Madame Roxy’s Erotic Emporium, Lucy Sparrow: Meet the ex-stripper challenging porn censorship with a felt sex shop

EXCLUSIVE: 'I'm selling myself far more as an artist than as a dancer' says the Cornershop artist speaking for the first time about her pole-dancing past

The YBAs are all grown up and the British contemporary art scene is rather well-behaved. Enter Lucy Sparrow, 29, an ex-stripper from Bath who sews her art out of felt and is about to turn a corner of London’s Soho into a seedy-sounding but actually incredibly clever sex shop installation filled with hundreds of dildos, porn mags, S&M equipment and even STIs in sweetie jars. 

Visitors will be able to buy felt johnnies from a working condom machine (safety not guaranteed!), watch a Fuzzy Felt Peep Show and even try out a pneumatic sex chair. So dedicated is Sparrow to making everything in sight out of fabric that even the wallpaper is knitted.

No, this isn’t a stitch up, this is serious and important art. But it is deliciously playful, naughty and Sparrow is entirely free of the fusty conceptualising that give art students a bad name. She is also a modern artist for the digital age having gained seemingly overnight success after a Kickstarter campaign for her debut show, The Cornershop, went viral last year earning her thousands more than she’d aimed to raise and helping to secure Arts Council funding.

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Cornershop did what it said on the tin and was a grocery store consisting of 3,994 everyday items from tins of Spam to toilet roll, Tampax, Rizla papers and Marlboro Lights - all painstakingly sewn by hand. It opened in Bethnal Green in August 2014 and “things went bananas”, in Sparrow’s words, almost immediately making it a sellout word-of-mouth success.

Suddenly the girl who left school at 17 and flunked out after a year of art college could live as an artist and the five years she’d spent lap dancing to fund her artistic ambitions were a thing of the past. When we meet for this interview at a West London cafe she is wearing specs Deirdre Barlow would be proud of, a pineapple-covered jump suit and is holding Basil, a stuffed toy banana, who apparently goes everywhere she does. Small and delicate, she lives up to her surname as she pecks Sparrow-like at a vegetarian toastie. 

“I think nothing of going on stage naked. But the nerves before the opening night of an exhibition are just awful,” Sparrow reveals. She goes onto tell me, almost without being prompted, about dancing in clubs with names like Vamps and Minx, the men who paid her entertain them (“They were mostly lovely, no-one wants to hear that but it’s true”) and the weird people who ran them.

“There was a lot of waiting around for people to come in [to the clubs]. I used to sit there sewing. I'd be there deciding with the girls what worked and I’d be sewing in hair extensions, sewing costumes up, drawing the dancers. They were brilliant life models. That was the amazing stuff that I miss about it,” she says. 

Unlike Cornershop, which was accessible to everyone, her sex shop, loftily titled Madame Roxy’s Erotic Emporium, will carry an age limit of 18 and Sparrow warns that its contents might well shock and bewilder anyone who hasn’t entered such a place before. However, I suspect it is more likely to mostly, and quite literally, turn a subject that people are uncomfortable talking about or disapprove of into something much more cuddly. Huggable vibrators? Why the hell not. 

And as Sparrow, crucially, sells her art at affordable prices (this show starts at £20 for the smallest pieces) she really is hoping to attract everybody from bigwig art collectors to the pop-up shop-loving hipster crowd - and, most importantly, the women who work in the sex industry themselves.

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Lucy Sparrow's playboy magazine made from felt

“I’m hoping that the girls [sex workers] will come into the shop and find it funny and interesting. I hope that maybe I can do some sewing classes with them,” she says. What would you make? ”Dildos. I dunno. They might want a day off from dildos. But if they want to come in for a bit of light relief in between shifts then that’s great.”

The objects Sparrow makes may have novelty value but there’s a serious message behind them. She is concerned by new pornography laws that were announced late last year which appear to quietly censor the portrayal of female pleasure. An amendment made to the 2003 Communications Act effectively bans a raft of acts from being portrayed by British pornography producers. These range from spanking to facesitting and female ejaculation - and the move has sparked a series of protests by some in the sex industry of which Sparrow is fierce supporter.

“It seems absolutely absurd,” she says. “The one that is the most shocking is the female ejaculation. So squirting or gushing porn. But it’s an involuntary act. It’s like guy’s cum shots, that’s an actual porn thing, it’s the money shot really. But women doing it has been banned.”

Sparrow is also trying to test the bounds of these new laws through her show. For example would a porno made out of stock animation which features facesitting be subject to them? Visitors can pay to see a showing of this film in a basement cinema below the shop. 

She is basically revisiting her past as a stripper (which, while completely different must provide insight into sex work: “Anyone who tells you there aren’t parallels is lying,” she says) to comment on an increasingly prudish attitude to sex work and adult entertainment industry as well as to try and hit out what she sees as the growing influence of Neo-Puritans.

“It’s also about the clean up of Soho and how all the seedy areas are being replaced by posh coffee shops,” she says. “And it’s about the change in pornography laws. I want to show that while some areas of the adult industry are not very nice, is is very different from how it is portrayed in the media. And I’m speaking from experience because I’ve been there.”

But Sparrow’s real life is very far away from the seedy streets (whether gentrified or no) of Soho. Having spent her late teens working at Sainsbury’s and Asda in Bath and her early twenties hopping from Bath to Bristol to Brighton to Birmingham to London and back again dancing, she seems pleased to have taken up a rather rural existence “on a farm in the middle of nowhere” in Cambridgeshire.

She lives in a farmhouse while her assistants live in caravans onsite and a whole bunch of farmworkers join them for dinner every night. “It’s kind of a weird commune,” she says. “They come in for dinner and ask me what I made today. And I say ‘A sex chair…’ [laughs]…They think we’re bonkers ‘cos we’re always wearing our pyjamas and are happy all the time.”

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Lucy Sparrow's crafty KY jelly made from felt

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Original Rabbit vibrator made from felt by Lucy Sparrow

But her relatively quiet life sewing from dawn till dusk with the help of three assistants looks set to be under threat as her profile grows bigger and bigger. She has been touted as a successor to Tracey Emin - although the immediate comparisons because they look a bit similar and like to talk about sex are crude. For my money I suspect Sparrow will go soaring upwards and shake off that comparison, however flattering she might feel it is. 

Yet the hype that she’s recently had does not mean she is bursting with confidence. Quite the opposite as she expresses nerves ahead of the big show. Does she feels she’s selling more of herself as an artist than as a lap dancer? “Oh absolutely. Because it’s so much more personal.”

Madame Roxy’s Erotic Emporium will open from today until 17 October at 2 Green’s Court, London, W1F 0HB, No Under 18s, www.madameroxys.co.uk

 

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