Why an Exotic Dancer Is (Financially) Just Like Your Hairdresser

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Part 1: How Strippers Get Paid

When I was a stripper, people were surprisingly curious about how I made money. “So, you’re a contractor?” men would often ask.

“No, technically I’m running my own business,” I would tell them, and this was true. It wasn’t that I felt a strong need to correct them. I’m sure other dancers probably let the comment slide, and responded with, “Yeah, sure I am. Would you like me to contract you into that booth over there?”

I genuinely found the economics of exotic dancing interesting, as did many of the men I had as customers. Most of the men who were willing to give me copious amounts of money wanted to have copious amounts of conversation in addition to nakedness, and I was able to oblige. I wasn’t a turn-&-burn Applebee’s type of stripper. That style never worked especially well for me. I was a long-term investment type of girl, who often required a warm-up and cool-down period, and I attracted like-minded customers who required the same. And so, conversations about finances and economics often bookended naked dancing.

As a stripper, the club does not pay you. There is no hourly wage you earn to stand around waiting for someone to ask you to take your clothes off. However, I can only assume that people believe strippers are independent contractors because they think that the money they pay for dances is given to the club, which in turn is doled out to the dancer in the form of a stipend or salary. I’m sure most people don’t think much farther than that… but if it’s paid out to her, it then must be tracked in some way, like on a 1099 form. Right?

In my experience (in the city of Los Angeles, at least, as I found that laws that govern how exotic dancers get paid are often dictated on a county-by-county basis), it is exactly the opposite. In LA, fully nude clubs cannot serve liquor. The clubs, therefore, compensate by cutting into dance fees. Money paid for dances is paid to the dancer, who pays the club an agreed-upon rate for the privilege of conducting her business there. In essence, she is paying rent, or leasing space from the club for commerce. In the city of Las Vegas, I even had to possess a business license in order to work as a stripper, and show it to the strip club before I was allowed to perform.

Money paid for dances is paid to the dancer, who pays the club an agreed-upon rate for the privilege of conducting her business there.

This is how many hairdressers operate their businesses, which is something most of us learn when we grow up and have a friend who becomes a hairdresser, and we get yelled at when we miss a hair appointment. That hairdresser is running their own business out of that chair, which they pay rent on. Their calendar is their livelihood, and they might even be able to set their own rates based on their level of skill and expertise. Tips are truly important to them, not just monetarily, but also as a compliment to their talent. Yes, they have certain branding to display and house rules they have to play by, and they have to pay rent to their landlord. But beyond that, they are the owner of a business and have their own customers that will often follow them if they move salons.

Believe it or not, strippers operate in a similar fashion.

Many of my customers at the strip club wouldn’t have guessed that the money that they were handing me was getting split with the club at 50 percent. The first club I ever worked in would allow the dancers to handle all of the money they made throughout the entire shift, then have a waitstaff-style payout at the end of the night where they would tally up the dances you did and add up all the money you owed the “house.” The dances were tracked by either the DJ or the bouncers, multiplied by half the dance cost, and the dancer paid out to the manager. This, of course, could accumulate to thousands of dollars which the dancer had been managing all night long.

“You mean all of this money isn’t going to you?” a customer would ask me, as he was paying. I would shake my head. Certain men would check their wallet to see if they could offer me something extra as a tip, even if it was five dollars. Others would just give me a cheery, “Thanks!” before departing.

“You mean all of this money isn’t going to you?” a customer would ask me, as he was paying. I would shake my head.

Another club in Los Angeles where I danced would charge odd amounts for dances, such as $51 or $37, and would have the dancer and customer check out at a register at the conclusion of each transaction (there was no end-of-shift payout, and dancers were never in charge of the club’s cut of the money at any time). The money was split 50/50, but the dancer always missed out on the extra dollar, and the club always took the higher amount. It was a brilliantly sleazy business model, since over the years this obviously adds up to a lot of “extra” money that most people (dancers and customer alike) don’t notice or consider. Could they have easily charged $50 or $36 for dances? Of course, but they didn’t. The dancers who did consider this issue would get very upset about it, but crumble under the weight of their powerlessness very quickly before becoming quiet again.

Not all clubs employ a 50/50 split model, though. Even clubs in large cities like Las Vegas deviate from this lucrative model quite a bit. Due in part to the size of the businesses, many of them being 24-hour topless clubs that are serving liquor, Las Vegas dancers are generally allowed entry for a flat fee paid directly to the club, then permitted to work the floor completely unmonitored and solo while keeping all dance fees. The dance prices were advertised and set by the club, but it was our job to enforce them, charge them, collect them, and tip out responsibly. The prices were also much lower than any LA club I had previously worked.

In Vegas, my productivity had to be higher and my hustle had to be harder. Since the support staff were just barely at our disposal, cash transactions directly between customer and dancer were highly encouraged. The one time someone tried to pay me with plastic for a Vegas VIP room, he was declined half-way through the first dance, and slunk out while I was frantically putting my clothes back on. Lesson learned: don’t take your top off in Vegas until the credit card clears.

In Vegas, my productivity had to be higher and my hustle had to be harder.

I found many benefits in being able to run my own business from the pole, one of which was the ability to choose my own customers. If a man sat next to me and spoke to me in a way I did not like, I walked away from him. If I was running into too many roadblocks with a customer who wanted to play head games with me, I gave up on him. If a man played too rough in a dance booth, I ended the engagement. If I simply felt tired, I would sit back, be lazy, and see the impact in my wallet. It was my decision, and no one could tell me otherwise.

More often than not, though, I had self-imposed quotas. I would walk into work and know I had a certain target I wanted to hit. I scheduled myself for a minimum of four 6-hour shifts per week, and a weekly dollar amount target. If I did well on my Tuesday shift, I could be a little lazy on my Wednesday shift. Or, if a sudden car repair came up, I went in for a double instead of a single shift. Girls who had to make rent would stay on the floor until they came out with enough money to go home and cut a good check.

Putting a person directly in charge of how much money she can make will result in actual work getting done. This is one of the many reasons why I actually liked stripping, even though it was, at its core, a sales job.

Putting a person directly in charge of how much money she can make will result in actual work getting done.

After we get our 50/50 split with the club, our earnings are further depleted. Tip-out in the service industry is standard, and anyone who had to bust their ass in a restaurant job knows what this is. You either ran around cleaning dirty tables at a restaurant, and were the happy recipient of the waitstaff’s castoff dollar bills at the end of the night, or you were the bitter waitress forced to give the bus staff (and the hostess, and the bartender, and the food runner, and maybe even the manager and cook if you worked for a really sketchy place) 2 percent of your sales out of your hard-earned tip money.

How much do strippers tip out?

My highest tip-out as a stripper was $700.

Part 2: How Strippers Get Tipped and Who They Are Tipping

Unlike tips to restaurant employees (who are paid sub-minimum wages in 43 out of the 50 US states), tips do not make up the bulk of strippers’ income. Tips are, however, the only money that you could truly say is ours and ours alone.

I received the most tips from customers after I had the “are you a contractor?” conversation with them and explained that the club was splitting dance fees with me. Sometimes, even without that conversation, men would just open their wallets and feel the need to tip me. That cash, like the money made on stage, was always mine to keep, and no one inside the club had any claim to it.

Tips are the only money that is ours and ours alone.

I worked with many dancers who had very strong opinions about customers giving them tips. Some were of the opinion that tipping should happen at the conclusion of every dance exchange, regardless of the situation or total cost, even though we were already being paid for the dance outright. I never shared this opinion, as I still think tips are always optional. The one exception being when I demanded a tip from a man who was so rough with me during a dance that, while bouncing me on his knee like a newborn baby, I was briefly airborne. The only reason I didn’t fall was because his fingers were fiercely digging into my thighs, and he made damn sure my pelvic bone made violent connection with his leg on my way back down. That guy owed me everything he had in his wallet.

Tips from customer to dancer could shift and change our income significantly, but I always took it as a nice surprise rather than expected income. Or, even more appropriately, it could serve as a replacement for the tip-out that I was obligated to pass on to the staff who supported me, which was not optional.

If restaurant servers are tipping out on sales numbers, then strippers are tipping out on dance numbers. In the Los Angeles strip clubs where I worked, it was customary to tip out to your support staff $1 per dance. At the height of the 2008 recession, a good daytime shift would see me doing 15 dances, and a great night shift would see me doing 40+. (Just for context, veteran strippers thought those numbers were dismal.)

The tip out situation on day shift vs. night shift was extremely different, as you had around double the staff on the floor. Day shift: 1 DJ, 1 bartender, 1 manager, 0 bouncers. Night shift: 1 DJ, 2 bartenders, 2 bouncers, 1 manager. All of these people would earmark $1 per dance out of your half of your dance money, so your tip out doubles if you choose to work a night shift.

Treating your support staff well pays you back in spades, and that didn’t necessarily mean I had to over tip. It just meant I had to be reliable and steady. My first club had several high-roller customers who, of course, had the freedom to choose which girls they spent time with. However, the bouncing staff would help steer certain dancers in their direction, or make phone calls to off-duty dancers if those high roller customers suddenly walked in the door. The dancers they weren’t doing any favors for: the skimpy and unreliable tippers.

I made a point to tip $1 per dance no matter what. Even if I worked a day shift where I did three dances, I walked around and gave the each staff member three dollars. Sometimes, they would wave me away. “Get me next time.” I’d often make them take it, because I’d claim I’d forget to catch up with them next time (highly likely). But just making the effort was something they took notice of, and it was enough. They also took notice of girls who considered ten dances a “bad day,” and would slink out the back without tipping anyone.

Treating your support staff well pays you back in spades.

On one particular night where I found myself with an infamous over-tipping high roller, I was deciding what to do about my tip out. I had done upwards of 80 dances since he had kept me for so long in the booth, and I’d been with other customers as well. There was an extra bouncer on the floor, which gave me seven staff people to tip out to, which was a lot.

I could give them all $80, the logistics of which would require me to get the manager to break up a bunch of my monetary dealings (the mess of bills and OIU chips I had from credit card transactions was insane). Or I could toss them all $100 IOU chips, which served as real money inside the club. Was tipping out an extra $160 worth showing the staff that I appreciate the services they provide, and that keeping me in mind for future Good Customers is in their best interest? Will that money come back around to me?

Sure it is, and yes it will.

That was the night I tipped out $700.

Making money as a dancer may seem messy, but I didn’t know many women who would change the structure as it was. They loved the control, decision-making power, flexibility, and ability to measure and gravitate towards trends. It was the only sales job I was ever good at and was happy to show up to.

Being directly connected to the money you take home is pivotal for any job, but particularly for one like exotic dancing. I can’t lie and say that those work environments are perfect. Far from it. Sometimes, there are drugs. Sometimes, there is drama or stories about shitty boyfriends. It’s not a career, and there’s no type of employment goal you’re working towards.

However, I have yet to work in an environment where people were as personally driven to work because they saw a direct cause and effect between their effort and payout. For all the negativity that exists in exotic clubs, there is a positive aspect in the financial structure of how strippers operate their businesses, and the freedom and power that comes with it. I was privileged to experience it, and see how groups of young women can be able to take control of their money and make it work for them.

Ainslie Caswell is a fledgling writer and playwright, experimenting with her writing on Medium and Twitter. She is finishing a book about the year of her life spent as an exotic dancer. Visit her at www.ainsliecaswell.com.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.