How the mighty have fallen.
This week a screeching fluorescence of construction barriers went up on the triangle where Pitt St meets Vincent St in central Auckland. Flora's massage parlour was still pretending to assert its presence in the form of a sign that read "Open" (although the doors shut two years ago) and a tired overhead billboard in headache shades of purple and pink. The girls it referred to ("soft, soothing, sensual, sexy, seductive") have long gone.
Now the only sign of action is that of workers who are ripping the guts out of Flora's and its old neighbour, the Shell petrol station. In its new guise, the site -it is said-will host a wine shop and a backpackers' hostel. Or maybe a five star hotel. As has always been the case, rumours abound about what's going on at one of Auckland's most notorious spots.
Flora's has always been a brothel - only you didn't call them brothels back then. And it was run by one of the city's godfathers of the sex industry. Ron King, like Flora's, which he founded, is no longer in the game; he left New Zealand five years ago. But his business lives on: the Pelican Club in Newton is run by his daughter Lyn and son Roy. They are New Zealand's First Family of Sex.
Tonight King senior, 76, is packing his bags. He's got an early morning flight to catch to Macau. He's on the phone from his home in Mt Tambourine, Queensland, where he's dabbling in a bit of property development. Here is a man who is proud of his past. "I built the first brothel in New Zealand - ever!" he asserts. Any other putative claimants to that fame are long dead, so we will let the mantle rest with him.
King, born in Britain, arrived in New Zealand in the late 50s. He'd decided to relocate because, he says, "I had a daughter and a son and I decided I'd had enough of England. I wanted to raise them in a better place."
And so he brought them to calmer, faraway shores - and raised them while he built an illicit sex dynasty. Daughter Lyn says that when she was young her father would tell her he worked in the entertainment industry. He would take her to work -and then give her $10 to go and buy lunch. "The girls used to walk around in bikinis. I'd be shunted out, and I'd say 'why can't I hang round?'."
Still, it wasn't meant to be like this. King, who says he was an agent for all manner of 60s pop stars ("I'd been associated with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces . . . Jimi Hendrix-he was a very close friend of mine") had a string of nightclubs in and around London. But his attempts to bring a bit of Brit nightlife to Auckland were short-lived. He says his first club, in Newmarket, was closed down by established nightclub heads who saw him as competition.
"So I spent about a week driving around in a taxi, looking at different spots. And I came across this building in Emily Place. It was a poky little hole. It was run by a fellow with a Japanese woman giving Japanese massage. I bought the lease and said I'd do a massage parlour; [but] to be honest, the girls did whatever they wanted to do-provided it was under control."
(King's definition of 'under control' is that the girls came and told him if they were being harassed by clients. Sex industry workers from that era suggest that brothel owners very much kept a control over their girls).
He called it the Japanese Bathhouse and it proved a big hit. Flora's, named after Auckland's most notorious madam, Flora MacKenzie, came next. It too started out as a poky little hole, says King. "Three bedrooms, up some stairs, with a sauna. I developed it into a massive great brothel."
Perhaps to reflect the international background of its owner, it presented an around-the-world approach to the selling of sex: Sir could choose from the Egyptian room, the Japanese room, the Western, the log cabin. Or perhaps he'd prefer the beach room? Or the aquarium? Oooh, it was very tasteful, says King. He ran a sauna too-a mixed one. "Ladies and men - customers - going in and having a sauna with their clothes off. It was very, very civilised."
Civilised. It's a word frequently reached for in the King lexicon. So is the term "clean" when he's talking about both premises and girls. Everything nice and tidy in the underworld. Still, not everybody operated like he did, says King. "With all due respect to Rainton I didn't do slop houses. Mine were very tasteful. I built theme rooms."
He is referring to the 'King of K Rd' or strip club magnate, Rainton Hastie, who opened his first strip club, the Pink Pussycat, on Auckland's Karangahape Rd in 1963. Hastie, who also ran massage parlours and video shops, died in 1995.
But King's girls offered something different. Back then, a massage cost $1.50. And what if a customer wanted more, he is asked. "Are you open minded, love?" he responds. He is assured that age has brought with it exposure to a variety of sights. "OK then, for a hand job, it was anything from $5 to $10. And a full service was $20."
Those were the days. Modern day rates for sex workers operating out of premises owned by someone else are put at $100 or more - after fees have been deducted - for providing sex once. Women running their own businesses will charge up to $150 an hour.
The King empire expanded further: the Pink House in Symonds St, the Geisha Bathhouse (now the Penthouse). And then he branched out.
In the mid-90s, he set up Showgirls, a strip club featuring what was then the new phenomenon of lap dancers.
"Showgirls was something never seen before. It was very, very, very upclass. The dress standard was sharp. I'm the only man in the world to have a queue forming from Fort St to get in to Showgirls [in Customs St]. The whole of Fort St closed down after I opened. I cornered that market, I civilised it."
And what of the women? One of the many who worked for Ron King - and she wishes to remain anonymous-talks of his work ethic. There was a uniform: matching lingerie, stay-up stockings, no tattoos. There were training sessions on how to make the men come back. "If you worked for his establishment, it was called the 'Famous Flora's way'," she explains. And there were performance reviews. "Every three months Ron would have a meeting and list all the sex workers from top to bottom: who'd had the most clients, who had the most regulars-if you didn't hold or engage with a male within three months, he'd say 'you're wasting your f***ing time'."
Ron King, says the former King employee was "a bastard". "But we made so much money."
Things were different back then. Up until June 2003, when prostitution was decriminalised, it was illegal to run a brothel or earn a living from prostitution. Instead, sex workers masqueraded as 'masseuses' - forever living in fear that they would get busted by an undercover cop.
To be caught with condoms then was enough to get you arrested. The Prostitution Reform Act, which was passed with the slimmest of majorities, changed all that.
Megan, who owns and runs Fleur De Lys in Wellington, got into the sex industry not long after King arrived in New Zealand. Unlike him, she didn't know what she was getting into when she applied for a job. "I went to get a job in a massage parlour as a masseuse, and the other thing-you know, sex-came along the way. The first time I got offered money for it, I thought 'well, why not? I'm standing here naked'." It was 1975, and she was 20. She got $3 for a clothed massage, $5 for going topless and $8 for a nude massage. She soon found out that she could earn $20 for a hand job and $50 for sex. (Compare that with today's rates at Fleur De Lys: $100 for an hour or $50 for a hand job).
She made up her mind from that first day of realisation that she could make 'magnificent money' - and that's what she's done. Her business is freehold; she will soon take possession of her new home which is under construction and will be mortgage-free.
Megan's still in the business today. "A girl like me doesn't have an expiry date, or a use-by date," she says. Back in the beginning, she says, she needed a criminal lawyer to help her if there was any trouble with the police. Now she has a conveyancing lawyer to help her deal with the freehold business that she owns and her property deals.
It's not just the rules that have changed, it's the look, too. Back when it was illegal, brothels were all about velvet curtains and plush wallpaper, says Megan. Now it's cedar shutters and proper beds with sheets-rather than a sauna room and a massage table. "Fleur De Lys is opulent. I've gathered a lot of things over the years."
Catherine Healey, the national co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, says that it wasn't just employees who sometimes turned up thinking the deal ended with a massage. "You'd have clients who really did think that it was just a massage. The person thinking that would get a fairly rough turn-around time."
Healey remembers the first time she went to a parlour: "And there were women wearing Dallas clothing: shoulder pads, long floating dresses and clothes you wouldn't wear elsewhere. Now people can walk in and out in the clothes they wear on the street."
Ron King thinks dress standards have slipped. "It used to be much more sophisticated. Now, I doubt you would get anyone walk into a brothel with a suit on. I understand it's very unusual to see anyone in a suit. And, you know the old saying, clothes maketh the man."
The way he sees it, the Prostitution Reform Act has brought nothing but bad to the sex industry. "Brothels now are past their use-by date, because girls can do what they like-freelance wherever they like. There is literally no control [whereas] you can go into a brothel and you've got strict control. There's no control on privates [private operators]. Girls will do anything to get money."
King says the Government made a complete fool of itself when it changed the legislation. "Now I hear you can open a brothel near schools, near churches-anywhere. You can't even do that in Queensland."
His daughter sees some positives. "One of the easier things for me [now] is when a girl asks if sex is involved, I don't have to waste their time." By that she means she can just say yes.
Brian Le Gros, who owns the White House strip club and Monica's massage parlour in Auckland, agrees with Ron King about decriminalisation. Le Gros, who previously commanded a sex industry presence in Vivian St, Wellington, describes the current laws as "appalling".
He believes every massage parlour business has been destroyed because of the legislation. He says it is difficult to find suitable sex workers, because they are working privately, and without adequate protection. Furthermore, he says, the laws have not eliminated street prostitution. King is now 76. He says he no longer needs the problems associated with running a parlour or a strip club or a brothel. But that's not to say he's put his past behind him. He might set something up in Macau. And he's also got his eye on Vietnam.
"That's another up-and-coming area, if you've got the right contacts. I've got a man over there doing some arithmetic for me. And I've got a couple of things to look at in Manila too."
How the mighty have fallen.