May 20, 2016 Theatre
At Auckland’s only male strip club, the tables are not just turned, they’re twerked all over.
Photos: Vicki Leopold.
He’s upside down, twerking in her face, wearing nothing but a fluoro thong. The crowd is screaming, he is sweating, and she is laughing so hard she’s purple. It’s only 7pm.
It’s the first show of the night at Men of Steel, New Zealand’s only male strip club, on Hobson St in downtown Auckland. With 110 punters it’s a full house, so I’m jammed between a squad of Pakeha Shore girls in their 20s and a party of Pasifika women in their 40s. The first are squealing shyly and the second are booty-popping on the table. (“The older brown ladies are the ones who really have fun,” says Tabitha, the manager. “They go crazy.”) The club is dim, lit by a few mirror balls and a dozen cut-glass decanters fastened over hanging bulbs. The stage is at the front, the bar at the back and to the right, and the walls are bordered by plush benches. Tables are stacked with cocktails. Lap-dance rooms, with the same plush benches, are behind a black curtain off to the side of the stage. Giggling punters steadily disappear into them during and after the show.
When I first walked into the club I was disappointed by how small it was. Then I realised it’s actually an asset; the proximity of everyone to everything just heightens the craziness. The air con gives out 20 minutes in and the heavy air seems to turn everyone insane.
Not that they needed much help with that. They were ready to party, for $30 a head, even before the MC came on stage. They always are. Of the six Men of Steel shows I’ve been to in the past month — on Fridays there’s one and on Saturdays up to three — not one was a quiet night. The earlier shows, at 6pm and 8pm, are tamer, with more in-laws and fewer plastic penises. But give it half an hour and they’ve started screaming. For the 11pm show, they arrive screaming.
That one’s a jungle. The women are squeezed in more tightly than they are into their leather bustiers. They descend on the bar brandishing credit cards and shouting, “Fuck it, it’s girls night!” Out come the strawberry daiquiris. By 11.30pm, they’re grinding on anything they can reach. By midnight, a skinny brunette has her arms around me and is kissing my neck. “He’s so hot! You’re so hot! Oh god, this is so fucking hot.”
Every show, every night, the room burns with heady, wild energy. It couldn’t be more different from the “traditional” strip club beneath it. Downstairs at Hush Hush, the female strippers are bored, the punters are listless and everything from the floors to the air feels greasy.
Up here, it’s wild. The strippers are gyrating, the girls are jumping and everyone’s drunk on lust, adrenalin, dry ice, sweat and perfumed man.
Even the women who act superior can’t help but get caught up in it. A stripper comes up to one who recoils. “I’m married!” she sniffs, “and I’m not a whore!” Without missing a beat, the guy slides over to another woman. He’s all over her, she’s all over him, so he takes her on stage, where she dissolves into a fit of delighted giggles. The married non-whore’s face is sour with envy.
And god, are these guys worth seeing naked. (Well, almost naked. The G-string or strategic bowler hat is never taken off.) Normally, it’s hard for Kiwi dudes to do sexy. When it comes to flirting, they seem to excel at sitting in a corner and making awkward eye contact. But these boys have that amiable, cheeky, rough-and-ready charm the ideal Kiwi man is supposed to have, despite the fact there aren’t many New Zealand-born guys in the troupe.
There’s “Enrique Iglesias” (Enrique), who is your Latin lover type. He’s 23, Brazilian, and has that textbook Hispanic smoothness. There’s “Thor” (Ma-John), who is your cheeky brown boy. He’s older, a Cook Islander with skin like rimu. There’s “Taylor Lautner” (Lee), who is your teenage crush. He’s 30, South African and has the face and dimples of a Cleo centrefold. There’s “Sonny Bill” (Ken), who is your chance to get dry-humped by a national god. He even does his hair the same way, although he’s leaner than SBW. “Macklemore” (Adam) is your Pakeha bad boy. He’s stacked like Action Man, with slicked-back brown hair and an aura so ruthless you feel that sex with him would be like getting fucked by a tank. And there’s “Slash” (Dion), who is the boss, founder and owner of Men of Steel. He’s Maori, with long black hair and impossibly broad shoulders. He’s a hypnotising blend of sensual and brutish sex appeal that puts him somewhere between Jake the Muss and a geisha. All six are ripped — Slash expects them to work out pretty much daily.
The first night I went just to see the show. The choreography was slick, sexy and fresh, the soundtrack designed to make every woman of every age scream — everything from Usher’s timeless club hopper, “Yeah!”, to Jason Derulo’s new release “Cheyenne”, to the nostalgic Top Gun head banger “Danger Zone”. The boys blast through two hours of individual sets, book-ended by group numbers, that are so high octane you feel like you’re 18 again and out clubbing for the first time.
They grab your chair, spin you around, grind into your face and up your legs, run their hands through your hair.
But that’s not really why you’re here. You’re here because it’s a living, breathing, heaving fantasy, brought to life by the fact the strippers don’t just stay on stage. They start there, dancing and writhing. But after a while — actually one minute and 14 seconds precisely — they start taking things off. Then they move into the crowd. They grab your chair, spin you around, grind into your face and up your legs, run their hands through your hair.
This is a place where you can touch, smell and even lick the man you’ve just seen on stage. Although, as Sonny Bill said, don’t go for the back. (“That’s just a tongue full of sweat, eh?”)
Before you’ve had time to even inhale the scent of Lynx and cocoa body oil, you’ve bought into it. Even women like me, who go in thinking they can remain a bit aloof, buy in deeply. I didn’t realise just how deeply until I went backstage. I’d come away from the show besotted with Sonny Bill. He’d winked at me, grinned across the bar, brushed his hand lightly down my back when I passed and said, “We have to stop meeting like this!” I’d giggled like a tween on acid.
Then I went backstage and listened to him discuss where to buy hydraulic screws. By the time he’d decided on Waitemata Hydraulics, my fantasy had died. He was just a bloke. “Yeah,” he grinned, “on stage we’re one thing, and then off stage we’re just dorks. Well, I am!”
Backstage, nothing hits you harder than their normality. Naked and ankle deep in cans of Mother and moisturiser, they’re towelling off, comparing Mexicali orders and soaking themselves with Lynx. “You got a lappy, bro!” (That’s stripper for “lap dance”.) “The young girls said they wanted the big one!” “Nah, reckon they meant the chubby one, eh?” “Nah, they said they wanted the one who looked like their dad.” They’re just bantering — these guys are mates.
No one is a professional dancer except Slash. He trained as a contemporary dancer and choreographer, but started stripping for the cash and the sheer fun of it. He tried to quit and get a real job but after six months returned to stripping, starting the Showboys male revue club in 1998, followed by Men of Steel in 2001.
This is his business, his world and his way of life. Until he gets too old, that is. “Then I’m going to act like a proper strip-club owner. I’m going to sit in a big-ass chair wearing a medallion and poking people with my pimp cane.”
Stripping is a well-paid hobby that makes them feel like rock stars. And it lets them buy their partners something nice at weekends.
The other guys have “proper” jobs — personal trainer, architect, leisure-centre manager. Stripping is a well-paid hobby that makes them feel like rock stars.
And, Sonny Bill says, it lets them buy their wives and girlfriends something nice at the weekends. Because yes, if you’re wondering, they’re all straight.
Their partners seem to have come to terms with their night jobs, in part because Slash insists they see the show. Sonny Bill is married — much to the disappointment of every young thing in the club — with two young kids. The other club favourite, Taylor Lautner, is “involved”, as is Enrique, while Macklemore is engaged. Slash has just come out of a long-term relationship and isn’t much interested in hooking up with random punters.
This is what’s fascinating about the place. It’s not the men themselves, the hydraulic-screw-and-chicken-burrito enthusiasts, who are interesting. It’s that all the punters ever see is their stage personas, so it’s easy to just think of them as men taking their clothes off. But they are acting, and their characters are mirrors held up to the face of female sexuality. Once you realise that, you look at them not to tell you about stripping, but to tell you about ourselves. After all, it’s their job to mould themselves to the unaddressed desires of women.
So what do they do? And what does it say about us? For a start, they act more as hosts than as dancers. Before the show, the boys are all suited up, moving through the crowd. They’re chatting, winking, kissing cheeks, carrying drinks to tables.
It takes the women by surprise. I watch Slash chatting to a pair at the bar. They’re apprehensive. They’re the entourage for their wild friend, a blonde in a plunging print dress, and you can tell they don’t know what to do. But Slash’s working hard on them and they’re starting to smile.
When you see him do this, it’s very hard to remember that he used to be cripplingly shy and have chronic acne (he used to wear a scarf over his face, it was that bad).
They go to pick up their drinks and he waves his hands, “No, I’ll take these over for you — can I get you anything else?” They blink. Then they smile. “Oh! Thank you! That’s so nice!” You can see they’re flattered, even though this is the millionth time he’s done this. You get the feeling it’s the first time in a while a handsome man has paid them so much attention. He takes the drinks, pulls out their chairs and they settle into them with a little sashay. In just a few minutes, they’ve gone from awkward to regal.
Of course it’s a learned civility, literally — Slash teaches the strippers what to do when they join the troupe. And of course it’s partly driven by the fact the women will tip them more. But they also like making the punters feel good, according to Slash. “I always get security to ID every woman, even if she’s, like, 40,” he says, “because you see their expression when they get ID’d. It’s priceless. And you know she’s going to go and boast to all her friends that she got ID’d.”
It’s the same with carrying drinks and pulling out chairs. “We want to give them a good time. And the little old-school things we do, things that I was brought up with — opening a door, asking how your night is, taking glasses to the table — I don’t think it’s particularly gentlemanly, it’s just being nice. But they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so kind of you!’ Must be hanging out with some douchebags, eh?”
I watch Sonny Bill and Taylor take women up on stage with them. You’d think they’d go for the textbook babes in the crowd who are begging for attention. But they don’t. They choose a shy young woman, another in sensible shoes, and someone’s mum. The mum is the best. She had to be dragged on stage but by the end of the set she’s throwing her face into Taylor’s crotch.
I ask Taylor how he picks them. “You don’t go for the really hot ones,” he says matter-of-factly. “They just expect it.” And they don’t tip. Why would they? A man coming over is nothing special. Instead, they’re aloof to the point of humiliating to the guys.
“You have more fun with the shy ones. You bring them out of their shell, take them on a journey, you know?”
“You have more fun with the shy ones,” says Taylor. “You bring them out of their shell, take them on a journey, you know?” Slash also likes the wallflowers. “Cute girls always bring along a plain friend who sits there all night feeling ignored. I want her to have the good time for once!” Sonny Bill loves the older women — “the grannies are always a hit. They go crazy!”
It’s probably why the crowd skews towards an older, more mainstream bunch of women. If you’re used to attention, this is not the place where you’ll get it. But if you’re used to holding the handbags, this is where you shine. I saw it during the interval, when the club morphed into a full-on dancefloor. A woman whose tired face was flushed with exhilaration and cocktails started dancing with me. “Isn’t this awesome?” she cried. “I’m a single mum of two under-fours, so I don’t get out much. This is the first time I’ve been out in ages!” It was her 19th birthday.
It’s also probably why the young and attractive punters are the most difficult ones. The club has a large chunk of blonde, thin 20-somethings who reek of sexual entitlement. They’re drunk, horny and used to being hit on at this stage in a night out. But it’s not happening. This is the point when the trouble starts. “The young ones are the worst,” says Tabitha, who’s seen it countless times. “They walk in here, go up to the boys and say, ‘Aren’t you going to buy me a drink?’ The guys look at them like, um, no. But they’re just used to attention.”
Then they get shitty. I see it at the 11pm show. A pretty brunette is coming on strong to a waiter but he’s not interested. Suddenly, she’s shouting, everyone’s staring, she calls him a c***, slaps him, then tries to kiss him. A woman in her 50s stands up, collars the girl and says, “Oi! Leave my son alone!” The brunette scurries away and the woman winks at the waiter. “Thought you could do with some help there, sexy.”
It’s the same story with a group of young cowgirls on a fake hen night. They’re drunk. They’ve been turned away from the bar and now they’re angry that their “hen” isn’t getting enough attention. Glasses get smashed. They want to see Tabitha. They want to see Slash. They won’t leave. Security gets called. They still won’t leave. The police are called. They still won’t leave. Eventually, it takes the security guys, the police and badass stripper Macklemore to move them outside. After trying unsuccessfully to get back in for 45 minutes, they settle for abusive Google reviews.
The strippers don’t offer sexual services, but for those willing to pay, there’s always a lappy. (That’s not to say women don’t ask. I had one, who was under the impression I worked there, pull me aside to ask how much it was for a quickie.)
Signs in the toilets advertise lap dances from five minutes ($20) up to an hour ($150). An hour? What do you do in a lap-dance room for an hour? Ping pong? A really difficult Sudoku? Sex? “No way,” says Slash. “I won’t have people saying they got pregnant at Men of Steel.”
So what do they do for an hour? The standard lap dance — grinding, hands allowed everywhere (except the crotch) and stripping off to the G-string. And then? “Intimacy,” says Slash. “We ask them how their day is, how they’re feeling, are they having a good night?” You chat? “Yeah, we take an interest in them, and we also do stuff like this…” He leans in, runs his hand over my chin and down my neck, cups the back of my head and looks into my eyes. Something bursts in my stomach. I can smell cocoa butter, Dior Sauvage and sweet, musky sweat. He’s still looking at me from under the glossiest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man.
It’s the first time in a long time someone’s touched my face like that. Then, at a point when I feel so exposed that I think I’m going to cry, he drops his hand and takes a swig of vodka. God. I can see why you’d pay for an hour of it.
Sonny Bill tells me that despite being trained in the lap dancing arts by Slash, being intimate with strangers isn’t much fun. “It’s pretty hard because you have to try to take an interest, but you don’t even know them.” But lap dances are popular — the strippers do about 10 a night between them — and massive money spinners.
Is this really what today’s average straight woman wants from a night out? Not all of us, obviously, but the capacity crowd on Saturday nights suggests a lot of women do. The shows were booked out for five solid weeks in February and March. Why? It could be about leering at some butt, in the same way men can sexualise and objectify women. It could also be about easing loneliness, alleviating boredom, or compensating for an inattentive partner. Whatever the reasons, the demand is there — 80 women were turned away on a recent Saturday night — and Men of Steel is raking in the money.
Something tells me their success is because they “get” women. Well, not all women. But they seem to understand something a lot of women have often felt: that we know we shouldn’t care about what men think, but we do. And that our confidence shouldn’t be boosted by a wink from a babe, but it is. And the world shouldn’t operate on unfair rules favouring the conventionally attractive, but it does.
It seems these guys — and maybe this is Slash’s influence — haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be the one who gets ignored at the dance. And so they decided this would be a place where the rules of natural selection don’t apply.