John Specht: The man who spends all day in strip clubs
Spearmint Rhino is one of Britain's most controversial businesses. But its burly boss tells Simon English he can't see what the fuss is all about
Friday 06 April 2012
Chris Rock does this stand-up routine about being in a strip club in the middle of the afternoon. The gist is: if you are, you need to take a look at your life and have a severe word with yourself. Today that man is me, and I'm wondering how best to signal to the women who are all over the place that I am, while respectful of their work, not looking to spend money. What I come up with is this: shuffle feet. Look at floor.
Spearmint Rhino is, it claims, "the world leader in upscale adult entertainment". The venue on Tottenham Court Road is one of 20 in the UK, Europe, Canada and the US.
John Specht is the boss of the UK arm, a New Yorker who joined the military, retired with a back injury and started working as a bouncer on the door of the Spearmint in Los Angeles. Ten years later, he's vice-president of the company. He has moved from club to club – New Mexico, Texas, the Czech Republic – earning a reputation as a lap-dancing troubleshooter. He arrives at struggling venues and turns them around.
The London club is glitzy and inevitably a little cheesy looking, but then it is two in the afternoon so I'm in no position to be judgemental.
He calls me back into his office, deep in the guts of the building. The women wave and pretend not to be bored.
The first thing you notice about John Specht is that he has massive arms. Not in a this-guy-does-push-ups way. More like, "How does he get through doors? He must have to turn sideways".
"I like to work out," he says. No kidding. According to his PR puffery, Mr Specht is a "phenomenal guy who can turn everything he touches into gold".
I dunno about the gold bit, but phenomenal might be a stretch. He is actually one of those straightforward all-American guys that you'd need to be deeply uptight not to like.
You know he just wants to crack open a beer and watch the Superbowl (assuming he's not playing, which he looks like he could).
He's finally warming to London, finally getting used to Brits. But he thinks we could all chill out a little. His philosophy is roughly this: some things are complicated. Like a war. That's worth getting upset about. Women dancing provocatively for cash is not. If you don't like it, hey, don't come.
"People have this perception that these girls are trapped or from broken homes or on drugs. It is such bullshit," he says.
So who are they? "They are teachers, lawyers, moms. The lady from the bank. They work here for fun, exercise. To meet people."
Exercise? To meet people? What do they make? "You'd be shocked, Some girls have been here for 10 years," he says. "Some of them make £100,000 a year. That's a heck of a good salary."
It is, but only some of them make that much. Most make much less, considerably so, I'd say.
The economics go roughly like this: The dancers pay a fee to the club to appear. The club makes money from that fee, from drinks, from food, and a slice from credit card transactions on payments to the dancers.
A single dance is £20. One hour in the VIP lounge is £100.
The way Mr Specht sees it, the dancers – entertainers he prefers – lease space. "They pay rent. We are the vehicle for them to make money," he says.
I ask why it isn't possible to hire them as proper employees; offer them pensions and health care. He cringes at the idea. This is a freelance game, clearly.
A popular entertainer makes £500 on a decent night; when a City type or millionaire from out of town comes in and drops a bundle, she might make £5,000. These nights are rare, increasingly so, Mr Specht concedes. The sluggish economy has affected strip clubs as much as anywhere.
"You gotta push harder, got to earn every pound," he says. "We are not the only strip club in town, but if you have a good product people will come."
His typical customer is over 30, has a few quid, but is not necessarily loaded.
"You don't have to be a billionaire to get in here. For £45 you can get a decent plate of food, a lap-dance and a couple of beers – it's great value for money."
Revenue at the club is up by a third since he arrived, although it hasn't always been profitable.
Mr Specht caused some controversy a while ago by suggesting that stripping was a good way for female undergraduates to pay their way through college. Newspapers pretended to be outraged.
Here's more from Chris Rock: "You know the stripper myth? There's a stripper myth that's being perpetuated throughout society. The myth is, I'm strippin' to pay my tuition. No you're not! There's no strippers in college! There's no clear heels in biology!"
Mr Specht might think this is funny, but he insists Chris Rock isn't right.
Recent research by the Economic and Social Research Council backs him up. It found that 23 per cent of lap-dancers had a degree, and that there was "no evidence or anecdotes of forced labour or trafficking".
Every now and again Mr Specht says something cringeworthy. Don't say that, you think, I'm trying to be on your side. When I ask about those who object to strip clubs, those who see lap-dancing as somewhere on a line that ends in prostitution, he replies: "Who says that? Some lesbian group or something?"
He continues: "There are operators who do bad things, but to those worried about it on moral grounds, I say, come and spend an evening with me. I can't control what other clubs do, but the girls' job satisfaction is high. There are so many worse things going on in the world. Why are you bothering with us?"
If you're going to object to strip clubs, he reckons, you'd better have been inside. At least once.
Mr Specht would be a good host. He asks: "Where else in this town can you get a fillet mignon and a bottle of champagne at 3am?"
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