Dirty dancing

The cops don't believe him. Neither do some customers. But H.B. Lawrence, the manager of the All Star Gentleman's Club on Eight Mile, is determined to prove that his strip club is now clean.

He took it over a few years ago, back when the place was notorious for fights, clouds of weed smoke floating in the bar, and lap dances with limitless extras. It had nicknames like "The Death Trap" and "Fight City," reflecting its confined space and the mayhem that took place in there. Police showed up all the time.

"Previous management thought they needed your business," Lawrence says, "so if you poured Champagne on the floor, it's acceptable. If you struck one of my entertainers, it was acceptable. If you roll weed right on the table and smoke it, that's acceptable. Well, we don't do that here anymore."

All Star is, as the euphemism goes, an "urban" strip club, where most of the customers and strippers are black. The 44-year-old Lawrence has been trying to shift its status from low-end to high-end adult entertainment, trading thug life for high life, marketing the place as upscale, and betting that showy can outdraw sleazy.

"When you come here, we get you caught up in it, you get so lost you don't know what hit you," he says. "We go faster and harder here than anywhere else. You leave and go, 'I'm broke as a motherfucker, but I had fun, though.' That's all that counts to me. You're probably not going to remember what happened to you the next day. We're Ringling Brothers. It's a circus."

Lawrence is the ringmaster. He's the one who bosses the strippers, watches the door and makes sure the money flows in. His initials are short for DJ Hard Body, the name he had for years while spinning records at strip clubs around town. Before that, he was a male stripper. Between the two jobs, he's spent 20 years in more than 20 clubs learning how the business works.

He was a DJ at All Star for years before convincing the owners to pour a quarter-million dollars into its renovation — a gamble to convert a ghetto dive into a glitzy club. They made him general manager.

First thing he did was ban pot smoking in the bar. Then he tore down the VIP wall, turning what was essentially brothel space into a display area with little privacy. Next, he ruthlessly culled the crew of strippers.

"When the bar went upscale, I had to let go of a lot of girls I really care about because they'd gotten on in years, gained 30 to 40 pounds, 33 years old now," he says. "In the old days you had a little longevity dancing. Now you burn up a girl in a few years."

He outfitted the bouncers and the valet staff with earpieces and walkie-talkies, coordinating who gets thrown out or invited inside. "Lots of things let you know not to let somebody in," he says. "Twelve guys wearing white T-shirts with the dead guy on their T-shirt and they just came from his funeral — uh-uh, you're not coming in here, baby, 'cause I know what happens. They want to grieve, and 'grieve' means pouring alcohol on the floor and slapping girls around."

Old customers got tossed from the new All Star, or were refused entry. "The smoking weed, the smacking girls, the standing up and tearing up the bar — these guys watch too many fucking gangster movies and too many rap videos," Lawrence says. One by one troublemakers got banned and enemies were made of those who sometimes settle disputes with guns.

"A lot of guys feel that you disrespect them when you ask them to leave the club or put them outside," he says. "So guys will run around that fence, that brick wall, and drive by and fire at the bar, and whoever's in the way is in the way." Lawrence says customers standing in line have been shot. His cousin took a bullet in the jaw while standing in the parking lot. Some people are still angry at being banned from their favorite strip club — a reason why Lawrence goes by his DJ name.

The dancers say they're relieved the thug element has been reduced, if not entirely eliminated. "They'd come in and get dances and walk out and not pay you," says 27-year-old Creamy, a veteran here. "They were experiencing their rough times in life and was taking it out on the girls. Nobody was making any money on the streets. Everybody was angry."

The customers eventually realized things had changed. But not the cops. As a result, there were many vice squad raids here, even after the makeover. The club's lawyers sued not only the police, but also the city over local laws such as the requirement that strippers pay for "dance cards" in order to work, which empowered such raids. Several lawsuits were filed; a few still sit in the courts. A federal judge sided with the club last month and issued an injunction that prevents any more raids at All Star until all the lawsuits are settled. Yvette Walker of the Detroit Police Department's Public Information Office referred questions about the raids and the lawsuits to the city's Law Department, where several messages were left and not returned.

Through all this, Lawrence took another tack and launched a public relations effort, speaking at a nearby church meeting held to protest the club, and meeting with cops to make his case that if it's possible to have a respectable strip joint, All Star is it.

"Customers and police, if you've been in here in the last two years, you absolutely know it. Now, whether you accept it or not, that's on you. You get guys who won't let go of the old All Star, though."

It's 3 in the afternoon on a Saturday, and most seats in the All Star club are filled. A thin, sharp-dressed loner sits on a barstool, and pulls out a thick wad of $20 bills to dispense. He lets it linger in the open, just holding it, showing it off. Next to the stage two guys eat fried food and watch the dancers passively. Others drink expensive liquor or smoke cigars, and ask for stacks of singles so they can make it rain on a dancer. One-dollar bills are scattered everywhere — on the stage, across the floor, in the seats.

These new customers, Lawrence notes, don't come here to get high or get laid. They come to get noticed. "Guys come here to see and be seen, to flash, throw money in here," he says. "They want you to see it. They're like, 'I'm the boss.'" He claims some customers go to lower-end strip clubs to get off in their private, anything-goes VIP sections, then come to All Star to relax and drink and play the part of a high roller.

They are given a spectacle. Lawrence is a showman, a natural promoter who puts videos from the club on YouTube, distributes fliers around town featuring pictures of his club's strippers, and even stages Sunday boxing matches between the girls, with a ring set on the stage in which two dancers in bikinis swing wild, gloved punches at each other, sometimes ending in a real knockout. The fights are incredibly popular.

He speeds up the music and hustles the show along as the emcee shouts on the mic, presiding over a frenetic show of sex and colored lights and drinks and flying money. "It's all buzz," he says, proudly. "You can run a hovel, but if that hovel has a party that's known for some reason or another, they'll show up."

All star
strippers span the physical and ethnic spectrum, from tall and athletic to short and big-bottomed, from creamy hues to dark tones. But nearly all are the same in their belief that this job is temporary.

"I don't plan on doing this forever. This is a stepping stone," Kassidy says, a tall, lean 19-year-old. Lawrence shakes his head. All the girls say that, he says. A dancer at All Star, he recalls, gave an interview to a magazine once. "The quote was, 'I'm not like the rest of these girls. I'm not going to strip the rest of my life.' That magazine came out in 1999 and she had been here for five years. She still dances."

Every day, the girls have to deal with the jerks, the desperate and the weirdoes, such as the old man who likes to spit in his hand and rub it all over the dancers' arms and stick his wet finger in their ears. Or the guy who likes sucking toes. Or the one who insists on smacking asses before he'll tip a dancer. Guys with strange fetishes who come here to say and do things they won't say or do at home. "You should see the nice doctor that we banned about six months ago," Lawrence says. "He liked to unveil himself under the DJ booth, and he'd say, 'Touch Daddy's cock, child.' And he's a pediatrician."

As many as 70 dancers wander the floor here on a given day. Lawrence prods them to work out, to stay in shape, to save some money instead of blowing a night's earnings on shopping binges, to get out of the dressing room and onto the floor, fast. But he also tries to look out for them.

"The thing about entertainers is they're spoiled," he says. "A girl will make a grand in a night. You know what happens the next day? Three-hundred dollars in hair and a trip to the mall. I tell them put that shit away because tomorrow night you might not make $10. They don't listen."

The girls have backgrounds as varied as their looks.

Paris, 25, says stripping is a family affair. "I seen my cousin coming home with a lot of money. I'm like, 'Wow,' so I started dancing." The cousin vanished for three years, strung out in Las Vegas. "My auntie finally got her back," she says, noting the aunt put her cousin into sex work in the first place. "They put her in rehab, she relapsed and got back on heroin. And now she has eight kids with seven different dads, and she's only 30. The last I heard she was working at Wendy's." The aunt took in the kids, then died of a heart attack at 45. The ex-stripper got the kids back.

She wears an expression made blank by years of lap dances and stage work, the look of someone who has seen a lot. She claims she wants to quit stripping but can't. "Right now you can't find another job that's going to pay you every day like this," she says. She wants to be a nurse. Indeed, most of the girls here have a future career in mind, but no firm date when they'll start it.

Kassidy's on the other end, saying she plans on becoming a corporate attorney. But she's from the inner city, has the street argot to prove it, and doesn't have much education. The odds are stacked.

Kassidy had her first strip club audition four months ago at a bar down the street from All Star. She got the gig on her innocent looks alone, even after admitting she couldn't dance. "He said I had a nice body, and said, 'You'll learn now to dance.'" Her unspoiled demeanor, the source of her popularity here, will soon be ruined, Lawrence says.

"That'll change in about four to six months," he says. "She'll lose that. Her innocence will be gone. She's potentially a super diva. And she'll be in this a while."

Kassidy and Paris are just two out of a hundred girls here with different stories that so far end the same — on a pole at a strip club on Eight Mile.

When the club tore down its VIP wall, the idea was to chase out the hookers who stripped only to find johns. Lawrence thinks he's got the numbers down to about 20 percent of the girls, though he says with the VIP wall now down, they have to do it elsewhere if they want to do it at all. "It's going to happen," he says. "I discourage it as much as I can. It's not going to happen inside my building. They might go outside and try, though." If a stripper leaves for any reason, they're banned from returning for the night. "This is not Vegas," he says. "We do not do outcall here."

But other clubs do. He names dives around the city that are whorehouses, or clubs where girls can be bought and taken to a car or motel.

"A lot of girls don't think it's tricking," he says. "They just think, 'I know this guy; he knows I normally make $200 to $300 here, he's going to relieve me of that.' No, tricking is tricking. I'm old school — sell the sizzle, not the steak. Stop giving it away. You make more money just fulfilling the fantasy. I've seen girls who stand on stage and look around and they've fucked half the room. It's disgusting."

Inside his little office he's got a recently fired stripper's business card tacked to the wall, on which she had listed in-call and outcall prices. It's next to a handwritten "Most Unwanted" list on the wall of banned strippers. It runs into the dozens. Many are prostitutes.

He points to one stripper's stage name. "She's a nice girl, but she's banned from working here," he says. He fired her for tricking, then rehired her against his better sense. She went right back to it the first night. "I go in the men's restroom, I look under the stall, I see two pairs of shoes, 20 minutes later."

It's another Saturday evening. Lawrence sits at a desk in his narrow office, getting ready to start the show all over again after a long grind the night before. "I fired five girls last night," he says, wearily. They were fighting with other strippers. Then they wanted to fight him after he threw them out. "I get one girl outside. In one sentence she wanted to fistfight me, in the second sentence she said she's gonna come back and burn the bar down, in the third sentence she said I'll bet you I'll be working back at this bar next week."

It's an iron-fist policy. Small infractions that go unaddressed elsewhere get you fired here, because there's always someone out there who can take your place, someone younger or fresher, willing to follow the rules here. It's as strict at the club's entrance. A few nights before, a 60-guy birthday party crashed a strip club down the street and took it over. "They were standing on the bar, pouring liquor on each other, paying for nothing," Lawrence says. "How you gonna stop them?" Situations like these are why the cameras and walkie-talkies and linebacker-size bouncers are in place. "In our mind, this is a compound," he says.

He and the other managers are wearing nice suits, part of the "corporate" tone they've worked to establish, part of the everyday battle to change the club's reputation. Every thug kept out, every prostitute thrown out, every joint snuffed out, is to them another black mark wiped off the club's image, another small attempt to prove that they can transform a once-sleazy strip club on Eight Mile, despite the history and the expectations against them.

But ultimately, despite all their efforts and the visible changes here, the truth may be that a strip club can rise only so high on the respectability meter, and Lawrence seems aware of that.

"This is a strip bar, therefore we are the scum of the earth," he says of the club's image with the police and neighbors. "But we're not. Other than 47 divas arguing, everybody's just having a good time."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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