Arts & Culture

What’s it like being a stripper in New Orleans? Mississippi Coast women share their stories

Devin Ladner sits on the living room floor of her quaint shotgun home in the Broadmoor neighborhood, applying makeup as the sun sets outside.

In the kitchen, her partner, Alex Hebert, makes an iced coffee for Devin. It’s a warm evening in December, and there are Christmas gifts wrapped in the foyer of the home they share.

After putting on lipstick, Devin is ready to go. She slips into a hoodie and denim shorts and heads for the door after loving on her pets.

Alex drives Devin to the French Quarter, where the neon lights, car horns and streetcars make the night sky seem a lot brighter. It’s just before 8 p.m. — Devin likes to be at work by then — and Iberville Street is very much alive. Restaurants and streets are crowded. A jazz band is playing as people are dropped off on the corner near Bourbon Street.

Alex kisses her goodbye before Devin walks into the Penthouse Club, where she’ll slip into lingerie and heels and dance for money.

Devin is a stripper, and proud of it.

The 26-year-old from Kiln, Mississippi, lives in the Big Easy now, but if she still lived at home, she would do the same as many other girls she knows and make the one-hour drive to dance on the weekends.

There are good nights and bad nights, but Devin brings home about $2,500 each week in cash. Devin said she sometimes comes home with $2,000 after one shift. That’s 10 times what she used to make on her best night as a bartender at a popular Uptown restaurant.

She is her own boss, makes her own schedule, and feels empowered at work. It’s taken her years to find a job that would make her feel that way, she said.

“I don’t mind working late because I’ve always been a night owl,” she said. “So it feels great to find a job that better suits when I feel the most alert and awake.”

But proposed regulations could limit or shut down strip clubs in the tourist-heavy French Quarter. And dancers, including those from the Mississippi Coast, are fighting back.

‘The Track’ investigation

After a three-part series about sex trafficking in the French Quarter by The Times-Picayune/Nola.com, called “The Track,” was published in October, one City Council member proposed capping the number of strip clubs in the area.

Reporter Kevin Litten found in his reporting that French Quarter strip clubs had become a “recruiting ground” for pimps. He interviewed former dancers who said management would “turn a blind eye” to prostitution and illegal drug use in the clubs’ private (or VIP) rooms or bathrooms. The story also says that at least three strip club owners said it’s a “constant struggle” to keep pimps out of the clubs.

Devin said she and other dancers also have issues with the Nola.com investigation. Some spoke to Litten about their grievances. Litten did not respond to a Sun Herald email requesting an interview.

“The article did not interview enough actual dancers even though it blamed the strip clubs,” she said, adding that sexual misconduct can happen anywhere, as evidenced in recent high-profile harassment cases in other industries.

If the proposal is passed, New Orleans could limit the number of strip clubs in the six-block Vieux Carre Entertainment District (VCE) along Bourbon Street to 13. That’s how many strip clubs are currently operating there, Nola.com reported. Only one club would be allowed on each city block. Current strip clubs would not be shut down, but they would not be allowed to reopen if they closed and another club was on the same block.

The city is considering the regulations, and some dancers are fighting against them.

The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE), a group whose goal is “to provide a positive community presence through outreach and support of fellow entertainers, and advocate for the safety, civil and labor rights of all individuals in the adult entertainment industry,” is gathering signatures on an online petition to challenge the proposed regulations.

“We envision a world where adult entertainment professionals may operate freely, safely and without stigma,” the petition says.

Devin is a BARE member and says if strip clubs were more heavily regulated, she is worried about other strippers who work for financial stability for themselves and their families.

Devin said she and other dancers also have issues with the Nola.com investigation. Some spoke to Litten about their grievances. Litten did not respond to a Sun Herald email requesting an interview.

“The article did not interview enough actual dancers even though it blamed the strip clubs,” she said, adding that sexual misconduct can happen anywhere, as evidenced in recent high-profile harassment cases in other industries.

Effect on families

“Stripping allows single mothers to be with their children during the day and give their children the kind of life they deserve,” she said. “Marginalizing strip clubs isn’t just hurting the women who work there. It hurts every mouth they feed.”

One Coast family could be affected by the regulations, a young mother says.

Taylor, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is 25 and lives in South Mississippi with her husband and two young daughters.

Three nights a week, she kisses her 4-year-old and 6-month-old good night and heads to work at Rick’s Cabaret or Rick’s Saloon.

She has been dancing since she was 19.

“I was in college and literally scrounging up pennies to put in my gas tank just to make it to school and work,” Taylor said. She was making minimum wage and it was hard making ends meet.

“I was about to have to drop out of school because I couldn’t even afford to drive there,” she said. Taylor decided she’d go over to New Orleans and audition to dance at a club.

She made $50 in 4 minutes her first time on the stage. The decision was made then — and she’s been doing it for almost seven years.

“I love the fact that I can always support myself and have to rely on no one,” Taylor said. “I’m grateful my family never needs or wants anything.”

She described her management as kick-ass and said she loves the girls she works with.

And she fears if the new limitations proposals become law that many dancers will suffer. She knows of dozens of girls make the drive from Mississippi to dance, and she estimates about half of the dancers she knows in New Orleans are from Mississippi.

“I believe it will hurt many girls and their families,” Taylor said. “I feel that they might have to resort to other means of income — dangerous things.

“We are all just people trying to make a living the best way we know how. We are no different than doctors, lawyers, bankers, fast food workers or the cashier at Walmart. We are human beings trying to provide for our families, put ourselves through school, or just trying to simply survive.”

What’s it like being a stripper?

Devin and Taylor believe the general public has misconceptions about what strippers do at work.

Devin arrives when she wants, and checks in with the DJ.

“The stage is a rotation so I go up in a rotation,” Devin said. “Depending on how many girls are there is how I often I go up. And then from there, I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”

The way she makes most of her money is walking around and talking to people and offering dances.

“I can offer a dance there. I can offer a single dance in a private setting, or I can offer a dance for longer in a private room. The rooms are basically them paying you off the floor.

Devin said she rarely even dances when she goes into private rooms with guests.

“I am mostly talking to be people about their lives — listening to their problems, joking with them, and laughing and partying.

“A guy that sees me regularly just comes to talk about his job. He sells boats and we talk about that. People just desire company. It’s human nature to want connection and that’s really what you are getting in the strip club.

At Rick’s, Taylor likes that her guests are mostly tourists. She enjoys chatting with the other girls at the club and getting on stage and making money.

“You have to have a hard shell because you won’t always be every man’s type and some men don’t know how to politely say that. But all in all, I love going to work and I absolutely adore the girls I work with.”

Devin also said she feels safe at work. At Penthouse, floor men and armed doormen are employed to ensure safety of the dancers and cocktail waitresses. There are also security cameras in place throughout the club.

“I know, in the club, that I am physically safe and I also feel that my belongings are safe,” Devin said. “I don’t leave the club until an Uber comes right up to the door — because outside of the club, it’s a completely different story.”

‘I’ve learned who I am and who I want to be’

Taylor said she makes great money, but she feels as if people think it’s easy work.

“A lot of people have misconceptions about dancers,” Taylor said. “They think we are all out to get their men. We are not, and we do not ever think about them again after that night. People think we took the easy way out. It is not always easy money, and it’s also very emotionally and physically draining.”

Taylor has also been faced with people thinking strippers offer sex for money. While that happens, she said management fires those girls immediately.

Taylor said she’s learned about empathy and understanding from her time at the club.

“I’ve learned so much about society, cultures, religion, ethnicities and personalities,” she said. I’ve learned how to be an adult and budget — how to be responsible and pay bills.”

“I’ve learned who I am and who I want to be.”

Devin often blogs about stripping, and the camaraderie she feels at work.

“Many of the girls and staff in the club are my friends,” she said. “My best friend at the club works when I work and I work when she works. We laugh and look out for each other.

“My other friend is a role model to me and teaches me daily the value of my time. I’ve learned so much from the women I work with. It’s an incredible sisterhood — one I’ve always wanted but didn’t find outside of the club.”

Stripping empowers Devin, but she said she knows that comes from a place of privilege.

“For some people, sex work is their only option to provide for their family,” Devin said, adding that what the City Council is trying to do to the sex worker industry is “a clear attack on women,” including single mothers, women of color and immigrants.

“There’s so much racism and xenophobia in the world that sex work is the one place where there will always be a job available to those women, one that compensates them accurately,” Devin said.

One of the best things that dancing has taught Devin is to use her voice.

“Stripping made me realize that my body and emotional labor I give has value, because people pay to be around me and for me to listen to them and hold a space for them. Those things women are always expected to do. Because there’s an expectation there, people lose sight of how valuable it is. Being in the club makes me realize the power in womanhood.”

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_

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