Backstage at London’s lap-dancing clubs

This article originally appeared on on 07/07/2012


Crazy legal wrangles, enraged councillors and tight-fisted punters are hurting London’s finest bordellos. Rebecca Hobson reveals the troubled times at lap dancing clubs

It’s early evening in July. But rather than enjoy a midweek post-work glass of wine somewhere outside, I sit in a darkened room and try desperately to avoid eye contact with the young woman dressed in skin-tight leopard print Lycra pole dancing in front of me.

It’s not easy. The club’s just opened and there’s only me, two punters, a handful of dancers and some bar staff around.

Stephen Less, owner and founder of London’s largest chain of lap dancing clubs, Secrets, finally shows up, and I’m saved.

Alongside Spearmint Rhino and Stringfellows, the seven-strong Secrets chain positions itself in the top strata of the lap-dancing industry. No pounds in a pint here. No nudity on the open floor or stage – not even breasts – and definitely no underground hanky panky.

“Our clients are businesspeople, we’re not cheap,” Less tells me downstairs in the VIP room away from the stage and its gyrating leopard print.

Until recently, business was booming for Less – and for the industry in general – but the entrepreneur hasn’t expanded his £20m empire of late, choosing instead to focus on starting up in the recruitment sector.

It’s a familiar boom and bust tale. Almost a decade ago, The Licensing Act 2003 placed strip clubs in the same category as cafes and bars, and the industry boomed. Now, market saturation, the recession and a change in licencing law fought for by a Muslim councillor and feminist groups have dealt heavy blows to the industry.

On this Wednesday night, Less expects to see anywhere between 50 to100 customers through the door over the next eight hours.

Though Secrets targets more of a big-spending crowd than a big crowd – “quality customers over quantity”– the high rollers aren’t turning up like they used to, and Less admits that business isn’t good.

Across town in Tower Hamlets, home to the East Smithfield branch of Secrets, news that business is slow will raise a smile on the face of 29-year-old Rania Khan – the independent councillor on a mission to rid the borough of its 11 lap-dancing clubs.

Khan wants to make Tower Hamlets a strip-free zone. She wants to rid the borough of the “prostitution” brought about by the clubs and make the streets “safer” in the process.

She’s not without her supporters. The Lobbying groups the Fawcett Society and Object support her mission, while former lap dancer Jennifer Hayashi Danns recently published an exposé admonishing the industry as highly damaging to women.

But it looks as though Khan’s biggest supporter of all, and Less’ ultimate nemesis, might not be Mary Whitehouse-esque moral outrage, or victim biographies, but the red tape and big brother local authority regulation she successfully campaigned for.

So far Less has paid £100,000 in legal bills to acquire an SEV license for his Hammersmith branch of Secrets. It’s little wonder he’s not expanding.

Last year, Fawcett, Object and Khan successfully fought for a change in the law that gives councils the opportunity to take up – not all have done so – a new regulation that forces table dancing clubs to apply for a Sexual Entertainment Venue Licence (SEV) in order to continue trading. Once implemented, the local authority can then force clubs to reapply for the license every year thereafter.

The reclassification of lap dancing clubs and the issuing of SEV licenses are designed to curb the boom in strip-clubs that occurred after The Licensing Act 2003 placed them in the same category as cafes and bars.

The 2003 Act made it difficult for communities to oppose strip clubs on moral grounds (technically they’re still not allowed to); and opposing residents could only object on conditions of noise or crime, for example.

Now councils and their constituents can object if they don’t want a sexual entertainment venue in their area. At the time of the change, Harriet Harman, then minister for women and equality, said: “If people don’t want to have a sleazy lap-dancing club in their neighbourhood, they should not be forced to have one, which is why we’re changing the law so local people can object and say ‘we don’t want this’ in our area because it’s a sex establishment.”

An SEV license costs far more than a standard liquor one, ranging from £4,000 to £30,000 depending on the council.

Then there are the legal bills.

So far Less has paid £100,000 in legal bills to acquire an SEV license for his Hammersmith branch of Secrets. By the time 2012 is out he expects to do the same with his Camden and Tower Hamlets branches. It’s little wonder he’s not expanding.

This is, of course, exactly what was wanted by Councillor Khan and campaign body Object. According to Object, the number of lap dancing clubs in the UK has doubled to 300 since 2004 and communities have been left powerless to stop them. The new regulation was brought in to combat the boom.

Those who oppose the clubs argue they are sexist, objectify women, cause a nuisance to surrounding areas, are intimidating to residents, encourage unsavoury characters into residential areas and act as covers for the illegal trafficking of women and prostitution.

Less and his peers argue the very opposite. Meanwhile, stripping and all its paraphernalia, has never been so popular. Pole dancing is taught in suburban gyms to mums bored of their steps class. Nipple tassels are on sale in any given fashion store and, most importantly, the strippers themselves have changed.

According to a contemporary study by Leeds University, one in three strippers is now a student. Of these students, 60% are in full time education. Of all the girls, 73% of the girls had completed further education (A-levels or equivalent) while nearly a quarter (23%) had an undergraduate degree.

Khan doesn’t buy the argument that this is a positive trend and argues the influx in clubs as being especially damaging to women – forcing them to go to further (illegal) lengths to make decent money. She sees no distinction between the “high-end” clubs and their cheaper counterparts.

Paul Kennedy, the PR man for Platinum Lace, the latest kid on the lap-dancing block, agrees that underhand activity between clients and the dancers does occur in clubs, and that it’s wrong – but not at the club he represents.

Like Secrets, Platinum Lace considers itself a high-end strip club and has the same opulent purple and velvet décor as Secrets. The management of either club would balk at any suggestion of impropriety. Kennedy can’t vouch for other high-end chains.

Platinum Lace opened in 2010 under Simon Warr, the ex-managing director of Spearmint Rhino European Ventures, after a bust up between Warr and Spearmint’s founder John Gray.

Warr was given three clubs in the settlement and rebranded them as Platinum Lace. I meet Kennedy at the Coventry Street club off Piccadilly, the flagship.

Business is good he tells me, but very, very hard. Last year Platinum Lace turned over £4.2m with a profit of £475,000. This year they’re on target to hit £6m with an increased profit, he says.

Like Secrets, they’re not seeing the big spenders, and he has to work very long days ensuring the punters make it in. I believe him: he looks tired and is eager to impress.

Unlike Less, Kennedy welcomes the change in licensing and agrees the industry had got out of hand. “Some clubs were in areas where it was totally out of order for there to be strip clubs. There was one in Bexley – how or why they could have one there is beyond me. We think it’s a good thing and there’s no problem for us, we’ll get our license,” he says with confidence.

Smack bang opposite Piccadilly Circus, with the family-friendly Trocadero as its neighbour and hordes of students down the road climbing lions in Leicester Square, it seems an incongruous spot for a strip club. What do the neighbouring businesses make of it?

“When we applied for the SEV licence, 30 businesses wrote letters saying they supported us and that we made the area better – that their staff used the club. We’ve impacted in a positive way, we host a lot of people from other businesses around here.”

According to Kennedy, the club acts as the perfect buffer for the late night crowd of drinkers in too large groups to be let into the surrounding bars and club when they’re full.

“When guys are refused elsewhere, we take them instead – they’re only refused because they’re in too big a group, not because they’re drunk,” he says.

It’s an arrangement that works well, and neighbouring bars will even ring up to notify the doorman that a group is on its way.

Platinum Lace is open to 6am, so when local bars kick everyone out, there’s somewhere to go for those who want to keep going – there’s somewhere for the local bar staff too. “It’s about being friendly and open to anyone,” says Kennedy. “We don’t say no to anyone.”

Both Kennedy and Less talk of a new era of strip clubs. En era defined, of course, by their own chain of clubs. They both agree there’s no room for the seedy, men-only clubs where clients are pressured into buying dances. Instead they position Secrets and Platinum Lace more as nightclubs that happen to have semi-naked women floating around.

So much so, Less swears blind that on Friday nights 50% of the clientele in the Swiss Cottage branch of Secrets is made up of couples. Indeed, both chains have recently introduced dance floors for the punters, while Platinum Lace deliberately keeps its drink prices affordable to encourage customers to pop in just for a drink – as they would a normal bar.

Platinum Lace knows the porn industry well. It hosts The Shaftas, the UK porn industry’s answer to The Baftas, as well as “lad mag” Loaded’s summer ball

But we all know these aren’t your typical nightclubs – and nor do they wish to be. It baffles Kennedy that Soho Estates, the property company started by the famous porn baron Paul Raymond which is now run by his heirs, would want to “clean up” Soho, as reported in the press.

“In America the porn industry is a multi-billion industry, in England it’s completely under cover – it makes no sense,” he says laughing. Platinum Lace knows the porn industry well. It hosts The Shaftas, the UK porn industry’s answer to The Baftas, as well as “lad mag” Loaded’s summer ball – “a very big night for the [lad-mag] industry”.

Then of course there’s Steve Coogan, a regular Platinum Lace client who plays Paul Raymond in the biopic of his life currently being filmed and due for screening next year. “Coogan has become a good friend,” says Kennedy.

Both Kennedy and Less are keen to portray their clubs in a good light, though they won’t speak for the industry in general and admit wrong doing does occur. What they don’t like is how the industry is tarred with one brush.

“There is an element [of the industry] that takes advantage, you’re going to have your few illegals, a few pimps,” says Less. “But table dancing is here to stay, it’s not going away, your problem is good operators and bad operators. It’s for the police and for the council to monitor.”

As for the SEV licenses, Less is comfortable that most clubs will be awarded their license – if at a great cost to a club’s owner. For those that aren’t renewed, however, the only viable alternative he argues is for the club to convert to a nightclub or bar, this being the type of business that fits closest.

If Khan is successful in her campaign, both Less and Kennedy say Londoners will have a host of unwanted noisy and disruptive nightclubs on their hands. For whereas lap dancing club punters gradually come and go throughout the night, the nature of nightclubs is for a noisy 2am kick-out.

Their views are supported, in part, by Professor of Urban Studies at Kent University, Phil Hubbard. Hubbard is currently undertaking research into the impact on neighbouring businesses that lap dancing clubs in Brighton and Hove currently have.

The findings from his research won’t be ready until September, but he’s undertaken similar papers in the past and concludes that, “While existing businesses can be concerned about the impact of lap dance clubs, the fact most are limited to opening in the evening only means impacts on retail businesses are not cited as significant”.

But Professor Hubbard does cite a recent LGA survey suggesting “’clusters’ of lap dancing clubs can be more off-putting for high street visitors than clusters of betting shops or pawn shops.”

Interestingly, Professor Hubbard echoes Kennedy when he says: “Some night-time businesses (pubs, cafes, restaurants) near lap dance clubs have opposed their opening, but where clubs are already operating, such businesses appear more likely to come out in support of such clubs.”

This is vehemently refuted by Khan, her supporters, and the 4,000 letters of complaint she received during the consultation as to whether to change the licensing laws. She claims that groups of men do hang outside the clubs intimidating people – she says she experienced it herself – and it is bad for bad neighbouring businesses.

Professor Hubbard’s research, meanwhile, finds very little credible evidence of criminality or antisocial behaviour associated with the presence of lap dancing clubs, and says the police generally claim clubs are well-run.

One thing’s for sure: neither Paul Kennedy nor Stephen Less will go down without a fight…

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