As rallying cries go, “Artista, Erotica, Utopia!” is among the more ludicrous, especially for an underground pop-up strip club, where eager young women perform awkward erotic dance routines for a members-only crowd of well-off young gentlemen.
Yet somehow, The Observer was unaccountably galvanized by this hearty call to arms, legs and other body parts. That’s the only way to explain how we came to find ourselves, on a recent Thursday night, emerging from the bathroom of a dimly lit bilevel nightclub in the Flatiron district wearing only leopard-print boy shorts with lace trim, a matching bra and Jimmy Choo heels.
We were making our debut at the Saint Venus Theater, a discreet (O.K., sketchy) members-only organization that aims to do for go-go dancing what Fight Club did for getting beaten to a pulp. In other words, try desperately to make it cool. As with pop-up nightclubs, restaurants, clothing boutiques, dental offices, abortion clinics and cheesemongers, it moves stealthily around the city, its location known only to an elite few.
Prospective patrons, who must be over 25, are instructed to submit applications via email and to provide a few personal details “so we know you would fit in well with our events,” as the website advises. Those who make the cut are given an address at which the super-secret roving event is to take place. After paying a $40 entrance fee, customers can eat free chocolate, throw back shots of Patrón and, for $20 apiece, enjoy “the most erotic and physically transformative lap dance [they] are likely to have ever known.”
That sounded like a tall order, given that The Observer had no previous experience with professional disrobing. But S.V.T. is steadfast in its policy of employing “real girls”—dabblers and wanna-bes, basically, who see the gig more as a lark than a life’s calling. And as it turned out, we didn’t actually look that out of place amid the 40 or so half-naked 20-something females scattered about the bar area, vying for the attention of the strikingly conservative execs packing the place.
The club’s MySpace page sells the concept a bit more extravagantly, describing S.V.T. as “an unprecedented nirvana for those who have a great appreciation and respect for the charm and splendor of a sexy lady or two or thirty. And are passionate about being entertained by the wonder and awe that is the female of the species.”
S.V.T. advertises for dancers on Craigslist. “This is private in every respect,” the club’s want ad advises. “You sign no contracts or forms. There is no record that you ever worked with us.” That sounded reassuring and also harrowing. But throwing caution to the wind, we sent in a full-body picture and phone number as directed. Following 72 humiliating hours without a reply, The Observer’s cell phone rang.
On the other line was Rob, the event’s organizer. “I’m going to talk for five to six minutes,” he said. “Try not to say one word. After that, obviously you’ll have questions.”
Most of Rob’s well-rehearsed speech was devoted to distinguishing S.V.T. from traditional nudie bars, which, he alleged, are “exploitative of both men and women.” At S.V.T., Rob emphasized, customers are forbidden from proposing any contact beyond dancing. He also promised that there would be no stage dancing, private “champagne rooms” or stripping.
It all sounded perfectly harmless, actually.
Signaled by a lengthy pause that Rob was finished, The Observer posed our first question: “Who are these guys?”
“Everybody who comes in has money, and they’re spending money very freely,” Rob assured us. From his mailing list of roughly 3,300, he estimated that 100 to 140 guys show up for each event. He said that his guests are into “meeting a real girl and making a real connection.”
Turning suddenly wistful, he added, “When I was a little kid, I dreamed about getting rich and buying an island. I didn’t know what a prostitute was, but I knew that they were alone and on the street and I wanted to find a place where these two kinds of people could help each other.”
“Wow,” The Observer said, our bewilderment genuine.
Rob explained that he began connecting with “very important people” in the early aughts while helping put together events for Rolling Stone and HBO. “In 2006, I made a website and I told everybody [S.V.T.] already existed and that they were missing out. It was a really impressive pitch,” he chuckled. Since starting the business in 2009, he has overseen all aspects of the operation—from recruiting dancers to brokering deals with venues to managing security and preserving the event’s cachet, such as it is.
“Most girls make $400 to $600 a night,” he continued. “But some pull in $700 to $800 regularly.” The Observer was pleased to learn that dancers pocket whatever they make, minus an $80 contribution to the house.
“Not bad. And what would I have to wear?”
“There is no dress code,” Rob replied.
That’s a relief! we thought.
“But there are rules,” he went on. “Number one: no long dresses. Number two: no boots. Number three: no illogical or excessive body adornments such as hair gel, big jewelry or overdone makeup. I tell the girls to dress however they feel comfortable and sexy. But I would prefer that the girls wear bikinis.”
That actually sounded a little like a dress code to us. But what the hell.
“I’ll text you an address,” he said.
Two days later, The Observer showed up at the designated time and place (sorry, trade secret) and passed through an unmarked, smoky glass door on an otherwise peaceful block. Rob appeared. He was dressed in all black, a tall, fit guy with a long, gray ponytail. Without a word, he ushered us inside.
Immediately, he brought us to a willowy brunette in a black corset and sheer knee-highs.
“Mercedes will give you a tutorial,” he said, then hurried off to tend to other managerial duties.
“I’m going to talk to you for these five minutes because I have to,” Mercedes barked, “but I won’t speak to you again until you’ve been here for three weeks.”
Luckily, The Observer wasn’t there to make friends.
Mercedes warned us that Rob reserves the right to send any girl home at any time, so we shouldn’t get too wasted. We also learned that Rob alone decides who’s invited back to work each week, and that we would have to prove ourselves as a “driver of business.” Before leading us to a restroom, which doubled as a changing area, she offered a final note of caution: “Rob will be watching.”