The naked truth: Where does Vegas draw the line when it comes to nudity onstage?

Model: Melody Sweets, “The Green Fairy” in Absinthe at Caesars Palace. Makeup and hair: Sarah Barker with Mac cosmetics. Styling: Nicole Chandler.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

The lights have long past dimmed and we’re well into the show. A performer takes center stage, illuminated in spotlight, flashing the audience a smile somewhere between sweet and sultry. She holds a red handkerchief in her hand, the color vibrant against the subtlety of a black, pin-striped skirt suit.

Suddenly the crimson cloth is gone, and then it reappears. Under the lapel, through the bodice, out the lapel. The jacket comes off. We’re being teased.

That hanky keeps vanishing, resurfacing each time in a new article of clothing, and with each flash of red, another piece of her sexy business-casual getup hits the floor.

The whispers soften as the performance transfixes the audience. Eventually, she’s down to just a thong. Surely, she won’t take that off, right?

But there’s that smirk, and once again the scarlet silk has vanished. She reaches down to tease it out of her underwear, and then … her panties come off.

Is she covered? There’s quite a bit of, um, hair there. It almost looks fake, like … a wig?

Glancing around the room, I see a collage of stunned expressions. I’m not the only one who wasn’t expecting that. And every face is painted with the same thought: Is that real?

But before we have time to consider the full-frontal nudity we just experienced, to really take in that surprising dose of skin, the dancer retreats backstage and the Vegas Nocturne theater at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. goes black.

Of course, Las Vegas is known for its Sin City reputation, fueled by gentlemen’s clubs, sex shops, Strip party palaces and a healthy embrace of sex as a sales tool (not to mention the widespread and incorrect perception that prostitution is legal). Ample alcohol provides social lubrication for every situation, showgirls go topless every night of the week, servers look like models and advertisements for local clubs don’t leave much to the imagination. To top it off, our town’s debauchery is a central character in movies like The Hangover and the iconic LVCVA ads that have given tourists an “anything goes” permission slip on the Strip.

But despite Vegas’ sexy sensory overload, a web of rules and regulations governs how much clothing can be stripped off in casino productions, an answer to the question hanging over the end of that Vegas Nocturne act: How naked can you actually get on a Las Vegas Strip stage?

Showgirls have been taking off their sequined brassieres for decades here, as the feather boa-clad beauties became a fixture of Strip entertainment in the 1950s. Chorus lines would hit the stage in elaborate headdresses and embellished panties—and not much else—in shows like Lido de Paris at the Stardust or Les Folies Bergere, which closed in 2009 after 49 years at the Tropicana. Topless performers remain a big piece of the Vegas entertainment puzzle today (albeit with fewer feathers) in shows like Fantasy at the Luxor, the Flamingo’s X Burlesque, the Riviera’s iconic Crazy Girls, the new Sydney After Dark at Planet Hollywood and Jubilee at Bally’s.

Jubilee’s iconic showgirls are just as topless as the lovely ladies down the street at Déjà Vu and Olympic Gardens, but they don’t dance under the same strict guidelines and regulations. That’s because Clark County differentiates between the showrooms that host Jubilee and Fantasy and the erotic dance establishments where strippers go to work.

The ladies of <em>Crazy Girls</em> at the Riviera.

The ladies of Crazy Girls at the Riviera.

Showrooms must have a minimum of 125 seats, and their patrons are assigned ticketed chairs or escorted by an usher. Those aren’t just perks; they’re requirements, and there are more. Showrooms offering topless entertainment must also have a liquor license, their performers must remain onstage and not engage in physical contact with the audience, and tipping performers is strictly prohibited. Oh, and they can’t be seen outside the showroom while topless, so don’t expect to find them handing out promotional fliers for their shows.

Topless revues, production shows, nightclub performances and other forms of entertainment also have to comply with federal, state and local laws regarding obscenity and lewdness. In basic terms, Nevada law defines “obscene” as any item, material or performance that an average person today would find “appeals to prurient interest,” that “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” and either: “1. Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated or 2. Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way masturbation, excretory functions, sadism or masochism or 3. Lewdly exhibits the genitals.”

How, then, does Rose. Rabbit. Lie.’s unsuited dancer get past that last requirement?

“When we came to Vegas and we wanted to do that act, we investigated using a merkin and decided that was the correct way to go,” says Vegas Nocturne producer Ross Mollison, referring to the pubic wig that fools audiences four nights a week (reports this week indicated the show is facing a potential closure and/or move to another property, rumored to be SLS). “You always have to be cognizant of what the casino gaming regulations are … and because we’ve worked in Vegas now for a number of years, we’re used to that.”

The producer is exactly right. While production shows must abide by local, state and federal standards for their own well-being, if they are housed in casinos, their landlords’ standing with the Nevada Gaming Control Board is also at stake. According to GCB Chief of Enforcement Karl Bennison, the Board holds all licensees responsible for their tenants—so if Zumanity gets a little too sensual, MGM Resorts, along with Cirque du Soleil, is on the legal hook.

“The bottom line about obscenity is that it’s just a misdemeanor, the bigger question is how does that impact gaming ... that’s the tail wagging the dog,” says Dayvid Figler, a local attorney and former municipal judge. “It’s really, really hard to define what is illegal obscenity versus free expression ... I don’t think that anyone seriously takes the threat of an obscenity prosecution in Nevada these days, but they are worried about that secondary impact on gaming because they don’t want to lose the license of the hotel.”

A dancer spins on a pole during the 12th Year Anniversary show of "X" Burlesque in the " X"  Showroom at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino on Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

A dancer spins on a pole during the 12th Year Anniversary show of "X" Burlesque in the " X" Showroom at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino on Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

According to its regulations, the Gaming Control Board can pursue disciplinary action against a licensee if the Board deems an activity an “unsuitable method of operation,” including activities that are detrimental to “the public health, safety, morals, good order and general welfare” of Nevadans or activities “that would reflect or tend to reflect discredit” on the state or gaming industry.

Licensees are also required to abide by federal, state and local laws and regulations, and the Board can consider the “failure to exercise discretion and sound judgment to prevent incidents” that would reflect on the state’s reputation or harm the development of the gaming industry as grounds for disciplinary action. Bennison says the GCB uses municipal codes to determine violations “when it comes to nudity or lewdness or anything related.

“The Board regulations don’t address nudity specifically, but they do talk about exercising discretion and sound judgment to prevent incidents which might reflect on the repute of the state of Nevada.”

That’s right, folks—even in a place notorious and revered for its sexuality and decadence, the Silver State’s reputation remains a consideration.

It’s the attack of the 50-foot zombie! Okay, she’s probably only 5-foot-9—but she towers above the scattering of Ken dolls below her. It’s a scene right out of Godzilla, staged at the V Theater in Zombie Burlesque.

With the Las Vegas skyline at her feet, she begins furiously plucking up Barbie’s plastic friends, only to rip their heads off and drop them to the ground. Everyone is watching, eyes glued to the blonde beauty, as she strides across the stage, wreaking havoc on Mattel’s golden boys.

Did I mention she’s only in panties and pasties?

Though a Clark County representative said women wearing pasties are technically considered topless, a rep for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department explained that the tiny coverings provide enough coverage to be legal—whether the wearer is onstage or walking down the Strip.

But while shows like Zombie Burlesque, Zumanity, Absinthe and Vegas Nocturne tailor their acts to local regulations, something occasionally crosses the line. And casino operators don’t take kindly to such infractions.

The risqué, theatrical Act Nightclub—an offshoot of the much naughtier Box nightclubs in London and New York City owned by Simon Hammerstein—closed in October 2013 a few weeks shy of its first anniversary. News reports indicated that Palazzo, Act’s resident casino, had pursued legal action to evict the club in Clark County District Court, arguing that it staged acts in violation of the state’s obscenity laws. An official reason for its closure wasn’t released, and Bennison says he wasn’t aware of any investigation into Palazzo over the goings-on at the nightspot.

“My understanding is that the licensee themselves looked into it and made a decision and took action,” Bennison says. “Something may occur within a licensed resort; it’s how the licensee reacts to it, also, that plays into whether the Board will be concerned.”

Speaking generally about the Board’s process of dealing with a complaint, Bennison says courses of action range from addressing the issue verbally to a full investigation, sometimes alongside Metro or other law or code enforcement agencies.

If a violation is found, Bennison says, the Board begins formal correspondence to identify the problem and possible solutions. If a violation is severe enough, the Board may hand it off to the attorney general’s office, fine the licensee or revoke the license (though that last step is extremely rare, Bennison adds).

Clark County Public Information Officer Dan Kulin says the Department of Business License would be involved with the correction of an infraction pertaining to obscenity. The county begins with a notice of violation, which is followed by a citation, which could ultimately result in a business license suspension or revocation.

While some shows on the Strip have a reputation for envelope-pushing performances that feel like they might suddenly cross the line into extremely explicit territory, with reputations (and licenses) at stake, even the production shows known for raunch seem to err on the side of caution.

Dancers rehearse for the new production "Sydney After Dark" at Planet Hollywood Saturday, July 5, 2014.

Dancers rehearse for the new production "Sydney After Dark" at Planet Hollywood Saturday, July 5, 2014.

Still, I can’t help thinking back to that act at Rose. Rabbit. Lie., and the shock in the room as the panties hit the stage. Perhaps racy performances are even racier in Las Vegas. Perhaps we have a higher tolerance for nudity, innuendo and even the odd pubic wig.

Or not.

Vegas Nocturne production company Spiegelworld used the exact same striptease act in a New York City production of Absinthe in 2006—sans merkin. Local regulations didn’t mandate any covering for the performance, perhaps thanks to the regularity, ubiquity even, of nudity on Broadway and off.

“You could go right back to productions like Oh! Calcutta! or Hair, which were on Broadway in the ’60s, and I don’t think you could probably do those in Las Vegas in a casino on the Strip in 2014,” says Spiegelworld’s Mollison. “Because they were fully naked onstage and that’s just the way it is.”

But Mollison says he wasn’t discouraged by the sanitized Sin City Strip’s creative restraint. “I just find ways to assimilate a similar sort of experience for our audience and still meet the requirements, which I think we have perfectly done.”

He’s about to try the same thing in Tokyo, launching a production there called Empire, which usually involves full-frontal male nudity. While the act will be scaled down for Japanese audiences, its Australian tour showed crowds the full monty.

Still, even if the striptease at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. uses some smoke and mirrors, isn’t that, itself, authentically Las Vegan?

“It seriously doesn’t really matter that she’s not nude,” Mollison says. “It’s just fun the way it is.”

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