A stripper at my table

By Alan Perrott

There once was a little girl whose parents ran strip shows. Now Jacqui Le Prou’s all grown up and creating an erotic empire of her own, discovers Alan Perrott

29 year old Jacqui Le Prou, owner of the strip club Calendar Girls. Photo / NZH
29 year old Jacqui Le Prou, owner of the strip club Calendar Girls. Photo / NZH

Ah, Sundays in the sticks. Mum, Dad and the kids, fresh from a day on the farm and sharing a hearty roast. With strippers.

You can't forget them, because a Sunday wasn't a Sunday in the Le Prou household during the 90s without a brace of strippers at the table as well. Not that young Jacqui Le Prou had any idea what her new big sisters did. She was only 10 when they showed up, so all references to naughty doings were coded. All she cared about was that they wore fabulous costumes. And that her mum made them.

Oh, she knew they worked with her dad, but that work had nothing to do with the
thoroughbreds - including her own, Lady - her parents were breeding on their Takanini stud farm.

It turns out one of their jockeys had been moonlighting as an exotic dancer and, after tiring of clubs, had suggested Mr Le Prou assemble a troupe and run her gigs instead.

With an eye for the main chance, he tested the waters by placing an ad in the Truth newspaper.

The response was immediate. After a little husband-and-wife soul-searching - the couple grew up in the country and knew nothing about "that side of life" - they assembled some gear, signed about eight dancers and hit the pubs.

Their weekend shows proved lucrative enough for the family to sell the farm, settle their best horses with friends, and go nationwide. None of which, it turns out, is known to Le Prou's mother's friends. Especially the dear old ladies at her bowls club. So with her dad gone, Le Prou prefers to name neither the company nor her parents, in the hope of saving her mother from gossip.

Aside from that, Le Prou is "loud and proud" about her trade, even if her mother would prefer she'd stuck with fashion.

"But I am very proud of my daughter," she says via email, "and the way she handles herself and her business. She's only doing what most men would do, working hard and doing long hours. She'd be successful at whatever she was to do.

Personally, I think she's being stomped on because she's a successful woman."

That success involves taking over the original Calendar Girls club in Christchurch five years ago, then moving it into bigger and better premises before battling to establish further clubs in Auckland and Wellington with an eye to expanding into Hamilton and Dunedin. I say battled because, unsurprisingly, red carpets aren't laid out for ambitious sex traders, hence the stomping Le Prou's mother refers to.

Calendar Girls in Wellington is still mired in legal action almost two years after opening.

All the notoriety sees Le Prou now being compared to Auckland's most famous madam, Flora MacKenzie, whose St Marys Bay cathouse offered "sex therapy" from the 1940s through to the 1980s.

"I find that quite flattering," says Le Prou, a petite 29-year-old in a body-hugging sheath dress. "She might have been an alcoholic [Le Prou, by contrast, is practically teetotal] but she was a passionate believer in equal rights for women.

I'd like to see a bit of myself in her."

Like Flora MacKenzie, Le Prou backed her way into the business. Dancers need music and her father's taste didn't cut it in the 16-year-old's eyes. So she eventually got the job of assembling soundtracks. Sure, there was a formula to follow - each girl needed three songs to get naked, going from mid-tempo to upbeat before finishing on a slow jam - but otherwise she had free rein.

If she was too young to attend the shows, she still learned how everything worked - Sunday dinners doubled as debriefing sessions - and was primed and ready to take over when her father became ill (her older sister, Sarah, had left home). She ran her first show in a Penrose pub.

If her youth takes people by surprise now, you can imagine the looks when old-school bar owners handed payment to an 18-year-old.

"But to be honest, back then I didn't really want to be involved. It meant I grew up really fast, I guess. I enjoyed the music but I loved fashion, still do, and I wanted to work in that."

Seven months later the show was over and Le Prou was studying hair and makeup while juggling up to three jobs at once, including a long spell as a promotions girl and a brief stint as a bikini waitress. She says she has never stripped.

"I've always wanted to work hard. Well, I don't drink and I don't like to party like other people; all I've ever wanted to do was work as hard as I could for the maximum benefit - if I'm not making money from something then it's pointless to me. I like nice things and I accept I have to work to get them. Everything I have has been through my own doing."

Two years later, her sister got pregnant. Sarah had left home when she was 16 and worked in several Auckland clubs before moving to Queenstown, where she set up Candy's, a strip club and escort service.

Little sister volunteered to move south so big sister could have maternity leave. She put her life in fashion makeup on hold and quickly discovered that working with strippers was one thing, but hookers (Le Prou's term) were very different. For starters, many had major issues, mostly to do with men, and spent their cash faster than they earned it.

She also found that the two branches of sex work didn't get along at all well. With only her experience in a family business to fall back on, she set about trying to bring everyone together and create a team environment.

"I wanted to give the girls the best possible environment to do what they wanted to do. I would never pressure anyone into becoming a dancer, but they should be able to feel
confident and safe at work, and earn the maximum they can. I know what people think happens in this industry, but really, it doesn't have to be that way.

"I'm a fixer. That's something I haven't quite figured out yet, but I want to help build people up."

To begin with she ordered monthly mental health holidays ("to keep everyone sane") and set about breaking down the standard method for controlling prostitutes: keep 'em broke. She also demanded a drug-free workplace and anyone breaking that rule was (and still is) sent home and disciplinary action started.

Working at reception also gave her a chance to recognise problem customers so she could warn her more vulnerable workers to disappear.

The experience taught her a lot about people. On one hand, men can be selfish creatures who will happily objectify women to fulfil their own fantasies, while on the other they crave attention, especially attention that makes it safe for them to spill their emotional beans. "I think most men are really soft creatures at heart."

As for women, they need support networks to bring out their inner strength and battle still-out-of-date attitudes.

"Society is in transition," says Le Prou. "There are women out there being breadwinners and there are men who can't handle it and feel inferior."

One year became two for Le Prou, and then more, as her sister transformed from an ardent workhound to what she calls "crazy mum lady". Her parents had also moved south as her father's health deteriorated.

The question of what to do with the club came to a head when her father died in late 2007. Among those to pay their respects was James Samson, an old childhood friend of Sarah's who had provided security during the early days of the family strip show. Le Prou hadn't seen him since she was a child, so they swapped numbers and promised to stay in touch, an exchange that connected her with Samson's mother, Vicki, who was running the Calendar Girls club in Christchurch with her husband, Alan. They clicked, and very soon dancers would head south to earn extra weekend money in Candy's brothel while Le Prou flew north to show them her way of doing business.

Their connection grew ever closer until, in October 2008, Candy's lease was torn up and Le Prou began managing and promoting Calendar Girls. In a short time she doubled their turnover and was scouting locations for a new building. The club's alleyway home fell well short of the "loud and proud" profile she prefers, so she pounced when a spot became available behind the CTV building and work got underway.

In the meantime, she had also started an inevitably problematic relationship with Samson - aside from criticism over his plan in 2000 to market Calendar Girls via a live sex website, in 2004 he was sentenced to five years on charges relating to a methamphetamine operation, with a further year added for attempting to pervert the course of justice and bribery.

Yes, Samson has a dodgy past, says Jacqui, but there's an involved and unfortunate back story to his convictions, which they continue to deny. By 2010 the couple, who had married a year earlier, were preparing for their new club's grand opening in late September. Until September 4, when Samson opened his eyes to see his wife run, head first, into their bedroom wall.

"We'd only been in bed an hour when that first earthquake struck," says Jacqui. "I got up and was thrown into the wall. James thought I'd gone mad until he realised, 'oh God, the whole house is shaking'."

They headed to work to see the damage and found carnage. Making things worse, a spate of firebombings meant Christchurch strip clubs couldn't be insured.

So, like the rest of the city, they bandaged up, cleaned up, and started again.

By February they were in need of a rest, and using their first wedding anniversary as an excuse they flew to Rarotonga. They returned from a day cruise to find a text from their manager: "Christchurch has fallen over. Everything is over."

Not quite believing what they were being told, they texted back: "Are you sure you don't just need a coffee?"

The reply was instant: "No it's f***ed. The city is gone."

The computer at the hotel's reception desk confirmed their worst fears and their holiday dissolved into repressed panic as they struggled to check that everyone was okay.

Every building surrounding their new club had collapsed and one person had died outside their front door when a shopfront fell on him. Samson's mum had been traumatised after being trapped in her laundry and several staff members had tales of children having near misses. Le Prou's stepson had reached breaking point from the ongoing stress and was sent to stay with relatives on the West Coast. He and his two sisters are now at boarding school.

Meanwhile, the business had to be kept alive. So, after landing in Auckland, Samson headed south while Le Prou stayed on to look for a new club space. After visiting several options, including the now-collapsed Paua Palace, she settled on the old Naval & Family Hotel on Karangahape Rd.

Only then could she head home to see the damage for herself. "It was 10 times worse than I imagined. The smell was just horrific and there was blood everywhere. It was a wipeout really, just so sad to see. I still don't think the rest of country really appreciates how bad it was. All we could do was get everyone together as often as we could to boost morale. I had to be their rock while trying to make sure the money was coming in. We'd been chucked in the deep end and had to swim like f***."

As soon as she could, Le Prou returned to Auckland and started an eight-week, four-floor, renovation frenzy in the hope of being up and earning before their cash ran out.

The doors opened on June 25, 2011. "I'd been running on two to three hours' sleep a night for weeks. I was just exhausted."

Now most people might think that would be a good time to stop and consolidate, but Le Prou was on a roll. Samson's father had always dreamed of setting up a club in every major city in the country, so she was now thinking about Wellington, and it wasn't long before she lucked upon the perfect site and went for it.

Before she knew it, though, she was up against not only the police and council, but local businesses who didn't appreciate the new competition. Tensions weren't helped when 32 staff walked away from one rival and started working for her.

"In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have tried to do all this right now. It's got to the point where I feel like I'm being punished for doing what I love doing and there definitely is a bandwagon rolling down there that likes to push people around."

Surely life would be easier if she returned to the fashion world. But there's no chance of that and Le Prou would never apologise for the path she's chosen. It's why she takes advantage of every opportunity to promote her businesses - including winning an online auction to tattoo her company logo on a woman's bum - and has found the energy to kick off two bars, Corporate Affairs and Whiskey Lounge, buy a motel, train new dancers and formulate what she's calls "next-generation striptease".

To her, strip clubs are about giving people the best time she can in the safest environment she can provide, and complaints of objectification are turned back on the accuser.

"Firstly my girls are not 'things', they're people and I don't own them. They choose to work in my club, and at any point they can leave. For some it's a long-term job, for others it's not, and either way it's their choice. It's closed-minded individuals who look at women like objects that think that way. They're skilled performers and are here to entertain, just like going to watching the ballet, and you pay to watch that, too."

Except her dancers are trained to exploit every male weakness, desire and fantasy. Le Prou knows and passes on every trick in the trade - and all of them are aimed at making the punter forget his (or her, they have regular lesbian fans as well) drink, as he hands over fistfuls of notes. After the thousands of shows she's seen, Le Prou rates Syren and Venus Starr as the best exponents in the country.

For her part, Starr says she's never heard a dancer say a bad word about the Calendar Girls owner.

"Other clubs vary and can tend to make you feel like a number rather than an asset ... She's friends with the girls and her approach is not so stand-offish - it's more welcoming, like working in a family environment. She's really enthusiastic and I love the fact Jacqui brings more to the stage than just striptease and makes a show out of it."

As for what's next, the earthquakes have shown Le Prou, twice, that nothing can be taken for granted. But she has her age and her health, so how about children?

"If that hasn't happened by the time I'm 35 then it probably won't happen. I don't want to be an older mum. I'm already called Mama Bear by the girls ... I used to have this grand plan - clubs everywhere, running successfully and turning a profit - and had never looked beyond that. I think I've proved I run a tight ship. Now, I just want to retire early and travel.

"The big issue will be whether I can ever give up working."

- NZ Herald

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