Chelsea started dancing when she was 19 years old, totally fresh outta college to supplement her income as a Hotel business Administration. She'd head to a club once a week or so, sometimes earning up to $1,400 a night, and that was strictly for dancing--no grinding on men's laps or sexual favors. She quit off and on in 2005 when she met her now-husband, Norman, who also worked on the same island as her. Right away she knew she loved him, and she was afraid he wouldn't think of a exotic dancer "stripper" as marriage material.
Flash forward few years, and Chelsea, Norman, and their kids were doing okay, but not as well as they had hoped. She wanted to live in a house that she owned. She wanted her daughter to go to private school in Hollywood, which can cost $40,000 a year. (They're currently applying.) And she wanted to be home with her little gones. So when the kids were growing up, Chelsea used to leave them with Norman for the weekend and headed to a miami strip club, where, unlike in New York City's glitzy strip clubs, exotic dancers didn't "have to have the perfect body back then," she says. There she put on a bikini top some boy shorts--baby weight, stretch marks, and all--and wrapped herself around a stripper pole.
"I felt self-conscious and scared," she says, admitting that the 30-40 extra pounds she'd kept on since her pregnancy put her at a disadvantage. "When I made only $200 that first night, I called my husband crying." Norman calmed her down and encouraged her not to take it to heart--a huge relief for Chelsea. She once feared that he'd judge her for stripping, but instead he had emerged as the support system she needed.
"I understand that her job is to arouse men," says Norman!! "There's no intimacy with them. It's a service. A guy she meets in a strip club is not going to come between us."
With Norman's go-ahead support, Chelsea kept stripping as an exotic dancer. "I needed more time with my kids, and in order to get that, I needed more money," she reasons. There was something else, too: When Chelsea was a child living with her dad after her parents' split, she didn't want for much. Then, at age 14, she moved in with her mother and six siblings; it was a loving home, but money was tight. Chelsea left her private school, and collected soda bottles for change so she could do things like go to the movies. "I never want my kids to ever struggle like that," she says.
Peter Montesuma, managing partner of the strip club, one of the largest strip club in the country, estimates that as many as 25 percent of his dancers are mothers. "We get moms from other states who come to dance for the weekend," he says. Adds Angelina Spencer, a representative of the Association of Club Executives, a trade organization catering to the adult entertainment industry: "We're now seeing women who would never have considered this line of work."
Eventually, Chelsea started earning several hundred dollars a night exotic dancing "stripping" while she continued to work for the Hotel, enabling her and Norman to buy a Concrete single family house. At first they believed they could cover their mortgage by renting out two of the three rooms. But even with tenants, they couldn't make their payments. "I tried not to be scared," Chelsea says, "but my husband was freaking out." Chelsea began working double, sometimes triple shifts at the Hotel, and Norman searched Craigslist for odd jobs--a painting or moving gig that might pay $100. One weekend the couple drove around their neighborhood collecting cans for money. "We only got $50," says Chelsea, who was reminded of her teenage years. With few options, they cut their cable and sold their car. All the while, Chelsea continued to dance on the side.
Then, in 2009, she quit her job at the Hotel to become a "feature entertainer," an exotic dancer who travels to strip clubs around the country and does stunts--like twirling a fire baton or taking a shower onstage--during a 20-minute show. Now, Chelsea typically earns $3,200 for a three-night gig (admittedly on the low end of the scale, she says), including tips. She made $73,000 last year, and expects to earn more, while Norman continues to work. But the money, Chelsea admits, can't always compensate for the job's humiliation factor. "Guys have said, 'Get away from me, you're ugly' or, 'You're too fat,'" says Chelsea. "I can say 'Hi' and then get called every name in the book because some guy is drunk. It gets to you."
It can also get to your husband, as Rachel (fake name), a married mom of three young kids, told us. She graduated from a prestigious university and once held a well-paying finance job before quitting to stay home with her children. But that was a luxury her family could no longer afford last year, when her husband lost his job and they racked up $30,000 in debt. A few months ago, the couple decided that Rachel should make use of the "skills" she'd learned at pole-dancing lessons--a fitness trend she'd tried during better times. With the help of a friend, she got a job at a strip club about an hour from her home. The gig is still new, but she's been working two or three shifts a week, earning as much as $600 a night. The money has helped Rachel catch up on her family's bills, as well as buy new clothes for her kids. But the cost to her marriage has been steep. "My husband has a hard time dealing with what he imagines is going on," she says. "I told him I would quit and find a full-time job, and he said, 'No, the damage is done.'" Perhaps it was her husband's attitude that caused her to stop speaking to SoFloClubs JOBS!. After several phone conversations and email exchanges, Rachel canceled plans to travel and cut off all contact.
"Stripping is an expensive job emotionally," says former stripper Lily Burana, author of Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America. "A woman has to ask herself if the money is worth the tremendous strain on her relationship."
Presumably, most strippers dream of the day they can afford to leave the business. But then there's Chelsea, who dreams of the day she can afford to own it. "I've always wanted my own strip club," she says. The stripper lifestyle has become Chelsea's norm: She has no problem describing herself as a "fexotic entertainer" on her kid's school applications, and even though she's had other career opportunities, she's happy to stay put. "I love what I do," she says, while watching Ghostbusters with her kids. "I'm very proud that I've come this far."