It’s lunchtime on an unseasonably warm Monday at a strip pub in east London. Every window is blacked out by grills and the space is eerily quiet. Aside from two flat screen TVs playing Sky Movies previews either side of a stage with two poles, the pub looks like part of The Great Gatsby film set: all art deco mirrors and plush seats.
The audience is made up of three lone middle-aged men, nursing pints and deliberating over where to sit before deciding to leave one or two seats between them and the stage. The women come out offering private dances – usually £20 – at a discounted £15 daytime price.
One dancer walks around the tables with a dimpled pint glass to collect the mandatory £1 fee from all four of us in the audience, before she gets on stage to perform. Neon lights come on and she dances slowly to Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”, taking off her underwear and bending over as the song comes to an end.
Right now, the UK strip club industry is in flux, up against a relentless stream of club closures – most recently The Windmill in Soho, which will undergo a £10 million refurb to become a high-end cocktail bar. On top of that, earlier this year, pressure group Not Buying It were accused by trade union United Voices of the World of sending secret cameras into strip clubs, putting dancers’ livelihoods and safety at risk. (Not Buying It denied the allegations when asked for comment by Dazed.) In addition to these political pressures, the financial strain of Brexit – and before that, the recession – have also negatively impacted dancers’ earnings. Research published in 2015 by the University of Leeds found that strip club workers’ average income per shift has dropped since the economic crisis in 2008, with dancers making “an average of £284 in [their] first clubs to £232 in their current club.”
“The industry is very different to how it used to be,” Chloe*, one of the dancers at the strip pub, tells me. “There’s not the same amount of money going around because of economic, financial crisis stuff. People aren’t making the same money that they used to.”
Sassy*, who has been dancing at strip clubs and pubs in the UK for over a decade, has a similar view of the industry, post-Brexit. “If we don’t have businessmen coming here on short trips then we’ve lost out on one of our biggest revenue streams,” she says. I spoke to a number of other dancers about what these pressures mean for them on the day-to-day, from dealing with house fees and tips to private dances. With all of the financial and political obstacles facing the industry, how hard is it for Britain’s strip club dancers to earn a fair wage for their work?
Chloe started working at strip clubs in her native Australia, taking it on as a second job alongside managing a bar, to pay off credit card debts when she was in her twenties. Since then, she’s danced in different clubs across Canada and the US, before moving to London. “I’ve been dancing for a long time at a lot of places. I know how to work, but I’m not making the amount of money that I should, getting naked for strangers at one in the afternoon,” she tells me over the phone. “You know, you would kind of hope that you’re making more than you would at a minimum wage job.”
Chloe found the transition to dancing in England the hardest of all. Tip culture doesn’t work the same way here as in the Atlanta club scenes you might take as a given from music videos, with dollar bills cascading over the stage and dancers counting up their bundles of cash. After all, making it rain with pound coins would probably get you done for assault. "I love everything about it, but I make fuck-all money,” Chloe says. Part of the reason for this is that strip pubs operate differently to strip clubs. You can walk into a strip pub for free, as you would a normal pub, and pay a nominal audience fee (at the strip pub I visited, it’s £1 each time a dancer gets on stage) to see women dance. As a result, strip pubs often attract those who don’t want to spend money, which impacts how much dancers can earn.
“[Customers] can come in and buy a drink and sit down and hand out a few pounds for as long as they want to stay,” explains Chloe. “They can spend £3 to £4 every half an hour and see girls fully nude on stage. They don’t have to come in and give away £20 every time they want to see a girl get naked.”
Aside from the audience fees, which Chloe thought were “truly bizarre when I first started,” but now sees as a valuable way to make contact with customers, private dances are how women working in both strip pubs and clubs make the majority of their money. But if it’s a quiet weekday lunchtime, many struggle to make any money at all.
Roxy*, 23, has been dancing at the strip pub I visited for a year and a half, so I ask her about how a typical Monday lunch shift goes. “You’re unlikely to make loads, but you could,” she says. “Although there could be one dude there who for some reason wants to give you a bunch of money. I do have one or two [regulars] who probably spend too much of their income on me,” she adds. “There’s one dude in particular. I saw him on a Monday night, then again on the Tuesday lunch shift and he went to a meeting and came back around 4PM. He was basically paying for my shifts that week.”
When I speak to Roxy over the phone, she’s in the middle of figuring out her taxes – she and her boyfriend are planning to take out a mortgage to buy a house. She tells me that she can make about £1,000 in her standard 22-hour week. “That’s about £40 per hour, which is pretty good. It’s not easy money, but you could definitely make more as well.”
But before dancers can even get on stage at a strip club or pub, they have to pay the management a “house fee”: essentially, rent for the pole and stage. House fees vary from venue to venue, and are dependent on the time of day; higher on a Friday night, when more people are out, and lower during the day. As dancers are self-employed, there aren’t concrete stats on the average house fee in the UK, but Roxy says her pub is reasonable: “Monday lunch is, like, £20 to work, which is super cheap. The most expensive is Saturday night which is £90.”
Most establishments will make dancers pay a house fee even if they don’t make any money during their shift, and that money goes straight to the club. Many clubs also take commission from dancers’ earnings. Roxy tells me that a different strip pub in east London takes commission from every dance. “You have to give them £5 from each dance, which I found quite annoying.” Even without commission, the women I spoke to all agreed that the people who get the best deal from being in the strip club industry are the club owners. “One of the girls worked out that from our house fees alone, our club makes £2 million each year. That’s untaxed, unwritten-up cash which we hand over whenever we do a shift,” Chloe says.
Can a UK strip club dancer ever hope to make the stacks of notes you see referenced in videos and wider American pop culture? “I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to be rich, I just wanted more money than the £8 per hour I was earning waitressing,“ Roxy says. "I was making more money at a younger age than if I had just gone straight from university into a graduate job, like other people did. But as the years go on, you’re earning less than they would earn. Here, there’s no such thing as promotion.”
"I’ve been dancing for a long time at a lot of places. You would kind of hope you’re making more here than you would at a minimum wage job" – Chloe, east London
But Sassy has a different take. “If you’re willing to travel to clubs where they hold sporting events – Cheltenham, Ascot or Cardiff – to work for three nights in a row, you could get that money people mythologise about,” she says. “If you’re a bread-and-butter stripper and you work in only one club, you’re not going to make as much, but it is relatively easy to get a job there.”
However, she adds that dancing comes with expenses that can’t be overlooked. “There’s paying for food whilst you’re on shift, and getting a taxi late at night when you’re finished can come to just under £100,” she says. “I can live comfortably because I’ve got quite good hustle and I’m good with customers. But I would say that it’s not a good stream of money for everyone.”
Even dancers like Sassy can struggle to earn when faced with Britain’s lacking tipping culture. Chloe excitedly tells me of the hundreds of dollars she could easily make in the States from stage shows alone. “I used to have one regular customer: we’d eat together, chat, chill, and hang out. I still don’t know his name; he used to make me call him 'Daddy.' Every time I got on stage, he would throw hundreds of $1 bills on the stage, and that’s how most of my nights went.” she says. “It’s so much more of a culture there, I don’t know what it is that customers enjoy about [tipping] in the States, but it’s such a thing.”
Britain’s strip club industry isn’t all bleak. Every other month at east London strip club For Your Eyes Only, womxn-run events company Lick Events holds a takeover night that prioritises the wellbeing of both dancers and their audiences.
Describing the event as a “a nawty night like no other,” Lick Events organisers don’t charge commission from dancers, allowing them to take home everything they make on the night. Lick is also working to eradicate the £30 house fee imposed by the club, and offers help to dancers who can’t afford to pay it. Attendees purchase novelty dollar bills, called “Licks”, for £1 each, and use these to tip dancers, who exchange the vouchers for real cash at the end of the night.
Lick Events founder and former stripper Teddy Edwards tells me that mimicking the tipping culture of American clubs was essential for both creating a positive atmosphere, and allowing dancers to increase their earning potential. “I’ve always liked the idea of American clubs where they have the tipping dollars,” she says. “It makes the girls want to go on stage and dance.”
Leila*, 23, performs at Lick, but started her career in a Brighton strip club when she was a student, and now works primarily as a pole dance instructor. She believes that the support given by Lick Events makes a huge difference to dancers.
“It meant that there was a lot more money coming to you from people who didn’t necessarily want [private] dances, but just wanted to show they were appreciative of what you’re doing,” she says, adding that at her old strip club in Brighton, she could make “on average, £1,500 a week.” At a recent Lick night, Teddy says that one dancer made £800 in just one night.
For queer dancers like Leila, Lick brings other benefits too. The night is open to all womxn and womxn-identifying people, but prioritises the experience of queer women. “The people are much more interesting,” Leila says. “Especially as there are no queer or non-binary people at strip clubs, so it’s such a special night for people.”
Lick Events offers a glimpse of how Britain’s strip club industry could hope to evolve, but the future for the dancers I spoke to is less certain. Sassy plans to stay dancing for the next few years while she completes her law degree and Roxy isn’t sure whether she'll continue to dance or find a new career. Chloe, however, wants to leave the UK strip club scene altogether.
“I started looking for other jobs, I went for an interview at another strip club to be a host working on reception and looking after the girls,” she says. “Now, I’ve decided that London isn’t for me.”
*Names have been changed