It was summer 2009. I was nearing the end of my studies in Musical Theatre and I REALLY needed a job. I had a brief stint doing some bar shifts but the work was too sporadic, and I couldn’t depend on the income. I was aimlessly scrolling online one day, and I saw an advert seeking ‘dancers’ in a city centre venue in Glasgow and it said there was loads of money to be made!
As I’d been studying Musical Theatre, I was curious about the performing aspect and decided it was worth a bash if this claim of uncapped earnings was true. I sent an email with zero expectations and was offered an ‘audition’ almost immediately. My boyfriend at the time drove me all the way from the Borders where my family and he lived up to Glasgow in time for my audition. I knew it was ‘exotic dancing’ but I didn’t have a clue what to wear and was deeply apprehensive about what to expect.
I had done a wee bit of research and bought a black and pink matching set from Primark of all places. I shoved it in my bag, kept the potential earnings at the forefront of my mind and just decided to drop any pre-conceptions I had and give it my best.
When I arrived, I had butterflies in my stomach. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. The club was very fancy. Lots of bright lights and a big stage and many powerful women strutting around. I was introduced to the house mum Shelley (who has since appeared on Channel 4’s programme ‘strippers’) and she really lives up to the name.
From the outset, she explained in a caring mum-like manner what I could expect from the job and introduced me to a lovely dancer who was about to start her shift called Amy-Lee. Amy-Lee said she would show me how to do the job and then I could decide whether it was for me or not. At the time, I had just turned 19 and Amy-Lee was 23. I remember pondering how she had so much confidence and finesse. She was articulate, self-assured and clearly a very talented dancer.
She took me into a private booth and drew the curtains. She then proceeded to give me a dance. She didn’t come too close to me and had clearly choreographed her moves. I then felt liberated to give it a go myself, so I gave her a dance. It was clear to both of us I was extremely nervous, and I didn’t have a clue, so she decided to choreograph me a routine. This would then literally become what I’d do every single time.
After I gave Amy-Lee a dance, I felt strangely powerful and liberated. I felt proud of my body and empowered. I decided that this was a job I could give a good shot. And so, I started. I would work Friday and Saturday nights as the other dancers told me these are the busier nights. I remember arriving at the dressing room an hour prior to the shift beginning and being surrounded by hugely confident women who seemed to know it all. I didn’t have the big fancy clear stripper heels and I certainly didn’t realise it was standard to wear stockings! Thankfully for me, a very kind ‘older lady’ (says she at 29 now) who was 28 and working that night saw the uncertainty in my eyes and said if I give her £5, she would nip to Asda and get me some bits and bobs. What was nice about this was, the next time her and I were on shift together, she produced a pair of fishnet stockings from George at Asda! I think that after this, I grew very fond of Ashley. She’d noticed my uncertainty and opted to help me out with what now seem like basics! But without her friendly gestures, I don’t know that I’d have had the guts to stick at it.
The next few months were a bit of a whirlwind! I certainly made money. I was living a life I could only have dreamt about. Conversations of depth with men and women from all walks of life who wanted to PAY for my company. I started to enjoy the nocturnal life filled with sassy outfits and cheap champagne behind the curtain.
Once I found my flow with the job which I didn’t know if I’d like or not, I continued to work in different clubs. Never in my life did I imagine that working 10 hours per week in a job I enjoyed could afford me such a lavish lifestyle. I even had a stint in London! I met some hugely interesting and dynamic women throughout this time. Lawyers, young mums, students, travellers… all just trying to make their way. From the age of 19-21 I really learnt a lot about humans. Stripping isn’t an easy job. It required communication skills, sass, sales, marketing, negotiations… people write us off as stupid or say that we are doing it because we must. 90% of the time, I can tell you that this isn’t the case.
Fast forward to April 2011, I met someone. The man of my dreams. Not in the dancing capacity although I was totally open and honest with him about the job I’d been doing and how much I enjoyed it. He expressed his feelings about the job and said that he wouldn’t be OK with me doing this job if we were to become serious, so I quit, and I hung up my strappy clear platforms until March 2017. My time away from the pole and behind the curtain showed me that when dancing ISN’T an option, I am capable of some fantastic things ‘in real life’. I put it like this because when I’m in the club, I’m in character. I am an actress. Also, dancing can’t last forever and there isn’t much which can replicate the income. Without the option to dance, I had to go study again and apply for ‘proper’ office jobs which weren’t dependant on my looks or ability to move.
In this time, I had some amazing jobs which I’m very proud of. I worked for a large media house and various marketing agencies and felt a new kind of respect I hadn’t felt before. People were looking at me differently and instead of taking first impressions from my body or outfit, those first impressions were drawn from my ideas, my mind and what I had to offer creatively. This new-found respect from peers in a different setting was liberating.
Anyway, fast forward a few years and include trying to settle down… I ended up without my husband who was my rock and my constant and all on my own again. I needed money, and quick. So, I decided to search for my nearest club, dust off the old strappy clear platforms and go work a random Thursday night. It’s March 2017 now and it’s been 6 years since I performed and took my clothes off for money, but I remember feeling so empowered the first night I set foot back in a strip club. I’d missed the lights, the tacky old dressing rooms where some of the lights are broken and the stories of other dancers unfolding while we shared curling tongs, prayed for a busy night and talked about life.
I’d missed this. I’d missed the girls, the chat, the stage names, the costumes and the hustle. I’d missed having a laugh with the girls on a quiet night reminiscing about the busier times.
I haven’t danced now since August 2018 because I haven’t needed to. But that doesn’t mean I don’t WANT to now and again. Writing and my events and work around empowering women to own their truth provides me with just enough money and a busy enough schedule that I just don’t need to. But I don’t think my love for it will ever die. I like the uncertainty of a night’s earnings. The hustle. The ability to be someone else for the night. You can be whoever you want!
Over the past year or so, I’ve become very actively involved in feminism and have learnt a huge amount on the subject area from books, the bloody internet and other women! It is so broad and there are many subgroups within it. As with everything, there are tiny pockets of feminism which, in my opinion, are not inclusive and toxic.
Unfortunately, during my time researching, I have become aware of a subgroup called SWERF. This stands for Sex worker exclusionary radical feminism. Just to set the record straight, I have only and would only ever sell entertainment / dancing in exchange for money. Never sex. That’s something entirely different to me. I don’t, however, feel it’s up to me to judge others who CHOOSE to do this. Of course, there are outliers, like with everything. There are a small number of women who are in sex work against their will or because their caught up in a dark cycle of addiction where getting their next hit depends on making money ‘on the game’. But this number is far lower than the group of SWERF’s would have you believe. SWERF is characterised by hostility to the third wave of feminism. The main objection SWERF’s have against sex work seems to be the sexual objectification and violence that occurs towards women in the sex work and pornography industries. Predictably, they go overboard and are abusive towards sex workers who CHOOSE their profession freely, as opposed to because of human trafficking. This is bullying and oppression and is often referred to as whorephobia.
Anyway, I guess my point in sharing this is that I want to have the opportunity to be more open about my past experiences and I want to make it clear that MY feminism is inclusive of those who choose to have autonomy over their bodies and of those who choose sex work freely as a profession.
I will always continue to do what I can for organisations who fight against human trafficking and who provide services to women who have encountered sexual harassment, particularly in these settings. But what I won’t do, is exclude people from a conversation when their voice is equal.
This article is for Shelley, Annabelle, Liberty, Robyn, Jamie-Leigh, Maria, Jacqui, Ashleigh, Jessica, Scarlett, Tina and the bouncer who worked the club with me in New York City: you know who you are. It’s also for any individual who has worked in the industry and felt ashamed of their job or their choices. Your work is work. And I’m proud to live in a country which values the rights of sex workers. Glasgow girl Megara Furie has just facilitated the first union for sex workers, and this is something which makes me hugely proud.
Let’s feel less uncomfortable having unusual conversations and let’s aim to include everyone in all conversations.
Mandy @ TEWP x