I used my debit card to withdraw $40 out of the ATM, which was, naturally, released to me in a stack of single dollar bills.
I wasn’t expecting a male strip club to be packed on a Wednesday evening, and it’s not: there were about 15 other women there, some in groups, and a few who were there on their own. The waiter escorted us to a table in the front, right next to the stage.
The DJ began playing country music to welcome the first dancer onto the stage, but he was late; the cue was repeated again…and again, before our cowboy finally emerged from backstage, slightly overweight and out of shape.
Yee-haw. Welcome to La Bare.
La Bare, a rowdy male strip club in Dallas, is the focus of the new documentary ‘La Bare,’ directed by Joe Manganiello, who, after a supporting role in ‘Magic Mike,’ knows a few things about the novelty of men gyrating in G-strings. La Bare is the real ‘Magic Mike’: a tale of ‘round the clock hustle in a business that’s never been able to break free of its own stigma. While gentlemen’s clubs are prevalent throughout the world, the male strip club is a rarity.
I wanted to pay a visit to La Bare to try and understand why it’s so difficult for male strip clubs to succeed, even after the success of ‘Magic Mike.’ I wanted the real La Bare experience, the one promised to me in Manganiello’s film with the choreographed routines and the culture of treating women as the male dancers expect to be treated in return. I wanted to feel like the patrons interviewed for the documentary, as they stand breathless outside of the club, trying to articulate why it is that this place feels like family to them; why it is that this place makes them feel confident and beautiful and safe. I decided to drive to Houston to visit the nearest La Bare with a friend.
After dancing for a few minutes and not receiving any tips, he emerged a moment later, this time dancing for a full minute while extending two middle fingers to the women in the audience.
The female audience at La Bare is clad in sparkly party dresses, swirling fruity, pink cocktails in their hands. I’m nervously sitting with my friend; we’re both wearing plaid shirts and awkwardly sipping on cans of Shiner beer. We look like some lesbian stereotype.
As stereotypes go, there’s a certain stigma attached to women visiting male strip clubs.
Channing, a La Bare dancer and one of the featured stars of the new ‘La Bare’ documentary, thinks it all comes down to money. “A lot of women feel like they shouldn’t have to pay for it just ‘cause they’re women,” he says confidently, adding that women are “stingier” with their money than men, who seem all too happy to make it rain for female strippers who don’t work nearly as hard as the men of La Bare do.
Channing (who, yes, borrowed his stage name from the star of ‘Magic Mike’) laughs and adds, “You’ll never go into a female strip club and find them doing choreography. They’re just kind of twerkin’ and shakin’ their ass on a stage.”
While ‘Magic Mike’ may have drawn sizable audiences to both the theater and strip clubs alike, it was still largely a fictive representation of Channing Tatum’s real world experiences as a young male stripper. ‘La Bare’ offers a Russian nesting doll narrative: whereas ‘Magic Mike’ was a behind the curtain peek at the world of male strip clubs, ‘La Bare’ tosses the script aside to show us the “real Magic Mike” and it’s surprisingly not all that different from Soderbergh’s cinematic iteration.
‘Magic Mike’ was another Hollywood film, after all, and its goal was to paint the kindest, most glamorous picture of a life that’s decidedly less charming than its aspirations. Matthew McConaughey could very well be a proxy for Randy the Master Blaster, a veteran dancer who serves as ringleader for the ‘La Bare’ cabaret circus, cowboy hat and all. The men party and hustle 24/7, and have hopes and dreams that extend beyond the club’s stage. But remove an additional layer and take a peek inside the club for yourself, and the world of La Bare is nothing like ‘La Bare’ the documentary or ‘Magic Mike’ at all.
When asked what he hopes people will take away from the documentary, Channing tells me, “It’s not like we do this just for women. This is how we pay our bills. It’s not just a lifestyle with a bunch of random guys who are assholes.”
The ‘La Bare’ documentary highlights both the creative individual routines and the choreographed group numbers, which Channing says the men work hard for hours to learn, always striving to improve their craft.
This was one of the primary reasons for my visit: to see a choreographed routine and witness all the hard work these guys put into their shows. I wanted to be entertained, as the ‘La Bare’ documentary and Channing had promised was the ultimate goal of their enterprise.
Up next, the stage was set for just such a routine. A few dancers sat around a card table with a bag of what appeared to be mock cocaine, while a recording of an indeterminable movie clip played over the loudspeakers. A fourth dancer walked out, wearing a ‘Punisher’ t-shirt, trenchcoat and boots, and carrying a large, fake shotgun. It was seemingly an homage to ‘Carlito’s Way’ or ‘Boyz in the Hood,’ or maybe one of the ‘Punisher’ films? The one in the ‘Punisher’ shirt dispensed of the others with his shotgun, and they cleared the stage for him to return for his individual routine.
And that was it. That was the extent of what La Bare Houston considered a choreographed routine. It was exceedingly unsexy and its only entertainment value was in how absurdly pointless it was. The whole thing felt like a bad high school skit put on by “edgy” drama club kids trying to imitate their favorite R-rated movie.
Meanwhile, dancers who were not working the stage were off to the side on platforms, lazily swaying to the music, seemingly bored and disinterested. Some were checking their cell phones. A couple were lying on couches in a secluded corner, getting their shoulders rubbed by women.
Most of the dancers of the 10 we saw were mediocre: one stopped dancing halfway through his routine and allowed a female patron to dry-hump him on the side of the stage for his remaining performance time. Another came out to “Higher” by Creed (a certified stripper classic) and gyrated along the perimeter of the stage.
But, there were a couple of dancers who were total pros: one, who billed himself as “The King of H-Town,” and another, with the unfortunate stage moniker of “Kimo.” Their charms matched only by their remarkable dancing skills, they each took a little extra time to disrobe, slowly seducing the crowd. It’s no coincidence that the stagehand needed a broom to sweep up the cash at the end of their respective sets.
Their success was due in no small part to their ability to take the temperature of the women with whom they interacted. They knew which ones wanted to play dirty, and which ones desired a slow hand. Both of these dancers were gentlemanly; kissing our hands or cheeks, twirling us around like ballerinas, and being careful not to cross any boundaries. Kimo even politely introduced himself: “Hi, my name is Kimo. It’s very nice to meet you.”
Many of the other dancers were either oblivious to, or refused to be as observant of each individual woman’s desires, and there were more than a few times when we tried to give a dancer a tip, only to have them grab our heads and hump the side of our cringing faces. Some advice: If you want to tip a dancer, it’s best to wait until he’s distracted at the other side of the stage with his back turned. Otherwise? Face hump.
‘La Bare,’ as well as the strip club it documents, embodies some basic differences between men and women: that women are more discerning than men, and that for women, it’s about more than just surface attraction. Women want to feel special, and the men of La Bare work hard to impress them, to prove that they’re putting effort into their performances to earn more than just cash.
The documentary takes us through the day to day activities of some of the dancers, who spend hours working out and tanning and practicing their routines, and often go on house calls for their “stripper-gram” service to entertain women for private bachelorette parties. But it’s not all glistening abs and sparkling G-strings. ‘La Bare’ shows us that, as the old saying goes, strippers are people, too. It’s easy to feel their pain as they discuss the death of a fellow dancer, Angel, whom many reflect upon as a man of incomparable talent. And it’s easy to laugh along with the exceedingly awkward “amateur night” sequence, where a handful of hopeful men take the stage and attempt to gyrate their way to a spot on the La Bare roster with hilarious results.
But what is most striking about ‘La Bare’ is the way the documentary returns again and again to this notion of cultivating a professional environment where respecting women and treating them as real human beings and not just customers is just as important -- if not more so -- than their commitment to staying in shape and learning dance routines.
Later in the evening, “The Punisher” returned to the stage, dancing to a blend of alt-rock and electronic dance music. He had approximately one dance move, and it wasn’t working on the crowd. After dancing for a few minutes and not receiving any tips, the Tommy Lee lookalike stormed off the stage, aggressively slapping a wall on his way off. He emerged a moment later, this time dancing for full minute while extending two middle fingers to the women in the audience. Not exactly a culture of female respect.
I went in hoping to learn why male strip clubs can’t seem to break the novelty barrier, why they’re still struggling even after the success of ‘Magic Mike,’ and to see if this place could teach me why women and men view each other so differently — maybe strip clubs hold the answer to the fundamental differences in our genders. I didn’t walk out of that club feeling special or more confident like the patrons interviewed in ‘La Bare,’ and the only reason I really had a good time is because I went with a friend who could laugh both at and with me in a truly bizarre situation. If most male strip clubs are like La Bare in Houston, the reason for their struggle is evident.
I ask Taylor, a veteran stripper who volleys between both the Houston and Dallas La Bare locations, why I didn’t see any of those snazzy choreographed routines from the film during my visit. He explains I went on a slow night, when the men don’t feel like wasting their energy. “They know there’s not going to be a lot of money there, so they don’t put on the big shows until the weekend.”
I think again about the men of La Bare in Houston. The overweight cowboy, the angry Tommy Lee, the mediocre but endearing dancers who tried to make up for their lack of dance skills with props. Maybe some of them are misguided and lost, unsure of what else to do with their lives. Maybe some of them are just using their assets in a harsh economy while pursuing more legitimate ambitions. Maybe, like Taylor says, some of them are frustrated from a slow night, or a slow week. “We’re passionate about a lot of things,” Channing says. “It’s not like we woke up one morning with a six pack and decided, hey, we’re gonna do this.”
So, I ask him, what would you say is the biggest thing you hope people take away from the documentary? Channing laughs. “We have feelings.” At the end of the day -- when they replace their G-strings with a more comfortable pair of boxer shorts, wash off all the oil and glitter, and head home to their girlfriends and wives, or off to pursue more legitimate hopes and dreams -- strippers are people, too.