Velveeta, a dancer at the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood, tells two different stories about her work.
In the first, she’s on stage, bathed in purple light, feeling sexy and in control. When she looks up, the men in the room not only pay attention to her, they seem genuinely moved by her performance.
“It’s like basking in the limelight,” says Velveeta, who agreed to use only her stage name for this story. “I appreciate the attention personally. And I love to dance. And I think I have a great body…I feel confident up there.
The other story that Velveeta tells is darker. The customers are drunk and their touching sometimes turns into serious assaults – repeated spankings or imminent rape. Velveeta says she once saw a man dragging a dancer across the stage by her ankle.
“It’s no exaggeration at all to think that we could be hunted down or assaulted, robbed and killed. Those are the risks we take in this industry,” says Reagan, another Star Garden dancer who would only use her stage name for security reasons. However, “there are precautions to keep us safe and to make the job safe and fun so we don’t have to think about those terrible things.”
But Star Garden dancers say those precautions are not in place at this dimly lit strip club on Lankershim Boulevard. Dancers complain that the people who are supposed to protect them at work – club owners and security guards – are not doing so. Additionally, they say dancers who spoke to management about safety issues were fired in retaliation.
That’s why, for the past 10 weeks, these dancers have been picketing outside Star Garden, trying to discourage customers from entering.
KCRW has repeatedly contacted Star Garden management and its attorney to comment on this story and they have not responded.
Reagan says the problems started late last year, when a security guard told him he wouldn’t intervene in a dangerous situation with a drunk customer.
Reagan has danced in clubs across the country for more than a decade, and she says security guards usually take an active role in protecting dancers.
“I had never heard that from a security guard in my life,” Reagan says. “You are ‘not authorized to intervene’? Isn’t that all your job? What do you do then? Are you just there for decoration? »
Dancers need security guards, says Antonia Crane, founder of labor organization Strippers United and dancer for nearly 30 years.
“Anyone who walks through the door is our customer,” she says. “It could be someone who just escaped street rehab. It could be someone on the run. It could be a professional gamer, politician, businessman, or Steve the drywall guy. For every kind and respectful customer who walks through the door, Crane says, others come seeking to fulfill violent fantasies and assaults.
“I got suffocated in the workshop,” Crane says. “I had a client the DJ dubbed ‘The Strangler,’ and he’s a different client than the one who held me in a chokehold.”
Dancers say it’s not easy to enforce boundaries with customers because their livelihoods are at stake. At Star Garden, dancers say they have to pay landlords a significant chunk of the money they win by giving lap dances.
“You didn’t want to just leave because you lose your customer, you lose your tip,” Reagan says. “It’s so much easier when there’s someone you can have to back you up.”
Reagan says she was fired in late February after an argument with a bartender. She says she went to him with a serious security problem – a client was getting possessive.
“And his reaction was to jokingly tell me I was going to be murdered and this client was going to kill me,” Reagan said. “I yelled at him, and was later told that was why I got fired.”
Weeks later, another dancer named Selena saw a group of men filming her colleague, who was topless. She says she was fired after her intervention.
In testimony reviewed by KCRW, Star Garden owners, a couple named Stepan “Steve” and Yevgenya “Jenny” Kazaryan, wrote to the National Labor Relations Board that the dancers were asked to leave after acting aggressively towards the customers and staff.
On March 18, the Star Garden dancers left work. Nineteen of Star Garden’s 24 dancers signed a petition and delivered it to management, demanding that the couple respond to the dancers’ concerns.
These dancers want management to remove the policy that prevents security guards from intervening directly on their behalf. They also want panic buttons installed in lap dancing booths and management kicking customers out after hours when dancers come out of the locker room in plain clothes.
But would all of this really ensure that strippers feel safe on the job? It is not easy to answer this question.
None of the dancers KCRW spoke to for this story — dancers who have worked in clubs across the country — could name a single strip club model where workers routinely felt respected, heard and supported. security.
“It feels like the industry has normalized so many bad things that it’s hard to imagine a club without those issues,” Reagan says.
That’s why Star Garden dancers look beyond their list of requirements. In early May, they voted to unionize with Stripper’s United, the organization Crane formed in 2018. If their campaign is successful, Crane says Star Garden will be the first strip club in the United States to unionize in years. 1990.
Then the dancers say they want to get back to work, with policies in place that not only protect them, but also allow them to have fun.