The film Hustlers examines the world of strippers - as told from the point of view of women. Joanna Mathers talks to those involved in New Zealand and asks how glamorous it is in reality, has the scene changed and is it empowering?
The first rule of stripping is: don't talk about stripping. When you're picking up the kids, when you're at the supermarket, you're another person. The stripper with the sexy name inhabits the nocturnal realm. When the makeup's off and the clothes are on, when the sun rises and the long day stretches ahead, you're just you.
Reaping the rewards of making loads for wearing nothing.
The days can be interminable. While the workaday world's doing its workaday business, strippers are at their leisure: "It actually gets really a bit boring, sitting around all day without much to do," says Jordan Jay.
Strippers don't disclose real names. "Jordan Jay" is someone else. Most of the people featured in the story have asked for anonymity. We've respected that request.
Strip clubs inhabit a peculiar place in our collective psyche. Grubby, dangerous, exploitative, sleazy. Spaces populated by criminals and pervs, lost and exploited women.
Strippers, as the story goes, are tragic girls who need to be rescued. Addicts, hustling for coins so they can smoke meth. Beautiful, tragic, lost. Flawless skin, mascara stains. Perfect but soiled. Waiting for a shining-armoured knight in a white Maserati.
Well, bollocks to all that. Jordan Jay is the author of her own destiny.
"I love what I do. I think everyone should do it. There's so much freedom. I always wanted to be a stripper, from as early as I can remember. It's such a great job."
The strippers in Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez, don't love their jobs. But they are shaking up the stereotypes of strippers as victims of unlucky fortune.
Based on a real-life story featured in New York Magazine called "The Hustlers at Scores", Hustlers revolves around the exploits of New York strippers who, sick of being treated like rubbish by ultra-wealthy Wall St a-holes, decide to right royally rip them off. They contrive a con, drugging the besuited a-holes before raking up masses of money on their credit cards.
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Stealing from the rich and spending on yourself may not sound like positive feminist revolution. But the real point of departure for Hustlers is this: it's a female take on a story usually told by males. The women are in charge: the men are silly putty in their hands. It riffs on the excesses of American capitalism, the desires that make men so stupidly vulnerable. And it casts the strippers as the queens of all they survey - until they are caught.
Jordan Jay is also in charge. She's working a few hours a week and is paid an executive-level salary for it.
She started out at a club. A cheerleader and gymnast at school, she had the moves and the body. She was nervous before she started bartending at Showgirls on Customs St but it was like a homecoming.
"It was really great, there were quite a lot of girls from my high school, Green Bay High, working there. And some of the bouncers went to my gym. People from all walks of life."
The graduation from bar to stage was fast. She can't remember much of it.
"I thought I'd give stripping a go and I got so hammered that I literally don't remember that night at all. But I made a two week's pay cheque in a few hours. The regulars could see that I was a new girl, so they made it easy for me."
Money, money, money. This her reality.
"I work maybe two or three nights a week, for two hours at a time and can make around $2000. God, I hate to think how much money I've earned since I started stripping. I could have probably bought three houses."
In the beginning, there was Rainton Hastie; a man with a strange accent who lit his cigars with $100 notes. Picture him: gold chains hang heavily around his neck. On his belt, a conglomeration of keys. A shortie, a chancer, the king of K Rd.
Owner of Pink Pussycat (New Zealand's first strip club, opened 1963), Strip-o-rama, Tom Cat Club et al, he was the New Zealand's crown prince of sleaze in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.
It was a different world back then, "moral" offences could get you locked up. Hastie was locked up. His crime? Letting strippers show nipples at his clubs.
Down south, at the Pink Pussycat in Christchurch in the early 1970s (Hastie's empire stretched countrywide), Annie Coster would watch her mates perform. She worked next door at a nightclub called Christies, and made "pasties" (nipple covers) for the friends she knew there. At the end of each routine dancers would move their boobs in a circular motion to get the tassles rotating. It was the highlight of the show.
The dancers were young – 16, 17. They dressed in school uniforms or exotic Turkish outfits, slowly removing multiple layers of clothing until they were dressed in just a pastie and a G-string. The punters would throw dollars on the stage or insert them under the G-string straps.
Coster says Hastie treated them well. He was okay, she muses, but his known associates weren't. "There were people who'd visit him at the club you would always avoid. Criminals, involved in everything from murder downwards. You'd just stay away."
Up in Auckland, K Rd was HQ for sleaze. Young Dunedin punk Kathy Ramsay moved here in early 1982 but, with mass unemployment, work was scarce. She started waitressing at a Hastie venue, Pink Panther.
"I wasn't earning much there and I was watching the strippers and realised I could do that. So when Pink Panther closed, I started working as a stripper at Pink Pussycat."
Pink Pussycat, along with Hastie's other adult entertainment ventures, was cheap and dirty, really sleazy. The strippers stayed up on the stage, old men in raincoats did what old men in raincoats do, down below, in the shadows.
"We couldn't see them 'cos the lights were off down there, which was a relief. But in the daylight, the floor looked filthy. The whole place was really tacky."
For Ramsay, this was part of the appeal.
"I loved working there. There was this carnivalesque, seedy underground atmosphere -a sense of faded glamour. I had no problem taking my clothes off. If people wanted to pay for something so ridiculous, well they could. I actually found the whole world of stripping extremely fascinating."
Shaven-headed Kathy played the "bad girl" in a mud wrestling skit. Wearing gumboots from the freezing works, she'd strip to Fred Dagg's Gumboot Song. She worked six nights a week and made $160. "It seemed like enough at the time."
She remembers Hastie as somewhat of a romantic. If he liked a girl, he'd take them out to dinner. He was also superstitious.
"He was extremely wary about the colour green. I tried to dye my hair blue once but it ended up green. He came into the changing room and saw me and said I couldn't perform. I explained it had been a mistake, I had wanted it to be blue. So he agreed I could go on. He thought green was really unlucky."
The tacky sleaze joints ruled by Hastie (who died in the early 1990s) and his ilk eventually gave way to "glamour" clubs, like Showgirls. Established in 1996, the Customs St venue still brings in eager punters from all walks of life; keen to see hot flesh and doll out some readies for lap-dances (or sometimes just chats) with pretty girls.
Strippers can make thousands a week in a club. Or nothing. It all depends on your hustle.
Strippers aren't paid a wage; they earn money from charming tips from punters or performing lap dances. The latter can cost anything from $70–$550 and this is where the big bucks are made. At the end of the night, the clubs get a cut (usually 20-30 per cent) and the strippers take the rest. They also take a bond from the girls, which allows them the privilege of working at the venue.
Jordan Jay worked two or three six-hour nights at Showgirls and would pocket between $600 and $2000. If there was a punter with money to burn, she could make much more.
"There was this guy in his 60s, whose mother had died and left him an inheritance. He spent $80,000 at Showgirls in one week. He didn't want anything, I used to take him to the lap dance room and he'd just watch old music videos on my phone. I made $5000 off him in two days. But he spent all his money that week and never came back."
He was one of the "rescuers".
"A lot of guys [like him] would come in and say they wanted to take us away from that life. It's all part of the game. They'd give us money and tell us they'd look after us. We'd joke 'Yeah, we'll come with you.' But we never did. They wanted to look after us and get us out of the industry."
She did find love here, in a different form. A beautiful Brazilian woman, recently arrived in Auckland, went to the club because she knew there were other Brazilian girls working there. Jordan hadn't identified as lesbian before meeting her but they sizzled immediately. They've been married for a few months.
Jordan's wife "isn't so keen on me being a stripper. Partners are always fine when it's casual, but when relationships get serious, they tend to start freaking out about the job," she reveals.
Calendar Girls is another of the new wave of "sophisticated" clubs. Shipped from Christchurch to K Rd (one of the only strip clubs remaining on the street) it's perennially in the headlines for all the wrong reasons (unfair work practices/aggressive bouncers).
James Samson, marketing manager for Calendar Girls (who's had a colourful relationship with the law) believes the industry has changed significantly from the days of Hastie-style sleaze.
"The sex industry back in the day used to be known as dark and seedy, only creeps in trench coats go there ... that sort of vibe."
Strip clubs, he claims, have become part of the mainstream. "They are more glamorous and a place where people of all ages can go and enjoy themselves and play up. Whether it's where you're finishing up on your night out or your taking your mate out after a bad break up to throw some cash at a stripper and make bad decisions."
"Chanel" has worked at Calendar Girls for 10 years. She's one of their most popular strippers and says she can make $9000+ a week for between two and four nights of work. In her mind, there's zero exploitation.
"It's [my] choice to be here. I have worked in many corporate jobs and, in all honesty, I've felt more exploited working longer hours for half or even quarter of the money I earn as a 'dancer'."
She got into the business after witnessing the money and freedom stripping had awarded an associate.
"I saw this girl one day come to my corporate job. She was beautiful, had a new car, jewellery, designer clothes and I asked my friend what she did for a living. My friend replied, 'Oh, no, you don't wanna know.' But I kept asking until my friend told me she owned a stripping company and she was a stripper.
"Some time later, I met a guy out one night and he ended up being a 'male stripper' on the weekends. I started seeing him casually and found out what kind of money he made and decided to try it out myself. I started making more in my weekends than in my whole week at my corporate job."
Club work can pay but there's a downside. You can wait around for hours, doing nothing. You have to be there on time, whenever the club stipulates. Failure to do so leads to "fines" that can take a big chunk out of takings. Not turning up for work is a big one ($250+), rudeness to patrons ($200), showing up late (around $100).
"We would get fined for anything," says Jordan Jay. "Sometimes you didn't know what it was for but you'd pay up 'cos you didn't really have an option if you wanted to work there."
It's rules like this that send some girls out of the clubs and into the arms of the agencies. Jordan says that after a year and a half working in New Zealand clubs, with a stint in Australia, she was "over it".
"I was old by then. People want fresh faces, so I decided to try different work.
Agency work has boomed since the advent of the internet. They act in the same way as any talent agency, taking a share of whatever the girls earn.
Jordan Jay works for Flauntit, a national stripping agency that offers a bit of everything. Bikini waitressing pays $100 an hour, sex toy shows with "hands-on participation for the guest of honour" pay $500.
Jason (no last name given), owner of Flauntit, is a hustler himself. He's got a good line in patter. "We can give you a Flauntit exclusive, if you only mention our agency in the story ... Oh well, worth a try."
He's the money man; but it's Vic (also a stripper) who does the day-to-day running of the business.
From Hamilton, she's a solo mum with seven years in the business. She's now 26, but when she saw an ad for strippers at a club at age 19, she thought, "That's me."
She didn't have a smooth start: "It was terrifying. I was a total mess. At the end of each night I felt dirty. Then I got my pay and realised I was earning more for a few hours each night than I was in a week at my day job."
She eventually threw in the day gig and became a full-time stripper. She's added management to her work repertoire in recent years. When a job comes in, she'll put a text message out to the strippers. Clients choose the girls they like (pictures are on the website) and if they are available, they will do the performance.
She says the money she earns has allowed her to bring up a kid on her own, without endless money worries. People know what she does and, yes, there's judgment.
"But it stops when they see how much I'm making. I'm making more money and having more fun than any of them."
And yes, there can be creeps ... occasionally.
"The further south you go, the more backward people get," says Shelly, owner of stripping agency Go Wild.
Shelly says there's more sophistication and understanding of the rules around stripping in Auckland. People know about "look, don't touch". She says the smaller the town, the higher the likelihood of weirdness occurring.
"We always like people to take a support person if they are doing a show further down south," she says. "Stripping isn't so common in places like, say, Invercargill, so you have to be very clear when you are doing the bookings that people understand the rules."
And if the rules are broken (no touching, unless invited; no photos or videos) the performer can leave and not be penalised financially.
"It's the guys who lose out, 'cos they've already paid. If girls don't like what is happening, they can just walk out," says Shelly.
Shelly is at pains to point out the strippers in New Zealand are professionals: performers who need to be treated with respect. "I've travel a lot and when I come back to New Zealand, I realise that we have the best dancers in the world.
"The biggest misconception about the industry is that it's run by this seedy criminal underworld. In fact, the people who work in it are talented professionals who work hard to provide great entertainment."
Great money, workplace freedom, autonomy. Stripping ticks all the "great work conditions" boxes. But it's still objectification, isn't it? Can we celebrate women who are essentially sex objects for horny males?
The jury is out on this one. Earlier feminists posited that stripping was feeding the patriarchy fresh meat, that is was based on exploitation and unequal power relations. Later feminism has reframed the argument: rather than propping up the patriarchy, a women's right to self-determination allows her to use her body as she wished.
The dissonance between this two positions was played out earlier this year in Scotland, when a stoush arose between women's groups who called for strip-clubs to be banned, and the performers who worked there.
Citing Iceland as an example (where strip clubs are banned) groups including the Women's Support Project and Dundee Violence Against Women Partnership argued that strip clubs were forms of commercial sexual exploitation, leading to a culture of violence and misogyny.
In response, two strippers told the BBC they were feminists and that they equated stripping with strength, resilience, and business savvy. One of the strippers, Ariel, summed it up like this: "No one has the right to tell me what to do with my bod. Nobody has the right to tell me how I earn money."
The clubs weren't banned but it's a complex and nuanced debate - collective good versus individual choice. The women interviewed for this article expressed the same viewpoint: they aren't being exploited, they are making great money and they love what they do.
What they will admit is it's a job with a short shelf-life. Jordan Jay says there were strippers in their 40s, making great money at Showgirls. But this is an anomaly.
"Strippers who are really serious about maintaining their careers can end up having lots of work done," says Vic. "They want to have the 'model' look, so they invest in their tits, teeth and nose."
There's no real "career path", except porn or other more hardcore sex work. With all that money and all that freedom, it's an easy industry to get sucked into.
"My one concern is that it's easy to get lost in the industry," says Jordan. "And it's not really that rewarding."
The experiences of these women and the shifting attitude that Hustlers seems to reflect, speak of change. In 2019, concepts like "morality" no longer holds such sway and the classic feminist take on stripping has also been eroded.
While no one would condone drugging and thievery (although they might understand the motivation), having strippers presented as the authors of their own destiny in Hustlers is a huge departure from the traditional narrative.
And while there are girls ready to get naked for money - and guys ready to pay - stripping is in no danger of dying out.
Hustlers is in cinemas now