In the too-trendy world of L.A. nightclubs, getting behind the ropes can make or break an evening out. Those who work the door hold the fate of all club-goers in their hands, determining with a flick of a hand who gets in and who stays out.
It's not a task for the faint-hearted and it's usually the domain of beefy guys named "Tiny" or Italian-suited men with moussed hair. The job description is alternately given as "being thrown to the wolves," "on the firing line" or "in the trenches."
On the Front Lines
But, if club war is hell, that hasn't stopped a few women from working the front lines.
When Djenat James worked at Nipper's, the exclusive champagne bar on Rodeo Drive, she got used to the shocked looks from men unaccustomed to finding a young woman running the door. "Sometimes when a man's standing there saying, 'No, you can't come in,' sometimes they'll take it easier from a woman," she says. "But then a lot of times they'd look at me and say, 'Get your superior.' And I'd say, 'You're looking at her.' It was always a shock, especially with the men, to see a woman doing this."
Caroline Clone recalls the time Richard Dreyfuss came to her club, Palette, one night when she was working the door. The actor didn't have enough money for the cover charge, and Clone told him to "go in and find your friends and leave your ID (at the door) because we have a policy," she recalls. "My staff was just laughing at me. I do not recognize celebrities."
Some Men Show No Respect
"Some men (who come to the club) don't have any sort of respect for women," says Janelle Thibodaux, who works the VIP door at the Apartment at the Stardust Ballroom. "Men don't seem to have any problem with pushing you out of the way or grabbing you. They think I'm this little girl, so I'll just walk right up the stairs and grab them by the shirt collar, and that kind of catches them by surprise."
British-born Caroline Clone is the principal owner of Palette, born a hip West Hollywood restaurant in the early '80s and reborn recently as a nightclub with a Caribbean restaurant on the way.
And although she oversees a large staff, she makes sure she's never far from the front lines herself.
"It's nice to check in and get back down there," she says over lunch at a West Hollywood cafe. "The last thing they expect is to see the owner of the club doing this. But I never want to lose touch with what's going on, and I want to let my staff see that I support them and that I can do it too. I've done every job there is to do in a nightclub."
The 30-year-old Clone (an adopted last name) cut her teeth on the British punk club scene when she was 16, deejaying at clubs like Louise's and Billy's, where the Sex Pistols reigned and she could dye her hair blue without anyone minding.
She came to the United States in 1980 to pursue a career in film costuming and fashion design, but found she missed the club scene. "I call it club addiction," she says. "Once you've been behind the scenes at a show, you can't forget it."
On a dollar bet she threw a bash at a local club that was a phenomenal success, and she was off again.
When she took over Palette earlier this month, she vowed that there would be no "snotty" attitude at her club, which has different theme nights throughout the week, some nights catering to a gay clientele.
'Check Everyone's ID'
"When I'm working with a new person, I never put them straight on the door," she explains. "They have to come in and train for three or four weeks; otherwise it's like throwing them to the wolves, literally. The first night I'll baby-sit them for the first part of the night. It's very, very important that they check everyone's ID."
Of the ability to work a door, "You can always tell if somebody's got it," Clone continues. "I don't want a tough, snotty kind of person. You've got to be able to size somebody up in 30 seconds, and if they're too stoned or don't look like they're going to mix in, you try to persuade them to come another night. Like if your mum and dad showed up and they think it's ballroom dance night, we're not going to take their money."
Abuse From Patrons
While working the door at various clubs, Clone has taken her share of abuse from patrons who don't seem to care that she's a woman, letting out strings of epithets, demanding to be let in while intoxicated, threatening discrimination suits. She also deals with police officers who field occasional complaints from neighbors about the noise.
Palette keeps an open-door policy with guests; there is no picking and choosing from a mob outside.
But the latest in club exclusivity is being on the VIP list, meaning you know the club owner (or know someone who knows the club owner) and don't have to pay to get in. "I think the picking and choosing has been replaced by this VIP list," Clone says. "It's become increasingly important to people."
On a recent night at Palette, Clone did have her share of would-be VIP-list crashers. She was polite but firm with each, even those who came back two or three times and insisted they must be on the list.
Why would some risk embarrassment in front of their friends and insist they're on the VIP list when they know they're not?
"It's worth a shot, isn't it?" Clone says with a laugh. "Maybe they think we'll like the way they look. Maybe they're trying to impress their friends and say, 'Oh, I know so-and-so.'
"To me everybody who comes into the club is special," she says. "They make an effort to dress up, and this is their entertainment. I think a lot of clubs forget that."
'Wet Behind the Ears'
Djenat James had barely turned 21 and was studying marketing at the Fashion Institute when she started working the door at Nipper's. "I was still wet behind the ears," she recalls, "and all of a sudden I was working in this sophisticated nightclub in the center of Beverly Hills. It was a matter of growing up very quickly."
The club's strict dress code made it a little easier for her to turn away the "riffraff" who wanted to come in. And although she says she handled the club's clients politely but firmly, she still earned a reputation as having a steel arm from her less adoring patrons for her manner of blocking the door.
"Being thrown to the wolves," she says, again using that popular phrase, "I learned very quickly to get very tough. Looking back on it now, I think I became very hard in order to survive. If I hadn't, they would have chewed me up and thrown me over the balcony."
She left Nipper's to become the assistant maitre d' at Morton's, then left to set up restaurant operations at the downtown club Stock Exchange and to maitre d' in the Stock Exchange's VIP lounge.
After a few months of that, she ran a club called WWIII in Hollywood, which gave movie studios a place to host movie premiere parties. There the guests were picked to go in, but James worked with a doorman, telling him whom to choose.
"I'd cue him if there were important people out there," she explains, "press, celebrities, and that sort of took the pressure off me. It was fun because you had so many people to choose from. In other places you were really restricted, and here you could play. I was interested in getting a good variety of people, and I wouldn't choose them so much by what they were wearing, but if they looked like they'd have a good time."
Time for Insomnia
While WWIII was still going strong, she opened a sister club called Insomnia, a "smaller, more loungy club" that started to roll about 2 a.m., feeding off the clientele at WWIII.
She also worked the door with a man, but took her share of harassment. "A lot of words were exchanged," she says. "People at that hour have had a few drinks and they'd start saying something. Actually we were more concerned that we weren't getting underage people in there."
The clothes she favored included men's suits, or tailored women's suits. "People took you more seriously if you were wearing a pair of slacks and a blazer," she says.
Modeling agents and casting directors who sometimes scout good-looking, stylish door people never appealed to James, who had modeled in Italy for a year and wasn't lured by any promises of stardom. "If I hadn't (modeled), it would have been so seductive," she admits. "You're constantly seeing celebrities coming in, and it's all very glamorous."
James chucked the club life a year ago when she left Insomnia, pursuing a career in public relations and marketing and only recently has ventured into the night scene again.
Making the Connections
She was savvy enough to make connections that would help the career she had planned. "Also when I moved here, I did not know a single person in L.A. and all of a sudden I was working in this very popular nightclub and I was interacting with these people. I was invited to dinner parties and broke a lot of ground fast. I think if I had been working in a department store, I wouldn't have made as many connections as I have now."
She hasn't worked the club scene entirely out of her system; currently she represents several of the city's hot restaurants, and may do public relations for a trendy night spot when it reopens.
Now that the Apartment club is back after a brief hiatus, so is 26-year-old Janelle Thibodaux, who has run the VIP room door for a year.
"It was all new to me," she says, sitting in a hip coffeehouse and greeting the other regulars who filter in. "I had been going out to clubs for a long time, and doing this I had to be able to recognize faces, celebs as well as the local who's who about town. Basically I'm in charge of checking passes or letting people in if I know them or they're friends of the owner."
Thibodaux kept her nice-girl demeanor for about a month before she toughened up.
'Say It With a Smile'
"Last summer it was a mob scene, we had people backed up and everybody was shoving. You have to have so much patience, but you just start screaming. People would come up and say, 'I have an invitation,' and I'd say, 'Good, I'm glad, so does everybody else so you'll just have to wait.' But you say it with a smile."
She still can't get over why it's a life-or-death matter to some to get into the club's VIP room, which she describes as a separate room to sit and get away from the crowds for a while.
They push and shove, grab her arm and yank her out of the way anyway. "I get really angry because I'm not going to take this from anybody," she says. "There's no point in treating women like that."
Thibodaux, who grew up in Houston and aspires to a career in fashion retailing (she works part-time at a boutique now), did a three-year stint of modeling in Europe and isn't waiting for her big show-biz break.
With her tall, slim figure and high cheekbones it's easy to see why she's often told she should model. For work she dresses "sort of sexy, but not like the sex kittens at the VIP room. Sort of casual, sophisticated, jackets and dresses and skirts, but not all dolled up."
And she sometimes regrets having to miss out on a lot of things, like ordinary social life with friends in the evenings, that her work precludes. Still, the life of a doorwoman does have its glamorous moments, like "when it's a really good night and there are good people there and the energy is up. Most of the time it's just like a job, but it is exciting."