The US craze for table dancing clubs - where punters buy their very own striptease - has now arrived in Britain. A new entertainment, or just old-fashioned exploitation? asks Lucy O'Brien
alan Whitehead, manager of Britain's first table dancing troupe, shows me a sheaf of applications with Polaroids of topless women grinning hopefully at the camera. "She's usable," he says, pointing at a sylph- like English Rose, "but she'll have to get her teeth done." Another one looks wide-eyed and desperate at the camera. "No good, no good at all," he says shaking his head. "Girls come to me and say, I've got big boobs, thinking they'll automatically get the job. Yeah, I say, you've got a big bum too - you're far too overweight. These girls are on stage in G- strings. If you've got cellulite you can imagine how that looks close up."

Alan Whitehead, a blond, middle aged charmer who likes a chat, knows how to talk up his product. Table- or lap-dancing has become a lucrative craze in the US and Canada. It has reached Hollywood with Demi Moore's forthcoming movie, Striptease, and Showgirls, the new sex shocker from Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven. Now Whitehead is importing it to Britain via a club called For Your Eyes Only, which opened last week on the edge of a trading estate in Wembley, London.

Table dancing is billed as a more "modern" type of striptease. Introduced in America about five years ago, women dance and strip for individual customers - at For Your Eyes Only, it's pounds 5 per record, and you can pay for as many dances as you want. "We reckon the girls should be nude within 45 seconds," says Whitehead. "If you've got a problem with nudity, this ain't the job for you." He is keen to dispel what he sees as the British association of striptease with prostitution. Whitehead has modelled his kind of lap-dancing on the lucrative US Pure Platinum chain, which "doesn't have to be sleazy or derogatory to women".

"A good table-dance is like making love," Whitehead says. "The attraction for a man is this beautiful girl being very intimate with a complete stranger. It was the smell I found erotic - you can smell their skin and their hair. It makes your chemicals run. At first I found it frustrating, then I just sat back and savoured it. It's a completely different form of sex, it's like looking at a cake and wanting to eat it."

Joan Smith, a columnist for this newspaper and author of Misogynies, says: "Stripping is always sleazy - a dishonest, unequal power relation." To her, table-dancing is the same trashy transaction dressed up as a new fad. "It panders to the immature fantasy about being able to watch and control. The brave man can show off to friends that he can control a woman without actually doing anything about it."

To Whitehead, it's more a question of cats and dogs. "Men are like dogs. Give 'em a good meal, they wag their tails. Women are like cats, they're more intuitive." Whitehead was once the drummer for the Seventies pop group Marmalade (remember Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da?). He stopped performing in 1978 to launch his own disco roadshows. Mel Appleby, of pop duo Mel & Kim, was one of his original glamour girls, a touring revue of topless lovelies that evolved into a kind of female Chippendales. By 1994 he felt the Chippendale concept was worn out, and looked to North America for inspiration. After visiting 18 Canadian table-dancing clubs in four days he tried to open one in London, but was refused a licence. Then earlier this year he and club boss Gerald Richardson got permission from Brent council for Wembley's Park Royal club.

In his large house in Borehamwood, Whitehead has gathered three of his star performers, glammed up and sitting at the pine breakfast bar. Entitled How To Make Money At For Your Eyes Only, his training manual for the girls is crammed with Americanised tips such as: "Top entertainers are tops because they have a positive ATTITUDE ... an attractive APPEARANCE ... a warm SMILE." And, it appears, a degree of business acumen. "A pounds 5 fee for a three-minute dance represents a total income of pounds 100 per hour, pounds 700 per session, pounds 3,500 for a five-day week, in excess of pounds 180,000 per year. Putting you in the top two per cent of earners in the country."

"The money can get like a drug sometimes," says Alison (blonde hair, 21-inch waist, 34C chest). "It's not easy, though. I've seen girls poncing about in G-strings and not earning any money. In lots of ways, it's people management because you're trying to extract the most money from them. We'd probably sell our mothers."

Coming over like a cross between Julie Walters and Jane Horrocks, Alison, 30, is den mother and comedienne. The former glamour model has been touring with Whitehead since his early revues. With her college degree, she is one of his favourites when it comes to media interview time, able to counteract the blonde bimbo image. "I studied to be a dietician at Liverpool Poly. I thought you'd have to be a bimbo to take your clothes off for a living. Then I realised you'd have to be a bimbo not to use what you've got before it all heads south."

Nicki, 25, (long red hair, 34DD) went to the Corona Stage School, but found professional dance work in short supply when she left. "I went into the glamour world, won the Miss Sunday Sport competition in 1990 and joined Alan a year later. I found this type of dancing to be more money and more varied." Cynthia, too (black girl, blue eyes, Naomi Campbell lookalike) came down from Birmingham to pursue a dancing career, but when it didn't work out she found her way to Alan via modelling. "This is a good earner," she says, smiling.

Bundled on the couch for the photographer, the three of them seem relentlessly positive. This breezy attitude, however, is the result of stringent self- awareness. Alison talks of the glazed look that appears on men's faces when they go into "Tit Mode". "They don't say a word, just stare at your tits. At first it took some getting used to. You have to be an actress, assume an identity, take a deep breath and go for it. Initially it's embarrassing, but you have to remember it's embarrassing for them too. I look them right in the eye. They can't hold your gaze, they get more nervous than you. I play the slow seductress, the dominatrix. In real life I'm quite submissive, but you have to take control or they'll try things on."

Cynthia too, a shy, giggly 20-year- old turns dominant on stage. Though only a year with Whitehead's revue, she has become an expert at wooing