During last week's Academy Awards hysteria, a new installation appeared at the much-trafficked intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea in Los Angeles, as shiny as it is troubling. Clad in nipple tassels and a G-string stuffed with wads of cash, the supersized Oscar recast as a stripper was British street artist Plastic Jesus' latest piece of cultural commentary. In previous years, he's erected golden statues snorting drugs in an attempt to critique the dark side of a glamorous industry. "So many women come to Hollywood chasing a dream to become an actor, dancer or singer and, sadly, due to the lack of opportunities, combined with the high cost of living, they are faced with the reality of having to strip in bars and clubs," said Jesus in a demeaning artist statement that equates professional dancers with drug addicts. It's an all-too-familiar perpetuation of the "sad stripper" trope that today's enlightened and happily employed dancers must overcome daily. On the fall-to-your-death heels of New York Fashion Week and Saint Laurent's LA extravaganza, during which erotic iconography also abounded, we consider pop culture's complicated obsession with exotic dancers — and how it's affecting the real women of the industry.
In the centuries since the invention of the striptease, adult entertainment has seduced the mainstream. There's Dita Von Teese, the raven-haired swarovski-sparkled fetishist-turned-fashion icon who catapulted to fame after posing for the cover of Playboy, and is credited with resuscitating the art of the striptease. Then there's Diablo Cody, Hollywood's favorite (and only?) feminist stripper turned Oscar winner for Best Screenplay. Before becoming an industry darling with Juno, she penned an acerbic tell-all chronicling her yearlong exploits working peep shows and seedy strip clubs. And who could forget cyber bombshell Brooke Candy? The freaky, futuristic former stripper and daughter of one-time Hustler CFO has matured from raunchy rapper to finger-waved fashion house muse before our very eyes, with a Sia-produced debut album on the way. Lady Gaga, too, once worked the pole for cash, and has claimed that she earned more money dancing on tables than waiting them.
Though none of the aforementioned have been reticent about their skin-baring backgrounds, they've all since transitioned into careers widely deemed more "socially acceptable." But what does this mean for women for whom stripping is not a distant memory, but rather something they are proud of?
Consider the uprising of slutwalk founder and anti-slutshaming activist Amber Rose. As the ex of two prominent (and dueling) music moguls, she's been thrust into the highly visible role of amending society's dated attitude toward sexually empowered women. Her past as a stripper serves as the convenient backbone of West's inflammatory twitter diatribes asserting her trashiness. "The irony is that if you compare Rose and Kardashian, you don't find the stark contrast West's narrative relies on. Each gained notoriety — for better or worse — off the back of their sex appeal (Rose was a stripper-cum-model, Kardashian had a sex tape), and both are now mothers," reads a recent i-D piece about how the Yeezy-Khalifa twitter fight reveals Kanye's misogynistic views toward women. Unlike Von Teese or Gaga, Rose has chosen not to distance herself from her roots in sex work, nor has she repackaged her identity in couture outfits. Instead, Rose is on a sortie to prove that owning one's body and sexuality is an act of feminism, not an invitation for sexual harassment, as she recently had to explain on a talk show hosted by a baffled Tyrese and Rev Run.
And here's where it gets even more confusing. While Kanye's clambering up the the fashion ranks and publicly bashing his ex for getting naked, Hedi Slimane recruited Jumbo's Clown Room dancers to perform at Saint Laurent's recent star-studded Los Angeles affair, where front-rowers included Courtney Love, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Joan Jett (two of whom are former strippers themselves). For anyone who hasn't experienced Jumbo's, it's a divey Hollywood bikini bar notorious for its artsy clientele and Juilliard-educated rock 'n' roll dancers with a knack for clacking lucite to Black Sabbath. And that leads us to the Alexander Wang's high-voltage, sex-fueled fall/winter 16 collection, which sent punky models down the runway in pants embroidered with silhouetted exotic dancers. And perhaps we reached peak triple-X with streetwear brand Richardson's debaucherous fashion week party during which internet babe/budding fashion designer/newbie-nudie-dancer Zoe Kestan aka @weed_slut_420 made it rain for guests including Hari Nef and Jemima Kirke.
The fashion world is no stranger to accusations of cultural appropriation (see: baby hair and bindis). And once again, it could be argued that fashion folk are bandwagoning without advocating for the hardworking stripper community. In a culture that regularly discriminates against, doesn't protect (most dancers receive no benefits or job security), and degrades professional strippers, and where there is still so much stigma about women in this line of work, it's eyebrow raising to see designers capitalize on the street-cred served up by the sex work community. Does the industry care about the safety and well-being of sex workers — or are they cashing in on shock value and sex appeal?
To get some answers, we spoke to Jacqueline Frances, aka Jacq The Stripper. The self-proclaimed "enterprising megababe" — a stripper, stand-up comedian, and author of The Beaver Show, a brash, sexy memoir about her reality as a stripper — is single-handedly revolutionizing the world's perception of her occupation and fighting against the "sad stripper trope" by exposing what really goes on in those curtained off backrooms.
"Let's start with 'strippers are cool now.' Not actual strippers — we are still publicly shit on — but the idea of being a little bit trashy, sexy, and unabashedly so... this is cool," she explains, when asked about fashion's attraction to strip culture. "And if I'm being totally honest I'd like to think that I'm contributing to this shift in culture. I'm out and proud. Not a lot of us are, because it has the potential to ruin your life and/or any future career, relationship, life-in-general opportunities. And this is why when you take from the culture of our life and career, it's important to stand up for us."
Zoe Kestan, or @weed_slut_420 on Instagram, skyrocketed to 30K plus followers after being shot by Richard Kern. Though new to stripping, she helped Andrew Richardson, founder of eponymous streetwear brand Richardson, hire dancers and create outfits for his fashion week soiree. "He was so generous and helpful, it was so much fun," says Zoe.
As a recent RISD grad, former painting assistant to Jeff Koons, lingerie designer, model, and knitwear consultant, she's been supplementing her freelance income by dancing at New York strip clubs while simultaneously researching "why certain stripper things and style elements are perceived as tacky, and why others are embraced," she explains. "I love getting dressed up. I love picking out my outfit. I love getting money," she tells me. "We have the ability to take money for free, without doing anything." Zoe hopes to use her internet it-girl status to teach young boys and girls to feel comfortable about sex and their bodies. "I'm the oldest of four, and a lot of my younger siblings' friends follow me on Instagram. I teach them that it's okay to watch and interact with a girl in a certain way, but when they act or say something inappropriate I let them know. Because I'm young, I feel like I have an ability to change things."
In January, the #NotAStripper hashtag began trending among "polers," hobbyists and fitness enthusiasts who post pics of their impressive pole tricks but are quick to clarify that they are athletes, not strippers. Before long, actual professional strippers were firing back, responding with their own sex positive hashtags like #YesAStripper, #AllPoleDancers and #ProudStripper. The art of pole dancing was invented by strippers, and by adamantly denying any connection to its roots, the #NotAStripper movement is setting back the women who put it on the map.
"Students and teachers of pole dance who try to distance themselves from our art are only contributing to sex worker stigma," Oregon stripper and activist Elle Stanger told the Daily Dot. "It seems silly that someone would pay to learn a skill, while trying to distance themselves from its origins." As poledancing associations around the world make a play to legitimize the activity as an Olympic sport, it's more important than ever to respect the entrepreneurial women who paved the way for it, and who make good money doing something they genuinely love.
While the shift toward sex positivity in fashion is inherently positive, it's imperative to be an unconditional supporter, not just a casual spectator. "So many hipsters are going to strip clubs these days... and they're going to take selfies. It's annoying, and it hurts my income," explains Ms. Frances. "Strippers pay to walk in the door of the club, and the only money we make is the money patrons give us. Maybe these fashion-y types aren't publicly shitting on us, but I feel disrespected as an entertainer when they're taking up seats just to look. Strip clubs are not museums or art galleries. They are interactive spaces where, if you're not participating, you're kind of a dick." Bottom line: if you want to rock poledancing knits, you better not skimp on the tip. "If you're going to put a stripper on your sweater, why not be truly revolutionary and have an actual stripper in your show? Maybe next season," adds Frances. "If I could afford that sweater, I'd wear the shit out of it."
Text Jane Helpern