MOVE OVER GREASY STRIP CLUBS, BURLESQUE IS BACK AND IT ISN'T JUST FOR MEN ANYMORE
VERNON - Holly Hart has been called many things in her life; easy, a drug addict, a hooker. Certain people think because they know what she does for a living, they know who she is. But those people don’t know her at all.
In a dressing room filmed with feather boas and sequinned corsets, Holly is getting ready for her shift at On the Roxx, a Vernon show lounge tucked away in the basement of a downtown building that also houses a church. The 24-year-old is a chatterbox whose friendly forwardness puts you instantly at ease. Dressed in yoga pants, a tank top and a plaid shirt, she snacks while clipping in long blonde hair extensions. In an hour, she will command the attention of every pair of eyes in the bar — naked.
On the Roxx is one of her favourite establishments to work at while on tour across Western Canada. It's one of few remaining clubs in the region; Penticton's Slack Alice's burned to the ground in 2012, the Willow Inn in Kelowna closed in 2009 and the future of Cheetahs Show Lounge in the same city remains uncertain.
Co-owned and operated by twins Laurel and Melissa Poole, On the Roxx a safe, supportive place where Holly can be the professional she wants to be. She knows she won’t be asked to perform ‘extras’ or do anything she doesn’t want to do. Her room key won’t be handed out in exchange for money. If someone tries to touch her or photograph her while she’s dancing, it won’t slide.
“Some people assume you’re easy, that you sleep with customers, that you do drugs and you only (strip tease) for drugs,” Holly says. “They’re 100 per cent wrong.”
The truth about strip tease and exotic dance is being explored in a new documentary called Naked Justice in which Holly, and On the Roxx, will both appear. The lovechild of an exotic dancer known as Justice and a Vancouver filmmaker named Linda Feuerhelm, the documentary aims to break the stereotypes behind why women bare it all for a paycheque. The film follows the top five per cent of the industry’s performers on their road to success, competitions, relationships, and injury to see what it takes to take it all off.
“I’m on stage for 18 minutes, and maybe two minutes out of that I’m completely naked,” Holly says. “It’s not just about whipping it all off and shaking your butt, it’s an art form.”
Since entering the profession at 19, Holly honed her skills with help of Cirque du Soleil trainers, dance coaches and role models in the industry. She spends hours at the gym every week strengthening, stretching and practicing new techniques. She has numerous costumes and props, paid for out of her own pocket because she believes in putting on a real show, not just stripping.
She competes in numerous competitions every year, winning, among many others, Miss Burlesque North America 2014, Miss Nude Best Fire Show 2014, and ‘best buns’ in two international shows — something she attributes to a lot of squats and a talent for twerking. Every performance, whether at a small town bar or on a big city stage, is practice; a chance to perfect her art.
“A lot of the girls say they’re doing this because they’re single moms, or they need money for college, but this is what I want to do,” Holly says firmly. “I did the whole college thing, took my paramedics…. I’ve always been an exhibitionist and a nudist. I love my job 95 per cent of the time, and I don’t think a lot of people can say that.”
When her shift wraps around 5 a.m. she doesn’t go out partying, she heads home, makes some food, watches Netflix and goes to bed. When she gets up, she goes to the gym, walks her dog, calls her mom — normal things like that.
“The fact is, we’re real people. What we do on stage is not real, it’s a fantasy. It’s like going to a movie or a rock concert — it’s just another form of entertainment,” Holly says.
THE NAKED TRUTH OF STRIP TEASE
Linda Feuerhelm, Naked Justice’s executive producer and director, knows what it’s like to put herself out there on stage — albeit clothed. As a stand-up comic, she understands the art of being a performer. She’s also acutely aware of the double standard between what she does, and what Holly does.
“I can stand on stage and tell my jokes, but the second I drop my clothes, I become a prostitute and it’s no longer a performing art,” she says.
Through the documentary, set to be released in January 2016, Feuerhelm hopes to shed light on the misunderstood occupation of stripping. She’s followed women like Holly to different clubs and competitions and gotten to know the funny, supportive and determined sisterhood of strippers.
“It never dawned on me that strip tease was an art,” she admits. “A year and a half later, I can tell you these girls work harder than most people. These shows are off the hook.”
Having travelled to clubs across Canada and the U.S. for filming, Feuerhelm has seen every kind of establishment, from those with a pimp sitting in the corner, to ones like On the Roxx.
“Laurel and Melissa, they’re a freak show. Not only because they’re hilarious and they’re twins, but because most strip clubs are not owned by women,” Feuerhelm says. “They’re leaders, not bosses.”
She hopes Naked Justice will set the record straight and redefine what it means to be a stripper.
“I want a guy to sit down with his wife, and say ‘Naked Justice is on, let’s go watch some tits and ass’ and for her to say sure. He sits down thinking it will be all about tits and ass and she realizes this is a women’s empowerment speech.”
In the last year, Feuerhelm says she has become more comfortable and confident in her own body. She also finds it easier to talk to her 12-year-old daughter about her changing body. These are things she learned from strong, confident, feminist women who take their clothes off for a living.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE SHOW
Like Holly, 28-year-old Laurel Poole, co-owner of On the Roxx, faces stereotypes about the business — that it’s a front for prostitution, or that it’s run by drug dealers. While that might be true at some of the industry’s less scrupulous joints, it’s just not what On the Roxx is all about, she says.
“I’m sure in B.C. there’s a place where for X amount of dollars you can get something in return. We’re not that place,” Poole says from a black leather chair facing out at the lounge so she can keep an eye on things.
On the Roxx is a bar that still emphasizes what Poole calls “the old style of strip tease” when burlesque performers emerged from backstage in elaborate costumes, maybe even a lion in tow. Those days were all about the costumes, the props, and the performance.
“A lot of clubs have gone more to lap dances or the Vegas style of dancing. The reason people are there is to get grinded on,” Poole says. “I’m an advocate for the old way of stripping. I’m holding on for dear life to the show and the performance.”
It’s a form of entertainment that’s gaining new ground with female audiences, Poole says. With the popularity of pole dancing fitness classes, the world of stripping and exotic dance is quickly becoming part of a fierce feminist movement.
“We’re in our first generation where it’s more socially acceptable for women to go to the strip club,” Poole says. “It’s not this creepy-dark-corner-men’s-club.”
Seeing confident women of all shapes and sizes show off their bodies is empowering, not degrading, Poole says. It helps women learn to be sexy and confident, and starts a conversation about sexuality.
The lounge is popular with couples as well, and Poole is quick to throw out the myth that strippers will steal your husbands.
“Hopefully what it’s going to do is make them less insecure about their relationships,” Poole says. “Just because your husband thinks another woman is attractive doesn’t mean he’ll leave you. It’s a way to add some spice to your relationship; it’s like the foreplay before the foreplay.”
The lights dim for the last part of Holly’s strip tease at On the Roxx. She’s completely naked right down to her toes, her high heels kicked off earlier in the show. She’s already twirled nimbly on the metal stripper poles, contorted her body on an aerial hoop suspended from the ceiling, and dropped gracefully into the splits.
She walks barefoot over to her equipment bag, pulls out two torches and lights them. Illuminated solely by firelight, she kneels — all eyes in the lounge fixed on her — while she tilts her head back and opens her mouth to the flames. The flicker transfers to her mouth, and she holds it there for a breath before exhaling a plume of fire from her lips.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email email@example.com or call 250-718-2724.
—An earlier version of this story stated the Duchess in Kamloops no longer features strip shows. We have since learned that was incorrect. After a deal fell through to sell the establishment in June 2013, the Duchess has continued to offer strip shows.