Roxy Bourdillon gets hot under the collar, discovering what really goes down at the UK’s first queer strip club
BY ROXY BOURDILLON, IMAGE BY BRONWEN PARKER-RHODES
The woman with the platinum bob is unzipping her see-through mini skirt and ever so slowly, e-v-e-r so seductively, unfastening her bra. I only met her a few minutes ago, when she coyly approached me, took me by the hand, and led me up the spiral staircase. “I’ve never done this before,” I told her nervously. “Don’t worry,” she replied. “You’re fabulous.” Now she’s writhing against the wall of our private booth. She’s gyrating on the pole less that a metre in front of me. She’s extending one leg up. I can’t believe how high she can get it. She’s like a gymnast, a scandalously saucy, ridiculously raunchy, X-rated gymnast. Oh Jesus, I think she might be taking off her G-string. She’s looking at me. I’m looking at her. Then I’m looking at my girlfriend. Well… this escalated quickly.
Like many long-term lesbian couples, our usual idea of a hot date is binge-watching Gentleman Jack in our PJs. Yet here we are at the launch of Harpies, the UK’s first LGBTQI strip club, and let’s just say, we’re embracing the carnival spirit. The truth is we’d never feel comfortable partaking in a peepshow in a mainstream strip joint. It’s not the strippers that are the issue. If anything, I’ve always been enthralled by their promise of subversive glamour. As a youngster, I was obsessed with films like Showgirls, and Coyote Ugly. In the safety of my bedroom, I tried to emulate the magic of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance with the chair and Demi Moore in Striptease with the baggy shirt. My favourite song was Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. My workout regime was Carmen Electra’s Fit To Strip DVD. Still to this day, I have a penchant for the provocative. I can quote Moulin Rouge word-for-word and my ultimate style icon is Dita von Teese. I frequent burlesque nights and, in the privacy of my own home, I’ve performed many a risqué routine for my lover. So yes, it’s fair to say I bloody love a stripper.
But until tonight, I’ve never actually stepped foot inside a strip club. They always seemed too seedy, too cis, too aggressively heterosexual. My other half and I wouldn’t dream of going there to get our kicks. Not because of any objection to women taking their kit off, but because of our anxiety over how the predominantly male punters might react to our presence. But here, in this bold new queer wonderland celebrating sexuality and self-expression, we don’t feel sleazy or self-conscious or stared at. We feel utterly at liberty to get our freak on. And so does Amelie, our luminous dancer, who has now finished her performance and is rooting around on the floor trying to track down her thong. Losing underwear is a hazard of the job. “The cleaner must have so many pairs of my knickers!”
Sixty seconds ago she was expertly disrobing for our erotic entertainment, and now we’re chatting away like old pals. She’s been stripping for two years and relishes the financial freedom and flexibility. Now she can afford to seriously think about applying to uni. “It’s just opened up my life so much.” She laments that she doesn’t get many female clients in her regular workplace, although there is the odd one accompanied by a male partner. “A lot of the time, the women are very into it. You don’t often have an openly lesbian couple come in though, which is a shame. We all have lusts, wants, desires. We shouldn’t be ashamed.”
Rewind an hour and Harpies is about to open its doors for the very first time. The performers gather for a group hug. Their excitement is palpable and entirely understandable. After all, they’re about to make history by peeling off their clothes for cash for queers. They’re a fabulously diverse bunch with different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders and sexualities. Among them is a minx in stockings, suspenders and a tiger-print mini dress that shows off her hairy armpits, a beefcake resplendent in kilt, chunky boots and rhinestone jewellery (I make a mental note to ask where it’s from later), and renowned Afro-Latinx trans drag artist Chiyo Gomes, who’s smouldering in a leather harness.
The queen of this realm, the superwoman who started it all, is Lucia Blayke. She’s looking every inch the glamourpuss in a gold beaded gown and scarlet lippy. In addition to her work with Harpies, she founded London Trans Pride and cabaret night Transmissions (a slot at Glasto + Beth Ditto popping into their last event = maximum queer cool points). “This time last year, I was working behind a bar with no qualifications,” she recounts in her sultry Scouse lilt. “My mum’s always said you can do anything if you put your mind to it.” It was her mum – Jill, sounds like an absolute ledge – who gave her the idea to start a queer strip club in the first place. Lucia was having money troubles and decided to give stripping a go. “With exotic dancing, I get to feel positive about my body. That’s always a big bonus, especially for trans people who suffer with dysphoria. You spend the majority of your day wanting to change your body, so to have people coming to enjoy it is a really nice change.”
But when she started looking for work, she found that most strip clubs were unwilling to employ a trans performer. While the desire for trans bodies is huge – last year, Pornhub’s fifth most popular search term was “transgender” – there’s still a stigma about admitting to being turned on by trans people. “Society’s always trying to keep it behind closed doors. You can wipe your internet history, meet an escort in a private hotel room, but being seen in a club is a bit too public.” Jill suggested Lucia launch her own inclusive strip club, and so Harpies was born. “Times are changing. We hope that cis society will step up, stop being ashamed of being attracted to trans people, and be loud and proud about it. We centre trans and queer bodies.”
Lucia introduces me to her collaborators, fellow “head bitches”, Jeanie Crystal and Rachel Steele. They’re both seasoned strippers and creative directors of erotic art collective, BiRDS. They’re also both gorgeous – Jeanie, a petite Brummie bombshell in PVC over-the-knee boots, and Rachel, a siren with a Bettie Page fringe and alabaster skin. The two met while studying. “We started looking at the intersections of performance art and just being a ho,” drawls Jeanie. “I was working for this artist that’s quite big and I was performing naked. You’d get these dirty, old men coming in watching you all day. I was paid £10 an hour and then I’d go to the club and make proper money. I was like, ‘Hang on a second. What’s going on here?’ That’s when we started BiRDS.” Adjusting her lace bralet, Rachel tells me how much she’s looking forward to tonight. We beam at each other in giddy anticipation as T-Rex’s Children Of The Revolution pumps through the sound system.
Lucia declares, “We want to take down those patriarchal structures of exotic dancing. This night’s run by three working class queer women, who are also dancers, and that never happens.” While there are plenty of LGBQ strippers in mainstream clubs, they often feel pressured to hide their identities. In many venues, dancers have to pay a “house fee” to work there, and can end up out of pocket. But Harpies operates with a very different business model, aiming to put the power, and those all-important dollar bills, back in the hands, and garter belts, of queer strippers. The house rules state: “We encourage you to explore your desire, access your joy and excavate your patriarchal wiring in a consensual adult space… Oh, and don’t forget to TIP!”
The tipping dollars look like kinky Monopoly money, with “UTOPIA OF HARPIES” printed on them in swirly script. And on the subject of cash, in case you’re curious, a solo dance will set you back around 20 quid, and exactly how much a dancer reveals is up to them, but can be negotiated beforehand. For a couple’s dance, you’re looking at roughly £30. In terms of safety, there’s a strict no-touching-without-consent policy, and all dancers are trained to keep an eye out for any funny business.
Like a Las Vegas club, this is a place to party as well as indulge in a private dance. The venue is a veritable theme park of delights. There’s just so much to take in. It’s sensory overload. On the ground floor alone, there are mannequins dressed up like bisexual burlesque icon Josephine Baker, a neon sign saying, “GIRLS BOYS TOYS” and wall projections of voluptuous silhouettes undulating in rainbow colours. I venture further and find four more levels of enchantment, a basement disco, a seaside complete with sand and swings, and a rooftop jacuzzi. At Harpies, £250 will buy you half an hour in a hot tub with a stripper and a bottle of bubbly.
Lucia, Jeanie and Rachel have plans to make Harpies even more tantalising and are hoping to introduce a queer resident dominatrix, spanking bench, and cage. “We want to have more fetish, but keep a hint of humour,” says Lucia. “I think we’re just gonna balance it by having them trampled on by a drag queen singing Shirley Bassey, you know?” There are ideas for more high brow acts too. Lucia has a friend who’s a double threat: stripper and classically trained singer. “We’re gonna work on a number where he comes down the stairs, naked and oiled up, singing opera.”
I’m so riveted by our conversation, I’ve barely noticed the customers flooding in, but now I take a moment to look around and marvel at the uber queer crowd that’s come out to play. There are groups, couples and folks on their own, but across the board, their sartorial choices are on point: a vixen with a ginger beard slut-drops in stiletto heels, a tattooed lass – currently making it rain on a stripper’s backside – wears a T-shirt brandishing the slogan, “Stop censoring sluts”.
I’m thrilled to see there are significantly more women than men. Lucia explains, “We want to have a largely female and femme client base, because although women are allowed into some strip clubs, it’s always a bit gimmicky and you’ve gotta seem as though you’re doing it as a joke. You couldn’t just come in on your own in a business suit and enjoy a dance like a guy does. That’s what we’re trying to push for. And couples as well, so if yoos want to get a dance later, lemme know.” Suddenly Jeanie’s voice booms over the loudspeaker: “You are in the first LGBTQI strip club! What happens in Harpies stays in Harpies!”
As the night goes on, the revelry becomes ever more daring and debauched. I swear the onstage performers are somehow getting even more naked, and customers are tucking tipping dollars into strippers’ undies with increasing confidence, as alcohol flows and inhibitions loosen. The mood is steamy, communal and all kinds of queer.
Watching a goddess twerk in seven inch platforms, I reflect on how powerful it is being in an environment specifically catered to your desire, especially when that desire is still fetishised and derided in mainstream society. It’s 2019, but media outlets continue to run alarmingly transphobic content, homophobic hate crime is on the rise, and in May this year, when a same-sex female couple on a London bus refused to kiss for the titillation of a group of men, they were beaten up. It’s still dangerous to be queer. And straight, cis blokes still view our sexuality as something for them to jeer at, wank over or demonise.
I never want my lesbianism to be objectified by men, but equally I never want to deny that I am a sexual being. I didn’t go through years of closeted turmoil, because I’m quite fond of female company. I endured all that crap, because I urgently, undeniably, irrepressibly, really fucking fancy women. I love that Harpies doesn’t shy away from the “sex” part of “sexuality”. Tonight feels liberating, because it’s about queer folk expressing and revelling in their own sexuality on their own terms. For once, we’re the ones in control, and we’re having a goddamn glorious time. At this revolution, there will not only be dancing, but stripping too. Now, exactly whose are these knickers I’ve just found?
Follow Harpies on Instagram @harpiesstripclub.
This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of DIVA – you can grab your digital copy here!
Like many businesses, DIVA has been hit hard by the economic impact of coronavirus and we need your help to keep the presses rolling throughout the pandemic. Visit our PayPal fundraising page and give what you can. Your support means the world.