On a small platform in the center of Thee Southern Belle, a woman skillfully sways against a pole. The metal post is much taller than the stage is wide. Her shirt — if you can even call it that — is pulled up over her breasts, and she's doing her best to seduce the inanimate object, along with the one man who's come over to watch her.
Another woman in jeans and a white jacket walks up to the stage, nonchalantly tosses a bill down, and walks away, hoping to start the pot. It's a little before 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and the crowd is thin. The best this dancer can get right now is a few bucks. As the song playing over the loudspeakers comes to an end, she picks up her earnings and climbs off the stage. Within a minute, another girl has taken her place.
A couple of guys are watching the new dancer, but most of the people in the Belle — both men and women — are barely paying attention. They're sitting at high-top tables or on one of the couches against the walls, drinking the beers that they bought from Gentlemen's Quarters, the bar next door, or that they brought themselves, which they can do under the club's BYOB policy. They're smoking cigarettes indoors, a rare luxury these days afforded to North Charleston bars.
A petite blonde is taking her turn at the pole. She makes her way up to the ceiling and elegantly spins back down. Even if you're not aroused, you can't help but be impressed.
But we're not here for her. She isn't the star of tonight's show. None of them are.
Tonight's featured performer isn't a dancer. It's not a woman in a G-string and an easily removable bra. It's a 34-year-old white rapper from Florida named Bubba Sparxxx. And, most likely, he's going to keep his clothes on.
The recession hit Charleston everywhere, from King Street all the way to North Meeting Street, in that hazy area of the peninsula that's not quite downtown and not quite North Charleston, where Thee Southern Belle is located. When the economic collapse began in 2008, it meant that people had to be much more careful with their money. And while once strip club customers were happily willing to drop some cash on a topless flirtation, they can no longer be so frivolous with their dollars.
And as is the case with any other business, the Belle has had to find new ways to adapt to the still-changing economy. While they may have lost a certain amount of their customer base during the downturn, the club now hosts events not traditionally expected at strip clubs: live music, comedy shows, even benefits for local organizations.
On a quiet afternoon, Thee Southern Belle general manager Jeff Foster sits in the same room at a table top. It's mid-day and the club won't be open for a few more hours. The lights are on, but it's still dark in the windowless building. The space — composed of velvet furniture, two stages, and, of course, more than a couple of poles — seems much larger without its usual customers.
The Belle opened in 1998, and Foster came on board eight months later. It started as a part-time job to help out a friend. Now he runs both the Belle and its sister club Diamonds North on Remount Road. He's got his father working at Wet & Wild Adult Videos & Toys, the store attached to the Belle. His dad's the kind of guy who can tell you a story about a shoplifting hooker but will then ask you to "pardon his French" when he uses the term "pissed off."
"Believe it or not, there's a lot of people that've never been in a club around here. I guess it's the stigma that it's dirty, that it's a trashy place," Foster says. "We do keep everything on the up and up, and we run clean clubs."
The Belle lives on its late-night crowd, on food and beverage people who aren't ready to go home after their closing shifts, since it's open until 5 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. And it's not just men — Foster says they see a 50-50 ratio of men to women. "After 2 a.m., I think they can care less whether the girls are here or not," Foster says. But, he adds, "If downtown doesn't do well, then we don't do well late night, because then the bartenders and people don't have the cash or the tips to throw away."
Before the recession, weekdays were always steady, and the weekends were gravy. Now the Belle's getting half the crowds it used to on Fridays or Saturdays, and they might see only a handful on weeknights. The club is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Foster knew he needed to mix it up. He could bring in featured dancers, centerfolds, and porn stars. But all the other clubs do that. So the Belle started advertising "late-night parties." He changed the music format, playing more dance tunes so customers could have a good time instead of just sitting in a seat and staring at the dancers.
He also started bringing in live music. Fortunately, he had a background in booking: Foster was on his college's activities board and worked for years at the Music Farm back at its original East Bay Street location. He figured it would be a good idea to get back into it.
"With the economy the way it is, no one really has that expendable cash, so we're trying to give them excuses to come out and see the club and see some shows," he says.
With the Belle's bread and butter normally coming in late, they can book a band early on to get the crowd in at an otherwise slow time. And they'll be able to keep a few of them around for later, which can double or triple their normal capacity.
"I thought, for one, this is a good size venue," he says. "Once you get past the stigma of it being a strip club, a lot of bands really don't care and are looking for a place to play, plus bring us business."
He's had local bands, like Souls Harbor and Dante's Camaro, perform at the club. The guys in Dante's Camaro, which features City Paper columnist Jack Hunter on guitar, were particularly appreciative. "It was epic. It was titillating," says Ben Dante, the group's trash-talking asshole frontman and the co-host of Southern Sports Now on 99.3 FM/1390 AM. "We're personal friends with all the strippers, so it was a personal favor." They weren't even worried about attendance because they were too focused on the "assets of the establishment."
"Girls dance when we perform regardless," Dante adds. "Having them naked was just an added bonus. It was the cherry on top."
Now, with help from Knight Booking, the Belle is getting on a national touring circuit. The first big show was Saliva, which was a sell-out. (The club can normally hold 400 people.)
In preparation for a show, the venue will take out the poles and use the larger stage for the band, which Foster built kits for to expand its width on both sides. He lets the girls dance on the center stage; the sound guys love it, since that's where they're set up. Saliva had such a blast they told their promoter it was one of their best shows in three years of touring.
Besides Bubba Sparxxx, Foster has booked the Genitorturers, a sexcapades-themed band with a cult following that he says worked really well in the strip-club environment. It brought in 250 people. He'll host Drowning Pool on April 11.
"A lot of people know that this is a good venue and a good place to hear music," he says.
There were dancers before and during the Bubba Sparxxx show, which took place on a Saturday. However, though the club advertises fully nude women, while I was there, the dancers were only topless. There aren't any dancers on Sundays or Mondays, when a "Comedy Night at the Belle" will take place.
Foster has a history with comedian Tim Kidd, who approached the club and performed at the Belle this past August. They've also hosted Shaun Jones and Just June. And to clarify once again: There are no girls these nights. So even if you're wary of coming out when they're hosting a musical act, you will not see dancers during the comedy shows.
At first, the comedians brought in 25 to 30 people. Now they can get up to 75 or 85. No matter how big or small the numbers, it's still business on a night that the Belle normally wouldn't even be open. Meanwhile, Diamonds North has had drag shows and tattoo competitions.
"It is a building process. You've got to take two or three times to do the comedy, two or three times to do the concerts, to build it up to where people understand, 'OK, hey, it's not a strip club. It's a place to go out — an entertainment complex.'"
For some of the new events, like the Bubba Sparxxx show, Foster has partnered with his friend Megan Lund, and they now host concerts and parties with their promotion company Carpe Noctem Presents. The phrase, which Lund has tattooed on her wrist, means seize the night.
"You can only go to the same bars and run into the same people. You can only get drunk so many times. It was redundant," she says.
She started Monday Night Live, which is now a division of Carpe Noctem Presents, with a group of friends. They'd pick a local bar to go to, spread the word, and head there for the night. They'd get kind of wild, and the wilder they got the more people wanted to come out. She started doing theme parties, with names like "the Glorious Absence of Sophistication." Foster caught wind and wanted to help her out with an Alice in Wonderland-themed Mad Hatter party.
"I think there was a lot of hesitation as far as coming to the strip club," Lund says. On the flyers and in ads, they made sure to emphasize that it had nothing to do with the Belle; the club was just a venue that Carpe Noctem rented out, and the night was stripper-free. "Even though strip clubs are mainstream, we still are in the South and people are still hesitant to go to these venues for whatever reason."
Yet from an event planner's perspective, the Belle has a lot of benefits that most people don't recognize. She thinks the location is killer, explaining that it's downtown but not really "downtown." It's equally convenient to most of Charleston's suburbs, and it offers a huge parking lot. The space itself is big, and the bands who have performed there have raved about the sound.
And Lund gets to treat the Belle like a blank canvas. She doesn't get full access, but Foster gives her the creative freedom to do almost whatever she likes, something that she loves. "There's no bar owner in town who's going to be like 'Yeah, sure, take the poles down. Cover up the dance room so you can have a photography booth.'"
Carpe Noctem hosted the Mad Hatter party the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The night was a benefit for Darkness to Light, a local organization that spreads awareness to prevent child sexual abuse. It brought in about 170 people. And word got out.
"A lot of people didn't come because it was a strip club, but once they realized that A., there weren't any dancers there, and B., that we had totally redecorated the whole place — you couldn't even tell it was a strip club ... it was received very well," Lund says.
While a couple of these special events have only broken even, not a single one has lost the Belle money. And the Mad Hatter party raised $500 for Darkness to Light.
"By doing things outside the box, from just being a strip club, we've introduced a whole new customer base to our club and make them want to come back, and the events themselves have been money makers," Foster says.
"People are just going to have to crawl outside the box," Lund adds. "If you're living in a square, that's not living at all. It's not a strip club these nights. It's time to have some fun."
Around 10:30 p.m., the Bubba Sparxxx show officially gets going. A nu-metal band plays first, pumping up the audience of about 100. A local rap group is next, but people are really just waiting for the main act. The now-lonely pole stands tall at the center of the room, bare of its usual dance partner. There's more than a handful of the girls around, scoping out the crowd or huddling in hoodies while they wait to be noticed. You can tell which ones are the dancers because they're not wearing very much clothing, and most of them tower over everyone else in their excessively high platform shoes.
A group of four college students mills around. Bryan Cates explains that they basically came for the novelty — they've never heard of a concert at a strip club before. Heck, they've never even been to a strip club.
"I am here to experience emotions that I did not know were possible," Jessy Krall says. He got cheap tickets for the show from a friend of a friend of a friend that used to work at the Belle.
"I'm having a good time," Amelia Hall pipes in.
Bubba Sparxxx finally comes out with his posse, and the crowd surges in toward the main stage. A half-nude dancer takes her rightful place back at the pole, but she's overshadowed by the fully clothed guy at the other end of the room.
Midway through his set, Sparxxx brings a group of the Belle girls on to the stage. They're decked out in bras and black short-shorts with "Ms. New Booty" written on them, the name of the song he's performing. They bounce around, and, like most any other man at the Belle, Sparxxx fawns all over them.
Earlier in the evening, the rapper launched into a song, not surprisingly, about stripping. It's a theme that comes up often in Sparxxx's work. "Hey, so this here's officially like a strip club, right?" he asks, before dedicating it to the ladies hard at work at the Belle. He finishes up the number, and shrugs. "When in Rome."