Words Hayley Quinn
Photography Astrid Schulz
“A big part of the scene has become commercialised, but that’s kind of inevitable as things become commercially successful and eventually go mainstream.”
As I was walking down Brewer Street a man appeared next to me, shuffling a deck of cards, “Do you want to party tonight? I know you like it,” he grinned before disappearing down a side alley. No, this isn’t Victorian London, not even the 1960s, this is 2015 and I am a 28 year-old woman in a Soho that hasn’t quite lost its bite and, late at night, as fellow Sohoite, founder of the Skirt Club, Genevieve LeJeune states, “the mice certainly come out to play.”
It’s easy to mistake Soho’s maze of winding streets, long hotel bars and hole-in-the-wall restaurants with white linen table clothes as a sign of submission. It feels like a long time since Paul Raymond would have run off to a pornography shoot in a shaggy coat. However, interviewing a selection of women still very much in bed with Soho’s sexual side shows that the old dog still has teeth; albeit of a seemingly less exploitative kind.
I also speak to burlesque performer, Moorita, who reminisces that, “A big part of the scene has become commercialised, but that’s kind of inevitable as things become commercially successful and eventually go mainstream.” This commercial churn in Soho has led to a string of Burlesque schools like ‘The Cheek of It’ opening their doors (alongside their drawers) to a new breed of Burlesque stars. As every few weeks a new star is born, but a saturated market means that without a distinct ‘edge’ many acts will now go ‘homeless’. Mooritaa tells me that “there is almost no demand from producers and club owners for classic burlesque (nice lingerie + nice moves),” she pauses red-lipped, and describes how her own show differs, “story based, weird and intellectually provocative,” I will only say you will never look at a stuffed animal in quite the same way again…
Now, Moorita is a lady who is very comfortable in her sexuality. When describing how she feels during a performance, “proud and exhilarated” are the two words that purr out first. However, her steely business mind (and day job as CEO of her own tech company) and alpha female personality radiate through with equal strength. I have also spoken to Sonia, another astute European brunette, with a tongue piercing and a love of laughing wide mouthed to show it. She works as a dancer at Platinum Lace – a new generation strip club on Coventry Street which doubles as a late night club/bar, entertainment venue, and hen party pit stop.
Far from being in any state of coercion, Sonia clearly LOVES her job: “I feel so empowered when I take those two steps onto the stage.” The 2.0 strip club culture has clearly made her job more enjoyable and far from exploitative, “it’s much more relaxed… it’s like a family.” She is also acutely aware of the economics of what she does (unsurprising really as I discover that in the Czech Republic she once studied business and accountancy). Sonia knows blunt ‘do you want a dance?’ tactics won’t fly in a club space that sees as many women and couples as it does male bachelors. She has her own client base, which she makes an effort to entertain by dancing until 4am most nights in order to build her profile. There is a lightness and enjoyment that radiates from her when I ask if she enjoys being people’s fantasy object, “I love it! I almost make them promise… before they go to sleep, when they’re in the shower, when they’re you know,” she giggles, “relieving themselves!”
This collaborative effort is reflected by the club’s ownership which networks along the Southern edge of Soho with the hotel bars, nightclubs and hidden speakeasies that border China Town: “They recommend each other, there’s generally a very good vibe amongst the clubs and the other venues.” Rather than seeking out a seedy punter, strip clubs in Soho are now much more mass market – and a place I have often headed for a nightcap in the last 5 years – the low music volumes inside are conducive for 3am conversations.
Everything is exceedingly ‘above board’. In fact, the most ‘underground’ aspect of the Soho sex scene I delved into was an entirely female project: aggravated by the ‘butch’ climate of Soho’s lesbian bars, Genevieve set up ‘Skirt Club’, the UK’s (and possibly the world’s) first bisexual/bicurious women only party; for girls on the Kinsey scale of ‘curiosity’. Recognising a niche for the lady about town who would like to meet other such well-heeled girls, Genevieve went about single-handedly crafting a party tailored to her clienteles’ desire of anonymity and adventure. “At Skirt Club you are effectively anonymous. Boyfriends and husbands are left at home. Friends and family will never know. There are zero prying eyes. So the night is yours to make what you want of it. Body tequila or bubble bath?” This need for discretion has meant a relocation from the bar scene to ‘privately owned penthouses’ where her clients can explore away from prying eyes of anyone outside of Skirt Club’s rigorous membership tests. The barriers to entry also run for Soho’s most prestigious nightspots, including (of course) the ubiquitous The Box. Having been enslaved to its savage door policy, coupled with frantic stage show, I am a confirmed… probably through virtue of having tried so hard to get in.
The Box is in the ‘historical venue’ of the Raymond Revuebar and takes pride in carrying on Soho’s seedy tradition with nightly shows of a sexual nature, striptease and door girls dressed like dominatrices. If anything, its popularity, celebrity and cult following is a testament to how sexual entertainment is now a desirable item in the public space. From high profile nightclubs, to female friendly strip clubs and sex parties it would be easy to chalk Soho up as having achieved an odd kind of gender equality in its exploits. However, many a side street doorway marked ‘models’, with narrow Victorian stairwells leading up to a realm of God-knows-what, tell a different story. “I’ve never seen a prostitute on the streets, at 3-4am in the morning. It’s maybe not direct, there are places to go, though I don’t know in detail,” Sonia gossips, aware of her own employer’s strict rules for employee engagement levels. She does give titbit details though, of shadowy figures, places where people can go long after all the traditional venues shut, and (intriguingly) taxis driving away. So, maybe as Skirt Club moves East and West with its new locations, it seems the oldest profession in the world may also have largely decamped from W1.
As a dating expert with more than a professional curiosity for all things sexual, I can say I’ve never felt unsafe in Soho, and have all but been entertained by its parties (public and private), its titillation and its conspiratorial charm. Whilst I hope that shady figures, and certain doorways, soon fade completely from the area’s backdrop, I doubly hope the female friendly exploits remain intact. It would be a shame if Soho were just nice hotels, and bespoke cafés. As Sonia remarks, to which I greatly agree, “It’s my playground too.”