Save Our Strippers!

Lawmakers want to kill gentlemen's clubs -- and the livelihoods of the women who run them.

Moby Dick! The Musical Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood Through July 3, 216-521-2540
If the "Stripper Bill" passes, dancers will have to zip up - at 11 p.m. - Staci  McQueen
If the "Stripper Bill" passes, dancers will have to zip up at 11 p.m.
She knows you won't believe her, and she knows the starched shirts in Columbus won't either, but Robyn wants you to hear it anyway: The strip club saved her life.

"I found my independence," she says, hands tucked nervously between her knees, as she sits in the champagne room at Diamond Men's Club on the East Bank of the Flats.

It's early in her shift -- maybe 7:45 on a Saturday evening -- and still balmy and bright outside. Inside the club's VIP section, it is cool and dark. But it is not too dark to notice that Robyn, with walnut eyes and auburn hair that traces the round curve of her cheeks, is beautiful -- the kind of soft and inviting beautiful that makes you turn down the bread aisle when you already have a loaf of rye in your cart.

She likes to tell the story of how she came to work at Diamond. It was 11 years ago, when she was 21. She and her boyfriend were waiting for a movie to start at Tower City. "Let's go waste some time," he said as they pulled into the club's parking lot. She says they didn't know it was a strip club, though the smart money says that her boyfriend had a hunch as they pushed through the heavy double doors.

It was like a lightning storm -- the flashing lights, the heels and the legs, the bare breasts and naked smiles. Robyn had never seen anything like it, nor did she want to. "I seen the girls dancing," she remembers, "and went right back out." She was much more comfortable on the sidewalk. But outside, the club's manager introduced himself.

At the time, Robyn was selling clothes at Petries, a downtown retailer. She was making minimum wage, barely enough to support her six-year-old son. They were living in a beat-up Section 8 apartment on Cleveland's East Side, a place she calls "ghetto bad." Robyn depended on her boyfriend to help pay the bills.

But by the end of the night, she had told the club manager she would be back to audition. By the end of the month, she was a dancer. By the end of the year, the boyfriend was gone. And by the end of last week, Robyn, who works days in the office of a Cleveland junior high school, had watched her son graduate from Cleveland Heights High School -- right up the street from the dream home she bought a few years back. Her son starts at the University of Akron this fall. He wants to be an engineer.

"Working here has changed my life," Robyn says. And she doesn't give a shit whether you -- or the Ohio Legislature -- believe her or not.

In April, as state lawmakers boomed about budgets and Medicaid, members of the House quietly passed a bill that could devastate, if not eliminate, Ohio's $160 million adult-entertainment industry.

Among other rules, the bill would bar all stripping after 11 p.m. and outlaw lap dances by keeping women at least six feet away from customers. Since the hours after 11 p.m. are the industry's busiest and lap dances its biggest seller, the bill poses the economic equivalent of banning grocery stores from opening on weekends -- and barring them from selling bread and milk.

The "Stripper Bill," as it's known, passed the House by a 92-5 vote. Of the 60 Republicans, only one, Jim Trakas of Independence, voted no.

The bill now waits for Ohio's only slightly less conservative Senate to act. If it passes, bachelor parties will forever be a thing of the past -- or, at least, a thing of West Virginia. Robyn will have to find another way to pay her son's tuition.

Conservatives have long tried to undermine strip clubs. Last year, a federal judge overruled an attempt by the Ohio Liquor Control Commission to bar alcohol sales where nude dancers perform. And this marks the third time in three years that lawmakers have slyly tried to install the industry-killing 11 o'clock and six-foot rules.

Past bills have remained bottled up in Senate committees. If the bill gets to the Senate floor this time, club owners say, they don't stand a chance. "There's very little to be lost and a lot to be gained by being anti-adult," says Ed Thompson, a partner in the Diamond franchise.

Amid budget woes and fund-raising scandals, lawmakers have drawn little attention to their efforts toward this bill. Most of the bill's sponsors did not respond to interview requests. One, Chuck Calvert (R-Medina), even refused to comment about his own bill. "I'd rather not go back and look at the bill and understand why we did it," he notes, oddly.

Members who will talk say the new laws would protect both dancers and patrons. Closing clubs early and banning lap dances will cut down on violence, prostitution, and sexually transmitted diseases, they argue. But they say they have no intention of killing the industry.

"Bullshit," spouts Angelina Spencer, president of the Association of Club Executives, a strip-joint trade group. "They want them wiped out. They want them closed down, period, because it doesn't fall in line with their fundamentalist, Taliban agenda."

The bill is being championed by Citizens for Community Values, a group that promotes Christian values in Columbus. Spencer and much of the industry believe that the bill is an attempt by conservatives to ban activities -- stripping, lap-dancing, beer-drinking around half-naked women -- they find immoral. And they fear that lawmakers, in an increasingly fundamentalist-driven political landscape, will be too afraid to say no. A vote against the bill, according to opposing spin, is a vote for drunken lap dances.

"They're terrified," Spencer says.

After the House vote, Trakas says, one member told him, "You've got a lot more guts than I do."

Even lawmakers who voted against the bill tread carefully, focusing instead on the fact that the state has more important business to take up. They don't sound eager to go to bat for strippers.

But Kenny Yuko (D-Richmond Heights) is among the few uncowed. To the former union organizer, it's about the sanctity of a job and a paycheck. "They take care of their families," he says. "They're not a burden on the state. You don't like their industry, don't go there . . . Some people who like to go to those clubs don't like to go to the ballet, so what do they do? They don't go."

Since Robyn's first visit 11 years ago, the Diamond Men's Club has grown, but the lightning storm hasn't changed. The club is still a flurry of legs, breasts, and the knowing smiles of women on an entrepreneurial rampage. Lights blast the multilevel stage, where dancers work off lacy dresses to Tool and Fatboy Slim. Guys young and old, occasionally joined by girlfriends or wives, sit at cocktail tables, waiting for dancers to kick-start their fantasies with a saucy "Hello."

When they do, the money flies. The top strippers -- those with the hustle and the best read on their clientele -- can walk out with upwards of $2,000 on a busy night. At high-end clubs, dancers say that they earn a few hundred dollars a night, a couple thousand a week. Statewide, the average salary is around $36,000 a year, club owners say.

Robyn doesn't see that kind of cash anymore. Four years ago, she stopped stripping. But she didn't want to leave the club.

She applied for a job as the dressing-room manager, known as the house mom. She signs the dancers in every night, helps get their makeup just right, and makes sure that the DJ knows the songs they want to dance to. She also makes sure that the girls know the rules. In that way, it's a lot like her job in the junior-high office -- always telling someone what not to do.

Dancers can't touch the customers anywhere between the shoulders and the knees. They can't leave with customers or give out their phone numbers. And they can't walk to their cars without an escort, or until the club's parking lot is clear at night's end.

"They really run a tight ship," says Melanie, a Diamond dancer.

But running a tight ship takes an army of skilled workers -- bouncers, managers, bartenders, hosts, DJs, janitors, and others. All in all, Diamond's payroll for its three Ohio clubs runs close to $50,000 a month -- and that doesn't include what dancers, who work as independent contractors, take home.

Statewide, 136 strip clubs employ 11,000 people and generate $31.5 million in taxes, club owners say. And the clubs sell more than $50 million a year in liquor, flooding the cash-strapped state with even more tax money.

Would all that be lost if the Stripper Bill passes? Its supporters say no. They say that men's desire to get drunk in the presence of women -- naked women, that is -- can withstand even rules as strict as theirs. Men, as the theory goes, will show up for anything naked.

But will the women?

"I'm getting the hell out of town," the woman is saying. She has just stepped down from a small stage in the front room of the Circus, another Flats club, and covers herself casually with a blue bikini top. Her name is Celeste, and she is an eight-year veteran of stripping.

She got into the business at 18. She wanted to visit Florida, but her job as a telemarketer wasn't paying the bills, so she decided to take her long, lithe figure and nurturing personality for a spin. "Dancers," she likes to say, "are amateur shrinks, wives, surrogate mothers."

Though she usually pulls in $300-$400 a shift, Celeste recently acquired her real-estate license. But she was having trouble selling houses, so for now, she's sticking with the Circus. Her family knows what she does, and nobody cares. Her grandma even offered to stitch her a costume.

Dancers have heard it all: how their boyfriends must beat them. How they're supporting drug habits. How their parents must have ditched them at an early age. They're presumed to be the traumatized and weak, those in need of gallant protection.

At 36, Melanie knows these misconceptions are fueling lawmakers' attack on her job. She has written them letters to tell her story -- how she's a graduate of Notre Dame College and has spent most of her career teaching preschool. But since it only paid $10 an hour, she started stripping to help support her daughter, who's now 16. This year, she's taking graduate accounting classes during the day and dancing at night. "It's my livelihood," she says. "I'm just an entertainer. I'm not a whore."

"We all go on the Jerry Springer Show and smoke crack," Celeste says of the prevailing stereotype. "You have to laugh about it. If you didn't laugh, you'd cry."

Until this moment, she had no idea that legislators were plotting to change her job. When she hears that they want to ban lap dances, her eyes pop, her mouth flies open, and her hands shoot to muffle the inevitable What the . . . ?

"I didn't know about that part," she gasps. "I'm getting the hell out of town. I'm out. I'm going to Atlanta -- somewhere where there's an actual economy and progressive thinking."

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