There is an excellent living to be made as an exotic dancer. But your potential clients have to be able to find you. While you may have your own, private, portable brass pole and a trunk full of costumes, unless you really pay attention to marketing your business is going to stay quiet. Too quiet.
by Hannah Jay
Marketing is both “right now” and a matter of careful planning. And marketing is never just one thing. It is a bunch of different things which build on one another.
Any serious marketer will tell you that marketing is about bringing people in so that you can close the sale. Put another way, marketing is about creating awareness of the product you are actually selling. That may seem obvious in the case of exotic dancers. But, in fact, what a dancer is selling varies wildly from dancer to dancer.
“Dancing, just dancing”
We had a great conversation with “Judy LaBombe” – obviously her stage name – in upstate New York.
“I am the classic burlesque dancer. Bows, stockings, pasties and feathers. Big ostrich feathers. I’m thirty three, work out and I’ve been dancing for the last five years.”
“I am a pure dancer. I don’t do lap dances and I don’t have any sort of contact with the clients. So that means I can advertise and market in places where the raunchier girls can’t. I am based in Albany which is great because there are lots of political things where it makes a weird sort of sense to have a girl jump out of a cake. I bring my own cake.”
“Officially I am never naked. Officially I always have pasties on and the last pair of panties stay in place. Which is critical to my marketing because, believe it or not, almost all my clients want a “good girl” wearing very few clothes and doing some of the old strip tease routines. This means I can be in the Yellow Pages under “Entertainment” – and even now a lot of my engagements come from those pages. And I can advertise in very straight entertainment guides.”
“When I was starting out I was actually coming from the burlesque community in the mid-West where I grew up. I had started doing “hipster” burlesque as part of a body positive dance group in college. Which got me interested in the whole burlesque thing and the great world of 40’s and 50’s strip tease. There was a whole world back then of these pretty girls who likes to put on a show. The most famous being girls like Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr, Sally Rand and Blaze Star who made great money in the strip tease clubs which almost every big American city had.”
“You can see all these girls on the internet. And you can see the costumes – the G-Strings and the tear aways, the pasties and the long gloves are all there – better still, you can buy pretty good versions of the outfits. Plus, of course, there are all the vintage consignment stores for things like mink coats and really awesome “paste” jewelry.”
“I came to Albany to work for an environmental group but that job didn’t last. So I was temping and thinking about moving back home. For some reason I had been developing Judy LaBombe as a side project with a couple of the burlesque troupes in town. I have to admit that the whole hipster, body positive, end of burlesque was getting a bit wearing and, of course, there was no money in it. So, just for fun, I put an ad in the local alt newspaper.
A Star is Born
“Judy LaBombe: back to the 50’s. Good girl does vintage strip tease for private parties, stags, poker nights and roasts. Great costumes, retro music: Never cheap, always sassy!”
“No picture, no graphics. Just that.”
“I had a gmail account and a cell number on the ad. My own, regular, cell number. Which I suppose was a mistake looking back; but it also established me as legitimate. I didn’t get all that many calls and most of the calls were wanting more information. A couple of callers, though, wanted to book me. One was a stag, the other a retirement party. And, of course, they wanted to know how much I charged and I had no idea. So I asked what their budgets were. The retirement party offered three hundred which I took. The stag offered $1000 which I didn’t. Even though the stag guy sounded nice and said there would just be dancing, the money was a bit high for a couple of strip tease numbers. I’m not sure that was the right decision but it was right for me.”
“So, my first gig was a retirement party at a lobbyist firm downtown. This really was the classic, go in, do an opening, a peel and then a bit of making up to the retiree, gig. But, the fact is that no one looks good in glitter under a set of office fluorescent lights, there was no stage, my dressing room was the ladies and there was no sound system. It was awful. But they paid me anyway and I decided that it might be worthwhile to make a few investments to at least make the shows a success. Because, in the days between getting the first gig and bombing, I had had four more serious offers.”
“It was time to actually sit down and figure out if this was a business I wanted to be in and, if it was, what it would take. I thought my ad said it all. But it was not exactly a masterpiece of graphic design. And I needed a website. And I needed pricing.”
“In fact I needed a whole marketing plan and for that I had to consider what I actually wanted to sell and how much time I wanted to devote to the delightful world of Judy LaBombe. I was lucky because in a government town, if you show up on time and can type 30 words a minute and don’t actually swear on the phone, you are always going to have temp work. Which meant I didn’t have to rush. On the other hand I had four gigs coming up and if I could have a bit of a website and some cards printed I could probably get those gigs to lead to more gigs.”
“I am the sort of girl who makes lists. If I have a list I can knock off the items one by one and get the job done. Steno pad in hand – I love my iPad but for serious list making only a steno pad will do – I went to my local coffee bar and got to work.”
“How much did I want to make every month? I aimed high. My temp work was clearing a bare $2000. If I could make that as Miss LaBombe I’d be a happy girl. But I would be positively ecstatic if I could make $3000. Which, when you break it down, is $750 a week. I could keep my day job but cut back to four days a week. Perfect. I decided to ignore tips but I was pretty sure I’d make some. $750 a week is either three gigs for $250 or two at $325. Or maybe the straight $300 made the most sense. Expenses? Advertising, call it $100 a week, taxi, photographs, web hosting, web design. Yikes. Let’s make that $400 a show.”
“I was lucky because as part of my earlier burlesque career I had half a dozen decent pictures which I could use for my website. And I had three really great strip tease outfits suitable for all occasions. I was not so lucky because I knew nothing about web design or graphics. I thought of advertising for a web/graphic designer but I knew that would be spendy so I wracked my brain and remembered that one of the girls I had danced with was studying design. What the heck, I gave her a call. She was thrilled because a website like this would let her show off her skills. But, and I have been thanking her ever since, she insisted that we build the site on top of WordPress so that I would have a blog, a way to automatically update social media and, most of all, a site I could update myself.”
“In the process of designing the website we had to come up with a logo. I wanted it to be fun, a bit funny, very 1950’s. It is actually pretty hard work coming up with something which you like and which send the right “vibe”. We went with my stage name in “lights” like those signs in front of Broadway shows. Judy LaBombe on the top line in a showbiz style font and then “strip tease artiste” in a smaller font just under the headline. That went into a template which had the outline of one of the old 1950’s Las Vegas signs. It looked amazing. Better still, with the addition of a little black and white picture it would work as a print ad or online with a colour picture. And it made a great business card. We just printed the cards on a printer – no point in spending much money if I could avoid it.”
“That first website was put together in a hurry. Six pictures, three pages. But it totally didn’t matter. I just needed something potential clients could take a look at. The writing was pretty basic. I wanted to be an adult entertainer; I wanted people to see my shows within a tradition which reaches back to a much more innocent age. You remember the idea of “risqué”? Of a little bit naughty but not in the least shocking?”
“Well that is what I wanted my clients to get. So: no nudity – that was really all I had to say. The guys looking for hookers for their stag passed right by an ad saying “no nudity”. But there was another market out there which liked the idea of a showgirl, of a strip tease artiste without any of the explicit sex.”
“I’ve had terrific fun over the years with this wholesome stripper trope. I’ve run ads saying “Not quite Banned in Boston” and “not, very EXPLICIT”. People get the joke.”
“As I say, because I am all about the entertainment, I have built up a customer base. You would be amazed. I mean I don’t do kids parties but I have been booked for just about everything else.”
Tools of the Trade
“For an exotic dancer – of my sort anyway – the whole game is about creating a show from very basic materials. Sure, I would love to have a nice little portable stage, and good lights, and a killer sound system but that all costs money and I’d need to hire extra people to set up the show and run the lights. I wanted to keep Judy LaBombe a lean, one girl show.”
“What that means in practice is that I have a really simple stage set up with a chair, a folding screen and a couple of cleverly set up construction lights behind very simple baffles. I have a great little sound system which pumps out the music and can be run from my phone using Bluetooth.”
“To make this work I have to go to the venue the day before and plan my stage and my entrances and exits. I want the lights off or, at least dimmed. It may sound over the top, but the difference between an elegant, exotic strip tease and some girl taking her clothes off is in the attitude and hard work.”
“The ritual of strip tease is so basic I swear it probably dates back to the first time a girl had clothes on. Exotic dancers exist in virtually every culture: Salome is our Biblical ancestress, the belly dancers of the Middle East, the strip clubs of pre-War Berlin, the dancing girls of both Mogul and Hindu India, gypsy dancers and 15th century Venetian courtesans all made a ritual of taking their clothes off.”
“Into that ritual we have the memory scape of the middle of the 20th century. The Great White Way and sophisticated clubs where gentlemen and, often their wives or girlfriends, would go to hear some music and catch a few strip tease artists. The tear away costumes, the opera length gloves and hose; all that tease and not so much stripping.”
“It turns out that this was actually what my growing audience was looking for. Look, I can go online and find a thousand cam girls happy to perform all manner of acts in the privacy of my own lap top. So can any member of my audience and if that was all I brought to the table there is no way I would be as successful as I have become.”
“I try to do three or four gigs a week and I am usually booked a month in advance. That did not happen by accident. I realized early that I needed to constantly market Judy LaBombe and that meant much more than just advertising. I was right about having business cards at my shows. People who see me often want to book me for one of their events or parties.”
“But I wanted to do more than that and when I was researching the great strip tease artists of the past I noticed most of them had photographs in a certain style with their contact information on the bottom. I got in touch with a young photographer through ModelMayhem and described what I was looking for. We did a shoot and I took two great pictures and had them printed as both full sized 8x10s and then wallet sized “cards”. I signed the 8x10s individually and gave them out at my shows. I made sure the wallet sized cards were easily available.”
“Of course the pictures went on my website and I would feed them out to my social media accounts. But the real key, which I didn’t realize when I started, was to get new pictures every few weeks. Different costumes, different props, but the same black and white, showgirl, style. While these were designed as marketing items they also became, to my surprise, collected. Not by many people but a few and those few became fans.”
“My best marketing idea however was a limited edition calendar which I had done after my first year. I played up the local element “Albany’s Sweetheart Stripper” and the calendars sold out in a couple of weeks. But they got me coverage in the local alternative press and on local TV. I’ve done three calendars so far and I’ll keep doing them.”
“All of this has meant that I now have a mailing list because I encourage people to write me with suggestions or to signup for my news letter. It is not a huge mailing list, less than 1000 people; but a lot of those people have seen one of my shows and, eventually, will book me for a party or an event.
The one other marketing thing I do is that I run a “Judy LaBombe strip tease intensive” workshop for women. Basically, this is a one day class where I teach the basics of classic strip tease. It is tons of fun and my classes are almost always sold out. I don’t do these to make money directly. I only teach ten women at a time; but it is terrific exposure and I usually get two or three gigs from each class. I have been the “birthday surprise” at many, many 40th, 50th and 60th birthday parties and those gigs are always arranged by the wives. Plus, my strip tease ladies include plenty of brides to be and they will book me for their husband’s stag. Which can be great fun if the boys are off at a bar. I make arrangements the day before and, at just the right time, the lights go down and my little lighting set can be swung into place by a couple of wait staff after I have made Judy LaBombe’s grand entrance. But the most fun is if I can persuade the bride to be to be the second act. Short and sweet. It’s all good fun but you should see the expression on the groom’s face when his intended throws a bump and a grind.
My basic rule for marketing is to do at least one marketing related thing every day. It might be posting a new picture to Twitter or a mail out to my list. Or it could be a photoshoot. Or a post to a website. Marketing is all about repetition and serendipity.
Being an exotic dancer, a striptease artiste is all about the naughty, the very slightly risqué. It is also about deciding what your market is and reaching out to it. In the five years Judy LaBombe has been a project, I have become the exotic dancer in upstate New York and I have done tours in New England.
Constant marketing means Judy LaBombe has, in her own small way, become a brand. Always a lady, always fun, never cheap, always sassy: my clients know they are getting an old school exotic dancer and that is just what they want.