Chippendale or chairleg?

Male striptease is a growth industry, though it has missed out on the benefits of vocational training. Until now, that is.

IN THESE intellectually decadent times, when it is possible to enrol at college to study the death of Princess Diana or the lyrics of Bob Dylan, it is refreshing to learn that some seats of learning still offer the odd old-fashioned vocational course.

Among the new students arriving at one college this September is a rather unusual group: a contingent of 20 male strippers. North Tyneside College of Further Education is the first in Britain to offer a formal qualification for men who take off all their clothes - thongs too! - in front of screeching hen parties.

At the end of the three-month course, successful strippers will be awarded a Northern Counties Further Education Performing Arts Certificate (Dance). They will have been taught dance, choreography, health and safety, law and accountancy, so they can balance their books and make sure their agent is not fleecing them.

The course owes its existence to Martin Pitt, whose agency, Ladies-Nites UK, specialises in male strippers, and dance teacher Patrick Williams. "It is not just about stripping. Artists have no concept of basic things like health and safety, fire, the law," said Mr Williams, 43, who will put the students through their paces in the classroom and in a Newcastle night-club.

Mr Pitt, whose agency is based in Derbyshire, has been in the stripping business for 10 years. He says he can tell if someone is going to make it as a stripper without even having to see them get their kit off.

"When I started there were only 20 to 40 male strippers in the whole country. Some people saw it as seedy, like the sex industry. Standards were low, the entertainment was bog-standard. Since The Full Monty came out, there is a much wider appreciation of what it is."

Suddenly young (and not so young) men were queuing up to take off their clothes for money. Unsurprisingly, many of them were not very good - which is where North Tyneside's course comes in.

"It is not just about taking your clothes off - anyone can do that," said Mr Pitt, who is 39. "You need the looks, the personality, the enthusiasm. You have to be clever." And hard-working - strippers need to put in gruelling hours at the gym and devise new routines if the women in the clubs of Whitehaven and Wrexham are not to feel short-changed.

One person who knows all about that is Tony Brown, who has been stripping since before The Full Monty was released. "I thought: `course for strippers? Yeah, right.' But then I thought I could not pass it by," said Mr Brown, 29, whose stage name is Tornado. "I do not profess to be a Chippendale lookalike, but I think I am a good performer. We may be strippers, but we are also entertainers and I want to learn more about that. This course is a great opportunity for somebody like me to broaden my horizons."

Mr Brown - sorry, Tornado - knows the value of professionalism. He works out in the gym five days a week, and under his bodybuilder's vest his tattooed torso ripples with muscles. With his crew-cut and sunglasses he definitely looks the hardest man on campus. His stage guises include combat gear, "officer and gentleman", sailor, policeman and red leather - and he always ends up naked.

Stripping attracts all sorts. Mr Brown is a former window fitter, and he knows performers who were once painters and decorators, fairground workers, postmen - even a systems analyst.

"Life is getting harder for people, they want to grasp the apple with both hands and take hold of it," said Patrick Williams. "They see this as a means to further development."

The time had come - it was time for me to grasp the apple with both hands. I wanted to find out if I had what it takes to make it as a male striptease artist. On the stage of the college's theatre (mercifully it was not yet term-time and there were no students watching) Mr Brown switched effortlessly into Tornado mode and struck some saucy poses. The talent agent and the dance lecturer looked on approvingly.

I unbuttoned my shirt and joined him in a bit of desultory posing, acutely aware that I was more chair-leg than Chippendale. Nobody laughed (except when I produced a bottle of baby-oil), and, thus emboldened, I removed my shirt altogether. This was really quite liberating (although Mr Brown's description of his first public performance as "nerve-wracking" came suddenly to mind).

Under the patient gaze of Martin Pitt, I postured gamely about the stage, struggling to hold poses that came effortlessly to Tornado. "You've got potential," said Mr Pitt. "I would say about 50-50." Images of smoky clubs, baying crowds and spotlights entered my mind, but then my reverie was disturbed. Mr Pitt looked at my body and concluded: "You could build on that."

Have You Got What It Takes?

TONY `TORNADO' BROWN'S TIPS ON BECOMING A STRIPPER

1. Physique: get one. You don't have to look like an Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you really need to be at least lightly toned - get down that gym.

2. Personality: get one of these, too. "You have to look like you're enjoying yourself. You're an entertainer. Anyone can run on stage and take their clothes off," says Tornado.

3. Confidence and enthusiasm: you'll need plenty of this. It goes without

saying - who wants to see a timid stripper? "You have to really work at it."

4. Rhythm and co-ordination: a stripper will usually perform to music, and so will have to be able to dance and move about the stage with at least a modicum of panache.

5. A professional attitude: "It is not that easy - it is like all performance, not all that glamorous at the end of the day. And it is your livelihood."

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