"There are some who are just in it for the girls and the money," declares Chris, a couple of hours before the show. "I truly believe in being the best that I can possibly be. I put a lot into it, I do a lot of dancing. Otherwise, I'd probably want to pack it in." The 28-year-old has been going out with Sylvia for seven years. Like a lot of male strippers, his appeal isn't subtle: his brown hair is very long, his skin sunbed brown and he's stocky rather than well-built. Sylvia's proud of him, though. "The Chippendales were in Bolton not long ago," she says. "I know quite a few people who went and said they preferred going to watch a normal male stripper and a drag act. It costs a fortune to get tickets for the Chippendales and some of them are so camp."
A divorced mother-of-two and over a decade older than Chris, Sylvia encouraged him to begin stripping six years ago. The manager of the nightclub where he was a popular barman mentioned that there might be an extra pounds 25 for Chris if he did a weekly stripping spot. "He told me this," remembers Sylvia, "and I said `Tell them to get lost! Do you know how much strippers earn?' I put him in touch with a guy I knew and he did a job with him and that were it."
Since then, what Sylvia calls "a total trust" between them has eased the inevitable pressure Chris's career has placed on their relationship. More to the point, she simply cannot afford any doubts. Chris may indulge his belief in "being the best that I can possibly be", but these days his stripping has to bring in cash. Chris also runs a market stall in Manchester selling kitchen and household accessories which has been doing badly for the past year. "At the beginning, it was a sideline. But the market being what it is, he's stepped it up a notch," says Sylvia. "He's put more into it - his dancing, his costumes."
Recently, the media have bestowed upon male stripping a status it had hitherto never dreamt of. In reality, however, performers are not much better paid than their female counterparts: two 15-minute spots will probably bring in pounds 100. The Full Monty boom has been and gone, a decline exacerbated by the opportunists who, according to the old hands, cashed in on the film with second-rate bump'n'grind turns.
Neither has the occupation's higher profile apparently done much more than scratch the surface of British sexual hypocrisy. Even in the wake of The Full Monty's gleeful reception by his school friends, Sylvia's 13-year-old son was given a hard time when he told his classmates what his mum's boyfriend did.
Up on stage, the drag act, Penny Change, introduces each stripper, who then flings himself into his 10-minute routine. Steve Dynamite, Golden Boy, LA Dream, Turbo, Grind and Marino: some are good, a couple are dreadful. The better acts pursue an easily recognisable theme. Predictably, Hollywood films and uniforms are popular. Crowd-pleasing music is also essential, as is the liberal application of baby oil. This isn't just for aesthetic purposes - it's gamesmanship to leave the stage treacherously greasy for the next act. With the aid of Velcro seams, trousers and shirts are torn off in one motion. Boxer shorts are removed, revealing briefs, under which lies a G-string. Occasionally, the stripper visits the audience or invites a woman up on to the stage. Once naked, he waggles his penis - kept semi-erect by a strategically placed elastic band. Variations - Golden Boy simulates intercourse with a pint of bitter - are infrequent.
What do women get out of "a girls' night out"? Not much by way of sexual gratification, considering the bland criteria by which A Thong For Europe contestants are judged: face, looks, body; uniqueness of act; entertainment value; stage presence; size of "lunchbox". It's far more instructive just to soak up the atmosphere of the club. The emphasis is on spectacle: bright lights, loud music, with a lot of screaming and laughter. Importantly, almost all the women here, young and old, appear to have come with friends or work colleagues.
JoJo, a 26-year-old radio DJ and one of the six "ordinary" women on the judging panel at Batley, is in no doubt about the appeal of male stripping: "Women just want a little touch. We're not looking to `get down to it'. We just want a bit of titillation," she insists. "This is televised and I think a lot of men will see it and be surprised at how they see their women reacting to it. But it's not because it's sexy, it's because it's funny." This is not to say that the "good laugh" doesn't have a sting in its tail. According to Sylvia, "A lot of women have been married for a few years, and it's got pretty boring; go to work, come home, stuck with kids all day. They just come to let their hair down. There's no men here, so you can act as stupid as you want. There's some man taking his clothes off, `Oh, look at him, what an idiot!' It's a woman thing."
As if to stress the degree to which sex is kept to the margins of the typical show, excessive contact with the audience is frowned upon. A weak stripper, say the successful male performers, will rely on audience participation rather than a well-choreographed act. And when a performer does get someone up on stage, it's got very little to do with sex appeal, says Chris. "You don't go for big ones or nice ones, you go for someone who looks calm. If you grab hold of someone's hand and they go, `Ooooh!' and shrink back, that's not the girl to take up. And if there's someone going absolutely bananas, that's not the girl to take up either. She'll try and take over."
"You run the risk of being hauled up just by attending really," reckons Cathrine, a 33-year-old support staff employee of West Yorkshire Police, fresh from licking cream off Golden Boy's groin. "You laugh at other people so you've got to be prepared for people to laugh at you." Cathrine's sacrifice doesn't go unappreciated either. "There's no way I'd go on stage and let one of those men dangle their tackle in my face," insists JoJo. "For entertainment value, I'm glad there are women out there who don't give a shit and are up for it. I dunno - in the past I've been known to go out in about as much as those guys are wearing tonight."
For all the chants of "Off! Off! Off!" the women value stripping in conservative terms. When the audience call for the full monty, they don't seem to be merely lusting for a quick flash but demanding a fully rounded show. Among performers and their audience, the most common expectations of a male strip show are pointedly sober: that they're "professional", "tasteful" and well-crafted. "If he's a nice-looking chap with a nice, toned body, it's enough really," reckons Cathrine. "Good dancing, involving the audience, good entertainment - he doesn't have to take everything off."
LA Dream has the floor, squeezed into a toreador costume. Latin music pounding from the PA, he launches into an enthusiastic bout of flamenco dancing. He whips his hat off, hair cascading down his back. "Look at that perfect bottom!" squeals Sylvia. For the next few minutes, LA Dream strips off, the audience cheering every item of clothing that hits the stage. Touchingly, most of his act is directed at Sylvia, who's beside herself with excitement. He runs two flaming torches over his body: "Watch your hair!" screams Sylvia. The curls escape intact. Sylvia relaxes for a second and spots the crumpled toreador costume. "Dunno why he's throwing that jacket about - it took me hours to make!"
`A Thong For Europe' will be broadcast on Channel 5 on Thursday, 6 MayReuse content