Originally published May 1, 2008
It’s Friday night. Three ladies walk into a gentlemen’s club. They’re here to celebrate one of their birthdays. The entrance is dimly lit. It’s even darker around the corner where nearly a dozen marble tables are being danced upon by exotic dancers. “Women get in free if they show me their boobies,” Janae White tells them. The ladies are shocked. They speak among themselves in Chinese. One of them is clearly appalled. But the birthday girl, covered in sequins is more than willing to flash Janae until she sees the male reporter standing next to the door girl. The reporter offers to turn around so the ladies can express themselves and enter free of charge. They giggle as one by one they flash Janae. She claps and tells them to have a good time. Seconds later a regular walks in, “Hey honey,” Janae says with equal clarity and confusion. She’s seen him before. But in the year she’s been working in the club, you get a sense she’s seen them all before.
Her real name isn’t Janae. It’s her stage name. We can’t tell you her real name and we can’t show you her face. In fact we weren’t supposed to tell you this story at all. But when we heard about Janae we knew we had to share her story. It is about a Metro business student; like most students, she works her way through school. But unlike most, she also dances — more accurately strips — her way through school. We can’t tell you the club she works at. That was another stipulation of this story. You see after tracking her down and getting her to agree to the story we knew we’d have to clear it with her and the club she works at. Then it was getting Janae to talk. She was, for the most part, willing to have her picture taken, but getting her to talk was another story …
After weeks of trying to get a hold of Janae she finally invites me to shadow her at work. On this particular afternoon, she’s working the door at the club. She is paid hourly although she can’t tell me how much. When she dances she’s paid only in tips from customers and in fees from lap dances. As a matter of fact she has to pay the club a “house fee” to dance there. Again, another stipulation, she can’t say what she collects or pays out. “I’m sorry honey, I promised.” She bats her eyes but promises, “I make a decent amount of money.”
In fact, it’s the money that brought Janae to her current place of employment. Just over a year ago she worked as a server at a downtown restaurant and wasn’t making the money she had hoped for. It was one of her girlfriends who told her about the time she worked at a gentlemen’s club. It was the most amount of money she had ever made and she was just a cocktail waitress. Janae did some research and learned as a dancer she’d make a lot more.
“I auditioned and got the part,” she said. And then her world split in two. By day she is a business student. By night she is a business woman. To say her world split in two is perhaps a little harsh. After all, the two collide on a regular basis.
“When I’ve told certain professors they become bias,” she said. “They have a different attitude toward me especially some of my female professors.” However, she said at least one of her professors used to dance herself.
Has she spotted any Metro professors in the club before? Yes, one of her own instructors, in fact. “Thank God the course had ended,” she said. “He was shocked. That’s why I tell all of my professors now.” She believes her professors stay away from the club due to this fact. And she’s glad. The last thing Janae wants is a problem between herself, other students and an instructor. Notifying her professors is “a safety net,” she said.
The phone rings, a girl needs Janae to work her shift. She pulls out a pink day planner to check her schedule. The pages are littered with notes and appointments. Shifts here and at another bar. Homework and deadlines also fill the page. The 19-year-old agrees to work her shift. She says she’ll stop dancing after graduation unless she goes on to get her masters. “You can’t be a dancer at 90. You just can’t make money at that age.”
The only negative repercussion thus far on her school life has been her schedule. “I can’t take any 8:30 a.m. classes,” she jokes. Most days of the week she doesn’t get home until after 3 a.m.
The club has to be as classy as they come. The exotic dancers, don’t make the mistake of calling them strippers, have a dress code they must abide by. Skirts must be to the knee or a ball gown must be worn. Their heels are at least five inches. Janae sans shoes is 5 foot 8 inches, when she puts on her shoes she towers over most of her customers at 6 foot 3 inches. She and the other dancers are aware of how this both excites and terrifies their customers. A dancer sits down next to an older man. He begins to stroke her long mane. She orders a drink, on him. Before one girl leaves a table the other is ready to begin. They help each other on and off. The club is full of men in suits, jerseys and polos. By the end of the set – a group of three songs – the marble tables, normally clean enough to see one’s own reflection in, are littered with dollar bills.
A co-worker comes up to chat with Janae. We do our best to ignore her. However, this nameless woman continues. She started stripping when she turned 21. That was 16 years ago. Her hair is bleached blond, her skin a powder white as if she never left the darkness of the club to see the sun and her lipstick a faint pink.
She goes on about the connections she’s made and talks about the business. “I have two shoes boxes at home filled with years of networking.” To her credit she makes sure to note all the fundraising she’s done. Although for what charities she never mentions. This woman believes she’s a therapist of the body. She helps her clients forget about their troubles. “His wife left him tonight,” she says hypothetically. “I’m here to help him.”
A man comes in. He’s obviously older than 21 but Janae scrutinizes his ID. She even asks a cocktail waitress who is leaving at the same time for a second opinion. No one’s getting past her. She acknowledges she doesn’t worry that much during the day as the crowd is generally older, but she’s takes nothing for granted. This is her job.
She lights up a Salem menthol cigarette. One of many she’ll inhale throughout the night.
“A guy comes and sees me every Monday or Tuesday,” she said. But some just come for the environment. They rarely tip the girls, explains Janae. To them, her club is no different than any other bar, except this one is theirs.
Janae says she has learned how to spot the right guys. “If I see someone I know is worth $300 I’m going to spend more time with him. It’s a business transaction.”
As far as the other girls she works with, “I really don’t hang out with them, we’re more of acquaintances.” Or business associates, Janae continues on about how the dancers will network among the gentlemen. “It’s a sisterhood of sorts.”
“I meet at least 50 people a night,” she said. “These guys have a fantasy. Giving them a lap dance gives them a better idea of what potentially could happen. But it never will. They can go home and dream about it.” She gets $20 a lap dance, plus tip. “Some nights you’ll get more than others.”
Another co-worker stops by. “Do you have any mints?” she asks. Janae reaches for some. “Sure thing honey,” I don’t know if she knows her name or not. I don’t ask because my best guess is she doesn’t.
The best thing to come about working at the club, Janae says, is her self-confidence has grown radically. Not only has she become more comfortable with her body – except for evenings when she doesn’t make a lot of money (“I took my clothes off for less than minimum wage,” she told the photographer working on the story. This thought is often followed by fears of being too fat or her breasts not being big enough, she confided.) but she feels very independent. She pays her own tuition, loan free and doesn’t take a cent from her parents.
She cracks open a Starbucks double shot espresso drink.
One time a client offered her a piece of gum. “You need this,” they said. She’s been aware of her breath ever since. “I always have some sort of gum or mint,” she said. “After eight hours, its hard to remember what you put in your mouth. I have never been more embarrassed.”
And while she’s aware of her reality, for Janae and her clients, the club offers an escape. “This is a completely different world,” she said. “Men come in here with a mindset that you’re some kind of a sexual goddess. In reality, I’m no different than any other girl, or student for that matter,” she said. However, “I like to think of the club as a big theater and I’m the star and I want them (her clients) to feel mesmerized,” she said.
She compares “Janae” to her favorite song, Lady Marmelade, originally a 1970s hit by Labelle and the musical that re-popularized the song Moulin Rouge in 2001 despite only learning the famous refrain asked in French, “Would you like to sleep with me tonight?”
“It gets me excited. I feel like I’m putting on a theatrical show,” she said. Her hands move about to add dramatic effect. “It’s like I’m in the musical.” Her eyes light up like she’s on the stage at that moment. “It took me a while to come up with who Janae is,” she explained as if a seasoned actress developing a character. “She’s braver than me, she’s bold.”
At first she tried to play cute and innocent, but now she believes the dancer in her – Janae – is “an improved version of me,” so much she’s considering legally changing her real name to that of her alter ego.
Two women wearing nothing but thongs stand inside a glass room. For a moment, the audience maybe a good 100 people or so stop what they’re doing and pay attention. The two, one blond, one brunette, begin covering each other with shaving cream as water fills the chamber. The music begins again. And for an entire set the women spray each other with shaving cream and water. More shaving cream and more water. A man hoots and hollers a few feet away wishing he was in there with them. The birthday girl is having an equal amount of fun at the table to the right. From her seat she mimics the dancer at her table. They move as one.
Janae crosses her legs as she sits behind the desk. She doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with being an exotic dancer. “God made my body,” she said. “This is God’s artwork. You can choose to make it a good thing or a bad thing.”
But she is aware of the negative stereotypes and dangers regarding exotic dancing, most of all drug use. “It’s not around all the time,” she says. “Especially here, I feel like I work at one of the more respectable gentlemen’s club in town. I don’t see it because I don’t do it. It’s kept clean around here.”
She’s also aware of the physical dangers. “I know a customer could follow me home,” she lowers her voice and slows her speech for the first time all afternoon. “It’s a creepy thought… But it doesn’t happen.” She hopes.
Janae made a rule; if she was going to dance, she was going to be single. However, halfway into her career she broke that rule and started dating someone. However, it didn’t last. “He couldn’t help but be jealous,” she said. Inwardly she knows she was right and shouldn’t have gotten involved. She whimsically goes on with a grin. “I don’t miss him.”
When Janae took the job at the gentlemen’s club she had no idea what to expect. But she did some research, “I read parts of this book, it talks about the psychology of men (who come to strip clubs),” she begins and goes on to describe the cliental you can expect. “I can get guys here I’m 100 percent sure I couldn’t get anywhere else,” she said. But by the end of the conversation you understand she doesn’t dance for them.
She dances for herself.
“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it.”