The Strippers of Shoreditch
Last night, I met a nice girl called Lara for a 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 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, it was 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
“I think that your private body and your public body are very different…”
“My pleasure in stripping comes from the eye contact with customers that makes you conspirators. Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to engage this unspoken rapport in subtle ways – in stages that evolve gradually because the norm provides a natural distance from the client, which to my mind has to be breached, psychologically rather than physically. Effectively, the seduction, the tease is in the implied relationship not in the nudity…”
“Stripping was, in a lot of places, less of a spectator sport than it is now. Most places had no stage, which made the dancing environment more intimate, and probably then, inevitably, more interactive. Hands had to be playfully pushed away, baby oil and ice were commonplace props, and once, quite early on I had the misfortune of working with a girl who shot ping pong balls from between her legs into your pint glass!”
Professionally SpeakingI lead a life that millions would Envy, if they understood That it’s possible to flaunt your vanity Whilst holding firmly onto sanity. (Which at times can be tough When you’re parading in the buff And some intellect yells “Show us yer tits!” ‘Cause you want to smash his face to bits.) But instead, you smile once more, As if you never heard that before, You let him you think he’s really funny And then he gives you lots more money Which contributes to your untold bills And also pays for meals and thrills Of going to strange exotic shores, Where everything you want is yours. So for many reasons, I declare it, That I am proud to grin and bear it.
“The job makes you realise how insecure most men are. They put on this front to make them look macho. The more sad and insecure they are, the more they have to hide behind this front. Men are all kids. They’ll never grow up. I’ll never hate men.”
“Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, a gentleman or a complete tosser, the love of beautiful naked girls will have all types of men in the same room. By having alcohol mixed with testosterone, I see a different side of men that most women will never get to see and I definitely know I am a lot less naive for having seen it. I use this information to decide what kind of person I want to be with in my private life.”
Stripper photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Photograph of Ye Olde Axe copyright © Julie Cook