"All strippers have iPhone 5s," she said, a wry smile spread across her heavily made-up face as she tapped away at the phone’s touchscreen.
Her name is Vanilla and she performs at Archibald’s Gentlemen’s Club. "You could make $1 one day and $1,800 the next," she said when I asked her about life as an exotic dancer. "It is not guaranteed money. … It’s really up to you and I like that."
Like the vast majority of strippers in America’s 2,500 clubs, Vanilla does not make a minimum wage as waitresses and bartenders in more traditional watering holes do. Instead, she works like a taxi driver or hairdresser, leasing her workspace—in this case, the stage—for a set fee. She then splits her cash hauls with the bouncers, bartenders, DJs, and kitchen staff.
The feast or famine nature has not stopped strippers from profiting. A 2010 University of Leeds study found that the average stripper earned more than $75,000—nearly triple the median U.S. wage that year. Vanilla said the pole tax is a small price to pay to enter a market while it’s hot.
Some dancers—and their attorneys—disagree.
Stephanie "Frenchie" Ashe filed suit against the Mile High Club in Clinton, Md. and its owner alleging that the club classified her as an independent contractor and forced her to pay stage fees to perform in order to avoid paying her a minimum wage and providing benefits.
"You couldn’t imagine IHOP charging its waitresses money to work there or taking their tips," said Jimmy Bell, Ashe’s lawyer. "There are some clubs that follow the law and pay their dancers. There are other clubs they don’t follow the law for selfish business reasons and they’re going to have to pay the piper."
Ashe is the latest stripper to challenge the industry-wide practice of independent contractors. A Massachusetts trial court ruled in 2009 that such arrangements were illegal. Dancers working at the Spearmint Rhino won a record-$13 million in November for being treated as contractors.
"It’s pretty much unprecedented for a big, empire, strip chain like that to lose a suit," said an employee at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady, the nation’s first and only unionized strip joint. The employee asked to remain anonymous since he did not have permission from the union to speak on the record.
"I don’t know how they can get away with it," said one D.C. strip club manager who hires dancers as employees. "These girls work for you, don’t they? It’s criminal."
Many of the girls I spoke to insist they are satisfied with the industry's use of independent contractors.
Sarah has performed at 12 clubs in four states over the past 15 years, including the Spearmint Rhino’s flagship Vegas shop. She now works at Camelot Showbar, "Washington’s favorite gentlemen’s club since 1980," where she is considered a full time employee.
She was happy to settle down because she "wanted a club that didn’t make you give lap dances. It takes its toll on you after a while." (D.C. law prohibits lap dances.) Sarah is insistent that the contractor classification and the freedom it provides can help girls "get money and get out" if they so choose.
"I prefer getting a salary at this point in my career, but people should have the choice [to be a contractor]," she said. "You follow the money, certain clubs are in certain seasons. It’s important to move around."
Stripping is heavily dependent on the environment. Dancers realize that certain clubs are more profitable on certain days and set their schedules accordingly. Vanilla was at Archibald’s the Thursday I spoke to her because she knows she can attach herself to one man and generate big money. But the next day she might go to Stadium Club, a Northeast D.C. club, should a celebrity arrive in town. Becoming an employee may mean sticking with one club and losing out on the opportunity for bigger paydays at other clubs.
Rachel Aimee, a New York City labor activist with We Are Dancers—"a community-building and outreach organization run by and for strippers"—said that strippers benefit from steady pay and the elimination of stage fees, despite lost income opportunities.
"Some dancers are happy with the changes [to employee status] and some are not. But at least it means the dancers aren’t going home with less than they arrived with, which is often the case when dancers are paying house fees and not getting paid wages," she said.
Labor disputes led dancers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady to form the first exotic dancers union (SEIU Local 790) in 1997; the club later became an employee-owned cooperative. Employees were paid minimum wage and attained sick days and other benefits, as well.
Camelot’s Sarah said such a system strips strippers of incentive.
"I made the most money when I’d come in negative [from fees]; they motivate you. … An hourly wage can set the expectation that the money is going to be there regardless of how nice you are," Sarah said. "If there wasn’t a competitive spirit, business could get bad, you could stop tanning, stop watching your weight, stop being nice … that costs everybody money."
Those problems have plagued the unionized Lusty Lady over the past 15 years. While companies like Spearmint Rhino spawned multi-million empires with 20 chains using independent contractors, Lusty Lady’s revenues dropped after it unionized. Infighting reached a head in 2006 when several male dancers complained that several women did not show the professionalism required of a stripper—in a word, they were fat—and were costing the club business. The club is now in danger of closing.
Sarah said stripping does not pay the bills as it used to, as Internet pornography has proliferated. She worries that additional labor costs will hurt the stripper’s bottom line as much as it does the club’s.
"Every year the business dies a little bit more," Sarah said. "We’re not as exotic or taboo anymore. When things change there are costs. Clubs can’t afford to keep everybody on."
Mile High Club, the bar at the center of Ashe’s suit, is located just a few miles from Andrews Air Force Base. Fifteen girls will dance on its gold T-Bar stage before it closes at 3 a.m., including Coco, a seven-year Mile High veteran. The club has fallen on hard times, she said—contra Vanilla’s proclamation, Coco owns a Samsung, rather than an iPhone. She’s wearing her street clothes, a black fleece and some sweat pants.
She does not know much about Stephanie "Frenchie" Ashe, the girl at the center of the suit. Frenchie began working at the club just as Coco was taking maternity leave. When she returned Mile High’s policies had changed. The tip-out and stage fees ($55 for a weekend night, $30 for a weekday shift) were still in place, but girls now receive a minimum wage—$3.63 an hour in Maryland—akin to waitresses. Coco is still considered an independent contractor.
"Often the dancers settle out of court and get a bunch of money, but then the clubs continue to misclassify the rest of the dancers as independent contractors," Aimee said.
Coco said the increased labor costs have led management to crack down on the dancers, enforcing club rules more strictly and "suspending girls from the schedule" if they act out. Staying on the schedule is more important than ever, she said, because "the holidays are coming up, so I need to get this money [from weekend shifts]."
Coco will work the full 11-hour shift after taking several lighter day shifts during the week.
Despite the club’s recent turmoil, there are still women who are more than willing to work. Halfway through our conversation a young girl, 19 or 20 years old, hops out of a brand new Dodge Charger.
"I hate to interrupt ya’ll’s interview, but are auditions today? Oooo can I get a cigarette?"
"Yeah, every Saturday, hon. 3:45, before all the girls get here. You in time," Coco replies, handing the girl a smoke.
"Why do you want to work here?" I ask.
She’s too giddy to hear the question and starts laying out her resume instead. She’s danced all over Maryland, including Kings & Diamonds, which according to its website, is "Baltimore’s elite gentlemen’s club."
"But why do you want to work here?"
She never stops smiling or prancing around. She mouths the word "money" and disappears into the Charger’s tinted windows.
That attitude is typical, according to Coco.
"Some girls leave here and go to other clubs, they can pay a bit more up front [on the stage fee] if they don’t dance there regularly, but that’s how you make your money," she said.
Ashe’s suit is the third the club has faced over the last several years, according to Coco. She sees greed, rather than a benign quest for worker’s rights, at the center of it.
"It’s not a good look when your business is in public like that," she said.
"Gives us a bad reputation. We’re already struggling for money out here and if the customers see we’re having problems, that takes food out of all our mouths."
Mile High’s owners did not respond to calls for comment.
Jimmy Bell, the trial lawyer representing Ashe, is most famous for his reverse-gender discrimination suits. He compared himself to Rosa Parks when he sued a Maryland nail salon for $200,000 because it charged him $4 more than his (female) date for a manicure-pedicure. But he has found a lucrative niche as the go-to attorney for strippers in the D.C. Metro region.
Bell successfully blocked Maryland and Prince Georges County from implementing restrictions on male strippers in separate suits in 1997 and 2006 and scored a victory in federal appeals court in 2011 on behalf of several Maryland strip clubs. Now he is setting his sights on clubs that fail to toe the line.
"To the clubs out there still doing this, still failing to pay their dancers their wages and illegally charging them stage fees, house fees and charging them for not coming to work they’re going to find out very quickly that hunting is not fun when the rabbit has the gun," Bell said.
Veteran Washington, D.C. stripper Ed "Total Package" Cloyd became the public face of the crusade after objecting to wearing Band-Aids over his nipples. Cloyd, who has a degree in computer science from Morgan State University, said Bell saved the industry in Maryland.
"This is my livelihood," Mr. Package said in a phone interview. "This is how we feed our families. We aren’t out here killing anyone or hurting anyone. We had to fight for that."
Bell was so moved by the experience that he turned Mr. Package’s tale into a documentary, Don’t Hate: Strippers Fight the Government. Playgirl Magazine dubbed the 53-minute film "adult entertainment’s answer to Footloose" and it aired in film festivals across the globe and will be released on DVD in 2013, according to Bell. Cloyd had equally high praise for the attorney.
"He’s one of the best attorneys to represent anybody," he said. "He guarantees a win and then he goes out gets it done. The documentary was great, too, because people see that we’re people too, that we have rights—hold up, I got to catch a party bus."
Strip clubs are ripe targets for trial lawyers like Bell because there are no standardized rules. Many clubs impose ad hoc fees to boost revenue based on the day’s events. Vanilla has paid as much as $500 in stage fees to work the floor at clubs when celebrities like rappers Snoop Lion (nee Dogg) or Waka Flocka show up for the night. The working girls, however, do not complain about the sudden boost in fees.
"I never made so much money," Vanilla said.
Owners also take money from the workers using fines that are selectively enforced. Vanilla once quit a job because the owner’s wife would fine strippers for missing work or staff meetings, while letting others slide. Sarah said the practice has been common at almost every place she’s worked before coming to Camelot.
"You’d be fined for silly things like being late or touching inappropriately, even as they encourage you to do it to ‘make the customer happy,’" Sarah said. "There are many times when you’re absolutely confused because the rules aren’t explained to you."
"They always find a way to get you," Vanilla said. "We all feel that there are so many strings attached to each club, but if you don’t like it you can leave. It’s that simple."
Aimee hopes that the industry will change now that strippers are digging in their (six-inch) heels.
"Usually, when the cases go to trial, the judges rule in favor of the dancers and require the club to start classifying dancers as employees," Aimee said. "It’s pretty hard for most clubs to justify the [contractor] classification, because they are clearly treating the dancers like employees."