She has other things on her mind. She’s thinking of volunteering at a suicide clinic, and after she earns her Bachelor’s at the end of this summer, she wants to join the Peace Corps in some place far away, like Bulgaria or Brazil. Far, far in the future, she wants a husband and kids.
And now, she’s got to get to work. A student at Salem State during the week, come Friday night Bambi drives to an office in Lynn, Mass. in a decrepit storefront hidden from view of passersby, who probably only notice the shut-down restaurant and latchkey children playing in the streets. There, she will wait for requests from across New England. “Dancing,” she calls it. She gives lap dances to grooms at their bachelor parties as they tuck dollar bills under her thong, going the full monty for men she’s never met before.
She works for Shamrock Inc., a booking agency whose employees are strippers like Bambi (her stage name). Bambi doesn’t take home a paycheck, but in her black gym bag, she stuffs the huge pile of ones she has made in tips. Bambi’s grand goals—a degree, some time in the Peace Corps, a family of her own—all depend on those dollar bills.
Her world rarely intersects with Harvard, except for the occasional one-hour show. Shamrock sends women to Harvard about eight times a year to perform in dorm rooms or clubs, according to co-owner John, but the visits—though probably memorable for the student recipients—are not remarkable enough to gain much attention from Shamrock’s women. The two worlds’ collision is brief and fleeting. For the women, it’s just another stop; for the undergrads, it’s a college memorial.
Each year the ritual repeats itself: A group of freshmen hire a stripper as a surprise birthday gift for a friend’s party, thinking it’ll be hilarious. But then the stripper—far older and more made-up than they had expected—arrives in a beat-up car with her driver, a 30-something with his arms folded across his chest. After he collects the cash, the clothes come off far too quickly, the naked lap dances and toy shows taking everyone by surprise.
Bambi stripped for Harvard once, but she barely remembers it. She’s busy working to put herself through school, and her colleagues are dancing themselves out of debt and into solvency, saving up to start their own businesses or to pay for apartments. They come to stripping because the cash is quick and easy.
For now, Bambi doesn’t even know if the cash will come in tonight. “It’s all up in the air,” she says, lighting her first Marlboro of the night.
DANCER IN THE DARK
“Dancing,” Bambi says, burns a lot of calories, and it keeps her butt in shape.
But she doesn’t talk so much about the specifics, and neither do most of her colleagues. They joke about dildos, but not about what exactly they do with them.
An “entertainer”—the company’s term—gives nude lap dances, nibbles at the ears of customers, and presses her breasts against customers’ faces. For ten dollars, she offers a lick of whipped cream from her breast or inner thigh, and for just ten more, she rides a lollipop held between a man’s lips. Though Bambi and her colleagues emphasize that they never have sex on the job, they walk a fine line.
The women start their shows wearing nothing but bikinis, high heels, and garter belts to snap cash in place, and the transition to complete nudity is quick. It’s not a striptease. It’s stripping.
It wasn’t always this way, according to Rachel Shteir, a professor at DePaul University and author of “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show.” The virginal burlesque theaters of Gypsy Rose Lee and the 1930s, when women entertained by shedding a glove and stocking, gave way to the strip clubs of the 1950s, which were still interested more in implications than simulations.the clubs of the 1950s, which were still interested more in implications than simulations.
“The change from tease to stripping happened gradually over time but really began to crystallize in the sixties with changes in fashion like the miniskirt and the bikini,” Shteir wrote in an e-mail. With women baring nearly all in public, strippers had to find new territory. Soon, public displays gave way to private performances in people’s homes—what Shamrock sells today. Stripping became interactive; entertainers today simulate sex with their customers and each other. Girl-on-girl acts, the typical second act in a private show, are “relatively new,” writes Shteir—a frontier cleared, she speculates, by the gay rights movement.
The customer base for this incarnation of sex show, according to Shamrock co-owner John, is blue-collar America, “anything from someone who works for Best Buy to someone who owns a construction company.” College students, with less cash to handle the minimum fee of over $100, don’t make up that much business except during fraternity rush season. And even then, college students tip less, according to the women. That segment of business comes from campuses like MIT, Tufts, Bentley, Boston University, and even Wellesley. Providing just eight or ten jobs a year, Harvard does not impress John with either its name or its money.
At Harvard, strippers—not just from Shamrock—have performed in dorm rooms for everything from freshman birthday parties to club sport celebrations to final club gatherings. “Some clubs will have strippers come in to lure punches in during punch season,” says one final club president, who asked to remain unnamed.
It’s unclear whether having strippers perform on College property—that is, in dorm rooms—is allowed. The College usually defers to state law, which allows stripping as long as the performer is 18 or older. “We don’t have specific rules about this,” Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 writes in an e-mail. “The Handbook outlines our general expectations of mature and responsible behavior.” What’s mature and responsible is left to the discretion of proctors and senior tutors. In three dorm-room incidents over the last three years, students involved said they received no disciplinary action, even though in some of the cases, the proctors knew.
REACHING FOR THE ‘TOP SHELF’
Bambi’s hometown is full of peeling signs, decaying supermarkets, and busy intersections. Between a commercial and residential area are tucked Sisson Elementary and Pickering Junior High Schools, which share a baseball field. On Friday afternoons, fifth graders play ball on the field as their parents watch from folding chairs or the backs of pick-up trucks parked in a lot on a hill.
Bambi also parks her car in that lot, along with Shamrock’s booking agents, strippers, and drivers. Nearby, a graffiti-filled alleyway leads to a door and steep, carpeted stairs; when she gets to the top, Bambi faces a yellow-lit hallway and a frosted glass door.
Photos of women’s breasts, stacks and stacks of business cards, and cardboard boxes full of promotional Shamrock t-shirts overflow onto couches and haphazard bookshelves. Attached to the office is the lounge, with a TV, couches, and most importantly, a vanity table and mirror where the women straighten their hair, pop pimples, and reapply heavy eyeliner. One stripper darts outside to ask John—Johnny to her—for batteries for her vibrator.
John, 36 and Louie, 35, who both asked to be referred to by first names only, are two of the many men who rule the stripping world. Although they’ve only been in the business since 1996, they are relative veterans. Most other businesses are fly-by-night affairs: a man taking calls on his cell phone, or maybe a girl who pulls a friend in with her. They could last a couple months, maybe—not nearly as long as John and Louie’s near-decade run. “They don’t have the structure,” Louie says.
John, whose business attire consists of a buzzcut and hoodie, takes in requests on the phone, matching up his 65 strippers and 15 drivers to his shows. Three computers surround him. One is for the company website’s server, one for booking shows, and one for MapQuesting locations as far away as the border between New York and Canada.
Before Louie and John founded their business, Louie was an electrical engineer. It’s not clear what John did. He evades the question, claiming that he needs to maintain a tough reputation. The stripping business is a quick-shifting world, and the rumors of John’s mob ties deter others from stealing his customers by sending their strippers to parties that John has already booked.
The two friends became business partners after a fateful bachelor’s party in 1996. “We thought we could do it better,” Louie says. In their spare time, they went out to local clubs to find strippers and started their own business. Eventually, the men committed full-time and rented an office. They bought out Shamrock, one of the oldest stripping agencies, and a slew of smaller ones with names like Top Shelf and Best Buns of Boston.
That’s one reason why Shamrock can be reached by at least 50 phone numbers in at least five area codes. With alternate business names and numbers all leading to the same phone line in Lynn, John and Louie make sure that no potential customer slips by.
John is first and foremost a businessman, interested in preserving legitimacy as much as reputation. Shamrock is “Not an Escort Service,” the thin business cards echo. It is also one of the few booking agencies licensed and bonded by the state. Competitors point to it when asked about New England’s largest stripping businesses, and one customer, just before the strippers were set to arrive for the bachelor party that he had arranged, said he switched from another agency to Shamrock because it was more “established.”
Shamrock rakes in a lot of money. Business starts to pick up after the long, cold winter months, and these days, John and Louie are booking upwards of 40 shows per weekend. A one-hour show could bring the men anywhere from $300 to $1,200—and that’s just for the agency. Each stripper’s take-home income consists entirely of her weekend tips, minus the extra she gives to her driver—a total ranging from $400 to $2,700 a week.
Nationwide, the business is huge. There are roughly 2,500 strip clubs in the country, according to USA Today, and there are many booking agencies on top of that. No one, from John to the experts at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, knows how many agencies and strippers are out there. Communication between the owners is nearly nonexistent, and booking agencies can easily pass under the radar, since it only takes a cell phone and a girl to set up shop.
While she waits for John’s call—only when it comes will she know where she’s headed or who she’ll be with tonight—Bambi leans into her literature textbook, pen in hand and 7-11 coffee at her side. She just finished up Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which applies beautifully to her failed relationships with men—the latest a classic hook-up gone sour. “He basically understands man as what we all are,” she says, looking up from her textbook. “We all make mistakes. But how we deal with it is the way of a fox or a beast or a man.”
Far before she started stripping, Bambi, like John and Louie, grew up in Lynn. Her father left when she was nine, and she spent her childhood among the mirrors and beauty supplies that her mother worked with as a hairdresser. She worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA for a while, but she didn’t like being told what to do by her bosses. So she tried modeling nude for art classes. Then she realized she could make a lot more money by adding a little bit to her routine.
That was six years ago. Now, she’s 25. She says stripping is just like the public speaking she learned in school. “It’s not about you, it’s about the stripper. You become an actor.”
And Bambi the stripper is outgoing, flirtatious, and risk-taking. “When you’re dancing, you become a different person,” she says. “You have to flirt with every single guy in the room. You dance sexy.”
Bambi stripped at Harvard once. The guys, not far from her age, were quiet, dressed in tuxedoes, their hands clasped on their knees. The whole thing seemed like an initiation, but this was a long time ago; she doesn’t remember where it happened. During the show, they were polite, she says, but apparently unremarkable. Beyond the tuxedoes, she doesn’t remember much about them.
It’s not the standard collegiate approach. At B.U., the guys participate, playing along with dollar bills, whipped cream, and the rest. At Harvard, they sat in chairs. It was a little weird, but Bambi didn’t think much of it.
On a Friday afternoon, the lounge is filling up with Bambi and the others: Lexi, Sage, Kaylie, Marissa, and Chanel. Their arrivals are accompanied by loud recitations of their trials and tribulations. Sage, picking at an invisible pimple, worries about her 13-year-old boy. On Friday afternoons, she helps out with baseball practice before driving to Shamrock. He thinks she just dances topless, but she’s afraid soon he’ll know the truth.
Marissa bursts in with her ear to her phone. She’s in some trouble, and she’s trying to reach her attorney, a former client. She pulls out the lounge’s blow dryer, squatting in her platform heels to look in the mirror.
Meanwhile, Lexi sits by the window, quiet. Asked what’s on her mind, she blows smoke in white puffs and recites her dream from the night before. She was running around a mansion owned by her in-laws, holding a baby and searching for a room large enough for the two of them.
It’s an impossible dream, and she knows it. She rarely sees her in-laws now that she’s divorced—she’s now dating a demolition worker—and her two children, nowhere near infancy, live with her husband. Besides, she’d never own a house: the mortgage and upkeep are just too risky compared to the month-by-month rent of an apartment. The other women agree. Of all six, only Sage lives in a house.
The women earn their cash almost as fast as they spend it. “The more you make, the more you spend,” says Sage, who is wearing a tight t-shirt with the word “Bebe” outlined in rhinestones. Bebe’s salesclerks send Sage postcards if she fails to shop a single weekend.
At the end of her dream, Lexi found a room with a big closet, big enough for all her clothes. In many ways, Lexi is just like the other women in the room and the others who work for Shamrock. They smoke. Most of them are from Lynn. With a few exceptions, the women are white with long blond hair, brittle from extensions and salon dye.
Prior connections drew many of the women to this office in Lynn. Sage’s mother used to date one of the former booking agents, and Sage grew up playing in his backyard sandbox. Kaylie knew the sister of one of the guys who works for John. The women belonged to this world before they first started shedding their clothes.
As it nears 11 p.m. on a Saturday, the men at the bachelor party at the Irish American Club in Chelsea are restless. The bartender is overworked and the best man impatient. Some guests duck outside in the rain to smoke. The Shamrock strippers are more than half an hour late.
Finally, five strippers and the driver arrive in two SUVs. Drivers always accompany the women on their jobs, not just getting them there but acting as handlers once they arrive. Tonight, the driver, a huge, bald man in a black windbreaker, will play stage crew to the stripper’s actress, making sure the lights are dim, collecting the night’s fees, and breaking twenties into ones for easy tipping.
The women act as their own props mistresses and makeup artists, carrying hot pink double-ended vibrators, garter belts, piles of thongs and tiny skirts. Their clear platform shoes are seveninches high, pushing their bodies to a model’s height and their feet into arched curves. In the bathroom, the girls make their final touches, brushing scented Victoria’s Secret powder onto each other’s backs and breasts. Through the thin wall, they can hear the driver booming the instructions: no touching, no licking, nothing—unless the stripper offers. In an industry where men are in charge, women make the final call.
The men, their customers and partners in sex play for the evening, are in faded t-shirts and jeans, their stomachs round from years of beer. The women are polished perfect, with just a few spider veins and tired, red eyes betraying their mortality.
For a moment, the groom is Don Juan. The women swarm around him, pulling his pants and boxers off to spank him. Then they divide and conquer, grinding on his friends, who snag chance caresses as they slide bills in the back of centimeter-wide thongs. In the end, the women are covered in wads of bills; the better the performance, the thicker the wad. A woman who can make her customers believe her act is generously rewarded at the end of the night.
When the second act begins, the props come out: dildos, Lubriderm lotion, whipped cream. Sitting on bedsheets with legs wide open, the women clean the pink, double-ended dildos with baby wipes. The men abandon their chairs for a better view of the pre-show. Then it really begins: an acrobatic, bouncing, quick-shifting summary of male fantasy, with every possible position performed in fewer than 15 minutes. The men toss bills onto sheets and skin. The women smile blandly.
The show is anonymous and impersonal, and it’s over almost as abruptly as it began.
When she stripped at Harvard for boys in tuxedos, Bambi probably expected her show to go something like that bachelor party.
Hands clasped on knees is not the standard position for most Harvard-Shamrock interactions. By student accounts, liaisons happen more frequently in freshman dorm rooms, where friends hire strippers as a gag gift.
For one freshman, who asked to remain unnamed, his one run-in with a stripper has become a running joke. This year, for a joint nineteenth birthday, he found a surprise stripper in his room. But that wasn’t the present he had wanted, and the crowd of 40 others in his roomed thinned out quickly. “She was very ugly, kind of not a very classy stripper,” he says. “I guess they got her for fairly cheap.”
The act—routine for Bambi and her colleagues—was shocking to this freshman. One of his friends crawled away on the floor as the stripper said, “I’m supposed to be the one with the pussy.” When she offered classic dildo acts or a one-on-one shower show, the other birthday boy says, “We were like, ‘No, no, no.’” They were all “traumatized.”
Other one-time Harvard clients echo the two freshmen. Bambi’s kind of show just doesn’t appeal to the Yard.
Corey M. Rennell ’07 and his friends hired two strippers as a Christmas present for his proctor, 60 or so friends, and some football team buddies. When one of his friends did touch a breast or two, it was “awkwardly,” says Rennell, who is also a Crimson editor. “We were actually a little worried that they had diseases.”
So instead of gratification, they got some education. “It was like a bunch of kindergarteners huddled around some magical animal,” he remembers. “I feel like every college student should have an experience with strippers, know what it’s all about. It’s fun, you’re the dudes, initiation into manhood, but it’s also important to know that that entire industry has a dark side...It’s just like, ‘holy shit,’ socioeconomic factors that play into it.”
Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67 agrees. In the late 70s, when he was the senior tutor of Leverett House, the HoCo hired a stripper for the Master’s Open House. “I think now you’d find more people appalled because the topics out there are people thinking about the degradation of women,” he says. The sex play has become an academic debate—at least at Harvard.
Bambi and Sage don’t discuss feminism or socioeconomic factors. When they talk about the job, it’s personal, not political.
“It can be degrading,” Sage says. Requests come in for strippers to dress up like bag ladies, and men try to take photos with their camera phones. The women are reduced to a few key body parts, Sage says. “They’re looking at my below and my boobs.”
The women, many of them divorced or never married, date demolition workers, cops, firefighters—the same clientele that they serve on the weekends. “It is hard to find a boyfriend in this job,” says Lexi.
Former clients approach Bambi at bars or, worse, at parties with her friends. With tongues loosened by alcohol, their ideas about strippers spill out. “They say, ‘I’ve seen you dancing, and I know you think you’re too good for me, but, honestly, I like women who keep their clothes on better,’” Bambi says. Other times, they just ask for sex.
That’s just the beginning of their problems. Marissa’s father thinks that when she drops her son off at his house on Friday nights, she’s going to bartend. The hardest part is keeping it secret from her six-year-old, Rocky. She hides her work bag full of lingerie and sex toys in the back of her closet, worried that the mothers of Rocky’s friends will shun him if they learn about her job.
Then there’s the free time; when her friends are working nine-to-five and their kids are in school, Bambi is in her apartment—alone. “You go crazy being by yourself all day,” she says. “You get depressed.” To occupy her long, long days, she escapes to the beach to sleep or immerse herself in TV. She’s toying with the idea of volunteering with a suicide prevention clinic.
It’s a tough world, but it’s a world the dancers have a hard time leaving. Now, she’s “addicted,” Lexi says, smoking her cigarette.
Bambi once tried to go cold turkey. “Sometimes you need a break. It kind of gets to your head,” says Bambi. She went back to the nine-to-five drill, shaving her legs once a week instead of every day. She became more “down-to-earth” and “reserved.” She stopped being Bambi.
It took her just three years to return back to Johnny and his customers’ tips. The schedule fits in better with her schoolwork, and the cash is instant: piles and piles of ones, with a scattering of fives and tens. She still hasn’t told her family that she’s back to stripping.
But when her families and potential boyfriends don’t understand, at least she has her colleagues. “This is your social life,” Bambi says. They bond over the Wendy’s and convenience store fare that they find late at night en route to the next show. The women often come in to the office to help fold t-shirts or go to Fenway to pass out Shamrock beach balls and business cards, even though they don’t get paid for it.
Still, the women cling to dreams of lives beyond the stripping.
There’s Kaylie, 29, who wants to fulfill her elementary-school passion for arts and crafts. Fifteen years ago, she was painting murals over the windows of McDonald’s outposts all over the state. But the odd jobs weren’t enough to support her and her college fees, so she started stripping. Like Bambi, she left Shamrock for a few years, but the easy cash drew her back to John and Louie. On the side, she works in landscaping, but she still maintains her dream of living just off art.
Chanel, 20, dreams of becoming a commercial pilot. But she’s got a long path before she can sit in the pilot’s chair. With just one year of intense stripping at another agency, she has already dug herself out of $80,000 of credit card debt. Now, she’s at Shamrock, saving up money for her apartment and for future tuition for schooling in aviation science. She took a couple flying lessons, but they were just too expensive. By the time Chanel realizes her dream, she’ll be rounding age 30.
Of all of them, Sage is the closest to leaving the stripping world. Right now, she babysits, walks dogs for money, and, of course, strips. But, “I’m getting too old,” she says, and like many others, she wants a business of her own.
Sage—who loves dogs so much that she owns three—already has the key to a small storefront where she’ll open “Bowwow Bakery and More,” with gourmet cannolis baked just for dogs, leashes, overnight stays, and grooming services. She already has investors, and in June or July she’ll stop stripping to open its doors.
Still, she might return to Shamrock every now and then to make a few bucks, she says. Sage and the other women might try to leave Shamrock’s world, but they almost inevitably return, lured back by the quick fix.
Five bachelor parties later, it’s nearing 5 a.m., and Bambi is ending her night. Back at her apartment, she counts her money, a big pile of ones passed from driver to customers, from customer to her, from her to her bag. The pile can total nearly one grand.
The money will help build toward a future without stripping: getting her degree, joining the Peace Corps, finding a husband. With just a set of finals and then summer classes before she earns her Bachelor’s, Bambi has a hard time making herself study for her classes at Salem State College: literature, import/export management, and pre-calculus. (“It sucks,” she says.)
Still, things are looking good for now. She will graduate at the end of the summer, and she has her eye on a guy from Turkey. She’s teaching herself Turkish now from CDs and a couple of books. Earlier, she had tried to learn Arabic, French, anything beyond English, the same way. Maybe this time, she’ll learn a few more words.
And Bambi has an ace up her sleeve—her own legal trademark for a perfume. She hasn’t mixed it yet or contacted a distributor, but she knows what it’ll smell like, and she knows this: It’ll be hers.
Alexandra M. Gutierrez, David S. Marshall, and Sam Teller contributed to the reporting of this story.