Confessions of a male stripper in Toronto
It's Saturday night. On the main floor of male strip club Remingtons at Yonge and Gerrard, a blond, blue-eyed dancer is on stage. The slow burn of his body movements - in tandem with 'Crazy' by Aerosmith - compels the women, including a bachelorette party, to scream and clap. Say hello to the world that will be spotlighted on the silver screen with this Friday's release of Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's film about actor Channing Tatum's real-life experience as a stripper.
Inside the private lounge on Remingtons' second floor, dancer Jersey is in Diesel underwear for this post's photo shoot. With one hand firm around the pole, his eyes focus on the mirror as he perfects his pose in between camera clicks.
General manager Dave Auger chats with me on the side. He tells me tricks to make his chiseled boys look even better. For one thing, never light them in blue, because it makes them look tired and old. Use red light, because it highlights their definition. The walls of the crimson-lit lounge are practically dripping with warm blood.
Photographer Jesse Milns shows me a test shot. Turns out Jersey's underwear is pink, not white, as I had thought. "Real men wear pink," he says with a grin.
Like other male dancers he's met, Jersey came into stripping by accident three years ago. He was 22 and working in construction. "I had a couple of crazy friends who said I had a good body. I was going to the gym pretty intensely and they said, 'Why don't you try stripping?' I always joked that I was a good dancer, so I was like, 'You know what, why don't I try it?'"
The 25 year-old Puerto Rican is 5'6" and 200 pounds of muscle. He began dancing at women's clubs. It was the owner at an Etobicoke club who gave him his stage name. "He saw my muscles, tattoos and my Guido look and said, 'Jersey Shore. Ok, Jersey.' So I just went with it.'" But that's where the similarities between him and the MTV show ends. "Ronnie (from Jersey Shore) can't spin around a pole."
Two years ago, Jersey arrived at Remingtons, which serves both men and women. I can't imagine these job interviews having a formal dress code - unless it's part of the act. Jersey, who identifies as bisexual, illuminates me. "I got on stage, I took my shirt off, everybody clapped and I walked off."
In Toronto, becoming a stripper seems straightforward. You have to be 18. You need two valid pieces of ID, a completed criminal record check ($45) and proof that you have the right to work in Canada. Bring all this to the Municipal Toronto Licensing Centre to apply for a burlesque entertainer license ($360).
Remingtons' website has a call-for-dancers right on the home page. The text reads in bright red: "Always hiring new male dancers. Don't be shy. Come in for an audition. Earn great cash to pay your rent, cell phone, school or anything you desire."
Make no mistake, money is the big incentive. Auger says dancers can average $300 to $500 a night; good dancers can easily make $1,000. Jersey, who works three to four nights a week adds, "Sometimes, I'm sitting down (in the club) with lawyers. In some months, I'm making more than them."
Dancers make money from private dances - $20 a song at Remingtons - and tips. I ask Jersey what his best one-night take is. "Give me a figure and I'll tell you up or down," he says coyly.
$4,000? "$4,500," he finally says. Another time, at a Christmas party, he made $1,500 by simply doing a strip tease on stage. Was he spinning around the North Pole, I wonder to myself.
So one can understand why, aside from the odd construction job, Remingtons is his full-time gig.
When not at work, he spends a lot of time at the gym investing in his biggest asset. He also has a strict diet regime. "That's the only carbs I've had all day," he says, pointing to a half-finished bottle of beer. "It's all meat, vegetables and protein shakes... This job, I try to explain it to people, I don't care who you are, it's not an easy job... It's very physical and very psychological."
The psychological game is a bit trickier, he says. "No matter what mood you're in, you always have to perform. Anything and everything goes through your head when you're on stage. You see facial expressions. You start thinking, 'How am I looking? How is my presence?'" He says the trick is to be on your toes, so you can create a bond with customers. "Guys that don't think don't make the big money."
Being on stage also means being judged at the utmost superficial level. You're basically a piece of meat. "We're all pretty self-conscious, but you have to put it all aside and get numbed to the fact."
Describing himself as independent, Jersey self-teaches his moves by listening to lots of music, practicing in front of the mirror and watching YouTube videos. He loves dancing to Kelis' Milkshake. "My milkshake brings all the boys to the club," he says, laughing.
In the movie Magic Mike, Tatum's character takes new dancer The Kid (played by Alex Pettyfer) under his wing, a role that Jersey has assumed at Remingtons. "I've turned more or less into the Papa Goose. Everybody comes to me with questions, (including) all the new kids... We're a tight knit group of brothers who watch out for each other's backs, try to have fun and keep it safe."
Auger also keeps the boys in check. Nicknamed 'Dada' by the 40 guys in his troupe, he manages firmly. He says one issue he dealt with when he took over was drug use by some dancers. "I started firing dancers who thought they were untouchable, started cleaning house and now they follow the rules... I have a big long rule sheet."
Like Jersey, Auger also describes a brotherhood. "There are several dancers that like to look out for the new ones and teach them the right ways, like teach them a pole tricks or how to approach a customer or how to read if a customer is just wasting your time. They all look out for each other."
Another change during Auger's time is the growth of the female clientele. Women used to only be allowed on Sundays, but are now allowed every day after select times. While men still drive the majority of the business - the second floor is men only - bachelorette parties have helped reinvent the club.
It turns out that Mars and Venus have different tastes. "Women, generally, like to be entertained," says Auger. "They don't like somebody just standing there erect. Girls will scream at the loudest decibel that you can imagine when dancers are upside down and walking on the ceiling. Guys, some of them like that, but they're really more about the sexual fantasy side of it."
Considering the club's rotating door has, at one point or another, included a Russian championship pole dancer, a dancer with a Justin Bieber shtick, and a bearded-fellow who struts in a cowboy hat to signature song "Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)" by Big and Rich, there really is something for everyone.
In the 50 Shades of Grey era, that 'something' includes a little rough play. Auger describes a customer whose fetish is being blackmailed. "He loves to say, 'Here, take my business card and say that you're going to call my boss. But I want my card back, but not until I pay you.' That (adds up to) big numbers."
Jersey says he prefers the male customers. "I will still give it my all to the women, but truthfully, men are more appreciative," he says. I'm sure by appreciative, he's not talking about just the compliments.
One woman Jersey won't be dancing for anytime soon is his mom, even though she's been supportive. "My mom sewed the first tear-away slacks for my very first male strip tease show," he says. "She told me, 'Use what you have while you can.'" But he adds with a laugh, "If my mom came to see one of my shows, I'd cry and run off stage. That's kind of close, man."
But all good things eventually come to an end. "There are a lot of guys who get so sucked into the game... they're here until they're like 50. I don't think I'm going to go past 30," Jersey says. He plans on investing his money into real estate and to "live a normal life." So don't expect a movie about his life.
The veteran has sound advice for guys thinking of getting into the business. "Bring your A game. Make sure you're in shape and know how to dance. You have to realize this is a business. Always be professional."
Being immersed in such a sexually-charged environment, is there anything that turns Jersey on? "When the crowd starts cheering, that's a turn on. When you have the power to come into a room and turn it upside down, and make heads turn and to make people pay you to dance for them, that's huge power."
Moments later, Jersey takes the crimson-lit stage. Mia Martina's sultry dance track 'Latin Moon' reverberates through the speakers. Within minutes, he's down to his underwear. He grabs the pole and swings into a signature trick. The women in the audience go ape shit.
Writing by Ab Velasco. Photos by Jesse Milns.