On October 22, Gizelle Marie, a 29-year-old Bronx native who has worked as a stripper since she was 18, was venting over Snapchat with some of her fellow dancers about how she was fed up with all the stories of mistreatment she’d heard about—particularly of darker skinned dancers.
“I took it upon myself to speak out on behalf of the dancers who don’t speak out because they feel like management doesn’t listen to them,” Gizelle said. “Dancers started telling me about issues that are deeper than what people even expect to hear.”After Gizelle posted on Instagram complaining about unfair wage distribution in the clubs, dancers from all over the city and country started to chime in with their own stories and support.
The next day, Gizelle began organizing #NYCStripperStrike, an ongoing movement shedding light on the racism, colorism, sexism and unjust labor practices that are routinely swept under the rug in their industry. Since then, dancers who work in strip clubs across the city have been meeting to share their grievances and strategize next steps. Those participating in the strike are refusing to work in NYC strip clubs until their demands are addressed on an industrywide level.
The four dancers I spoke to said the unfair and racially discriminatory labor structure at clubs where they have worked, including Starlets, Sugardaddys, and Angels, inspired them to take collective action. (A representative from Starlets declined Jezebel’s requests for comment, and representatives for Sugardaddys and Angels did not respond.) It has become popular for NYC clubs to hire social media stars as bartenders, including multiple women whose Instagram accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers, and clubs often promote bartenders over dancers on social media. These bartenders wear similar clothing to those employed as dancers, and since they regularly dance on the bar, #NYCStripperStrike participants say the bartenders now earn many of the tips that dancers previously depended on.
Dancers, who clubs classify as independent contractors, have to pay a house fee to work every night, in addition to tipping out other staff members. On a big night, dancers say the fee can be around $120, and they are routinely fined additional amounts by management for supposed misconduct at work. Dancers say they risk being fired if they try to contest unfair treatment with club managers. In contrast, women bartenders are paid an hourly server rate or work off the books—but don’t have to pay any fee to work.
Dancers say the clubs will not usually hire women with darker skin to be bartenders. “They chose the best looking girls they could, mostly Hispanic, white or exotic looking, and put them on a pedestal,” said Tokyo, a 21-year-old dancer who has been working in NYC clubs for four years.
“A couple years ago we [dancers] could make $500, $1000 or $2500 a night. But now it’s just been we barely make our house fee back,” Tokyo continued. “The most I’m trying to do is break even, which means I at least make back the money I spent on cab, house fee, tips, all of that. I would be lying if I said I make it back all the time.”
Colorism and racism in NYC’s exotic dancer industry go far beyond disputes with bartenders, according to dancers. Black and dark skinned dancers are often excluded from VIP rooms or from working on nights when celebrities host events. The dancers I spoke to said many clubs openly have a quota of hiring no more than two black dancers out of 20, and will turn away black dancers who come to auditions. Manny Mykonos, who managed Aces until it closed in September and was the only club manager to respond to Jezebel’s requests for comment, denied that Aces or other NYC strip clubs discriminate based on race or skin tone. “It’s not a black or white thing or anything like that, it’s about who the customer wants,” he said. “Like if we two went out and you wanted a type of food, let’s say we go out for Italian food or whatever, and then we say, ‘Oh no, you should eat some Greek food.’ You know what I mean? It’s the customer’s choice who he wants in the VIP.”
Gizelle told a different story. “A lot of dark-skinned dancers have complained to me about how management has treated them as far as discrimination against their race and color. A lot of them complain about sexual harassment,” she said. “Everytime a black dancer speaks up it’s an issue for management, and it’s to the point where a black dancer can get fired for speaking her mind.”
Tokyo, who is black, says she has been told by club managers that she “might not have the look,” and that others have even said openly that they aren’t hiring more black girls. She has also been told to leave work early or leave the VIP area on nights when celebrities are at the club, meaning she doesn’t have access to the highest-earning opportunities. “It makes you feel discouraged. It always makes you feel like you’re not good enough,” said Tokyo. “Almost all my friends are trying to get work [plastic surgery] done. Why is that?”
These are longstanding issues for dancers and other sex workers. “I would say that it’s almost a prerequisite if you’re black that you’ll have to navigate racism in the exotic dancer industry,” said Siobhan Brooks, author of Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry, in a phone interview. “What usually happens is that even if you have what looks like an integrated club, black dancers will be shut out of the VIP rooms where most of the money can be made,” said Brooks.
“Over the years dancers have seen the amount of money they make go down,” explained Gizelle. “It’s to the point where dancers don’t even want to work in New York anymore.” In the absence of enough income from stripping, dancers say many have to turn elsewhere—including to other, riskier forms of sex work—to make ends meet. Many also travel to other states to dance, but high overhead costs associated with travel and lodging make that an unstable option.
Locally and nationally it has been difficult for exotic dancers to organize, largely due to the semi-legal nature of their work, along with their classification as independent contractors in most states, including New York. Brooks explained that when dancers are classified as independent performers, clubs justify lack of wages and charging fees to perform—while at the same time requiring dancers to stick to a schedule and follow rules that treat them as regular employees. Black women also navigate many layers of discrimination that can make organizing more of a burden, although many still choose to take it on. “There’s so many intersecting things that shape how black women show up in stripping that it becomes a matter of what’s a priority,” explained Brooks. “I think particularly when you’re dealing with people that have been discriminated against historically, sometimes there’s just this feeling of, ‘Well, what else is new? I’ll just work around that.”
Now a professor of African American Studies at California State University Fullerton, Brooks formerly danced at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, where she participated in their successful campaign to unionize in 1996. Although the Lusty Lady closed in 2013, for years it was the only unionized and labor-run stripclub in the country. Brooks suggested that a model structure for NYC strikers would be “dancers that have health insurance, dancers that have autonomy over the schedule, which is what the Lusty Lady turned into after unionization. We had a rotating scheduling process where everyone has the opportunity to make money. Everyone can have their turn at the VIP and it’s not a quota.”
The NYC dancers are currently organizing without any support from a union or sex worker rights organization, neither of which have yet contacted them. If the strike tactics don’t work, they are interested in a lawsuit against the clubs, which has been a successful approach for exotic dancers in the past. In 2014, 2,000 dancers in New York won $10 million in a class action lawsuit against Rick’s Cabaret for unpaid wages. NYC dancers are in the process of putting together a concrete set of demands, but they believe more structure is needed in the clubs so that all the dancers, as well as the bartenders, can have a chance to earn their fair share of profits. They are interested in unionizing, but first they want to see if management will negotiate with them.
Gizelle said that so far no club management or promoters have been sympathetic to their cause. Many have posted their disdain for the strike on social media, including Mykonos, the former Aces club manager, who has posted his disapproval on Instagram. One post from October 24 states: “this is not a black vs white thing or bartender vs dancer thing this is being Pretty vs Ugly thing.”
As management tries via social media to downplay the strikers’ substantive claims and frame this as a petty beef between women, the dancers continue to press on. Industry-wide discrimination is their real target. “At the end of the day it was never about the bartenders, because we ladies don’t really have any power in this male-dominated industry,” said Tokyo. “Men own all the strip clubs. All the promoters are men. They’re the ones who hire and fire who they want. And they’re the ones who don’t allow black girls to work in their clubs.”
Rachel Anspach is an independent journalist examining the intersections of American politics, race and gender. Follow her on Twitter @RachelAnspach.