Almost every Thursday night, Shannon McClure, 26, leaves 7-year-old Brandon home with a sitter and heads for Grand Ville.
Her favorite place to hang with her girlfriends is this once-a-week West Hollywood nightclub packed with young men and women who dance and drink and watch topless dancers shimmy by, greenbacks stuffed into their G-strings.
Hip Los Angeles has discovered R-rated burlesque. Or rather, club promoters who handle such places as Grand Ville and the Westside's Fantasy Island have discovered that middle-aged guys in poly-blend pants aren't the only ones who find nearly naked women entertaining.
Club-goers in New York City, where Stringfellows is the hot spot, and even parts of the South have been on to this trend of upscale striptease for a few years now, so maybe it's migrating. Or maybe it's a cyclical thing: Esquire magazine has brought back a new version of the curvy, pin-up Varga girl; padded, push-up bras have taken over lingerie departments, and many young women favor skin-tight satin T-shirts that would do Lolita proud.
Strip has even invaded the fashion world, says Michelle Lolli, fashion editor and an L.A. nightclub reviewer for Urb magazine. She has seen strippers pop up at trade shows and at private parties hosted by young, cutting-edge local designers.
"It's who can look the hardest, the most hard-core," she says. "It's to get attention. I still think it's objectifying and degrading to women . . . but some really cool girls don't seem to mind as much."
Or, perhaps, striptease somehow fits in with the post-"Brady Bunch" generation's idea of feminism: It's OK to strip for money--if that's what someone wants to do.
The crowd that eats at Swingers and shops at Na Na is the same one that has been lining up outside Grand Ville since it opened last year at Club 7969. Roaming the black-walled rooms are young women wearing mini-backpacks and dark violet lipstick and guys with goatees and heavy silver chains dangling from their pockets. Drinks in hand, they survey the dark, smoky scene. Loud '70s funk prohibits any conversation beyond "You wanna dance?" The odor of stale beer hangs in the air.
McClure prefers this to the more typical strip clubs, where men look at girls in a disgusting way, she says. "The guys who go to stripper bars are pigs."
Here, where the cover charge is $10, it's different: "Men are more restrained. Not only are women there, but these are women they have to deal with on a daily basis since they're friends, they're people they've known a long time."
Grand Ville opens at 10 p.m., but it's a good two hours before the strippers do their half-hour show, working their way through the crowd to collect tips before taking the stage. This night the featured dancer wears a black thong-back bodysuit, piles of wavy black hair and a come-hither smile.
Everyone screams approval. A mixture of straight, gay and bisexual women and mostly heterosexual men tuck in dollars every which way. By the time the stripper reaches the stage and peels her top off, they're in a frenzy that will last the night. Female club-goers who can't resist the urge get up on stage and mimic some of her moves.
"In a regular strip clubs there's the shame stigma, and then there's the fear for your own safety," says actor Zach Galligan, a longtime fan of the club. "Grand Ville is totally safe. You're surrounded by your peers, who are there to dance and have a good time. . . . This is like a mix of a party and safe sex and voyeurism."
Club owner Rick Calamaro, formerly of the club On the Rox, says he knew that he was taking a huge chance in featuring striptease at Grand Ville. It helped that West Hollywood is hard to shock.
"I said, 'I'm going to try something unique,' " he says. "I'll try it. And if it fails, it fails. . . . My philosophy was, I'm going to try to do a show with women in mind, trying to make it as flattering toward women as possible. I never think about the men because they're just going to like it."
What made him suspect that women would feel comfortable watching striptease? He had a theory, says: Both men and women like looking at pictures of women in magazines; men in Playboy, women in Cosmo. So if looking at women were presented in a non-threatening way--in a party atmosphere--he might have a hook.
"A lot of people say there's a lot of lesbians in the club," Calamaro says, "but I think most of the girls you see are (straight). They're just flirting with their sexuality. . . . They're with their friends, their friends are jumping up and tipping the girls, so they're like, 'I'll go up and tip the girls,' and they're having a good time. But generally they want to leave with a man."
The women, it turns out, tip better than the men, says Grand Ville dancer Tatiana Santos, who also strips at the more mainstream Body Shop.
"The women are kind of like, free. They're in the club saying, 'Yeah, let's tip the girls.' You see girls going to the Body Shop, and I don't think they feel so comfortable. But this vibe, this energy, they totally go for it."
It doesn't surprise USC history professor Philippa Levine that women make up half the audience at Grand Ville.
"It's a very clever shift on the part of the entrepreneur," says Levine, who has studied women's issues. "Most women are not going to go to what looks like a sleazy strip club. But if you put it in a nice area and make it part of the entertainment, then I think it's about how to tap bigger audiences. There is some change in women's attitude about this, but it's more about business."
At Fantasy Island, in the old Kelbo's restaurant near the Westside Pavilion, the vibe is a little tamer. Local ordinances prohibit dancers at this 2-month-old supper club, which has a $5 food and drink minimum before 7 p.m. but no cover charge, from going topless. They strip to bikinis, which helps trim the "adult entertainment" stigma, says a proprietor. And Fantasy Island touts the full menu, something most strip clubs don't offer. Some initial grumbling from neighbors quieted, the owners say, when told that the dancers would not be topless.
Kelbo's kitschy Polynesian theme has been replaced by a kitschy strip club theme; there's a Shipwreck Room, a Dungeon Room and a Harem Room. Touching the girls is verboten , even during private dances.
The clientele is mostly men, with some women and couples. Some of the men could pass for rock musicians, others look like yuppie businessmen. What are nice guys like these doing in a place like this?
"Angelenos have been wanting this for a long time, but they haven't been offered it," says Dennis Morgan, president of Fantasy Island, who for 10 years produced and emceed the female mud wrestling show at the Tropicana.
"In Texas and Florida and other places," he says, "it's very in to stop by a club and have a beer, hang out with the guys, there's no hustle or anything like that going on, and just kind of get warmed up before they go out. Then they usually end up the evening by swinging by again. It's a really friendly environment."
Such clubs represent "something different from Southern California's usual image," says USC's Levine.
"I see changes in the way we're expressing this stuff," she adds. "TV and Hollywood know that sex sells, and will spin it to all it's worth. I don't think there's more sex around, but I think the expression of sex, the way we talk about it, is changing. And it's changing in ways that make it much more visible. It's the pleasure principle being written differently."
That principle continues to go through rewrites. Actor-filmmaker Josh Richman, a partner in Grand Ville, says plans include a striptease fashion show featuring cool clothes from a local designer.
"We're not promoting sex," he says. "We're promoting the next level of a good time."