Like many working women, "Charlie" is expected to wear a uniform to work:
- Heavy eye shadow? Check.
- Micro-miniskirt? Check.
- String bikini? Check.
- Eight-inch platform heels? Check.
- And not much else.
Charlie - who spoke on the condition that only her stage name be used - is among a small but apparently growing number of women who, because of a lousy job market, have turned to stripping to pay the rent, go to school or feed their kids.
No one compiles statistics on exotic dancers, but club managers across the country say more women than ever are seeking economic security by grabbing on to a brass pole.
For some, in places like Fresno County, Calif., where unemployment in lingers above 15 percent, desperate times call for desperate measures. Dancers say it's better than no job at all - despite the social disapproval, physical danger and psychological stress.
"Women who are doing this because they're desperate for money, the ones who find it morally repugnant ... will feel the toll immediately," said Bernadette Barton, a sociology professor and author who has studied the business. "No one should have to violate their own moral center to make a living."
Charlie, a 22-year-old petite blonde studying to be a surgical technologist, acknowledges the emotional difficulty of the job. "I try not to think about it," she said. "If I didn't have to be here, I wouldn't be."
On a recent midweek afternoon at City Lights, a bar near Fresno Yosemite International Airport, Charlie's outfit is a white string bikini and tall white stripper heels.
It's a far cry from the medical scrubs and white sneakers she wore a year ago, before her hours as a medical assistant in a doctor's office were reduced last summer in a cost-cutting move. She said she was affected because she was the most recent hire. Her income shrank to the point where she couldn't keep up with her bills.
Managers at City Lights say they have a roster of about 70 women dancers, up from about 45 more than a year ago. Owners of Fresno's only other topless club, Gold Diggers, did not return phone calls.
Dancing topless on stage for tips and offering lap dances to customers at $20 per song offers not only fast cash but a flexible schedule. That appeals to the college students who fill most of the dancer roster at City Lights, said "Kitty," a club manager and veteran stripper. She asked that her stage name be used in this story because neighbors and acquaintances don't know she works in a strip club.
But female students aren't the only ones seeking work, Kitty said. "There aren't many jobs out there, so we're getting more girls. We have quite a few single moms." Kitty, a fit 46-year-old who danced at the Fresno club for 15 years, knows from experience that when a woman comes in, she's in dire straits.
"It's not easy to walk into a strip club to look for work," she said. "A lot of women just can't do it. It's hard."
Club owners nationwide are seeing a surge in new dancers, said Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a trade organization of adult nightclubs.
"Owners are seeing a lot of women who worked for Wall Street companies or in real estate who still have to make the payment on their Mercedes, still have to feed their kids, still have to pay their American Express card bills," Spencer said.
Strip clubs aren't the only dance employers. Fresno businessman Albert Ellis, owner of Spice 1 Entertainment, said the number of calls from women looking for work has nearly doubled from a year ago - to as many as 30 a week.
Spice 1 is one of many Fresno companies that send dancers on "outcalls" to entertain at bachelor parties, divorce parties and other gatherings.
"What's surprising me is how many women are coming in not because this is something they want to do, but because it's something they have to do," Ellis said. "It's more a sense of desperation over the last year and a half, when the economy started taking a fall."
One of Ellis' dancers, 20-year-old "Dallas," said she worked two jobs waitressing in restaurants, but business got so slow that her hours at both jobs slowly evaporated.
"I tried everywhere," she said. "I answered phones at hotels, went to temp agencies and couldn't even find a job that way."
She'd skipped over the dancer ads many times without calling. "I never thought I'd ever be doing this," she said. "Finally I thought, I've got to do something, I've got to pay the rent."
Now in school studying business management, Dallas said she plans to continue dancing until she completes her degree in about two years. "I want to run a restaurant," she said.
Because she's not yet 21, Dallas cannot dance in Fresno's topless clubs. Unlike the clubs, girls who perform in outcall shows often strip completely nude.
"Sometimes it's just too much," Dallas said. "Sometimes I just want to quit, but I've got to pay my bills."
AN EMOTIONAL TOLL
Stripping wears heavily on many dancers, said sociologist Barton, an associate professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky and author of "Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers," a 2006 book detailing 10 years of research and interviews with dancers across the U.S.
"They're so stigmatized and treated so disparagingly in media representations," said Barton.
That's why dancer Charlie conceals what she does for a living from most people, although she said her family knows.
"I never thought I'd be doing this," she said. "To be honest with you, I don't enjoy it, but it pays the bills and it pays for my school."
Fear is another stress. Twenty-year-old stripper "Dallas" recalled the terror of her first bachelor party show nine months ago.
"I've never been so scared in my life," she said. "I don't know what scared me more: getting naked in front of strangers, or worrying about running into someone who could be my cousin, for God's sake."
Dallas said the fear subsided in a couple of weeks. But women face other emotional challenges - trying to have a meaningful relationship, for example.
"It's so hard to date guys," Dallas said. "As soon as they find out you're a stripper, they ask, 'So, when do I get my lap dance?'"
Among women Barton interviewed in her research, she found some are better able to cope with the jealousy and the psychological stress.
"Some women are more adventurous and enjoy breaking taboos, so maybe it's not that big a deal for them to go into a strip club," she said. "For them, it's just another adventure."
For others, the assault on their self-esteem gets to be too much, Barton said. "The emotional toll gets worse the longer they do this."
Being propositioned is another occupational hazard, although it's uncommon for women who perform in topless or nude clubs to fall into prostitution, Barton said.
(Fresno Police Sgt. Mark Hudson, who works in the patrol district that includes City Lights, said fights in the parking lot and DUIs, rather than prostitution, are the main problems at the bar. The state suspended the club's liquor license temporarily in late 2008, however, citing the club for what officials called "illegal adult entertainment.")
The pressure is even more intense for dancers at parties. At least once a night, said Dallas, someone offers her cash for sex.
"It's disgusting," she said. "Like I'm going to have sex with some guy for $100. Ughh, no way."
When a client gets out of hand, Dallas said, the driver/bodyguard who accompanies her to parties can intervene, and the dancer can call off the show and leave.
Economic realities that prompt women to become strippers also affect their customers. Men who visit strip clubs don't spend like they used to.
On a recent midweek afternoon at City Lights, bikini- and lingerie-clad dancers mingled with a mere handful of customers as a topless dancer gyrated around a brass pole on stage. All six billiard tables at the other end of the club were vacant.
"This is very unusual compared to six months ago," dancer Charlie said. "Six months ago, I'd be really mad if I finished with only $150 after a shift. Now I'm happy to go home with $150."
Ellis, the owner of Spice 1, said the outcall business also feels the economic pressures of supply and demand. With more women stripping for parties - both for outcall companies and advertising as independents - "it's pushing prices down. It's not so much that we're losing customers as much as prices are falling so guys can still afford to entertain."
When he started his business 13 years ago, Ellis said, he charged $100 for a one-hour show. At its peak, his rates went up to $160 an hour. Now, it's fallen back to $120 an hour.
Dallas said she receives $40, plus tips, for each show she performs, and her driver/bodyguard gets $20. When she began dancing last year, she often was booked for five to six shows on the weekend nights she worked. Now that's slipped to perhaps three shows on a Saturday night.
So for all the social stigma, relationship troubles, the occasional unruly drunk who gets a little too "friendly" - is it worth it?
"I think so," Dallas said. "I've had days where I've gone home crying, but then the next day is a good day."
Club stripper Charlie said she thinks she can stick it out until she finishes her schooling.
"It's worth it to me because it's paying the bills and paying for school - the student loans are ridiculous," she said.
"I'll be here until I'm done with school, maybe another year after this fall."
Another dancer at City Lights who also goes by the stage name Dallas said the money's good, "but I wouldn't be doing it if I had other work.
"This is a fall-back for everybody," she added. "I mean, nobody really wants to be doing this."
(c) 2009, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.