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The strippers of Shoreditch

January 27, 2010
by the gentle author

Last night, I met a nice girl called Lara for drink in The Pride of Spitalfields with her good friend Sarah, a photographer. Superficially, if you were introduced to the fresh-faced Lara Clifton and she flashed her dark eyes and her lovely gap-toothed smile that gives her an appealing aura of gaucheness, you might assume she was once a member of the Brownies or the Pony Club. You would certainly recognise her as a well-brought-up girl. You would never in a million years guess that she enjoyed a successful career as a stripper. You would not believe that it is her in the picture above. But Lara has far more sophistication, intelligence and moral courage than meets the eye upon first introduction.

“My flatmate started doing it,” says Lara, explaining how she began, “And I was shocked until I realised that it was less exploitative and better paid than the office temping I was doing. It was a more honest form of commerce and a lot of the girls enjoyed doing it. It was not sleazy or seedy.” I was very startled to hear this because I perceived stripping as a degrading activity that humiliates women, but this is not Lara’s view. Commenting on the notion of the dominant male gaze, Lara proposes a different perspective, “The punters are like little boys in a sweet shop, it’s a gentle gaze, it’s passive, very respectful. Everyone knows what’s going on. Nothing is hidden.” And Lara speaks warmly of the relationships between the girls too, “There is this genuine camaraderie. You quickly get to know people if you are naked together.” In Lara’s description, it sounds like they enjoyed a high old time, “The girls used to jump from table to table, it was like a crazy circus. They were the best group of people ever.”

Lara is quick to qualify her comments, emphasising that she can only speak for her own experience. And I must applaud her audacity in making such a brave career move because, even if Lara took to stripping like the proverbial duck to water, I have no doubt it took strong nerves to step out naked in public and laudable self-confidence to be open about what she did when there are plenty who would not hesitate to censure. Lara explained the routine to me whereby three women would perform in sequence during an evening, giving three shows each over three hours and passing the jug around before every strip. In Lara’s eyes, entirely preferable to the many more hours temping in an office to earn a comparable sum. I was intrigued by Lara’s interpretation of the power relationship between stripper and punter and it was my understanding that a strip ended at the moment of full nudity, but I learnt this not the case in Lara’s world. She ran around the pub naked, performing not on a stage but commanding the whole space, though, significantly, Lara always kept her high heels on, as the symbol of her dominant status within the performance arena over which she held control.

One day, Lara put a note on the changing room wall requesting written contributions from her fellow strippers and quickly found she had enough material for a book. Before long, Lara met photographers Sarah Ainslie and Julie Cook, who visited the pubs and the dressing rooms recording every aspect of the culture in hundreds of arrestingly candid and delicate pictures. “It was a gift,” admitted Sarah,“I drifted in and out for months, so I built a relationship with the girls.” “We forgot she was there,” says Lara, which is quite remarkable considering that in most pubs a single toilet served as makeshift changing room for all the dancers.

Three years in the making, the result is “Baby Oil & Ice – Striptease in East London”, a large format full-colour hardback limited edition book of nearly two hundred pages edited by Lara, that blends writing and photographic imagery together to create a broad and authoritative picture of the particular hidden world of East End striptease. “I wanted to capture something that was dying,” says Lara fondly, but she has achieved far more. Her remarkable book is an exuberant celebration, created by women, of the life, poetry and contradictions of this entirely absurd practice of a woman cavorting naked in clunky high heels for the pleasure of a mesmerised (and paradoxically emasculated) bunch of fully-dressed men. Previous books about stripping were written by journalists and academics with their own moral agendas, but Lara’s book is important because it is the first written by performers -allowing the voices of real live strippers, who are usually silent, to speak in their own unedited words.

Until very recently, there were several pubs in Shoreditch that hosted stripping and formed a circuit for the performers, Ye Olde Axe, The Royal Oak, The Spreadeagle, Browns, The Crown & Shuttle and The Norfolk Village. Now this has ceased and some are closed entirely, although Lara says The White Horse still has strippers. Lara gave up when table dancing came in, because it took away the quality of performance from girls who could no long do their acts with their own music, and “I was rubbish at getting money out of people,” admits Lara wryly and somewhat unconvincingly.

Although Lara no longer strips, she feels connected to that world today through all the friendships formed in her days as a stripper and she offered to take me along one night and introduce me to her pals who are still performing. So, on behalf of my curious readers, I think I will take her up on her offer because this is a subject that merits further investigation.

You can buy a copy of  ”Baby Oil & Ice” direct from Lara Clifton for £25 and she will sign it for you personally. Definitely a collectors’ item. Simply email  lclifton76@gmail.com

The three pictures of strippers are by Sarah Ainslie and the shot of the interior of Ye Olde Axe is by Julie Cook.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. mcneill permalink
    January 27, 2010

    I was of the gentle author’s view. But I suppose every act varies with the actor.

    Still, it’s a thorny issue. I’m not sure if the question were posed, “Would it be better if nobody stripped?” then the answer wouldn’t be, “Yes.” But is this a useful question, and doesn’t it summon a utopia, by contrast with which our ragged world must always seem worse off? There will always be stripping as long as stripping is better than something else, that’s fair enough, and deciding to strip in those circumstances is pragmatic. It’s just a shame that those circumstances exist. And it’s a shame that one way out is potentially fraught with pyschological trauma.

    But “At least X is better than Y” is a dangerous paradigm by which to live, one that requires care in its application. It is better to do cocaine than heroine. I drink a lot … but at least I don’t do drugs. In this way acts that in themselves we would view negatively become triumphs of virtue, and aspiration dies. All we have here, though, is proof that censure has no place when it comes to judging life choices. Because often the way forward we have is not ideal.

    I find it odd that men escape scotch-free from this transaction. Frequenting a strip-club seems to be, among men, a good-old-time, a night out with the lads. The act has no moral consequences. For a woman who strips, however, as you point out, there are many waiting to censure. It is the woman in the dock, not the man. In Doctor Johnson’s The Rambler, there is a fictionalised account of a the “fall” of a young woman, who is seduced by her benefactor. She talks throughout of “our crime”. I believe this habit still exists in our culture, to be more censorious of the woman than of the man.

    I’d just like to say that even if Lara isn’t seedy, I most definitely am, and writing all this above is in no way meant to imply some kind of moral, avuncular status, which is the after-taste I now have in my mouth of my own words.

    xx

  2. Anne permalink
    January 27, 2010

    I wondered whether to comment or not. Should i just add a reply to a post that really interests me? perhaps I should engage in all the aspects of this blog.
    ‘Should is a strange word .. I’ll leave it at that.

  3. Graham permalink
    January 28, 2010

    As always, an intriguing and non-judgemental article – which may be recording an important historical phase in sexual mores in this country. However there is a difference between traditional ‘stripping’ which might be described as displaying the female nude in an erotic and playful sense – with music, drama, fantasy etc. The first photo above – which shows the girl literally sticking her open vagina in the face of the man at the bar – shows a degree of barbarism (on the part of the stripper) that is in my view ‘beyond the pale’. Acts of vaginal intimacy surely beyond either in the privacy of the bedroom or the gynaecological examination chair. The fact that a ‘nicely brought up girl’ feels good about doing something in public which no ‘Winchester Goose’ would have ever thought of doing in public – speaks volumes about the collapse of all moral and ethical norms in this country. In the past, even prostitution had ‘rules’. These exhibitionists are far more immoral than prostitutes of the past: prostitutes knew that men wanted sex and they sold them the experience in order to survive. This woman – apparently well educated – is not willing to actually offer sex for money – but offers the ‘pornogaphy’ of fantasy sex – for money. What a sad world we live in.

  4. January 28, 2010

    It has been many a year since I enjoyed watching some real strippers in action as opposed to lap dancers. I think I may have to do some further investigation into this very enjoyable recreational pursuit….!

  5. Isabelle permalink
    February 16, 2010

    There is an ad running at the moment discouraging boys from beating and hurting their girlfriends. It seems that this is an increasing problem that is causing the authorities enough concern to spend £2million pounds to try to help it.

    We have created a sad world for our young people, we have created for them a world of easy sex and one night stands, drinking oneself into a stupor, the illusion of an easy life for a teenage single mothers and TV advertisements about taking a chlamydia test as the numbers infected are rocketing out of control.

    So, when we say okay, take the Sun and Star into your home, let your children see half naked young women and regard it as normal. Young women seeing stripping and dancing naked as an alternative to temping – and not in a special club but in a public house where anyone can go in, any age – does anyone think under 18′s dont get to witness this? What is the message we are sending about what girls and women are for?

    Only watch Jeremy Kyle – does anyone think that the sad, betrayed young people on that programme are just a pathetic few? If they did then they would be very wrong.

    It is heartbreaking.

  6. Sarah permalink
    May 8, 2010

    After a night drinking on Columbia Road, my girlfriends and I went in to Browns on our way home….does nobody else find it sad that a woman walks around a pub of fully dressed men with a jug begging for money, for HER to take HER clothes off??? It’s absurd…it’s sad. And no matter what anyone says the more this becomes “acceptable” the less respect we can command as women. I’m not a feminist, or a prude…I love my body and have no problem showing it off to the right person, to someone who deserves to see it, and when I want. Not when I need for money. I discovered an old friend was doing it, she gave it up to work in a bank….even though she said the money was amazing. But clearly the money comes with a price. And sooner or later, if a stripper’s not on drugs, she won’t be able to hack it any more.

  7. Matt permalink
    February 2, 2012

    Sarah above, do you have a problem flashing a smile at a bartender (male or female) to get served more quickly? Do you have a problem with a top female athlete making a fortune through her athletic prowess. Using your body for gain, monetary or otherwise, what’s the difference? What is superior about using physical assets rather than mental assets to make a living anyway? The only difference is that the usage you have a problem with is sexually oriented – therefore you ARE a prude.

  8. James permalink
    December 12, 2012

    Isabelle I think you can rest assured that under 18s do not get into strip clubs in Shoreditch, it is not worth it for the clubs and they’d be risking their licenses. Under 18s see hardcore porn every day on their phones anyway so they don’t need to enter strip clubs to see nudity… and much more. Women pay to see strippers and I don’t think it’s any worse for men to do the same. Do we really want to go back to a prudish, buttoned-up society? I don’t!

  9. james permalink
    July 10, 2013

    I have been to a number of pubs in the Shoreditch area and also one in Clerkenwell Road. The entertainers are superb, the venues well managed. The performances are a form of theatre.
    There are notices on the pub doors advising of what is inside and if one is likely to be offended, please do not enter.
    The girls are polite, well spoken and the customers in return are expected to be polite.
    Its all very nice.
    A pound in the pot and a tenner for a five minute private dance. Good value,good fun.

  10. Mr savez permalink
    June 28, 2014

    I love shoreditch. Amazing women. Excellent service. Respect is mutual, dont be jealous because people wont pay to see your body love

  11. Mark Burrell permalink
    June 13, 2015

    Best time I’ve had for ages having a private dance in the Olde Axe, Hackney Road. This group should be updated. This great place and others in Shoreditch and the one in Clerkenwell and the one near Kings Cross are back now, going as strong as ever: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2418412824/ (If the group owner doesn’t update it, please let me take it over).

  12. Kevin permalink
    December 10, 2016

    Is this my 15minutes of fame I,m the guy trying to cool whilst Lara dances for me on very quite afternoon

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