In search of Las Vegas’ stripper queens

“The best of the best come from each of their states. The girls that really want to make money come out here to Vegas,” says Crazy Horse III dancer Sydney.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne

"Can you tell that my hair is out of place?” the woman asks. She’s young. She’s beautiful. She’s wearing tiny, tiny lingerie in a crowded bathroom, running manicured fingers over a bump in an otherwise flawless ponytail. Sweetly, the attendant says, “No, honey. And if they’re looking at your hair there’s a problem.”

It’s Saturday night at the Spearmint Rhino, and I’m pretty sure no one is looking at the ponytails and beachy waves and French braids when there are so many breasts and legs and lips moving in the darkness. There must be 200 girls here tonight, working every corner of the cheetah-carpeted capital of mostly naked hotness. I am an interloper in corduroy pants. But I’m not looking for a story about the dark side of the industry, about the pimps, drugs and broken psyches.

I’m looking for the Queen.

That’s no stage name; it’s a notion of one stripper to rule them all, as stupidly reductive as it is intriguing. The beauty, the body, the powerful moves, personality, hustle and a head for business—these are weapons she wields to the tune of six figures a year, working way fewer days than the average American. Las Vegas is the best and worst place to look for her, because it draws talent from everywhere else. The field is huge, and the criteria are as subjective as attraction, whether you’re talking about conversation skills or the ability to pop dollars off a pubic bone.

It’s an impossible premise—finding the ultimate stripper in the ultimate stripper town. But what is it that truly separates the women who dominate the business from the gyrating masses?

Resident superstars usually get a billboard on the I-15, but you don’t see names like Peaches and Serenity next to Tiësto and Shania. You might see a stripper’s face on a club’s marquee, but mostly it’s her assets served up with about as much mystique as a meatball sandwich.

Strippers are free agents, so seeking the Queen starts with knowing the best clubs. Of course that “best” is subjective, too. Maybe you’re into the classic vibe and full nudity at the Palamino (established in ’69, natch), the cozy Downtown environs of Glitter Gulch or the promise of meeting WWF alum The GodFather at Cheetahs or spotting Floyd Mayweather and friends at the Hustler Club. Dancers have their own preferences, so talent doesn’t pool in just one place.

I asked some patrons and industry types for their take on the hottest clubs in Vegas, and while it wasn’t scientific or unanimous, those mentioned most were Spearmint Rhino, Crazy Horse III and Sapphire. All three are big in branding and square footage, so you know you’re seeing a lot of contenders.

Refining the criteria for the Queen was harder. A friend who enjoys a good strip-club happy hour advised me that looks, technique, charm and “manipulation abilities” are fundamentals, and that strippers fall into two categories: pretty girl and hardcore performer. One looks good; one picks up a can of beer with her butt and pours it into your mouth. But the Queen would have to be both, right? Doesn’t she have to be a knockout to get paid?

“It is a fact that the girl earning the absolute most money almost every single night at every club is not the hottest girl there. She’s not even in the top 50 percent as far as looks,” says former Vegas stripper and Weekly blogger Justice. “The hottest girl is often on the other end of the earning spectrum. Often, what accompanies a tremendous ego is the need to protect it. Insecurity prevents her from hustling, or attempting to close a sale with every potential customer, which is something you need to do to be the best.”

 While some dancers love the stage, others pay a fee to bypass it, knowing they can make way more money over a bottle of Champagne in a VIP room.

While some dancers love the stage, others pay a fee to bypass it, knowing they can make way more money over a bottle of Champagne in a VIP room.

In Justice’s view, strippers who revel in the stage performance are “missing the point of being at work.” At best the stage is an advertisement, the hook for expensive one-on-one time. She says it brings real money in select spots in New York, Atlanta and Miami, but in Las Vegas it’s not the thing. “If you observe top earners, most put on a minimal stage performance, just get it over with, if they don’t skip it entirely.”

As independent contractors, strippers pay a base fee to work at a club, and they can pay another fee to bypass the stage. It’s a business strategy, as is building relationships with (and tipping) bouncers, VIP hosts and managers who’ll steer big spenders their way if they see a good match. The goal is to get these clients in private rooms, where hundreds can stack up to thousands fast. That means the Queen might be someone most of us will never see. But Vegas is an everyman’s playground. The ultimate stripper can’t just be seen by visiting billionaires. She has to be someone who loves to blow people’s minds on the pole or dance for her own pleasure. So I look in the spotlight.

Legs undulating like seaweed in current, the blonde grins and pretzels them behind her head to clack 8-inch heels on the stage. In a side room, applause breaks out for a heavily tatted woman hanging by one leg from the top of the pole. In punk fishnets, retro garter belts, leg warmers and the latest Victoria’s Secret trappings, hot strippers swarm.

That standard of beauty is a Spearmint Rhino trademark, and it brought 24-year-old Dan Huber on a Saturday night, even though the rest of his bachelor party stayed at the hotel in deference to wives and girlfriends. Single and undeterred, the Coloradan took the free limo to the Rhino, on the recommendation of Spike TV’s MANswers (which did the “math” and figures the club has 12,000 boobs in its arsenal).

We’re seated right off the main stage watching three dancers work. Their movement is mostly slow gyration, less about the pole than the fantasy of a woman on all fours. When their set ends they sweep tips together and make way for the next three girls. While I’ve seen a lot of pretty faces and hard bodies, nothing stands out.

Then a heavy beat hits, and a toned brunette snaps her long spine and rolls her hips so deep as she winds around the pole, locking eyes with patrons. This is not your typical air sex. It’s graceful and sultry, beautiful to watch. And her face isn’t blank. There’s something electrifying about how much she appears to be enjoying herself. She doesn’t just slink past the men in the front row with her boobs out. She flirts and makes conversation. Dollars follow.

In the next room, she dances alone on a platform, and men and women stare. I finally get the nerve to tip her and tell her what I’m up to, hoping she might share her story. She shares her real name: Chanel.

In a corridor, I see three gorgeous women leading a group of guys toward a private room. One asks about cost, and the dancer holding his hand just says how nice it’ll be for everyone to share the room and the bubbly. He asks again. Whatever she whispers makes him swallow hard, but he keeps walking.

“The top girls know how to be really pushy and assertive and just get guys to spend money. It doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with how attractive they are or how turned on they’re getting the guy or how good of a conversation they’re having,” says Sarah*, a 36-year-old who’s danced at Glitter Gulch for six years and been in the business since she was 19. Her husband Michael*, who was a DJ at that very first club in California, chimes in:

“They’re not taking no for an answer. They’re aggressive. They’re assertive. They’re attractive. And there’s a work ethic. ... There’s definitely a Vegas hustle here that’s different than anywhere else.”

The downside, Sarah says, is that strippers can get treated like used-car salesmen. She plays that up, finding something about a client she likes, complimenting it and joking that he’ll never believe her. With big brown eyes and a dazzling smile, Sarah is strikingly pretty. She’s also sharp and has a sense of humor, qualities that have helped her make her way in this business without compromising herself. Like many of her fellow dancers, she fell into the job and then found it hard to give up. She says she works an average of 150 days a year.

She laughs about her first time onstage—on a summer trip during college—dancing like she was at a nightclub in a silly outfit she thought looked stripper-ish. Sarah is established at Glitter Gulch now and prefers the club’s stage-focused setup and smaller scale, with only about 30 or 40 performers as opposed to the hundreds you’ll find at big clubs during high season. Having worked in other locales, she says Vegas’ party vibe makes a talented stripper even more successful, because tourists are primed to spend liberally on a good time. If the Queen is out there, Sarah hasn’t seen her. Just top earners who know how to get what they want and understand their clientele. “Most guys are pretty easy. They like boobs. They like ass. They like attention from a girl.”

Among soft red lights and mirrored walls, one dancer is giving a steamy, wordless lap dance while a plucky redhead in cat-eye glasses is sitting on a guy’s lap chattering away.

Who rules the club? Fire (foreground) and Sydney agree that many looks and personalities are found among the top earners. What they share is an ability to build on initial rapport with clients who are into their particular vibe. “There’s certain people you connect with and certain people you don’t,” Fire says.

Who rules the club? Fire (foreground) and Sydney agree that many looks and personalities are found among the top earners. What they share is an ability to build on initial rapport with clients who are into their particular vibe. “There’s certain people you connect with and certain people you don’t,” Fire says.

The main attraction is a central stage with a pole anchored in the vaulted ceiling, and a thin Latina is muscling all the way up. She spins and whirls, gripping only with her thighs. She free-falls, grips, drops hard into splits, then whips into a forward bend and shakes everything. Two patrons make it rain, flipping bills from stacks like decks of cards. This girl could be in a Cirque show, but I’m guessing she makes more at Crazy Horse III.

Today, it’s an award-winning party spot for celebrities, Fortune 500 CEOs and Jiffy Lube techs alike, with cash cannons, sick DJs and the occasional night where bodies are painted neon against black lights and lasers. “I’m not in competition with Sapphire and Rhino; I’m in competition with Las Vegas Boulevard,” VP of Operations/GM Keith Ragano says, explaining that the explosion of the nightclub scene has kept the strip clubs on their toes. When he took over this venue it was called Penthouse, and it was “the absolute worst club in the city,” he says.

“You can get as many people there as you want—if you don’t have a great staff, if you don’t have good girls, they’re not coming back,” says Ragano, who’s been in the industry for 20 years, here and in Chicago at places like Club Paradise and Scores. He says a lot of money was spent on re-branding, marketing and bringing in serious talent. “There are a lot of clubs in town and GMs that tell ’em, ‘You work somewhere else, you can’t work here.’ I’m not like that. … Without the girls there is zero business, so I make sure I always take care of my girls.”

Ragano conducts 90 percent of the auditions and says they take about three seconds. You can walk in off the street and land the best shift if you’re hot enough. But if you don’t know how to make an impression, have a conversation and sell bottles—which start at $400 and go up to $6,000—you’ll weed yourself out pretty fast. Ragano says his crew helps new entertainers with their looks and salesmanship. “We teach them to spend time, sit with the guy, talk to him, see what his interests are. Don't just walk up to the table: 'You want a dance?' He says no and you walk away. 'Cause that guy could be the guy that spends $20,000," he says. "You don’t have to be dirty. ... A lot of guys that are gonna spend the most money, they’re not looking for anything like that.”

They might be looking for Felix Roxx, a pole specialist with a rockabilly pinup look, Bettie Page incarnate. She bends her torso at extreme angles, inked limbs floating and smile infectious. I ask how her spine does what it does. She laughs, says she was born that way. She makes plenty of tips, but Felix looks like one of those girls who goes onstage because she loves it.

Ragano wishes all of them had that attitude, because it shows you off to a thousand potential clients. But “everyone’s got their own thing,” and the business supports that diversity. That goes for the tastes of clients, too. "Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Puerto Rican, Columbian—we’ve got girls flying in from Miami; we’ve got girls that fly in from all over the country. It all depends on the guys," he says, adding that if there is a Queen, there are two likelihoods: 1. She's in a VIP room all night. 2. She’s a talker. “I mean, when I was back at Paradise in the heyday, ’98, ’99, 2000, I saw girls getting $20,000, $40,000, $50,000 never even take their dress off.”

Chanel has had nights like that, spending hours with clients just talking. “I don’t have the attitude of a lot of Vegas strippers. I still have my small-town self. ... I’m a conversationalist. I really don’t know a stranger.”

She is 24, five years into the on-and-off job that started in her hometown of Salem, Oregon, at a club with a dozen girls on the busiest shifts. It was a way to make fast money to deal with a bad situation, terrifying at first, but the dancing felt natural. Patrons and coworkers told her she was too good for the small venue and needed to dance at Stars, the hottest club in Salem. So she did, building her reputation to the point where staffers actually called her the Queen. Oregon clubs are about the stage, and she performed on it 12 to 15 times a night.

“It’s not just: You go up there, you shake your tush, your boobs, cool, great. For me, I like to actually put a show on.” We’re talking vertical and horizontal poles, slow-motion tricks and backlights blowing up her tattoos. But Chanel says visual fireworks are less important than flirtation and making people smile. Not with “manipulation abilities.” By being real. “I definitely am the real me, I just don’t put everything out on the table,” she says. Still, the situation can get too personal. “I simply tell the customer, ‘That’s not strip club conversation; now let’s have some fun!’ It’s all about redirection and distractions.”

Chanel worried that approach wouldn’t work in Vegas. She felt like a goldfish in the ocean when she started dancing at Sapphire, which wasn’t the right fit. Her audition at Spearmint Rhino this past November boiled down to taking five steps in a two-piece, but she still figured she’d fade into the background among so many beautiful women establishing the value of their time in a particular way. Justice explains: “A ‘queen’ once told me: ‘Guys like a down-to-earth, fun party girl that they can drink beer with, but they won’t give her real money. If you act like a Princess you get paid.’”

B. has seen the latter getting pumped up backstage. She did hair for about a year at a local club and still has clients in the business. For the most part, she says dancers have two personalities, that they have to get in the right mind frame to strut out onto the floor. She adds that you'd never imagine hot strippers emerging from some of the pajama-clad, tired-eyed girls who roll in. "She looks like sh*t. She sits down and she puts her earbuds in and she starts listening to music. She gets a cocktail; she starts drinking. ... I’ve seen girls back there for an hour, putting their makeup on one eye at a time. And they get undressed, and they’re putting their self-tanner on. Then they’re standing there naked in their thong, looking in the mirror, trying to get the feel for it. Then they start to smile a little bit. Once the earbuds come off, then this whole fake person comes out. It’s like Jekyll and Hyde."

It's no surprise that strippers might put up a front, considering how many random customers they talk to over the course of one weekend. But Chanel says that especially in Las Vegas, being more genuine can be an asset. It might not win you as many $20 lap dances, but she prefers the long game anyway. “People get so much of the ‘Vegas girl’ here. ... They get these girls that are just saying anything to them to get in their pockets. Then they meet a girl like me,” she says. “We sit and we have a normal conversation. And I invest time in people, which turns around and helps me, because then people want to invest time with me in the Champagne room.”

In a single night, Chanel has made almost $7,000. And while she doesn’t want to dance forever, she’s building capital to buy her dream home, send her young son to college someday and fund her return to school to pursue her own interior design business. Dancers will tell you that some girls sell too much of themselves to get ahead, but Chanel says if you draw firm boundaries, are straight with people and treat this as a serious business, then it is.

“It’s crazy to me that so many people down-talk it because, realistically, this is the highest-paying job anyone could ever have in their life, unless you own your own business and you’ve got millions coming in, or you’re like Jay Z or something. ... You can make six figures a year working three or four days a week if you put your mind to it and you study it and you really take it serious. Who wouldn’t do that? Yeah, it’s topless, but I paid $8,000 for my boobs," she says, laughing. "I might as well show them off.”

Monday looks different. Sapphire’s plush, 70,000-square-foot venue is buzzing but not packed, and the body types are more diverse (meaning some dancers actually have a little fat in reasonable places). I’m with three girlfriends from Germany and Idaho, and one happily remarks that she doesn’t feel as bad about herself as she expected to. On cue, a stunning girl who looks just like a young Iman positions her sculpted glutes right in front of us.

In the haze of fine cigar smoke and the glow from a solid wall of twinkling lights, we watch dancers take their turns on the half pole. One has a signature move that involves rhythmically hammering her backside against it. To my left, a patron and a tall blonde are chatting almost like they’re on a first date. To my right, another tall blonde slides her arm around a man’s neck, but he’s not buying, so she moves on. I watch her bounce around the room without making a sale.

Sydney is already tall at 5-10. In her work shoes, she's 6-4.

Sydney is already tall at 5-10. In her work shoes, she's 6-4.

One of the dancers I met at Crazy Horse III, Sydney, said resilience is key not just to success, but to survival. “People tell me no all the time. This business is rejection, a lot. There's nights I've made no money,” said the 5-foot-10 (6-4 in her shoes!) brunette, who is the sort of beautiful that makes you stop. “I cried a few times, but out here you just can’t. There’s too much money to be made.” Plus, on the flip-side of those bad days is the frequent validation of having men lavish you with praise and pay handsomely for the pleasure of your company.

Sydney was a top girl at her club in Ohio and said the best of the best come from every state to try their luck in this market. With hundreds of girls working in the same venue, competition is fierce, but Sydney said you can’t view it as a competition. It’ll get in your head. Plus, being Queen isn’t just about what you put out there. It’s about picking the right guy.

“It’s the random ones, like the construction worker who’s here for his first time as opposed to the guy who is a billionaire but brags about how much money he has,” she said, chuckling as she admitted she always looks at shoes. “In this business, you learn to be a very good judge of character. ... The guy who’s hammered in the corner screaming, ‘Strippers!’, we stay away from.”

That guy isn’t at Sapphire tonight. The crowd is mellow, until a dancer named Ziaca (at least that's what it sounds like the DJ purrs) takes the stage in a half-sweater tight against her breasts. Petite and curvy, she seems spring-loaded as she does deep backbends and pumps her hips toward the ceiling with her hands wrapped around the pole. She flies on it and slams down into the splits. The song's bass starts to feel like it's coming from her sways and thrusts. My girlfriends grab seats by the stage just in time to be included in a full rotation of gleeful motorboating. Ziaca’s energy wakes the whole place up, and money starts to flow.

The Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule, applies to stripping. It means 80 percent of the money goes to 20 percent of the performers. The reality facing the other 80 percent isn’t pretty, even though the girls might be.

“There are tons of perfect 10s barely making any money in Vegas,” Justice says. “For every queen there are thousands of peasants.”

I saw one at Crazy Horse III, an attractive brunette who looked new and didn’t make a single dollar until the very end of her stage set, and that tip seemed more merciful than lustful. Maybe it was because she came off a bit mechanical, or because the timing was wrong with all of the dances and conversations happening around her. Probably because she didn’t get up there and command the room.

Ziaca did it with crackling energy. Felix with eye-popping contortion. Chanel with natural beauty and warmth. Being a top performer is less about the performance than the overall package of confidence, understanding psychology, building relationships with the right people and especially staying positive. Because every person who walks through the door might see you as the Queen. Of that club, of that night, of Las Vegas.

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