees and told they're not allowed to work at other clubs or they have to work certain shifts, or can only work certain days, and so they're sort of bound by rules [that] only employees are bound by, and could potentially lose other economic opportunities," Sontag Broudo told VICE.
Another Show Palace dancer, MJ, said she wasn't affected by filming because she dances Fridays and Saturdays only— Hustlers shot Sunday through Thursday. She said she didn't sense any of her coworkers being upset. "Show P isn't the only club," she said.
Still, Sontag Broudo said that even when a club doesn't have an exclusivity agreement with dancers, finding work on such short notice isn't feasible.
"If they generally just work at that club, even if they're not prohibited from working other clubs, they're not going to have the time and energy to go and interview at a million other places just for a couple-day period," she said. "So even if functionally the club is like, 'They could have gone to work elsewhere, I don't know what to tell you,' that's a financial and logistical hurdle as well. Probably a pretty significant one."
Mae said the club notified the dancers that filming would take place just days before crews arrived, but she said Show Palace didn't tell them they wouldn't be able to work.
"They [said] don't come to work [un]til next week. Everybody had to find out by word [of] mouth. No[t] really an announcement," she said.
"Yeah, I mean I guess it is unfair for them because they didn't know anything about it," Neal said about her co-workers at Show Palace. "Like they just know work was going to be closed for a week."
Scafaria, the director, posted on Instagram Monday encouraging fans of the film to visit Show Palace and support the women who work there since, as she wrote, people lost out on wages.
"We tried to employ strippers and sex workers in front of and behind the camera," she wrote, "and cast as many dancers from SHOW PALACE NY as we could, as background and in speaking roles, but for those dancers who weren’t cast, they were without work and compensation for 5 days and I’m personally so sorry. I vow to visit SHOW PALACE every time I’m in NY and $how you my gratitude."
As mentioned in a Daily Beast piece published Monday, Scafaria and Hustlers consultant/star Jacq the Stripper recently returned to Show Palace with a few other professional dancers, including Gizelle Marie, a sex work activist who also launched the New York Stripper Strike. "Jacq is holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a clear purse that shows off a huge wad of cash inside it," the Beast details. "She wants to spend all of it tonight 'to redistribute the money the strippers lost out on during the week the [Show Palace] was closed for Hustlers’ filming." Nearby, "sitting in a leather chair holding a fat stack of bills" is Scafaria, lamenting that she couldn’t hire all of the Show Palace dancers to appear in the film.
"Because we’re independent contractors, when a club rents their space out, owners take a handsome buy-out but the dancers never see any of that cash," Jacq wrote on an Instagram post of her own, encouraging people to visit Show Palace. "Let’s invest in the hard-working women who hustle tirelessly and inspire your movies, fashion, and thirst traps. Let’s take our dollars back to the club."
Marie wrote on Twitter, "If anyone is to be at fault it’s not the production team. It’s the club itself that should be at fault for not making sure that women were at least compensated in some way."
Mae has seen Hustlers ("I expected Cardi B to be shown more, but I guess J.Lo was the star"), but while Show Palace is regularly packed, she said she doesn't see any financial benefit from the film having shot there.
"Show Palace is a great club. People are used to coming and having not to show off or ball," she said. "So even if we get more customers, they'll be like watching a free movie. Not really tipping. Like the place has been packed with hundreds of people, and barely anyone tipping."
Mae wasn't working the night Scafaria came in with Jacq, Gizelle, and other dancers Valley Latini, SX Noir, and ButterflyMush last week, but Neal was.
"They were absolutely amazing," Neal said. "Everyone was in awe, like literally just crowding around and taking pictures and just having so much fun, and you know they're just supporting you. They're not making you jump up and down for a job. They're there. They were tipping; they were tipping well."
Mae said that kind of energy hasn't been reflected in the day-to-day at Show Palace, and she said she would have appreciated more inclusion of the women who work at the club, who were ultimately put out of thousands of dollars.
"I know I was," she said when asked if any of the dancers were upset. "Would've been nice to at least be extras in the back if they were going to take a few days away from work to film."
"FIlm shoots pay extremely well. Extremely well!" Sontag Broudo said. "And so at least from an equity standpoint, [the club should] be like 'Oh, we're going to share this around.' Maybe not equally, but certainly give out a certain percentage, especially to compensate the women for the time they're not able to work."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.