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Meet the strippers working to unionize a Los Angeles dive bar

Los Angeles August 2022
Los Angeles August 2022

Outside a dive bar advertising topless dancers on a recent Friday night in North Hollywood, a dancer who goes by her stage name, Reagan, sees her cue.

Before a car full of patrons can enter the parking lot of Star Garden, she cozies up to the driver's side window. She tells the group of four men why the bar — her former workplace — doesn't deserve their business.

"We do want to dance. We love it in there," Reagan tells the friends. But, turning on the flirt, she encourages them to instead dance with her co-workers on the sidewalk. "We're fighting for safer working conditions."

Reagan is among a group of former Star Garden employees who began striking outside the club six months ago. Since then, the dancers have taken their performances outside — picketing, putting on costumed runway shows and deterring customers from entering a space that they say failed to protect them.

They allege that security fails to intervene when belligerent customers threaten and physically assault dancers, that dancers are filmed without consent and that arbitrary rules and quotas govern their job security. After two dancers asked management to take basic measures to address their safety concerns, the dancers say, they were fired in retaliation. Those firings were the final push that drove the group of Star Garden dancers to take the first leap in an effort to unionize.

On March 18, 15 of the club's 23 employees at the time delivered a petition to Star Garden's owners stating their demands. When they attempted to meet with their bosses at the club the next day to discuss their grievances, the dancers said, they were locked out.

NPR spoke to eight dancers for this story, all of whom said that they were contract employees and that they were unfairly terminated for raising safety and privacy concerns with management. They spoke to NPR on the condition that they be identified by only their stage names to protect their safety and privacy. All the dancers said they use the term "stripper" to describe their work and often use the label interchangeably with "dancer."

All the dancers NPR spoke to said conditions are the same if not worse at other clubs. But they describe Star Garden as special in that it's a Lynchian dive bar full of personality and dancer camaraderie. They say that's why they're willing to fight so hard for better working conditions there.

Their approach is a novel one. In August, after several months of striking, the dancers filed for a union election through the Actors' Equity Association, a union that represents actors and stage managers on Broadway and at prominent theater venues. To start the unionization process, Actors' Equity lawyers will have to convince the National Labor Relations Board that the locked-out dancers were employees who were wrongfully terminated.

Andrea Hoeschen, the union's general counsel, said it's clear that strippers need the protections afforded by a union for the same host of reasons as do actors and stage managers.

"Safety onstage, safe backstage areas, sanitary backstage areas, having the employer take some responsibility for the behavior of audience members, making sure people aren't filmed or harassed by audience members, and that when any of those problems arise, that there is accountability on the part of the employer," Hoeschen told NPR.

If the dancers are successful, the Star Garden workers will become the only strippers in the U.S. to be represented by a union, according to Actors' Equity, which represents more than 51,000 workers.

They're not the first group of strippers to take the union path. The Star Garden dancers take direct inspiration from a unionization effort 25 years ago led by strippers at the Lusty Lady, a defunct peep show in San Francisco that unionized when the strippers joined the Service Employees International Union.

Many of the Star Garden dancers say a strip club run as a co-op is the ultimate goal — which is just what the Lusty Lady strippers did when they bought out the venue in 2003. But rising rent prices and the lure of online pornography made it difficult to keep the lights on, forcing the club to shut down in 2013.

The Star Garden dancers' effort is part of a larger movement in recent months by workers who are seeking unionization for better labor protections.

"I definitely see it as an aftershock of COVID," Reagan said. "People going back to work are just realizing what they're worth and realizing what they deserve."

The club's owners, Stepan "Steve" Kazaryan and Yevgenya "Jenny" Kazaryan, have not responded to multiple calls from NPR about the allegations described by the dancers. Joshua Kaplan, a lawyer reportedly representing the club, has not responded to multiple contact attempts.

For now, the dancers will be out on the sidewalk, trying to upset the club's bottom line.

More often than not, the dancers say, their deterrence tactics work to turn away business. But that one car of friends ended up going into the club that night.

Reagan shrugged: "Everyone needs a different touch," she said.

Reagan (she/her)

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Star Garden to close in 2020, Reagan, like many workers, took her business online. She and her fellow dancers started hosting virtual shows.

"It was like a revelation," Reagan said. "We realized that we have the know-how, the tools to create a community and an environment that we feel safe in and that we can perform and make money."

Online, she said, the talent ran the show. The performers could block a customer if they were being harassed, instead of waiting around for security to step in.

The time spent away from the club, she said, was a "wake-up call" to the pervasive safety issues that she said came into sharper focus when she returned.

Reagan said she was fired after standing up for herself to a manager who was joking about a customer killing her.

Now, to stay afloat emotionally and financially, she's continuing to host the virtual performances.

Reagan has been stripping for over a decade. For her, it hasn't been difficult to draw a separation between her private and public-performer lives. That distinction is now becoming muddier, however, as her public profile as an activist melds with her performer persona in the spotlight of the strike.

Outside of stripping, Reagan is a theater performer who is already represented by Actors' Equity. It's serendipitous, she said, that those two worlds are forming one, and it validates her belief that strippers are stage performers.

Wicked (she/her)

Wicked is a self-described theater kid — a performer.

"You are a one-woman show when you're out there to make your money," she said.

And for a while, she truly was. Star Garden hired her in July 2021, and for her first eight weeks, she said, she danced in the club alone. As more strippers got brought on board, she held out hope that club conditions would improve.

The conditions, she said, included holes in the stage, a broken pole, shattered glass on the ground and a general lack of cleanliness. Star Garden owners and managers, who she said also took shifts as bartenders and security guards, didn't rush to address her concerns.

"They filled a lot of roles and cut a lot of corners doing that," Wicked said. "And in cutting so many corners, they made us less safe."

Week by week, month after month, working conditions deteriorated, she said.

"You could tell security, 'This guy just tried to shove his finger in me,' and you'd be met with a blank stare," Wicked said. "That happened to me multiple times."

Feeling that they couldn't rely on security, the dancers warned and protected each other from customers and management.

After two dancers were fired in the span of a couple of days, the Star Garden strippers felt they were running out of options. They presented their petition to management and took to the picket line when barred from reentering the club.

The support of the nonprofit Strippers United and, now, Actors' Equity has been critical to keeping their momentum going, Wicked said.

"We made it five months, which in labor terms is colossal," she said in August. "It's a very long time to continue picketing and continue staying strong on these lines."

Selena (she/her) and Tess (she/they)

When she wears her hair down, Selena often gets compared to the late Tejano pop star Selena Quintanilla, so choosing a stage name to "represent the queen herself" was an obvious choice.

Selena started dancing two years ago. A difficult financial situation had left her living out of her car, and she felt like stripping could offer the flexibility to pay her bills and still go to school.

"I could take a week off dancing because I was focused on [finals] week, and I've never had any job do that before," she said.

Her new job also allowed her to explore different sides of herself.

"I'm very masc outside of being a stripper," she explained. "As soon as I step into the strip club, I can be as femme as I want. It's really liberating and really beautiful to be in an environment where that's appreciated."

Selena landed at Star Garden in January, becoming its only Latina dancer. That didn't immediately raise red flags — it meant good money. But the more she talked to her Star Garden co-workers, most of whom were white, the more she felt uncomfortable with how her new employers seemed to be tokenizing her.

And slowly, she said, the things she valued most about her career as a stripper — the freedom, the independence, the self-expression — started eroding. In March, Selena hit a breaking point.

She said she was fired, with no clear explanation why, after asking a customer to stop filming one of her co-workers.

Striking and organizing takes a huge toll, especially as one of the few people of color on the team, she said.

Tess is no stranger to these feelings and financial hardship. Tess started dancing at Star Garden years ago, when it was under different ownership. Then, after a three-year hiatus from the stripping scene, she returned last August.

"The money was good," they said. "But then, weird things started happening."

For example, she said, Jenny Kazaryan would close down the stage show if the strippers were not selling enough lap dances. When you do that at a stage club, Tess explained, part of the clientele is going to get up and leave.

In February, they fell off the pole during a performance — a combination of circumstances, they said, that included an unkempt stage and a lack of rags to clean off the pole between dancers. Jenny's son drove Tess to the hospital, but she never received any sort of compensation or financial support. Tess said management didn't give her a copy of the contract she signed at hiring, so she didn't know whether she was entitled to any benefits or protections.

A few weeks later, they showed up in a sling to sign the petition for improved safety.

Now, Tess financially supports her family through several streams of income. But they make it out to the picket line as much as possible and take pride in producing and performing in stripper co-op shows. She also runs the strike's Twitter account.

Like Selena, Tess, who is of Asian descent, is one of a few people of color in their movement. That's because nearly all the Star Garden dancers are white and none are Black — a fact that has resulted in a backlash against the strippers' unionization effort,

The dancers say they saw Black dancers being turned away and allege that Star Garden's management engaged in racist hiring practices.

"That wasn't up to us. It's not our fault that the club hired light-skinned and white women, because that's what they wanted," Tess said.

She said she is dedicated to centering Black voices in the Star Garden unionization effort. That could be achieved in part, she says, by including anti-racist hiring language in their union contract so that Star Garden would hire Black dancers. She says it would also include listening to Black strippers and sex-work activists who have criticized the unionization effort, and then taking those concerns into consideration moving forward.

At the end of the day, Selena said, she enjoys being a stripper — and wants to do it safely at Star Garden. Stripping has taught her to take better care of herself, physically and mentally, and she's proud to wear the title.

"It's a way to take out the stigma, and it seems like people are so afraid to say 'stripper' because it feels like there is a negative connotation or a cynical meaning to it," she said. "But this is what a stripper looks like, you know? And the more that we say it, the more normalized it will become."

Charlie (she/they)

Charlie started working at Star Garden in January. Though it wasn't Charlie's first strip club, bar managers assumed she was a "baby stripper" — and soon she started navigating what she calls "arbitrary rules and quotas" that she said she'd never experienced at other workplaces.

To get scheduled on weekend shifts, which made the most money, she said club owners required that she work on weeknights too. This meant wrapping up her 9-to-5, rushing to the club by 6 p.m. and dancing until close at 2 a.m.

"It did awful things to my brain and my body," they explained. "And I would go to work in the morning and just do it all again because they told me I had to, and I didn't want to lose my job."

When the club locked out the dancers, Charlie once again found herself bouncing between gigs to stay afloat. She said stripping helps her find her voice, to speak up for herself and communicate with her clients about their physical and emotional needs.

"[Stripping] is so incredibly multifaceted. It's a performance from all parties, not just us," they said. "The men that come in here, they get to be a different version of themselves."

It's not just Star Garden that's riddled with workplace safety concerns, they said. There aren't better options in the industry — the only solution she sees, for now, is to unionize, she added.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.