"Star," a topless dancer at Xcapades -- one of Asheville's two adult-entertainment clubs -- is a single mother with an 8-year-old son. Over the past four years, she's worked as a can-can girl at Maggie Valley's Ghost Town in the Sky, as a cashier at Wal-Mart and as a waitress. But none of those jobs paid enough to cover her rent, food, child care and other basic family needs.
"I was ready to go on AFDC, food stamps, Medicaid, the whole bit," she says. Then a friend who was dancing at Fox's Nite Life (Asheville's other topless club) persuaded Star to apply. "I was scared to death," she remembers. "I'd never even been in a club like that before, much less done anything topless." But Fox's hired her, and she made $70 the first night, dancing with her top on (dancers are not allowed to step onstage topless in Asheville unless they have a city business license, which costs $500 per year). She danced fully clothed at Fox's for a month, while she saved up the money for the license.
That was in 1993. Now, Star averages between $1,000 and $1,600 per week at Xcapades. She's finishing her general-education degree at Haywood Community College and hopes to transfer to Western Carolina University within the next year. She has also started a college fund for her son and is buying her own home.
But Star and other dancers fear that pending state legislation may soon force them back into minimum-wage jobs. Senate Bill 452 -- which the Asheville City Council voted to support on Oct. 7, 1997 -- has already been passed, and the state House will probably approve its version by this summer.
The bill would strengthen local control over sexually oriented businesses. But dancers and club owners in Asheville fear that could turn out to be a death sentence for their livelihood. As it is, Asheville's adult-entertainer privilege license is the second-costliest business license in the city (only certain service-related and retail-sales companies pay more -- up to $1,500, based on gross annual receipts).
Many feel the high fee is an attempt to discourage topless dancing (although the city's Business License Division maintains that topless clubs cost Asheville more money, because they require beefed-up law enforcement). And Article IV, Section 9-171 of the Asheville City Code -- which has regulated local adult establishments since 1970, when the city's first topless club (Bonnie & Clyde's) opened -- asserts that such establishments "[have] serious objectionable operational characteristics" and that "increased crime rates tend to accompany and are brought about by adult establishments."
For their part, however, Asheville's topless dancers feel they just might be the most misunderstood women in the city. No, they're not prostitutes, they're quick to point out. And they're not out to break up marriages or have sex with the men who patronize the clubs where they dance. Mostly, they say, they just want to make a decent living for themselves and their children -- an ambition that had previously eluded most of the women we spoke with.
"I'm doing what I need to do to survive, and I see absolutely no harm in it," Star declares. "I don't have to be on welfare. I have self-respect. I can pay my bills and can support my son and me without any help. I pay taxes and financially contribute to the community. I'm certainly not a prostitute. I have absolutely no sexual contact with the men who come in. They know the rules. They know they're not going to get sex. When I was married, I used to tell my husband, 'Go ahead and go to a strip club, because I know you're more likely to get picked up at a regular bar.'"
Most of the dancers we spoke with echoed the notion that men can much more easily pick up women in ordinary bars, which have no restrictions prohibiting such behavior. "If a man wants to commit adultery," noted one dancer, "he knows he has a better chance of doing just that if he goes to [regular bars]. ... We're fired if we socialize with the customers, much less have sex with them."
A judgment call
"I was newly divorced with two small kids, and I needed money," remembers Tammy Riddle, a dancer at Fox's. "I'd graduated high school, but hadn't gone to community college or anything. So the most I got offered were jobs at McDonald's, that sort of thing. And child care for two kids is basically what I'd make in a week." Now, Riddle averages $1,000 a week, working three to four nights at Fox's. Her 6-year-old son attends a private school, and she hopes her daughter will have the same opportunity when she reaches school age.
Xcapades dancer Rebecca Watford also has two children, ages 5 and 10. Four years ago, Watford felt desperate -- trapped in a bad marriage by financial pressures, and suffering, she says, from "unbelievably low self-esteem." She was working as a cashier and waitress and, like Star, wondered whether she'd have to go on welfare if she left her husband. Now, she averages $1,400 per week. She's buying a home and working on getting her real-estate license.
"If I weren't doing this," she ventures, "I'd be deep in debt, my credit would be shot, and my kids and I would be crammed into some cheap apartment." What's more, Watford actually credits her foray into exotic dancing with giving her the strength to leave her husband. "It made him see that I didn't have to put up with the bad stuff anymore, because I didn't need him financially. I'd probably still be in a marriage where I had no power if I hadn't started dancing. [Dancing] gives me the upper hand."
"Darby" is a 45-year-old grandmother who struts her stuff several nights a week at Fox's. Topless dancing helped put her son through college and is helping to send her daughter to nursing school. "I think I'm a great role model," Darby points out. "Both women and men can look at me and say, 'Hey, if I take care of my body, I can be just as active and going strong as I get older.' I'm going to do this as long as I can: It's great exercise."
But Darby's (and the others') dancing days may be numbered, if Asheville City Council member Tommy Sellers has anything to say about it. In his Oct. 7, 1997 memo to his fellow City Council members and Asheville's then-mayor, Sellers urged Council's support of Senate Bill 452 -- which would, among other things, allow cities and counties to override state law by regulating clubs' business hours, implement zoning restrictions that could shut down existing topless clubs, and place moratoriums on opening new ones.
"I, along with numerous others am concerned that the opening of several establishments for the purpose of entertainment by 'topless' bare-breasted women in Asheville and/or Buncombe County is not in agreement with the strong family values this community has been established upon," Sellers wrote. "This form of entertainment contributes to an attitude that is conducive to behavior that promotes molestation, rape, sex crimes and sexually transmitted diseases. These establishments discourage the channeling of sexual energies toward the constructive ends of marital fidelity and family commitment. ... These businesses attract and encourage gambling, prostitution and drunk driving and will put an undue burden upon the Police Department Vice Division. We, the community strongly object and consider such businesses to be immoral, obscene and a public nuisance and should be closed."
What's Sellers' response to women who report they've been able to break the cycle of poverty, build a better life for themselves and their children, and escape bad marriages, thanks to topless dancing?
"If those women can't find more than a minimum-wage job to support themselves," he offers, "I say get two minimum-wage jobs. Be willing to work a little harder."
Sellers is adamant in his assertion that people should have no choice about whether to visit or work in a topless club. "If the choice isn't there to begin with," he argues, "there won't be that temptation. I think eliminating the choice in the first place is the answer."
For him, Sellers says, it's simply a moral issue. "God ordained the marriage and the home for these types of things. They're not for entertainment. ... It's a bad influence on the neighborhoods and children. It's giving them the green light that immorality is OK.
"I realize prostitution has been around since the very beginning of time, and we'll never stamp it out," he continues, "but we can control it within our little environment, our little world in the city of Asheville. And hopefully ... each county would take the lead, as we're trying to do."
But talk to the dancers, and you get a radically different perspective.
"I think Tommy Sellers deserves to get his face slapped for the things he's been saying," retorts "Tawny," who has danced at both of Asheville's topless clubs, and at others in Florida. Usually, she adds, it's the people who have never set foot inside a club who make the harshest value judgments about what goes on there.
"Nothing makes me madder than people who have all these ideas about what we do," she continues, "like that we're dirty and spreading diseases, and that what we're doing is degrading, and that we're prostitutes. That couldn't be further from the truth. I've seen women get out of abusive relationships through dancing. I've seen them come to work on welfare and get off it. I've seen women work their way through law school, nursing school. ... Plus, women don't get paid what men do. And if [people like Sellers] want to close these places down, they better come up with options for these women. If I'd been working at a normal job, with my two kids, it would cost me about $140 a week in child care, and if I'm making minimum wage, I'll bring home about $190 a week. Do the math. It just doesn't work."
Sellers, however, says he extends an "open invitation" to women who are currently working in topless clubs: "I would say to these women that I'd be happy to help you find a job. I think there are jobs out there, and I'll do everything I can to place them in one."
Tawny is particularly concerned about Sellers' unequivocal equation of topless dancing with prostitution. "If a new girl comes into a club in Asheville and there's even a suspicion that she's a prostitute, she's out the door," Tawny asserts. "That's what people like Tommy Sellers don't understand. We, the dancers, don't put up with that kind of thing."
A look at statistics
Despite the City Code's mention of increased crime rates and Seller's assertion that adult-entertainment establishments encourage "gambling, prostitution, drunk driving and ... [place] an undue burden upon the Police Department Vice Division," research generally paints quite a different picture.
Asheville Police Department vice officer Joe Palmer confirms that there have been no prostitution convictions at either of Asheville's topless clubs. "There have been allegations of prostitution," he points out, "but they've proved to be unfounded."
In fact, continues Palmer, there were only about half a dozen vice violations (including gambling and illegal drug and alcohol violations) at Xcapades and Fox's combined during all of last year -- a number that Palmer says is roughly in line with or lower than the number of violations found at regular bars during routine inspections.
Palmer reports that he performs a surprise inspection at the two topless clubs "once every other month, like with every other bar." But he quickly adds that he makes a point of not visiting the topless clubs more frequently than other bars, for fear of allegations of impropriety on his part. "I don't want people saying, 'Oh, he just goes out there to get a free show,'" he asserts.
Asheville Alcohol Law Enforcement Officer Kip Aldridge points out that, in general, ALE has found fewer violations in Asheville's topless clubs than in other local bars. During a randomly selected time period (August-November 1997), Aldridge reports that there were no violations at either Fox's or Xcapades, while several regular clubs were found in violation of state Alcoholic Beverage Control laws (including, ironically, an infraction at the Lone Dove Saloon -- which is not a topless club -- that involved "the breast and buttocks of a female being fondled.")
"If anything, we check [the topless clubs] a little more often," says Aldridge, "since they're sort of unusual. But we still find them to generally have fewer violations."
And when Asheville Police Department Crime Analyst Debbie Yanik compared Asheville's two topless clubs and two randomly selected "regular" bars during the same four-month period, the topless clubs received far fewer police service calls.
Fox's Nite Life garnered two calls: one a "standby" (for a potential fight) and one for larceny. Xcapades was responsible for five calls: two for larceny, one for assault, one for an argument, and one for drunk-and-disorderly conduct. The Lone Dove Saloon, on the other hand, amassed 32 calls during this same period, including five for assault, four for larceny, four for vandalism and four for disturbing the peace. Cinjade's chalked up 24 calls (eight of which turned out to be false alarms), ranging in nature from larceny to fights. (According to police statistics, the number of calls at the Lone Dove and Cinjade's was not unusually high for bars in general; these clubs are cited here simply as examples against which strip clubs can be compared.)
There are, of course, exceptions to any statistical analysis. One of Asheville's topless bars was recently caught up in a fire storm of controversy -- though whether justifiably or not depends on who's telling the story.
In October 1996, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission -- prompted by a letter from Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino citing "ongoing problems" at Mr. J's Lounge (now Xcapades) -- tried to permanently revoke the establishment's beer-and-wine license. Police records show that officers were sent to the club more than 200 times during a three-year period (August 1993-August 1996). And in 1995, Dewey Richard Sluder of Candler was shot to death outside the club following an altercation inside, an event Annarino calls "the last straw."
Mr. J's beer-and-wine license was temporarily revoked in October 1996, but despite efforts by the ABC Commission and the Asheville Police Department, the club was never closed. New owner Rhonda Lemmons changed the club's name to Xcapades in August of 1997, after winning the fight for a beer-and-wine license. She asserts that a percentage of the calls during the period in question were due to vandalism inflicted on the club by non-patrons.
Lemmons also notes that a number of other calls really had nothing to do with anything going on inside Xcapades. For example, she describes a police chase that started on Patton Avenue and somehow wound up speeding through the club's parking lot, where the fleeing suspect hit two cars. And a rash of runaways from the nearby Eliada Home for Children apparently prompted juvenile officers to descend on the club at times to see if the missing youths had somehow gotten inside -- calls that showed up in police statistics about that address.
Then there are the calls that come from the strip clubs' unhappy neighbors. "The cops have to come out if there's a complaint," points out Fox's Nite Life owner Roy Fox, "and sometimes people in the neighborhood call with complaints, just on general principles. They think if they complain enough, we'll go away."
Both Lemmons and Xcapades manager Darrell Callahan say that that club has been unduly harassed by the police in the past, pure and simple. In the case of the murder, they point out that violence can and often does erupt anyplace where alcohol is consumed. "[The Police Department] has this big thing about how taxpayers have to spend money to send extra patrolmen out here," says Callahan. "But they don't have to. They choose to."
Lemmons goes so far as to allege that Annarino has been conducting a "personal vendetta" against her. "There had been gambling complaints, numerous police calls during the time when [previous owner Eli Jackson] owned the club ... particularly during the time, dating back about eight years ago, when it was just a billiards place and not adult entertainment. But it was only when I was applying for a beer-and-wine license that Annarino became hell-bent on trying to shut us down. ... Is it sexual discrimination, or what?"
Annarino denies any kind of discrimination on his part, stating that the Asheville Police Department tries to remain impartial about adult-entertainment clubs. "If a business is in compliance with local and state laws and not causing problems that would require us to spend more time at that particular business, then we have no problems," he asserts.
Striving for a better life
Lemmons started out as a topless dancer herself, and still dances at the club she now owns. Like most of the women who work for her, Lemmons says she started dancing so she could offer her child a better life.
"I was an office manager for an optometrist," she relates, "and what I made working for him was not enough to pay for things that were necessary to live. I'm a single parent and sole provider for my child." Her son had a significant reading problem and needed a tutor (at $30 per hour, 15 hours per week). "There was no way I could possibly afford to do the tutoring, and I was told by his teachers [that] it was crucial, if he was ever going to succeed in school," she remembers.
Lemmons had previously done some modeling, and she decided to augment her salary by dancing, initially at Fox's Nite Life. She soon realized she could make much more money dancing three nights a week than she made working full-time at her day job. Besides enabling her to provide the tutoring her son needed, working part-time meant she could spend more time with him.
"When I was working 9 to 5," she remembers, "I didn't get home until 6. Then, by the time I fixed dinner, helped with homework, helped him with his bath, it was pretty much bedtime. ... Now, I pick him up from school and we spend the whole afternoon together, walking the dog, riding bikes, going to the library."
Plus, Lemmons has been able to put aside money toward her son's college education. "My income is now at a level that I can promise my child the future he expects to have, to be able to have that college education and fulfill his dream to go to Carolina. That's been his dream since kindergarten. When I was working as what society sees as a legitimate, respectable person in a medical office, I couldn't make that promise to him.
"I'd rather take flack from society and have people say, 'She's a bad person because she's a stripper,' than for me to have to look my son in the eye in ten more years and say, 'I'm sorry, honey, I don't have the money for college," she continues.
As a business owner, Lemmons says her goal is to offer other women the same benefits she's enjoyed -- flexible schedules, the chance to spend more time with their children, and the opportunity to earn a decent wage. "A lot of the women who work for me didn't have those choices before," she notes.
The price you pay
If you're a massage therapist in Asheville, you pay a $25 yearly license fee. If you're a tow-truck driver, you pay $12.50. If you're a plumber or electrician, you pay $50. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and a perplexing array of other professionals, ranging from filmmakers to soft-drink bottlers, are exempt from paying any city license fees. If you're a pawnbroker, your business-license fee jumps to $275 -- in part, according to an Asheville Business License Division representative, because of the criminal-background check required (although massage therapists, who pay only $25, are also subject to a background check).
If you're a topless dancer in Asheville, however, not only are you subject to a criminal-background check, but your license fee is almost double that of the next-highest category. In the past, dancers could perform with their tops on while earning money to pay the license fee. But, as of January 1995, that fee must be paid before a dancer can set foot onstage, clothed or not, at either of the city's two adult-entertainment clubs.
Are male strippers subject to the same fee? The language of Section 9-171 is gender-neutral, but still somewhat ambiguous on this point. Debra Crowder of the city's Business License Division says that no men have recently applied for an adult-entertainment license, but that consideration would be given on a case-by-case basis. "It's a little different for men," she reasons. "I mean, it's the difference between shirtless construction workers and topless female pizza-delivery people."
In most cities in the region -- Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., among them -- there are no license fees for exotic dancers, male or female. Crowder says that Asheville levies such a hefty charge on dancers, in part, because of what she calls the "heavy amount of follow-up" required at the clubs where the dancers work. Besides the background checks on the dancers themselves, Crowder says the Police Department must be involved in "routine inspections and investigations of those establishments. Because the ordinance is considered regulatory, police are required to make sure there are no secondary effects from this type of business."
Annarino, however, says police officers are not required to routinely inspect the clubs. "There's no requirement as to how often we ... inspect the topless clubs," he points out. "We're obligated to do background checks, by state law, on applicants who want to work topless. ... But law enforcement, per se, can't just go in routinely and check alcohol licenses and things like that."
Many topless dancers and club owners in Asheville feel the $500 license fee is really a form of punishment -- an attempt by the city to legislate morality, instead of looking at the clubs' actual impacts on the city's budget. (The fact that topless dancers can earn substantial sums of money once they receive a license -- making the fee less prohibitive, after the first year -- is beside the point, several dancers pointed out, citing other highly compensated professionals who pay no city license fees.)
And if cities like Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greenville, S.C. (where, in fact, women are allowed to dance completely nude) can afford not to charge a license fee, why is it necessary in Asheville?
Pam Taylor, crime analyst for the Greenville County Sheriff's Department, believes adult-entertainment-license fees are unnecessary, especially if they're meant to cover increased law-enforcement costs.
"When I run statistical analyses on strip clubs versus regular bars -- which I've done several times recently," she points out, "the strip clubs don't even come close to having as many calls as regular bars, at least in this county."
Taylor mentions two strip clubs (the Landing Strip and Nepal's) that are located within a several-block radius of a number of ordinary bars. "The two strip clubs had few or no calls for service within the past year," she reports, "while the other clubs, a few blocks away, had many." The only exception she mentions is a place called Godiva's, which was recently converted into a topless club. "It's in kind of a bad neighborhood, and we have lots of calls there, but we had just as many when it was a regular bar," she points out.
Taylor reports finding no correlation between increased crime rates and the presence of topless bars. "There has been absolutely no indication, in any analyses that we've done, that crime rates go up in areas where there are strip clubs," she declares.
A bad rap
It shouldn't be surprising that the idea of women stripping for cash is a controversial -- and even abhorrent -- notion to some. Words like "exploitation," "degradation" and "sexism" spring to mind (although none of the dozen or so dancers interviewed for this story seemed troubled by such concerns).
Admittedly, walking into a topless club for the first time can be disconcerting: With music blaring, women in various stages of undress undulate about the stage, assuming blatantly sexual poses, while men with outstretched arms brandish cash.
The fact remains, however, that -- far from the negative stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood, and by opponents of sexually oriented businesses -- many women who strip for a living are simply ordinary people trying to do right by their children. These women say they're tired of society's judgmental and often hypocritical attitude toward them.
"Deodorant, soap, shampoo, cars -- products that meet our basic needs -- are sold with sex, and we're bombarded with those images everywhere," Lemmons points out. "We see them on billboards, magazines, TV -- in public arenas where kids see them all the time -- unlike my establishment, where you have to be over 21 to enter. Yet somehow, I'm immoral, because I'm being honest about what I'm doing."
Instead of being burdens to the city, Lemmons feels that clubs like Xcapades and Fox's could be assets. "Hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to turn this type of industry around, into being something more positive," she says, pointing to Xcapades' recent fund raising drive for Asheville's heating-assistance program -- called Heat Up the Holidays -- during which the club staged special events and donated proceeds to the city's poor to help defer their heating expenses.