Hard times push more women to strip clubs

She’s stunning, even in sweats. But Leilani Burkhead’s got her work cut out for her. It’s 9 p.m. on a weeknight, time to hit the stage at Atlanta’s Magic City strip club.

She slips out of her sweats and half-jokingly mumbles something about getting geared up to work the room.

It’s an about-face from a few years ago when money rained down on dancers at this and other Atlanta adult-entertainment clubs like free-flowing Dom Perignon. Like the rest of the economy, adult dance clubs feel the pinch. The sluggish economy and closer police scrutiny have put about a dozen out of business in the past decade. And the regular patrons aren’t so regular anymore.

But that hasn’t slowed the would-be dancers lining up to apply for the $350 permit to work in the city’s 19 clubs, Atlanta police say. Among the usual aspiring actresses and dancers, there are more college students, single mothers trailing toddlers, health and office professionals and even a few age-defying grandmothers — all looking for well-paid work in a city with unemployment above 10 percent.

“We have them coming in daily looking for work,” says Michael “Lil Magic” Barney Jr., the 28-year-old general manager of Magic City, a downtown Atlanta fixture founded by his father.

While there are no hard numbers, Atlanta police say they’ve seen a spike in applications for adult-entertainment permits in the past year or so due to the recession and the recent change in Georgia law that allows nude dancers to be as young as 18.

“We’re seeing younger applicants,” said Detective Kamau Chinyelu, an investigator with the Atlanta Police license and permit unit. “We’re seeing quite a few that have lost their jobs and are now making career changes.”

Those who do wind up working in the business soon learn that even nude dancers have to work harder these days, as patrons spend less and don’t return as often. The cyber-savvy dancers have turned to social media to hold customers’ interest.

And for good reason. Even in this tough economy, a dancer can clear about $50,000 a year, and that beats working in a dentist’s office or selling homes right now.

Like it or not, sex sells in Atlanta, where there are still more exotic and nude dance clubs in and around the city than anywhere else in the country, according to the Association of Club Executives, an industry trade group. Club work can be a strong draw in an economy that has shed 8 million jobs nationwide and propelled more women into the role of chief breadwinner.

“Women who may not have ever thought about working in the industry are rethinking” the idea, said Angelina Spencer, manager of the Washington, D.C.-based trade group. “Unfortunately, mortgages, car payments and groceries don’t go away in a bad economy.”

While city and development officials prefer not to talk about it publicly, Atlanta’s erotic economy has long been a major financial force in the city, helping draw conventioneers and high-rolling celebrities alike.

Spencer, a former stripper turned lobbyist who has been tracking the adult-entertainment industry for seven years, estimates metro Atlanta’s exotic and nude clubs generate $240 million annually, more than the city’s three major sports teams combined.

While economists challenge Spencer’s assessment, they do agree the adult-entertainment industry is a major economic engine in Atlanta.

“There’s no question the business is fairly substantial; whether it’s grown or shrunk I don’t know,” said Atlanta economics consultant Don Ratajczak, who analyzed the industry about a decade ago while he was director of Georgia State University’s Economic Forecasting Center. “When I did my estimates” on that industry, “we had a vibrant convention business and people winked at the adult entertainment. Since then, there’s been some crackdowns.”

Despite its enormous presence, the industry prefers to keep a low profile. A number of clubs contacted for the story — The Cheetah Lounge, Gold Rush, Onyx, Foxy Lady, Doll House and Tattletales — declined to comment or never responded. Clubs like Magic City and Cheetah have built a following over the years, and while the money doesn’t flow as freely thse days, patrons still make their way to the clubs. So do the women looking to dance.

‘Steady, easy money’

By day, they’re dental hygienists, college students, office workers. At night, they dance under stage names such as Prada, Safari and Diamond. Most are reluctant to give their real names, worried about the stigma it could bring Sunday morning at church or losing the free baby-sitting grandma provides.

“You can use the industry one of two ways — as a stepping stone or tombstone,” said trade group rep Spencer. “Usually the industry is a pass-through so women can go on to bigger and better things.”

At Magic City, Michael Barney oversees an operation that includes 150 dancers, 12 waitresses, four bartenders, three DJs, two busboys and one “house mother” who looks after dancers’ needs, as well as a security contingent to protect his dancers. He views them as family. “I’m a brother or daddy to some, and an uncle to others,” Barney said. Its a family whose members are there for different reasons.

B.K., a 25-year-old dancer at Magic City, began relying more on the club income when her job as a physical therapist was cut to one day a week six months ago. “It’s been steady. It’s easy money,” she said. “There’s a stereotype people have of dancers. That we’re prostitutes because we take our clothes off. But I go to work and go right home.”

Prada, a 21-year-old dancer at Magic City, said she plans to use the money she makes dancing to open an eyebrow and lash boutique. For Simone Neal, another Magic City dancer, club work is her ticket to becoming the first in her family to go to college. Essentially working as an independent contractor, she estimates she earns $50,000 after paying a nightly fee to the club and tips to DJs and the house mother.

“I love to dance,” said Neal, a petite 27-year-old who drives four hours from Florida to dance in Atlanta. “I thank God for everything I make.”

Then there are those like Leilani Burkhead, who is working to get out of the business. For now, the single mother is working a lot of 18-hour days: from 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. at an orthodontist’s office, then 8:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. at Magic City. She receives no child support, so both jobs help pay bills and her 9-year-old son’s school tuition.

“I didn’t want to dance, but you’ve got to do what you have to do,” she said.

On a recent afternoon, about a dozen women lined up at the city’s permit office in northwest Atlanta. Most would not identify themselves beyond their club names. But they were all interested in one thing: making money.

Getting into the industry is tougher these days. Would-be dancers must have a job offer from a club before they can get a permit, which involves an extensive background check. The city prohibits anyone convicted of a felony or sex-related crime from dancing, police spokesman Otis Redmond said. The tougher scrutiny has shaved the new permits granted from a decade high of 3,448 in 2007 to 2,642 last year, police say.

Money flows less freely

On a recent Thursday at the Cheetah, a dimly lit club and restaurant known for its $50 steaks, a dozen or so lunchtime patrons were on hand, including two soldiers in fatigues scheduled to ship out to Iraq that afternoon. An Atlanta Hawks player at the bar drank in the applause when patrons cheered an ESPN replay of one of his shots on the giant flat-screens hovering overhead.

With the exception of “stack nights” — when the money rolls in with little effort, as when celebrities and high rollers show up — patrons aren’t spending as much. Dancers who could once make $5,000 in a single evening say those nights are increasingly rare. The trickle-down effect hits the pockets of DJs and other support staff.

Among customers, bottles of champagne have been replaced by bottles of beer or a few drinks that are nursed all night. The city’s slower convention business has dried up the pool of out-of-towners. As for more frequent visitors?

“The regulars aren’t so regular,” said Simone Neal. “I have to watch my money more closely now. I can’t spend like I used to.”

To try to boost their appeal, some adult club dancers have embraced Facebook, Twitter and other social media, a move that appears to be paying off. The idea is that customers will stay connected and return to the club on the next business trip, Barney said. Some dancers now have international followings online.

Sometimes, though, Facebook can’t beat face time. Dancers say they are spending more time schmoozing with patrons.

During lunchtime at the Cheetah, a striking blonde spent about 30 minutes hovering at one table, chatting with a businessman about her child’s school projects before he opened his wallet for a private dance.

Nearby, a trio of lingerie-clad women swayed to rapper T-Pain’s “I’m N Luv With A Stripper.” For $10, the women will display more than just their dancing skills. With a little more financial encouragement, they’ll come to a table for conversation and a private dance.

One of the soldiers, intent on making his last few stateside hours memorable, went to the club’s ATM and withdrew $200.

The strip club economy

Clubs: U.S.: 3,829

Metro Atlanta: 19

Economic impact: U.S. $15 billion

Metro Atlanta: $240 million-plus

Employment: U.S.: 500,000

Estimated annual earnings of Atlanta dancers: $20 million

Six largest U.S. markets for strip clubs: Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Las Vegas, Los Angeles

Source: “The Erotic Economy” by Angelina Spencer, Association of Club Executives


How we got the story

Police reporter Megan Matteucci noticed scores of women lined up at Atlanta Police headquarters every time she went to pick up reports. Detectives there told Matteucci the women were applying for a license to strip. Intrigued, Matteucci made a Freedom of Information Act request for numbers on adult- entertainment permits and talked to veteran business reporter Tammy Joyner, who thought the spike might be connected to the economic downturn. The reporters, along with photographer Bita Honarvar, visited and contacted a number of clubs. Joyner and Matteucci also talked to permit applicants, dancers, club owners, police officials, women’s rights groups, economists and adult-entertainment industry officials.