A candid look behind the scenes of London's strip clubs
Bronwen Parker-Rhodes and Emily Dinsdale's new book ‘Wanting You to Want Me’ documents real-life stories of the women working in these secret spaces.
For many people, strip clubs remain uncharted territory – something in between an unfulfilled fantasy and a prohibited, inaccessible land. Whether it’s the neon signs hinting at what happens within them, the divisive opinions such venues spark, or the niggling desire to peek inside their blacked-out windows; there’s something inherently intriguing about these spaces. After all, what other venue wields the power to immerse all those who enter in an unexplored parallel dimension? It’s this very sense of mystery, combined with the urge to faithfully narrate what goes on in these sequestered environments, that inspired the drafting of Wanting You to Want Me — a collection of anonymous, real-life stories from a constellation of London strip club dancers.
A collaboration between photographer and filmmaker Bronwen Parker-Rhodes and writer Emily Dinsdale, the book brings together intimate revelations from women who inhabit this age-old community through exclusive interviews and original photographs gathered over several years. Once part of this world themselves, in Wanting You to Want Me, the two London-based creatives offer readers an authentic glimpse into the ever-evolving complex reality of strip clubs and the unlikely, refreshing human connections uniting those who keep them alive.
Bronwen and Emily met years ago while working a shift at the same club. With mutual dancer friends, they had been unknowingly admiring each other long before chatting for the first time. A brief conversation at the bar was enough for them to realise that there was more holding them together than their shared experiences as strippers. “I was really intrigued by Bronwen and had seen and loved some of her portraits,” Emily says. “Once we got talking, it became apparent we both had been trying to preserve the stories, conversations and voices of the really extraordinary women we’d encountered in strip clubs.”
Above all, the thing drawing the Wanting You to Want Me authors closer together was their resolution to portray these hidden places — “an enclave of desire and disappointment” — in all their multiplicity, exploring both uplifting and problematic aspects of the industry at once, without imposing their own opinions on them. “We wanted to capture this world in a creative way,” Bronwen says. “Back then, I was working on a documentary about stripping, but some women would only share their stories over anonymous voice recordings. When I met Emily, she felt like the perfect person to help turn such incredible interviews into a book.”
Published by Hardie Grant and launching on April 14, Wanting You to Want Me guides us through the changing rooms, passageways and backstage spaces of the clubs to explore themes whose relevance moves far beyond the walls of these venues. A much-needed inside look at the atmosphere that permeates the interiors of otherwise secret locations, the book – which is thoroughly narrated from the insider perspective of strippers – encompasses everything from female camaraderie and sex work to body image, beauty and objectification. Witty and unfiltered, the volume presents readers with a variety of eccentric characters – punters and dancers alike – whose intimate confessions on friendship, conflict, sexuality, desire, shame, and money draw an intricate, compelling portrait of humanity that concerns us all.
“Working as a stripper allows you to gain all sorts of psychological insights into individuals, society and human behaviour,” Emily says. “Because you’re encountering people in this strange, intense environment outside of the streams of everyday life, you get to observe all that from a unique vantage point.” Reflecting on how her own experience of the stripping scene compares to that of some of the featured dancers, co-author Bronwen acknowledges the importance of giving a voice to a broad selection of the endless conflicting stories. “Being a stripper really does feel like you’ve seen another layer of the world that, if you haven't danced, you’ll never experience,” she says. “Though it shaped who I am and benefited many other aspects of my life, Wanting You to Want Me also includes the experiences of women who aren’t necessarily ‘out’ about it – as that’s a large majority of the dancers I’ve encountered.”
Today, the dominant narratives around the stripping world appear to oscillate between either fetishising the idea of strippers and sex workers as victims, or holding them up as icons of female sexual emancipation. However, in Bronwen and Emily’s experience, the lived reality is far more nuanced. “When we were dancing, we didn’t identify wholeheartedly with either of those polarised depictions,” says Emily, adding that the book allows space for the myriad contradictions of that world to co-exist on the same pages. It’s this all-embracing vision of the stripping scene that informed the title of the volume. “Wanting You to Want Me speaks of power and desire,” Emily says. “There’s something reciprocal and circular about it, but there’s also ambiguity, as in… who’s in control of the wanting?”
Bronwen explains how her background in documentary filmmaking helped her give the audience a world to get lost in, while leaving a margin for readers to make up own their minds about what they see. “We don’t feel like we are an authority within this world and never wanted our voices to be louder than any other strippers’ in the book,” she says. “Still, though Wanting You to Want Me only touches the surface of such a complicated universe, I really hope it will shed some light on the often misunderstood relationships between stripper and punter, which many people are so quick to judge.”
For Emily and Bronwen, making sure that each dancer involved in the project felt completely at ease while telling her story was a top priority. Besides ensuring the anonymity of all the women they interviewed, what truly mattered to both authors was doing justice to everyone who contributed to the making of the volume. “Being the custodians of all these deeply personal stories is a huge responsibility,” Emily says. “We hope that each dancer will feel like we’ve honoured her tales and trust.”
Ultimately, Wanting You to Want Me is a triumph of the sense of intimacy and collusion experienced by strippers in the process of working alongside one another. A unifying phenomenon which, involving women from all walks of life and backgrounds, sees them forge long-lasting bonds of understanding while sharing changing rooms, stages and podiums. “There’s an honesty and openness that happens when a group of women from really different circumstances work together in such close quarters,” says Bronwen. “The stories in this book, the magic conversations that only take place in this environment, have a universal value. They speak to all of us about real human connections and experiences.”
Wanting You to Want Me: Stories from the Secret World of Strip Clubs, by Bronwen Parker-Rhodes & Emily Dinsdale, is due to be published on 14 April 2022 by Hardie Grant.
All photography Bronwen Parker-Rhodes